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Copyright © 1995-2005 
Linda Coffman


Celebrity Horizon 
April 23, 2005
San Juan to Norfolk, VA

by George Hall

We sailed the Celebrity MV Horizon, San Juan to Norfolk VA. April 23, 2005 sailing. Both my wife and myself along with long times friends and fellow cruisers Tom and Laurie. Initially both couples were booked in the Concierge Class on the Atlantic Deck. Celebrity was gracious enough to offer both couples complimentary upgrades as Captains Club members and I presume as good customers since we all have sailed Celebrity quite a bit through the years. We were assigned the Presidents Suite 1058 which is the top suite onboard the Horizon. Tom and Laurie assigned suite 1014 which is the next category. This was viewed by us a wonderful gesture of customer relations by the Captains Club desk. I have not been overwhelmed in the recent years by the benefits afforded by past passenger clubs of any of the lines to be honest so receiving a truly substantial upgrade came as a very pleasant surprise.

This sailing constituted a repositioning cruise for the Horizon which had sailed from Tampa to San Juan and would then sail to Norfolk, Virginia to commence the 2005 Bermuda season from Norfolk. Such repositioning cruises often offer very good pricing since travel can be somewhat more costly to and from the different embarkation and disembarkation ports. In this case I was told that 600 passengers originally sailing from Tampa remained onboard for the second weeks sailing from San Juan. Some were even sailing yet for a third week to Bermuda. Generally taking such a long cruise means a bit older crowd, those who have the time to sail for two or three weeks, this was no different. There were some young families onboard with kids but they definitely were the minority.

GETTING THERE: We flew from NY's JFK airport to San Juan the day prior to sailing on Jet Blue. Flying one way and at an apparent travel week that was extremely busy there were no wonderful cheap rates. We had also booked the 1 day pre-stay ourselves with Best Western Pierre in San Juan. Researching the hotel resulted in mixed reviews almost evenly spread between hating it and it was just fine. We did really have much choice anyway, most hotels insisted that we book at least two days or not at all because it was “ season policy.” Also most hotels simply did not have anything available for that Friday.

We arrived safe and sound and gathered our luggage to take a cab to our hotel. The cabs at the San Juan airport are controlled by the transportation department or some such. This means you go to a booth and tell them where you are going, how many and what luggage and they write you a transport ticket. That ticket tells you exactly what the driver can charge you. There are then people that get your cab and get you onboard. I tried to tip the young lady that did so as she was so pleasant and helpful but she advised they did not take tips. Cab fare for four people and about 6 bags was in area of $16 without optional tip. Couldn’t complain about that. The hotel was about a 10-15 minute drive mostly because of traffic conditions.

You can put us in the category of finding the hotel to be just fine for a short stay. Rooms were clean, mattresses etc in good shape, and pillows were great. Staff extremely friendly and helpful. Rooms feature coffee maker, microwave, and ironing boards. These are all kind of tucked into a tiny closet space and it is obvious room original design was not made to include such things, they had been added to remain competitive in the hotel offerings. The hotel had a nice bar area in the lobby and a restaurant that was toward upscale in a small area. They offered a fixed price dinner for $26 and dinner was reasonably acceptable. You are an easy taxi ride $10 without luggage, to either Old San Juan or to El San Juan Hotel casino area. We elected to taxi to the El San Juan for some gambling. I must admit that the casino was good to me but I was surprised that a casino in such an upscale hotel was terribly understaffed and the machines showing wear. Still hard to complain when you leave a winner. Nothing overly dramatic but better than losing.

The hotel offered a continental breakfast in the pool area. Nothing fancy but more than acceptable. Fresh Danish, cereals, toast, and such. The small pool area had nice table and chairs outside and was pleasant if small area. Previous reviews I read complained about the elevators and I can understand that. Not the most reliable I have seen. One would only stop on floor 4 if you held the button down. You figure that out after you pass the floor for the third time or so. Overall I would have no problem staying at the Best Western Pierre again for a pre-stay. I wouldn’t want to do a week there but a day or two would be just fine. Another PLUS is that FREE internet is offered in the rooms with a very easy high speed connect.

EMBARKATION: Took a taxi to the pier area in Old San Juan, again very reasonable considering 4 people and luggage, $25. Porters were available and embarkation just starting, we were through and on board in less than 30 minutes. However cabins were not yet available and were locked, signs advised that cabins would become available at 1 pm and that a buffet was being served.

CABIN: As noted, we were in the Presidents Suite which would be comparable to the Royal Suite on the Horizon’s sister ship the Zenith, but it wasn’t really. The Royal Suite on the Zenith is far more roomy and better designed. The Horizon was the first Celebrity ship when Chandris Line started Celebrity as their upscale end cruise line. It was taken over during it’s build from a defunct cruise line I believe was the story. The Zenith was commissioned two years later with some design changes--obviously one was a better designed top suite. Where the Royal Suite on Zenith has a dining area this suite wasn’t designed with one. The bottom line for the Horizon and the basic reasoning for her to be sold off is not that she is ancient (she isn’t in nautical measurement, she is still a young ship) but rather she doesn’t meet the changing cruise market needs in US. The absence of balconies being a large minus for her and her size and capacity held against her by bean counters I would imagine. The other design change that was made over the first years of the Horizon’s life was fixing the beds, deck by deck, to be able to be put together. Originally all the twin beds were affixed to the floor and could not offer an alternate bed arrangement.

So the Presidents Suite is indeed a lovely accommodation offering twice the normal cabin space. A Jacuzzi tub and walk in closet are also features. You are provided with a bottle of scotch, bottle of vodka, and sodas complimentary. After the first bottles of liquor you pay for replacements. There is a Aiwa disk player on the drawer set, a box of Cova chocolates, bottle of champagne, butler service. Tea at 4, delivered by butler, canapés at 5, and such amenities. Traveling in such a suite is really up to the value you place upon it versus price. I have often paid twice the price to sail in high category cabins, would never pay triple as some require, and never considered the perks afforded actually worth the money expended.

The butler, Taylan, was exceptional; however, he became ill for the first three days of the cruise and another butler filled in. He was competent but seen little as he was probably being a bit over worked. Still service did not suffer. Just that we did miss Taylan because he was the type of butler you like to get, very pleasant and service oriented.

DINING: Still going the good old traditional dining route we were assigned table 48 with our traveling companions, two lovely ladies from Boston (okay, except for the Red Sox thing we got along famously), and two nice sisters traveling without their mates. We all enjoyed evening conversations that covered many varied subjects and got along well. I highly value the cruise dining experience and spending a week with people of various different backgrounds and opinions. An interesting group of tablemates makes for a wonderful end of the day and start of the evening for us. Another aspect of dining, the waiter and asst. waiter, also can make or break a cruise for us. In this case it didn’t break the cruise for us, but didn’t offer any added good experience.

Our waiter Pablo was capable and provided the minimal amount of service needed to provide for acceptable dining. The assistant waiter, never did get his name which says something right there, was the only person I have met recently that has a worse memory than me. At least I can invoke the old senior moment excuse which he could not. Yes some are better than others at remembering or providing for individual tastes, but this guy wasn’t even close. Two ladies had tea instead of coffee every night. Not once did he provide that automatically. We asked for cheese plates as appetizers for the table at start of meals. We often do this and it is never a problem on any line as cheese plates are often offered as part of dessert menu meaning they are already made up and readily available. We find that having cheese plates at table helps the starving not fill up on bread while ordering and makes a nice little appetite suppressant that also goes good with wine before dinner. Never once provided them unless specifically asked. In comparison on our January sailing of the Coral Princess, our waiter Fabio (you never forget a real waiters name, Pablo will be but a distant memory by Tuesday, the fact that his service was not up to Celebrity’s standard will linger for a while) not only automatically provided the cheese platter but went further to have a different style one every night complete with crackers. May life bless Fabio! And that’s the difference.

Food itself was excellent and there is no doubt in my mind that Celebrity still makes the best desserts found at sea. Coffee remains horrible as it does on most lines, that syrup conglomeration that passes for java on the ocean. Thankfully, the Cova Café offers wonderful brewed coffee, espresso, and so forth and has an outer perimeter of tables for smokers. I also learned a new method for handling the non smokers who insist on entering a smoker area and then covering there nose and saying just loud enough for you to hear "oh stinky smokers." I now hold my hand over my eyes and say just loud enough for THEM to hear, "oh fat ugly people." Okay juvenile but it beats going postal and frankly they all were fat and ugly. Alright no more social comment. You do have to pay for the real coffee naturally.

Talking about the Cova Café, I have to mention Ahmet, a nice bar waiter that was in Cova working each morning. He was the example of how a good waiter/server, bar or otherwise can make a cruise even enjoyable. He greeted me with a smile every morning, got my coffee fast, knew my name and always asked if Mr. Tom or Mrs. Laurie would be joining me and so forth. He was 3 months into his first contract and hailed from Turkey where he was a bar manager. He was starting out at the bottom again being knew to working the ships but is aspiring to promotions down the road. I have no doubt that he will be a Manager in no time. The extra tip I often give the dining room waiter but didn’t this time, was happily given to Ahmet at the conclusion of our sailing.

The buffet area for lunch was very good as we expected. Do still wish that Celebrity would do away with those baby sized glasses of theirs though. It should be noted that about our third day the buffet area was suddenly no longer self serve. We already know what that means now, a touch of Norwalk virus must have surfaced onboard. As I mentioned our butler was ill three days, "with the flu," he advised. Yeah okay. One of the TV's onboard channels was also dedicated to a notice that 25,000,000 cases of Norwalk type viruses occur annually in the United States and cautioned on proper hand washing. It was also noted that cleaners were constantly around wiping down handrails, slot machines and so forth. I did not personally see or even hear of anyone being ill. I think the cruise lines are all very quick to react now to any potential viral threat and have done a good job trying to ensure that it is passed around as little as possible. Let’s face it, Noro type viruses are indeed prevalent throughout the world and I think the amount of publicity that ships get is unwarranted.

CASINO: Casino staff, very pleasant and though I didn’t leave rich I can’t complain. The slots were hitting far better than most I have seen on boards ships. You can get up to $2,000 a day on your onboard card via the casino cashier with no surcharges. Not a great policy for the inveterate gambling I would think. Makes it far too convenient.

DRINKS: I usually ignore those that complain about drink prices since I am from NY where the price is generally high anyway. So I seldom see much difference between the price of a drink on a ship versus a local bar in NY. That said, even as a New Yorker I thought the Horizon’s drink prices were getting carried away. One of my tablemates was charged over $9 for a glass of Chardonnay at dinner via bar waiter. Cheaper to buy the bottle! A Dewar’s scotch and soda was over $6 with tip, bad enough but worse if you consider at least my bar free pours a decent drink versus ship bar measured shot.

SHIP CONDITION: I had noted some reviews mentioned the carpets as being stained and in bad shape. I can’t contest that, the corridor carpeting could stand to be replaced. However, overall the ship appeared to be very clean and in great shape. I sailed the Horizon in I believe 1990 for the first time and I think that Celebrity has done an excellent job of maintaining her. We had no complaints about the ship or cabin condition though the air conditioning did seem a bit less than cold at times but not really a problem.

SUMMARY: Great cruise, waiter should apply for Carnival and take his assistant with him. Butler, cabin steward did fine job, room service excellent but it should be with a butler. Staff friendly and service generally excellent. Casino staff wonderful as well. 

I didn’t comment on ports of call since Horizon will finish out her celebrity days this summer doing Bermuda from Norfolk.

DISEMBARKATION: Instead of announcements everyone gets an assigned lounge to wait in then that lounge is notified they can disembark. Celebrity now offers room service the morning of disembarkation which is one of the best innovative changes most lines have started in years! When you are getting up super early for departure day it is wonderful to be able to have some coffee, syrupy or not and a roll or something delivered while you get ready.

We were scheduled to arrive in Norfolk at 10 am but were at the dock by 7 I think. It had been previously announced that we would be arriving early. Disembark was easy and no problem, porters were available which is good because it is a bit of a walk to the circle where you can get picked up. The line for taxis was a city block long and moving slowly. Those who bought bus passes to airport from Celebrity did much better as their luggage was placed on bus for them and considering shortage of taxis were probably happy to ride a bus. We elected to drive home which turned out to be the best option. Our travel mates had decided to fly, the first flight available was after 3 pm. Due to weather in NY they actually didn’t leave until after 5. We rented a car from Hertz on Monticello Ave in Norfolk, they picked us up and we were on the road by 10 am. We actually arrived at home 15 minutes after our flying friends. An added bonus, we had all our luggage arrive with us. The airline lost one of their cases but delivered it the next morning to their house. Our cost with gas $148, theirs not counting transportation from airport to home almost $500. Plus we had a lovely crab cake lunch in Delaware on the way.

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