Travel: Life is suite on board refurbished luxury cruise ship Celebrity Summit
Belfast journalist Mary Johnston has enjoyed cruise travel in the past but a recent taste of things on board a luxury revamped liner took things to a new level
THE first thing that strikes you when you arrive at any port to embark on a cruise is the sheer enormity of these vessels. Standing majestically, to me they look like a floating apartment block or a huge hotel.
I recently flew 5,000 miles to check out a cruise ship that's been 'revolutionised'. The definition of revolution includes a radical alteration, a remodelling and a sea change. This particular sea change is a $500 million spend by Celebrity Cruises on transforming their fleet.
This cruise onboard Celebrity Summit began and ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico, midway between the Gulf of Mexico and South America. Pretty San Juan is worth a return visit.
That's one of the appealing things about a cruise. It's an upscale version of a hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get your bearings and discover where you'd like to see again. Meandering through the colourful cobbled streets of San Juan's Old Town, I imagined I could hear salsa music and see Latino ladies dancing and had to stop myself from joining in and making an exhibition of myself.
Wish I'd had time to swim in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean, but I had a ship to catch.
The growth in popularity of cruise holidays worldwide has seen cruise companies having to up the ante and respond to the demands of the discerning traveller. Apart from the luxury and the friendly, well-trained staff and crew customers have come to expect, they also want ships that sail to every continent.
Before I first went on a cruise 10 years ago, I wasn't sure about it, imagining you could be stuck with people you maybe wouldn't like or get on with. The truth is, you can be as solitary on a ship as you wish, or you can make friends for life.
My preference is to enjoy a lingering breakfast on my own without chitchat. As my day progresses with a two-mile walk round the deck (eight circuits makes a mile), and some quiet time reading on my balcony, I'll maybe attend one of the talks from experts, often emeritus professors, on anything from ethnicity to the Islamic faith or how to stay healthy. I've even taken a look into the packed gym...
On previous trips, I've travelled extensively through various seas and time zones and it's funny how you adapt to going to sleep in one country and waking up in another without having to pack and unpack.
Port visits are an ideal way of dipping into local culture. The ship's shore-excursions people can arrange a bespoke trip or you can do your own thing.
There's everything you'd find in a holiday resort on today's major cruise ships; swimming pools indoors and outdoors, theatre, casino, internet, art gallery, fancy designer boutiques, ballrooms, restaurants, bars, cafes and usually a spa.
In Celebrity Summit's Canyon Ranch Spa there's every treatment you've ever heard of, plus yoga, spin and Pilates and you can pay for the services of a personal trainer so you don't have to put on weight. But it's not the time or place for weight watching. The excellent food is hard to resist. Vegan or vegetarian? All there. There's a range of speciality restaurants that cost extra but as a bit of a foodie, I had to try them out and did enjoy them.
This trip's culinary highlights for me included carpaccio as a starter, followed by filet mignon and, another night, shrimp tempura after the tastiest wontons I've ever tried, in a sushi restaurant. (I wasn't embarrassed to ask for cutlery even though my tiny-tot grandchildren are adept at using chopsticks.)
The ship's main, remodelled Cosmopolitan restaurant is worth getting dressed up for and the revamped Oceanview remains my favourite for lunch and snacks. It's casual and open all hours.
If gambling's your thing, the casino's as sophisticated as any in Vegas and you never know your luck. I was intrigued by the number of women who chose this indoor pastime even during the day. Again, horses for courses – or whatever floats your boat...
One of the new experiences on the Celebrity Summit that appealed to me is a unique collaboration with the American Ballet Theatre. Their performance of highlights from Swan Lake was simply breathtaking and the inclusion on the programme of Ukrainian violinist Katerina Rossa was inspirational.
Alternatively, the Frankie Valli music experience had the audience in the packed theatre singing along to songs popular since the 60s.
The French-built ship's recent transformation saw it stripped back to the metal and was, unbelievably, carried out in 38 days by thousands of skilled engineers, architects and designers. It is, as we might say in Northern Ireland, some job.
I was interested to hear that more and more of their cruise customers are requesting suites in these supposedly austere times; in response, interior designer and former Dragon's Den judge Kelly Hoppen was hired to enhance Celebrity Summit's suites with a contemporary look. There's this global craze right now for 50 shades of grey (thanks, Jamie Dornan) and teamed, with pristine white and a few colour accents, it does look good.
Those after the suite life also value privacy and exclusivity – hence the introduction of the Retreat Sundeck, an open-air sanctuary. And if these folk are reluctant to mingle in just any of the several bars and restaurants throughout the ship, they can enjoy complimentary drinks, gourmet bites and butler service 24/7 in their suites-only Retreat Lounge with dining in their very own Luminae restaurant.
I checked out the suites – no harm in looking. They vary in size and price in descending order from the Penthouse – 1,432 square feet of absolute luxury with a 1,098 square feet wrap-around verandah featuring a hot tub from a mere $10,000 (£7664) up to £11,500 per week per person, depending where you're cruising to and from – down to the Sky suite, a snip at under £2,000pp per week.
The tastefully remodelled staterooms (better known to most people as cabins) are certainly good enough for me. Mine had a verandah which I loved. Storage areas are improved and the bathrooms which, while compact, are attractive with good lighting, power shower and glass shower door rather than the awful 'stick to you' shower curtain American ships strangely used to favour.
Made me think a woman may have had a hand in such improvements, which shouldn't be surprising: as well as the ships's president being a woman, unusually, six of the nine officers on the bridge are female.
I asked to join a tour of the bridge, the room from which the ship is commanded, and found it enlightening and reassuring for its safety features and Nasa-standard navigational equipment. I found out Celebrity Summit is powered by gas turbines too, meaning it's more fuel-efficient.
:: Join Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Summit, for a Bermuda fly/cruise departing Cape Liberty, New Jersey, USA, on 24 August 2019 from £3,119 per person in an Oceanview Stateroom (based on two people sharing).
:: The 11-night holiday includes flights from London Heathrow; one night’s pre-cruise accommodation; a nine-night cruise departing from Cape Liberty and calling at King’s Wharf, Bermuda, before returning to Cape Liberty for the flight home; meals and entertainment on-board the ship and all relevant cruise taxes/fees.
:: For more information or to book, call 0800 441 4054, see celebritycruises.co.uk or talk to your travel agent.