Cruise Aboard the Celebrity Summit

My friend Richard Joseph recently took a wonderful cruise aboard the Celebrity Summit. Here is the diary of his cruise vacation.

Day one San Juan

As I boarded the Celebrity Summit I wondered, “What’s that big “X” on the ship’s stack? What does that mean? Certainly not ‘X-Rated’, could it be generation X?”

I went to the customer desk of the Celebrity Summit and found the answer. It turned out it wasn’t an “X” at all it was a “Chi”. That’s Greek, and so too is the founder of the Celebrity line John Chandris. It happens that the Chi or X is part of his name and became the corporate logo.

Ok, on with the cruise. A quick tour of the ship took me instinctively to the martini bar. Man has gone to the moon, come up with the digital revolution and now apparently has figured out how to keep a martini cold. The counter top was made out of ice.

I had booked the cruise by having travel agents bidding against each other to provide the best deal. Doing that through Cruise Compete I ended up with a travel agent in Orlando. While signing me up he informed only “open seating” was available. Eating when I want sounded like a good idea anyway. The only catch was that I had to pay my tips upfront at the same time as purchasing the cruise. I guess that made sense from the point of view that we might not be getting the same waiter every night.

Day 2 Day at sea
With a full itinerary of islands to visit, starting with a day at sea was actually a good idea. Most of the 2000 people on board seemed to gather around the pool where a game of water volleyball was promptly organized. Those who weren’t in the water were encouraged to join in the contest by sitting on the sides of the pool. Their job was to serve as human bumpers (you know like in bowling with your children, the bumpers keep the ball in play).

Alongside the pool was a barbeque buffet. There was certainly no shortage of food on board. The rotund cruise director warned the passengers that could mean adding a pound a day. The dining varied from bland to absolutely delicious (more on that later). The waiters, like the rest of the cruise ship staff could fill a good many of the seats at the United Nations. The Philippines, India, and eastern Europe were among the more common locations represented.

The entertainment was a lot like the food. By that I mean simply that there was a lot of it and a wide range of style and quality. My favorite was a British magician named Jamie Allan whose mission is to blend 21st century computer and laser technology with the standard fare of card tricks and sawing a poor woman in half. He carried it out beautifully in the Celebrity Summit’s large theater.

Sea Turtles in Barbados
Sea Turtles in Barbados

Day 3 Barbados
This is a place I had always heard good things about and wasn’t disappointed.

Upon docking in Bridgetown we were met by an array of taxi touts eager for our business. Somehow we ended up with a driver named Henderson Todd ( phone 2343010) who turned out to be great. For $150 the four of us enjoyed a full day tour of the island narrated with his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Barbados.

First stop was Paynes beach for something special. I had heard of swimming with the dolphins, the stingrays, but not with the turtles.

For $25 each, we were ushered from the pure white sands into the crystal clear waters and onto a boat. The trip was only about a quarter mile to where we would meet our swimmates.

These are Hawksbill sea turtles whose arms seem more like wings. They aren’t the least bit afraid of humans and a little bribery with snacks brought them even closer. The boat provided snorkels and masks. With our eyes gazing beneath the surface we were suddenly guests in their world. There were maybe 10 or so turtles around us where we swam.

From there the boat took us nearby to a shipwreck and coral reef. The snorkeling is supposed to fantastic there, but with choppy water on this day I can only say it was good.

90 minutes after dropping us off our guide Henderson picked us up continuing our tour. We viewed the lifestyles of the rich and famous on the west coast or so called “Platinum Coast” and the poor and anonymous living in small weather beaten homes inland.

I had always pictured Barbados as flat, but that was sure wrong. We descended down a steep road that took us to the rocky east coast of Barbados. Giant boulders decorate the golden beaches ripped by strong Atlantic Ocean waves that stand in great contrast to those on the much calmer west side. The vistas are like impressionist paintings visible from cliffs that overlook this less populated side of the island.

Day 4 St. Lucia

Pitons in St. Lucia
Pitons in St. Lucia

To me this place is a Caribbean version of Hawaii, but with rough edges. The iconic picture of St. Lucia is its pyramid shaped mountains called the Pitons. Unfortunately the Celebrity Summit docked in Castries up north and the Pitons are further south closer to the town of Soufriere. No problem, again we opted for a taxi at a similar price. What we did not realize is that what looked like a relatively short distance on the map turned out to be an hour and a half in each direction. If you have driven the Hana hiway on Maui then you know what the curving of the roads are like in St. Lucia. A brief stop at Marigot Bay, where Dr. Doolittle was filmed in part, was worth the view.

After that long drive we did not opt for the drive-in volcano, gardens or other attractions. We were ready for the beach. For some reason our request to go to Marigot Bay’s beach was discouraged by our driver and so we ended up at one near the cruise ship port in Castries called Choc beach. It was fine looking, but in the shade were some very “shady” looking people. Someone warned us to stay at one end of the beach which didn’t help our confidence greatly. Any concern, was outweighed by the experience of watching my boys tossing a football with a smiling child from St. Lucia.

Day 5 Antigua

Antigua
Antigua

From the moment we emerged from our cabin I knew this was a place that would agree with me. Antigua boasts 365 beaches, one for each day of the year (except leap years). The obligatory shops at cruise port were laid out in a manner that didn’t make us feel like we were in a maze where you had to buy in order to get out.

With not enough time to survey each individual beach we chose one recommended in guidebooks at Dickenson Bay. Our taxi driver Walter couldn’t have been nicer on the $24 roundtrip ride and he promised to pick us up at 3pm.

Walking onto the beach I felt like I was “photoshopped” into an ad for Sandals resorts. That’s probably because its Antigua outpost lines a good 75% of the beach, but the waterfronts are all public. Sandals catamarans, diving boats and other aquatic facilities sit on the beach emblazoned with their logo. If they use this in an ad there is definitely no need for computer enhancement.

Antiguan beach boys offered jet skiing at a reasonable price so my kids went off on a 45 minute jaunt for $50.

It was hard to leave this beach, but we didn’t want the Summit to set to sea without us, especially on this night. It was New Year’s Eve. Recommended attire was formal, but not strictly enforced. Wearing a blazer on this night my family and I went to a special shipboard restaurant called The Normandie. It boasts part of the original Normandie ocean liner from the 1930s. This was an elegant, but not stuffy restaurant which cost about $50 extra per person, but this was New Year’s Eve.

The menu has indicators for items cooked tableside. Among the dishes we went with were the lobster with crepes for dessert. Maybe two pounds added to our waistlines on this day.

Day 6 St. Martin
The concept of a half Dutch, half French island always intrigued me. To capture the flavor we rented a car and headed first for Mullet Bay beach. Like the day before in Antigua this was picture perfect, but more fun was right near by at Maho Bay. The beach there is a unique narrow strip of sand occupying the space between the sea and the runway at Princess Juliana airport on the Dutch side.

The planes are so close landing overhead you can practically reach up and touch them. The beachgoers cheer as each one thunders onto the runway. The bigger the jet, the louder the cheers. There’s a sign that warns “Do not stand. Danger, jet blast.” So of course most people ignored that. As the jets roar for departure a massive blast of hot air involuntarily removes hats from heads and sends sand blowing into the eyes, ears and hair. That sign was obviously there was for a good reason.

Next, we drove across a causeway to where flags welcomed us to the French side. The town of Marigot was what you might call “charming”. It had a bit of the feeling of being in France mixed with the Caribbean, but too many signs in English to truly feel in a foreign land.

We then traveled to the Pic du Paradis, the highest spot in the island. Our guidebook promised an amazing view. Let me warn you, they don’t make roads here like they do back home. The narrow strip of asphalt was barely wide enough for one car let alone another headed the opposite way. When a car approached it became a gentleman’s game of “chicken”. Who would back up first? Usually it was me fearful of slipping off the road in reverse.

So you might ask, “Was reaching the top worth it?” In a word, no. The peak of the mountain is so overgrown that it is difficult to get any view, let alone an amazing one. Oh well, back to the main road. It bends north and east through the French side past turn offs for beaches like Orient Bay which we read features a “naturalist” section (swim suit optional).

There are no customs or immigration between the territories, just a flag informing us we were reentering the Dutch side. From this point of view it appeared poorer than the French part of the island. Seeing the poverty once again brought home an uneasy feeling of guilt that comes from being an American tourist on a poor island.

Day 7 St. Thomas

St. Thomas, USVI
St. Thomas, USVI

It’s not very far to the U.S. Virgin Islands from St. Martin so we cruised slowly arriving at St. Thomas at 8am. It was another portrait of paradise having breakfast on the stern of the Summit in the harbor. We had been here before so felt somewhat confident renting another car, but this was a bit tricky. They drive on the left here, even though the steering wheel is on our side of the car.

Being on the opposite side of the road from the day before is bad enough, but even tougher when you are driving nearly straight up. That’s the route we took from the port at Charlotte Amalie to the Mafolie Hotel/restaurant where we had dined on a previous trip. It offers a fantastic view of the town, the island and beyond. Our destination was the funky Coki beach near East End. There are too many beautiful strips of sand on this island to go wrong, but Coki is my favorite. It is lined with shacks that serve as bars, restaurants and a soundtrack for the local flavor.

At Coki you look out at nearby Thatch Cay. The water in between is a great place for snorkeling and you don’t have to get wet to see the fish. Coral World was built a few years after my first visit here which provides a submarine’s view of without leaving the shore.

Too soon it was time to return to ship for our final night on board. Somehow in just a week our waiters, cabin crew and bartenders had become our friends.

A week earlier we had boarded the ship pale and stressed refugees from winter, our voyage ended tanned, relaxed and not ready to go home.

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