by Robert Gow
November 26, 2003
Summary. The Millennium transatlantic crossing from Barcelona, Spain to Fort Lauderdale, Florida was a largely satisfying vacation. While there are some issues we have with the food (too salty), we did have a good time (a bad day at sea beats a good day in the office). The Millennium itself is a well maintained 3 year old Panamax cruiser with some nice amenities. Gripe list is at the end if you stay awake that long.
Background. We (Bob and Mary) are a mid-50s DINK couple (Double Income, No Kids, I know it is so 80s, but it is true) living in Brooklyn, New York. We have done about 19 cruises, ten on Holland America and the rest spread over Princess, NCL, Bahamas Cruises (now defunct) and more recently Celebrity. Most of our cruises have been to the Caribbean with Canada-New England, Alaska, Panama Canal and transatlantic crossings mixed in. After our prior transatlantic crossings (the Millennium westbound in November 2000 and the Norway eastbound in September 2001), we found that we rather liked the many sea days and the new ports that a crossing can provide.
Cruise Arrangements. We had booked this cruise about a year in advance taking Celebrity's air package and making our own hotel arrangements. We used our regular agent who has been able to offer us competitive pricing (by our standards). by paying a $75/pp deviation fee, we obtained non-stop flights from JFK to Barcelona and Fort Lauderdale to LaGuardia.
Pre-Cruise. We flew into Barcelona two days early to get over jet lag and to see some of the sights. We reserved a studio apartment at the Hotel Citadines Ramblas which is on La Rambla (equivalent to Greenwich Village in ambiance). Since check in was at 3 PM, we walked around the La Rambla and Placa de Catalunya for a bit. We found a Citibank branch on Passig de Gracia, a major thoroughfare similar to 5th Avenue just north of Placa de Catalunya. The exchange rate at the time was about $1.17 to the euro and Citibank charged about $1.19 to the euro, much better than what one would get in the US. After a bit of walking, we bought a two day pass on the city tour bus for 19 euros. We got to see a good bit of the city and rest at the same time. Weatherwise, Barcelona was cooler and windier than NYC.
The Hotel Citadines is an apartment hotel where studio or one bedroom apartments can be rented on a daily or weekly basis. The room we had was spacious and comfortable with a large bathroom and a corridor kitchenette. Unlike a full service hotel, they do not offer daily cleaning and make up service which was no problem for us since we tend to be neat. An interesting or annoying feature of the studio we had was that the electric service is activated by inserting the room keycard into a slot by the entrance. This makes it easy to find the room keycard when you leave and also ensures that the power is off. The fridge and clock radio are on continuously powered circuit. While the hotel offered a breakfast buffet, it was rather expensive at 12 euros each. We found a number of places nearby that offered either coffee and a croissant or a full American breakfast for 2 to 5 euros. There are a number of places for dinner just south of the hotel at the Placa Real.
Boarding and Stateroom. We took a cab to the port area where the Millennium was docked about 11:30 AM Sunday. After we dropped off our bags, check-in took less than 10 minutes since we were Captains Club members. We boarded the ship immediately thereafter and had lunch in the Ocean Cafe. We were able to go to the cabin after 1 PM. by 3 PM, we had our bags, unpacked and were all set up. Nice! Our cabin was a 1-B Premium Veranda cabin which is 191 ft2 with a 41 ft2 veranda. With the full phasing in of Concierge Class cabins (former 1-A cabins), our cabin would now be classified as a 1-A cabin. The cabin had only a shower, not a bathtub, was still quite comfortable though not nearly as spacious as a Holland America Line (HAL) veranda cabin. The veranda was about 4 ½ feet deep and 9 feet wide. With two closets, an enclosed dresser with safe and lots of shelf space we had plenty of storage room.
Itinerary and Shore Excursions. The Millennium sailed from Barcelona on Sunday 26 October stopping at Gibraltar, UK; Funchal, Portugal then sailing five days across the Atlantic to St. Martin, St. Thomas and ending at Fort Lauderdale on Sunday 9 November. There were a total of nine days at sea for a 14 day crossing. While we have visited St, Martin and St. Thomas multiple times, Gibraltar and Funchal were new to us. At Gibraltar, we took the upper mountain walking tour which took us by cable car to the top of Gibraltar. From there one can see across the straits to Morocco on a clear day. We had rain that morning so Morocco was indistinct though visible. The tour included St. Michael's cavern which is a natural amphitheatre and the siege tunnels built by the British in the 1800's to hold off the Spanish forces. The Barbary Apes (tailless monkeys actually) were out blithely ignoring the tourists (when not swiping jewelry or hats). Gibraltar is about 3 square miles and depends on tourism and duty free shoppers from Spain and other places for its living.
Funchal, Portugal sits about 500 miles out in the north Atlantic off the coast of Africa. It is a rather rocky island with mountain peaks as high as 5,000 feet. Funchal is a modern European city with a nice plaza area near the main cathedral where we had lunch. Prior to lunch we took the Levanda walking tour which follows the irrigation channels used to water their fields. The walk was less than three miles over mostly even though slightly muddy ground. Unfortunately the tour guide stayed at the front end of the group so those in back never heard her narration. We did not try the basket sledge ride which some other pax enjoyed. The pier at Funchal also has some shopping, a post office and an internet café.
The other stops at St. Martin and St. Thomas were about what one would expect for these islands. We walked around a bit and had lunch near Bobby's Marina in St. Martin. The port area has been expanded and upgraded to handle up to four Panamax ships (Panamax is the largest ship size that can pass through the canal). On St. Thomas, we did a little shopping and took the Kon Tiki motorized raft trip to a quiet island beach.
Ship Services. The Millennium is a modern ship with a wide variety of services and activities available for pax. We used only a fraction of the services available, but those we used were by and large were well presented.
The fitness center had a good variety of hydraulic resistance equipment and some free weights. While it got crowded about 10 AM, the waits were very short. The fitness center also had treadmills and stationary bikes as well as an aerobics area. The top deck had a walking track that is about five laps to the mile. There is also a large enclosed spa area available to all pax. This included a food service area serving light spa-type cuisine, two Jacuzzis and the Thallasotherapy pool which is a large aerated seawater pool similar to a Jacuzzi but at a lower temperature. A very delightful area indeed! The Thallasotheray pool has two reclining seating areas with Jacuzzi type air jets. We opted for the Persian Garden which has 2 steam baths, a low temperature sauna and a private lounge. It cost $110/pp for the two week cruise which may be steep but we found it worthwhile.
Food. The Metropolitan Restaurant is the main dining venue for the ship. Dinners were served at 6 and 8:30 PM, breakfast and lunch were open seating. Meals there were well prepared and presented but are leisurely in pacing (just right for a sea day). We did find that some of the dinner entrees were over sauced and salty. Plainer entrees were available on request. The dinners offered a variety of appetizers, two soups and salads, five entrees plus several desserts. The entrees included two red meats (beef and lamb or pork), chicken, fish and a pasta/vegetation entrée. The Ocean Café is the self service meal area behind the pool area. There are four buffet serving lines with three special purpose areas at the back end of the café. At breakfast, the special purpose areas provide either cooked to order omelets or eggs or a continental breakfast. At lunch the special purpose areas provide cooked to order pasta or sandwiches or on one day, Indian entrees which were excellent. A pity the Indian entrees were not offered more often. We alternated between the Metropolitan and the Ocean Café depending on our mood. In the late afternoon, pizza and pastas are available as well as sushi complete with wasabi mustard, pickled ginger, soy and even themed table settings. The fish was fresh and we used it for snacks to tide us over till late seating dinner. The pizzas were only OK, but then, there are no high temperature gas-fired ovens on-board to make the pizza crisp. Burgers (overdone) and hot dogs were available near the pool.
The specialty restaurant ($25/pp service charge) is the Olympic which features original wood paneling from the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic. Food and service here was extremely good (again, very rich), however, watch out for the wine list. We spent $75 on five glasses of excellent wine and champagne including service charge, more on that next.
Lounges were plentiful and varied. We preferred the Platinum Club which is stacked above the Rendezvous Lounge and connected to it by a circular opening above the Rendezvous' dance floor. This allowed us to hear the music at a reasonable volume. Michael's Club unfortunately is no longer a cigar bar, cigarettes are OK. If you want to smoke a cigar, you have to go outside and brave the winds of the North Atlantic. Michael's has been converted to a piano bar similar to the ones on Holland America; however, HAL seems to have carried it off better. Cova Caffe is the ship's coffee bar where one can get cappuccino, espresso, excellent pastries and also cocktails. Pastries were available during the late morning and drinks including coffees were reasonably priced. Keep in mind that liquor purchased in the shops cannot be taken back to the cabin; however, you can bring liquor on board. I brought a bottle on board at St. Martin, ran it through the baggage x-ray and took back to the cabin with no hassles. by the way, liquor prices were lower on St. Martin than St. Thomas; of course, you can only bring in one liter from non-St. Thomas places. A 15% service charge is added for drinks service. We still tipped our regular bartender.
We particularly liked Words, the dead tree edition library, and Notes, the MP3 music library. Both were elegantly decorated and comfortably furnished with an eclectic selection of books and music. Well worthwhile investigating.
Gripes. What is a cruise without a few gripes! First off, let the record show that we enjoyed ourselves and we would go on Celebrity again, so our complaints are not major in nature. We used room service only once when we were in St. Thomas and had a 12:30 excursion. The kitchen was being inspected by the Coast Guard and I had to push them for service. To their credit, they did deliver though one order was wrong which they quickly made good on. As noted above, the food was salty at times. Bar chow were the usual breadsticks and peanuts, OK if you are not used to HAL's hot bar snacks. We made do with sushi and some others brought pizza from the Ocean Café. A movie schedule has not provided for the entire cruise so you did not know until that day what the movies were. This is also true to the movies on the television. HAL provides a schedule at the cinema area for the entire cruise and also a daily TV schedule.
The service staff was in general good, but there were a few snags that must be expected in any large scale operation. We tend to be early risers and we try to stay clear of the room for an hour or two to give the room steward a chance to neaten up. Still, we found ourselves running into him while he or his assistant was working on our room even three hours later. This seemed to be more upsetting to him than to us.
One thing I did find annoying is that the security personnel will not hand inspect cameras and film. Despite asking them several times to hand inspect, they sent the cameras and film through the x-ray machine. I was later told by the front desk staff that this is standard procedure. If this is standard procedure despite pax request to the contrary, I suggest you do not take more film than necessary off the ship for port calls and do not use higher than 400 ASA film speed. I am thinking about a digital camera anyway.