Travel back with me to 1997. Bill Clinton is president, and the nation is riding a huge wave of economic growth. In the UK, Tony Blair has just become prime minister. In Texas, George W. Bush is in his first term as governor. And out in San Diego, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult commit mass suicide after watching the Hale-Bopp comet make a fly-by of Earth, on its way out past Uranus.
For me, though, 1997 will forever be the year of cruise ships.
Let me explain. Back then, I was an editor on the Frommer's staff and had just been assigned the company's cruise guide. To help familiarize myself with the cruise business, I accepted an invitation to visit the huge Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, which was then building Celebrity Cruises' newest vessel, the 1,896-passenger Mercury.
I went. I saw. I was impressed. A few months later I sailed aboard the completed Mercury on one of her first voyages. Over the course of the two trips, I struck up a friendship with a writer named Heidi Sarna, who I later hired to write for Frommer's -- and with whom I now co-write Frommer's Cruises, Frommer's European Cruises, and this newsletter.
So Mercury was, for me, a very significant ship: not only the entree to a long business partnership but also the first large ship on which I ever sailed -- and thus the benchmark against which I judged all others for years to come.
You never forget your first ship.
Celebrity Cruises (www.celebrity.com) was created in 1989 by the Chandris Group shipping company, and quickly gained a reputation for stylish vessels, innovative spas, exceptional cuisine, unusual entertainment, and a vibe that balanced modernism with traditional cruise sensibilities. By the time Mercury was on the drawing board, the line had already built four new ships, each one better than its predecessor. Mercury would be built with the same basic hull and mechanical make-up as her older sisters, Century and Galaxy, but inside she'd be extra-special. While a bevy of the world's finest marine architects worked to create the ship's distinctive interiors, Christina Chandris (wife of Chandris Group Chairman John Chandris) was busy assembling a remarkable collection of contemporary art that would not only decorate the ship, but help define Celebrity's place as the most modern and high-toned of the mainstream and premium cruise lines. Mercury would be something special.
As it turned out, though, she'd also be the Chandrises' Celebrity swan song. In July 1997, several months before the ship's launch, the Chandris Group agreed to sell Celebrity to Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (www.royalcaribbean.com)Despite initial assurances that the line would remain a separate entity, its operations were soon merged with those of Royal Caribbean, a move that quickly began causing brand-identity problems. As Royal Caribbean started to deploy its big Voyager-class ships and tout itself as the "get out there" active cruise line, Celebrity languished as the company's "other" line. Some of the grace notes that had established its early rep were homogenized into the larger Royal Caribbean culture, and low cruise prices undercut its higher-toned image. Eventually Royal Caribbean restored some of Celebrity's autonomy, and the line has been working to reestablish its own niche in the cruise market, through moves like the Celebrity Xpeditions sub-brand (selling adventure travel such as small-ship Galapagos voyages), the announcement of four new ships to be built between 2008 and 2011, and the creation of the Azamara Cruises sub-brand (www.azamaracruises.com), which sails midsize ships on unusual and world-ranging itineraries.
Still in all, it's been a ride. For those of us who remember the old Celebrity, there have been times when the big X's on its ships came to seem like a wistful leftover from days past -- because they are, in fact, not X's at all, but instead the Greek letter chi, for Chandris.
Mercury 2007: The Return
Last month I spent a week aboard Mercury, sailing her 7-night Alaska Inside Passage itinerary round-trip from BBB/vancouver/" target="_blank">Vancouver. It was my first time aboard the ship in ten years, and my first time sailing with Celebrity in almost three. How would it feel to come "home" after all those years? Would my memories square with reality? Would what seemed so grand in 1997 be just another megaship today?
For the most part, I'm happy to report that my memories and my perceptions from the nineties were right on the mark, though the neighborhood has changed a little since I was there last. Here's what I think.
1. Mercury is still one of the most beautiful megaships at sea. The Chandrises' spared no expense in Mercury's design and construction, and that care still shows ten years on. It's hard to say what's most striking: The two-story dining room, with its elegant, minimalist detailing and grand floor-to-ceiling stern-view window, which allows diners to spy the ship's wake glowing under moonlight? The beautiful Navigator Club, a top-deck observation lounge with a cleanly exciting, upscale decor? The distinguished Michael's Club piano lounge, with its leather wingback chairs and clubby atmosphere? Or the martini and champagne bars, both set in an utterly distinctive two-deck space, their periphery defined by a curving wood-paneled partition and a twenty-foot wall mural by painter Sol LeWitt? Nearly every public room is a jewel, with a personality all its own.
2. She's held up remarkably well, both physically and in terms of style. No ship sails for ten years without accumulating her share of bruises, and Mercury is no exception. In the cabin corridors, nearly every wall protrusion shows small dents a few inches above the floor -- scars from the passage of thousands of luggage carts. In the spa's thalassotherapy pool, a few missing tiles detract a bit from the once flawless design. And in the buffet, a piece of contemporary wall art has been amateurishly touched up with the wrong hue of red paint.
But those are minor concerns, really. Overall, Mercury has been kept in beautiful condition, and her decor hasn't aged a day. Far from being dated, it's actually more elegantly modern than the decor you find on many much younger ships, and cabins show few signs that some 1,000 passengers have vacationed there before you. Whatever mistakes Royal Caribbean might have made in diluting Celebrity's brand image, you can't fault them for maintenance. Just before my sailing, Mercury went through an intensive weeklong dry-dock in which cabins were fitted with all-new bedding; worn carpets were replaced in the public rooms and corridors; all new fitness equipment was installed in the gym; verandas were added to fourteen large staterooms in the stern; and the ship's "boutique boulevard" was retooled to include high-end cosmetics and jewelry stores.
3. Celebrity's service remains exceptional. Service remains Celebrity's strongest suit, with staff uniformly professional, polite, attentive, cheerful, and knowledgeable. Stewards wear white gloves at embarkation as they escort passengers to their cabins; waiters have a poised, upscale-hotel air about them; and there are very professional sommeliers in the dining room. If you occupy a suite or concierge-class cabin, you'll get the services of a tuxedo-clad personal butler who serves afternoon tea and pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres, handles your laundry, shines your shoes, makes sewing repairs, delivers messages, and will even serve a full five-course dinner in your cabin, if you feel like it. Waiters and bartenders remember your favorite drink, assistant stewards you've never seen might greet you by name in the corridors, and restaurant maìtre d's are formally charming in that patented European way. Three cheers.
4. Mercury's art collection is still a knockout, but is largely ignored by passengers -- and by the line. In general, cruise ship art is like hotel art: It provides distraction for the eye but is completely unchallenging and undistinguished. Not so with Mercury's collection, which includes pieces by some of the most respected and innovative contemporary artists of our time. On what other ship can you find prints by Richard Serra, arguably the most important sculptor in the world today? Where else can you find a geometric arrangement of China-clay handprints by Richard Long, or photos by Andy Goldsworthy of ice sculptures he created in the Canadian Arctic? In Michael's Club, a small display case holds one of the "Barbara Roses" sculptures by light artist Dan Flavin. Dedicated to the art critic Barbara Rose, it's comprised of a light bulb with a rose-shaped filament, set with its fixture in a terracotta flower pot. In one stairtower, Dorothy Cross's "Close Your Eyes and Open Your Mouth and See What God Will Give You" is an installation of 50 gelatin silver photo prints of children, their faces set exactly as the title asks. Elsewhere are silk screens by Roy Lichtenstein, prints by Robert Rauchenberg, and 3D lithographs by Red Grooms, while the Pavilion Nightclub offers playful collages by sound and visual artist Christian Marclay: LP record covers hand-stitched together to create Frankenstein pop monsters -- Billy Idol's torso on Tina Turner's legs, Prince's naked flank topped by a Tahitian maiden's head and shoulders.
Dozens of such works are scattered around the ship, challenging passengers to stop and contemplate -- but few do. In a week aboard, I heard only two other passengers discussing the works in any way. Worse, Celebrity seems not to appreciate what they have. There are no art tours scheduled; no materials in the staterooms give any insight into the works; and damage to some pieces (such as the defacement of Anish Kapoor's "Mirror," a kaleidoscopic stainless-steel sphere into which someone has scratched the word "Hola") suggests an endemic lack of interest in the collection, which was once so central to Celebrity's brand image.
And speaking of diluting a high-toned image ...
5. Guys, what's with all the selling? If there's one major complaint we at Frommer's have about today's cruise industry (besides the fact that ships are getting too big and impersonal), it's that cruise lines are increasingly brash about hawking extra-cost products on board. Don't think I'm naive: I know that cruises are a business and the purpose of a business is to make money, but at some point the nickel-and-diming starts to detract from the overall appeal of the cruise experience. For instance, do we really have to go so far to the dark side as to have staff wandering the pool deck hawking stainless steel Celebrity coffee mugs? Day at sea are similarly packed with commerce, and passengers can't walk from one end of the Entertainment deck to another without running a gauntlet of sale tables.
My personal "philistines" moment came on the last day of our cruise, when I was walking through the Rialto Galleries corridor and saw that one of my favorite pieces in the ship's art collection (one of the Serra prints, for those keeping score), was blocked from view by a rack of 50%-off logo sweatshirts -- as perfect a metaphor as I could imagine for the prioritization of short-term profit over long-term brand image.
6. A couple other qualified quibbles. Once upon a time, Celebrity's cuisine was clearly superior to that served by the other mainstream lines. Today? Not so clearly. Credit that to motion in both directions: Celebrity's cuisine has come down a bit, and its competitors' has come up. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not suggesting it's bad, or a reason not to sail; I'm just being a curmudgeon and saying things were better in the old days -- and how curmudgeonly does that sound. In truth, Celebrity still has some culinary perks that stand out: an appealing sushi spread that's laid out every evening in the buffet (part of which is transformed for casual alternative dining); one of the few dedicated vegetarian menus in the cruise business (offering several options on a different multi-course menu every night); a mind-blowing midnight buffet once per week; lovely little tea sandwiches and snacks served at the Cova Cafe; and really good pizza at a dedicated pizza-and-pasta outlet by the Palm Springs Pool. On the four larger Millennium-class ships, the alternative restaurants provide some of the most theatrical dining experiences at sea, with decor, service, cuisine, and music all designed to mimic dining aboard the golden-age ocean liners of yesteryear.
Quibble No. 2: While I'm no fan of big song-and-dance revues, the ones I saw on Mercury were particularly painful -- yet they still got the now-obligatory standing ovations at the end. Go figure. Better yet, go with a few drinks under your belt . . . which, now that I think of it, might explain the ovations.
The Long and Short of It
Am I living in the past? Partly. But you could also say that I'm keeping institutional memory alive. The final word: Mercury is still a very great ship. Could Celebrity stand a few improvements? Could it tweak up its theater entertainment, tweak down its souvenir-hawking, and shout out some respect for the legacy of fine art bequeathed by its former owners? It could. But even in the absence of that, there's still a good time to be had, and excellent service to enjoy, and those lovely, lovely public rooms to luxuriate in. Modern in the best sense, Mercury is almost a throwback to a time when ships relied more on atmosphere than on gimmicks to attract and hold an audience. She's a ship, not an amusement park. And that's a step -- back -- in the right direction.
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