In the end, our weekend cruise turned out to be just what we needed: a close-to-home de-stresser. But it didn't start that way.
Like any overscheduled South Floridian, I was pushing my office time to the max. Little did I realize that by the time I boarded my Celebrity Century weekend cruise at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, I'd be too late to snag a reservation in Murano, the ship's upscale specialty restaurant, despite the $30 per person surcharge for dining there.
Happily, that wrinkle is a thing of the past -- at least on board Celebrity and RCCL ships. Since my spring sailing, both companies have instituted online advance bookings for on-board specialty dining. NCL has a similar program in the works; Carnival's weekender ships don't include additional-fee restaurants. All offer advance bookings for excursions.
It was, however, a lesson learned. Weekend cruises have become so popular that many travelers board the minute the ship allows -- technically around 12:30, but in reality, sometimes as early as 11 a.m. And the instant they board, they dash off to book prime-time spa appointments (the ones on the days at sea are most popular) and seats in reservations-only specialty restaurants.
For us, Celebrity's reputation for cuisine and sophistication was a big draw, and we met several past guests who told us they cruise with Celebrity whenever they go to sea.
In our minds, both the line and ship lived up to reputation. Service aboard most cruise ships is good, well-trained and friendly, and Celebrity's was all of that -- and perhaps more. From Izekel, the broadly smiling bar server, to Gede, our assistant waiter, the service was joyous, and it spilled into the weekend.
As for the regular dining room, both food and service were so good that by the end of the first dinner (brie in puff pastry, filet of sole, a New York strip), we'd quit caring that we weren't going to be wallowing in ultra-gourmet fare.
The ship, too, was a treat. Refurbished in late 2006, the decor recalls a smartly-design boutique hotel that avoids the too-toos -- too trendy, too stuffy. Black-and-white celebrity photos by Koo Starck grace one hallway; a print by the late Robert Rauschenberg sits above the concierge desk. Warm wood paneling appears throughout the three-level atrium and other public spaces, relieved by color splashes like lime chairs in the Rendevous Square loung. Michael's is the kind of cozy, clubby space you expect in a piano-cigar bar, while the white Martini Bar features lights that shift from raspberry to mint to ice -- plus a dozen riffs on the time-honored cocktail.
Our cabin proved restful and modern, with navy and gold touches, a smart white ceramic-bowl sink and comfy bed big enough for The (6-foot-3-inch) Husband.
Because of a special offer on our sailing, we secured a Concierge Class cabin for only $100 per person above the regular outside-cabin rate. This means we had Frette robes in our cabin and a veranda, and each evening artful hors d'oeuvres were delivered to our stateroom. The concierge service -- provided by a desk in the lobby -- proved superfluous on this short cruise to ports we knew well, though they could have arranged rental cars and tracked lost luggage had we needed these services.
Other vacationers we met -- couples, singles and families of just about every age -- were less interested in decor or dining than timing: This cruise simply fit their schedule.