Western Caribbean, 2003
by Barry and Carla Hester
This was our 10th wedding anniversary cruise and we decided to go with six of our very closest friends. We chose Celebrity's Galaxy since it cruised from the port of Baltimore (25 minutes from our home) and only one of our guests had to fly in from out of town. The port is very easy to find and I would suggest hiring a cab from your home, or use a van service. It was very inexpensive, but choose the cab company carefully and make sure that they quote you a price prior to leaving. Not everyone paid the same. Normally, we would have parked at the pier for convenience, but since Hurricane Isabel was heading toward the East Coast we didn't feel comfortable leaving our SUV at the port parking area. To start out our wonderful experience, 10 days prior to boarding I gave our travel agent a call and discovered we qualified for a free upgrade from a Penthouse Deck Stateroom to a Penthouse Suite with Veranda -- we had no idea of the pampering we were in store for when we checked onboard.
The guidelines for packing and what to bring on the Celebrity Cruises website, coupled with reading some cruise reviews, more than adequately prepared us for our cruise. The only thing I cannot stress enough is: take comfortable walking shoes. Most of the excursions required walking and you will want to be comfortable and avoid blisters. Also, if you don't own a tuxedo, rent one. The cost was low for the amount of wear you will get out of a tux on a 10-day cruise. I would also suggest packing an extra bag to throw your dirty clothes in; there is a ship's laundry service, but it is rather costly.
According to many of the reviews I read this was the one process that was supposed to be terrible. This was not our experience. We left our home around 3:30pm and arrived at the pier at 4pm. The cab service dropped us right off where you drop your luggage. Don't forget to put your tags on your bags before your leave and make sure the correct stateroom number is on the luggage tag. We then paid for the cab, tipped the porters and we were on our way into the terminal. Apparently most of the folks going on this cruise had arrived much earlier and had already checked in, making the terminal nearly deserted. Check-in was very easy, as we had pre-registered on the Celebrity web site. My suggestion is do as much as possible on the internet prior to arrival -- it facilitated a smooth check-in and we were on the ship, with champagne in hand within 15 minutes of arriving. We set sail around 6:30pm. If you intend on upgrading your cabin, call your agent within 10 days of the cruise or get to the pier right when they open.
The Ship & Our Stateroom
We easily found our suite from the main foyer area and within minutes of arriving at our cabin our suite attendant, Francisco, and butler, Ivo, arrived to welcome us onboard and let us know they were there day or night if we needed anything. They even opened our free champagne in the room for us and poured us a glass while we were on the cell phone to Mom and Dad letting them know we arrived safely. Our butler Ivo and Francisco did a SUPERIOR job throughout the cruise with keeping our room immaculate and providing us with whatever we desired. We really liked the afternoon teas, snacks and the pre-dinner aperitifs that were served daily in the stateroom. If there was something in particular we liked or disliked our butler was able to adjust these to our tastes. We even ordered several extra aperitifs one day so that our fellow cruisers who were not in a suite could enjoy this pampering.
Our suite was midships, cabin 1058 and came with a 70-square-foot veranda. It had a refrigerator (fully stocked mini-bar), king-size bed, two huge wall closets, a dresser, two bed tables, lunch table, two lounge chairs and a couch that pulled out to a full-size bed. There was plenty of storage in all the closets and drawers, and we didn't even use all of the available storage space. Our luggage fit easily under the bed once unpacked. The bathroom had a toilet, shower/Jacuzzi bath and nice sized sink, with plenty of storage for all of our toiletries. The ship's satellite TV provided ESPN, TNT and CNN Headline News, which was especially nice to have since Hurricane Isabel was in the area. We had adequate satellite television service the entire cruise and really enjoyed the free movies in the room throughout the cruise. We noticed that many of the shows on the ship's TV were in a loop, so you had a lot of repeats.
The ship was extremely clean, there was always a crew member cleaning or vacuuming something. The ship's over all look was Art Deco. Our sail was smooth the entire cruise with the exception of the first day and a half when we were traveling through seas that had been churned up by Hurricane Fabian. It was the only rough time of the cruise -- some our fellow cruisers were a little green behind the gills, but were okay as soon as they took some Dramamine and had something to eat.
Each day we enjoyed the lounge chairs and pool bar on the Resort Deck. Most often we took naps each day, enjoying the relaxing atmosphere, nice hot tubs, and cool water of the swimming pools. The Unity band played most days on the Resort Deck and was very entertaining. Since we had a suite we also had free use of the Aqua Spa and we used it nearly everyday. My wife took advantage of many of the other services the spa provided, and although pricey was worth the relaxation it gave her. She experienced deep scalp massages, had her hair put up for all the formal nights and had several facials. The ship was very big, but after getting lost the first couple of days we were able to find our way around with no problems. We spent a lot of time in the Martini Bar (prior to dinner) and Michael's Club, a cigar bar (with our fantastic bartender, Miriam) after dinner.
The food was nothing short of superb. We enjoyed breakfast in bed nearly every day and it was always hot and on time. The selections for breakfast in our suite were numerous and we often spent a lot of time just deciding what to have. The coffee was always hot, gourmet and delicious. Rarely did we eat lunch onboard the ship, and if we did it was a snack. We liked to try the local cuisine if we were in port and if at sea, we were just too full. The poolside grill, though, did make great hot dogs, pizza and pasta, as well as delicious grilled burgers, which we sampled.
With the exception of one night, when we ate dinner in the Oasis Café for sushi, did we miss our main seating dining in the Orion Restaurant. We planned our days and nights around the dinner hour. Since we were with six other people, this was our social hour to catch up on what we had all done during the day. Main seating dining (6pm sharp) was great, but I think in the future we will choose late seating to accommodate staying up for the late night activities, shows, and a pre-dinner nap. Naps were not always possible when returning from late excursions or doing other activities on the ship. Our main seating dining was right next to the aft large picture windows and the rainbow we viewed one day, and the daily sunsets, were spectacular. Each evening the appetizers, soups, salads and salad dressing were very different and great. On each of the formal nights they had a palate cleansing sorbet between the starters and the main course.
Key West, Florida
One half-day for our port visit. We took a short, un-air conditioned taxi ride to the southernmost part of the key and took photos. We had tried to visit a bar called Salute, but we found out that this time of the year (September) many places are closed for the season. Then walked Duval Street, hitting some of the local haunts: Margaritaville, Sloppy Joe's and a few of the other bars. We also did some souvenir shopping, where Barry picked up a cool sign for the bar back home, and we took a bunch of photos of the shopping area near the ship. The conch fritters at Sloppy Joe's were yummy. We would have liked to been there longer to catch some of the afternoon entertainment at some of the local hot spots -- there just wasn't much time to see anything, and the excursions were quick.
We chose the "Dolphin Encounter" excursion. It is a very expensive excursion; the people at the dolphin park were rude, and the dolphin encounter was brief. (And I lost my sunglasses.) The entire excursion is built around you purchasing photographs or videos of your encounter with the dolphins and they are very expensive. We didn't buy anything -- my suggestion: take a disposable waterproof camera like we did. You might also wait for the Dolphin Encounter in Nassau, which we heard great things about.
We then took a taxi back to the port area and did some shopping in the local area. Our port area was three miles from the shopping district, so I suggest you pay an inexpensive cab ride there, and walk or taxi back to the ship. We bought a few souvenirs and Cuban cigars. Then headed for Señor Frogs right on the pier. Señor Frogs was the highlight of the port. Get a shot given to you here and you'll always remember it. The shops in and around the port area were typical tourist traps and the town itself looked very run down and weathered.
Belize City, Belize
At this port, we had to tender to the mainland. The country is very poor, although our tour guide was quick to point out, "We are not a third world country, but a developing nation." The people of Belize are a very proud people. We chose to visit the Mayan ruins of Altun-Ha. Our tour guide, Donna, on our bus was very knowledgeable and gave us plenty of info about Belize. The bus ride to the ruins was an hour and a half in bad traffic, and was very bumpy. The road system in Belize leaves a lot to be desired and consists mainly of dirt and gravel roads. The ruins are very cool, though, and it was worth the trip. Drink plenty of water on this trip, as the heat is nearly unbearable. There are few places to catch shade while on this tour and I wouldn't suggest it if you're prone to heat exhaustion. The ride back was just as bumpy and in rush hour traffic. A cool tour, but the travel to and from was a major detractor. You might consider the Cave Tubing trip, which we heard a lot of great things about from different people.
After the trip to the ruins, we had a typical Belizian meal of rice, chicken and beans, and I had the shrimp soup. It was very delicious and filling. We had no problems catching a tender back and forth to the ship. The tender ride was about 25 minutes in bumpy water. Belize was my least favorite port visit and I suggest bypassing it unless you find an excursion that you really can't turn down.
Coco Cay (pronounced Key), Bahamas
This is Celebrity and Royal Caribbean's private island. We had to take a short tender ride (about 6 minutes) to the island. This was a long process at first: we had to wait an hour before we could disembark, since we chose not to use the priority tender tickets that we received with our suite. We chose to stay with our friends and wait in line. The crew disembarked in three tenders first because they had to tender all the equipment, food, etc. off the ship for the beach party on the island. There were two tenders running after that, about every 15 to 20 minutes. Once we finally made it to the island, we immediately went snorkeling and had a drink. The snorkeling is beautiful and the water is very shallow.Lunch sucked -- there is no other word for it. There were huge flies all over the food and the rest of the food did not taste good. I suggest that Celebrity come up with some solution for the flies on this island, because they were ridiculous. After lunch, we continued to play in the water and snorkel. The only bad thing: several jellyfish stung me about five times on my legs and feet. Ouch! There were hammocks and lounge chairs all over the place and plenty of cabana boys (bartenders) walking around with drinks. The Unity band had set up outside and kept us entertained most of the afternoon. The only detractor is that you have to pay to do any of the things on the island, e.g., drink, rent snorkel gear or flotation devices, and use the parasail, wave runners and bouncy rafts. I think that some of these things should be free for all passengers. We didn't choose to do any of those activities and were glad we brought our own snorkeling gear.
Carla found some magnificent conch and shells. She is accomplished at snorkeling and did not like the lifeguards making her wear a flotation vest which she found constricting around her neck. Coca Cay's lagoon boasts two man-made wrecks, an airplane and a ship, both of which you can dive around. Despite all of the negatives of Coca Cay, it remains one of my favorites, if for nothing else than the sheer relaxation and the beautiful scenery. It was a very tropical, relaxed atmosphere, very much like our own private Gilligan's Island for an day. The atmosphere of this just being a plain island was refreshing for me.
You could see the Paradise Island resort Atlantis from our ship; I wish we had had enough time to go over for a visit. The resort looks huge. Unfortunately, our time was very limited, as it was only a half-day visit in port, and we had chosen to sleep in. The Carnival ship Fascination was also in port with us; it had been our first cruise ship together (and for two others in our party), and we found that very nostalgic. In Nassau we chose to venture out on our own and take a walking tour. Again, the port is only half-day visit, so you don't have much time to do anything unless you get up extremely early to take a planned excursion. We chose to do a short walkabout in town and had a nice time. We visited the Nassau Pirate museum and had beers at a small pub. This was another port I enjoyed. We then went to the Straw Market (too many hawkers and it's very claustrophobic). We picked up a few souvenirs, then headed to Señor Frogs Nassau for an appetizer. Although this was a neat Señor Frogs (check out the signs on the ceiling), it was nowhere near as fun as the one in Cozumel. We made it back to the ship with about twenty minutes to spare. We would have liked more time to explore Nassau.
Disembarkation was slow and disorganized. Each passenger had specific times to go through Customs, but people decided to get in line at least an hour or so before their scheduled time. To compound this, the Customs personnel were late arriving. Regardless of what ship personnel say, each person is authorized two bottles of liquor, not one. This made a difference, since I had to go to a separate part of the ship in anticipation of paying a tariff, which was unnecessary. The color and number on your ticket stubs is how disembarkation is determined. Our staging area was the Celebrity Theater onboard, and the Oasis Café was open for lunch with cold drinks, sandwiches and pizza. The time went by slowly during this process, but once ashore, finding our bags was easy. Taxi's were plentiful and right by the pier. There were also plenty of porters to help you with your bag. (Just don't forget a bag like we did -- I ended up driving back to Dundalk to fetch our missing bag. Thank goodness we only live about 25 minutes away.)
Be sure to set your watch to the ship's time when you go ashore. Several people missed the ship leaving because they did not set their watches correctly. There are numerous reminders each day if the time is changing.
On our anniversary, we started the day with a bottle of champagne and a light breakfast of smoked salmon and bagel and fruit cup. We sat at the pool for several hours and then Carla spoiled herself at the spa with a deep scalp massage, facial and sun-glow make-up. At 5pm we went back to the room to find that our friends had ordered us fancy shrimp and caviar aperitifs, and a bottle of Dom Perignon, with a nice fruit basket and a very sentimental card. We all meandered down to the martini bar for more champagne. After a wonderful dinner we went to Michael's Club where our bartender Miriam had bought us a bottle of champagne and had it waiting on ice. We stayed there for a while, laughing and telling jokes, then went off the casino to gamble. It was a wonderful evening.
Barry and Carla Hester celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary aboard the Galaxy. For comment or questions about their cruise,
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