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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman


Celebrity Mercury
California Coastal Cruise
March 29 - April 5, 2003

by Patrick Regan  

Seven days - round trip from San Francisco to Monterey & Catalina Island, California and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

We decided to take our kids (son 31, daughter 32) on a vacation cruise. The last time we cruised with them they were teenagers and they had a great time. The Mercury cruise coincided with their work schedules.

Since Sept. 02, we have cruised HAL to Alaska; Crystal, 14 days Panama Canal; and this Mercury cruise. We are cruising again on May 20th, Infinity - Honolulu to Vancouver. I am approaching retirement and we want to cruise more and are looking for a 'home' cruise line that's more affordable than Crystal etc. and still has some premium touches and better quality food.

Alaska Airlines flew my wife and me to San Francisco from Vancouver, BC on a beautiful day. We got to San Francisco a little after 9AM. We booked transfers with Celebrity but were crestfallen to find out the bus wouldn't leave until 11:30 AM. It actually left even later, at 12:30 PM. Had we known to expect the delay, we would have dropped off our luggage (the flight arrived too early to directly board the ship), and rented a car or taken a cab for some sightseeing, maybe a ride on a cable car. We would have had lunch at Hunan on Sansome, Scoma's at Fisherman's wharf or Zuni on Market St. Yum. Instead we had a truly crappy, extra greasy, overpriced, not very warm breakfast at Allegro, located at SF International. We waited over 3 hours sitting around the airport. 

Our daughter flew in from LA to Oakland and she and our son, who lives in Oakland, took the BART to the Emabarcadero Station in San Francisco and a cab to Pier 35, where the Mercury stood majestically with the X on the stack rising above the port buildings and beckoning us to our cruise. We finally got to the ship around 1:30 PM and checked in quickly using the Captain's Club line and headed for our veranda cabin with sitting area while the kids checked out their cabin.

We booked veranda cabin, run of the ship. When we boarded the Mercury we found the smallest veranda cabin & smallest veranda (#1002) that we had ever seen, 172 sq.ft. We assumed incorrectly that the veranda cabin would at least be the size of the ones on Holland America & Crystal, (around 240+ sq.ft.) that we had in the fall of 2002. Good thing we booked a separate ocean view cabin for our kids. It was bigger than ours.

I went to the concierge desk and stood in a long line, listening to grown men and women whimper, looking for that elusive free upgrade. The Mercury was pretty full, and I figured--correctly--that there would be no free upgrades... we considered a royal suite and ended up biting the bullet and paying for a penthouse; 1100 sq.ft. with butler service, a dining room, pantry with an ice making refrigerator, marble bath with a 2 person Jacuzzi and double sinks. The fully tiled shower had a seat and was really nice.

The bedroom was huge with a king sized bed and floor to ceiling windows, along with motorized curtains & sheers, like the living and dining room; the hardwood floors have intricately designed borders and beautiful throw rugs. The penthouse also had a hot tub on the veranda with complete privacy and, finally, a projection TV/DVD with a 100 inch screen along with 2 more TV's, a suite-wide stereo system and a VCR. There were beautiful flower arrangements in the entry, the dining room and the bedroom. I can still smell those delightful lilies. Our kids looked at the deck plan and informed us that there are only 2 of these penthouse cabins on the ship. WHEW!

It was a great place to hang out. We spent very little time in the public rooms, as they were usually filled with aimless inside cabin dwellers staying out of that inside cabin.

We sailed out of San Francisco Bay & under the Golden Gate Bridge bathed in the light of the magic hour just before sundown. A wonderful beginning.

We had a swell butler, Harry, and he took great care of us (and ended up appropriately over-tipped). We loved having breakfast in our dining room. We had free espresso and cappuccino drinks as long as they were ordered through the butler, but we had to pay for them if we ordered them in the Cova cafe or in the dining room. We also had canapé service every afternoon that Harry brought us. Yummy. The penthouse also came with 2 bottles of booze and some mixers. It did not come with unlimited bottled water. We were given only 2 bottles of Evian water for the whole cruise and laundry/dry cleaning were not included in the price as they are on HAL & Crystal. Suzanna, our cabin stewardess, from Portugal, was equally attentive; the place was spotless.

Celebrity's food standard has slipped a great deal since we last cruised with them in 1999. The rumors are true! The soups and sauces are excellent but the entrees are not as special as they once were on Celebrity. The ingredient quality has gone down appreciably since the RCI merger. Celebrity food now has the banquet style & quality of Royal Caribbean or Holland America. The beef was of low quality and high toughness. The shrimp was soft, as was the lobster. It was a low level lobster (rock lobster maybe) like you might see at a Sizzler or a Red Lobster restaurant. 

As low as the food costs are in proportion to the price of the cruise as a whole, they could have served better beef and lobster. To use Las Vegas comparisons, Celebrity is at the Luxor, Excalibur, Circus-Circus level food-wise, not Mirage, Bellagio, Rio or Caesars. 

Celebrity does have a vegetarian menu in the dining room and it's a plus. One of our kids is a vegan and there was always something on the veggie menu (though things were sometimes mislabeled, and very few items were actually 'vegan').

The Manhattan has the best food on the Mercury, but that isn't saying much. The service however was wonderful. Kudos to our waiter, Marian, from Rumania and his assistant, Leonardo, from Nicaragua for their great service and menu suggestions. Many thanks also to Asst. Maitre d' Gilroy; he was very helpful in arranging for crepes and bananas foster on a couple of nights and also arranging for some vegetarian Indian food on 3 nights. 

I wish they would stop with the parade of waiters on the tip envelope-giving last night along with the old news, heart stopping, Baked Alaska. It's over for Baked Alaska... I'd rather have crepes, myself, if I am to have a high cholesterol meal. The waiters are tired enough without having to parade and the parade seems almost anti-entertainment. We do our tipping on the second evening of the cruise. It makes everything so much smoother and if the service is great, which it was, we surprise the wait and housekeeping staff with another $20 or $30. which we did on this cruise.

There is no upscale gourmet alternative room on the Mercury as there is on Millennium class ships. 

There is the Palm Springs Cafe aft of the Palm Springs buffet. It's open for dinner with a few simple grilled items and a $2 per person gratuity charge. Well worth the 2 bucks to eat on deck in the twilight without having to wear long pants. Reservations need to be made with your Asst. Maitre d' or by phone during certain hours.

During the day the Palm Springs aft has a theme lunch available; European, Italian, Mexican, Asian, etc. depending on the day of the week. No reservations necessary; no matter what food 'genre' is listed as the daily theme there is a sameness to all of the food served on the Mercury.

Celebrity doesn't stint on places to eat... there's the La Playa grill with burgers, dogs, veggie burgers, and pizza; the Cova Cafe with a European type breakfast. The only place I ever saw the ship's officers was at the Cova... the rest of the time they are invisible except for the obligatory  Captain's party. There is Sushi at the buffet in the evenings but no other Asian food except for one day at the Palm Springs, in a theme lunch. There is also free ice cream served all afternoon.

They have pasta, but it's mediocre at the buffet and in the Manhattan dining room. The carbonara they offered was just an alfredo sauce with ham in it instead of the way it should have been with egg and pancetta and very little cream and cheese. Quantity trumped flavor and presentation on this cruise. 

The buffet has a cafeteria sameness after a couple of days so we didn't visit there until the 4th day of the cruise rather than starting there early and burning out. It's really a cafeteria, folks, and easy to get tired of. There's a ton of food offered daily but I'd rather have less variety and more great taste, e.g. the baked beans on the American buffet were just cooked plain beans in water, they made no effort with the sauce. And how can you have an American picnic type buffet without baked ham?

Speaking of buffets, the Grand Buffet and a couple more were held near midnight... I guess it's some kind of tradition but I preferred the way Crystal did it during the day with all kinds of well prepared special buffets. Crystal also closes other dining venues during these spectacular buffets, giving some of the hard working staff time off. Considering the age demographic of this cruise and most others the buffets should be day and early evening. 

Our kids were disappointed in not having others their age to interact with. I had considered Carnival but I couldn't see myself on a Carnival Cruise, although it would have been more fun for the kids. I'm going to reconsider Carnival if we travel with young adults again.

CASUAL AFTERNOON TEA (it's not high tea on Celebrity)
The afternoon tea on the Mercury is rather pedestrian. No scones except on the day they have the tea in the Manhattan dining room, and poor quality whipped cream. The rest of the time tea is held in the Palm Springs. 

Crystal's daily tea is to die for... Celebrity's is in the style of Holland America... it's tea, there are sweets & little sandwiches but no scones. Not very elegant. Not worth leaving the cabin for (if your cabin is the Penthouse).

The 'Mercury Daily' lists dining venues, events and shows, but only on a daily basis. Crystal lists the whole week in advance in the publication handed to passengers as they board, not just the dress codes, and you can save it and plan your dining room alternatives and entertainment in advance without waiting for the paper each day. The Mercury paper had more ads and puff pieces than information.

I know that some folks love to dress up, and I can stand one formal night, but 2 in 7 days? It's like kids playing dress up. Same with informal... why should we have to wear a sport coat for 3 evenings on a vacation... tasteful cruise casual should be the norm in the dining room and there should be one shorts night in the dining room in my opinion. Getting through security flying to your cruise is very tedious; the fewer bags the better, especially now since the bags must remain unlocked.

Celebrity also forces you to keep your formal or informal clothes on in order to be admitted to the shows. Thumbs down on that. It's supposed to be a vacation. The age demographic is changing to a younger crowd and Celebrity needs to contemporize their approach.

Lovely facility with modern equipment... all the goodies. State of the art. It's great to sit on an exercise bike or use a treadmill and look out the big windows at the prow of the Mercury slicing through the water.

We enjoyed the comedy magician, Carl Andrews. Cass Taylor the vocalist put on a good show and so did the A cappella vocal group the Nep Tunes. The celebrity orchestra worked was excellent considering it was a small orchestra with most of the players doubling up on other instruments. 

The musical performers in the various lounges were rather pedestrian; no trios and the big, beautiful Navigator club had only a guitar player with a drum machine. Just enough lounge entertainment to get by.


David Coles always entered with the band performing David Letterman's 'playon' music. I found it offensive that he would use Letterman's musical signature. It's bad form for a lesser performer to co-opt someone's theme music. This guy couldn't carry Letterman's cue cards. Same old jokes, games and worn out patter... nothing new or exciting. Some passengers attend every event and hang on every word but most of it has been done over and over. These guys need a new act... If I see another 'Not so newlywed game', with lame, nothing prizes, I'll hurl, big chunks.

Usually it's one of my favorite shipboard places... there isn't much selection on the Mercury, just the most basic popular culture, and the librarian likes to keep the TV with the sound on, in a library. It's bad enough that there is a TV in the library let alone with the sound on. I asked him to turn the sound off and he implied that management wants it on CNN for the news. I complained in writing to the Hotel Director and the Cruise Director called and told me the sound would be kept off. 

I went back to the library and found the TV sound blaring again and I complained again. It then remained off for the balance of our cruise but Alain, the librarian, also loved to start loud conversations in the library with passengers and staff, which he did plenty of with his beloved companion, CNN, gone. There are so many places on this beautiful ship to relax and have a conversation, but the library is the only quiet place on the ship and I don't like hearing that quiet destroyed.


MONTEREY: Not enough time there... a wonderful world class aquarium or a trip to 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach and lunch in Carmel are great things to do. The best way is to reserve a rental car in advance and stay out of the packed excursion vans.

CATALINA ISLAND: Nice beaches and plenty of shops in the touristy town of Avalon. We tendered in, looked around the town and returned to the ship and spent the day on the uncrowded Mercury while everybody else was ashore.

CABO SAN LUCAS: We tendered to shore and went to the Crazy Lobster just 2 blocks from the marina area. We had breakfast and seafood for very reasonable non-tourist prices and the Coca Cola's were good and bubbly. The food was delicious. The restaurants right at the marina charge nosebleed US prices, which we find to be the norm in most cruise ports. If passengers on shore don't explore a little, they will pay US prices for everything.

As mentioned earlier, we tip early in the week to insure better service. 

Celebrity has the cabin attendant leave the tip envelopes in your cabin wrapped in a band with the suggested tipping 'guidelines' listed. They have added envelopes for a 75 cents per person per day for the asst. maitre d' and 50 cents a day for the chief housekeeper into the usual tipping mix. 

I think that's cutting it a bit fine. We always take care of the asst. maitre d' in our dining area when he deserves it, and the chief housekeeper's tip should be folded into the cabin attendant tip. Vacationing passengers shouldn't be asked to divide up and parcel out the tokes. Staff involved should be responsible. Celebrity seems to be trying to shame the less traveled passengers into this multi-envelope system in order to keep their employees happy and to not effect Celebrity's bottom line. 

The wait staff, buffet serving line and service personnel are obviously tired. There is no day off for them. Some of them working the cafes during the day are almost zombie-like. They are fried. Close that dining room one day a week or combine other venues and buffets so that the troops can refresh themselves a bit. 

Management style seems to turn out all of the troops all of the time so that everything is covered even when the venue is not full of passengers needing service. Rotating the closing of the dining venues would allow time off and give the passengers something different. I don't know how many cruisers notice the crew, but I've spent my life scheduling motion picture and TV production crews and I know from my own personal experience how grueling weeks are with no days off. These nice crewpersons are tired and it shows. Crystal manages to rotate the troops better, but Crystal is also in my opinion the best managed cruise line.

The less traveled passengers can't believe all the free food and goodies all the time. Those of us who are paying for the best of cabins are getting shortchanged on the Mercury.

We have cruised 3 times in the last 7 months, HAL, Crystal, and Celebrity, and in three weeks we will cruise again on Celebrity from Hawaii to Vancouver. If we had known that the food standard on Celebrity had slipped as much as it has since the merger we might not have booked the Hawaii cruise. We're crestfallen. We'll cross our fingers and hope that the food is better on the Millennium-class Infinity. We will have to cruise less in the future in order to spend more money on premium cruise lines with much better food. The cliché is true... you get what you pay for!

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