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Old January 29th, 2002, 07:47 PM
Jonathan Jay Gibian
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Default Celebrity Summit REVIEW

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After cruising once on Carnival and three times with Royal Caribbean, my partner and I were ready for a change for our fifth cruise. And our travel agent was ready with an answer: Celebrity. She told us Celebrity was “a notch or two” above RCCL in both food and service, is gay friendly, and had just launched two ships.

Our last cruises had been aboard two relatively old RCCL ships: “Rhapsody of the Seas” for a 10-night Mexican Riviera cruise and “Vision of the Seas” for a 13-night Panama Canal cruise. And since both vessels are sister ships with identical floor plans, we wanted something different for our now annual January cruise. So the prospect of sailing on a brand new vessel was enticing.

Since Celebrity had just launched Summit in October, we quickly booked an aft cabin for Jan. 4... one of six such cabins that jut aftward from either side of the ship and come with beautiful views both aft and to either the starboard or port sides.

Finding Celebrity’s air fare rather high, we booked our own roundtrip flights from Cleveland to Ft. Lauderdale (saving about $200!) and flew to Florida the day before the cruise started. We wanted to make sure there were no last minute weather or security snafus or other problems that might cause us hassles.

We stayed overnight at the Hyatt Pier 66 Hotel (obviously gay friendly, but very expensive for a one-night stay) near the cruise port. We are among those travelers who like to pack every imaginable convenience and, when entering the hotel with our five bags and four carry-ons, the bellman inquired if we were going on a world cruise. Now that is embarrassing.

The next morning we discovered the hotel did not provide shuttle service to the cruise ships, so we loaded our baggage into a taxi and arrived at the Celebrity pier about 11 a.m.

We thought we were arriving early for the 4:30 p.m. sailing, but we found expectant cruisers had already formed a very long line. However, all of the Celebrity staff people were very pleasant and it only took about an hour or so to go through security, register and board.

The Summit is a huge ship as viewed from the pier, and a gorgeous ship inside. Our cabin was outstanding – comfortable, intelligently designed and very quiet. One enters the cabin through a long hallway and then turns (for the starboard side) right. Closets (enough to handle at least a six-month trip!) are on the left and the bathroom is on the right. The rest of that area is taken up with the bed on the right and a vanity on the left.

A floor-to-ceiling, wood and glass partition with a sliding door extends across the entire room, allowing the area to be divided into a bedroom and a sitting room. Strangely, the glass in the partition is frosted, except for a clear border on each glass panel that negates any privacy the partition might have otherwise provided. A TV and VCR are in the bedroom side, while another TV is in the sitting room, along with both a loveseat and a sofa that can be converted into a full-sized bed.

Then one goes onto the balcony... oops, that should be veranda... which is large enough to easily hold 12 or more people! Balconies are usually much smaller. The veranda – at the extreme starboard rear of the ship – afforded a wonderful view both to the side and aft, unlike other rear cabins in the middle, as well as cabins on the sides of the ship. that have privacy screens on each side of their verandas/balconies.

Our early arrival gave us plenty of time to switch dinner table assignments (we enjoy the less crowded balcony and the late seating) and to make reservations for the ship’s specialty restaurant, The Normandie.

That's most of the good news. The other news is that, except for our dinner at the Normandy (which was wonderful), we were rather disappointed. Celebrity’s motto is “Exceeding Expectations,” but it – in some cases – didn't even meet them.

Please don't misunderstand me. It was a wonderful trip, and had we been first-time cruisers, we would have been mightily impressed with everything.

But right from the start we were surprised by the huge difference between what had been ballyhooed and what we found to be reality. For example, we had been told by our TA that a white-gloved crew member would greet us and escort us to our cabin. Not true...we had to find our own way.

In fact, there wasn't anyone at the gangway entrance to even say "Welcome aboard." Now admittedly that is a very small point, but since it occurred immediately upon boarding the ship, it created a lasting impression.

We found the Summit's food quality on a par with RCCL, which is excellent to be sure, but certainly not outstanding. However, the menu selections fell far short of even RCCL. On Royal Caribbean (as of our 2001 Panama Canal cruise) they offered 5 entrees each night. Celebrity offers only four. RCCL also offered two or three standard additional selections, should one not like anything being offered that night on the regular menu. Those standard selections on every dinner menu included a New York strip steak and grilled chicken. Celebrity offers nothing other than the night's menu. RCCL also each night offered a separate pasta entree. Celebrity does not.

RCCL provides all-night (midnight to 6 a.m.) hot dogs, pizza or hamburgers – not quite adult fare, but mighty good for a 3 a.m. snack. Celebrity offers pizza till 1 a.m. and nothing the rest of the night except a meager room service menu.

I was told by one of our tablemates who had previously sailed on Celebrity ships, that in the past the cruise line had offered after dinner chocolate mints from a large bowl located near the restaurant's exits. That has been discontinued.

One of the ship’s officers (a FOD) informed us that since RCCL purchased Celebrity, the line’s general budget has been cut several times. The ships have been forced to go from 6 assistant maitre'ds to 4, along with fewer cooks and other staff members. And the line’s food quality and quantity has also been downsized. The officer candidly admitted: “Once the travel agents realize what’s happening, Celebrity is going to be in big trouble. Why should anyone pay a premium for standard service?”

But hold on. I just read what I have written so far and believe a caveat is in order. I do not wish to appear sour on Celebrity or the Summit. We enjoyed the cruise immensely, although we saw only three other apparently gay couples.

The sole "poor" ratings we would give would be to the lounge servers and the shows. Lounge servers tended to be slow and not terribly interested in their jobs -- or at least in serving us. And with the notable exception of an acappella group called “Metro” – which was outstanding – we found most of the ship’s shows rather boring and lacking pizzazz. I must admit, however, the breeders seemed to enjoy almost everything presented on stage.

Metro, as I said, is arguably the best singing group we have ever encountered on a cruise ship. They were superb and, in fact, we tried to catch their performances in various sections of the ship on several nights, in addition to their regular show appearances. If you are going to cruise on the Summit, you would be wise to be sure to see them.

The Summit’s casino – Fortunes – is about the usual size for a cruise ship. We were surprised to find all old-style slot machines instead of the new, video-type machines. Although the ship has many five-cent slots, the payouts on all machines was notoriously stingy and we met several fellow passengers who said they stopped playing the machines because of the extremely low or non-existent payouts.

Having specialty restaurants aboard cruise ships is a rather new innovation and we had heard the experience would be a memorable one. So we paid the $25 per person surcharge and reserved a Sunday night table. We found the Normandie’s service far exceeded that found in the regular dining room. The food was delicious – I had Châteaubriand while Joel, my partner, had the sole. The four-course meal is truly a five-star event.

Although the service aboard the Summit was generally mediocre, i.e. average, a nice note was that the ship's crew almost always offered a greeting when encountering passengers. Whether it was "good morning, "good evening," or just plain "Hi!," each greeting was delivered with a smile. That's something we have not experienced aboard other cruise lines.

But another deficiency, and a serious one methinks, was the lack of security at the various ports. When returning to the ship all passengers were required to put their packages onto a belt at an x-ray machine and then walk through a metal detector – exactly as required at airports.

The problem was that my watch – and various items on other passengers – frequently set off the metal detector alarm at each of the five ports of call, yet not once did anyone pay any attention to those alarms. Even worse was that the crew members assigned to look at the x-rayed contents of the items on the continuously moving belt seldom at any stop paid the slightest attention to the x-ray displays, instead focusing on conversations with other crew members. We could have smuggled most anything onto the ship and nobody would have known.

The ports of call – St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Kitts and St. Thomas – were mostly unremarkable, as have become most Caribbean ports, and all but St. Kitts tended to be rather dirty. St. Kitts was, by far, the prettiest of them all and a nice island at which to rent a taxi and take a guided tour of both the Atlantic and Caribbean sides. The prices in St. Thomas seemed to be the most reasonable and we made nearly all of our purchases there.

We long ago decided to forego most ship-booked excursions in favor of either taxi tours or car rentals that allow us to go exactly where we want without imposed time limits.

Incidentally, if you like to snorkel I suggest you buy your own gear. Most of the rental equipment provided by tour excursions tends to be very worn, with goggles so scratched that viewing is not as enjoyable as it could be.

Despite my criticisms of the Summit, please remember the cruise was very enjoyable and the ship is absolutely beautiful. In fact, we have already booked another Celebrity cruise – a Panama Canal trip -- aboard Summit's sister ship Infinity next January.

Most of our dissatisfaction with the Summit stemmed from our very high expectations and then finding food and service that was good, but nothing more.

Incidentally, at the request of a friend who is considering taking his first cruise, I have compiled a list of suggestions for first-time cruisers. If you would like an e-mailed copy, drop me a note at jaygibian@aol.com
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