Wow, what a vacation, and it is already almost over a month since we returned. One general learning from the whole vacation could be that – whereas we had a ruddy good time – I don’t think we will be booking another cruise for another thirty years, basically until we are of the right kind of age to enjoy it. Sea days were particularly interesting, in a figurative sense. Here’s what went down:
8am (version one).
Wake up. Eat the turn down chocolate from the night before. We get dressed while watching Elf for the twelfth time on this ship, the Celebrity Reflection. The European hides the dark chocolate ones and gives the milk chocolate ones to me. We then head from our cabin on deck six, to the all-day-dining restaurant, the ‘OceanView Café’, on deck fourteen. We wait an age for the elevator and when one comes it’s full of wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We run up the seven flights of stairs instead. No matter what time you eat in this labyrinthine ‘wipe clean’ style restaurant, stretching from the port to starboard windows at the rear of the ship, you’ll fight to get a seat. I run to save one of our favourite tables; either at the rear by the window or on the shaded veranda outside, overlooking the stern of the ship. The European gets coffee and her ‘light’ food (a three egg omelette and accompaniments), and when she returns, I go an load up my plate with a Frankenstein’s Monster of a Full English / American / Canadian fry up with blintzes and pastries for afters. A waiter comes and tries to sell us a wine tasting for tomorrow lunchtime. We say no – for the millionth time.
Learnings: A leisurely breakfast on an all-inclusive cruise ship can be a weirdly stressful experience.
8am (version two).
Wake up (as above). This time, after the fruitless attempt to catch an elevator, I am dragged by The European up to the fourteenth floor to the ‘AquaSpa Café’, an airy healthy-eating restaurant under the shade of the conservatory where there is an indoor pool and comfy sunloungers which are perfect for when you want to retreat form the relentless sun at sea. For breakfast, AquaSpa serves tapas-style small plates of food that is frustratingly good for you, like a bagel with peanut butter and apple, toast with grated boiled egg and tomato, fruit platters and banana bread muffins. You can get freshly-made smoothies here but, in a wonderful exercise in trolling, they are not covered on the all-inclusive package. “This is all good for you”, she says as I struggle to swallow the dry and unpleasant-tasting muffin. “You’ve had too many big breakfasts you fatty”.
Learnings: I could in theory take a fry-up from OceanView and bring it here to eat whilst The European enjoys a healthy breakfast. I only realised this on the last day of the cruise, when I saw an American do it.
It’s time to start drinking. After a quick trip back to the cabin to (re)apply sunscreen, we head to the pool deck. Not many people drinking at the time, so we get another round of coffees to ‘blend in’ and park up in a jacuzzi. A few minutes later a waiter wanders over (with trolley-chiller full of beers) and asks the immortal question “can I get you anything?”. Well yes indeed. I take a Piña Colada as I have little imagination, and The European orders a whiskey sour. She loves Bloody Marys, but they weren’t too good on board (although we did find one in one of the restaurants that was a lot better, and garnished with roasted tomatoes and prawns). The coffees are downed and the cocktails follow fast. And with a quick handover of our sea-passes, it’s not too long before another round is on the way. I am three drinks in before lunch, but it is fine as a) we are at sea and b) I am studying as a drink and sunbathe.
Learnings: Becoming an expert on Piña Coladas. Did you know that they taste best if they’re left to rest, like a steak?
Suitably and heavily refreshed, and the sun having worked up our appetite which we surely didn’t deserve after an OceanView breakfast, we wander upstairs to deck fifteen, another sun deck, but crucially also home to another bar and an all-you-can-eat cheeseburger and hotdog joint. Despite the chefs throwing them out like a greasy, cheesy production line, they are damn fine burgers indeed. I took mine with a heap of pickle and fried onion. They melt in the mouth, the meat quality defined by their juiciness, and are perfectly chased with Rebel I.P.A. Next to the burger bar there is a self-serve soft-serve chocolate ice cream machine. So that was that.
Learning: It’s fine to swim after stuffing yourself with burgers, or it’s fine to eat them in the jacuzzi. One or the other of those lessons.
So, actually, one morning the waiter did snare us in, and we signed up to a wine tasting. This was not so much a wine tasting; it was more like a wine necking. The crew on the ship do many wonderful things but explaining various wines in appropriate detail such as terroir, nose and food pairings was clearly not in their remit. Nor was pouring a tasting measure. So cue situations such as standing in front of a sommelier, half a glass of Shiraz in hand, asking him what food we would eat with this, and getting replies like “Meat”. Anyway, with twelves glasses to try, and being fairly bored and drunk halfway through (even through we were lining our stomachs with the free cheese on offer at the event), we retired back to the pool deck. And more cocktails.
Learnings: Don’t spend money on a wine tasting aboard a cruise ship. Unless you have ‘a problem’.
By four or five in the evening, the pool deck is getting shrouded in shadow and generally quite cold, so we head inside and get ready for dinner. Obviously this doesn’t take two and a half hours so once we are all scrubbed up, we head off to find a bar. There’s usually seats at the ‘Sunset Bar’ at the stern of the ship, so we park up there and smoothly transition from cocktails to wine. On one occasion, we realised, as the Sunset Bar is located above Oceanview Café, one could nip down there and take plates of food (it’s open twenty-four-seven) and bring them up to eat at the bar. It’s an experience to eat a huge plate of cheese and a separate, larger plate of nachos, an hour before dinner.
Learnings: A huge plate of cheese and a separate, larger plate of nachos, an hour before dinner, doesn’t do wonders for the appetite.
7.30pm (version one).
There were plenty of options for dinner onboard. The most prevalent option, and the one which could be called ‘default’, is a three-course meal in the main dining room, ‘Opus’. This was always really delightful, with a menu that changed nightly, with certain staple dishes that were available every night, such as French onion soup or a sirloin steak. The servers and wine waiters were always the same (we had a great waiter called Sanyo, “like the watch”, and a sommelier who let us try a different bottle of red every evening). We were very happy there, and on days when we were particularly enthusiastic about stuffing our faces all day, could have been done with the freshly baked breads and butter selection. But then again, a tournedos offered on the menu isn’t going to eat itself.
Learnings: Basic dining on board Celebrity is amazing. And people are called ‘Sanyo’.
7.30pm (version two).
Aside from main dining, there were also options called ‘specialty dining’, which were available at a supplement. Thanks to an onboard credit deal when we booked the cruise, we were able to try all of them for no extra money. One option – the most expensive as a rule – was a fine dining experience at ‘Murano’, an elegant French-style restaurant where waiters in full suits carve Guinea fowls, de-bone seabass and flambé crepes tableside. The food and in general, the experience, was wonderful. If you wanted to pay a little more (I mean the whole cruise was an exercise to get as much cash out of passengers as possible), there was a tasting menu and wine pairing, but the à la carte was enough. Nevertheless, for all its wonders, the best part of Murano was witnessing Americans deal with all the fuss. I am sure that never again in a fine dining restaurant will I see a man in NO SHOES, shirt unbuttoned all the way down, casually stuff dollar bills into a waiter’s pocket as he carves a Chateaubriand at the table.
Learnings: See above ref. the American dude.
Another specialty dining option was something called ‘Le Petit Chef’, a self-described ‘immersive dining experience’ in the ‘QSine’ restaurant, an intervention which was pushed heavily by the ship and touted as a technological revolution to rival the world-wide-web, or the wheel. In its purest form, once you were seated (at a set time, as all tables are served in unison) overhead projectors focused on the place settings beam animations onto the empty plate in front of you, displaying the comedic antics of this petit chef, as he attempts to rodeo-ride a lobster into the bisque, grill a steak but falling into the broiler instead, and travelling to the North Pole to serve up vanilla ice cream.
This narrative, slapstick enough to make the whole restaurant – bar us – laugh out loud at the chef’s every misadventure, was entertaining in the sense that it was different, but in the sense of delivering a supposedly premium meal experience, it was basically polishing a turd. The menu is set – lobster followed by steak followed by vanilla ice cream – and I balk at paying fifty dollars per head to not be able to choose what to order, and when it arrives, to find everything only barely adequate, with the animations a disguise at best or a distraction at worst. We were almost forgotten to be served at all, with a less-than-gentle nudge by The European to a passing waiter, who promptly shat himself and got things back on track by taking our order. This was followed by a lot of awkward snivelling by the manager, who until that point, had only been sniffing around some V.I.P. tables.
Learnings: Le Petit Chef would have been dismissed from my restaurants long before he fell into the barbeque trying to cook a tough piece of cow. Or, judging by the way they were barking like sealions at the animations, Americans are easily entertained.
Wherever we dined, good or bad, bellies full or disgustingly full, we always rounded off the evenings at the Sunset Bar, with a glass of Woodford Reserve, served up with a smile. This bourbon was outside of our drinks package but subsided by us having one, and there was something delicious about ordering a round of this wonderful whisky for four dollars. We would sit up there and have two rounds, three rounds whatever, until the post dinner collection of crazy-drunk leather-skinned ladies would come up and start squawking, at which point we would take our leave and retire to our stateroom, ready for the day ahead.
Learnings: Having worked out the cost per double-shot of bourbon, and the number of these doubles in a seven hundred and fifty ml. bottle, we were drinking the stuff at better than cost price.