The passage of time when I’m on a ship has always been different than when I’m home. It’s slower on a ship. Maybe that’s because there is so much to do, or perhaps it’s because I try to slow things down and savor the moments and memories. A cruise has a rhythm and at 14 days, this cruise is more like a 10K run than a 5 to 7-day cruise, which is like a sprint. On a longer cruise I know I have to pace myself, especially when it comes to food and alcohol consumption. Such concessions I will gladly make to be at sea. This was my 22nd cruise (crossings not included) and my 3rd on the Mercury. In fact, I did the west to east Panama Canal crossing in 1999 on her.
Embarkation: Port Everglade in Fort Lauderdale is a sprawling facility. Seven cruise ships were in port, yet there were no traffic jams to the actual ships themselves. Once inside the warehouse sized space it was a slightly different story. Yes, herding is involved as Celebrity separates the lines for the sign-in by deck number. Some lines move faster than others, WAY faster. From drop off to boarding it took an hour. Grade B
Bugs in the News: It’s never a good thing to see your ship on two news stations the day you embark informing you that a norovirus flare up had sickened 185 passengers on the previous cruise. The staff and crew of the Mercury conducted a “hard cleaning” of apparently every surface on the ship which was evidenced by a milky haze on everything from the floors, tables, chairs, even the walls within inches of the ceiling. I had to wonder, just how much touching of the walls above 6 feet really goes on, but I guess the important thing was breaking the cycle of infection. It appears to have worked for the most part because on our cruise, the number of passengers infected with norovirus was “insignificant.” Unfortunately, one of those who did get sick was me, which meant I got to spend a couple of days sequestered in my cabin. I certainly don’t blame the staff, who dutifully squirted disinfectant on your hands anytime you enter the dining venues, and cleaned the ship like their lives depended on it. Viruses, be it colds, flu or norovirus are difficult to contain anywhere people are in close proximity.
The Ship, Initial Impressions: The Mercury is still a taut ship, and obviously well-cared for. From the outside, she is not the most beautiful ship afloat. With a stub-nosed bow and boxy lines, she is rather homely. On the inside it’s a different story. No nine-story atriums here. You’ll always know you’re on a ship, not a Las Vegas hotel that happens to have propellers. What it lacks in the gild and glitz factor it makes up for with functionality and beautiful interiors of wood and brass. The cabins are clean, handsome and well designed, although some of the furniture and fixtures are showing their age. The gripes I have about her from two previous cruises haven’t changed. There is no full promenade deck and, with the exception of the Navigators Lounge and the Pavilion Nightclub, the other lounges are essentially thoroughfares to and from the restaurant. The spaces lack intimacy, although you can find a quiet nook and cranny here and there. Other than that, I love the ship. Grade B+
Fellow Passengers: A bit of everything and everyone from a newborn baby to the elderly being put ashore on stretchers in the various ports to be flown home. The nationalities were equally diverse with many German, U.K., Italian, Asian and French in addition to the majority of U.S and Canadian passengers. This was not a party ship, although for the right event, such as the 1950’s sock hop, they could pack the lounges late into the night. While there were a number of first timers, there were also many passengers with extensive cruise experience. Several had done more than 60 cruises. Since one of my favorite things to do is chat with people who love ships and travel, I was in heaven.
The Food: For many passengers, food is the litmus test of whether a cruise is a success or failure. From the comments I heard, they were not disappointed.
Dining Room: This is a traditional-dining ship with assigned seating and dinner times of 6pm and 8:30pm. Having the same table companions for 14 days can be a bit of a risk. If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll share experiences and your tablemates will become an integral part of your cruise experience. If you’re not so fortunate, by all means ask to have your table changed. It’s your cruise, why eat in awkward icy silence? From appetizers to dessert, the food in the Dining Room was consistently excellent. Yes, there was an entrée that didn’t quite measure up here and there but that was the exception. The service at my table was nothing short of phenomenal the entire cruise. Food Grade A; Service A+
Buffets: The Palm Springs Café on the Lido level is the buffet venue. Unlike newer ships where everything is in specialty stations, the Mercury relies on four main stations that serve pretty much the same thing. In all honesty, I now prefer this arrangement so I don’t have to trudge around trying to get a complete meal. For breakfast there is a good selection of the usual fare. Make sure to check out the pancake/waffle station in the rear pool area. Of special note, the coffee is fresh brewed and actually very good. The rotating theme selections for lunch (Italian, Mexican, etc.) could be a bit heavy handed, although they have a very respectable salad bar, individually prepared Caesar salads, made to order sandwiches, and wraps of the day. The pizza and pasta station in the rear pool area was very good as was the burger and hot dog bar in the main pool area.
The layout of the Palm Springs Café is open and inviting with plentiful seating along the floor to ceiling windows on both sides of the ship. The staff was always looking to assist passengers with mobility issues with their trays. This is a gesture I really like and another example of the Mercury’s culture of superior service. They also use a section of this venue at night for casual dining which I did not participate in, but those that did enjoyed the food and the experience. Food B; Service A.
Activities: A full schedule of activities was presented daily. From trivia to enrichment lectures plus featured entertainment in the evenings, you’d have to be exceptionally grumpy or antisocial not to find something you’d enjoy. Grade A
Cruise Director and Staff: The cruise staff performed their jobs of trivia, bingo, pool games and such and the like adequately, but when not engaged in their sponsored functions, they spent a lot of time huddled amongst themselves, probably trashing the passengers. The dancers from the production shows really made an effort to socialize with the passengers in the lounges at night, which made the cruise staff's sullenness even more apparent. The cruise director spoke faster than an auctioneer on diet pills. By day 10, my jaw was clinching every time he launched into one of his “I’M SO EXCITED” monologues where everything from the gold-by-the-inch sale to the slot tournament was guaranteed to be a stupendously magnificent once-in-a-lifetime experience. While not completely incompetent nor was he the slightest bit genuine or credible. Grade C-
Entertainment: Entertainment has never been Celebrity’s forte nor were there any big surprises here. Let’s be honest, you will never get a Broadway or Vegas entertainment experience on any cruise ship. They don’t pay enough to get top tier talent nor are the facilities big enough for sprawling productions numbers. The evening entertainment in the Showroom rotated between production shows, a comic, magician, and a “headline” singer. There were no knock-my-socks-off moments. It’s not horrible, nor is it wonderful, it’s just something to do other than drinking, gambling or going to bed early. With the exception of the Celebrity Orchestra, which was extremely talented yet strangely underutilized, the other bands and lounge musical acts had a “oh are you still playing?” quality. The pool band got on my nerves singing the same songs in the same order in the same way day after day. Finally, I fled to the upper decks in the stern for a little quiet time during lunch. Grade C
The Panama Canal. You’ll get lots of information on the Canal from one or more of the enrichment lecturers and from a dated, but still relevant, documentary you can watch on your stateroom TV. To clarify some questions that were still being asked the night before we arrived at the Canal: (1) No, you can’t get off the ship. (2) There are no shore excursions. (3) The transit does take all day, so pace yourself. What I find amazing is how well 1914 technology still works today. The Locks are what everyone goes for but Gatun Lake and the Gaillard Cut are my favorites. As you enter or leave the Pacific side you will be greeted with the skyline of Panama City which invokes images of Hong Kong with its high-density towering skyscrapers that will have you wondering “why didn’t I know that?”
Ports: This was a sea day intensive itinerary, which is exactly why I booked it. An observation is warranted. The more developed the tourist facilities are onshore, the less you have to rely on the ship's excursions.
Cartagena Columbia: Was under the weather (meaning locked in my cabin) and watched the inauguration so I can’t offer any insight.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica: This is not the lush and green Costa Rica of the Caribbean side, but sort of the Detroit of the Pacific side. There is great local trinket shopping along the beachfront park next to the pier, but if you want to see something other than a dusty rough looking town, take one of the ship's excursions as you have few options onshore. I did the rafting trip on the Corobici River and absolutely loved it.
Huatulco, Mexico: (Pronounced “WA Tule Co”) This port is a jewel. Not overdeveloped (yet), amazing bays, beaches and friendly locals. Take a taxi into the town of La Crucecita, it only costs a couple of bucks or you can walk there in 20 minutes. You’ll be greeted by a shady town-square park, quaint church, sidewalk restaurants and local arts and crafts. When a better airport is built that will support flights directly from major American cities, this place may become an eco-friendly version of Cabo. Is that a good thing?
Acapulco: More mega city with mega-city issues of traffic congestion than resort town. The stop is so short unless you have never been there before it’s almost, “why bother?”
Cabo: Tender port with a stop from 7am to 3pm, so there’s not much time. More of a California experience than Mexican and any excursion you can purchase on the ship, you can do better at the pier. The reason to book a ship excursion here is for priority disembarkation.
Tipping now required: As of January 15, 2009, Celebrity now adds the onboard gratuities to your account. Although they’re a little late to the party, I’m glad they finally made it. The dining room waiters and room attendants rely on tips for their compensation. Not to cast aspersions on fellow travelers, but the temptation to stiff the staff does happen. In the old days when your tablemates didn’t show up the final night, you (and your waiter) knew what that meant. It’s not their fault that your bar bill was double what you budgeted. At my table, they didn’t complain about mandatory tips but discussed how much more was appropriate considering the exceptional level of service.
CRUISE PICKS AND PANS
Pick: The Mercury has a culture and commitment to passenger service that is nothing short of brilliant.
Pan: The deck party. They spent two days setting up the BBQ in the main pool area, dragging all the loungers out, replacing them with the wood furniture from the stern of the ship for what? That the space would be overwhelmed with people within minutes, staking claim to the tables and dining on second-rate BBQ with all the “fixins” if that meant the same stuff they served in the Lido at lunch? Unless you like the deck party scene, which is essentially wandering around asking if this or that seat is taken, go eat in the dining room which, for that night, had open seating. One of my tablemates said it best; we went from the best dinner (the night before) to the worst.
Pick: Guest lecture enrichment series. Interesting topics, interesting speakers and definitely worth your time, and because every cruise is different, I won’t name the names of the individual speakers.
Pan: Closing off, wrapping in plastic and resurfacing one-half the sunning/walking area above the mid ship pool on Deck 11 during the aforementioned deck BBQ. It was out of commission for the rest of the cruise with the plastic snapping, ripping and generally annoying the passengers in the considerable breeze.
And in the end: At the beginning of the cruise I watched Mercury enter Fort Lauderdale, thinking someone’s cruise is ending as mine was about to begin. The last day out I recalled that feeling. Even though by now I was ready to go home, I envied them their upcoming journey. Were there annoyances? Certainly, I have yet to have the perfect cruise, but the overall cruise experience was excellent. With the exception of a few individuals, the level of service on the Mercury was absolutely first rate; the food was great, my cabin clean and comfortable and the conversations with my fellow passengers interesting and informative. How do you beat that?