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Celebrity Equinox Review
Mediterranean Cruise &
  Transatlantic Crossing
Nov 28-Dec 12, 2011

by Ed Schlenk

So much has been written about the Celebrity Equinox that I will limit most of my review to suggestions about how to enjoy the ship and the (transatlantic) ports of call.

It is difficult to imagine a cruise that comes closer to ideal than our Equinox transatlantic cruise (Nov 28 - Dec 12, 2011), which sailed from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Ft. Lauderdale, spending a week in the western Mediterranean and a week crossing the Atlantic.

The Equinox is a beautiful ship and the crew could not be better-trained or more enthusiastic. Everyone, from the crew members who daily polished the stair railings to the cabin stewards to the wait staff to the senior officers and personable cruise director (named Que, pronounced Q), made every effort to insure that passengers had a wonderful time.

The ship is German-built, and no expense seems to have been spared. It is like owning a Mercedes
every detail is well-designed and expertly crafted, and one notices something new and beautiful about it every day.

The cabins are modular and arranged in pairs, with a curved wall between each pair and a flat wall between each module. That maximizes the space around the bed, which is in the bump out, while minimizing the total space required. This dual cabin module is a feature of inside, outside and balcony cabins, but not the larger suites. This means that cabins alternate between having the bed near the door or near the windows. It also means that cabins can be joined at the entryway, rather than having a pass through door, which can be noisy. When choosing a cabin, make sure you specify your floor plan preference. Keep in mind that the pool deck has a major overhang, and the balconies just below it are in the shade. Also, aft balconies are tiered, so they are sunnier but less private, and may have some soot from the stacks.

The public areas are gorgeous and well-used on sea days. There seemed to be something going on to satisfy any taste. The enrichment lectures (three academics) and the classical musicians were fantastic. As usual, everything musical is over-amplified, so take your earplugs to all events, especially the stage shows and the talented a capella quartet.

People often discuss cruise food and sometimes sound like the princess-and-the-pea: they niggle about minor details without enjoying the major pleasures. We found the food on the Equinox second to none, including our experience with luxury lines like Silversea. There are several elegant and popular alternative restaurants on the Equinox, but we tried none: dining in the main dining room was a pleasure and we felt no need to pay the hefty surcharges for alternative dining. Each menu was imaginative and beautifully presented, which is a feat considering the length of the cruise. The beef was not prime in the main dining areas, but it was flavorful, and the fish was always ideally cooked (rare when requested for game fish like tuna, well done but rarely dry for white fish). Appetizers were so tempting that we usually had two and skipped the soups and salads, which are also excellent.

We had open ("Select") dining, which required pre-paid gratuities. There was never a wait early (6pm) or late (8pm), but there was usually a line at peak times (7pm). It was enjoyable to have new dinner guests each evening. The wait staff was amazing: they were good menu consultants, attentive, and very professional. The maitre d's (ours was the lovely Amelia) also did an excellent job, especially since everyone seems to want extra attention. They were always patient and cordial.

Desserts are my downfall. To avoid doubling them at dinner, I stopped by the El Bacio coffee lounge each afternoon and had a sampling of the desserts there (no surcharge for the desserts).

The buffet had excellent made-to-order hot items and wonderful cold foods, from salads to sandwiches to (free) ice cream. As usual, hot foods from the buffet steam trays tended to be over-cooked, which is almost impossible to avoid with self-service, but they were still flavorful. Best of all, there is a rear deck off the buffet where one can enjoy one's meal al fresco.

One thing to keep in mind is that hand washing is more effective than gels at killing viruses (but gels are great for bacteria), so we always wash hands after touching any buffet tongs and before eating (most people just gel before entering the buffet area). There is a hand wash station (but only one) portside aft in the buffet area, next to a coffee station. No one else used it.

The poolside grill is actually one deck up from the pool. People loved the burgers and fries there, but not the lines. We skipped lunches there, but nibbled on a napkin-full of fries when we did our deck walk before dinner each evening. They are the best fries in the world, and worth the calories.

The gym is busy on sea day mornings: treadmills filled up and their use was limited to 30 minutes. Instead, consider the free stretch and ab routines run by the cordial personal trainers each morning at 0700 and 0730. When the weather is good, the class uses the top deck lawn. A lawn on a ship sounds crazy, but it is heavenly to watch the sunrise as one stretches on the (real) grass.

The outdoor hot glass show also seems like a crazy idea on a ship, but it is wonderfully informative and entertaining. The three Corning glassblowers were very talented and a pleasure to watch, almost daily. They raffle a few of their items each cruise (they make three items during each show) and later auction some items for charity. One of my (free) raffle tickets was a single digit off from the winner, which is probably fortunate since I travel with an airline carry-on only and would have had no space to take anything home without having to check a bag. Raffles tended to occur about a half hour before the end of some glass shows, for those eager for a free work of glass art.

It is difficult to recount all the pleasures of this cruise, both great and small. We were so impressed that we booked an "open passage" while on the cruise. This allows one to receive additional cabin credits (up to $300) on one's next Celebrity cruise, with a reduced ($100) non-refundable, non-expiring deposit. Prices quoted by the future-cruise staff seemed to match the prices we had previously found on the web. Some passengers mentioned that Celebrity has special web offers every Tuesday, but I have never had much luck with the Celebrity web site: it seems very clunky and slow to navigate.

For independent (and inexpensive) SHORE EXCURSIONS the following information may be useful.

I used public transportation and never took a tour or spent more than 10 euros in a port (except for the train ticket to Marseilles, which was 16 euros round trip for seniors). I prefer taking my time and setting my own itinerary. I speak tourist-level Italian, French, and Spanish, but English-only speakers should have no problems in these ports.

Rick Steves has just come out with a guide to Mediterranean cruise ports. It is worth every penny for the larger ports, but does not include the smaller ports. However, there usually is a tourist official with maps at these smaller ports, often right on the dock near the ship.

Celebrity charged only a few dollars for shuttle service into port town centers, which helps since some ports are large and industrial. Public transportation is always available from the town centers to the countryside and neighboring towns.

CIVITAVECCHIA (port of Rome):
After our last Mediterranean cruise, we spent a few extra days in Rome. Just before returning home I was mugged (in broad daylight near the Vatican) when leaving a restaurant. For this reason, this time I flew into FCO on the day of cruise departure, took the local (not express) train to the Rome-Trastevere station and then the local train back to Civitavecchia: total cost about 15 euros, and total time about 1 hour each way. Since I was traveling solo, this was much cheaper and not much longer than the alternatives between airport and cruise port.

The walk from the Civitavecchia train station to the port entry is pleasant, and Celebrity provided a free shuttle from the port entry to the ship. Although I was early and the shuttle bus was nearly empty, the bus attendant would not let me carry on my (one small) bag and she was quite nasty about it. I was unwilling to let it out of my hands, since my bag once "disappeared" in a port shuttle in Spain, so I walked to the ship with my bag in tow. It took about 40 minutes and was dicey since there is no pedestrian walkway. Fortunately, I cooled down by the time I reached the ship, and check-in was a breeze. That shuttle was my only negative experience on the whole cruise, and it was my choice to walk.

LIVORNO (for Pisa, Lucca, and/or Florence):
Spending 2 hours by train each way to visit Florence made no sense to me, especially since I rented a place on the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio a few years ago. Instead I opted for Pisa and Lucca by public bus and train. The new Rick Steves' Mediterranean Cruise Ports guidebook gives all the details you will need. I had not seen Pisa since my childhood (it has not changed) and Lucca was new to me. Both provided charming walks and historic sights.

In Pisa the walk from the central train (or bus) station to the Field of Miracles (Leaning Tower) is delightful. Pisa is a university town on the Arno River (like Florence), with great photo ops along the way. Lucca is an old walled city. The promenade along the city walls is beautiful, and some of the old mansions and guard towers with views are impressive.

It was easy to spend half a day each in Pisa and Lucca. Including Florence would have been too much travel in too little time. Again, the Rick Steves cruise port guidebook gives great suggestions and has useful maps for all three cities on your own: Pisa, Lucca, and Florence.

TOULON (actually the yacht harbor Le Seyne-sur-mer):
Celebrity provided a bus for several dollars into Toulon (about 20 minutes away), but I preferred to take the local bus to the Le Seyne train station, and from there the train to Marseilles. The train leaves around 8:00am and 8:30am, then about hourly except mid-day. If you exit the ship early and walk through the yacht basin (follow the pedestrian signs to the town center), a local bus will take you the 2 miles to the Le Seyne train station (Gare). It leaves the port area around 7:30am and 7:45am, in time for the early trains. Its stop is at the intersection about 100 yards east of the yacht harbor entry (look for the bus shelter on the cross street). Walking to the station would be too far.
Later in the day, a cross-harbor ferry (public) took passengers to the Toulon train station, but this was not mentioned in the ship's port guide and I do not have details.

Historic central Marseilles is only about a mile across, so it is easy to walk from the St. Charles (main) train station down the hill past the "Arab" street market to the picturesque waterfront.
From the waterfront one can walk up the hill to the beautifully renovated Charite museums (ethnographic and archeologic) and/or catch the public bus from the waterfront up the hill for fantastic views over the harbor from the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral. Again, The Rick Steves cruise port guidebook gives all the information and maps you will need for a wonderful day in Marseilles, and the train ride to get there is along a beautiful coastline.

Our ship docked at B terminal about a mile from the Columbus (Colom) tower. There is a port shuttle bus just outside the terminal for 3 euros round trip to the tower (worth it since the port is industrial).
From the tower it is a short walk to the Metro station, where a day pass for the entire metro and bus system in Barcelona is only 6 euros. I took the metro to Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, then the bus to the historic Barrio Gothic (old cathedral, city museum, Picasso museum), then the metro to Parc Guell north of the city, then back to the Eixample District for the modernista architecture, then a walk down the pedestrian zone Las Ramblas, and then back to the ship at the end of the day. Montjuic and its museums (or Montserrat and its shrine) would have taken an extra day, best when cruises have an overnight in Barcelona. Again, the Rick Steves cruise port guidebook gives all the information you need to enjoy Barcelona on your own (and on the cheap).

Very few guides have any information about this port, which is the sleeper of the cruise: small beautiful, and easy to access. Simply walk off the ship and all sights are an easy walk away. Just pick up a free city map at the tourist information booth on the pier.

The must-see sight is the Roman amphitheater and museum. The city has been active since Roman times, and its buried history is gradually being unearthed. A beautiful new museum is on the pedestrian street near the ship. It takes you underground and then up and outside to the amphitheater, from where you can continue out and around to the beautiful views from the old fortress on the adjacent hill. Alternately you can take the elevator from street level to the fortress overlook, but the approach from the amphitheater is much more dramatic. By chance there was a Renaissance street market going on during our visit: great photo ops if you check my photo link elsewhere in this review. Just strolling the streets of Cartagena in good weather is a joy, even if there is no special street market going on.

The crossing from Gibraltar to the Azores takes almost two days and is often the roughest part of the cruise (per the weather and sea charts that I followed before departure). We had moderate waves hitting us broadside, but the Equinox was amazingly stable considering its tall superstructure
just a gentle roll that was no problem at all. I am a poor sailor (afraid to tackle the Antarctic seas) but needed no motion meds and lost no appetite.

Azores guidebooks in English are hard to find: the best are written in German, with good maps and hiking information. The surroundings of Punta Delgada look like Irelandsmall farms in green rolling hills, with cows occasionally blocking traffic. Idyllic. One can easily walk from the ship to the center of town, which has a nice historic feel to it since the Azores were the way-station for shipping treasure from the New World to Europe ever since the 1500's. There are some nice gardens and old churches, but taking a local bus into the countryside is the most rewarding option.

At 8:25am a bus left from the waterfront west of the ship (look for all the bus stands) and traveled round trip to the caldera lakes of Sete Cidades, one hour and 5 euros each way. I did not want to miss the ocean crossing, so I stayed aboard the bus for the round trip. A German couple on our ship got off the bus at Sete Cidades, walked to the next town, and took another bus back. Caution: buses are few and far between, and there is no way to join the ship if you return late. If the high cost of onboard internet annoys you, the Ponta Delgada library, in the center of town, has free internet access and great washrooms. Any local person can help you find it, and city maps are available on the dock.

One way airfares US to Europe are outrageous (more than double the corresponding round trip fares), so I opted for a open-jaw itinerary through the cruise line (still about the same price as the US-Europe round trip).

Because I travel with one small carry-on only, even on cruises, I was able to walk off the ship at 6:30am and was at the airport (by taxi) and through security and at the gate by 7:00am: a personal record. My flight did not leave until 11:30am. Usually I am able to fly standby on an earlier flight, but everything was booked this time. Fortunately the Delta Sky Lounge let me wait there (and have breakfast) since I am a gold elite flier and they now allow free access on any transoceanic itinerary (they stretched the rules for me on this domestic segment of the itinerary). This is a great new service from Delta that I learned about on a vacation to Hong Kong a few weeks before the cruise. It is worth checking into if you are a frequent flier. I have even used it to shower between long haul flights, although not all Sky lounges have showers.

Hope you enjoy your cruise as much as I did. Bon voyage!

Photo © E. Schlenk

Bonus! More photos of the ports and ship featured in his review of The Equinox Mediterranean and Atlantic cruise are online. Click on this link, or copy and paste it in your browser if necessary. When the thumbnail photos appear, click on the slideshow option and wiggle your mouse to get the control panel and set your preferred speed. If the site loads slowly, be patient. It's worth the wait.

"The images are degraded a little from the originals to save bandwidth, but they are still enjoyable. The first half is ports of call, and the second half is the ship itself. You may want to watch in two sessions. Enjoy!"

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