My wife and I are not first-cruisers, but neither are we veterans. We left New Orleans for our 2/8/02 - 2/15/02 Southern Caribbean cruise aboard Celebrity’s M/V Galaxy with great excitement, but also with some trepidation. I had read countless reviews in the weeks before we were to sail, some of which absolutely blasted Celebrity, and Galaxy in particular. Within our first few hours aboard, we knew that our fears were groundless and that our expectations would be exceeded.
Check In and Embarkation: We were set to sail from San Juan at 11:00 p.m. Check in and embarkation were to begin at 2:00, but we arrived at the terminal at about 1:00. This was no problem. Our bags were checked outside the terminal. The terminal was nearly deserted, so check in took only about ten minutes. One of the suite butlers came down, took our carry-ons and escorted us to the gangway. We were sent through the metal detectors, our carry on luggage was briefly examined, and we were then escorted to our suite on Deck 12, where we were introduced to Gina, our senior stateroom attendant, and Conroy, our butler. We quickly changed into shorts and T-shirts and set out to explore the nearly empty ship. About an hour later, we returned to find that our luggage had been delivered. I don't know whether to attribute our experience to our early arrival, or whether Celebrity simply did a good job, but the process was quick and smooth.
The Ship: One professional reviewer on another website described Celebrity's ships as "visual stunners." This is no less true of Galaxy. From the exterior, the ship appears sleek, streamlined and low slung like a hot rod. Unlike many other ships, her profile incorporates mostly horizontal lines. Vertical elements are minimal. Rather, the profound slope of her superstructure, masts and stack, and the white "racing stripe" accenting the hull, convey a sense of speed. While in port, seen from a distance, Galaxy appears ready to fly. She is truly impressive.
Onboard and within, Galaxy is as sleek as she appears on the water. The theme is contemporary, with at least one hundred fascinating examples of modern art scattered about the corridors, stairwells and public rooms, including works by lesser-known painters, photographers and sculptors. The decor in some public areas teeters on chaos, with color and pattern combinations that almost defy common sense, but for the most part, they really work well. The most curious and my favorite of these areas was the Savoy Night Club, with soft salmon tones, brass accents, zebra striped upholstery and a large jungle mural behind the bar. I know, it sounds tacky, but somehow, I guess through lighting and room layout, it works. By contrast, Michael's is more refined, with solid colored upholstery, chrome, glass and hardwood paneled walls, typical of the modern men's club feel it means to impart. Also worth mentioning is the Oasis Pool area. This is situated under a retractable dome roof, and is a bright space with tropical plants, sea green tile, white ceiling and decks enclosed by glass. It is like a sunroom or back porch that truly succeeds in bringing an outdoor feel indoors.
The decks are beautiful teak planks. The railings glisten with varnish and lacquer. The deck plans allow plenty topside options even when Galaxy is booked to capacity. Even on days at sea, when every passenger wanted to recline on deck, there were dozens of empty lounge chairs and ample deck space to be found either in the sun or shade, poolside or elsewhere. The tables with umbrellas on the fantail aft of the Oasis Pool were also great for a relaxing view of the wake and various islands receding in the distance. Inside the ship as well were numerous areas where people could gather for a drink, card game, or sit in relative seclusion with an espresso.
Common to many reviews I have read is that Galaxy can be a rough ship while underway, and that the stabilizers are either ineffective or used only judiciously to conserve fuel. Galaxy does list, sometimes frighteningly so, while changing heading. I have seen photographs of several feet of hull below the waterline exposed on the side opposite a turn. It is also true that the aft areas and those close to the positioning thrusters vibrate quite a bit. Even when I was nowhere near a clock, I always knew that we were about to leave port when the entire ship would vibrate for fifteen minutes or so while the engines were run up prior to getting underway. But be this as it may, none of it was of any real consequence or inconvenience. The ship was well ballasted, and whenever the seas caused us to roll for more than a few minutes, or if the moment (lateral distance a point aboard ship travels during a roll) became too great, the rocking would suddenly stop as the stabilizers were activated. We did not get seasick in the least, using only sea-bands and ginger capsules. Certain areas of the ship (such as our stateroom) creaked, groaned and thudded slightly in rough water, but this is to be expected. After all, Galaxy is a ship.
Food and Beverage: We all know what "cruise food" is - apparent gourmet cuisine prepared in banquet-sized quantities, to the best degree possible under the circumstances. We've all had overdone lamb chops, tough lobster tail, frozen seafood, soups and sauces that are a little too salty or that contain too much canned chicken stock. My wife and I are from New Orleans where we live to eat more than we eat to live, so I don't expect to be blown away by cruise food. I had also read reviews warning that Celebrity had been cutting corners since 9/11 and that food quality had declined. To put it mildly, dinners in the Orion Dining Room were excellent, even by New Orleans standards. I was so positively surprised by the first mouthful of mushroom stuffed pastry appetizer on the first night that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but I damn near fell out of my chair. Thus began a week of the best cruise food that I can imagine.
Michael Roux's style is very evidently French - a lot of demi-glace, blackened butter, pastry, baby vegetables, soufflés and the like. He incorporates many flourishes in the presentation, and is a wizard with flavors. Try the cold black cherry soup, the jalapeno polenta, the grilled duck breast, the veal cordon bleu or scaloppini, or the beef tenderloin. As for desserts, while on Barbados, I met a guy who had been on twenty-three cruises, many with Celebrity, who thought that Celebrity's pastries and desserts were the best of any you might find on land or sea in any country. While I can't agree completely, I will say that I can understand why he might feel this way. Desserts were excellent. Try the After Eight ice cream, the flourless chocolate cake or the tiramisu.
Most all other food, prepared by the Oasis (lido) cafe, was delicious, varied and visually appealing to say the least. This included breakfast, lunch, afternoon hors d'oerves, sweets, ice creams and such. The list of foods is extensive, but includes all styles of eggs, vast selections of excellent pastries and breads, bacon, sausage and ham, pancakes, french toast, waffles, grits, cold cereals, smoked salmon, kippers, fruit, cold cuts, sandwiches, salads, carved roasted meats, pasta, potatoes, vegetables, and on and on and on and on and on... For lunch in the cafe one day, my wife had green lamb curry, pappadams, jasmine rice and stuffed zucchini that rivaled the cuisine in some of the best Indian restaurants. The Tex-Mex midnight buffet on deck after Aruba included fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, tacos, beans, rice and huge slabs of barbecued beef baby back ribs. The afternoon canapés were proscuitto and melon, cucumber sandwiches, caviar with boiled egg and sour cream, marinated vegetables, etc.... The presentation of all of these meals and mini-meals was visually staggering.
The burgers and dogs at the Oasis grill were great - perfect poolside food. Be sure to try the Celebrity pickles here. I think that they're freshly made aboard ship.
As for adult refreshments, suffice it to say that we had our fill and then some. We were very, very thirsty. Liquor and beer prices at most of the bars on the ship are consistent with those at better hotels and restaurants. Michael's was a bit pricier because they only serve the finest - single barrel whiskeys, older ports, and better cognacs. The wine list is extensive and very good, and bottles seemed a little lower priced than the traditional 300% markup. Soft drinks and specialty coffees are not complimentary, but juices, lemonade, tea and coffee are.
Before my cruise, I had read one review complaining that food was not readily available aboard Galaxy and that the writer's inability to get some iced tea or something-or-other ruined his vacation. I have no idea what ship this person was on but it certainly wasn't Galaxy. My wife and I must have eaten five meals a day. There was literally nothing that we could not have at virtually any time we wanted it. Sure, there are periods between meals when the full menu is not available or the pizzeria is closed, but how could anyone in his right mind realistically expect otherwise?
The Stateroom: We booked on December 26, rather late for our February 8 sail date. We originally guaranteed a Category 4 deluxe ocean view stateroom with sitting area, and were assigned to 9008, all the way forward on Deck 9. My wife had been a little seasick on our last cruise so the forward stateroom didn't seem to be such a great plan. Also, we had talked a lot about having a veranda on this cruise, so a few days later, decided that we would upgrade to a Category 2 deluxe ocean view with sitting area and veranda, one of which was available roughly amidships. But by the time we called our agent to upgrade, the prices had soared. The Category 2 was by then the same price as a Category 1 suite guaranty. We decided to go for the suite, as all possible locations were good, and because of all the added amenities such as larger room, full in suite breakfast, a butler, etc. The gamble paid off. Within a few days, we were upgraded to a Sky Suite - 1222. The Sky Suite is the same size and layout as a Category 1 - 246 sq. ft. - but with a much larger veranda, and is on Deck 12, the highest deck with staterooms. In short, our accommodations were excellent. The room was mostly blue with light wood paneling and fixtures. The bathroom was entirely marble, with a full size tub. The bed was extremely comfortable, but as mentioned above, the room did creek somewhat while in rough water. Otherwise, it was quiet. We spoke with other passengers who seemed very happy with the Category 2 as well.
Staff, Crew and Service: The crew was mostly Greek, and somewhat austere. Although somewhat unreachable at a personal level, they were efficient and helpful whenever possible. For example, security screening of passengers returning from port was quick and smooth.
The hotel and cruise staff was a truly international bunch. We encountered men and women from Hungary, Romania, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Croatia, Macedonia, Britain, France, Turkey, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, India, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, The Philippines, and the United States. We found the service to be impeccable. Everyone would strive to quickly get whatever we wanted within reason, and to seamlessly fix whatever was wrong, which was never much. Virtually every staff member was well versed and quite helpful not only as to their own functions, but as to other areas of shipboard life. Everyone had great advice as to where to eat, shop or go to the beach while ashore.
Several people deserve special mention. Conroy, our butler, was in a word excellent. He was friendly, efficient, helpful and a real pleasure to talk to. (Conroy, you’re The Man. I hope that if you’re ever in New Orleans, you take us up on our offer.) Gina, our senior stateroom attendant was always sweet, and always had a smile and a kind word. Damjan, our Orion waiter always knew the best items from the evening menu. He had a sense of humor, and his efficiency and helpfulness was on par with the rest of the staff. When my lobster tail was overcooked, there he was, in an instant, whisking away my plate and immediately bringing another. Also deserving credit is Kristina, our wine steward. She was so sweet and quite knowledgeable about her wine list. Chatting with her at the table was a pleasure.
And then there is Nicki… Nicki deserves his own paragraph. I am at a loss as to how to describe Nicki, but strongly suggest that you go to Michaels cigar bar to meet him. I don’t know whether Nicki is completely insane or simply a good actor, but know quite certainly that he loves his job. Nicki’s notoriously bizarre antics and bartending style without a doubt make him the star of Galaxy. In Nicki’s realm, everyone is a V.I.P.
Entertainment: Here’s where it gets ugly. Here’s where Celebrity falls flat on its face.
Let me first clarify that my opinion is strictly my own. Judging by the reactions and opinions of other passengers, I believe that I am in the minority. Also, my wife and I don’t enjoy the stage shows commonly available on cruises so we didn’t go. We are true music aficionados, however. But I must also concede that being from New Orleans, with all of the musical talent in this city, and all of the great live music venues, we are spoiled. That said, bottom line is that with one exception, the music stank, and there seems to be little if any effort to improve the musical program aboard Galaxy. Several examples: First, the poolside band, Voltz, consists of five apparently Caribbean guys performing the same set list day in and day out, over and over and over. Their repertoire includes the most diluted reggae and top 40 soul imaginable. Much of the melody is canned, electronically generated, and their style is so intentionally non-ethnic and soulless as to be laughable. It’s almost as if the corporate entertainment director promulgated a policy that Celebrity would have black performers performing songs by black artists on their Caribbean runs, but that it shouldn’t sound too black. Huh?
Second, the Karen and Carl Duo inhabiting the Rendezvous Lounge are almost surreal, their act is so vapid and vanilla. Ever seen the Saturday Night Live Skit in which Will Ferrell and Anna Gasteyer mimic the lounge singer couple? “Is everyone feeling good tonight?” (silence, crickets chirping) “That’s great! How ‘bout you, Carl” “I’m great, too, Karen! Gee, we have a great crowd tonight!” “Yeah, sure do!” (sound of waves against the hull) “Wow, Carl, let’s rock out with some Cher! Do we have any Cherokee People in the audience tonight?” Then Carl plugs in his Telecaster and rocks out. Good, God, get me out of here!!! But in all fairness, there were nights when the place was packed and people seemed to be eating it up. Maybe the drinks there were just that much stronger.
Third, the music in the Stratosphere Lounge, the disco, was on occasion good, especially during Latin night. But for the most part, the D.J. played Saturday Night Fever, Madonna, and other dance tunes analogous to the same watered down tripe of a different flavor over by the pool. When I asked for some rock and roll, the D. J. became surly, telling me more or less, “Sir, there have been about sixty years of rock and roll. I have no idea what you want!” I just laughed and told him not to worry about it. Shortly thereafter he fell asleep in the booth, apparently from boredom.
Finally, the Celebrity Orchestra… One night they played a couple of big band and jazz sets in the Savoy, a potentially great venue disused or abused by night after night of karaoke or name that tune. On this night, the band absolutely rocked the joint. They played Benny Goodman, Bobby Darin, Al Hirt, just one great tune after another. They had an actual horn section and a real drum kit. Nothing was overdubbed or electronically generated. Cruise director John Howell happened to pass through at the time and introduce himself. I asked why not more of this. I begged, I pleaded for some real, live music. I told him about the Puerto Ricans (more about them later). His explanation, perfectly sensible, was that he is only allocated so much money for the music program. Further, he explained, the use of venue and types of acts are chosen based on demographics. Well, everyone else seemed to love what I thought so inane, so why fix what for most people ain’t broke?
Music buffs, be forewarned that you’ll be disappointed. If it’s just background sounds you’re after, you’ll get your money’s worth and more.
Fellow Cruisers: Galaxy was booked to capacity. The passengers were quite diverse, but all had one thing in common: they wanted to have fun. People of all ages were on this cruise, with the bell curve seeming to peak around late 40’s to early 50’s. According to the cruise director, only 50 kids were aboard. My wife and I are 34 and 38, respectively. We had no problem finding others of our age group. We also found that passengers on this ship were much more outgoing, friendly and fun-loving than on our previous cruise, where everyone tended to keep to himself or herself. Everyone seemed eager to meet, talk, hang out and drink. We met people from all walks of life – from Fortune 500 execs to bikers and everyone in between. What a great bunch of cruisers. We made friends and had great fun together. (Bill and Stacy, and the crew of Michael’s Club misfits, if you’re reading this, I mean you especially.)
As with the staff, the nationalities were diverse. Most passengers were American, with a handful of Greeks, and countless Puerto Ricans thrown in. Recent reviews complained that Celebrity was offering massive sell-offs of unbooked rooms at basement level prices to Puerto Ricans, and that they were monopolizing deck space, were singing and carrying on too loudly, and that they did not dress appropriately for dinner. For most of the cruise, I was under the misimpression that the Puerto Ricans on our cruise could not have possibly been the sort about which these complaints were made. In fact, on the first day and everyday thereafter, we lucked out and were treated to one of the greatest highlights of our cruise. Three elderly Puerto Rican gentlemen with guitars and beautiful voices would gather near the indoor Oasis pool and serenade the eager crowds with mariachi and Spanish classical songs. What a thrill. What a contrast to the white-bread offerings by Celebrity. But much to my dismay, when I suggested to the cruise director that he set these gentlemen before a microphone and p.a. somewhere, he responded that he had actually had complaints about them. I was incredulous.
Without exception, my experience was that everyone was fun, friendly, courteous, and acted appropriately in every respect. It was the type of well-mannered, tasteful crowd I would expect on a so-called premium cruise line. I just wish that everyone would recognize that fun and cultural diversity are the very reasons we all love cruising, and suggest that if we encounter something in a public area that seems too loud, boisterous or foreign, that we stop for a minute or two and listen. It just might lend itself to a richer cruising experience.
The Itinerary: I won’t say much here, because everyone’s experiences and preferences are different. I will simply say the every island on this particular southern Caribbean run was absolutely beautiful and fairly representative of the overall Caribbean culture. We enjoyed some more than others, but would trade any humdrum day at home to be back at any of these places.
Debarkation: Things went very smoothly from ship to cruise terminal, but I recommend that you avoid the airport transfer scam. They load your baggage into trucks, and the corresponding passengers into busses. Along the way, a “tour guide” quips, jokes and tries to hustle one last dollar. At the airport, they simply dump all of the luggage onto the curb where you and twenty five other cruise passengers will proceed to create utter pandemonium as you all try to find your luggage and get quickly to your flight. Skip the hassle. Take a cab to the airport.
Final Impressions: Cruising, like everything in life, is what you make of it. Your attitude and tendencies towards patience, tolerance and flexibility will determine much of your experience. Cruisers, please recognize that at ship-level, your experience depends upon human beings just like yourselves. Be tolerant of the ship’s staff and help them when you can. They do an amazing job day in and day out but they are not perfect. Mistakes and oversights will happen. It is to be expected. Don’t let iced-tea or other such petty glitches ruin your trip. Try to solve these problems instead of grinning and bearing it. You will suddenly see them in proper perspective. If the Eggs Benedict are not ready, sit down, enjoy a piece of french toast, and come back in ten minutes for your eggs. If you can’t get enough towels and can’t seem to get your stateroom attendant to understand your needs, just talk to Guest Relations. I wanted a Bloody Mary but there was no Tabasco and the bartender was obviously swamped. I just went into the Oasis Café, got him a bottle, and had a damn fine drink.
Cruising is pretty close to Heaven in my opinion, but Heaven it’s not. So don’t expect utter Godlike perfection and you won’t be let down. Please understand that Celebrity, or any cruise line for that matter, wants you to be happy. They want you to go home and tell your family and friends how happy you were so more people will cruise on their ships. Recognize as well, that as personal an experience as cruising may be for all of us, from Celebrity’s perspective, they are offering a product, with all of the corporate hype, guidelines and packaging that implies. Celebrity will do or not do according to the numbers. If you want something tailored to your exact specifications, try a private sailing charter around the Grenadines or St. Maarten. Finally, understand that on a cruise ship, your are not in the U. S. or any country for that matter. You are stuck on a ship with people of all varieties and personalities. Try to be tolerant of your fellow cruisers and appreciate their differences as part of the experience. Be relaxed. You will have a better time.
Calm seas and sunny skies.