In brief, this was a great family trip with something to keep the interest of passengers of all ages. In our case, these consisted of two girls, ages 6 and 10; two forty-something parents, and two grandparents in their 80s, one of whom was almost entirely wheelchair bound. Wheelchair access is fairly good throughout the ship and there was no shortage of wheelchair passengers. There are a few high thresholds and narrow passageways, but we could get through most of them. It would be best to bring your own wheelchair, since those on the ship are not in great shape and there is no guarantee that they will provide one. The really smart people either rent or own an electric power cart so they may propel themselves.
The ship is now just over six years old and is beginning to show its wear, but still looks pretty good, considering the over 500,000 passengers it has seen in that time. The elevator areas are all chrome, mirrors, glass and wood, and the crew constantly works to keep them clean; keeping the fingerprints off is no small feat - just ask anyone who has a glass coffee table. I never saw an area where things were sloppy or in disrepair.
Embarkation was a breeze; we almost just walked on the ship. Be sure to fill out the forms sent with your ticket - otherwise, you must sit in the embarkation lounge and do it. There is a duty-free liquor kiosk in the embarkation area, but it was closed when we boarded the ship, so you should bring a small amount of liquor with you if you don't want to pay ship's prices for drinks during your first day at sea (more about this later).
Our tickets gave a boarding time of 2pm, but we arrived at noon because we had nothing else to do in Fort Lauderdale. They took us aboard immediately and started serving buffet lunch on Deck 11 at 12:30. It is a great feeling to dine on deck, basking in the Florida sunshine while looking forward to your cruise. Lifeboat drill at 4pm was painless and quick.
Food and Drink
We had the early seating and met our waiter and his assistant at 6:15pm. The food was quite good and we did not tire of it by the end of the week. Each night they served a five-course dinner to some 800 people in 90 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of cleaning the dining room before serving another 800 meals!
They did a magnificent job and offered a dramatically varied menu with five entrée choices each night. I usually ordered the beef and had great quality food with the exception of prime rib, which was not outstanding. The tornedos and filet mignon were excellent, and the fish dish I ordered one night was delicious. The next to last night was lobster and Baked Alaska night, so almost everyone ordered those dishes. The appetizers were amazing, with everything from gnocci to escargot, and from polenta to frog legs. The desserts were marvelous, and most nights they offered a specially prepared selection such as crépes or fruit flambé.
The service in the dining room was formal and the wait staff performed this quite well. There is "alternative dining" offered in the Sky Bar on Deck 12 aft, but we never used it. Reservations for alternative dining are required; this would be a good option if you want to avoid bringing formal clothing.
Wine was about what any restaurant would charge. The cheapest bottle was $22 and I understand that you can bring your own for an uncorking fee of $6. Liquor aboard the ship was in line with resort hotel prices. Frozen drinks were in the $6 to $8 range, and rail drinks were $4 to $5; beer was $4. Sodas were not included in the price of the cruise and they were sold in a small glass for $2 each. Children may buy a sticker for their card which gives them unlimited sodas for $35 - we frequently sent the kids to the bar to get sodas for the adults. I carried a little vodka on board and then bought a litre of Absolut at the duty free shop on the pier in Ocho Rios for $10. I had no trouble bringing anything back aboard and there are glasses and ice in the staterooms to prepare drinks, which may then be taken elsewhere. Sometimes it's fun to get a frozen drink by the pool, but it is not too hard to get a bar bill in excess of $200 even if you are not much of a drinker.
The staterooms were decent-sized; we had a Category 10 inside room, so ours was one of the smallest. The quality of the housekeeping was a little spotty - there was some glitter and sand in our room which was never cleaned up for the duration of the trip. The housekeepers did do a good job of making up the room at times when we were away so that we were not in their way. The ice bucket was also kept stocked. The bathrooms were pretty large for a ship and one person could use the sink while another was showering. They did a good job of keeping clean towels in the room and also provided nice beach towels to use in each port. Since we were in a quad room, the maid had to take down the top two bunks each night and put them up each morning. Surprisingly, sleeping in the bunk beds was pretty comfortable. The cabin price was certainly right.
The kids' camps were excellent and our kids loved going there. I would estimate that there were about 40 children on this cruise, which was during the Martin Luther King holiday. Only children over three who are toilet trained can participate in the programs. There is no charge for this service and they take the kids from 9-noon, 2-5pm and 7-10pm. On formal nights, they will keep your children until 1am at no cost to you!! On non-formal nights, they charge $6 per hour per child after 10pm.
Children under 9 must be signed in and out by an adult, but children 10 and over can come and go as they please. There is little trouble to find on the ship and our ten year old loved the independence (so did we.) I gave the girls in the kids' camp a tip but, surprisingly, this was not recommended by the ship. (In fact, I couldn't understand some of the tipping policy, which recommends tipping people we never met.)
Spa, Gym & Pools
The spa has a bunch of outrageously priced packages, but there are two things they offer which are pretty reasonable. One is the Razul package, a spa treatment for couples, which is about $90. The couple is taken into a large shower room with high-tech flexible shower heads on flexible hoses. The spouse covers his partner with desquamating gels and skin softeners, and showers each off. Then there are three types of mud which are applied, after which the couple gets in the sauna to sweat through the mud. After the sauna, it's back to the showers to clean off and apply more skin softeners - the whole process takes a little more than an hour.
The other inexpensive spa service is the use of the Hydrotherapy bath (which is like a large hot tub filled with mineral water) which may be used for $10 per day per person. The gym is right next to the spa, but I only went there once because it was fairly crowded and much of the equipment was out of order. There were about ten treadmills and you must sign up for their use in increments of 30 minutes; not surprisingly, everyone wants to work out before breakfast. Two of the treadmills were broken and the one that I used would not elevate to give an incline. The stationary bikes were not great, but they do have two which have video screens that make it look like you are taking a ride in the country and you must steer the bike to keep it on the road.
There are two pools on Deck 11, midships: one is for adults and one is for children. Three hot tubs are located next to the pools, and they were kept reasonably clean. During the day the pool deck is pretty crowded and noisy because they have a lot of activities, like pool games. The pools have straight vertical walls, so there is no gradual incline (or even a set of stairs), which is a consideration for those with orthopedic problems. There are other, quieter decks with chaise lounges, such as Deck 6, where it is good to stretch out with a book. Coffee and tea are available 24 hours per day on the "fantail" (aft), Deck 11.
The shows were pretty good by cruise ship standards. They are certainly not Broadway musicals, but they do not come with $70 to $100 ticket prices, either. There are four singers and about ten dancers, with a good band. The stage equipment, lighting, and costumes were fantastic. An older guy (formerly with The Lettermen) sang the requisite Sinatra-like songs, which were very popular with the older crowd. The prop comic was pretty hilarious for all ages. All in all, the shows were certainly entertaining and worth attending.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
I really enjoyed this port, in no small part because I had such low expectations for Jamaica. The port is beautiful, with mountains coming down to a beautiful bay - you can swim on a beach right across from the ship! We arranged to do a horseback ride from a mountain plantation to the sea, which included a beach ride and riding at a gallop through the ocean with the water at the horses' shoulders. This is one of the few things that is actually as fun as it looks in the brochure. I booked the trip through Hooves Limited (email@example.com) and it cost $60 per adult/$48 per child. The same trip through a different vendor on the ship was $85.
Hooves had a van pick us up at 8:30am and take us to their old plantation about ten miles away. There was a brief tour of the plantation, which was actually kind of interesting since this was essentially a factory farm run by the Spaniards in the 1500's. (Remember that Jamestown and Plymouth Rock were not settled until the 1600s.) The guides take you down a trail through the forest to the beach - it takes about an hour and the lead guide led my six-year-old carefully on a tether. There are a few vendors on the beach who are friendly and don't bug you. They sold cold Red Stripe beer for $2 a bottle. The Hooves people let you put your valuables in a Land Rover which they drive to the beach and then back up to the plantation so that you need not carry cameras and heavy bags on the horses.
We got back to Ocho Rios at about 1:30pm and went to the beach for a swim. If you go through the yellow gate just to the left of the security building at the parking area, it will lead to the beach. The beach is fenced off and you must pay $1.50 per adult/50¢ per child. You can rent chairs if you like. The water was clear and warm and the kids enjoyed it there. We went through some of the stores in town (don't take a cab there, it's only two blocks) but didn't really see anything to buy. Duty-free liquor may be bought on the pier and brought back on the ship. The Jamaican people we met were quite friendly and we never felt threatened. There were plenty of taxi touts and hair braiders offering their services, but it was no worse than in Mexico. There were some gorgeous homes, but one particularly beautiful home was accented with razor wire and three of the biggest Rottweilers I've ever seen, so tourists should probably be careful not to flaunt their affluence.
Georgetown, Grand Cayman
Georgetown disproves the old adage, "Crime doesn't pay." On this small island of 32,000 are dozens of international banks, which the locals proudly claim as the nexus of an international banking center. If you think about it, there are many banks in New York, London, Hong Kong, and every small burg in the U.S. that can perform wire transfers or just about any other legal banking service. The "international banking" performed in the Caymans would probably be better described as money laundering by anyone else. Grand Cayman is clearly the most affluent port you will encounter on this trip, but if you really think about where the money comes from, it may tarnish the otherwise glamorous veneer.
The island is quite different from Jamaica geographically as well: it is flat and arid instead of mountainous and lush. The development is generally upscale with nice hotels and condos. There are a lot of jewelry stores in town and the prices are about what you would get in good discount areas (such as New York's diamond exchange) in the U.S. My wife looked at a great number of them and thought that Grand Switzerland had the highest quality and variety of merchandise.
We had pre-arranged a Stingray City tour in advance with a company called Nativway (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they did an outstanding job. They picked us up at the pier and took us by van to the boat with a stop at a store so that we could get snacks for the day. The cost was $25 per person with no discount for children, and that included round trip transportation with boat travel and snorkeling equipment for both Stingray City and the nearby coral reef. The best part was that there were only eight of us on a 40' boat with one guide. I saw many other tour operators on the sandbar that forms Stingray City and they appeared to be cramming 30 or more people on a similar boat. There was plenty of time at each site and the guide got in the water to show us how to catch and feed stingrays. The kids really loved this part of the trip.
We got back to Georgetown a little after 1pm and just did a little shopping, because the last tender to the ship left at 3 PM. There is a turtle farm on the northern part of the island, but we didn't have time to go there. I do wish the ship could have spent a little more time in this port.
Cozumel was the only port which we had previously visited and we deliberately did not plan any excursions so that we could have a lazy day. The Century docked right in the middle of town and there is a brand new duty-free shop on the pier. There were several other ships moored in the bay which were using tenders and at least two ships at the old pier which is about 1½ miles south of town. There are many stores which cater to the tourist trade, but I found little worthwhile to buy. The Mexican crafts were not very appealing, but we did buy the embroidered wedding dresses for the girls to use as beach cover-ups.
If you are a tequila aficionado, there are many different types to sample and buy. Locally made vanilla is a good gift to bring someone who likes to cook. There are dozens of jewelry stores, but I'm not sure I would trust the merchants there enough to make a major purchase. When we got back to Maryland, we got a call from VISA that someone in Cozumel had used our credit card to buy $700 worth of merchandise at a grocery store - they almost certainly got the number from one of the merchants we bought T-shirts from.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are supposed to be great in Cozumel, but we just wanted to hang out on the beach with the family. We got the girls' hair braided by one of the street merchants. Almost every girl 21 and younger did this and you shouldn't pay any more than $20 per head. I rented a car, and a brief survey of the agencies showed that a VW bug convertible or Jeep could be rented for $30, a van for $40, and a Suburban for $45 - make sure you make a counter-offer to the first price given. We drove around a little and finally settled at San Francisco Beach, which is about 12 km [7½ miles - Ed.] south of town. Admission to the beach was free, there were clean restrooms, and two chaise lounges with umbrellas could be rented for the day for $6. There was food available and they would serve cold beer on the beach for $2.50 per bottle - very refreshing! You could rent jet skis and sailboats, although I didn't get the prices. I could see a large climbing wall floating on some type of barge just south of the beach, but we didn't go there.
There were plenty of taxis - you could take a taxi both ways if you just want a relaxing day on a nice beach. We drove back to town and picked up a litre of Bailey's Irish Cream for after dinner drinks at a price of $17. Once again, I carried the Bailey's right on the ship with absolutely no trouble.
Key West, Florida
After another day at sea, we arrived in Key West early Friday morning. This was my least favorite port, but at 43 I may just be too old for it. My in-laws were glad to see the neat streets of an American city again. I had always wanted to visit Key West, but I found it to be just another beach town with lots of junky stores and expensive drinks served in dingy bars accompanied by bad music played by hygienically challenged Jimmy Buffett wannabes.
The beach is on the opposite side of the island from where the ship docks; the Bone Island shuttle is $7 per day and will take you to the major hotels. If you get off at Sheraton Suites, the beach is nearby. Most of the beaches are rather rocky, but the Marriott imports sand to make theirs nicer. We went to the pier at Duval Street (essentially the epicenter of Key West) and rented two-person jet boats, which looked like flying saucers. They were a little pricey at $90 per hour, but were great fun since they could go 45 mph and were virtually impossible to capsize. While out in the area where we were allowed to use the jet boats, we were accompanied by four bottlenose dolphins who played with the boats in the water. We could never touch them, but they would go under the boats and come within a foot or two of us. One young dolphin swam backwards with his head out of the water just like Flipper used to do.
After the jet boats, we had a mediocre $70 lunch on the pier at 0 Duval Street with a steel drum musician providing entertainment. My in-laws took the Conch Train Tour at $20 per person. They found it extremely boring with a lot of old frame buildings which meant little to them. The Century left Key West at 5pm, but the curtains in the dining room were raised to see the sunset as we steamed toward Fort Lauderdale.
Friday night is tip night and the cruise line gives guidelines about whom to tip and how much. The Stateroom Attendant and Waiter were each to receive $3.50 per person per day. The Waiter Assistant is supposed to receive $2.00 per person per day - this man probably provided the most actual service to our party. The Assistant Maitre d' was supposed to receive 75¢ per person per day, but this guy really didn't do anything except some minor tableside schmoozing. We put $10 in an envelope and he was standing at the entrance to the dining room collecting them on the last evening. There is no identification on the envelopes, so my suggestion is to put one or two dollars in this envelope and give any extra to the assistant who actually serves you.
The cruise line suggests that you give the Chief Housekeeper 50¢ per person per day and I do not even know who this person is! He does not even collect the money himself - you are instructed to give it to the Stateroom Attendant! We gave him ten bucks also, but if I had it to do again, it would be less. We gave each of the three girls in the age 3 to 9 kids' camp a $10 tip because they did a great job on some very long days.
Passengers are instructed to pack and have their bags in the hall by midnight so that they may be delivered to the disembarkation area the next day. Disembarkation on Saturday morning was a little frenetic, but overall, well organized. They served open seating breakfast in the dining room, but the service was a bit spotty since they clearly wanted to empty the ship. We were in no hurry, since my in-laws live in Fort Lauderdale and our flight was not until 2:30pm. There is essentially no Customs inspection, and you retrieve your bags according to a colored tag which you attached the previous night. The Fort Lauderdale airport is a madhouse for midday departures, since several thousand cruise ship passengers hit at the same time on Saturdays. It would be better to stay an extra day in Florida or get a flight later in the day. By the time our flight was ready to board, the lines were at least tolerable.
As I said before, this is a great trip for families. If you are a newlywed couple looking for the ultimate in luxury, this may not be for you. The food, service, accommodations, and entertainment were equal or better than most shore-based hotels, and I don't think the price could be beaten. For my family, this trip cost less than a week at Ocean City, Maryland during the summer. You do have to watch for all the extra costs (drinks, spa services, shore excursions, etc.). The port selection is good and there is plenty to do during days at sea. We will almost certainly use this line again for another family trip - maybe next year to Bermuda.
PHOTOS courtesy of Celebrity Cruises & K.L. Smith.
Lee Krantz is a 43 year old family physician from Frederick, Maryland who has to date taken three cruises: a repositioning transatlantic cruise on Costa Cruises, a budget Athens to Istanbul cruise on now defunct Renaissance Cruises, and this western Caribbean cruise on Celebrity's Century. He hopes to take his two children to Tierra del Fuego before he is too old to undergo the rigors of such a trip. Lee may be reached at: email@example.com.
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