by Anne Goyer
January 4, 2002
There's something about the anticipation of a cruise that's always the same. It's fun, it's exciting and after 15 cruises, we still look forward to arriving at the pier and getting that first glimpse of the ship as much as ever. I'll start by telling you that we all had a fantastic time on this cruise. We shared plenty of smiles and laughter and created wonderful memories. Isn't that what vacations are for?
This has become our "annual" January jaunt to the Caribbean. For the past several years, we have been joined by business colleagues, family and friends for our escape from the ice and snow. This January, from the 4 - 14th, found us onboard the beautiful new Summit, a member of Celebrity Cruise Line's growing fleet. Before we set foot on board, we knew we're going to love it. After all, we've never had a "bad" cruise.
I spent a considerable amount of time on cruise message boards (particularly www.cruisecritic.com) researching ships and ports. St. Lucia and St. Kitts were going to be new islands for us and one of the reasons we liked this itinerary. One of the things that was a lot of fun about planning this cruise was that we had already met so many people who were going to be sailing with us. In addition to the eight people in our group, we had met another 20 - 25 on cruise message boards. It made the anticipation that much more fun. Plans were made to get together on the first sea day so that we could all meet each other.
Since we sail every January, we booked this cruise more than nine months prior to sailing and were able to get our choice of cabins. We selected a CAT 3, cabin 8181 for ourselves, while others in our group were in a CAT 1B and 1C respectively. The size of the cabin and the oversized veranda of the CAT 3 was so appealing that we went ahead and held the same cabin for a future cruise to Alaska.
Like many veteran cruisers, we now always arrive in a departure city the day prior to sailing. The risk of bad weather and airport and airplane delays make it well worth arriving a day early in the departure city. Fortunately, our trip to Ft. Lauderdale on Jan. 3 proceeded without incident. The snowstorm that paralyzed the Southeast missed us and it only took us 35 minutes to check our bags and get through security at the airport. Even the 2-hour wait at the gate for our flight flew by. We booked the AmeriSuites on 17th St. in Ft. Lauderdale for price and convenience. Many other cruisers were staying there as well.
While the AmeriSuites did provide a shuttle to the ship, we opted to take a cab since the hotel shuttle driver was insisting he couldn't drop passengers off at the pier prior to 11:30. We hopped in a cab at 10:30. It was $10 per cab load to the pier. We reached the pier by 10:45 as porters were just beginning to accept luggage for boarding passengers. As we walked into the terminal, a Celebrity employee greeted us to give us an embarkation number (which was #1). I mentioned that we were Captain Club members and she exchanged our #1 ticket with a #0. Be sure to tell the staff member if you are a Captain Club member since they don't ask. We were handed an additional departure form to complete and our #0 was called. It took another 10 minutes to go through the pier security (same procedure as airport security). After that, you enter the terminal where counters are set up. There is a Suite/Captain Club counter however, several other counters were empty and the Suite/Captain Club counter had about six people in line. Go to any empty counter to turn in your boarding forms and receive your keys.
They did not activate our credit card for our ship board account on the pier. You had to visit Guest Services (the Purser's Desk) once on board to do this. While this created another line at Guest Services, the process did not take much time. The only challenge is that the Guest Services crew also has to answer the phone at the same time. It would be great if someone in the Guest Services office behind the "scenes" was answering phone at Embarkation instead of the staff out front who were trying to help people in line (more on this in the Comments section at the end). We were on board by 11:15 and had dropped our hand luggage in our room and were ready to explore the ship.
Cabin 8181 - CAT 3 (Deck 8). I'd love to tell you that we hated this cabin and that no one should ever book it (so it would always be available!). However, I'm not good at telling a lie. We loved this cabin. It was one of our two all time favorite cabins. It was roomy, had a wonderful veranda and was extremely quiet. I'm not sure that the CAT 3 cabins above us were as quiet since the outdoor dining area of the Waterfall Cafe was directly above them. We learned a long time ago that it is best to be between passenger decks instead of above or below public spaces. The cabin included a king bed, plenty of closet and drawer space, a comfortable bathroom with shower, a wooden wall divider that separated the bed from a parlor area that contained a couch, love seat and coffee table. The veranda included a table, two stationary lounge chairs and two regular chairs. Can't wait to be back in this cabin on a future cruise!
Dora was our cabin attendant and she took excellent care of us throughout the cruise.
The ship is what we would term as elegant. It's not glitzy with lots of chrome and lights. It is subtle with pretty woods, lots of glass, soft or muted softgoods (bedspreads, carpet, chairs, etc.).
The Atrium was more intimate than most of the new ships. There is no large open area. It consists of three levels of intimate lounges and sitting areas. On deck three you'll find Guest Services (the Purser's Desk on other ships), Shore Excursions, the Bank, and Future Cruises office. From deck three you can climb a large open staircase that is lined with Gold draping to the fourth deck with a piano and seating. Just above that you'll find Cafe Cova Milano with a coffee bar on one side and a pastry corner on the other.
To the rear of this area on decks four and five, you'll find the Rendez-Vous Lounge and Martini/Champagne Bar respectively. You can sit in the Martini/Champagne Bar on deck 5 and hear the music from the Rendez-Vous Lounge below because there is a large opening in the middle of the Martini/Champagne Bar that overlooks the Rendez-Vous. Both of these lounges were very popular spots for the pre-dinner crowd. Both lounges were "walk-through" on both sides of the ship. Michael's Club, the cigar bar, is the only lounge on the ship that actually has "doors" that you have to actually walk "into". Michael's is a beautiful room, dark wood and big comfortable chairs and couches. When we visited pre-dinner one evening, the smoke was not too bad. On the Summit, in the lounges and pool deck, the port side of the ship is smoking.
You'll find the Celebrity Theater at the front of the ship on Decks 4 and 5. It is a beautiful theater with fabulous sound and sight lines. There was always plenty of seats and unlike the pool deck, there didn't seem to be a lot of "seat saving."
The pools on the Summit are terrific. However, the chair hogs discussed on the cruise message boards are prevalent. I did see a deck attendant picking up towels that were left on chairs if nothing else was left behind but the chair saving has gotten ridiculous (and this isn't just a Celebrity issue..it's a cruise industry issue). Here's what I don't get. If you go sit on a deck chair and leave when you're finished instead of trying to save it all day, there would be plenty to go around. Half of the time a fair amount of the chairs that were saved didn't have anyone in them for hours. Finding a chair actually wasn't as bad on this cruise as some previous cruises, except perhaps right around the pool. We like the upper pool deck with a view of the ocean better anyway.
The Spa Pool area (Thalassatherapy Pool) on the Summit is also beautiful. It was always crowded, especially on the first two sea days (day one was kind of chilly). The cafe in the spa pool area is very nice and a great alternative place to have breakfast. But remember, when they say they serve a lighter menu, they mean it..no regular coffee, no cream, no butter, etc. There is no charge to use this pool on the Summit.
The Pizza served on the Pool Deck is pretty darn good. The burgers and hot dogs are OK and the fries are top notch! Didn't have any ice cream from the ice cream bar this cruise, but I'm sure we will next summer. It, too, looked terrific.
The spa and health facilities on the Summit are terrific. Lots of planned classes and a wide variety of spa services. My husband and I each had a one-hour massage. Both of our therapists were great but the pricing in the spa continues to creep upwards and the cost for an hour massage is now $109 !!! That was one of the least expensive services available. This will likely be an area where we cut back in the future.
The Cosmopolitan Dining Room was lovely and we had a great table on the upper level in the middle of the room. Our waiters, Roy and Gabor were outstanding. We like traditional dining (eating at the same table with the same group of people every night). Let's face it, everyone seems to think that dining is a big part of cruising. Beyond the food, which for the most part was excellent, the friendships you form with the waiters (and other staff for that matter) can make your cruise truly memorable. Roy and Gabor definitely made dining on this cruise a fun adventure. The fact that Celebrity continues to offer traditional dining is one reason we'll keep coming back. We did dine in the Normandie alternate restaurant one evening (more on that later).
It had been two years since we had cruised with Celebrity. I didn't recall the entertainment being good or bad on our last cruise. But in reading the message boards, many people think that the entertainment is an area that was lacking. If it was, it isn't any longer, at least not on this cruise. The production shows with the Celebrity Singers and Dancers were all outstanding (we made it to almost all of them); the comedians were all pretty funny and several of the other acts were outstanding. METRO, the vocal group that specialized in barber shop and a cappella harmony were incredible. They continuously packed the Cafe Cova Milano where they sang regularly and they garnered a standing ovation when then performed in the Celebrity Theater. Their rendition of "Somewhere" from West Side Story brought chills! The group "Family Duo" offered terrific pre- and post- dinner dancing music in the Rendez-Vous lounge. The lounge and the dance floor was always packed when they were playing. Additionally, the harpist that played in the atrium and the combo that played in the Normandie were also delightful.
CRUISE CRITIC GET TOGETHER
Approximately 25 cruisers who posted on the Cruise Critic message board gathered in the Rendez-Vous lounge on the second afternoon to meet and have drinks. It was great to meet people we chatted with for months prior to the cruise and it was fun to see people as we went along throughout the cruise. After introductions and chatting for about 30 minutes, the cruise staff showed up for "Battle of the Sexes Trivia." So we split the into men versus women laughed a lot! Of course, the women won (at least this round!).
Before moving into the ports of call, I want to briefly discuss shore excursions. For the past several years, I have been researching and booking our own shore excursions. I find them to be much more personal and often get you off the beaten path that so many of the ship excursions take the masses to. I'm not against ship-sponsored excursions. In fact, if you are new to cruising, I'd recommend taking the ship-sponsored tours. There is a comfort level in taking a ship tour. The ship will wait for you if you are on one of their tours. They won't if you are on your own. We often took them when we first began cruising some ten years ago. However, we now feel comfortable arranging for our own tours with local people and we love the more personal attention and information you receive from a private tour. We always allow enough time to return to the ship and we've yet to have a personal tour that wasn't outstanding. That proved true on this cruise as well.
THE PORTS OF CALL
ST. MARTIN/ST. MAARTEN
We had been here several times before but never to Orient Beach. We decided this was the trip to do it. It was a $5 per person cab ride (approximately 20 minutes) from the pier. It is a VERY pretty beach, filled with small restaurants/bars that dot the landscape. It's a great beach for walking and despite the hype that this is a "nude" beach, I'd say 98% of the people had their swimsuits on. When we returned from the beach, we shopped for a camera lens for my 35mm camera (I recently broke a lens and needed a replacement) and then stopped for a cool daiquiri at Everything's Cool before heading back to the ship. This is a great little spot among the shops that has a great view of the ship and great drinks. This is always a popular island and there is much to see here. There is a water taxi from the pier to the heart of the shopping area in Phillipsburg. It was $3 each way or $5 for a day pass.
Without a doubt, this was our favorite stop on this cruise. I began researching private tours somewhat late in the game, but I located a company called Jungle Tours and booked them about two weeks before departing. This was probably the best overall shore excursion we've done in 15 cruises. To start, everyone in our group of 8 decided to take this tour. The cost was $70 per person and it included 7 hours of island exploration, all entrance fees and lunch. Our tour guide's name was Shal, owner of the company. He picked us up shipside (he was waiting for us when we walked down the gangplank). The first thing I said to him was that we wanted to have fun. He took that to heart! He turned on the music and began singing as we boarded his open air Land Rover that accommodated 8 passengers. There was a padded bench on either side and roll bars that could be leaned against. We began by sitting but before long we were standing and singing along, marveling at the spectacular scenery. We quickly departed Castries (the port city) and headed to the country. We drove through banana and cocoa plantations on our way to our first activity..a hike to a waterfall. A word of caution to everyone taking shore excursions - Be sure to wear the proper shoes for your excursion. Exploring an island like St. Lucia (where there is a lot of rain forest to hike) includes a great deal of walking, sometimes through uneven terrain. We were amazed how many tourists wore sandals and open-toed shoes to hike. Wear rubber-soled shoes (sneakers) or hiking boots if you are going to take these excursions.
Just prior to arriving at the rain forest for our trek to the waterfall, we stopped was at a roadside stand for bananas and fresh fruit and to get a glimpse of our ship in the port far below.
The walk to our first waterfall was what I would consider moderate hiking. Some uneven terrain, walking over rocks in streams, etc. Shal was very cautious with the eight of us, waiting and helping each person as we went. Our group ranged in age from 30 - 59. We did come across several other tour groups in this section of the rain forest and Shal had to stop and help them because their guide was far beyond them and not paying attention. The waterfall was a great backdrop for a group photo!
Our next stop was at a "bakery" where they made Cassava bread. It was delicious and you could watch them make this island specialty at this roadside bakery. Cassava is a root vegetable that is grated to make a sweet or salted bread.
Next stop was The Volcano to view the steam vents and watch the earth "bubble." This was the only spot on the daylong tour that was crowded with other tourists. Our stop here was short.the sulfur smell is overwhelming.
Back into the Land Rover we headed to what was to become our favorite stop. A hike (easier than the first hike) to a natural mineral spring and waterfall. Here, you could (and all the women did) smear yourself with volcanic mud, dry in the sun and then rinse in the warmth of the natural spring waterfall. There were only a handful of other people at this spot and it was special. The laughter began when the mud went on and the photos were taken. More singing ensued. We are still laughing.
Our final stop was at a beautiful beachside restaurant (Still's) for lunch in the town of Soufiere at the foot of the Pitons, St. Lucia's landmark mountains. The food was delicious and the scenery spectacular. We could have sat here all afternoon!
A couple of important notes: Shal was a very cautious and courteous driver. He had a cooler filled with water, soft drinks, beer and rum punch for consumption throughout the day. Shal's enthusiasm and love of his island was apparent throughout the day. It made all of us look forward to returning in the future and exploring this beautiful island even more. If you are looking for a great tour, we highly recommend contacting Shal at www.jungletoursstlucia.com.
I have a favorite spot on Barbados where I love to purchase pottery. It's called Earthworks. For years, I've wanted a set of dishes from Earthworks and we agreed that this would be a Christmas gift this year. The reason I love the pottery so much is that they primarily use the colors of the Caribbean (blues, teal, greens) in creating their dishes, casseroles, platters, coffee mugs and more. When I get home, it reminds me of how pretty the Caribbean sea is.
I spoke with a cab driver and explained we wanted go to Earthworks and then onto a beach. He agreed to take us to Earthworks, wait for us (we were in the store about 45 minutes), take us to Surfside beach in Holetown and then come back and pick us up later in the day and return us to the ship. The cost was $20 per person - a very reasonable charge considering the distance and time involved. The beach was nice and had several open-air restaurants but there were quite a bit of people trying to sell their wares.
A $3 per person cab ride found us on a very pretty spot called Friar's Beach. There was a beautiful view of Nevis in the distance and we were surrounded by mountains. It was much more quiet than the beach in Barbados and there was one small place to eat - but it was REALLY good. They were cooking chicken, ribs and whole lobsters on a grill beach side. When you arrive at the beach, if you go all the way to the right, it's very quiet and there are very few people. On our way back, we were dropped off in town to shop. We looked for batik from St. Kitts but it was all pretty expensive. It was a short walk from town back to the ship.
ST. THOMAS/ST. JOHN
We've been visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands for a few years now and always catch the Red Hook ferry to St. John for the day. Without question, the beaches of St. John are among the prettiest in the entire Caribbean. No one tries to sell you anything on these beaches and with the exception of Trunk Bay, they are uncrowded and quiet. We always grab a cab in Cruz Bay when we get off the ferry and go to either Cinnamon or Maho Bay. Cinnamon has more facilities (a general store, restaurant, restrooms). Maho is secluded and without facilities but spectacular! Lunch is high atop St. John at the patio of Chateau Bordeaux, overlooking Coral Bay and the British Virgin Islands. Burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and many flavors of daiquiris are the only things on the lunch menu. But the food is good and the view breathtaking.
We had planned a small sailaway party on our veranda upon departing St. Thomas, our last port of call. Besides a gorgeous sunset and the twinkling lights of St. Thomas as darkness fell upon us, we were very fortunate to be joined on our deck by the wonderful vocal group METRO. They performed three AWESOME songs as we pulled out of the harbor. It was a highlight of the trip and a special evening we will all long remember.
NOTE ON CABS: On all of the islands, the cab driver that took us to a beach returned later in the day to pick us up and return us to the ship. Confirm your price and time with the cab driver; get their name, be pleasant and you'll get terrific service. They love to tell you about their islands and are typically glad to have us there. And they always return for you!
One of the first things we did when we got on board was make a reservation in the Normandie for the seventh night. It was an informal night and even though we hated to leave our regular waiters, we had to try Normandie after all we read. The experience was unforgettable. The food, the staff, the laughter, the music - it all added up to another memorable evening with friends. That's the most important thing - a memorable evening with friends. Everything you've read on the boards about the food and service is true. It was all outstanding. With eight of us, many things on the menu were tried and all were wonderful. But what made the evening special was the laughter and conversation we shared with our waiters for the evening: William and Peter in particular. And a surprise visit from our dining room waiter, Roy, completed the night.
CRUISE STAFF & ACTIVITIES
Jim Cannon, the cruise director, and his staff did an outstanding job to make passengers feel welcome and they continuously encouraged passengers to participate. All of the typical cruise activities - pool games, bingo, horse racing, trivia, art auctions, etc. - were here. The friendliness of the cruise staff made them more enjoyable.
This went very smooth. We had an early flight (11:00 AM) and were given early debarkation tags. We were off the ship by 8:45. We purchased the ships transfer to the airport and I'd highly recommend this if you are tight on time. They separated us onto buses by airline. We were flying Delta and a Delta rep boarded the bus to tell us that they had set up a satellite check-in for us at the airport so we did not have to stand in the long lines at check in upstairs. A VERY NICE bonus! This alone was worth the cost of the transfer ($11 per person). We still had about a 30 minute wait for security after we checked our luggage in. We were at our gate about 60 minutes prior to departure.
FINAL COMMENTS & OBSERVATIONS
When all was said and done, our 10-day cruise on the Summit was one of the best experiences we've had in our ten years of cruising. Part of it stems from the fact that we aren't going to let anything ruin a cruise vacation. I'm amazed at the people who complain and complain throughout the cruise. If you don't have a good experience on the Summit, chances are it's your fault. Not that the crew or the ship is perfect. Nothing is. But if you approach a problem with a smile and positive attitude, you'll find a staff that will go above and beyond to help. Yelling at crew members (I witnessed this first hand and it was uncalled for) doesn't accomplish anything and it's terribly unfair to a staff member who most likely had nothing to do with problem in the first place.
Here's a rundown of what made this cruise so special:
The Staff & Service - They were fabulous. Everyone smiled all the time. They greeted guests with a friendly "hello, how are you today?" They jumped whenever you asked for something. The cruise staff, led by Cruise Director Jim Cannon, helped passengers have a great time all cruise long. Everyone should stop at least once throughout the cruise and think about just how hard all of the staff on cruise ships work. "Thanks" and a smile goes a long way! Steph, Roy, Gabor, Vesna, Dora, Eric, Sean, Del, Mike and the rest of the terrific crew - YOU ARE THE BEST!
The Ship - She is beautiful. The cabins were warm and comfortable. Getting around the Summit was very easy and three sets of elevators/stairs made navigating quick. We walk everywhere so we can eat those extra goodies that we'd pass on at home. I had read that many people didn't care for the art. What do they say? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Much of the passenger hallways was filled with terrific photography and the various sculptures and other art pieces were interesting and fun. I like looking at different things so I'm glad that the "art" differs from ship to ship.
The Food - There was plenty of excellent food on the Summit. I really think that people obsess way too much over the food on ships. Celebrity's food is still far better than RCI and on most nights better than our last Princess cruise. If there is something you don't care for, tell your waiter and ask for something else. They understand and want you to be happy. Don't miss the pasta station and daily specialty station at the back of the Waterfall Cafe. These stations are just before you go out the aft doors to the outdoor seating area. In the morning, the pasta station is an egg/omelet station. Many people didn't find these until late in the cruise. Lighten up on the criticism of the food and start enjoying more!
Entertainment - Outstanding all the way around. We already miss METRO and can't wait for their first CD to hit the streets in the next month!
The Itinerary - All of the ports were terrific. We'd go back in a heartbeat!
The Weather - Other than the first 24 hours when it was rather chilly leaving Ft. Lauderdale, the weather was perfect - 83 and sunny! The chilly weather did introduce us to a great bar server, Vesna! She brought us warm coffee drinks as we pulled out of Ft. Lauderdale and she continued to take care of us throughout the rest of the cruise.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
Most of these items are minor and did not impact our overall enjoyment of the cruise. But we did see a couple of areas that could be improved:
Guest Services Answering Phones - On embarkation day, the staff working out front shouldn't have to answer phones while trying to help passengers in line at the Guest Services Desk. With credit card activation being handled here, the staff needed some relief from ringing phones. Keep in mind, these crew members are constantly trying to solve challenges someone else created. Try to be a little nicer to them!
Credit Card - Why aren't credit cards activated pier side prior to boarding? It would have made a big difference and saved everyone a lot of time.
Computerized Spa Appointments - With today's technology, why are the spa's on ships still making appointments by hand on paper? They are constantly falling all over one another, grabbing appointment sheets. Seems like having them computerized would make life a lot easier for everyone.
Repeaters Party - Did anyone from late seating go? Having a cocktail party at 5:15 on a formal night when late seating is at 8:30 made no sense. What happened to 5:15 for early seating and 7:45 for late seating?
Jogging Track - It needs to be somewhere else other than around the upper pool deck. There just isn't enough room for joggers/walkers to make their way through the maze of deck chairs and people sunning.
In closing, remember that different people like different things and therefore feel differently about their cruise. However, we are each ultimately responsible for our own experience and whether it is good or bad. Realize that "stuff" happens but keep smiling and the crew, more often than not, will do their best to help resolve any challenges you face. In these days of uncertainty, shouldn't we make the most of every day and enjoy them as much as possible? I know we are and we hope you will, too. Trust me, it makes for a much happier cruise all the way around. A BIG thanks to everyone who contributed to making this one terrific cruise for us!