CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews


Celebrity Cruises Mercury Alaska May 17, 2004

My wife and I took the Celebrity Mercury round trip from San Francisco on May 17, 2004. We cruise fairly often and had previously taken two cruises on Celebrity (Millinneum and Constellation), but this was our first time on a Century-class ship. We had a "Category D" outside cabin without a verandah.

Ship Basics:

Ship Size: 77,713 tons Service Entry Date: 1997 Passenger Capacity: 1,870 passengers Crew Capacity: 909 crew Space Ratio: 41.5 Crew to Passenger Ratio: 1 to 2.1 Ship Registry: Bahamas

CABIN:

Cabins are one place where Celebrity really shines, and our cabin on the Mercury was no exception. It was large, clean and fresh. There was ample closet space and lots of drawer space, with room to sit comfortably on the love seat or at the small desk/dressing table. Four suitcases fit perfectly under the bed. The furnishings were clean and not too old. It was decorated in standard Celebrity chrome and light wood with blue fabrics and a nice modern print on the wall. The standard Celebrity bathroom is just the right size, with an outstanding shower, a hair dryer, and plenty of storage space.

My one quibble with the cabin -- and my biggest gripe about the ship -- was the relatively uncomfortable bed and pillows. (I usually take my own down pillow for cruises but somehow forgot this trip -- much to my regret, as the cabin pillows were hard and thin foam rubber.) The mattress wasn't terrible but this is one place where they could stand to spend a little more.

SHIP:

The Mercury is in fantastic shape after seven years. The elevators were clean, new-looking, and worked perfectly. Windows were washed every day and repainting was ongoing during the voyage. Most upholstery and carpeting was clean and fresh, and the woodwork and metal was in excellent condition. A+ on general ship condition for this middle-aged beauty.

I loved the ship itself. It is very understated for a cruise ship. Dark to medium blue, with some beige, and medium-toned wood with chrome accents, is a color scheme followed by the entire ship.

Compared to the dizzy pool architecture of Royal Caribbean, the soaring atriums (atria?) of many lines, the art-deco theaters on Millennium class ships, or the neon-glitz of Carnival, Mercury's decor is quite understated. It is much closer to Princess in interior design than to its parent company (Royal Caribbean).

For my taste, the ship's interior gets high marks for both function and atmosphere. The dining room is the quietest and most comfortable of any ship I have sailed. It glows in the amber reflection of the extensive wood surfaces. The entertainment was quiet and appropriate, either a string quartet or a pianist/vocalist (Manon -- more about her under music, below). A+ on dining room atmosphere.

Kitchen placement is *much* better than on the newer Millennium-class ships, resulting in much faster service and hotter food. You could easily finish dinner in 90 minutes, with 5 separate courses, compared to the very unsatisfactory 120-150 minutes on Millennium-class ships.

The Cova Cafe on Mercury is excellent. It takes up the full width of the ship, with a lot of tables and two banks of extremely comfortable armchairs/sofas and enormous windows. Premium coffee and tea are available all day, with free pastries in the morning and afternoon.

The theater is also excellent. Although not ornate, the decor is nice. The functionality, however, is outstanding. Unlike most two-level cruise theaters it is one-story with internal balconies on the wings; that is, you enter from one deck (Deck 7)at the back of the main floor, rather than the more common upper (balcony) and lower (main floor) entrance. The degree of pitch from front to rear is thus greater than usual. The result: Both sound and line-of-sight to the stage are 100% in every seat. The seats have enough leg and hip room, and the tables are adequate without mashing your knees. Exceptional.

I won't enumerate all of the little lounges and areas. The public areas get an A+. The only disappointment is the small and nearly inadequate library, unfortunately typical for Celebrity.

The pools seemed small to me and might be a problem for pool bunnies, but since this was an Alaska cruise I didn't pay much attention to them. The rear deck pool and lounging areas were great.

The spa and gym areas are good sized and adequate. Unfortunately, the wonderful thalassotherapy area (hot salt water jacuzzis), which is free on Millie-class ships, requires an extra charge (@ $10 per day).

The Lido (called "Palm Springs" cafe) was sometimes overcrowded, to the point where I once did an circuit of the entire area without being able to find a table (and I was perfectly willing to take two empty spots at a large table).

FOOD: The food in the main dining room has stabilized after a period of deterioration. Dinner was very good overall and sometimes excellent. Breakfast and lunch were good to very good.

Food in the Palm Springs Cafe was often unacceptable to us. The coffee is terrible. The free drinks (iced tea, lemonade, fruit punch) are not very good. Breakfast is just awful sometimes, depending on what you get. The bacon was inedible, often forming large clumps of partially-cooked gooey mess. The scrambled eggs are from frozen eggs and are no better than what you get in the Army. The omelettes tend toward cardboard. The toast ranges from inadequate to bad, due to their use of some sort of flash-toasting device that does not toast except on the very surface; you can easily get bread that is burnt on the outside and not even warm on the inside. I love bagels and you just can't get a decent toasted bagel anywhere on the ship.

The fruit, however, is very good and there is fresh milk.

Lunch in the Palm Springs was sometimes terrible, sometimes adequate, sometimes good. Usually a good salad is available, and sometimes the hot selections were quite tasty. Pizza and baked pasta, served all day at a separate station, are marginal. The hamburgers and hot dogs, also at a separate station, are quite good. The sushi is surprisingly good. But you might also get a sandwich or hot dish that is very poor -- I got the worst "reuben" I have ever had. I avoided the Palm Springs Cafe as much as possible after the first few days. The dining room had better food and I really just got tired of fighting for a table all the time.

MUSIC: The music was great and full of spirit, even though the performers had some technical flaws. MANON (can't remember her last name)was a pretty brunette French (or French Canadian) woman who played the piano and sang. She had a self-contained computer accompaniment on a separate keyboard, but sat at the very good Yamaha grand provided by the ship. I loved her music, especially when she would do ballads and samba appropriate for her voice (rather than the "New York New York" stuff the crowd asked for).

The Martini quartet appeared to be a family, with Mom and Dad on the piano/synthesizer, one daughter on the violin and one on the viola. Very pleasant.

The Black and White duo was a gas. A couple of middle aged men, one who played guitar and sang (or played harmonica on occasion), the other on the synthesizer and/or saxaphone and backup vocals. Both of them sounded like Willie Nelson. A lot of dance music (from Achy Breaky Heart to sultry Latin tango). My favorite was Johnny Be Good, which the guitarist really had fun playing.

Axis: soft rock and calypso for the party crowd. Not my cup of tea but they kept people on the dance floor and were pleasant.

There was also a "classical style guitarist" who was so bad I could not sit in the room while he was playing, but we didn't see much of him.

ACTIVITIES:

Standard upper-end cruise fare and lots of fun. Trivia of all shapes and sizes, cards (I did notice duplicate bridge games), basketball and golf competitions, Snowball bingo (with a $4500 jackpot the last night), crafts, cooking, party games (like Pictionary) and the usual "detox to lose 8 inches" nonsense from the spa. Most exercise classes cost $10 although there was one free aerobics class each day. The lectures were good for a mainstream cruise: a set of motivational lecture, a series of Alaska history and culture lectures, and 5 lectures on using a digital camera which were popular. The casino is excellent.

Celebrity does not have the raucous party games and pool games that you will find on Carnival or Royal Caribbean. The disco was active and quite good, but tended to close up at 1-2 a.m.

DESTINATIONS:

We visited San Francisco, Victoria B.C., Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight Point, Hubbard Glacier, Sitka, and Ketchikan. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the better-known Alaska destinations, since there is a wealth of information about them on the internet. IMO there is no such thing as a bad destination in Alaska. Even Valdez (the worst of the bunch) has an interesting little museum. Mostly, enjoyment of the destinations is a factor of the weather, and we got beautiful warm sunny days at every stop except Sitka.

However, much of the reason I'm writing this review is to describe the new port of Icy Straight Point, as we were the first cruise ever to stop there.

San Francisco -- How could anyone not enjoy a few days in Frisco? Clean air, great food, lots of great places to hang out, and a public transit system that can't be beat -- $1.25 buys you a bus transfer that is good on any bus or streetcar for 90 minutes to 4 hours, including return trips!

The one place I went that I had not been before was Mission Dolores, which I recommend for a sunny day. You can take the colorful streetcars, staring with the famous "F" train (which uses antique streetcars from all over the world) and changing to the "J" train if you don't want to climb the hill. Get out at the top of the Mission Dolores Park for a spectacular view of the city from the east (although the Golden Gate is obscured by downtown). Then walk down the north side of the park to the adobe Mission Dolores, the original settlement of San Francisco and the oldest building in the city. (Most of the city dates from 1906 or later, due to the devastating earthquake and fire of that year.)

Victoria -- I have been to Victoria before and it is a bit of a wasted stop on an Alaska cruise, necessitated only because of the "Jones Act" (technically the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, which requires that most cruise ships visit a port outside of the U.S.). It is a reasonably charming historical town (or small city), although very heavily tourist-oriented.

Inside Passage -- The cruise from Victoria through the inside passage is beautiful and really sets the stage for Alaska, as you begin to see snowy peaks, mile after mile of fir-topped mountain wilderness, and the occasional wildlife (mostly whales at this point).

Skagway -- the spectacular White Pass Railroad, over the route traversed by the Klondike gold miners in the late 19th Century, is an Alaska "must see". The tiny town is not much except for a few tourist shops, but it is pleasant.

Juneau -- a good town for a stroll. The best excursions here are a flight over the Mendenhall glacier and ice fields, and a trip up the Mount Roberts "tram" (really a funicular or gondola). I have previously been to the Taku Wilderness Lodge and loved it.

Icy Straight Point -- Our Mercury cruise was the first large cruise ever to visit Icy Straight Point, a new development outside the Tlingit Indian town of Hoonah. This is a joint venture of the locals, a special corporation partly financed by the State of Alaska, and Royal Caribbean Cruises (Celebrity's parent company). It is designed as a day stop for cruise ships. A large dock is apparently under construction for 2005, but for now passengers must tender to Icy SP.

Icy SP consists of perhaps 10 wood frame buildings of various sizes. These are very nicely done from local fir/pine/hardwood and include a roomy building for excursion rendezvous, a general area museum (free), a mock-up of a salmon cannery with period machinery and resin salmon (including salmon guts on the floor!), a cultural museum, and various shops and such. The area serves as a jumping off place for excellent wildlife tours.

About a mile down the road is the village of Hoonah. It's a nice walk down the bayfront, with the channels to the right and steep mountains to the left. Or for $3 an enterprising local guide will give you a ride in his bus, complete with tour commentary. We walked downtown and rode back.

Hoonah is a village of 800 Tlingits who were displaced from Glacier Bay. Although the internet says Hoonah means "by the cliff", the bus driver assured me that it REALLY means "protected from the north wind" and was chosen for its favorable climate. It occupies a large island to the west of Juneau. Just across a narrow channel from downtown is some sort of eagle sanctuary, and the downtown area is swarming with bald eagles and ravens. We also saw three orcas in the wider channel from Icy Straight Point.

The town is unspoiled Alaska. The prevalent buildings are very rural-looking small homes, either prefab or framed with aluminum siding, many with pretty little gardens. The only industry is a major fish packing plant, which ships something like 50 million pounds of fish (mainly halibut) per year. Two or three local restaurants, if you could call them that, seemed to be getting unusual business. There is a pretty little church, an elementary school, a tiny high school.

Unemployment is low in the summer and will probably be nonexistant if the new Icy SP development is a success (which I would say it almost certainly will be). The atmosphere is very different from Juneau or even Ketchikan. There are no hippies wandering around and, at least while our ship was in port, no aimless looking people anywhere.

One would expect that the cruise industry will have some impact on Hoonah, although only 30-40 ships per year are anticipated, so maybe Diamonds International and Little Switzerland will not open stores there. But some poor local homeowner's backyard stands between the dock and the best point for watching the bald eagles, and by the end of the day his grass was looking a bit trampled. The gift store SOLD OUT of merchandise. The shelves were almost completely bare (I confess, I bought a t-shirt.) When we departed we saw about 50 people waving goodbye to our ship! I felt like James Cook in Hawaii.

Hubbard Glacier -- One must see a big glacier from the sea. I can say that one suddenly realizes why the terrain looks like it does. I can say that a six-mile-wide river of ice casting house-size chunks of brilliant blue ice into the ocean, is awe-inspring. But I cannot explain the feeling you get by actually being there.

Ketchikan - Ketchikan is a very pleasant town, built on salmon canning. The primary excursions available are sea or air tours to Misty Fjords and coach tours of Saxman Village for cultural shows and a nice collection of Tlingit and Haisa totem poles. We did not take excursions here or in Sitka this trip.

Sitka - Sitka is the old capital of Russian Alaska, and the bishop's house, well restored and preserved, is a must see. Also excellent are the wildlife park, which is a short walk from the pier and full of bald eagles and totem poles, and the Indian Museum at Jackson College. This is where James Michener stayed while writing "Alaska" and has a memorable display of artifacts from the seven major tribes or tribal groups in pre-European Alaska.

OVERALL: One afternoon I walked out on deck and nodded to an Engishman who was taking a picture. He sighed and said, "you just can't explain it". I knew exactly what he meant. The magic of Alaska simply cannot be translated by words or photographs. Mile after mile after mile of majestic uninhabited mountains, covered in fir, punctuated by whales and seals and eagles, begets a feeling that cannot be expressed. One must visit it to understand why people love it.

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