Dover to New York Europe & Transatlantic Cruise
Having traveled aboard Celebrity's smaller twins, Horizon and Zenith, my wife and I were wondering how the Celebrity formula would translate when applied to a ship a third again as large as the familiar and well loved twins.
After a pleasant coach ride from London Coach Station to the Dover passenger terminal, we were agog at the size of Constellation tied up to the quay in front of the much smaller Braemar and behind the newly liveried Mona Lisa. Once we'd checked in and handled the boarding formalities, we were welcomed aboard the vessel into a spacious, earth toned warm and friendly world.
The passenger embarkation lobby, where pursers office, currency exchange, future voyages and port tours were located, was done in wood paneling, cappa shell toned stairway to the deck above and marble flooring.
As standard operating procedure, we then made our way up to deck 10 and walked to the stern to take advantage of the welcome aboard luncheon always done in wonderful style by Celebrity. We were greeted by smiling waiters, and made our way along the serving line sampling a bit of this and a bit of that. It's nice that when the waiters see someone with a cane, in this case my wife, they quickly take the tray and select for her and then carry the filled tray to the table of our choice. This breakfast / luncheon venue is a great place to dine - especially if you get there early and can get a seat next to the floor to overhead windows. The view is superb as we were to find out later in the cruise when we chose to dine there one evening in casual dress. The area is transformed with tablecloths, nattily attired waiters and we dined on excellent steak with a view to die for as we watched the sun go down.
Constellation is what the current parlance calls a mega-ship at 965 feet in length, and weighing in at some 90,000 gross tons. Everything you've ever enjoyed on a smaller Celebrity vessel, like my favorite Horizon, is here but in larger scale. There are small cozy places to simply sit and read or just watch the ocean go by, yet the lounges were spacious enough so that one never felt cramped or crowded despite an excess of 2,400 passengers. The flow from one public room to the next is probably the best we've experienced on a cruise ship.
We sailed some two hours late owing to the vagaries of bad weather and delayed airline flights; we had to wait for two large busloads of passengers who came directly from an airport. We were in the main dining room at sailing time and we shared a table with an older couble from South Carolina and two gentlemen from Bryn Mawr, PA. We became 'mates in the best sense of the word and enjoyed their company for the balance of the cruise. After an excellent meal served by highly attentive waitstaff, sommelier and bar waitress, we established what was to be our routine for the cruise: Dinner, followed by a slow walk forward to the show lounge to take in Celebrity's excellent Broadway quality entertainment. We've seen the entertainment aboard Holland America, aboard Royal Caribbean and aboard Celebrity and the Celebrity musicians, the singers and dancers and the headliners are truly head and shoulders above the competition.
One of the benefits of traveling aboard a larger ship is that if you choose to take that late night stroll around the deck, it lasts longer. On the downside, in the morning when you need that first cup of coffee, it's a longer trek to the café. Everything is a trade off! One pleasant experience aboard was to head for the lounges that are protected from the sun yet near the pool area. It's easy to grab a hamburger and a soda from the outside grill, or get a salad, some fruit and some pasta and have a light lunch poolside. Every day at 1300, the on board party band – EBONY – played for an hour - those so inclined danced off their calories – and lots of folks just relaxed in chaises and read their books. It was an incredibly pleasant experience. The only surprise was when we were buzzed and I do mean BUZZED by two French air force jets who came in and went out on afterburners about 75 feet above the deck. After the tragedy of 9-11, people are still on edge even out at sea. It was nice to see Celebrity's security force virtually come out of the woodwork to insure that all was well and that no one was too traumatized by these irresponsibile flyboy antics.
As with most trips of our experience there were plenty of activities from dance lessons to flower arranging to trivia games to Veterans gatherings scheduled each morning and afternoon. The nice part is that each takes no more than 45 minutes to an hour. On all our sea days another very popular area was the broad expanse of promenade deck where people either took the sun, read or napped after a bit too much lunch. Truly there is nothing like doing virtually nothing while you watch the ocean go by - no phones, no TV, and generally hushed voices. We took great enjoyment in the Cova Café where all types of coffees and pastries are available each afternoon. We had our choice of a string quartet playing in the café or an acapella group - both were top notch. The string quartet somehow seemed a bit more gentile and appropriate for afternoon coffee and a pastry. This truly was the good life.
At this point perhaps I should mention the ports. Our first landfall was at Le Havre, France; the bus tour we joined was excellent - two lovely seacost villages and miles of beautiful farmland. It's sad to have to mention that the bus service was sub-standard in terms of air-conditioning and getting the driver to understand you can't have a busload of elder and some handicapped passengers frying in a bus with the air conditioning shut off while waiting for some stragglers.
Our second stop at Cork, Ireland was pleasant enough with a reasonably good bus tour and guide yet the city of Cork despite its years of history seemed run down and certainly not on our list of places to return to. Bus service back and forth to the ship was outstanding.
We then pulled into Belfast in Northern Ireland and this was the real treat of the trip. We signed up for a tour - our guide Noreen was superb - and we enjoyed the green Irish countryside in addition to touring a small castle. There were some good opportunities for photographers and again the shuttle bus service from downtown Belfast to the ship was outstanding. We spent several hours walking the downtown shopping areas which were every bit the equal of New York or other large cosmopolitan cities. Lunch at a local pub, recommended by a lady in the post office from whom we bought stamps, was a pleasure - one of the places where the locals usually dine. Later on a stop for coffee at a sidewalk café gave us that great pastime of people watching and the youngsters of Belfast are up to the latest styles and hair dos - certainly the equal of young Londoners or New Yorkers. We were sad to have to depart and head back for the ship, and plan on visiting Belfast again. There was evidence of the troubles that have plagued the area but at no time was personal security a reason for concern.
While in Spain we were able to walk around the older section of town, buy some souvenirs from one of the many street vendors and lunch at an outdoor café where the food was exceptional and where thankfully they were aware that Americans have a penchant for lots of ice. We took in as much local color as we were able, stopped in a small ice cream shop for a wonderful gelata and sat in the park for nearly an hour. During the two hour siesta, only the restaurants stayed open and it was 3 p.m. before the other businesses reopened. While we probably should have attempted a cab tour of the city, we kept things local, window shopped and didn't stray too far from the harbour area.
Being the fourth ship of her class, Constellation is powered by Gas Turbines and manouvered via Mermaid Pods designed by Rolls Royce. For a vessel of her size, the well worn expression "can turn on a dime" would seem to be an exaggeration. However, this ship is supremely capable of the highest degree of manouvererability I've ever experienced. Leaving the port of Vigo, Spain, the largest natural harbour in the world, unless you focused on the mountains or buildings you would never sense that the vessel had turned 180 degrees and was moving toward the open sea. The harbour at Vigo is so large, it took one hour to sail from the quay to the open sea.
There was no lack of activity aboard Constellation. We attended six afternoon lectures by noted maritime author John Maxtone-Graham which were both entertaining and informative. Maxtone-Graham is an excellet speaker and his love of ships has given him a storehouse of anecdotes about different vessels and passengers of his acquaintance. Born in America, and reared in England, he brings to the podium a large gift of knowledge, superb humour and inescapable British charm. For futher information, CLICK HERE to read SeaLetter Columnist Lisa Plotnick's Interview with John Maxtone-Graham.
Constellation also has its own flower shop aboard and the displays are magnificent, the florists tremendously talented and the creations exceptional. Upon entering this hushed atmosphere, it is almost as if you'd entered a botanical garden - moist, quiet and beautiful - an interesting experience while cruising.
Each evening the service in the main dining room, made even more pleasant by our waiter moving us to a table by a large window, was attentive but not obtrusive. The dining room staff went about their business quietly, having learned your likes and dislikes and the superb bar waitress took only two nights before she would ask me, "The usual, Mr. Sturges?" Even though we'd chosen the first seating for our dinner, the service was unhurried. Our table companions were people of fairly eclectic travel tastes so we never wanted for interesting table conversation. We'd all cruised a number of times so our comparison and contrasting of different ships was a topic all enjoyed.
We sampled a movie one evening in the comfortable theater, and, on a few dreary afternoons sailing transatlantic, we took our chances in the Casino. Not big gamblers, my wife and I made do with the slot machines and some other games of chance which of course looked easier to win then they proved to be. Afternoon tea was available each day, but we did not attend. We did, however, manage to traipse back to the café on several evenings approaching 10 p.m. for a few small slices of pizza and a pleasant half hour sitting on the after deck under the stars. The magnificence of a transatlantic crossing is the understanding of how truly insignificant you can feel sailing across the world's second largest ocean while at the same time knowing that in a heartbeat you can be treated royally simply by stepping inside.
Captain Papanikalou made himself know each day by attending at poolside and chatting with the passengers. He also gave a daily weather report and advised us well in advance of our changed itinerary and planned port call at Vigo. Some of the passengers wondered if his gentle, yet in command voice, was natural or acquired. Whichever, it was a nice touch back to reality as the six days crossing melded into a relaxing and joyful experience second to none. All of the senior staff aboard Constellation were always friendly and we learned that aboard each Celebrity ship an officer is in charge of customer satisfaction training. Celebrity appears to have their eye on customer focus all the way.
One feature of the ship that we did not sample was the Ocean Liners Restaurant, decorated much as you would have found aboard some of the great transatlantic liners of the twenties and thirties. A wonderful collection of marine art graced the library paneled walls, a collection of elder ship models were on display in a build in breakfront and the elegance truly exuded from the elegance of the room and the crisp white table linens. The next time aboard one of the Celebrity quartet we will try this optional at extra cost dining venue.
For us this was the vacation of a lifetime - being away from normal routine for 17 days. Each experience aboard ship was more pleasant than the last and the crew went above and beyond to insure your satisfaction.
While I am loathe to speak in the negative I have to be honest in describing my one area of complaint. Celebrity appears to have done away with priority debarkation for handicapped - the focus is getting passengers with Celebrity planned airport connections off the ship and onto the busses to the airport. When I enquired about this twice, once by phone and another time at the desk, I didn't get the feeling the people I spoke with actually understood my concern; it had been handled masterfully on Zenith and Horizon. I decided to speak to the Guest Relations Manager who invited me into her office and then proceeded to grill me as to why I hadn't dealt with this issue out at the desk. I reminded her that satisfaction had not been forthcoming and that's why I was there. I got lip service, virtually no satisfaction.
Once the ship docked in New York, we had been given specific directions on how to approach the main show lounge for customs and debarkation formalities. At a point where two lines were supposed to merge, and a cruise staff member should have been stationed, there was no one and the people on the longer line refused to allow us on the shorter line to merge with them sending us to the back of the line - some 600 feet toward the stern. I spoke with the assistant cruise director, Corey, who feigned interest, mumbled something, turned and walked away. At this point I decided he was a lightweight, and this was not going to get solved today, so we kept the blood pressure down and got on with our debarkation.
The crew needs some finesse training and some guidance in writing the handed out instructions for debarkation.
Overall, this was one of the best cruise experiences we've had. We are going to try two other ships this year, not Celebrity, just to see what the competition is offering. We just love being at sea and for our vacations, cruising fills the bill better than anything else we've tried.
Photos courtesy of Celebrity Cruises
CLICK HERE for much more information and many more photos of Celebrity Cruises Constellation.
Joseph Sturges is from Farmingville, New York and works for the Defense Contract Management Agency at Northrop Grumman Corporation on Long Island. He prices and negotiates contracts for goods and services provided to the US Navy. This was the Sturges' fifth cruise as a married couple and Joseph's seventh cruise overall. You may contact Mr Sturgess for questions or comments at: Joseph.Sturges@dcma.mil.
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