BOB BONE'S TravelPieces  

Sail of the Century

MS Celebrity Century cruise ship gets a luxury overhaul

AT SEA IN THE BALTIC There was something not quite right with the Century.

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The Sibelius Memorial in Helsinki, Finland.

Back in the early 1990s, the decoration and furnishing of the gleaming new MS Celebrity Century was the personal project of Mrs. Myrto Chandris, doyenne of the cruise line's founding family.

In early 2006, despite its worn carpeting and decade-old facilities, it still appealed to a loyal, if steadily shrinking, cadre of senior cruisers.

But for the newer and younger breed of ocean travelers, the ship named the Century was, well, just so 20th century.

Cruisers in the 21st century, now, have been demanding luxury improvements found on more elegant vessels, like those on other leading cruise companies, as well as on Celebrity's newer ships, like the Millennium (launched 2000) and the Summit (launched 2001).

In the wake of some customer criticism, Celebrity Cruises booked its relatively old Century in for a complete makeover at a Sicilian shipyard. It was accomplished in just over a month, between April 28 and May 29.

All Aboard

The 70,606-ton MS Celebrity Century normally carries 1,750 passengers in 875 cabins. Facilities include eight bars, casino, cinema, discotheque, health club, computer room, two swimming pools, sauna, Jacuzzi, several shops, three dining areas and a theater for live entertainment. There are special programs for children.

The Baltic Sea itinerary described here is scheduled again for June 3, 15 and 27; July 21; and Aug. 2 and 14.

Prices for the 12-day cruise will vary depending on individual arrangements and exact dates. For August they will be about $2,000 per person for an Inside cabin, $2,500 per person for an Ocean View stateroom, $3,000 per person for Veranda accommodations, and $4,000 per person for a Suite. Prices for cruises before that could be somewhat lower.

The Century has scheduled other European itineraries for the fall season, and will operate in the Caribbean Sea during the winter.

More information

Address: Celebrity Cruises Inc., 1080 Caribbean Way, Miami, Fla. 33132

Phone: 800-437-3111

E-mail: info@celebritycruises.com

Online: celebritycruises.com

The improvements were put to the test during a recent 12-night Baltic Sea Cruise  out of Amsterdam. The itinerary included calls at Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo, St. Petersburg and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

The Baltic Cruise is being offered several times this summer on the Century. It will be repeated next year.

The Celebrity fleet consists mainly of two classes of vessels. The more elegant choices are the Millennium, Summit, Infinity and Constellation. Considered more modest are the Galaxy, Mercury and, until recently at least, the Century.

"Now many of the Century improvements are features previously found only in the Millennium class," said Keith Ashley, Century's hotel director. He directs everything on board the ship except its navigation and physical well-being, the responsibilities of the captain.

Balconies are the main thing, he said. Today's cruisers demand private verandahs on their staterooms. The previous Century provided a measly 40 balconies.

The new Century managed to add them to the outside of 314 more staterooms without reducing the size of the cabins. Also during the renovation, workers lifted in a prefabricated section of 26 balconied cabins, replacing a seldom-used feature called the Sky Bar.

Not that there aren't plenty of other bars and lounges available, including the new Martini Bar, with its frozen wall of ice and 230 varieties of martinis, and the hip, new Sushi Bar on the Resort Deck.

The Century had also been criticized by some for the lack of an alternative restaurant besides the regular Grand Dining Room. This has now been corrected with the addition of Murano, a swanky Italian restaurant, whose meals are available at an extra charge. (Reservations required.)

Many other features were added to both the staterooms and the public areas, Ashley said. There are new and better mattresses fitted with Egyptian cotton sheets, for example. And there are LCD wide-screen televisions in the cabins.

Some things might yet need to be adjusted. In our cabin the flat-screen TV seemed to flatten everyone's heads. We were not able to contact the 24-hour room service when we were awake at 4 a.m. due to jet lag. The hard-to-read map of the Century's 12 decks gave no indication of the floor numbers, just the name of each deck.

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Copenhagen is seen from the deck of the MS Celebrity Century.

 

The captain of the Century provided interesting daily announcements from the bridge, but his voice could be heard only on speakers in the public areas and not inside the staterooms. On other ships we've seen, this kind of thing could be found on a TV channel, which passengers could decide whether to turn on.

On the other hand, some of the many handy interactive features on the cabin TV kept us informed as to exactly how much money we were spending on the ship and allowed us to reserve our places at various classes and other events. What with shore excursions and other add-ons, the screen soon revealed that we had reached what was for us a financial high-water mark.

Wireless e-mail access is also available throughout the ship, although the quality is subject to frequent variations in the satellite reception. This kind of thing was a bargain on a previous cruise we made aboard the Celebrity Summit but now much more expensive on the Century, which charges between 50 cents and 75 cents a minute, depending on various package deals.

One new offering we've never seen on any cruise ship, including others in the Celebrity fleet, was acupuncture. My needle-savvy wife sprang for the $115 treatment and was glad she did. (Package arrangements are available.) Other passengers enjoyed spa facilities that were not available on the previous incarnation of the Century.

"Years ago the first ship I worked on didn't even include a gym -- just a promenade deck available for exercising," Ashley said. "Fitness facilities are in demand for today's cruisers. Our AquaSpa has been a huge success."

The AquaSpa includes its own separate restaurant, with special, health-conscious offerings.

The interior decorating of the new Century is indeed elegant from stem to stern. But from our point of view, the greatest attraction of the ship was its Baltic Sea itinerary, since it provided a taste of all four Scandinavian capitals, plus the wonderful art and architecture of St. Petersburg and Tallinn. It was good to see them in the summer, too, when the winter-weary residents of these northern countries were in a mood to soak up the sun.

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The ship's theater offers Broadway-style entertainment.
SEVERAL SHORE excursions are offered through the ship in all these ports, although we varied our own approach to each of these ports, sometimes finding our own way around the city, sometimes taking tours we found ourselves. Three-hour ship tours ran around $50 to $80; all-day tours ran from around $150 to $200 and usually included lunch.

In Copenhagen we opted for a ship-sponsored bicycle tour ($85), allowing us to join the local cyclists to cover a lot of the flat urban landscape. Our first stop was to the famous waterside Little Mermaid statue. Then we pedaled through parks and gardens and eventually using bike lines along busy streets. Frequent stops included the royal surroundings at Amaliehaven Square and the nautical neighborhood at the Nyhaven Canals.

A day in Stockholm for us included a ride on the top deck of a double-decker tour bus we found in town by

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The Baltic Sea itinerary of the Century stops in seven cities in 12 nights. A bicycle tour pauses in the Amalienborg Palace square in Copenhagen.

ourselves, giving us a giant's-eye view of such monuments as the Royal Palace and other grand buildings. A walking street provided an interesting shopping experience, too.

Helsinki was more pleasant than I had imagined, and easy to explore. The unique Sibelius Memorial, a steel sculpture created in 1967, is designed to reflect the Finnish composer's musical style in visual form. The modern Temppeliaukio Church is also an architectural success. It was built into solid rock and light is brought into the structure through 180 narrow windows under a copper dome. The center of the city is dominated by the imposing Helsinki Cathedral, built in 1830.

Oslo, which we had visited before on a Crystal Cruise, we explored pretty much on our own this time around. The ship tied up beside the ancient Akershus Fort, a castle that dates from the 13th century, and it was an easy walk from there into town. Other cruisers took in the almost obligatory Viking ship museum and the famous outdoor statues in the Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Park.

In St. Petersburg we took the ship's combo tour of the city and the wonderful Hermitage Museum on one day, and a river-

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Balconies on the Celebrity Century as seen from the Akershus Fort in Oslo.

canal cruise on the second day, pleasantly soaking in art and architectural treasures dating back to Imperial Russia and beyond. Besides the Hermitage, highlights for us included the interiors of two recently refurbished cathedrals, St. Isaac's and the Peter and Paul cathedral in the fortress island in the Neva River. The latter included a chapel in which were interred the remains of the assassinated Czar Nicholas II, his family and servants, which were found only in 1991.

The biggest surprise was Tallinn, the charming capital of Estonia, whose genuine medieval atmosphere invited us to explore many of its winding and narrow cobblestone streets and open plazas in the old town. Tallinn is known as a musical sort of place, and the Eurovision Song Contest is held there annually. When we wandered into the main square, a large and very professional concert band was playing a selection of popular and classical selections.

All in all, the Baltic Sea seemed an ideal proving ground for the new Century, and an experience we will be happy to remember.