Southern Caribbean Cruise January 1998
There are many excellent reviews of the Galaxy in the SeaLetter library already, so I have not bothered with sweeping descriptions of the public rooms, and have instead given some nitty-gritty detail, such as how many beers are in the mini fridge in the cabin. Our ports of Catalina Island, Barbados, Martinique, Antigua and St. Thomas are discussed towards the end of this review.
My wife and I had originally booked on the Dawn Princess for roughly the same itinerary, and although we are long-time Princess fans, we felt a little disappointed with the accommodation on the Dawn Princess when we did a brief coastal cruise last year. We certainly looked forward to trying a new cruise line, and a new ship.
Our departure point of San Juan is a long way from our home in Vancouver, and by the time you have a stopover in Dallas-Fort Worth, it takes about as long for us to get to San Juan as it would to take for us to fly from Vancouver to anywhere in Europe. It certainly helps to be a member of American Airlines' Admiral Club, so your stopover in Dallas-Fort Worth is comfortable. We did not dare risk trying to get to San Juan the same day as the ship sailed (even though it didn't sail until 11:00 at night), so we elected to stay over the night before in the El San Juan Hotel. The El San Juan is one of the most expensive, biggest, oldest and most interesting hotels in San Juan, and is located on a beach, and not far from the airport. The hotel is also a casino, and a destination for the young locals to perform their mating rituals. It was quite fascinating sitting around in the lobby bars, and watching the action.
Because of the late departure time of the Galaxy, we arranged for a late check-out from the hotel (3:00 p.m.), and didn't have the inconvenience of sitting around somewhere with our bags, waiting for the right time to board the ship. The boarding time was specified as 3:00, but I suspect that many people were able to get on earlier. It often seems the case that you can get on earlier than the scheduled boarding time - it seems to depend on whether the ship is having a travel agent open house on board, or not.
Our first experience with the Galaxy was very pleasant: the embarkation line up was by deck number, and there was hardly anybody in our deck line up. Your boarding card is given to you at that time, and this card is also your room key, and your charge card while aboard ship. We were shown to our cabin by a steward, and before we had time to really orient ourselves to our room, the first of our bags arrived outside our door. Although Galaxy should receive full credit for the quick delivery of the bag, we also helped ourselves by bringing our bags in a taxi to the ship, rather than waiting for any kind of transfer bus, and arriving with 40 other people's baggage. Before we had unpacked the first bag, the rest of our three bags arrived. This was certainly a record for us in terms of bag delivery - one time when leaving from San Juan I waited six hours for my bags to be delivered, but that was no doubt in part because the bags were being delivered to the ship from the airport.
Our cabin was on Deck 9, the Vista Deck, and was on the port side, mid-ship. We loved the location of our cabin - it was close to the elevators, and there was no vibration or noise from engines, side thrusters, life boats or anything else. We never heard our neighbours at all, except if they and we were out on our respective balconies.
We liked our cabin in both its set up, and decoration. It was larger than we had had on the Dawn Princess, although a little smaller than we had recently enjoyed on the Splendour of the Seas - the Splendour had enough room for a full-size couch, but the Galaxy cabin only had room for a loveseat. The balcony had two chairs and a foot stool, but not the table that you would think it would have based on the plans that are in the Celebrity brochure. One disadvantage of the balcony set up was that the balcony door opened outwards, which made it awkward if somebody was already sitting out on the balcony. In other ships we have cruised on, the balcony door is a sliding door.
The closet space was adequate, but it would have been more efficient if the ship hadn't used those non-removable wooden hangers, which take up an incredible amount of room - does the cruise line really think we are going to steal removable hangers and take them all the way home? We always take as many clothes as we can on lightweight wire hangers, to avoid any problem in what the ship provides.
The bathroom was as nice as we have seen anywhere on a cruise ship, with enough room to turn around in the shower without the shower curtain grabbing your behind. The sink had a proper vanity table, and there was plenty of room for your bits and pieces. There was a fixed hair dryer in the bathroom - the type that looks a bit like a mini vacuum cleaner, and had plenty of power. The disadvantage was that you couldn't move it anywhere, and if you are the type that needs to sit down at a table and dry your hair, then you will still need to bring your own hair dryer. Small bottles of shampoo and skin conditioner were provided. As we did not need to use these, we have no idea as to whether they would have been replaced on a regular basis by the room steward.
The TV, which had a VCR underneath, was situated in the centre of one wall of the room, facing the bed. I noted that the TV had RCA jacks on the front of the TV, so you could plug your camcorder into them if you wanted to. I read that there was a library of tapes on board that you could borrow from, but I never did track down where this collection of tapes was located. It certainly didn't appear to be in the library. As it was, there were many choices for watching movies. There were two movies a day on the "free" channels, which were repeated at various times throughout the day. There was also a "Pay TV" facility on the TV, where you could look at a movie for $8.99. The Pay TV movies could be looked at "on demand" and it wasn't necessary to wait for a particular starting time. I wasn't personally too excited that Pay TV has now crept on to cruise ships. The movies available on the Pay TV were not quite first-run movies, but more the movies that you could rent in any video store, but not yet buy outright. Strangely enough, at least two of the movies on the Pay TV were also shown in the ship's theater for free, during the cruise.
The TV had a multitude of other channels including CNN, ESPN, shopping and port information, movies, family movies, shore excursion details, the Sony channel, the Celebrity channel, a channel showing a camera shot from the bridge. The latter channel was also used for voice announcements, and you would not hear any announcements in your cabin (except emergency announcements), unless you had the sound up on this channel. Additionally, there were four music video channels, a foreign movie channel, and a headline news channel.
The "interactive TV" on Celebrity ships is a first, and is perhaps worth mentioning in some detail. Much like the TV's you now find in better hotels, there is a menu where you can pick what particular service you would like on the interactive TV. Your first choice was one of language where, in addition to English, you could see everything in German, Spanish, Italian or French. One of the more useful menu items was "shore excursions", where you could get a review of a particular shore excursion, as well as actually book it - that's if it was working. When we tried out the shore excursion menu as soon as we had a minute, we found that particular section wasn't working, so we couldn't book any shore excursions (not that we actually wanted to). If there is a particular shore excursion you want and you suspect it will book up early, then you still would have needed to fill in the form, and rush down to the shore excursion desk.
Another menu item was "cabin casino", a way of gambling from the comfort of your cabin. I was never drunk enough to try this option. I did notice, in the write up about this particular channel, that they highlighted the fact that some passenger had won $2,400 on a cruise some four months ago, when playing on the cabin casino. I was underwhelmed. We next tried "in-cabin shopping" on the interactive TV, only to find that two out of the three sub-choices weren't working. The in-cabin shopping appears to be a separate thing all together from the boutiques on board, and I have no idea how you actually get the item after you order it via the TV.
Room and bar service was another menu option, but hardly much more efficient than reading the room service menu, and making the phone call to room service. One aspect of this menu we did find convenient was ordering a bottle of wine for dinner, as you could take your time and review the wine descriptions and prices, without being hurried or embarrassed by the wine steward standing nearby. The wine service menu also told you what the main courses were for dinner that night, so that you could order the appropriate wine (unless you're like me where I drink white wine no matter what the entree is). Another menu item provided details of future cruise possibilities on Celebrity. A further menu item was one where you could review your account, if you wanted to, even on a daily basis. This is probably a good idea, as many of us are too tired at the end of the cruise to review our whole account and look for discrepancies. This menu also gave you particulars of the suggested tips for the cruise, but this information also appeared in the daily newspaper.
The Pay TV movies also included a choice of three "mature" movies, which I suspect were soft-core pornography, but my wife was never away from the cabin long enough for me to watch one of these movies. There is a "lock-out" feature on the TV, so that you can stop your children watching that type of thing. With a few exceptions, the interactive TV did not do much for us, and it had a very annoying beep every time you changed the menu item - you certainly wouldn't want to be trying to use this feature if your spouse was asleep.
Although passengers in suites on board the Galaxy were entitled to order anything from the ship's menus during mealtimes, the rest of us peasants had to do with a much smaller choice. The menu included clam chowder, the soup of the day, ham and cheese sandwich, turkey sandwich, chef's salad, tuna salad, chilli con carne, a cheese and fruit platter, black forest cake, jumbo chocolate chip cookie, coffee, tea and milk. During the pizzeria hours (3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.), you could also order a choice of pepperoni, cheese or vegetable pizza - and the pizza was delicious, the best we have ever eaten on a cruise ship. While the room service choice was not extensive, at least it is free, except for giving a tip to the serving person. We sometimes didn't have any small bills available to give the room steward waiter, and they didn't seem too cranky if we didn't manage to tip them each time.
The room safe was contained in the clothes closet, and was easy to operate. It was not one of those awkward ones that some ships have where you need a card with a magnetic strip to close it. All you had to do was put in your own combination the first time, and it was simple to use after that. Also, unlike some ships, you only had to enter the combination when you opened the safe, and not also when you locked it.
I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of being stuck in the cabin so I'm going to go up on deck for awhile.
The sailaway party from San Juan was a lot of fun, and it is certainly a nice change to leave a port at night, rather than the usual 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. departure. There was a great West Indian band on deck called "Voltz", who hammered out good songs. Other ships in port at the same time were the Bolero, the Rhapsody of the Seas and Carnival's Fascination. Commenting on these other ships reminds me that you should be careful when embarking in San Juan to know where your ship is actually located. There are at least two places where ships can be docked, the less-preferred location being where we were docked adjacent to a small airport landing strip. While the ships appear to be docked near each other, it is quite a drive to get from one side of the water to the other, so you should make sure your taxi driver knows where he is going. Fortunately, the ships stand out from a distance, and if you recognize your ship, you should remind your taxi driver where he is heading.
First night in the dining room on any ship tends to be a little disorganized, with people sitting anywhere they want, and not at their assigned table. The Orion Dining room is certainly magnificent, with floor-to-ceiling windows at one end, being the stern of the ship. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the Royal Caribbean newer ships are probably more dramatic, however. The dining room has two levels, with the upper level being more of a balcony, where you could look down and see people eating on the lower level. Our first major complaint with the ship was being assigned a dining room table. Although we had booked six months in advance, we were only wait-listed for second seating dining at a table of eight, which is always our preference. We needed to line up to meet with the maitre'd in the afternoon to arrange our seating, and while we were happy to finally get second seating, we were quite disappointed to only get a table for four. It was with some apprehension that we waited for dinner time, to see who we were "stuck with", and as it turned out, the delightful couple we met were thinking the same thing. We would have been more apprehensive if we had known, as we discovered later in the cruise, that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the passengers on the ship were non-English-speaking Europeans. More about that later.
Dinner time each night was a delightful experience with an adequate waiter, a very friendly busboy, and a very knowledgeable wine waiter (who freely sampled our wine each night - which wine stewards are supposed to, but rarely do). We had heard much about the elevated dining experience on Celebrity, but it was somewhat less than our expectations. We both felt that we had had equally good food on Princess, Holland America and even Carnival. The best we could say was that it was better than the somewhat bland food we had recently had on Royal Caribbean. Like many things on a cruise, if you build up your expectations too high, you are bound to be disappointed. If we had heard nothing about Celebrity's food, no doubt we would have been fully delighted with it.
Galaxy Pool Deck
New cruisers are always very worried about the dress codes on a ship, but it seems the more you cruise, the less you pay any attention to it. Celebrity, like many cruise lines, was quite specific in what they wanted. The printed materials in the cabin specified these definitions:
It was also suggested that the dress code applied around the ship for the balance of the evening, not just for dinner.
Despite these instructions, I saw many people wearing shorts in the main dining room at breakfast or lunch, and I suspect that the ship never enforced the rule for those meals. Dinner would probably have been a different matter.
There were twelve bars on the ship, and there were a few I didn't get to (grin). Eighteen is the legal drinking age, although it is higher in ports, as local laws apply. In San Juan, for example, you had to be 21 to be drinking on board. If you liked martinis, you were certainly in luck, as there was a special "martinis only" bar within the Savoy Lounge. There were 26 different choices for martinis at $4.50 a shot, including gin, vodka, rum and special martinis. You could also buy a 30 gram jar of caviar at this bar, Sevruga was $18.00, and Osetra was $25.00. Fortunately, I haven't learned to like caviar.
Drink prices were generally reasonable, although they seem less reasonable when you get your total bill at the end of the cruise. Here are some of the prices: regular scotch $3.95; premium scotch $4.50; rum, vodka or gin $3.95; Canadian Club $4.50; bourbon $3.95 to $4.50; liqueurs $3.95; American beer $2.95; imported beer $3.50; club soda by the glass $1.25; by the can $1.75; Evian (11 oz.) $1.95; fancy drinks (B52, etc.) $3.95; Cuvee Georgias Duboeuf white wine $3.75 per glass; Edna Valley chardonnay 1995 $5.50 per glass; Raymond Vineyard chardonnay 1995 $5.50 per glass; Red Cuvee $3.75 per glass; St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon $5.95 per glass; Rutherford Ranch Merlot 1995 $4.50 per glass.
In our cabin there was a stocked mini bar which included two Budweiser, one Heineken, one small white wine, one small red wine, miniatures of vodka, scotch, bourbon, gin, rum and Bailey's; as well as ginger ale, sprite, coke, diet coke, tonic and soda. There were also some token snacks of peanuts, cheezies and a chocolate bar. I didn't actually check the prices on the mini bar, but I suspect that any mixed drink would cost more than you would pay in the bar by the time you paid for the booze itself, and the pop.
One of the stores on board sold duty-free liquor, and although I didn't buy any, it seemed to me that once you made your purchase, the liquor was not delivered to you until the end of the cruise - bummer. The prices for a liter, were: Chivas Regal $18.95, Bailey's $14.95, J & B Rare $10.95, Johnny Walker Red $10.95, Beefeater Gin $9.95, Grand Mariner $18.95. There were other brands in addition to those I have mentioned. Cartons of American cigarettes could also be purchased at the store at a cost of $10.00.
As with most big cruise ships nowadays, actual cash rarely changes hands. Your cruise card/cabin key can be used for charging everything, including money at the casino. Cash is not accepted anywhere on the ship except at the casino. Of course, if you want, you can deposit some cash at the purser's office at the start of the cruise, and that will be applied to your bill as you go. The only time you really need cash on board is to tip the room service steward, and the actual tips at the end of the cruise. Unlike most cruise ships that we have been on, the "banking" on board the ship is a separate area from the actual purser's office, although connected to it. The difference being that the purser's office is open 24 hours a day, but the banking section is not. So if you are looking to cash traveller's cheques, or break down large bills, you need to look ahead to find the opening times. Personal cheques are not accepted on board. There is an ATM machine in the casino, but there is a warning that transactions might not work, or be interrupted, if the ship is out of satellite range. I suspect that in the Caribbean area, satellite coverage is probably continuous.
The written materials in your cabin make it clear as to the expected tips at the end of the cruise, and as mentioned earlier, this information also appears on the interactive TV. The suggested tips, which are in line with most cruise ships, are $3.50 per day per person for your cabin steward, $3.50 per day per person for your waiter, and $2.00 per day per person for your busboy. Passengers under 12 years old only pay half the standard tips. The ship suggested that the restaurant manager (the maitre'd) receive $5.00 per person for the cruise (not per day). Similarly, a one-time payment of $3.50 per person is suggested for the chief housekeeper, and this tip you left in your cabin for your cabin steward to deliver. I wouldn't know the chief housekeeper if I fell over her, and I have never been on a ship before where a tip was suggested for the chief housekeeper. The next thing you'll know they will want a tip for the fellow that works the vacuum for the toilets (grin). As usually, tips for your waiter and busboy are given discreetly on the last night.
On the Galaxy, the purser's office is called the "Guest Relations Desk", but I would have preferred it if they kept the nautical tradition of calling it the purser's office. The staff were very obliging, and I rarely had to wait in a line-up. My first indication of the multi-lingual composition of the passengers was when I saw the daily program, the "Galaxy", printed in at least five different languages, and available for picking up at the purser's office.
Disappointingly, the ship had no e-mail facilities, although they mentioned that they might be getting them in the future. Whether you could plug a modem into the phone in the cabin was beyond my technical knowledge, although I suspect there might have been a problem because they are "smart phones", and there is no separate data input jack. To make a phone call from the ship, at a cost of $9.50 per minute, you need to "swipe" a card through the card reader on the side of the phone. The phone will accept Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Express, Discover, Diner's Club, Carte Blanche, and JCB. Only the first three of these cards however can be used for settling your bill at the end of the cruise. You could also use your cabin card to activate the phone for long distance, and this of course will then result in the telephone call cost showing on your final bill.
There is a message system on the phones, so if you phone a cabin and nobody is in, you can leave a voice mail. You can even leave a voice mail on your own phone for your spouse, if you take off somewhere and you want to let him or her know where you are. You can program the phone to give yourself a wake-up call. You can also use the phone for baby-sitting, by programming the phone in accordance with the instructions. You can then phone to the room from elsewhere on the ship, and you can "listen in" to what's happening in the cabin.
Back to the Cabin
There is a "book" of services in the cabin that tells you particulars of the various facilities, and also contains postcards, envelopes, a pen, a laundry list and a breakfast ordering list. Tip: if you plan on keeping the postcards, envelopes, pen, etc., you should remember to put those away before the last night of the cruise, as your cabin steward will sneak the book away, presumably to update it for the next occupant of your cabin. You will also find a glossy magazine in your cabin called "Destinations", which is the "on board magazine of Celebrity Cruises". While this is mostly an advertising vehicle, there are some good port reviews towards the end of the magazine.
My wife reports that the salon, as with most mainstream cruise ships, is run by Steiner, but she did notice that there was no pushing of hair care products, as is usual with a Steiner operation. My wife also noted that the suggested tip was 10%, where it is usually 15% for Steiner. Perhaps Celebrity Cruises has more control over the Steiner operation on board than other cruise ships.
Art and Art auctions
There is an extensive art display around the ship, all of which was apparently selected by Mrs. Chandris, the wife of the former major shareholder of Celebrity Cruise Lines. All of the art was "modern", including such things as a letter from one person to another of 15 pages in length, which was framed as 15 separate photos. There was also electronic art in the way of flashing signs. As I suffer from little education in art, I can only honestly report that almost all the stuff I saw I thought was "goofy". Another form of art was banks of TV screens, with stranger things happening on them. While I enjoy high technology myself, I personally found the TV displays to be unintelligible, and distracting. Particularly irritating, in my view, were two big TV's behind the main bar in the Stratosphere Lounge, which continually had abstract things happening, and after a while I could only turn my back to the bar.
I am happy to report that the art auctions on board were not nearly as intrusive as they have been on other cruises I have taken recently. The art was displayed in the Rendezvous Lounge, but taken away immediately after the art auction, so you weren't tripping over it the whole cruise. The auctions were also carried out in this lounge, rather than in the main Atrium as happens on other ships, and therefore it didn't disturb you if you weren't interested.
I saw little sign of children on board and not having any myself, I am unable to advise on whether the facilities were adequate. There was a "Ship Mate's Fun Factory" for younger children on the Vista Deck, and a teenage room on the Sky Deck. Additionally, there is a video arcade on the Entertainment Deck which is open 24 hours (I mostly saw adults playing (grin). There is also a separate children's pool.
Aqua Spa and Fitness Centre
Neither of these facilities were important to me, as I do not go on a cruise to get healthy. I noted that the Aqua Spa offers a course of treatment for $10.00 per day. A friend who did use the gym facilities said that there was seven or eight treadmills, and there was always equipment available.
There were multiple choices for breakfast including the main dining room, the buffet in the Oasis Cafe and Grill upstairs, and a continental breakfast (but not a full breakfast) in your cabin.
Lunch time choices included again the dining room, the Oasis Cafe, and pizza or hamburgers from the Oasis Grill.
Dinner was served at 6:00 for first seating, and 8:30 for second seating. You could buy a set of miniature, souvenir menus at the end of the cruise, for $5.00, but I objected in principle to paying for that. I did copy down the menu for one night, which was as follows: Starters: Chilled Melon; Conch Fritters; Smoked Salmon and Bastoncini di Polenta; Soups: Cream St. Germain; Chicken Consomme‚ and Chilled Vichyssoise; Salads: Lettuce, Cucumber, hard boiled Egg and Scallions; hearts of lettuce, tomato and red onion rings; Entrees: Baby Coho Salmon; Penne with Shrimps; Chicken Supreme; Pork Rib Roast; New York Steak Foyot; Dessert: Pineapple Beignet; Gateau Nougatine; Chocolate Mousse Cappuccino; Fruit Chilboust Crown; Caramel, Vanilla, Rum Raisin and sugar-free ice cream; cheese and fruit, including goat cheese.
There was a note on the daily menu that if you wished a full vegetarian meal, you needed to order it 24 hours in advance.
I didn't visit this facility, but it was described in the literature as follows:
This virtual golf facility gives golfers the ability to play four top courses without ever leaving the ship. Accurately factoring wind, trajectory, trees, water, etc., this is real golf without the bugs, walking or lost balls. Tee times are arranged with the purser's office. The facility is on the Sunrise Deck, and a nominal fee is required.
Day time entertainment included the usual bingo (also played at night time), trivia games (also in the evening), table tennis, organized meets for backgammon and chess, bridge, a scavenger hunt, golf putting competitions, volleyball and "enrichment" talks including such easy subjects as making perfect cocktails and wine appreciation, and more difficult ones such as "the American Indian World before Columbus". The evening entertainment in the main lounge was the usual mix of dancers, singers, comedians and acrobats. Although I am not a fan of this type of activity, I did check it out so I could include some comments in my review. I thought the entertainment was as good as any I have seen in recent years on board, with the comedian, Jeff Kerner, being excellent, the main singer, Pamela Blake, and the pianist, Elliott Finkel, also being very good. The production show featuring the acrobats, "Cirque Du Galaxy" was also excellent.
A West Indian group called the "Acapella Doo Wop Group" wandered around the ship and entertained in such unusual locations as the Aqua Spa.
The duo of Jan and Paul in the Rendezvous Lounge were popular, especially since they performed requests. The Savoy Lounge featured a dance band called "Dynamic Touch", who were also very professional and very popular. Generally, I would rate the Celebrity entertainment higher than any other cruise line I have been on.
Lying just east of the coast of the Dominican Republic, Catalina Island is uninhabited - at least in the evenings: during the day, the beach was a mess of bodies, as it seemed that all 1,800 passengers went ashore. Although Catalina is described in the brochures as a "private" island, it is not Celebrity's private island because we have visited the same island before on both Princess and Costa Cruises. If you are into water sports, you would have had a good time here. A buffet lunch is served under cover, and there are vendors displaying local crafts. This stop, by the way, was the only one of our ports where we had to tender in from the ship, although it was not a very long ride. Shore excursions for the mainland of the Dominican Republic went from Catalina Island. Those shore excursions included a visit to the resort of Casa de Campo (4 hours; $28.00), golf at Casa de Campo (5-1/2 hours; $100.00), tennis at Casa de Campo (4 hours; $30.00), sport fishing (3 hours; $110.00), skeet shooting at Casa de Campo (4 hours; $68.00), horseback riding at Casa de Campo (4 hours; $50.00). The following day was our only sea day, and we much enjoyed it.
Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, and the port where the ship docks, does not display a particularly attractive downtown. We hired our own driver to go to Harrison's Cave, but the taxi cost was not cheap and, in addition, we had to pay the entrance fee to Harrison's Cave which is $7.50. It was probably just as cheap to do the ship's tour (2-1/2 hours; $36.00). Harrison's Cave is an interesting tour, especially if you haven't seen many caves before. Walking is not involved, as you must board an electric tram that carries about 70 people to view the caves.
We were fortunate in having a friend who lives in Barbados, and we had a wonderful lunch at his beachfront home. Our friend also took us on a tour of a 40 acre swamp site he has purchased and is developing into a bird sanctuary. This facility is likely to be opened as a tourist sight within a few years, and if you see the name "Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary" in the excursions for Barbados in the future, you will know that you read about it here first!
We had lunch at the Waterfront Cafe in downtown Bridgetown on a previous cruise, and found it quite good.
Martinique often gets a bad rap in my view. I think visitors some times overlook the fact that French is the official language of Martinique, and the apparent reserve of some locals may often be their difficulty in communicating in English. On a previous cruise to Martinique, we took a tour over to the other side of the island to visit St. Pierre, the town that was wiped out in 1902 by the explosion of nearby Mt. Pelee. Thirty thousand inhabitants died as a result, and the only survivor was a prisoner in an underground jail cell. This tour usually includes a visit to the rain forest in the centre of the island, and returns to the ship via the coast road. Although one could probably organize a taxi to do this tour and save a few dollars, you run the risk that your driver will speak hardly any English, and therefore cannot be a very helpful guide.
When visiting downtown Fort-de-France, you may want to take a look at the attractive park of La Savane (Savannah), which is next to the shopping area. The highlight of Savannah Park is the statue of Josephine, which is worthy of a comment. When we first visited Martinique some years ago, the statue of Josephine was in a state of good repair. On a subsequent visit it wasn't, and this is the story that was told to us by one of the local guides.
Josephine was born in Martinique, and subsequently became one of Napoleon's wives (he didn't have them all at the same time (grin). When slavery was abolished in France in 1794, Josephine persuaded Napoleon not to abolish slavery in the French colonies, because she and her girlfriends still had slaves employed in Martinique. Slavery was only finally abolished in Martinique more than 50 years later. This little piece of history was apparently not well-known in Martinique, but when it was published in a newspaper article a few years ago, some of the locals were incensed at the infliction of continuing slavery on Martinique, and went and lopped off the head of her statue. It appears that the government must have approved of this act, because there has been absolutely no sign of any repairs to the statue. The ship offers a walking tour of Fort-De-France (although I cannot imagine why one would take it at $26.00 for 1-1/2 hours of nothing), and mentions the famous white marble statue of Josephine, without noting that she is headless.
The ship gives out a "recommended" shopping guide for each port which is quite useful, as there is always a good map. Celebrity doesn't hesitate to reveal that a "promotional fee" is being paid by the local merchants to be included in this guide, but the other side of the coin is that the stores mentioned in the guide must follow certain guidelines, including at least a 30 day guarantee on goods purchased by passengers. It was interesting to note that Martinique only had one recommended store, representing either the fact that there aren't too many reliable stores there, or perhaps that the local French are smart enough not to pay promotional fees to Celebrity.
On a previous visit to Martinique, we had lunch at an upstairs restaurant downtown called "La Bodega", which we found quite satisfactory.
The Galaxy was docked at a commercial dock a few miles from downtown. We envied the passengers on the Dawn Princess, because their ship was docked in the middle of town, and they could simply walk into downtown.
Other tours offered by the ship in Martinique include a tour to St. Pierre and a butterfly farm (4 hours; $48.00); a calypso cruise (2-1/2 hours; $36.00); a snorkeling adventure (2-/12 hours; $34.00) and a tour to St. Pierre by road one way and a catamaran in the other direction (4-1/2 hours; $51.00).
The first thing I learned about Antigua is that it is pronounced "Anteega", not "Antigwa". We decided to do our own tour, and found two other couples on the dock who wanted to do their own tour like we did of English Harbour and Nelson Dockyard, on the far side of Antigua from where you dock at the capital of St. Johns. Including the $5.00 admission to Nelson Dockyard, our cost per person was $19.00 versus the $32.00 that the ship was charging for a 2-1/2 hour tour. Nelson Dockyard is a fascinating piece of history, being the headquarters of the English Fleet during the 1700's and 1800's. Lord Nelson was in command here for three years, but this was long before he was famous, and missing an arm and an eye. The various buildings where ships were repaired have been reconstructed, and the whole thing is a wonderful piece of naval history. Following our visit there, we went up towards Clarence House on the other side of the harbour, where you get a fantastic view back down to Nelson Dockyard and English Harbour. The harbour, by the way, is not only a piece of history, but also an active yachting centre.
The trip across the island itself was interesting, and it was a most pleasant day. We had a late lunch at an interesting upstairs restaurant called "Hemingway's" in downtown St. Johns, and from the balcony we could see, just 100 yards away, two great cruise ships pointing at the town, one being the Galaxy, and the other the Monarch of the Seas. By contrast, the CostaClassica was docked about three miles away on the other side of the harbour.
In addition to the Nelson's Dockyard excursion, the ship's tours included a a Jolly (rum and limbo) Roger cruise (3 hours; $45) and a half day Catamaran Sail (3 hours; $45)
Like many other cruisers, we seem to have spent our various visits in St. Thomas discovering retail opportunities - at least my wife has. For the first time, we took a tour of St. Thomas and were quite delighted with it. We took one of the big trucks that has open sided seats behind it - it would take almost 50 people, and we think the natural air-conditioning was much more effective than anything you would have had on one of the tour buses. Our 2-1/2 hour tour cost us $15.00 per person, whereas the ship's tour of roughly the same thing - and I suspect not as much fun - was $31.00. Our tour took us to the highest point on St. Thomas, with great views back to the harbour and the cruise ships (the Galaxy was lined up end-to-end with the Dawn Princess and the Rhapsody of the Seas (the Galaxy certainly looked the smallest, but it was unique in having its blue colours). The Bolero was docked a long way from town on the other side of the harbour. Our tour also took us for a brief look at Megan's Bay Beach, where you need to pay $1.00 admission fee, whether you stayed there for 5 minutes or 5 hours. The only place our tour didn't go where the ship's tour goes is the Estate St. Peter Great House (a private estate which is now open for visitors). Surprisingly, the shore excursion office had an advertisement for renting your own car in St. Thomas, which would seem to compete with their own tours. You definitely would want to have been dedicated to rent your own car. First of all, they drive on the left, even though they are American built cars, which means you are sitting on the curb side going down the street. There are tremendous traffic jams in St. Thomas, narrow roads throughout the island, and the cost of renting would only be marginally less than you would pay for a taxi or a ship's tour.
At the end of our tour, we enjoyed drinks in the 1812 Restaurant, which is just up the hill from Emancipation Square. It has a great view of the harbour. Unfortunately, lunch is only served until 2:00, so you need to get there early if you are planning on more than drinks.
Tours offered by the ship included snorkeling around the island of St. John (4 hours; $35.00), National Park sightseeing on the island of St. John (4 hours; $35.00); a day at Megan's Beach (3 hours; $17.00); snorkeling and sailing at Buck Island (3-1/2 hours; $45.00); the Atlantis submarine dive (1-1/2 hours; $82.00); Kon Tiki party boat (3 hours; $30.00); local snorkeling (3 hours; $27.00); introductory scuba diving (3 hours; $52.00); seaplane sightseeing (1-1/2 hours; $99.00); golf at Mahogany Run (5 hours; $120.00).
If you have never been to San Juan before, you certainly don't need an organized tour to see the old city and the historic forts. All of this is within relatively easy walking distance. As we had an early flight back home, we did not have the opportunity to do any San Juan tours this time. If you have a late departure, or if you are staying over night, your choices of tours included a drive around the old and new city (2-1/2 hours; $20.00); a visit to the El Yunque Rain Forest (4 hours; $24.00); and a city tour and a visit to the Bacardi Rum Distillery (we have seen a distillery before - it is interesting) (4 hours; $24.00). You can also do the city tour and rum distillery tour with an included lunch, which puts the price up to $49.00. All of these tours terminate at the airport, rather than going back to the ship.
Bits and Pieces
Although we elected to miss the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party, we did go to the repeaters party (we received an invitation even though we weren't repeaters), which was good fun. Nothing like free drinks to increase your enjoyment. I noticed that the cruise director was the only one speaking at the cocktail party, and there was no sign of the captain.
It's sure hard to beat having a balcony. In addition to enjoying all the sailaways from the comfort and privacy of our cabin, we also enjoyed the star show in the late evenings, the bright moon and the lights of passing islands and ships.
The Galaxy caters more to smokers than some ships, and although you cannot smoke in the dining room or main show lounge (while a show is on), you can generally smoke everywhere on the port side of the ship including, surprisingly, the buffet lunch area.
The home of the disco, the Stratosphere Lounge, is also an excellent place to be during the day, as you get great views out over the front of the ship, and very few people are in the lounge.
On formal night, my estimate was that about 30% of the men were wearing tuxes.
Even the Galaxy does the parade of Baked Alaska by the waiters, although it is not quite the noisy event that occurs on a Carnival ship.
Our table mates elected to miss all shore excursions in favour of spending the day at a good beach. They recommend Morningstar Beach at the Marriot in St. Thomas, and the Hilton in Barbados. They said it usually cost $4.00 or $5.00 to rent a deck chair for the day, but the convenience of having a bar and restaurant nearby, and no hassle from local vendors, made it all worthwhile.
The "X" on the funnel of Celebrity ships is the Greek sign for the word "chi", which in turn is their shorthand for the name "Chandris" the original founders of Celebrity Cruise Lines.
We were disappointed that you could not order a Bloody Caesar on board. A Bloody Caesar is a Bloody Mary, only using clamato juice instead of tomato juice. This drink, which apparently originated in Canada, has spread across much of the U.S. Once you have had one of these, you will never want to have a Bloody Mary in its place.
There is an escalator to get from the lower level of the main show lounge to the top level, although it never seemed to be working when we were around.
As an introduction to the farewell show on the last night in the show lounge, the ship ran a video of people and events that had happened during the week, which was really well edited, very funny and had great music. That night the band also played the theme music from Titanic.
I have been on a number of the bigger cruise ships besides the Galaxy, and it seems to me that they do a remarkable job to make them still seem intimate. I find them no more crowded than the original Love Boats (Pacific Princess and Island Princess) which are almost a quarter of the size of the current big ships. To me, the big problem with the big cruise ships is the overwhelming numbers of passengers that descend on the small towns in the Caribbean and in Alaska, especially when you could have three or four giant ships all in at the same time. I can't think of any answer to that problem.
There is a lounge on aboard which is devoted to cigar smoking, Michael's Club, which is very elegant (if smelly).
The library was elegant, but suffers from the same problem as most libraries on board ships, it is never open when you want it to be.
The crew and officers of the Galaxy are Greek, the cruise staff are North American, and the stewards and waiters are multi-national (a lot of Filipinos, Portuguese and Eastern Europeans).
You need your boarding card AND photo ID when re-boarding the ship. Passports for non-American passengers are retained by the purser's office for the duration of the cruise.
The Galaxy is the first ship where I have seen this type of notice: "If you miss the ship, it is your responsibility to make arrangements to rejoin the Galaxy". We saw one passenger miss the boat. He was put on board from the pilot ship, and we watched with interest as the crew put a lifejacket on him and a rope around his waist before they would let him climb up the ship's ladder.
There is a European hostess in addition to the usual cruise hostess on board, indicating that the Galaxy is accustomed to having a large European contingent on board.
The casino is almost 10,000 square feet, and has an expected number of slot machines and gaming tables.
The two karaoke nights on board were not a complete success - while their selection of songs was probably greater than you see on most ships, the staff were a little disorganized in running it, and they didn't have the jukebox type equipment to make the songs easy to select. There were, however, a couple of great singers amongst the passengers.
Things to note for the last night:
If you were eligible for bath robes in your suite, you will find they disappear on the last night, and you may want to think about bringing your own robe with you (although you may not need it as you cannot get room service breakfast on the last morning). The book with the postcards, etc. in it which I mentioned earlier, disappears on the last night. And, worst of all, the mini bar is locked (I guess so the steward doesn't have to figure out what you have used up the last night and get it added to your bill).
Celebrity is the only cruise line I know where you have to pay to join the repeaters club, which is called the "Captain's Club". I refused to join on principle, although others tell me that it's only a one-time membership fee of $35.00, and it gives you both priority embarkation and disembarkation. Also, presumably, it gives you some discounted cruises, in the same way that other cruise lines offer discounts to repeaters.
This appeared to be well organized by the cruise ship. Inspection of foreigner's passports takes place on ship the morning before you dock, so there is no wait for U.S. Immigration to clear the ship when it docks in San Juan. As usual, your bags need to be outside your cabin by midnight the night before, and you pick up your bags on the dock. The order of disembarkation was established by a color-coded card you were given for your luggage, with early flights having preference, and subsequently on a "class" basis with the more expensive cabins being able to disembark first. We weren't fussed by this arrangement, as we had an early flight. Although we were able to give our bags directly to an American Airlines representative on the dock (and our bags were then booked all the way through to Vancouver), we still had to line up at the airport to have our seat assignments validated (perhaps that's because we were going to an international destination). We did, however, elect to get our own taxi to the airport, thereby arriving well before the huge number of passengers arriving in the transfer buses. Our line up was short, and we had plenty of time to relax in the Admiral's Club in San Juan before we caught our flight.
My biggest complaint about the cruise would be the large number of non-English speaking passengers. Those people obviously have just as much right to cruise as we do, but I think a knowledgeable travel agent would warn you of this possibility. While Europeans are no less fascinating than anybody else, you can't get very far if you don't speak their language, and they can hardly speak yours. If I want the culture of cruising with a lot of Europeans, I would like to do it by choice - either cruising in Europe, or cruising on a line that is well noted for its European passengers, such as Costa. Life boat drill in at least five different languages was an underwhelming experience.
The cruise director, Don Flukes, was very funny and energetic, and among other things entertained us each night with his running of the trivia game.
Our cabin was nicer than the Dawn Princess, but not as good as on Royal Caribbean ships such as Splendour of the Seas and Legend of the Seas.
The food, despite all we heard in advance, was good, but not out of this world. Entertainment on board was probably superior to most ships we have cruised on.
The ambience on board was suitable for middle-age cruisers - not too busy, not too quiet.
I guess the big test is, would I pick the Galaxy or Celebrity over another ship or another cruise line? When I first wrote this, I said "No, I would probably, all else being equal, go back to Princess". As it happens, some Texas friends phoned us just after I had written this, and invited us to join them on an Alaska cruise in June, and guess what, not only is it Celebrity, but it's the Galaxy! It can only be better, my complaint about the non-English speaking people probably won't be relevant to an Alaska cruise, and I expect my favorite bartender to remember my standing order (grin).
Alan Walker is quite an experienced cruiser and is a regular columnist and reviewer for The SeaLetter. Originally from Australia, Alan has been a renowned Attorney in Vancouver for some time and is currently a librarian and member of the Cruise Staff of CompuServe's UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: email@example.com.
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