by Simon Lack
August 14, 2005
Cruise Notes August 2005
I'm sitting at a PC in the Millenium's well-equipped Computer Room with a view of the western Mediterranean passing peacefully by as we sail for our final destination, Barcelona. The fact that I can so easily access a terminal on a Sea Day is due both to the greater number of terminals than on previous cruises as well as the price of internet access (a painful $0.75 per minute, and a connection noticeably slower than your home cable modem hook-up).
This is our tenth cruise, although first with Celebrity (we are long time Royal Caribbean cruisers, the corporate owner of Celebrity). It will not be our last though. It's a slightly up market version of Royal Caribbean, a slightly older crowd (average age maybe 45), slightly fewer kids (though with a peerless kids' program), and significantly better food (on which more later). At twelve nights, this was also our first "longer" cruise, which felt a little decadent and certainly long enough to let the time merge into a pleasantly confusing fog of ports, excursions, dining dress codes and misplaced days ("if it's Friday it must be Santorini").
We arrived in Venice a day early, both to adjust to the six hour time difference from the U.S. east coast as well as to sightsee. Venice in August is a popular place, and San Marco Piazza (which we have visited before) allowed crowd movement akin to exiting a large sporting event. Taking a vaporetto (water taxi) is certainly the recommended way to get from Marco Polo airport to your hotel; however, Nature plays a role here and since the canal most convenient to our hotel was inaccessible (low tide) we had to wheel/carry the considerable luggage a family of six takes for two weeks across San Marco Piazza, down alleys barely wide enough for a suitcase and finally to our hotel. If I think of it, next time I'll check for deep water access near our hotel. So we settled in, explored, took a gondola ride, ate at "tourist" restaurants, and the next day boarded our ship.
Check-in was uneventful. It was high tide so a relatively short hike with bags to the vaporetto, and following a pleasant ride to the passenger terminal our bags were taken by a Celebrity representative while we were processed and led onboard. Our group was eight (three adults, four teenagers and a four year old). We've cruised together many times. Reports on Millenium from various websites range from positive to tired. It's a big ship though smaller than the Royal Caribbean Voyager class (those of the rock-climbing wall and ice-skating, not that we've ever tried either). We found it well looked after, clean, and generally with a wide variety of activities on offer (unless you're an under-age teenager seeking entry to the 18+ disco). We tentatively enrolled our young daughter in the Kids' Program, and this turned out to be a big success. While we had to probe and guess at how she'd spent her day, she invariably skipped in there each morning while we went on an excursion that she would not have enjoyed nearly as much, and as a result a better day was typically had by all.
The evening dinners in the main dining room were a notable step up from Royal Caribbean, whose standards we feel have slipped in recent years. We really didn't have a bad meal, and in many cases the quality was easily that which you might expect in a good restaurant back home. The lamb shank was slowly cooked for several hours, delicious and quite enormous. Similarly on lobster night (our elder daughter's favorite) the lobster tails were decent-sized (such that if you did indulge in a second that was quite as much as anyone could consume). Our waitress, Viktoria, from Hungary was ever-cheerful and efficient, swiftly replacing the occasionally poorly-chosen appetizer and quietly whispering to us the better menu choices (advice we quickly learned to heed). We ate in the dining room every night and never had a bad experience.
The evening entertainment was decidedly mixed; we've had better. The Millenium Singers and Dancers were heavily employed, it seemed to us, and at their worst (a most forgettable show named "Fantasea") made us feel as if our role as audience was that which parents of young children play when the little ones announce at home there will be "a show" in the family room (attendance compulsory) in five minutes. It's somehow less endearing when the quality is the same but the performers are adults. There was an illusionist, Jamie Allen, early in the cruise who was excellent, but one or two comedians would have been good and were sorely missed. Although we typically watch the evening show, we passed on many after the first few days.
Our cabin (7204) was a family suite with a queen size bed, pull out couch for our two daughters and a quite large balcony (always well worth it in our experience). And it was here that we encountered the Oregon family. On the penthouse deck directly below us, in a cabin that our balcony overlooked, was a very pleasant couple in their late 50s/early 60s. They were traveling with three of their grown children and respective spouses and children, distributed in three other cabins. We engaged in some small talk from our balcony overlooking theirs, and they invited us in to see their quite sumptuous quarters (which included a piano and two plasma TV screens). They were the eminently presentable U.S. cruising couple, well-dressed, well-travelled and not bad neighbors. Children can surprise you, and presumably the loud and substantial pre-school teacher (yes, really) that was next door to us had turned out somewhat differently than her unfortunate parents might have expected perhaps 20 years earlier.
Now I've normally thought stateroom walls are steel, and can remember few occasions where our neighbors on past cruises were even audible. And, as we were reminded on many occasions those first two jet-lag induced sleepless nights (at a shrill level of decibels more appropriate for the evening show) Oregon is nine hours time difference from Europe. These people evidently live life at a very high noise level, which rendered the wall paper thin and afforded us unwanted details on minute details of their daily lives. It began to resemble a version of reality TV watching a certifiably dysfunctional family in action, as screaming matches developed over such issues as ownership of a glass of water, missing chocolate powder, TV channels, bodily emissions and other unsavory aspects of (I presume) what passes for every day life in certain parts of Oregon. They reminded us of the Griswold cousins in National Lampoon's Vacation, a view that was reinforced when we briefly met the husband. Our amusement over the first couple of days soon shifted to incredulity, especially when I pointed out to the amply fed Mrs. Griswold that we could hear EVERYTHING going on in their room. We're still getting used to living like this was her reply, and while I searched hard I couldn't detect a trace of embarrassment, as if it must be some other domestic battle we were listening to every night. I did wonder if I should report unusually thin walls on Celebrity ships, but since on our other side the cabin might as well have been empty I guess this was just our bad luck. Eventually their sleep patterns conformed more to ours although we often awoke to bellowing (usually concerning food). It was Griswold's first cruise, and I hope for the rest of the cruising public, their last. By the way, our stateroom attendant was quite adequate, did his job efficiently and was unobtrusive.
In surveying our group on the ports and excursions (ages ranging from 4 to 42), the Pisa/Viareggio tour offered the requisite photo opp in front of the leaning tower (now freed again of its ugly supporting cables) along with a pleasant few hours at the beach and was the favorite of our teenagers. Santorini was of course beautiful, but if you choose the volcanic hike/hot springs wear your oldest sneakers and when swimming in the springs a sulphur-colored swimsuit will be less discolored than most when you emerge from the hot water. Nice and Monaco were beautiful and made us determined to return in the future with time to explore more widely. Rome and Athens were of course as expected. My daughter and I meanwhile took an olive-oil tasting trip north of Rome and enjoyed seeing the countryside. Celebrity's only real mistake was a disastrous tendering operation in Dubrovnik which left hundreds of passengers stranded onboard waiting for a boat ashore. Our ticket for tender #9 saw us wait 90 minutes; no doubt those like another family we chatted with (possessing #27) never got off. A public explanation and apology, since so many were affected (including us) was disappointingly absent.
The gym was well equipped. I tried a spinning class and was happy to find the activities staff organized a daily soccer game when it became clear there were enough Brits on board to make it worthwhile. We've had a great time which is now winding to a close. As I've been typing the PC technician has been most patiently assisting guests create CDs of their photos. One is left with the agreeable impression that this is a well run place.
A few other tips:
. Try the spa food