WEEKEND CRUISE | ONE IN A SERIES

Making a quick getaway from the daily grind

 

Celebrity's cruise ship Century gets an early start with a Thursday afternoon sailing.

jwooldridge@MiamiHerald.com

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.

BIG REP

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.

That was the case for our tablemates, Leo and Vivienne Wilmott of Atlanta, and Lori Gundlah and Jung Bin Song, a thirty-ish couple from Madison, Wis. ''We were going to go to Disney, and this just evolved,'' Gundlah said.

Many weekend cruises run Friday to Monday, which means you can board at noon Friday and make it to the Monday office meeting. By sailing on Thursday, Celebrity offers an extra day, and with it, stops in both Key West and Mexico. And you still get a day at sea when you can simply hang by the pool or get pampered in the spa.

FAMILIAR PORTS

As long-time South Floridians, we're old hands when it comes to these ports. Still, we found plenty to enjoy.

Key West has gotten too T-shirty for many tastes, but it clings to both history and quirkiness, and for those who resist the urge to test all 72 bars on Duval Street, the Audubon House, Hemingway House and the Key West Museum of Art & History offer worthy alternatives. (If you get there before the end of the year, don't miss the Seward Johnson exhibit of icons -- think Mona Lisa and American Gothic -- in sculptural 3D.)

Cozumel feels a lot like Key West with a Mexican accent, but the shopping options are different -- silver jewelry makes for smart, affordable presents -- and so are the ship's shore excursions. We had already visited the Tulum ruins, and the Mexican cuisine workshop recommended by friends seemed bound to derail our never-ending battle of the bulge. Instead, we opted instead for snorkeling Cozumel's famous reefs.

If we had never wanted to leave the ship, well, we would have had more than enough to do. Onboard entertainment was lively, sometimes even smart, but never ear-crashingly loud. Sure, the sail-away band played the steel-band standards, but they also threw in plenty of Baby Boomer nostalgics like Electric Slide and Tooty Fruity, and throughout the trip, choices included classical, rock and DJ dance tunes. Funny man Louis Johnson delivered a witty show that completely dodged too-common sophomoric raunchiness. Cosmetics seminars, wine tastings, casino tournaments, gym workouts, a self-guided audio art tour, and -- OK, you gotta have it, a shuffleboard session -- filled out options. The wireless Internet service (yes, we're talking workaholic) functioned reasonably well.

Our day at sea left us with too many options and not enough time or energy to try them all. I'd already hit the spa -- the Thursday sailing day treatments were a relative bargain -- and fantasies of hard-core gym time had devolved into a series of leisurely naps. We did take a couples massage class, which would have been useful had either of us practiced what we learned.

Oh well. Laziness and inertia are the drawbacks -- or is it the benefits? -- of a weekend cruise. ''We haven't done as much as we expected or read as much as we expected,'' said Patti Hart of Washington, D.C., who came as a break from house renovations. ``We've totally relaxed.''

SOME SNAGS

That's not to say that everything was perfect. With 1,800 passengers, Century carries far fewer passengers than many ships, but we still found ourselves in long lines (though they moved quickly.) Buffet offerings at breakfast and lunch were predictably standard, and occasionally not even worth the calories. Finding a chaise lounge on our day at sea proved to be a mission impossible.

And of course, there was that dinner we didn't have in Murano.

Except that we did.

With persistence, The Husband got us on the restaurant's waiting list. And when a cancellation came up, we scored a table.

Though we eat out frequently, this evening felt special, like an actual date. Service in the lushly intimate Venetian room was crisply formal yet friendly, the cuisine deftly prepared.

We bypassed the recommended seven-course tasting menu -- too much food, even for a splurge -- and ordered a la carte: foie gras seared oh-so-perfectly, diced vegetables with chilled lobster medallions, a yummy sea bass grilled with dried tomatoes and herbs, Dover sole (it was slightly overcooked, the only disappointment), a selection of cheese and a chocolate soufflé. Dishes were often finished at our table, creating the ambiance that you find in Paris and the grandest cities of the Far East, but rarely in the tropics.

Worth the price -- and even the now-erased hassle. On such a long languid weekend as this cruise, a single moment of adversity is soon washed away.

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