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Cruise Ship Review
Celebrity Cruises

Zenith

by David H. Herschler

Zenith

Preface

Although Celebrity's Zenith is now 8 years old and is no longer considered a new ship, it underwent refurbishment in 1999 and its Bermuda itinerary continues to grow in popularity. As this was our first cruise on a Celebrity ship and our first visit to Bermuda, it seemed an appropriate time to file a report. I will attempt to provide a general review of the Zenith cruise experience and focus on recent changes to the ship and areas of particular interest to me in placing this cruise vacation among our others of recent vintage. In doing so, of course, comparisons will be made and it is up to the reader to weigh my relatively subjective judgments in considering your own interests.

But let me say up front that I was very favorably impressed with Celebrity, the ship, and with Bermuda. It was, by virtually all accounts, an excellent cruise.

For the record, this was our 9th cruise in the last 5 years. We were traveling with our 23-year-old son, our 20-year-old daughter, and her friend. With the exception of Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress, all of our other cruises have been on mega-ships exceeding 70,000 Gross Registered Tons (GRT).

The Ship

At 47,255 GRT, Zenith is truly a medium-sized cruise ship by today's standards. Almost all the staterooms are uniform size, and there are no staterooms with balconies. Like most of its closest competitors, Celebrity has gone more recently to larger ships with plenty of "balcony staterooms." But Zenith and its slightly older near-twin sister Horizon have a very traditional look, as there is no dramatic multi-level atrium as found on Nordic Empress. Nevertheless, this ship is by no means a fuddy-duddy; it has most of the modern amenities expected by today's cruise passengers. The overall ambiance of the interior of Zenith is understated elegance, and I found this much to my liking (somewhat to my surprise).

Michael's ClubThis sophisticated look was enhanced during the recent refurbishment. The existing disco was scrapped in favor of a trio of wood-paneled rooms on the port side of Fantasy Deck (8), towards the aft of the ship. An expanded card and game room now is adjacent to an expanded library, which includes a projection TV and four oversized easy chairs with foot-rests, each with headset connections to a CD player. Both these rooms were heavily used daily by passengers of all ages. The third room is Michael's Club, where hand-rolled cigars can be purchased and smoked, and cocktails are available. The Rainbow Lounge, located aft on Fantasy Deck, now serves as a disco for the late night set.

One of my favorite public rooms was the Cova Café. Centrally located on Fantasy Deck just aft of the mid-ship elevator/stairway lobby, the Cova Café is a bright and airy lounge by day or night offering a variety of boutique coffees or standard bar drinks. At night a wonderful pianist (see entertainment section, below) plays requests and adds immeasurably to the relaxing atmosphere.

The Mayfair Casino is also located on Fantasy Deck, just forward of the mid-ship elevator/stairway lobby. The Casino distinguishes itself by providing a refined environment. There are plenty of slots and all the standard gaming tables are available, but tables are spaced far enough apart and the slot machines essentially ring the outer sections of the Casino on three sides so that the noise level is substantially lower than in the ship-board Casinos I've encountered previously. Decorative lamps hover over each of the gaming tables, contributing to the more sophisticated look in the room. Although the Casino often was busy, it did not seem crowded or smoke-filled.

Rendevous LoungeThe other interior public rooms the Caravelle Restaurant, the Rendezvous Lounge, the two-deck Celebrity Show Lounge, and the Fleet Lounge (topside) are all tastefully decorated with mellow wood walls and ceilings and/or other design features that are comfortable and quietly attractive. A full range of duty-free shops are located mid-ship on Fantasy Deck and Galaxy Deck (7), along with the photo shop and an art gallery. Zenith also has a Martini Bar, a Celebrity signature feature, located on Galaxy Deck starboard side, just around the corner from the larger Rendezvous Lounge.

Topside on Zenith there is little that is unique or noteworthy. The central pool area has plenty of shade with tables in the shaded areas. The deck chairs around the pools on Marina Deck (11) have comfortable blue cushions, but the chairs on the Sun Deck (12) overlooking the pool are the basic pool lounge chair. However, on Sun Deck aft there are several movable "love-seat" type chairs that include footrests, drink and food holders, and overhangs for shade. I have not seen this type of chair on any other cruise ship.

The aft section of Sun Deck also has three jacuzzis and the AquaSpa, whereas the aft jacuzzis on Horizon were removed during its refurbishment as I understand it. The AquaSpa offers most, but not all of the services found on the larger Celebrity ships, and I found the gym rather small and cramped, which led to overcrowding at times. The Windsurf Café is located aft on Marina Deck, and includes an outside eating area astern where The Grill is located. There are outside sitting areas astern on Atlantic Deck (10) and Bahamas Deck (9) the latter also has a golf net and ping pong table and the top four decks are terraced so that each deck's sitting area is in the sun.

The main lobby of Zenith is located separately from the other public areas amidships on Europa Deck (5). Here one can find the Guest Relations and Shore Excursion desks, as well as the bank and the Cabin Service desk, and main entrances to the ship. The area is two-decks high with an artificial skylight. Although the location of the Zenith lobby is in stark contrast to the main lobbies on larger ships with atriums surrounded by glass elevators and spiral staircases, this lobby is quite attractive and had considerably less traffic or distractions than on the larger ships, and this facilitated passengers' ability to conduct business.

Overall, I found it relatively easy to navigate around the ship. The more compact size of the ship helped, as did the three elevator/stairway lobbies. People who are headed topside must remember that the mid-ship elevator/stairway ends at Atlantic Deck, and the aft elevator/stairway is the only one that extends up to Sun Deck, where the AquaSpa is located. One final note: on Zenith, smoking is restricted to the port side of the public rooms. We found that this feature significantly cut down the exposure to smoke for non-smokers.

The Stateroom

Outside CabinWe took adjacent Category 7 outside cabins just around the corner from the mid-ship elevator/stairway lobby on Bahamas Deck. All Category 7 cabins are considered "obstructed view" because of the lifeboats, but our window was located between two lifeboats so we had a relatively unobstructed view. If you use the deck plan wisely you can take advantage of these type of staterooms, which are identical to all the other standard outside staterooms but often can be had at a lower price because of the "obstructed view". The location was excellent. Most of the public areas on the ship were either one or two decks down or up, and there was no noise whatsoever from the proximity of the mid-ship elevators and stairway.

Like the rest of the ship, the cabins are very well appointed and at 172 sq. ft. are a very nice size for two people. We had three adults in a cabin, and with a rollaway or, in our case, just a mattress on the floor, the room was a bit crowded. There is plenty of closet space, however, and the bathroom, while not huge, is very utilitarian. The showers are larger than in the standard staterooms on RCI or Princess ships, and Celebrity provides a hair dryer and a variety of other bathroom accessories. Celebrity was one of the first cruise lines to have interactive television. The TVs on Zenith have been upgraded to 19-inch screens, and it is possible to order shore excursions or pay-per-view movies, view your shipboard account, and even play casino games through the television system. Besides a remote control, there are TV, radio, room light and sound controls on the night table. Room safes are located on a closet shelf and are the type which are opened with a four-digit code so it is not necessary to use a credit card to open and lock the safe.

 

Service

This is one of the areas where my expectations were quite high, based on Celebrity's reputation for service and its own rather lofty claims. With only a minor exception or two, I can state categorically that the crew and staff of Zenith certainly met and even exceeded my expectations. Overall Celebrity has one of the best staff-to-passenger ratios in the cruise industry and this was evident in virtually every category of service. A service staff member was always available when needed, yet went about their business as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. This was especially the case with our room steward, Alberto, and his assistant, who met our every wish from extra towels to delivering room service -- expeditiously and with a smile.

Speaking of smiles, I have read postings on some message boards that Celebrity's reputation for high quality service was no longer deserved, that the overall service level and attitude of the staff had slipped, particularly on Zenith. Nothing can be further from reality, in my experience. From the moment we stepped on board, wherever we went on the ship, members of the staff, from the Captain to workers who polished the hand railings in the stairwells, always offered a smile and a friendly greeting when we passed each other on the ship. The bartenders and bar servers were friendly and courteous. There was a minimum of hawking the drink of the day at poolside, yet someone was always nearby to take a drink order. In particular, we found the two bartenders in the Martini bar Dominic from The Philippines and Eva from Columbia especially engaging. We struck up a conversation early in the cruise and we tried to stop by each evening for a drink and a chat. Dominic is an amateur magician who loves to demonstrate his skills with an easy laugh.

As for the dining room service, Celebrity has very rigid standards and procedures to maintain a rather formal atmosphere in the dining room. There is impeccable attention to detail, as observed by the number of silverware pieces at each setting at dinner (11-12), and the variety of dining room staff, including the table waiter, assistant waiter, section head waiter, bar waiter, and wine steward. Sometimes this formality got to be a bit much. More plates and silverware seemed to be removed routinely after a passenger placed a dinner order than were actually used, and both our bar waiter and assistant waiter on more than one occasion were slow to bring drinks such as iced tea or sodas according to them because the appropriate glassware was not available. Meanwhile, unused wine glasses or water glasses were sitting on our table. The thought of pouring iced tea or soda into a water glass seemed to fill these folks with dread. In the end, either our waiter took the risk and poured the drink into the offending glass or, miraculously, the proper glass suddenly materialized and we were served. So it is possible that this bit of silliness was due to the inexperience of our assistant waiter and bar waiter (first sailing for both) rather than standard practice in the dining room. Certainly our waiter was thoroughly professional and helpful, and we heard rave reviews about the dining room staff from other passengers.

Entertainment Staff and Activities

I know this may sound incongruous, but it seemed to us that the number of organized activities and full time entertainment staff on Zenith put to shame their equivalents on Carnival including Carnival Destiny. From the moment the ship sailed, the cruise director, his staff of five hosts and hostess and the Matrix dancers were poolside teaching and leading dancing and ensuring that every passenger who wanted to get involved did just that.

The daily program was filled with a large variety of activities ranging from pool games, trivia contests, ice and fruit carving demonstrations, mixology demonstrations and wine tasting, aerobics and dance lessons, to lectures and seminars on stress and financial management.

Of course there were also the usual late-night theme parties, kareoke sessions, bingo, passenger talent show and audience participation games in the theater plus the professional entertainment (see below). The key element here is the level of personal involvement and participation by the entertainment staff, from the cruise director down, in these activities. As an example, several times during the week the cruise director, the assistant cruise director, and four of the hosts and hostess, jumped in the pool and challenged passengers to water volleyball. It was competitive, but all in good fun and drew large numbers of participants and was completely representative of the host of organized activities aboard Zenith. Who said you can't have a refined cruise experience and a full program of lively activities at the same time?

A special word should be said about the cruise director, Julian Bertsch. Our August 12, 2000 sailing was only his third week on board Zenith. Typically it takes several weeks for a new cruise director to mesh with the entertainment staff and develop a high quality, efficient program. But Julian's 12 years of experience with Celebrity made it possible for his transition to cruise director of Zenith to be virtually seamless. This is one cruise director who does not sit in an office and let his staff do all the work. He handled all the typical activities of the cruise director and, as mentioned, participated in many others. He enjoyed especially, teaching various line dances. Most importantly, he was out and about and visible much of the time. He even took time from a very busy day to speak to me about the entertainment program on Zenith.

The Entertainment

This is an area where Celebrity's reputation has not been particularly stellar. But I thought the live, professional entertainment on this cruise was just fine and in some ways quite outstanding. Bear in mind that Celebrity is somewhat limited in what it can do with the professional shows because the Bermuda Government requires the theater to be dark the three nights spent docked at the island each week. Nevertheless, the Matrix dancers and singers who are contracted by Celebrity for Zenith presented three production shows during the cruise and there was one "specialty" show: a very entertaining magician.

Although the productions were not up to the high standards of the shows on Royal Caribbean and Carnival, they were really quite enjoyable. There were only 6 female dancers and one male dancer (the other was injured) performing on our sailing, which means the entire ensemble must work that much harder to keep the show going.

Show LoungeThe Celebrity Show Lounge, while not the equal of the theaters on the newest cruise ships, was equipped with close to a full range of near state-of-the-art technical capabilities with the exception of the stage itself, which did not have the computerized lifts that the newer stages have. From a technical standpoint, the quality of the shows was good, although there were occasional miscues (i.e., the curtain did not close fully at the bottom and some lighting cues were late). Most of the technical errors were not apparent to a typical viewer, even though a large number of passengers came from the New York area where there is widespread exposure to Broadway and other top-of-the-line-live entertainment.

Other professional entertainment on Zenith included On Lyne, a Caribbean-style band from St. Lucia, a string duo who frequented the Fleet Bar topside, another duo who played dance music in the Rendezvous Lounge, the aforementioned pianist in the Cova Café, and a pianist who played at dinner and doubled as an accordianist leading tableside birthday and anniversary celebrations. Two of the above performers are especially noteworthy. On Lyne, who I had read much about on the message boards prior to the cruise, certainly lived up to their reputation. They were poolside every afternoon and in the Rainbow Lounge each evening, playing not only terrific Caribbean music, but pop dance music, as well. They even provided the music for "country and western" night poolside while the ship was docked in Hamilton. Also, the pianist in the Cova Café, Gordon Hayman, was just wonderful, taking requests every night, playing mostly pop and show tunes, encouraging people to join in, and during his breaks he enjoyed just chatting with people. If he did not know a requested song, most often he'd come up with it later in the cruise. He also invited a member of the cruise staff, and also my daughter (who is a professionally trained singer) to sing a few numbers several times during the week. We generally caught Gordon's final set each night before turning in. It was a great, relaxing way to end the day.

Food

Here is another area where Celebrity's reputation created rather high expectations on my part. I don't usually find it useful to comment much on the food because everyone has such different tastes. So let me say, very generally, that in some respects I thought the food deserved the outstanding reputation, and in some respects the reputation as a top gourmet dining experience is a bit misleading. Overall I thought the quality of the food was very good and had few, if any, complaints. The dinner menus are a bit more limited in choices than those on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or Princess. But there is a real effort to present unusual and often interesting appetizers and soups, especially. I found that most of the entreés, however, were similar to the other cruise lines, except that a special sauce in some cases was used, and the meals often had pretentious names (a filet mignon with a long French name is still a steak). The desserts and other baked items were uniformly excellent. We always ate breakfast in the Windsurf Café, not only because it was faster but because the quality and variety of the breakfasts was the best I have experienced on a cruise ship. The lunches in the Windsurf including the grill items -- were more typical of other cruise ships in variety and quality, and although the pizza was fine, I still think Carnival serves the best tasting pizza at sea. Two final points: the only food available after 1 a.m. is through room service, and late night buffets whether part of a theme night or the gala buffet alternated with a new Celebrity signature feature called "gourmet bites," where waiters bring around fancy finger foods and pastries in the several public rooms where activities were occurring, including the Casino. I thought this feature met with mixed reviews among the passengers. At least it limited late night gorging that is so bad for one's health.

Itinerary

I have little doubt that anyone who has cruised to Bermuda and elsewhere would rate this island paradise very close to the top of their list. There are enough picturesque spots on this beautiful island to attract even the most jaded photographer. The island is clean; the people are friendly; and it is quite safe to get around, even at night (unless, of course, you rent a moped and try to race around the island). We had a bit of bad luck with the weather, as our visits to Horseshoe Bay Beach and Tobacco Bay Beach were cut short by torrential downpours. Still, we got more than our share of sunshine, and one day hired a taxi for a wonderful and fascinating island tour.

I am convinced the best way to be introduced to Bermuda is by a cruise, especially if you are a cruise enthusiast. You spend half the week at the island, which is enough time to get acquainted, and cruising to Bermuda provides one of the best values, as lodging and food costs on Bermuda are VERY pricey. Now that we have done this, I think we would be inclined perhaps to try a land vacation in Bermuda the next time, thanks to some very helpful tips about good summertime lodging values from our taxi driver/tour guide and our tour enabled us to see some of these lodging locations first-hand. By the way, Celebrity offers, in my view, the best itinerary for Bermuda, with two nights in Hamilton and one night in St. George's. No other cruise line currently provides that ideal combination. Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress, NCL's Norwegian Majesty, and the Princess Cruises' Pacific Princess, all exclude one or both of these port stops.

Final Thoughts

Bermuda is no longer just for honeymooners. With the possible exception of Alaska, it has become an extraordinarily popular summer cruise destination, so much so that the Bermuda Government invited Celebrity to add Horizon to this year's list of ships with a Bermuda itinerary. Next year Carnival will have an entry in Bermuda. Despite the growing number of ships calling at Bermuda, virtually all the summer sailings sell out. Our sailing was full two weeks before the cruise, and had a very nice group of passengers ranging in age from 6 months to 80s, with the typical passengers being middle aged couples traveling with their families. The Passengers made for good traveling companions, and although the ship was sold out there were no lines and hardly any crowds anywhere except perhaps around the pool on at-sea days. The ship, the crew and staff, the passengers, and the beautiful island paradise of Bermuda contributed to a wonderful vacation. Even a couple of rough nights at sea on the trip from New York could not detract from our enjoyment of this cruise. Celebrity and Bermuda What a terrific combination for the entire family! Better book soon for 2001 because available cabins will go fast.

Photos courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

Line

David Herschler is an historian with the United States State Deparment.


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