After an early morning drive to Birmingham Airport we made use of the Meet and Greet parking which worked perfectly, despite us arriving in two separate vehicles. A long queue had already formed to check in for our Monarch flight to Rome however, any thoughts that there may be a problem getting on board were quickly dispelled by the sight of a Celebrity cruises representative who was on hand to answer any questions and check our names off on her list. Does anyone else find it strangely reassuring to find that you are actually on the list?
Sadly, the 20kg luggage allowance wasn’t quite enough for the hair, clothes and make-up requirements of two teenage daughters and a slight delay ensued whilst we paid for additional hold baggage. Other than that apart from long queues for an early morning coffee (which were an opportunity to eye up our fellow cruise passengers and decide which ones NOT to queue behind in the days ahead) all went smoothly.
The flight itself was uneventful although the view over London and out to sea was a memorable one, but worth noting that there are no free refreshments on Monarch charter flights. More money from Dad required to sustain the aforementioned daughters of course and anyway, who can pass up the idea of Pringles and Twix for breakfast?
On arrival in Rome we were met by a plethora of Celebrity staff, all armed with smiles and clipboards pointing the way to our waiting transport – a short journey down to Civitavecchia (including a wonderful view of the port and the waiting ship from high above) and a chance to join our third queue of the day, this time to check in. Much to our surprise we found ourselves at the head of the line within minutes and had even been refreshed on the way with cold towels and iced drinks.
A couple of group photos later (the ones you never buy because you all look knackered) and we are on board the beautiful Celebrity Reflection. Stylish, contemporary and clean – just like us really.
We lunched in the buffet style Oceanview Café marvelling at the huge selection of food on offer from all corners of the world before purchasing what turned out to be the fantastic value Premium Drinks Packages – great if you like cocktails, martinis and wine with your dinner – but they also come in handy if you like freshly squeezed orange juice with breakfast. One tip here would be to ignore the “wines by the glass” description used by Celebrity when describing the packages on offer. All wine comes out of bottles and, in our experience on board Refection, when you choose a wine the sommelier retrieves a bottle and opens it for you, continuing to pour as much as you like when you like and not worrying about opening another bottle if you carry on!
One other unforeseen benefit of holding a premium drinks package card was that staff often refused to take payment (with a knowing smile!) when you tried to purchase a drink for others. Not sure this is official company policy but a big well done to the waiters!
Next up was a self-guided tour of the ship when we tried (and failed miserably) to get a handle on which restaurants were where and what activities we might take part in. There were far too many to choose from so we agreed to take the holiday as it came without too much planning ahead.
Having looked forward to a warm sunny departure from Rome we were somewhat disappointed to leave the quayside amid biblical scenes as dark clouds brooded and lightning flashed around, not that the inclement weather seemed to bother the customers of the Sunset bar too much, most of whom seemed more concerned with capturing the scene on camera. Have you ever tried snapping a picture of a lightning bolt? Not easy!
Once out at sea we thought it might be a good idea to take a look in our cabins and they were much as expected – not quite big enough to be called truly spacious but very acceptable nonetheless and with all the amenities you would expect including the HD television complete with something less than HD programming. The big surprise for me was the size and quality of the bathroom which was easily the best I have yet encountered on board ship. The youngsters were sharing a room which had already been made up by the time we got there and I thought it accommodated three quite easily – just so long as at least one of them was on or in a bed at any one time. Not much different to a cabin in twin occupation really.
One thing we did find in our room was a card saying that we were going to enjoy Anytime Dining. This was a bit of a surprise as we had requested an 8.45 sitting and this was shown as confirmed on our paperwork. Undaunted we headed down for our “Anytime” dinner at 8.45 and found a queue, if not quite snaking around the ship then certainly snaking as far as the adjacent bar. To cut a long story short we ended up being seated at 9.30 after an entertaining wait watching various nationalities getting as irate as their custom dictated. Being reserved English types we watched with amusement as the Maitre d’ struggled in several languages to cope with the demands of her travel weary clientele (surely that has to be the worst job on the ship). At least it gave us the chance to marvel at the sheer number of expletives available in the various languages spoken on board.
One tip I always give customers is, when possible, to travel with attractive young women in tow. Yes there is the waiting for hair straighteners to contend with and the squabbles over the eye lash sticky on thing but, sit down with them at your table on a cruise ship and you are assured of attention and service way beyond what you might reasonably expect. Despite my initial worries about not having the same waiters each evening and not forming a bond with them which is, let’s face it, one of the highlights of a cruise, our “Anytime” slot simply meant that we acquired more and more waiters to entertain us as the days went by. Our decision to pitch up as late as possible helped too as we were treated to just about every menu option no matter which one we had actually chosen. One night in particular I seem to recall disappearing behind the sheer number of plates stacked on our table as we sampled our choice, the Chef’s choice and whichever the waiter preferred all at the same time.
Once the food was done (and it took a while I can tell you) the entertainment began. Why go to the show when the show will come to you? We had magic tricks mainly, which seemed to amuse the rest of the staff at least as much as they did us, although it might just have been that we were a distraction from the alternative entertainment which was to clear tables and make them up for breakfast – it really was that late by the time we finished.
Aside from one night spent at the Lawn Club Grill, where the portions were so large they should perhaps consider Gaviscon as a sponsor, we spent every night in the main restaurant. This was mainly due to the atmosphere conjured up by the waiting staff rather than the food itself which, although very nice, I didn’t think was THAT much better than Royal Caribbean fare, but that is a tip of the hat towards the quality on Royal Caribbean rather than a negative comment on Celebrity’s offering.
Having been entertained at our table until almost bedtime we didn’t really get much chance to sample the shows on offer in the theatre but those we did see were excellent. There really are some tremendously talented people out there on cruise ships aren’t there? One other aspect of the entertainment on board Reflection worth mentioning just has to be the cocktail bar staff – especially those working in the Martini bar with the ice frosted bar area. Why pour a drink into a glass when you can line a dozen up, stand on the bar on one leg and pour them all at the same time from a shaker snake without spilling a drop?
Talking of bars one place that is a must to visit on board Celebrity Reflection is the sunset bar. Right at the back of the ship overlooking the wake and packed out with a group of regulars every evening being looked after by fun loving, attentive staff. Perfect.
Having so much fun on the ship meant that we were, as a family, a little tardy in organising ourselves on leaving the ship, which was particularly the case at our first port of call in Santorini. As is always the case there we were landed by tender and, being an experienced cruiser myself, I waited until after breakfast to pick up our tender tickets proudly showing them off to the assembled throng on deck. Tender number 67 was definitely going to be the one to be on! I wasn’t until the first tender had left that I started to calculate the time required for the remaining 66 before us to leave. According to my calculations we should have been ashore sometime after we arrived back in the UK but, luckily my arithmetic was a bit awry and we were on board the good tender in a couple of hours. Unfortunately we had decided to pass those hours taking advantage of the aforementioned Celebrity Premium Drinks Package and, being the Greek Islands in the afternoon the short crossing to Santorini was, to say the least, a little choppy. Still at least it saved us going to the water park later in the holiday or at least we wished it had.
Having arrived in Santorini we were left with the normal choice of methods by which to ascend the cliff face – donkey, shank’s pony or cable car. Being Brits the poor old donkey had no chance of earning his keep from us and, having experienced the donkey path walk on a previous visit and been forced to walk around the picturesque town with donkey waste between our flip flopped toes we opted for the cable car making some new friends as we waited our turn. We met Spaniards, Canadians, Italians, Turks and Australians to name but a few. It was a long wait!
Returning to the ship in the early evening we made our way to the lawn club for a picnic which was a great experience although we did have to put up with some traditional jazz music. Why, when everyone in the world prefers football and rock music, does every single firm that is trying to impress serve up jazz and rugby that’s what I want to know! The sun going down, the lawn, the music and the cheeses were delightful though and it was an unexpected highlight of the holiday.
Istanbul was our next port of call and what a sight she is as we glide in just after dawn. The skyline of mosques and minarets is particularly memorable and sends a chill down the spine even now just thinking about it.
No worries about tenders here as we are alongside close to the City centre so a quick leap ashore and we are in a taxi driven by Mehmet from North London who helpfully tells us that in the olden days you could leave your doors open in Istanbul but now that has all changed because of all the foreigners.
There were reports of rioting in Istanbul before we arrived but the biggest gathering we saw was when one of our number showed interest in a fake Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Negotiations went on for what seemed like hours only to fail at the last moment - I did try to point out that, if the said garment DID shrink to the size of a duster, 2 Euros still wasn’t a bad price. Sadly, Anglo Turkish relations were dealt the kind of blow by the lack of a sale not felt since Ataturk pitched up at Gallipoli and, to be serious for a moment what a moving scene that is as you pass the monuments to the fallen on both sides on the approach to Istanbul. You can sense the folly of it all even at this distance in time and space. To all those involved - RIP.
Kusadasi next; where it takes us some time to get out of the port area, not as a result of any delays in leaving the ship but mainly due to the length of time taken by my female travelling companions to peruse the array of shops in the terminal. Thus laden with bags we set out on a private walking tour of the town cunningly disguised as a search for Paracetemol which turned out to be something of an adventure as, being Sunday, most pharmacies were shut.
Most of our ship mates set off for Ephesus of course which is a fantastic sight if you haven’t seen it before. We had so opted instead for an excursion to the local water park which wasn’t the best decision we made. It was very busy, run very inefficiently and just seemed a little dangerous compared to others we have experienced in Dubai or the US. It all reminded me of Southwark Park Lido on a particularly hot day in 1968 although the mass Zumba session was fun.
We awoke the next day to find ourselves bobbing around in the sea just off Mykonos. I’m a little biased about this place as I think it is simply wonderful, one of my favourite places in the world. If you haven’t been; think Mama Mia meets Shirley Valentine – whitewashed houses, azure blue sky, bougainvillea, beautiful tavernas, chic shops and not as crowded with three cruise ships in port as you might imagine. You don’t need to actually DO anything just go ashore and wander. It’s just a shame we had to leave early as it would be great to have an overnight here. One word of warning – it is always windy in Mykonos and if you are being tendered ashore this can make for a rather exciting ride albeit a short one!
Onwards to Athens where there were also reports of rioting in the streets and this time we managed to get ourselves in the middle of one although it wasn’t a riot like most of us Millwall fans would recognise. To be honest I thought that it was some kind of motorbike rally but our taxi driver, who had promised to show us the sights of Athens for 80 Euros and wait for us while we looked at them had us scurrying back to his car in double quick time, which wasn’t easy in the heat I can tell you. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are always alternatives to the official cruise line tours in places like Athens. In our particular case we were spoilt for choice by the sheer number of taxi drivers wanting to cram the 5 of us into their 4 passenger seats but we chose well in the end and as the man himself said, the tour buses won’t wait for you if you’re late and they’re not all air conditioned either!
The last of three sea days during the course of the cruise involved the ship being blown (or so it seemed) at a 45 degree angle in the direction of Naples (or as Celebrity like to call it, Capri). The sea wasn’t particularly rough but it was almost impossible to stand on deck particularly with legs like mine which offer little in the way of stability. Having got used to the idea it really was quite fun to see it you could make it to the hamburger grill and back without losing your footing, bun, burger or indeed all three!
It all calmed down after a while and then you were suddenly faced with the awful realisation that the day after tomorrow you were going home but before that – Naples! Again the surrounding terrain captured the imagination - what WOULD it be like if Vesuvius suddenly erupted again? Would the passengers and crew of Celebrity Reflection become a tourist attraction like Pompeii or Herculaneum? I think we were more in danger of disappearing under the weight of the sheer numbers of taxi drivers, guided bus tour operators and general ne’er do well’s that greeted us when we stepped ashore, once again having first circumnavigated a fabulous array of shops.
With trips to the afore-mentioned archaeological sites on offer as the main attractions in Naples we once again did our own thing and headed for Sorrento by jet ferry. Quite an experience in itself, especially having expended all our energy in fighting our way to the front of the ticket queue at the dock, but well worth seeing if you can stand the crowds and the heat.
Then it was back to the ship and the dreaded last night on board. It’s always a bit sad when you realise that the end of a cruise is nigh and that quite a few of those passengers you have been sharing early evening drinks with are now packing their bags, but we persevered with our efforts to make the most of our drinks packages before making our way back to our cabins to pack our own.
My advice to those who agonise over what to wear on the last evening and what to have available to wear the next morning to disembark is to not worry about it at all and remember that it is quite likely that the bag you packed and put outside your cabin when you went to dinner will still be there when you go to bed. If it isn’t then the only distance you need to transport the aforementioned items will be to the quayside where you will be able to open your bags and put them in.
The only thing left to do was to say our goodbyes to the gang of waiters we had acquired during the previous 12 days and make our way off the ship to the waiting coaches that ferried us back to the airport and our flight home. Sadly for us this was to be the lowlight of the holiday as we were delayed in a cramped and very hot aircraft for well over an hour but here was one surprise left which was when the Captain announced that the temperature on the ground at Birmingham was 86c!
The next day it rained.
All in all a wonderful holiday on a wonderful ship with wonderful staff - just a shame about all the queues.