When I decided to take a break from American and decided to take the family on a Mediterranean tour this summer, we ended up looking at just about every cruise line that existed trying to find an itinerary that we liked. We’ve been on over 20 cruises in the last 15 years, and have tried many of the cruise lines before. In the last year or so, we’ve tried The Haven on NCL and the suite class on Royal Caribbean, which give you special benefits, concierge, butler, private lounges, and a private restaurant, so we knew that for such a long trip, we’d want those types of benefits rather than staying in a regular stateroom.
The best option we found was to do a back to back cruise on the Celebrity Reflection to see both sides of the Mediterranean over a 3 week period. Having done similar suite experiences on other cruise lines, I think that there are some things that Celebrity does very, very well — and some things that I think have room for improvement.
We booked the last category of suite they had left since we booked so late, the Sky Suite, which is the entry level suite category. It wasn’t terribly large — definitely bigger than a regular balcony cabin, but still only one room — but even for 21 days worth of stuff, had plenty of storage for all of our things. Everything in our room was spotless all of the time (I Wade was one of the best cabin stewards we’ve had, our butler Borko not the best)…I think this is actually the cleanest ship we’ve ever been on, which is saying something because all of them are pretty clean! The one area in need of improvement is that Celebrity’s beds are not at all comfortable. When we were on NCL, they had premium mattresses and an extensive pillow menu for their suites, making it almost as comfortable as my bed at home. On Celebrity, both the mattresses and the pillows were pretty bad…we requested different pillows several times trying to dig through and find some that were more comfortable, but with limited success. I’m hoping that they switch some of these things out as ships go into dry dock.
Because we were booked in a suite, we had access to a private restaurant, Luminae, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Luninae, led by Fazli and Marlene, was an absolute delight. We had the option to eat in the main dining room or the speciality restaurants as well, but we chose to eat the majority of our meals at Luminae. The food was fantastic — probably better daily food than we’ve had on any other cruise line (including speciality restaurants). They had a small menu, but it changed every evening, and always offered at least one entree of each pasta, poultry, seafood, red meat, and a vegetarian option.
The wait staff at Luminae were definitely the highlight of our onboard experience. Since it’s a small restaurant, it is a small team of waiters, and you can tell that they all get along very well by the way they interact with one another. Because we were onboard for so long, we got to know their personalities and watch them drop their guard with us as they teased one another (and us!) as the cruise progressed. Don’t worry, we teased them right back. Celebrity, if you’re reading this…you have something special with the Luminae wait staff on the Reflection! The wait staff we had with Mustafa, Lazar, Ivan, Ruslan, Sandra, and Anna is one of the best we’ve ever encountered! And Valeriu, the sommelier, was exceptional, both with service and wine recommendations. We were actually sad to leave them at the end of our 21 days onboard.
Where Celebrity seemed to lag behind other ships we’ve been on was in their specialty restaurants. We tried a few of them on the first cruise, and found them to be substandard to Luminae in every way, so we didn’t book any for the second half of our vacation. I think that NCL and Royal Caribbean both did a slightly better job with the specialty restaurants — although it could be that Luminae was just so much better than the suite restaurants on the other ships that it made the specialty restaurants pale in comparison. A quick rundown of the speciality restaurants we experienced:
- Tuscan Grille: To us, this was the worst of the speciality restaurants onboard, with the food uninspired, over-sauced and over salted. It struck us as mediocre wedding banquet food. The service was really good and the view from the aft-facing room was spectacular, but the food wasn’t worth the cover charge.
- Qsine: This is an interesting concept, but is cumbersome in execution. The iPads hold the menu, and you are supposed to order by putting your choices in “favorites.” But the menu is difficult to navigate, and the electronic orders go nowhere…you still tell your waiter what you want…making the technology actually detract from the experience rather than add to it. The small plates served family style in different cuisines from around the world is a cool concept, the service was good, and food came out at an appropriate pace. Unfortunately, we found the food to be stereotypical “American” versions of what was ordered, and all dishes were extremely salty. I will note that our children loved the restaurant and the food — we just didn’t agree with them.
- The Lawn Club Grille: We enjoyed this place for the novelty of it, and our children truly enjoyed the opportunity to play “chef” for the evening. The flatbreads were somewhat nondescript, but they definitely enjoyed making it. The steaks that we ordered medium rare, however, came cooked pretty much well done and we had to send them back. For the fun experience for the kiddos, though, this one was worth the time spent.
- The Porch: We ate at The Porch twice, but only for lunch. For some reason, Celebrity doesn’t open Luminae, the main dining room, or any other speciality restaurant for a sit down lunch on port days. Only the buffet and pool grill are open (and we dislike buffets and can only eat so many hamburgers). We enjoyed the seafood tower, the crudos, and the paella very much (both kids and adults). All of the food was well-seasoned and very fresh. We never ate here for dinner since it was our lunch option, but we would recommend.
- Sushi on Five: Our children love sushi, and were dying to eat it the entire trip. I wish that this was open for lunch on port days, but, alas, they don’t open until 3:00pm. We ate once here for lunch on a sea day, and once on a port day when our all-day 7-hour shore excursion didn’t serve lunch (or give opportunity to get yourself…more on that later). The sushi is a la carte, making it easily one of the most expensive casual meals we’ve eaten at sea. However, we have to applaud Celebrity for doing REAL, raw sushi, and not just California Rolls and other cooked items. And they did do it pretty well…even having fresh wasabi available rather than the green paste we all know (although $10 for fresh wasabi when a lot of sushi restaurants charge $3 or less for it is pretty steep). This one is worth your time if you want or need a sushi fix at sea.
Service across the ship was pretty much excellent across the board. I already mentioned that the Luminae staff were outstanding without exception, but the same was true pretty much everywhere. With limited exceptions, we were always helped with smiles and crew members who went the extra mile to ask how your day was, remembered the drink you ordered every night, or took the time to talk to the kids to make them feel special. The bathroom attendants knew Belinda and would make sure that there were towels within her reach to wash her hands as they knew she preferred to help herself. The people polishing the public stair rails would always stop and ask how your day was. We watched a pool butler (whose job was keeping the area clean and making sure guests got chairs) get asked for a drink by a customer. Rather than say that they needed to find a bar waiter, he took the order and the guests card, and then found a bar waiter to complete the order. On many cruise lines (and airlines), he’d have simply said a version of “not my job.” The ship’s officers also had special events for people in suites, like the ability to watch a sail away from the helipad, where they even had champagne and mimosas for the guests. The only lapses in service we experienced were from our butler and from the shore excursions team.
Our butler was definitely not the best butler we’ve ever had on a ship. We aren’t sure if he was new to his role, overwhelmed with other, more demanding guests, or just overwhelmed in general, but we didn’t have the best experience. Granted, this is a minor nit in an otherwise fantastic service experience, but definitely something noticeable as the butler is a major point of service for those in suites. We weren’t overly demanding people, so the omissions were a little more noticeable. Our “asks” were simply for our room to have both sparkling and still water, fresh wine glasses daily, and an afternoon cheese and fruit plate. That’s it for the 21 days…and it was often not delivered on without follow up. I think this is specific to this butler rather than indicative of the Celebrity level of service.
The only other negative thing we found during our cruise was some of the shore excursion experiences, and experiences with their staff. As a positive, we did find the shore excursions to be very well organized…from where and when to meet in the morning to where to find the guide once you got off the ship and were wandering in the port. The worst experience we had was in Ibiza. We had simply arranged a transfer to a beach — all the ship had to provide was a bus to/from this public beach. Two members of the shore excursion staff boarded the bus with us to experience the shore excursion. When we arrived, we were given a meeting time and place for our return trip to the ship. As all guests, including several elderly people, a few with canes to help them walk, and several with children arrived at the agreed upon time, the guide had no idea where the bus was. She tried to call several times, but couldn’t provide an answer other than that she didn’t know where the bus was. Passengers were starting to get upset, telling the guide that she needed to call Celebrity and get enough taxis to the beach to transport everyone back to the pier. The shore excursion team members were also there, but all they were doing was discussing whether or not they’d like to have pets, and deciding that they should ask the guide to stop in the town so they could go somewhere and get lunch (not part of the tour). They never stepped forward to offer any assistance to the guide, try to call Celebrity themselves, or offer assurance to passengers. In fact, when asked if they were going to report anything to Celebrity on behalf of the passengers, one of the girls (Emily, from the USA) responded that she had to wait too and didn’t think it was bad. Never mind that there were elderly, disabled, and children having to wait in the hot sun for over 30 mins with nowhere to sit…especially when the whole of the shore excursion was transportation to and from. We lodged a complaint with our concierge (who was fantastic), and were compensated with a 30% refund. A little weak, but not worth the time to argue further.
Other than that, we had an overall positive experience on shore excursions, but have a few thoughts on how they could improve the experiences. Because we were in Europe, the shore excursions were typically LONG days in port. A few of our excursions included lunch, which is not always the most positive option for us as the banquet level food often provided isn’t our preferred type of meal. Others allowed for time to sightsee in a city and get lunch. Our feedback for those is that, for example, in Sorrento, we only had an hour, leaving us to choose between lunch and sightseeing (more time would have been preferable…with kids we had to choose lunch). In Corinth, we started at 7:45AM and went straight through to 3:00PM. There was no town to sightsee, and lunch wasn’t provided. There was a snack, but not enough for a meal. Our honest feedback for Celebrity is — really look at your excursions for time. Allow time for meals (or provide them) AND time for sightseeing in a given city. In the Mediterranean, an hour is barely enough time to eat, let alone shop. And if you can’t do that, then honestly note in the description how much time you’ll have for each thing so that people have appropriate expectations and can plan accordingly.
Overall, we enjoyed our cruise on Celebrity…and our “foodie in the making” kids did too, even claiming that they liked it better than Disney. We booked another Celebrity cruise for spring break as well, per their request. While it wasn’t perfect, it was overall a really good experience for all of us.