Celebrity Cruises; from Premium to Luxury

| July 2, 2003

Champagne and juice upon embarkation. Sorbets served poolside. Italian and French pastries. Spa cuisine in the Aqua Spa. An evening sushi cafe. These are just a few examples of the "Taste of Luxury" concepts that Celebrity Cruises introduced last fall aboard its Millennium as part of the company's Brand Transformation program. The best part? All of these extras are complimentary. The overall program, which affects dining, service and activities, will be rolled out fleetwide after this trial period on Millennium.

Celebrity Millennium
Celebrity Cruises has built a strong reputation as a premium cruise line. Its hallmarks are food, service and excellent spa facilities, the latter especially on its newer ships beginning with Century. In early April, I sailed Celebrity for the first time in five years, on a seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise. It was my first time on Millennium, the flagship of the line's new generation of large vessels. At 90,228 tons and a passenger capacity of 1,950, the ship's "space ratio" is 46, very generous for the premium category. On this cruise to the Dominican Republic, San Juan, St. Thomas and Nassau, the total guest count was just under 2,100, including 195 folks under 18. There wasn't too much crowding at any time; this is a benefit of the ship's design and its many options for dining and entertainment.

Many of the new "Taste of Luxury" components are in the dining area, where Celebrity already has a sterling reputation. The program, under the guidance of master chef Michel Roux, is superb and operates at a very high level. The main dining room, the Metropolitan Restaurant, is a beautiful two-level (Decks 4 and 5) room with gorgeous aft views. Evening meals are exceptional and accompanied in part by live music. The Ocean Cafe (Deck 10) is a multi-purpose restaurant open 24 hours a day. There are buffets for breakfast and lunch with omelet and pasta/sandwich stations. The buffet items have all the usual items but go well beyond the norm for the recently upgraded theme lunches -- Oriental, Mexican and Italian. In the evening, Ocean Cafe also serves as the alternative restaurant, a more casual spot for dinner (reservations suggested) but with waiter and white tablecloth service. In the evening, there are also pizza and pasta semi-self-serve items. This is also where the Sushi Cafe operates from 6-10 p.m. -- a very popular spot indeed.

  Video interview with Celebrity Chef Michel Roux!

Metropolitan Dining Room
As part of Celebrity's product changes, the Riviera Grill hours have been expanded so hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza are now available until 6 p.m. Another newly added dining option is the AquaSpa Cafe, a neat little secret near the Thalassatherapy Pool serving healthy breakfasts and then light meals from noon until 8 p.m. I had a couple come up to me at the end of the cruise (mistaking me for a cruise executive - how funny) raving about this spot as their favorite place to eat and avoid other guests. My personal favorite food spot was the Cova Cafe di Milano, which offers another new product enhancement, "A Taste of Europe," featuring pastries and snacks in the morning and afternoon. The Pane con Cioccolata (a chocolate pastry) I had every morning was better than anything I have ever had in Italy. And the young kid who ran after his grandfather one morning hollering out "More free food" was hilarious.

  Video interview with Celebrity Chief Somalier!

Table-side FlambeOlympic
Millennium also features the Olympic Restaurant, a specialty venue that charges $25 per person. It's worth a whole lot more for its dining experience, which takes at least 2 1/2 hours for the multiple-course dinner. There are significant French overtones to each course, especially the incredible cheese course before dessert. The service -- headed up by the Maitre d' Dominique but with a whole team of waiters and lots of tableside preparation -- was impeccable, and made for an outstanding evening. Even with the historical significance and nautical theming of the surroundings (the Olympic was the sister ship to the Titanic), this meal was very special.

There are service and activity-related changes as well. Each afternoon at sea, sunbathers were presented with cold towels, ice water and iced tea. And then at 2:45, a parade of 35 white shirt, cummerbund and tuxedo pant-clad assistant waiters paraded and provided sorbets that had a very cooling effect. The first day this happened, I saw many mouths open in astonishment. But by the last day of the cruise, guests registered a sense of entitlement. Upon embarkation, guests were treated to a glass of champagne or orange juice (a nice touch usually in the realm of the luxury lines).

There was a nicely done fashion show one evening in the atrium, a great three-deck location. The library now has a fulltime librarian, and it also rents out MP3 players. I loved the library (especially the upper level) and the music room (private sound systems) for quiet time. Celebrity has eliminated the cigar lounge and turned it into a piano bar (now if they would only eliminate all cigarette smoking, but maybe that's just me). The line also beefed up its lecture program with a variety of talks, and there was a cooking demonstration one morning (even though the location wasn't ideal for guest viewing). Supposedly Deck 13 forward has been transformed into a topless sunbathing deck, but I would not know about that for sure.

Starting with the three ships in its Century class, Celebrity has a well-deserved reputation for superior spas, and the Aqua spa on Millennium is no exception. The facilities are expansive and extensive. Pilates and yoga classes have been added recently and seem to be popular even with a fee being charged. There is a huge solarium area, hardly ever crowded, that included a Thalassatherapy pool and very comfortable lounge chairs. On the Century class ships this pool used to be available only to those using paid services, but on Millennium it's open to everyone.

During the evening, there was plenty to do, including three production shows: Broadway, Rock 'n' Roll, and "Classique," a musical review with lots of different styles including classical and pop. There were cabaret acts and a late night comedy act (billed for adults only but not at all offensive). And there was lots of live music around the ship in various lounges ranging from piano to guitar, from harp to string quartets. And, of course, there was the late night disco.

Grand StaircaseClick for pic
Celebrity has also made changes in its kids' program. Open to kids from 3-17 and broken down into four age groups, it now offers a complimentary slumber party on formal evenings without the nominal baby-sitting charge (a very nice touch). On days with early shore excursions, the children's program opens early, making it easy for parents to go off on those tours and leave their kids in good hands on board. And there is a no-charge dinner party each evening except the first night of the cruise, thus allowing parents to have dinner without their kids.

Some of the new concepts aren't that special, at least for me: The sail-away song and announcement from the Captain; the late-night hors d'oeuvres (not really new), evening wine bar and some others. But why quibble?

The hardware of Millennium is terrific. For such a large ship, she is beautifully laid out and easy to get around. Most of the inside public rooms are on Decks 4 and 5 with the reception area centrally located on Deck 3. The pool area on Deck 10 is very comfortable with a wide walking and sitting area on Deck 11. I didn't see the usual rush and crush for deck chairs, even on sea days. Debarkation in port was very easy, especially since we docked in all four places.

In all, a Celebrity cruise is a terrific premium experience that would appeal to a wide cross section of vacationers. I ran into guests who paid an astonishing variety of prices for the same category (they volunteered the info, as it was a hot topic of conversation in lounges and at mealtime). But anyone from budget minded cruisers to those who want luxurious suites with lots of amenities and large-ship activities would be very happy. Celebrity has taken a product with an excellent reputation and enhanced it with these new concepts. There's been a lot of talk that since Royal Caribbean took over Celebrity the product has been diminished in quality. I didn't feel that at all.

Millennium is the Mediterranean for the summer months and will be back in the Caribbean in early November.

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