by John Gawne
February 3, 2008
I was contacted in the middle of January and invited to attend a seminar at sea aboard Celebrity Millennium Feb 3-10. As I had booked a group aboard the ship in the past but had never sailed on a Millennium class vessel in our 35 cruises, and since it was visiting two ports I had not visited, Campo de Caso in the Dominican Republic, and Labadee, the RCCL/Celebrity day location in Haiti, I looked forward to attending. I had to travel alone, as my wife could not get the time off on short notice.
Flying into Fort Lauderdale, I purchased the Celebrity airport transfers. We picked up luggage at carousel 4, where there was a Celebrity representative, but we were directed to bring our luggage to the carousel 1 area where they were distributing luggage tags and collecting vouchers. The transfer is quick and check-in was reasonably quick. I had only the Xpress Pass for documentation but that was sufficient. As we boarded the ship they distributed red or blue colored champagne depending on whether you declared to be a New England Patriots or NY Giants fan, as it was Super Bowl Sunday. Staff were available to show you to your cabin, if desired. I boarded about 1:30pm and the cabin was ready. Luggage, however, did not arrive until about 5pm, an hour after sailing.
There was a reception for the agents attending the SAS in Michaels Club. Dinner was at assigned tables for the second seating the first night and we "round robin'ed" the other nights. They did have a Catholic priest aboard, and had mass each day, including the first evening, a Sunday. The entertainment the first night was a Super Bowl Party in the theater with food and beverages, and TV screens in the Casino.
Day two was a sea day, and the seminar was held from 9am-4pm in a conference room, and they managed to cover all the material Celebrity and Azamara wanted to cover on both sea days. In addition to the brand information and updates, they brought in ship staff from Captain's Club, a sommelier, an onboard group coordinator, future cruise sales, spa reps and others as the shipboard schedule permitted to give specific program updates. This was the first formal night, and the evening entertainment was a Broadway-style review at 8:45 and 11pm. 11pm is really too late for a show for those with second dining. I did notice there were ample venues for music and dancing until at least midnight.
Day three I had an opportunity to tour the bridge of the ship, something not normally available anymore. There were only 3 people manning the bridge on this huge ship, and the senior officer, a woman, was a graduate of a Swiss Maritime Academy. All automated, gps superimposed over navigational charts with radar images added. I also attended a wine tasting in the morning, as we were not arriving in San Juan until 1:30pm. As I had been to San Juan many times and I was traveling alone, I chose to stay aboard and enjoy the Solarium Pool area -- adults only, warm and quiet with glass roof, special padded wooden lounges, and even a healthy food venue that I had not heard promoted. The thelassotherapy pool is terrific, and there are also hot tubs there. The pool is quite warm, but not as warm as a hot tub. As it was Shrove Tuesday, the last night of Mardi Gras, I did leave to walk 1 block to Senor Frog's to celebrate Mardi Gras for about 90 minutes before returning for dinner. The entertainment was as singer with shows at 8:45 and 10:50pm
On day four we arrived in Tortola, BVI, at 7am and berthed at a pier -- one of two ships at a pier out of 4 in port that day. As I had been to Tortola years ago, I did purchase a Celebrity excursion that provided a 25 minute ferry ride to Virgin Gorda, a stop at Savannah Beach there for 45 minutes where I snorkeled and saw the largest loggerhead turtle I had ever seen in many years of snorkeling. We then were dropped off at parking area for The Baths -- a beach with giant boulders that at one time many years ago were encased in lava. The lava has long ago been weathered away and only the boulders, on land and in the water, remain. The beach is only accessible by going down s sandy and rock path 350 yards down to the beach, and it seems longer on the way back up! The beach does have a bar and restaurant, and bathrooms available. There is also a path through boulders, running water, and pools that many people crawled through. After the ferry ride back they dropped us not by the pier but several blocks away in the downtown area -- right across the street from Pusser's Rum Store. The rum was a staple of the British Navy and the store and bar has been there for years. It looked the same as it did 15 years ago, and their trademark Painkiller drink with Pusser's rum is still as potent as I remember!
This was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and Catholic mass and distribution of ashes was available at 5:15pm. They had a 7pm Broadway-style show for the late diners, which I enjoyed. The singers and dancers were excellent. I had forgotten that Celebrity has an "informal" dress night, with jacket required, and this was the evening, so I wore my white dinner jacket over a floral shirt and fit in fine. They had a Tex/Mex Salsa dancing and late night dancing in one of the venues, where I ran into the Celebrity seminar reps and enjoyed some late night conversation with them.
On day five we arrived in Caso de Campo at 9am at a pier. The port authority provides two different bus routes. For $7 they took us to Altos de Chavon, built as a replica of the Italian town the designer was from in Italy. It was filled with restaurants, shops, galleries, and a museum and overlooks the Chavron River gorge. After I returned to the pier, I took the other bus for $5 to Le Marina, a complex of modern shops and restaurants overlooking a marina with very large yachts. There was also a super market where I discovered D. R. ground coffee available for the equivalent of $1 for a half pound. The Caso de Campo area is very isolated from the rank and file Dominican. This area is a huge complex of gated communities, expensive homes, and many golf courses. I really would have liked to go into the town of La Romano by taxi or bus, but traveling alone I chose not to do it this time. Just a cultural note: there were baseball fields all over the more industrial area near the port and they were in use all day long. This was the second formal night, and lobster night, preceded by the Captain's Club cocktail reception. The show this evening, another stage production, was at 10:50pm
On day six we arrived in Labadee, Haiti, at 9am, and tender service was provided in large tenders rather than ship's boats, so they moved people quickly. I went over to snorkel and enjoy the area from 11:30-3:30pm. The view of the verdant green, forested mountains was beautiful. The western half of the island of Hispaniola is mountainous, and Labadee is flat peninsula in this area on the northwest coast. The eastern half of the island is flatter, and that is where the Dominican Republic is located. The peninsula at Labadee has five different beach areas, one with ocean surf and the others with calm, bay water. There were ample lounge chairs, a trolley to take people from one end to the other, a flea market with Haitian crafts, and a more conventional shopping market. Food is provided in several venues, but only from 11:30 to 2pm. There were few fish evident while snorkeling, but more small conch shells than I have ever encountered. A relaxing day, and I felt that the island was not as cluttered as Princess Cay, and more varied than Half Moon Cay, some of the other "private island" areas. Back on the ship there was a comedian at 7 and 9pm. It was Island night at the pool deck with a fruit dessert buffet late.
The last day was a sea day with the usual distribution of baggage tags, customs forms and debarkation instructions. Based on what passengers had indicated on their preregistration or on a form distributed earlier in the week, they distributed a note giving a specific place and time to meet for individual debarkation of the luggage tag color and number, and there are no announcements calling people away. It is done by walkie talkie by the staff, a pleasant change. I attended an excellent wine and food pairing session, and although I am a wine affectionado, I learned quite a bit. They had samples of chicken, pesto chicken, chocolate, olives, various cheese, and a lemon slice to use when tasting and comparing wines. Excellent session. The shows the last night were at 7pm and 8:45 and were an a capella group, other singers, and an adagio duo. Luggage had to be out by 11pm.
On arrival in Fort Lauderdale we were asked to be out of cabins by 8am. My debarkation time was 9:25am and was right on time. The luggage, customs, and transfer to the airport went very smoothly.
My overall thoughts: In conversation with various passengers, they agreed the ship never seems crowded. There are many venues for evening entertainment, music and dancing. The Solarium is outstanding. The Martini Bar, and the very talented bartender Torgi, was very pleasant, and as entertaining as Tom Cruise was in the movie "Cocktail." Service was excellent, and food was very good, but presentation was not outstanding, just very good. Lobster was large and cooked just right. Omelets and eggs to order are available, as are fresh waffles and pancakes. Pizza by the slice is available 11 hours a day, and they will make a pizza to order with your choice of toppings, which takes about 12 minutes. Ice cream is free throughout the day. The staff was very accommodating. My only complaint was that the buffet area was frequently out of glasses, substituting paper cups, some coffee machines were not working, and the mid-afternoon food choices are limited in the buffet area. There is no evening buffet, but there is a reservations only bistro area set up in the aft end on one side of the buffet area, with linen and glassware and table service. The gratuity is only $2 per person. I'm glad I made the time to check out this ship and the new ports.