GTS Millennium - A Review of the Celebrity Cruise Experience
In summary, very appealing mid-sized ship which is very quiet; the Celebrity cruise experience is also very good.
Well, we must have picked up a cruise bug, because two years after our P&O experience we found ourselves embarked on Celebrity's "Millennium", bound for New Zealand.
Unfortunately it isn't possible to write another article without drawing some comparisons; the Celeb experience is quite different to the P&O one, and which one you prefer more may be a matter of taste and budget rather than a clear-cut case of good and better. Later blogs on our page describe later travels on other ships; unfortunately the "Millennium" seems to have been replaced on the Australian/New Zealand run by the "Solstice" which is quite different and much bigger, so many of our observations here may not be relevant.
We took what appeared to be a pretty good offer at a time when the Australian dollar was still worth about 90 US cents (the cruise price was paid in US$) and on the basis of our prior experience upgraded ourselves to a "Concierge" class verandah cabin. Millennium has a lot of verandah cabins and they weren't that much dearer. Celebrity further upgraded us to a "Sky Suite" (which is slightly bigger and comes with a butler), which was very good of them except that it was on the other side of the ship. We thought that going around New Zealand in an anti-clockwise fashion it was probably better to be on the port (left) side of the ship; Celeb found us one without any fuss. As it turned out it didn't matter much because only one of our eight days was spent cruising in sight of the coast; of the other seven two were far out in the Tasman Sea, one was in the South Island Sounds (where you need to be on deck to see both sides anyway) and four were in port. We had some nice evenings on the verandah leaving port, though.
Passengers were for the most part baby boomers and older; there were a few honeymooners and some family groups but few children. There was a large contingent of US passengers and similar contingent of Australians, with a smaller number of Brits and minor numbers of other nationalities.
"Millennium" is of 91,000 tonnes gross and carries up to 1950 passengers. On the ouside, she is a large stubby ship, rather cluttered in outline, with a square stern and not particularly beautiful to my way of thinking. Inside, it is a different story; not only beautiful, but spacious and well appointed.
The ship is gas turbine powered and has electric propulsion; this may not seem important, but the silence and absence of vibration in the cabins and public spaces is marvellous compared to a deisel engine-powered ship. The only exception seemed to be a bit of propeller noise in parts of the main dining room; not intrusive as this tends to be a fairly noisy place anyway. The ship seems well stabilised and very well mannered, although we didn't have to contend with swells above about 3m during our voyage.
We arrived in Sydney on Wednesday to refresh our experience of the town before scheduled embarkation on Friday afternoon. Our hotel room in The Rocks had a glimpse of the Opera House, which to our consternation had been obscured by Millennium's superstructure and funnel when we awoke on Thursday morning. A few checks confirmed that the ship was in fact, in port for two days; embarkation on Friday was a leisurely but efficient affair as the disembarking passengers were long gone. We had to go upstairs in the Overseas Passenger Terminal to do the customs thing before going back downstairs to board the ship at wharf level; the boarding bridges were at promenade deck level but someone must have preferred us to use the tradesman's entrance.
In a cruise to NZ the stops are all "alongside" at sizeable towns or cities, so disembarkation and embarkation is straightforward. NZ Customs/Immigration was arranged at sea, and so when we arrived in Dunedin it was just a matter of swiping the cruise card and walking off.
Public rooms include the Celebrity Theatre, Cosmos Disco (which doubles as a daytime observation lounge), Fortunes Casino, and some smaller cafes and lounges, all of which are very well appointed. Most of these venues are non-smoking and largely unaffected by smoke from areas where smoking is permitted.
The Metropolitan Restaurant, the informal Ocean Cafe and Grill, and the posh Olympic Restaurant are the main dining areas.
There is a huge promenade deck, large internet cafe, library, day spa, gym, cinema and good shops (even a florist); unfortunately there is no passenger's laundry.
On deck there are the usual bars, a sizeable swimming pool and several spa pools; there is also a seperate enclosed heated spa pool which has its own complement of whirlpool spa pools.
There is a small kid's area at the back of the ship which did not appear to have much (any?) dedicated deck area. There were not many kids on our cruise and they seem to be lower on Celeb's priority list than they are on P&O's.
Cabins range from 4-berth inside cabins to quite large verandah suites. The ship has a large proportion of verandah cabins however, which start at Deluxe Ocean View (15.8m² plus verandah), through Concierge (17.7m² plus verandah) to Sky Suite (23.2m² plus verandah), before you get to the multi-room suites.
All have an ensuite with toilet, basin and shower; there is usually a TV, hair dryer and phone. There are also additional perks attached to the more expensive cabins, like bathrobes, fridges, baths and butlers (even the chairs on your verandah might be different).
Evening dining in the Metropolitan Restaurant is in two sessions starting at 6:15pm and 8:45pm; your table is allocated for the cruise and you need to be on time. The same comments apply as for P&O; they like smart casual attire at all times but have a couple of so-called "formal" nights when ladies seem to get dressed up and men are expected to wear jackets. As for P&O, there is a different menu every night, of up to five courses; they call their main courses entrees for some reason. The food is good without being excellent or exciting; alcohol has to be paid for but you can stretch a bottle of wine over a couple of nights if you want to. Entertainment in the Celebrity Theatre is in two sessions so that the early sitters in the restaurant can go to the late show and vice-versa; as we were generally leaving port at around 6pm we were happy to be on the late sitting for dinner but we missed most of the shows.
The Olympic Restaurant is the ship's showpiece and deserves special mention. It is a re-creation of the first class dining room on the Olympic, which was a sister ship to the Titanic and was refurbished to a similar level of opulence following the loss of that ship in 1912. The recreation seems pretty faithful, which it should be, as it includes original wooden panelling salvaged from the Olympic when she was scrapped in 1936. The Olympic's bell, some crockery and other memorabillia are in the foyer. The food and the service is superb, but comes at a hefty premium (US$75 each if you go for the recommended Chef's selection of around 6 or 7 courses - most with a wine chosen to match). It is open for dinner only.
The Metropolitan Restaurant isn't usually open for breakfast or lunch, so focus shifts to the Ocean Cafe. This is claimed to seat over 750, however people tend to linger longer and don't share tables when they are not organised; this was the only part of the ship that got too crowded.
The ship's crew is highly international and if there were any ethnic majorities I wasn't conscious of them. The service was generally first rate as far as our experience went.
We were a bit surprised when dining on the 7th night of our 9 night cruise turned out to be a farewell affair, with P&O-style faux bombe alaskas, serviette waving and general back slapping of the kitchen and wait staff. We were given until midnight on the last night of the cruise to have our bags packed for collection in the corridor, but finding the fridge in the cabin emptied of our stuff and locked up earlier that afternoon was annoying. A priviledge of Suite passengers is priority disembarkation, which in our case meant being cast ashore early on a Sunday morning in a wet and windy Auckland, with no immediate prospect of checking into our hotel or finding a hot cuppa.
The ship has a staff of entertainers, augmented by special guests who appear to fly between Celebrity cruise stops for once-off appearances. There was a pretty good band, a string quartet and a couple of soloists who appeared in the smaller venues.
The entertainment appeared fairly well balanced, from singing/dancing shows to comedy, ballroom dancing, discos and several screenings of a different movie every day in the ship's cinema.
A lot of people on the ship were on package deals which flew them home immediately after the cruise, which was thus their only experience of New Zealand. It would have been great if Celeb could have taken on a local Maori group at some stage for an insight into their unique culture.
There were no theme nights or parties promised or provided, however there were the usual art auctions, and invitations to seminars on diamonds and pearls which of course gave you the opportunity to invest in them at never to be repeated prices.
A 4 or 6-page newsletter is delivered to cabins every night advising what's on for the next day, including information about places to be visited. There were also two newsletters (US and Australian news).
Your food on board (except the Olympic Restaurant) and entertainment are covered by your fare, and tea/coffee is available free 24/7. You have to pay for just about everything else. As this is a US-operated ship all prices are in US$; this is a trap for the unwary as they look mildly expensive to anyone used to Australian or New Zealand dollar prices but are VERY expensive when you convert them. By the time we took our cruise the AU$ had slipped to around 2/3 of its value when we booked, so on-board expenses were half as high again as we might have hoped.
- Drinks are pricey by Australian standards. You even have to buy orange juice if you want the real thing with your breakfast; a beer will set you back US$7, cocktails about US$10 and wine mostly upwards of US$25 a bottle. All of these prices include a compulsory "gratuity" of 15%. You are allowed to bring two bottles of wine onto the ship at initial embarkation but none at any subsequent ports; if you take your own wine into the restaurant they charge corkage of US$25 a bottle! We weren't sure what the object of these policies was, but if it was to keep passengers sober it worked a treat.
- On the basis of our prior experience, we didn't use the laundry service, but used non-iron clothes that could be washed in the basin and dried overnight in the shower or on the verandah.
- Internet access is US$0.65 a minute (ouch!). This is satellite based, so fairly slow; you can get a cheaper rate if you buy a few hours for the whole cruise.
- Items in the ship's shops were highly variable; some much cheaper than you would expect in Australia and some not cheap at all. There were some half day sales of specific goods (eg handbags, costume jewellry) which were offered quite cheaply.
- There are plenty of inducements to have a flutter in the Casino; the chips go on your sea pass but the pokies take cash.
- Photographs which are taken of you will be offered for purchase at around US$20 per print.
- Shore excursions booked on the ship (including bus fares into town) can cost more than double the price asked by the same operators on the wharf.
Celeb's tipping policy (apart from the grog, as above) is on an "opt in" basis, which is probably preferable to P&O's "opt out" system. They do, however make it abundantly clear that tipping is expected, and provide ample opportunity for you to tip people (including some you're unlikely to meet) at suggested rates which will cost you up to US$14 per guest per day of your cruise.
If you have a few drinks, a few photographs, a shore excursion or two, visit the day spa or the Olympic Restaurant and follow Celeb's tipping advice, it would be easy to end up paying double the cost of your fare.
Health, Safety and Security
Celeb didn't seem to be as health-conscious as P&O; there was alcohol gel and wipes on hand when you visited the restaurants, but we didn't notice the same attention to hand rails and door handles.
The best real estate on the ship (immediately above the navigation bridge) is occupied by the gym; perhaps that says something about Celeb's concern for your fitness!
Security was certainly less obtrusive and in some respects may not have been as good as P&O's. Although there are a lot of CCTV cameras around the ship, the security staff were mainly visible during embarkation and disembarkation. No mug shots were taken and it seemed possible that a person could get on or off the ship using someone else's cruise card.
Our itinerary included a day each alongside in Dunedin (Port Chalmers), Christchurch (Lyttleton), Wellington, and Tauranga (Mt Maunganui). Although cruise ships have been visiting New Zealand for 50 years, we found ourselves tied up at woodchip, coal and container terminals with virtually no passenger facilities. Most of these were at least a long walk from the town centre, so it was necessary to use public transport or the shuttle bus service if you wanted to venture into town for the day. New Zealand towns and cities are not too different to Australian towns of the same size, so activitiies can be resricted to the local tourist traps and souvenir shopping if you are so inclined.
There were two days of excellent scenic cruising, in Fiordland and around White Island near Tauranga. The fiordland cruising took us all the way into Milford Sound and through sheltered passages on the eastern side of Secretary and Resolution Islands. With the ship's extraordinary manouverability it was able to navigate narrow channels which fortunately are quite deep; only one cruise ship has so far come to grief (the Michail Lermontov, taking a short cut in a sound at the other end of the South Island). We also got a scenic circuit of the harbour when we left Wellington (which the following cruise didn't).
Celeb provided an expert who gave excellent seminars covering natural history aspects of the places visited, and informative commentary during the scenic cruising.