The day before the cruise was to end, I got a little questionnaire card. You know the ones, with all the questions about rating the food, cabin, service, etc. So, I filled it out. Then I wondered how come I rated the overall cruise experience excellent, when I've marked so many of the individual items good, fair and, in some cases, poor? For the answer to that you'll have to read on.
The conventional wisdom today for the big savings is to book early. I guess I don't do conventional wisdom. All year long I get the little notices, scour the web sites, look at the paper, but never get around to booking. Then as Fall starts to descend, the need to cruise overwhelms me. So in the first week of September, 2000 I called my travel agent to check into a few Holland America Line specials for October and early November. My requirements: no less then 12 days, not too many ports (I'm a sea day kind of guy) and any old grade of outside cabin. I would book as I did on the Veendam last year as a single, so I knew that I'd be paying the supplement.
I had a darn good idea of what was available, and my travel agent gave me the costs and cabin options for the cruise I requested. What happened next showed me why it is essential to use professional travel agents. They come up with options that the most dedicated Internet cruise surfers miss. During our conversation he said, "You know, if it's sea days you're after you should consider Celebrity's Mercury -- they're doing a one-day sale. I can get you 14 days from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Ft. Lauderdale for a lot less money and in a better grade of cabin then the 12-day Caribbean cruise you're considering. The only problem is it leaves in two weeks, September 17th." A Panama Canal cruise in September? Conventional wisdom says no: too hot, too humid, too rainy, too many hurricanes.
"Book it," I said. All in all, with airfare, port taxes, and paying 200% cruise fare (I was going to be traveling single) I still couldn't afford not to go. Such is the beauty of a cruise that is being wholesaled. Was there anything I missed? Well, as it turns out, there was. That night at the local watering hole I casually mentioned I was taking a cruise to a long-time female friend. Offhandedly I invited her, as I had the year before. She accepted.
On cruise day, we arrived at the pier around 1:20pm. The huge warehouse-type room was packed, and stiflingly hot. People watching filled the next hour and twenty minutes until our number was called. There are quite a few people our age and younger, some a touch older, a few families with well-behaved children, and of course the spry and not-so-spry "seasoned citizens": truly a mixed bag. On a 14-day cruise I had expected a much older crowd.
We were escorted to our Category 4 cabin on the 9th deck (Vista), number 9019, well forward on the port side. Having looked at the deck plan, I knew exactly where we were: right over the bow thrusters, but fortunately on a very high deck. My initial reaction when they opened the door was, "How are we going to get all our stuff in here?" That was followed by, "Can you find our room steward to separate the beds?" They had been made into a double, and traveling with my friend (might as well be a sister), it was a little closer then either of us planned to be.
The cabin had a very large window, small love seat, three closets (although only two are hanging full length: the middle unit is shelves and drawers), a corner unit that contains the TV, safe, and locked mini-bar. There were two nightstands with drawers, a small desk with drawers and a chair. The carpet, bedspreads and curtains were done in pleasant blues, which worked rather nicely with the bleached-ash-looking cabin paneling. Across from the bed and desk were large mirrors that I did my best to avoid for the duration of the cruise. Linda suggested that if they were smoked or peach colored, it would be much kinder. As it turned out, all of our stuff did fit in the room with drawer space to spare. Hanging space was a little tight for a 14-day cruise. It would be a very comfortable home for two weeks, and the more time that passed the more I came to realize how well it was designed. The room steward did an excellent and unobtrusive job throughout the trip.
I must say the bathroom, although small (approximately 6 x 4) is incredibly ingenious. It has without a doubt the best shower I've ever seen in a non-suite.
The ship itself is vast, exceptionally clean, and the public rooms are much more tasteful then they look in the brochure. I won't do a room-by-room review. Look at Celebrity's deck plans for the exact layout if that interests you. There were a lot of things I liked and several I did not. This is a beautiful ship, no doubt about it. However, it is also a ship that lacks a truly great room or lounge.
The room with the most comfortable chairs and décor is Michael's Club, a "clubby" cigar bar that was rarely used, perhaps due to the stench that lingered in the room if there were more than two people smoking. The Pavilion lounge located aft above the restaurant has a large tiered sitting area and dance floor, but the low ceiling and numerous massive almost pyramid style pillars make the sight lines truly horrendous. A potentially great lounge (Tastings) was cut in half by the Atrium and another, Rendez-Vous, is used as a thoroughfare to the restaurant. In short, although many rooms have wonderful features, none really pull all the design elements together. The closest was The Navigator Club -- it is a wonderful multi-level room with two story windows on three sides. It was great for the transit of the Panama Canal, or as a place to pull up a chair and read a book.
Sadly much of the furniture throughout the ship is uncomfortable. The banquettes that line some of the lounges are rock hard. Some of the armchairs are as low as a bean bag chair, and not easily exited from. The barrel chairs tend to be narrow and very heavy. Certainly there is furniture that is comfortable, but much of it, alas, is not.
There is no full promenade area on the Mercury. Sadly, this is the trend in ships today. There is a tiny little jogging area on the Sky Deck (12) that was twelve laps to a mile. There is a partial promenade on the 6th deck. To do a complete circuit of the ship, I'd start on the 11th level, towards the bow (always taking a minute to gaze down at the crew pool area located in the bow section, which, weather permitting, was quite visual) and work my way up to the 13th (although very quietly since this is above the Sky Suites) towards the stern.
Another annoyance is that there is no self-service laundry on board. I have no problem paying for the cleaning of a dress shirt, suit, or slacks. I do mind paying a $1.00 for a pair of socks. Having read other reviews, we brought some dry detergent and did the small stuff in the sink and used the handy line in the shower to let things dry.
The two main pools are located on the Resort (11th) deck; one fresh water, one salt. There are several hot tubs in this area also. The pool area has padded chaise lounges on the main level, but not in other areas. Due to the number of sea days, running at a fairly high capacity, finding a lounge in the sun on the main level was a little dicey. However one level up (Sky Deck) there was always an abundance of open lounges, and frankly better breezes. No complaints here. In the rear of the ship there is a smaller pool covered by a dome. Most of the time the roof was closed and this area used more for eating then for sunning or swimming.
The Spa & Gym
The Aqua Spa is run by Steiners. For those who don't know, Steiners is to ship spas what DeBeers are to diamonds: a near-monopoly. I didn't use these facilities. I'm not sure what would happen if someone tried to wrap me in seaweed, or exfoliate me in other fashions. I don't want to know. You do have to go past the mint-smocked Steiner maidens to get to the gym. I always thought they were looking at my pores a little too hard as I passed.
The Gym is L-shaped with a very small free weight station, some Nautilus-style equipment, stair steppers, treadmills and such. Not large, but it seemed more than adequate for the number of passengers who actually used them. There was also a carpeted aerobic and stretching area.
There are three kinds of entertainment on a ship: the shows, the headliners, and the lounge acts. I don't expect a cruise ship to be Las Vegas. I expect the production shows to be amateurish. I suspect the headliners are on their way down the slippery ladder of semi-stardom. Lastly, I hope the lounge acts are marginally entertaining and musically competent. Ultimately, it gives those who want something to do after dinner other than drink and gamble someplace to go.
The venue for the shows and headliners is the Celebrity Theater. Done in shocking red and gold, it is quite comfortable and has good sight lines generally. However when the stage is open (without backdrops) to the wall of video monitors it is very unfinished and distracting. You can see behind the exposed floor speakers to the back wall. The stage floor itself could use a new coat of paint. Minor flaws certainly.
The Production Shows:
The Cruise Staff
If I had written this the first two days of the cruise, it would have sounded like this: "To them 'perky' would be considered a state of clinical depression. They have achieved frenetic." That is what I would have written. Over time I got acquainted with several of the young men and women that make up the cruise staff. I like them. On a one-on-one basis they're wonderful people. They are following orders, and doing their jobs. Put them in a group, play some music and wham, "perky." I'm not sure who determined that "perky" was going to be the style that all cruise staffs must emulate.
The Main Dining Room
In the days that followed, the kitchen seemed to even things out a bit. However, things were either a hit, by which I mean excellent, or a miss, meaning in some cases inedible. In their defense, if you didn't like what you ordered, you could order something else, which was promptly brought without question. Based upon the per diem of what I was paying for the cruise, I had no business complaining.
The Dining Experience
Lounges and Deck Service
The numerous lounges had very professional bartenders and service personnel. I am one of those people who appreciate the fact that Celebrity adds 15% to the bar tab as gratuity. That way I don't have to hunt down my favorite bar servers the last night of the cruise to tip them. The servers do get to keep the 15%, I confirmed, although I wasn't certain if the bartender ended up with a small percentage. I tend to tip in excess of 15% in the real world, and in certain circumstances WAY in excess of that. I can usually tell when that happens the following day when I can't read my own signature on the charge slips. The deck service was appropriate and not pushy. My only beef in this regard has to do with Celebrity's policy of not allowing the servers to wear sunglasses while on the open decks. It's amazingly bright out there and I think they're endangering the health of their employees, a number of whom complained of headaches and dizziness.
Cabo San Lucas
As you can see, it was hot. We knew that going in: you can't buck conventional wisdom and not pay a price. However, we were fortunate to skirt most of the hurricanes and tropical depressions. One of the reasons I chose this cruise was the number of sea days (9, if you included the Panama Canal). A cruise for me is about the ship, not the ports. You really don't do a cruise to get to know any port intimately. There just isn't time. Celebrity offers a variety of shore excursions, some of which are good values, some not so good. Quite a few of the tours involve being bounced around in buses and short photo opportunities.
I didn't do any organized tours, but went ashore for long walks, a little shopping, and to hunt down Internet Cafés to send home messages everywhere except Cartagena. Since Columbia's second main industry seems to be kidnapping, I promised my sister before I left that I'd stay on the ship. You certainly are safe enough on the tours, since they like to pick individual business people for ransom, instead of tourists by the bus load.
(By the way, "Port Guides" are a particular pet peeve of mine. Only a few shops get recommended and included in the Port Guides, and they tell you those are the ones that have paid Celebrity a "promotional fee." Since many of the passengers do not carry other travel guides they are left to fumble around.)
The Panama Canal
This was my first passage and I was prepared to ho-hum the experience. There is a set of locks about 5 miles from where I live and I've done them hundreds of times. Gates open, boats go in, gates close, water is pumped in/out, boats rise or lower, gates open, boats goes out. However, it is the sense of history here that is impressive. Celebrity ran little programs on the TV and gave us printed material on the locks that put the whole experience in perspective: the failure of the French to build a sea level canal, the horrific loss of human life due to accidents and illness, and technology that was extremely primitive. Yet, the locks were completed in 1914 and still operate -- a tribute to Man's ingenuity over nature when such things were appreciated.
The Mercury is one of the largest cruise ships capable of passing through the Canal and it was a very tight fit, indeed. What I found more interesting then the locks themselves was Lake Gatun. It was rugged, lush and incredibly beautiful. The Mercury really absorbed people well for the Canal crossing. Although the weather was hot, it was not unbearable. Many ventured out on the open decks and some used the Navigator Lounge or the lower public rooms in air-conditioned splendor.
Unfortunately, both Linda and I had the opportunity to visit the facilities aboard ship. She went for a respiratory infection the 7th day into the cruise ($246). I went for a sinus infection the 12th day ($75). I got the better deal because I have more medical savvy, and declined a number of tests. After the obligatory blood pressure and temperature, I had a very long visit with the doctor discussing the relative merits of different antibiotics. The facilities themselves are quite adequate, and the doctor seemed very knowledgeable, even with English as a second language. There were certainly a number of passengers streaming in and out throughout the cruise. Bugs spread quickly on ships.
This is always the saddest part of the trip. Celebrity did a very good job with organization and staging. However, there were too few porters to help you with your bag once you got to the pier, and the buses to the airport were a bit of a hassle. Celebrity can not be blamed for the passenger that finally figures out they're on the wrong bus after 27 announcements about where the bus was going. I pity the poor bus driver who had to haul all the luggage out to find the guy's bags. If you're going to the Ft. Lauderdale airport, do yourself a favor and grab a cab -- it only costs a few bucks.
The Overall Cruise Experience
So now that you've read the above you may wonder why I rated the overall cruise experience excellent. Because the cruise experience is more then the sum of the individual parts; the overall cruise experience is a state of mind. It is about stepping outside of your normal life. It's about how you relate with the people. It's about conversation, whether at dinner, by the pool, or a snide aside during a show. It's about never having to use the same towel twice, clean a plate, or cook a meal. It's about watching people. It's about joining in the organized activities, or just sitting in the shade with a book. It's about savoring the moment, trying to slow time down and burning images into memories.
In this regard, I thought Celebrity pulled all the pieces together well. While there were certainly things that were not perfect, there weren't any glaring errors. There is also another factor, in that you get what you pay for. In this case I didn't pay enough to have anything other than an incredible time.
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Doug MacPherson may be reached at: email@example.com.
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