Opulence, attention define Millennium mystique

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They've done it again. For the fifth year in a row, Celebrity Cruises' four Millennium-class ships -- the Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Summit, Celebrity Constellation and Celebrity Infinity -- have dominated the large-ship category in Conde Nast Traveler magazine's annual readers' survey.

What is it about these ships that leads savvy travelers to continually lavish them with praise?

The answer, it turns out, is an amalgam of factors, all of which unite to create the synergy that fuels the Celebrity brand. Thus, with the context of some relevant history, the benefit of several previous voyages on Celebrity ships and a recent experience sailing on the Celebrity Infinity, I've distilled the essence of Celebrity's mystique.

How it all began

Born in 1989 as an upscale brand for the Greek Chandris Group, Celebrity Cruises was designed to fill an underserved niche. While Fantasy Cruises sailed aging ocean liners in the Caribbean during the 1970s and '80s, Celebrity was positioned to compete with Holland America Line, which had recently purchased Home Lines, a small, well-regarded premium operator.

The operation started out with a single ship, the Meridian, and a culinary bang, pairing 3 Michelin star chef Michel Roux with Apollo Ship Chandlers, the industry's top independent food and beverage supplier.

The menus were Roux's creations, the execution was provided by Apollo and the end result was deliciously prepared, artfully presented modern cuisine. Due to the constraints posed by the Meridian's older superstructure, however, the hardware didn't make much of an impact. Newbuilds Horizon (1990) and Zenith (1992) were more impressive examples of the Celebrity vision, as they introduced a cleaner, elegant look and were purpose-built for Bermuda cruising. The line quickly became known, mostly among cruise insiders, as the best value in the business. Due to Celebrity's low profile in its early years, cabins often sold at a price point below where the product quality would suggest.

Chandris sold Celebrity to Royal Caribbean in 1997, which then supplied the marketing muscle to continue the line's ascent to top-notch premium status. The 2000-2002 debuts of the Millennium-class ships, however, provided the clout that really put Celebrity on the map. The four ships gave the line a critical mass that allowed it to achieve economies of scale in operations while providing the public with a level of luxury heretofore unavailable in its price category. The 91,000-ton vessels allowed for big-ship amenities and expansive public spaces while still remaining navigable for 2,050 passengers.

Nuts and bolts

The Celebrity Infinity typifies the Millennium-class hardware theme: sleek, stylish and smart. The feel on these handsome vessels evokes a fine European hotel, featuring sweeping staircases, muted colors and rich accents. Tasteful, modern furnishings combine with a museum-quality art collection to create a sophisticated ambience that filters through the ship.

Now 7 years old, the Celebrity Infinity is kept spotless and shows no obvious signs of wear. Carpeting is fresh-looking, as is the furniture.

The 25,000-square-foot AquaSpa, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and every imaginable relaxation and hedonistic ritual, is a luxurious oasis. The thalassotherapy pool area gives off a Crystal Cruises-like vibe with a large, seawater hydro-pool situated under a double-vaulted skylight amid topiaries and dappled sunlight.

Other notable venues include the warm and richly decorated Cova Cafe di Milano, a replica of a famous Milanese cafe, and the chic Grand Foyer, its art and theatrical draperies framing a dramatic staircase. The expertly run X Club youth program operates in an expansive indoor-outdoor facility that is equipped with numerous entertainment options for children of all ages.

Little things mean a lot

Aside from the hardware, it's the sum of the myriad service touches, cuisine and amenities that ultimately elevate the product, aided by a ratio of nearly one crew member to each passenger. There are thankfully few instances of nickel-and-diming onboard Celebrity's ships. Staff and crew are not in sales mode; they understand that their place is to deliver an inclusive product to a clientele that appreciates not being taken advantage of.

Principally, it was Dietmar Wertanzl, the former senior vice president of fleet operations, who helped design, then raise Celebrity's onboard product to its coveted status. Wertanzl was with the line in its early years and again from 2002 to 2006.

It was during that second stint that the hotel product markedly improved with such luxury touches as a linen liner and linen napkin on every buffet tray; hot chocolate or cold towels (depending on season) at the gangway at ports; complimentary sorbet served poolside; complimentary mimosas upon embarkation; pool butlers; a sophisticated lecture series; an evening casual dining "boulevard" featuring pizza, pasta, salad, sushi and candlelit menu service; and a homemade ice cream bar featuring exotic flavors and gourmet toppings.

On the menu

Although Celebrity and Michel Roux ended their affiliation in early 2007, the line's reputation for quality cuisine continues under a new partnership with Blau & Associates, a Las Vegas-based restaurant consulting firm. Blau's team is working with Celebrity's culinary staff to refresh menus, lighten fare and enhance presentation.

According to Jacques Van Staden, Celebrity's vice president of food and beverage operations, Blau and Celebrity "share the same commitment to quality to the guest experience as well as a dedication to ensuring that we offer new, different and intriguing items, along with selections we know are classic favorites."

Food quality, variety and presentation were consistently outstanding in all dining venues on Celebrity Infinity. Breakfast in the Lido featured stuffed French toast, Canadian bacon, corned beef hash, lox and herring, two omelette stations and a made-to-order pancake and waffle station. The pastry chef's touch was just right with an authentic array of filled croissants, European pastries, chocolate mousse, creme brulee and other delicious baked goods.

A newly introduced, Las Vegas-style brunch is now featured once per cruise, as is a chocolate extravaganza and Celebrity's new "Starring You" event, which features numerous live-action dessert stations in a late-night venue. Celebrity Gourmet Bites, served in lounges throughout the ship between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., satisfy late-night cravings. Dinner in the S.S. United States, the alternative restaurant, is an elegant affair that impresses even jaded cruise veterans.

Concierge Class

The kicker that essentially puts Celebrity in its zone, however, is the Concierge Class product. Passengers staying in Concierge Class staterooms receive a host of perks and priority services that effectively bring suite-level amenities down to the stateroom. Concierge Class staterooms (all with verandas) on Millennium-class vessels are about 10% larger than the outside with verandah category. And with a pricing differential as low as $50 above that immediately lower cabin grade, the ability to sell up to Concierge Class is virtually limitless, space permitting.

Concierge Class amenities include welcome champagne; daily fruit delivery; pre-dinner canape delivery; fresh flowers; pillow menu; pillow-top mattress and duvet; leather key holder; tote bag; use of umbrella and binoculars; shoeshine service; thick towels and bath mats; terry bathrobes; Hansgrohe showerhead; upgraded toiletries; priority embarkation and disembarkation; large veranda table and cushioned chairs; the services of an onboard concierge; and expanded room service menus.

I enjoyed morning stateroom delivery of fresh-pressed carrot juice, fruit smoothies, banana pancakes and an egg-white omelette with asparagus tips, all at no extra charge.

Designing an upscale, amenity-rich stateroom product is one thing; delivering it is another. My stateroom attendant neglected to mention the pillow menu, the location of the in-room breakfast menu or the complimentary shoeshine service, among other things. Passengers who don't study the Concierge Class amenity list (which wasn't in my stateroom, either) may not be aware of all the perks to which they're entitled.

Room service, which too often is the broken rib of cruising's onboard service umbrella, unfortunately wasn't out of character here. Of three separate orders, one was misinterpreted and arrived differently from what was communicated; one was "lost" and had to be found by the stateroom attendant; and the third was fulfilled accurately. I was assured by management, however, that room service issues on Celebrity Infinity were being addressed, with fixes in progress.

Service

Due to the complexity and logistics involved in serving a large number of passengers who dine at varying times across several venues, the Lido casual dining operation on the Millennium-class ships is actually the best measure of the Celebrity service standard. Greeters are located prominently at entrances, dispensing directions to food stations and providing activity information from a readily available daily program.

Serving staff graciously offer descriptions of buffet items, which they plate, and waiters are at the ready to carry trays to tables. My 4-year-old daughter was consistently helped through the buffet line with her tray, which was then carried to the table for her. The same waiter then asked for her drink preference and delivered the beverage. This is an unusual level of service, after all, for what is essentially a self-service operation.

Even senior management chips in. Infinity Hotel Director Cara York was out on the pier at every port of call, welcoming returning guests back to the ship after their shore explorations.

Celebrity's go-the-extra-mile service ethic might best be epitomized by my experience on the last morning of the cruise, which is typically a hectic, super-busy period for an often-distracted staff and crew. On many lines, this is when the "you've tipped me already so I'm basically through catering to you" service standard applies.

Not so on Celebrity Infinity. Crew displayed the same zeal to excel at the disembarkation breakfast as at the embarkation luncheon, including the gracious fulfillment of special requests for items not readily available and some last-minute wishes.

This occurred at about 8:30 a.m., after about half the passengers had already disembarked the vessel. There was no rushing us off; no urgency to clean up while we finished eating; only a desire to ensure that our Celebrity experience wrapped up just as it started.

That's the Celebrity Millennium-class mystique, and it's no secret.

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