Century Western Caribbean Cruise May 17, 1997
I love old movies. I especially like period films that capture the essence of the early 1900's -- a time I imagine as being quieter, more refined, and for the very fortunate, filled with grace and opulence. Last week I was one of the fortunate. Fortunate indeed to be aboard Celebrity Cruise Line's Century as we sailed through the Western Caribbean.
From the moment my wife and I stepped aboard, it was clear that Celebrity's designers had something very different in mind for this ship. In a word -- style. Make no mistake, the Century is a modern ship, having made her inaugural run barely eighteen months ago, but her style comes from a combination of 1920's - 1940's elegance, supported with the very best in 1990's technology.
When entering the ship, passengers are greeted by social staff and the sound of a string quartet seated at the foot of the sweeping oak and brass railed staircases that rise up the three- story Grand Foyer. What really catches one's eye however, is the back wall of the foyer. Large flat LCD video screens, inlaid into the marble wall, display colorful Caribbean images. The effect is made even more dramatic by the sound of water which cascades down the entire wall, adding a warmth to the melodies being played. Standing at the ready, a parade of butlers, maids and room stewards waiting to escort you to your stateroom.
Our stateroom, 1118, located near the rear of the ship on the Penthouse deck was equally impressive and a welcome improvement over what I call the "walk-in freezer" look common to many other ships. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous use of warm wood treatments in our cabin. One end of the stateroom is almost entirely wood with three very large closets incorporating ample drawer and storage space. These modular units also wrap around the corners of the room on one side and house the entertainment center, mini-bar and writing desk. On the other side of the room, a large stylized wooden dresser complete with a full-sized lighted mirror which conceals the personal wall safe. A very large unobstructed window on the outside wall made the room feel spacious, even with the queen-size bed, and at no time did we ever feel cramped.
Having been in many other cabins, I really appreciated the attention to detail taken in this room. For example, the bathroom is larger than many others I've seen and held a full-sized shower that is probably a little bigger than the one we have in our own home. Another wonderful improvement is the new quieter toilet system. Anyone who has ever been on a cruise ship is familiar with the "F-16 Fighter jet at takeoff" sound that the ship's plumbing system makes when flushed. The system on the Century is much, much quieter. In fact, the whole room was quieter than any other cabin we had ever been in before. Not once did we hear any noise from adjoining rooms. Good neighbours probably had something to do with that, but I also suspect additional sound- proofing has been designed into the walls.
The entertainment center I mentioned earlier actually performs multiple functions. Not only does the television provide CNN, a sports channel and movies, but it also serves as an interactive communications and information system. With the use of a simple on-screen menu, you can order up room service or wine for dinner, review your charge account, preview shore excursion videos, book AquaSpa appointments, browse and shop from a wide range of products carried in the ship's boutiques and even gamble right on screen! As a matter of fact, one of our dinner companions actually came out fifty dollars ahead at the end of the week after playing video poker in bed every night before going to sleep!
One of my favorite experiences whenever we cruise is what we call "exploring the ship". We tend to do this almost as soon as we drop our carry-on bags in the room, sharing in the excitement with our fellow "explorer passengers" as we make our way around the ship for the first time. Believe me, on the Century there's a lot of exploring to do. Weighing in at 70,000 tons (the ship, not me) and 815 feet long, you soon get the idea of how big this ship really is. While those numbers may not mean a lot to some, consider this; Century's older sister ships the Zenith and Horizon, each come in about 47,000 tons and carry approximately 1450 passengers. The Century is fifty percent larger, yet it only carries an additional 300 passengers! That adds up to a lot of extra space per passenger! And where do you notice it? Everywhere. At no time did we ever feel crowded on this ship and that says volumes to me about the planning that has gone into the design of the Century. Clearly, passenger comfort and space rather than economics was the priority.
Earlier, I referred to a feeling of grace and opulence. No where is this more apparent than in the Grand Restaurant. Like a scene right out of the film, The Great Gatsby, this room is nothing short of spectacular. Located at the rear of the ship, the entire back of the dining room is a wall of glass which provides diners with a panoramic view of the setting sun across the water. Spanning two levels and the entire width of the ship, the dining room is huge, yet it provides a feeling of warmth and intimacy with the use of rosewood panelled walls and inlaid marble floors that greet guests as they make their way to their respective tables. The focal point of this room is a magnificent staircase leading from the balcony dining level down to the main dining floor. At the bottom of the staircase sits a four foot diameter glass table that was commissioned for the Century's dining room at a reported cost of fifty-thousand dollars!
As wonderful as this room is, it would be nothing if not for the now famous chef, Michel Roux, who has done a magnificent job creating Celebrity's gourmet meals. I have cruised with Celebrity before and knew what to expect in the quality of food. I was not disappointed. As expected, the chefs and wait staff aboard the Century are equally as skilled as their counterparts on all of the other Celebrity ships in preparing and presenting each meal. From Lobster to Prime Rib -- New York Steak to Rack of Lamb -- breakfast, lunch and dinner were all excellent. For a change of personal choices, I ordered soup with my dinners each night. After trying various soups that I wouldn't normally be interested in, I won't make the mistake of passing again. They were all simply delicious.
After dinner, there was ample time before the "big show" to visit Michael's Club. Cigar smoking is making a resurgence in North America it seems and both gentlemen and ladies alike now enjoy relaxing with a fine cigar accompanied by a glass of port or cognac after dinner. To accommodate this growing trend, the designers of the Century created a wonderfully intimate room known as Michael's Club. Based on a traditional English Gentleman's club of the 1930's, Michael's Club is a stunning example of period craftsmanship. Panelled in rich dark oaks, the walls are lined with works of art and literature, including an original Picasso which hangs above the fireplace mantle. According to Carlos, manager of Michael's Club, guests may purchase and enjoy quality hand-rolled cigars ranging in price from $2.50 to $8.00. The trend must be catching on because he informs me that he would typically entertain 100 to 200 patrons each week.
After indulging in dinner and possibly an aperitif at Michael's Club or perhaps Tastings (the open cafe for the Java crowd that serves up dozens of different designer coffees, espressos and after dinner liqueurs), guests typically make their way towards the Celebrity Theatre for the evening's entertainment. Again, another pleasant surprise. As past cruisers, we know that if you want a decent seat in the showroom, you better hustle up there right after dinner and wait and wait and wait for the show to begin. Not so on the Century. There appears to be ample seating right up until show time. One of the reasons for this is the lack of unobstructed seating. Simply put, other than three skinny little poles on each side of the lower level used to support the balcony seats, there are no unobstructed seats!
Once you are seated and the show begins, be prepared for techno- extravaganza. In its partnership with Sony and Funa in the design of the Celebrity Theatre Audio-Visual systems, the team has pulled out all the stops when it comes to dazzling the audience. A forty-eight cube wall of video screens fills the back of the stage and is used extensively to add dimension and emotion to many of the live performances. The stage, which incorporates inner and outer revolving rings and three motorized orchestra pits, adds to the excitement as musicians, actors and dancers pop in and out of scenes at will between heart-stopping flashes, pops, explosions and columns of flame, all of which are choreographed to perfection by the Celebrity Theatre professional pyrotechnics team.
As if that weren't enough, the Century is also equipped with laser technology that produces outstanding visual effects both in the showroom and on the pool deck! This was the first time I had ever seen a live laser show as my rock concert days have long since passed. It is very exciting indeed.
Just sitting here thinking about all the food, drink and leisure, I can feel my waistline expanding to fill all available space. For those who also suffer from "ExpandaBellyitis", the Century has you covered with its state-of-the-art fitness and AquaSpa center. At almost 10,000 square feet, the center is fully equipped with the very best in workout equipment and European Spa facilities, including a Thalassotherapy Pool, Aquameditation Bath, Hydrotherapy Spa Bath and Hydrajet. Staffed by highly trained professionals to advise and assist you in all areas of fitness and beauty, the AquaSpa also offers Aromatherapy treatments, body massage, heated mud therapy and, of course, beauty and salon services to complete your pampering.
For those who just want to take the edge off by keeping their golf swing limber, the Century also has a full-sized golf simulator that is really neat. A computer controls the play by allowing you to shoot on any one of five different golf courses, or it can also be set to Driving Range mode, allowing you to stand there and whack away. As a golfer myself, I was really impressed with the fact that you use a full set of real irons, drivers and balls while the sensors in the floor, ceiling, tee box and fairway mats track ball trajectory, speed and distance. This system is so accurate, it wouldn't even let me cheat by taking my ball out of the rough and placing it on the fairway after an errant shot! It kind of reminded me of playing with my wife when she asks, "Are we playing by Men's rules today, or are we counting all of our shots?" The system is also programmed to speak to you in English, Spanish, Japanese, German or French. I know what I want for Christmas!
For those who like to get away from the hustle-bustle, Celebrity has designed a spacious yet cosy library, rich in woods and leathers. I found this to be the perfect spot to relax for an hour or two in the afternoon before heading over to the wonderfully warm Rendezvous Square for a pre-dinner cocktail.
The one issue that I haven't touched on yet and one that probably stands out more in my mind than any of the physical or technical characteristics of the ship, is the attitude of the ship. By attitude, I mean the overall feeling conveyed by the organization of the staff and amenities.
For example, as many past cruisers are aware, many of the staff that you come in contact with rely heavily on your gratuities and performance ratings. The old, "I must have an excellent rating on your comment card" is so common it becomes annoying and embarrassing. Not once did I hear a single request, plead, comment or suggestion from any of the staff on their desire to receive a favorable rating or tip. This is the first time I have ever experienced this in all of the cruises we have been on -- and yes that does include past Celebrity cruises. What a wonderful change!
Another example of the attitude I felt on the ship was the way events were scheduled. Again, as many past cruisers know, the first formal night is usually prefaced with the Captain's cocktail party. But, as you may also know, getting past the photographers who are taking formal portraits on your way into the party usually results in ridiculously long line-ups. Many times after standing in line for twenty minutes, I've just said forget it and walked away. I'm sorry, but I'm one of those people that hates line-ups. The staff of the Century have completely avoided this problem by setting up the portrait booth in a different part of the ship. What a really great idea! This allowed for leisurely arrival of guests being greeted in the elegant manor expected for such an elegant gathering.
These are just a couple of simple examples, but everywhere you go on the ship you get the feeling that the staff is really thinking, and I like that!
No review would be complete without some form of criticism, and this is no exception. As hard as every cruise line tries to run the perfect cruise, there is always room for improvement.
Apparently (and I received this information second-hand), the inside cabins on the Penthouse deck are directly below the food preparation section of the Islands Cafe, and a few passengers were heard to complain about the fact that they simply couldn't sleep at night with all of the noise created by the food carts rolling across the bumpy metal floors above their cabin as the crew worked during the night. Another problem with noise was experienced by our dinner companions who were awakened every morning at 6:00 am, as staff members were dragging tables and chairs into position directly above their balcony suite. This could be easily solved by having management instruct staff to lift the furniture across the metal deck.
A pet peeve of mine is the inability to get a glass of juice in the afternoon. I realize why Celebrity (and all other cruise lines for that matter), do this. I expect it is to promote the sale of soft drinks and alcohol, but there are times when I simply don't want a sugary pop or hard liquor drink. I find it really annoying to discover that the only dispenser left operational in the cafe is one that will give me a steaming cup of coffee while it's a zillion degrees outside. Okay, okay, I'm set in my ways.
Then there was the Pizza Bar -- a really big success judging by the line-ups. We did manage to enjoy a slice after standing in the heat for twenty to thirty minutes. This time spent in line allowed us to observe the operation, and we conclude that the line-ups could easily be eliminated by adding one more server to help out with the cooking and cutting of the pizzas. Celebrity please add more staff to the pizza stand.
With the exception of the first noise problem, I really don't think any of the other items should be insurmountable problems. The changes I have witnessed on this cruise from past cruises, indicate to me that management at Celebrity does, in fact, listen to its passengers. I have every reason to believe that this will continue.
The cruise industry seems to be getting more and more competitive each year as the number of new cruise ships being built seems endless. I suppose one approach could be to simply pack more people on each ship in the hopes of a higher financial return per cruise. At least Celebrity seems to be approaching the challenge of a changing market from a different angle. As any marketer knows, selling to existing customers is much easier and far more profitable than trying to attract new clients. Clearly, putting the client's needs ahead of the bottom line is paying off for Celebrity and its passengers. However, I noticed that only about twenty percent (not a scientific absolute, mind you) of the passengers aboard this sailing were repeat Celebrity cruisers. Perhaps a new look at their alumni program would help Celebrity to increase the number of "repeaters" to the level of some of its competition.
Old fashioned value with attention to detail, combined with the best in technology, seems to make for a winning combination all around. And, Celebrity is nothing less than 5-Star in this department.
Yes, I do love a good movie. If this were a movie and the name hadn't already been taken, I think I might title this one, "Back to the Future!"
Smooth seas to you.
Yes, folks. There really IS a K.L. Smith. Ken and his wife Joyce live in Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario, Canada. Ken is the founder and "Publisher Emeritus" of K. L. Smith's CruiseLetter, the daddy of The SeaLetter. We thank him VERY MUCH for this fine review and for all the accompanying photos and scans.
Ken can be reached for thanks or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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