Century Earns High Marks for Improvising in Heavy Waters

Travel Weekly West Coast bureau chief Jerry Brown sailed on a seven-night Caribbean outing of Celebrity's Century. His report follows:

ABOARD THE CENTURY -- Our itinerary was supposed to carry us through the western Caribbean, with calls scheduled at Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico, and Key West, Fla. -- the latter three of which I had never visited and was eager to sample.

Yet here we were, 12 hours out, headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico, with St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau, the Bahamas, to follow -- all of which I had seen many times before.

All things considered, though, it was a switch with which I could not find fault.

The Century -- all 70,606 tons of it -- had become a victim of a late-season tropical storm dubbed Marco.

When weather reports clearly indicated after our departure from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that Marco was staking a claim to the western area of the Caribbean, Capt. Gerassimos Andrianatos wisely steered the Century out of harm's way.

Ending up on the Century's alternate-week eastern Carib-bean routing rather than the western itinerary scheduled was frustrating for some people.

One man, for example, had bought back-to-back eastern and western itineraries, only to end up repeating the same cruise twice.

As for me, gone was my chance to visit Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West.

Gone was my opportunity to visit with an old friend from home, a surveyor now living on Grand Cayman.

In the circumstances, it was natural, perhaps, for passengers to turn a more than usually critical eye on the ship itself.

It says much for the Century -- celebrating its first anniversary of service -- that it stood up to the intense scrutiny without flinching.

Even in the heavy waters on the edges of a tropical storm -- up to 23-foot swells, according to Capt. Andrianatos -- the ship earned high marks from most of those on board.

A member of an electrical-supply company incentive group offered somewhat sheepishly that although he was "on the wrong side of 50," he had never cruised before.

And he asked, "Is every ship as nice as this one?"

An English lady, having crossed the Atlantic in search of sunshine and having been rewarded, instead, with the back of Marco's hand, might have been miffed.

She did not seem to be.

"I know Celebrity can't do anything about the weather," she said, "and the ship makes up for it, doesn't it?"

A year ago, Century vaulted Celebrity to a higher plateau, alongside the other operators of brand-new, large ships.

Together with the even-bigger Galaxy newly in service, the vessel gives the Miami-based line a formidable high-end one-two punch.

Three things, especially, were impressive about the Century -- its entertainment, its two-level dining room and its food.

The Celebrity Singers and Dancers produced colorful, high-energy shows in the ship's elegant theater.

Naomi Hatsfelt, one of the group's lead vocalists, was equally listenable when belting out numbers Ethel Merman-style and when whispering torchy ballads a la Julie London.

The star of the show one night was a Vietnamese-born comic juggler, Thien Fu, whose thick accent made even his Henny Youngman-vintage jokes hysterical.

Much has been written about Century's Grand Restaurant, capable of serving more than 1,000 passengers at a sitting -- a truly handsome room, dominated by a short staircase linking the two floors.

The food matched the setting.

My traveling companion, my 26-year-old son, tends not to rave about cruise ship victuals, but he volunteered that this was as good as any food he ever had eaten at sea.

There were, it is true, moments of irritation in the Century experience -- minor, but the more annoying because they were avoidable.

Late one afternoon, for instance, as we enjoyed a beverage in one of the ship's many bars, we asked the server if we might have some peanuts or pretzels to nibble on.

No, she informed us, politely but firmly. Because of a busy afternoon in the bar, she had run out of all such snacks.

That may not seem like a big deal, but when you ate lunch at noon and dinner is not until 8:30, it somehow assumes a greater degree of importance.

The point was that it should have been possible -- even mandatory -- for her to call for somebody to bring her more peanuts.

The passenger in the booth next to us, by the way, had just been through the same routine with her and was a little disgruntled.

Then there was the matter of the falling spoons.

Three nights in a row in the dining room, a different server or busboy somewhere near our table dropped some pieces of cutlery -- noisily.

But nothing -- not Marco, not 23-foot swells, not peanut deprivation, not noisy moments in the dining room, not even the fact that I managed to lose my daily poker machine allowance without entering the casino, courtesy of the ship's in-cabin television-screen gaming -- could disguise the fact that Century is a quality product.

Presumably following the axiom "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Celebrity has committed the vessel to its alternating eastern and western Carib-bean pattern through April 19, 1998.

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