Bashers Gather before Live Conference on Saturday
This was the third annual Cruise Bash organized by Sharon Jackson, of The SeaLetter fame. The first was on Carnival's Sensation and the second on Holland America's Westerdam. You will note we have moved steadily "upscale." Could Seabourn or Crystal be next? Nah . . . .
The first two cruises were eastern Caribbean itineraries, but this one went to the western Caribbean, with port calls in Key West, FL; Calica, MX; Cozumel, MX; and Grand Cayman.
Beautiful ship, ports not "run of the mill," good food, average+ service, fair entertainment.
The cruise officially left from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, October 17, 1999. As the Bashers get more experienced, many have learned the lesson of arriving early for a cruise. About two-thirds of the group arrived on Saturday and spent the evening in the Radisson Bahia Mar, a short ways from the docks.
There were no "official" activities on Saturday, but many brought wines from their home states and we enjoyed a wine-tasting party. OK, we more than tasted. Many bought their pre-cruise stay through Celebrity in order to take advantage of check-in at the hotel and a hassle-free transfer to the ship on Sunday. This was a comedy of errors, including a bus showing up early, which eventually turned out to be at the wrong hotel, and the Celebrity agent never showing up to check passengers in. This was the first Celebrity cruise from this port this season, but no satisfactory explanation was offered for the mix-up.
Celebrity is using the "numbered check-in system." That is, when passengers arrive at the cruise terminal, they are given a numbered ticket, then directed to a waiting area. When their number is called, they are allowed into the actual check-in area (after having their carry-ons scanned). The system works pretty well. Agents were circulating in the waiting area, trying to be sure everyone had their paperwork filled out correctly in order to expedite check-in.
After check-in, passengers are directed to the gangway. Upon boarding the ship, passengers are guided to their cabin by ship's personnel. In your cabin, you find your shipboard ID card (for ID, door key, and for charges) and your dinner seating assignments.
Luggage arrived well before dinner. Passengers using Celebrity's transfers from the airport said that operation was handled smoothly.
The Mercury is the newest of the Celebrity mega-ships, being only two years old. It is clean, beautiful, excellently maintained, comfortable -- in short, everything you could want in a ship. It doesn't have a "crowded" feel to it at all, with about 1900 passengers. An important aspect is the design of the public rooms.
Cabins are roomy, with plenty of storage. We carry two large hard-sided suitcases, and we got one in the closet and one under the bed. There are six drawers in the vanity, and six more in the closets. Also in the closets are a free Celebrity fabric bag, and two bathrobes for use on the ship. If you like them, you can buy new ones just like them.
There is a safe and a lot of storage space behind the mirror over the vanity, and three more drawers in each side table. A refrigerator with drinks which can be purchased is below the TV. We didn't have ours unlocked, so I don't know how much usable space may be in there. And speaking of the TV --there is a variety of channels showing CNN, a Discovery program (the same one all week -- I now know more than I ever wanted to about the Sphinx), a sports channel, a couple of movie channels (showing older movies), the "all ship" channel, etc. There are also pay-per-view movies available, including fairly recent movies and even adult fare.
With the interactive TV system, you can book shore excursions, gamble in your room, and otherwise entertain yourself. We saw that some cabins have a VCR; ours didn't.
The bathrooms in the cabins are quite roomy, for a ship. The shower has enough space for two good friends to shower at the same time. Storage space in the bathroom is at a premium, but it's still not cramped. Shampoo is in a dispenser in the shower; ours had to be pumped a few times before it dispensed. The shower head is adjustable and removable for those hard-to-reach places (and general water sports.) It can also be raised high enough to satisfy fairly tall passengers. Soap is supplied, as is hand lotion, shower caps, cotton swabs, etc.
A hair dryer is wall-mounted in the bathroom; it is what my sister would call a "breathe" dryer: too weak to be a "blow" dryer. Oh, and hidden on the front of the dryer is a plug for electric razors. There is also a clothes line in the shower, and this hints at another minor gripe: there are no self-serve laundries aboard the Mercury. No, I don't want to do laundry on a cruise, but I would like to be able to get my bathing suit dry.
Our cabin was quiet and comfortable. We heard a phone ring in the next cabin a time or two, and when everyone was frantically packing Saturday afternoon, we heard drawers being shut. Our cabin was under the show lounge, and we heard some stray thumps during the shows, but nothing unbearable. The bow thrusters were right under us, however, and they woke us up whenever they were turned on. All in all, the cabin compared favorably with Princess cabins in quality, size, and amenities. One couple among the Bashers had the last cabin at the stern on Deck Four, and said the vibration from the propellers was unbearable and they had to move to a cabin farther forward and up one deck.
The décor throughout the ship is muted and classy, with many mirrors expanding the apparent space. There is a lot of quality art of all genres; our personal favorite was the paper carousel.
As I mentioned earlier, the public rooms are excellently designed, with only a few minor annoyances. The dining room is on Decks 5 and 6 (hint: the first digit of your table number is the deck it is on), but you cannot walk from the bow of the ship to the stern, where the dining room is, on Deck 5. You MUST go up to deck 6. One problem with that is that you have to pass through the photo sales area, and that tends to be crowded. Also, the show lounge is on Decks 6-8, but unless you enter on Deck 7, you have to climb stairs to get to any seats. OK, enough gripes.
The good news about the show lounge is that it was never very crowded, and there is literally not a bad seat in the house except a few around tables at the back of the balconies. You can see the stage from any seat. This makes the rush for seating non-existent.
The Mercury has an amenity I have never seen on a ship: an escalator from Deck 6 to Deck 7, on the starboard side just aft of the show lounge.
There are actually four swimming pools. Two are on Deck 11, midships, where you will also find four hot tubs. One is almost to the stern on Deck 11. That one is covered with a magrodome, so it is usable even in poor or cool weather. One is in the children's area; don't even bother looking for it. [Ed: Unless you are cruising with your kids, of course!]
The spa and gym are all the way forward on Deck 11. They are beautiful facilities, with the gym equipped with exercise bicycles that have screens showing you bicycling in the jungle or some other place, treadmills, etc. Personally, I think life is enough of a treadmill not to need one on vacation. There is an open deck just forward of the spa, if you want your sunning to be windy.
At the landing on all the staircases, there is a large circular window. In the daytime, it appears to be daylit, but at night it appears to look outside, showing a starry night sky. Many passengers we mentioned that to had not noticed it.
The atrium/foyer starts on Deck 5. It extends up through Deck 8. It has a very "roomy" feel to it. The Guest Relations desk is on Deck 5 in that foyer, if you need any help with anything. The shops offered a fair variety of souvenirs, clothing, supplies, etc. Be forewarned that if you buy duty-free liquor in the ship's shop, it will be delivered to your cabin the last day of the cruise -- you can't take it with you to your cabin. (A minor point here: the ship's literature says liquor bought ashore will be taken from you at the gangway and also delivered to your cabin the last day of the cruise, but we never saw that happen at any port.)
There is a casino aboard, but I can't tell you much about it.
There are open decks on both sides of the ship on Deck 6, but they don't continue all the way around the ship, so they're not suitable for jogging or power walking. There is a marked track on Deck 12; twelve times around equals one nautical mile. For anyone to whom it makes a difference, there is not a topless sunning area. One of the hot tubs is marked adults only, however.
There are, of course, lounges and bars all over the ship. In addition, there is a nightclub aft on Deck 7 that is large enough to be a show lounge on some ships, and the Navigator Club on Deck 12 forward commands an excellent view, as well as doubling as the disco. I never saw it active, but I'm an early-to-bed type, and I hear the disco was jumping later in the evening (after 11 p.m.) Also in the Navigator Club, all the way forward and on the starboard side, is a heavy-duty set of binoculars. Great idea. They were broken, however. Bad idea.
The Mercury sails about 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, or at least she is supposed to. The ship was held for about an hour for a few late-arriving passengers.
Monday morning is a stop in Key West, FL. We'd never been there, so we found it interesting. The dock is at the old Navy base, requiring a shuttle ride to town. You could actually throw a rock and hit the downtown area, but the 100 feet of separation between the docks might as well be a mile. Key West is the typical tourist town, but hey, we're tourists, right? We had to ride the Conch Train ($18 per person ashore, also available on the ship) and see all the typical things. It's something you have to do once, I guess. Of course, a reverent stop in front of Captain Tony's ("The Last Mango in Paris") and a cheeseburger (lettuce, tomato, kosher pickle, Heinz 57, and French fries) and a margarita in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (in the 500 block of Duval) were de rigeur. Jimmy has sold his house, so you won't see that.
Tuesday morning we docked in Calica. This dock is in a rock quarry--I kid you not. If you don't book a shore excursion here, don't even bother going ashore, because there's nothing there. The attractions at Calica are mainly the Mayan ruins at Tulum and the amusement park/theme park/resort of Xcaret. The ruins were interesting, even if the guides seem to have their jobs on the merits of being related to the local authorities. We found it interesting, for example, that the guides kept mentioning "sacrifices" at the temples, failing to place the modifier "human" in front of the term. My comment on the temple? I'll give them $300,000 for it, but not a penny more. The beachfront location is fantastic, but the building is a real fixer-upper.
(By the way, be warned that if you take a video camera to Tulum, you will be required to pay a fee to use it inside the gates, and that fee must be paid in pesos, not dollars. I believe it is 8 pesos (about a dollar), but it may be 30 pesos.)
Xcaret offers some interesting activities and features. Many items cost extra, and some cost a LOT extra. For example, swimming with the dolphins costs $80 per person. Our guide mentioned in passing that that was 10 days pay for him. We found the museums, etc., at Xcaret to be interesting, particularly the aquarium and turtle farm. They don't cost extra. A meal at one of the restaurants was very good and not very expensive. Wandering the paths from here to there can get to be claustrophobic. Swimming in the underground river did not cost extra unless you needed some equipment.
Wednesday was Cozumel. We docked at the International Pier, which is a $5 taxi ride from downtown. We went snorkeling there, and a strong current came up, ruining the fun (and even scaring a few of us). Snorkeling is normally excellent there, so this was a fluke. The shopping center next to the pier was undergoing renovation, so very few of the shops there were open. Cozumel is not a noted shopping port, anyway; it's more for the fun. Expect lots of cruisers; the Ryndam, the Sensation, the Ecstasy, the Leeward, and the Norwegian Sea were also in port.
Almost everyone made the pilgrimage to "Carlos and Charley's." It's one of those places you need to see once. If you put in your earplugs and just watch the people, the place is great. I have to admit I'm not young enough, and will never be drunk enough, to enjoy the place for more than a few minutes. The drinks are expensive ($11 for a "yard" margarita, $6 for a shot of tequila), but potent, according to our official drink tasters. The T-shirt selection there is also very good.
Thursday was a relaxing day at sea. The seas were not much to worry about, and we had plenty of time, so the ship was rock stable. It is a good-riding ship, according to our experience.
Friday we were in Grand Cayman. This is a tender port; not that it's soft, no, that means there isn't a dock there for cruise ships, so you have to ride smaller boats to the dock. It was a short ride, thank goodness. Grand Cayman may be a good place to shop. Be warned that many shops post prices in Grand Cayman dollars, which are worth more than U.S. dollars, about $1.20 or so. This can be a shock.
We were booked on an excursion to Sting Ray City. This is an excursion we have missed before, because it fills quickly. Book early! Swimming with the sting rays is a unique experience. On the top, they feel like sandpaper. On the bottom, they feel like a soft rubber ducky. Feeding them is a trick, but with some coaxing, you can even pick them up. Nobody got stung, and by the time we left, even the most skittish of the young ladies in our group had quit trying to climb up the nearest person every time a stingray brushed by them.
If you are looking to buy a real Cuban cigar, by the way, Grand Cayman is a safe place to do it; in Cozumel, you run a good chance of getting fakes. Remember, it is illegal to bring them back into the U.S.
Saturday was another relaxing day at sea. For much of the day, Cuba was visible in the distance.
And, of course (and unfortunately), Sunday morning we docked in Fort Lauderdale; since none of us had had the foresight to pay for a second week aboard, we had to leave. The debarkation process was smooth and orderly. Even those with fairly early flights made it in plenty of time. This was a welcome change from last years "debarkation from hell." In fact, both last year's Bash and the first one (in 1997) had debarkation problems. Maybe we've shaken the jinx!
Food & Dining
The main dining room is at the stern on Decks 5 and 6, as I mentioned. It is beautiful, quieter than most, and the vibration from the propellers was not a problem there. We were at table 500, all the way to the starboard stern. We had a beautiful view, of course. There are power-driven screens to cover the floor-to ceiling windows if the sun is a problem. One set of screens makes it look as though you are looking out at a city street scene. If your table is on Deck 5, you can enter on Deck 6 and then make your grand entrance down the staircase, or you can use the stern elevators or staircase and enter on Deck 5.
The buffet dining room, the Palm Springs Café, is aft of the pools on Deck 11. The food there was very good, and the lines were rarely a problem, since there are four serving areas. If you enter and find your favorite line is long, take a quick look around; we usually found one with no line at all. There is also plenty of seating, and if the indoor tables are full or if you prefer a little fresh air, you can continue aft to sit next to the aft pool (which may also be covered), or all the way aft to outdoor tables.
Celebrity has a reputation for excellent food served well in a good presentation. This is based on their association with chef Michel Roux. The food was certainly very good. Almost everything had a good flavor, the proper texture, etc., with the exception of the veal the first night, which was tough and tasteless. But I must say that I did not find the food "excellent." I can't complain about anything, really, but Princess compared very favorably. The escargots were some of the best we have ever had, and the lobster tail was better than most, but most other meals were just meals.
The presentation was also only average. Even Carnival did better on "pretty" servings. Of course, I'd rather have good food than pretty food, but Celebrity brags on the presentation. To me, the plates were just an entrée with a couple of vegetables, and the vegetables were the same no matter what entrée you ordered. One thing I noticed was that the steaks I ordered as medium-well were closer to well-done. That's not a big problem with me, but you might want to adjust your ordering technique if it makes a big difference to you. Desserts seemed to run strongly to something sweet in a puddle of something else sweet. The desserts tasted great, though!
Service at our table was also good, but not great. Celebrity seems to have an odd system of assigning waiters and assistants, with the result that two tables side by side may have the same waiter, but not the same assistant. Our judgement of the service was affected a lot by the fact that they could not keep my wife's water glass full or my iced tea glass full. We explained to both the waiter and his assistant that those were things we desired. By the third night, they managed to have iced tea at the table, but they never did manage to get a second glass for me promptly (or ever, on some nights). Other than that, the service was certainly acceptable, if not stellar.
While we had only the most minor of complaints, one table in our group had so much trouble they finally insisted on a change in waiters. They described the first one as "totally clueless." One minor complaint that we heard was that there wasn't a "fall back" menu every night; on most ships, you can get a steak or a chicken breast as an entrée if none of the regular offerings are to your taste, but that wasn't the case here.
Food in the buffets was also very good, with a good selection. The only real reason that we could see to go to the dining room for breakfast or lunch would be to get eggs other than scrambled or an omelette, or for the relaxation. We never tried room service. I understand you can get the full dinner menu in your room during the actual dinner hours.
Soft drinks are considered bar drinks and charged accordingly. However, tea (hot and cold), coffee, milk, and fruit juices are no-cost during meals. I looked, but I could not determine if they were available during non-meal times.
The "alternative dining" came in for a good deal of criticism. The meal is served next to the rear pool, at folding tables. You have to make reservations in advance, but then much of the meal is actually buffet-style. See the comments at the end of the review.
Each late-night buffet had a theme. I must confess I turn into a pumpkin before the time for such a meal arrives, so I can't comment on them.
Let's face it, the "revue style" shows were ok, but no more than that. This is nothing new at Celebrity. We're told they're steadily improving, but with no previous experiences on this line to compare to, I don't know.
While our wait staff was nothing great, we saw evidence that many passengers had bonded well with theirs. That indicates that our experience can't be called typical, necessarily. Our cabin steward did an excellent job; we never saw her in our cabin, but it was always spotless.
Whenever we had a problem or needed information, it was always taken care of promptly. The Guest Relations desk usually had plenty of staff to be sure passengers were treated well and quickly.
All that said, there seems to be a problem of cohesiveness among the crew on this ship. This may be, as one of our group has suggested, due to the native nationalities of the crew, some of which are from antagonistic areas of the former USSR. We saw, and others have mentioned seeing, open confrontations and reprimands of crew members by their managers in front of passengers. This is disconcerting, and it can color your whole impression of the ship. This may just be a remnant of the Greek style of management, but it doesn't work well around Americans.
Also, some policies seem to be too rigid. For example, one person in our group asked for some ice cream in a cone from one of the ice cream counters in the afternoon. The server was there, the ice cream was there, and the cones were there, but the server refused to put ice cream in a cone, since it was not quite 4 p.m. yet. Until 4, he could only put ice cream in a dish.
Suggested tips are pretty typical: $3 per person per day for the waiter and cabin steward; $2 per day for the assistant waiter. Celebrity also recommends a $5 tip for the chief housekeeper and the headwaiter. We heard that if you don't tip those two, the underling has to cough it up. This is, again, a Greek tradition.
"My first cruise -- marvelous. I have had a great time here."
The ship has excellent eye appeal and is impressive without being gaudy. It is clean and well-maintained. As far as the ship itself is concerned, there is almost nothing negative to say. The stop in Calica was largely a disappointment; I would love to see it eliminated. Stay in Key West later in the day, and then have a sea day on the way to Cozumel, and perhaps stay in Cozumel late, also. The food did not live up to its advance billing, but it was still very good. Depending on whom you dealt with, the service might or might not be great. However, this is an excellent cruise, and well worth the cost.
A Modest Suggestion
A sign of the times: during the introduction show on the first night aboard, the Cruise Director announced that the entire ship was non-smoking . . . and at that point the audience broke out in applause. He continued that there were exceptions, such as on the open decks, etc. [Ed: Must have been a bit of a joke. There are smoking sections in all of the bars and lounges and smoking is permitted in the cabins. The dining room and Celebrity Theatre (show lounge) are entirely non-smoking, however.]
The Mercury has what has become traditional on Celebrity ships, and that is a cigar lounge. It is a beautiful room, wrapped around the atrium on Deck 8. However, it was virtually empty the whole cruise. It would seem the cigar fad is dying out. My modest suggestion would be to re-allocate that space for an alternative dining room. With an upscale menu and the fantastic location, it could be a real draw, and one where passengers would gladly pay an additional fee (such as the $5 per person suggested gratuity aboard the Norwegian Sea) to eat there.
Now, click HERE to check out the SeaLetter Bashers' RATINGs of the Mercury and their BEST OF and WORST OF comments.
Click HERE for the 1999 SeaLetter Cruise Bash PHOTO GALLERY.
Mike & Dottie Blanche have been on all three SeaLetter Cruise Bashes and have become our official reviewers. When not cruising on a cruise ship, they are cruising all over the USA in their very own tractor trailer. Mike and Dottie may be reached at: MRBlanche@compuserve.com.
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