First look: Celebrity's newest cruise ship has passengers, and it's turning heads in the Med
Editor’s note: Celebrity Cruises provided a complimentary cruise for TPG to get an early look at Celebrity Apex. The Points Guy paid for all travel to and from the cruise ship. The opinions expressed below are entirely from the author and weren’t subject to review by Celebrity Cruises or any external entity.
Last year was a strange one for the cruise industry. Thousands of sailings were canceled, cruise lines scrapped some ships and others delayed plans to build new ones amid temporary shipyard shutdowns.
However, in what was hailed as an industry first, Celebrity Cruises took delivery of a brand-new vessel in March 2020, via a virtual ceremony, which saw the shipyard officially giving the new-build to the line during a video call.
Celebrity Apex, the second ship in Celebrity's groundbreaking Edge Class, is a lovely specimen with unfortunate timing. Its debut during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the line was unable to offer revenue sailings onboard. Since Celebrity took ownership of the vessel more than a year ago, only a small handful of media was able to experience the ship before everything shut down, forcing Celebrity to repatriate all of Apex's crew.
After a 15-month hiatus, the ship is currently nearing the end of its first sailing with actual passengers -- a voyage that's only 30% full and one that has seen cruisers adjusting to protocols like social distancing and mask-wearing, which are now a part of the standard operating procedures onboard.
Here's a glimpse of what you can expect from 130,818-ton, 2,900-passenger Celebrity Apex, which the ship's hotel director tells me will be officially christened in Florida in November.
A lot of similarities
As a sister ship to Celebrity Edge, the first vessel in the line's Edge Class, Celebrity Apex is nearly identical, with the exception of a few tweaks that I'll mention below.
If you've sailed on Edge, you'll find Apex to be familiar, with staples like Eden and The Magic Carpet in the same places. Apex also retains the usual battery of cabin types found on other vessels in Celebrity's fleet, as well as Iconic Suites and Edge Villas, both of which debuted on Edge.
In terms of free Celebrity Apex dining, the Oceanview Café buffet, Luminae (for suite passengers), Blu (for Aqua Class cruisers) and the four main dining rooms -- Normandie (French), Tuscan (Italian), Cyprus (Greek) and Cosmopolitan (American) -- reprise the same roles they play on Edge.
Alternative eateries also remain largely the same (with a few tweaks, noted as you read on) and include Le Grand Bistro, the Rooftop Garden Grill, Eden Restaurant, Fine Cut steakhouse and Raw on 5. The Spa Café and Café al Bacio offer lighter fare, pastries, smoothies and specialty coffees, some for an extra fee.
As a creature of habit, I was also pleased to find that the main pool, Solarium, spa, fitness center (which is larger than on Edge), casino, art gallery, theater and nightclub are in the same locations, and the atrium's talented Martini Bar team still does nightly tricks (juggling, simultaneous pours, etc.) that leave cruisers cheering for more. The kids club, with expanded S.T.E.M. programming, has also not moved.
One notable difference for anyone who enjoys shore tours is that the excursions desk has relocated from Deck 3 to Deck 4, and the ship's iLounge has taken over the vacated space on Deck 3.
New dining and drinks
Replacing the Casino Bar on Celebrity Apex is Craft Social, a sports bar that broadcasts sporting events and features a variety of cocktails, wine (on tap) and, of course, beer. The selection is decent, with more than 30 bottled beers and ciders, as well as Moretti, Heineken and Newcastle on tap.
There is also a menu of eight rare beers, one of which -- Struise Black Damnation XXII Willy, a Russian Stout from Belgium -- is priced at $495 for a 750mL bottle. (The bartender told me there are only two bottles onboard right now because it doesn't exactly fly off the shelf at that price.)
The watering hole also has a selection of extra-fee pub grub, including crispy glazed chicken wings, truffle fries, Kobe-style beef sliders and a to-die-for mac 'n' cheese made with Brie.
Le Petit Chef
Celebrity broke the mold when it first rolled out Le Petit Chef, a for-fee dinner experience where animated projections appear on your table, showing a tiny chef preparing your meal. As he finishes each course, waiters appear with the real thing.
On Celebrity Edge, the experience evolved from the original Le Petit Chef to Le Petit Chef and Friends, during which the chef faces off with some of his chef pals to see who can prepare the best dish across a variety of international cuisines.
On Celebrity Apex, the show is Le Petit Chef and Family. Diners enjoy a four-course meal (spring pea soup, king crab farfalle pasta, grilled beef filet mignon and a double chocolate fudge brownie), with each themed after one of the four seasons from spring through winter. Throughout the story, we see the chef and his family at different stages, ending with him in old age, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
However, when I dined there during this sailing, the head chef told me that Celebrity Apex isn't limited to showing just the family version. Instead, Le Grand Bistro (which offers the animated experience each night for dinner) has the ability to rotate through the three shows during each sailing.
I have tried Le Petit Chef experiences on several occasions, and each time, I'm impressed with the quality of the food. Many cruise lines have added quirky dining experiences to their ships, but this is one of the few where the food consistently lives up to the hype that draws you in. They also offer an alternate menu, so picky eaters can mix and match courses (although the projections won't match up).
On Apex, the timing of the presentation of each dish was a little off, but that's to be expected, as crew capacity is reduced at the moment.
Along with the Magic Carpet -- a bright orange platform that moves up and down the starboard side of the ship to serve as a pool bar, dining venue and tender platform -- the Edge Class' Eden venue was one of the most notable concepts introduced on Celebrity Edge.
The combination bar, lounge, eatery and performance space was made to look earthy, featuring vegetation that gives it an almost forest-like appearance. A walkway that spirals up and around the outside of the lounge was patterned after the Fibonacci sequence mathematical equation.
On Apex, Eden has debuted seven new cocktails, each with a different them that corresponds to that night's Eden show, which you can read more about below. (For those of you who adore Eden's original cocktail menu, don't worry. It's still there and just as staggeringly expensive as it was before.)
Worth noting is that nearly all of the new drinks cost less than $15, which means that they're largely covered by the line's premium beverage package. However, the basic package (which is included in most fares) covers drinks up to $9 each, so if you don't upgrade, you can snag the majority of these tipples for $6 or less. I tried three of the seven, and they're a delightful complement to the original Eden drinks, which tend to be more dry and smokey.
At the attached extra-fee Eden Restaurant, the menu has also been redone to move away from whimsical dishes with over-the-top presentation to fare that Cornelius Gallagher, Celebrity's vice president of food and beverage operations, told me is more likely to leave passengers feeling like they want to come back again and again.
Gone is the limited four-course menu molded after the Earth elements, and in its place is a more standard three-course list with a larger number of options for appetizers and entrees. I was blown away by the bazaar bowl with chilled labneh yogurt, beets, cucumber, almonds and homemade naan bread; the mulligatawny soup with coriander, coconut and dhana dahl; and the jumbo lump crab cake with creamy chipotle, piquillo, cucumber and dill. (I ordered the crab cake for my entrée, but it's listed as an appetizer.)
Gallagher also said one of the goals in revamping Eden's entertainment and dining options is to create more of a separation between the two. He stressed that he wanted the food itself to be so good that it could be entertainment in its own right, rather than relying on in-your-face gimmicks. If passenger response to the changes is positive, he said the line would consider making the same changes on Celebrity Edge.
In addition to "Caravan," The Club's phenomenal cabaret-style show, which boasts a "modern circus" theme, Celebrity Apex is raising the curtain on three more shows: "Tree of Life," "Rockumentary" and "Crystalize." Although the last one won't debut until July, it sounds like it will be the most interesting of the three, evoking an underwater seascape via the theater's giant LED screen and acrobats who will perform inside a clear tube.
"Tree of Life" follows the ship's troupe of singers and dancers through four seasons, featuring weather-appropriate costume changes, acrobatics and contemporary songs from artists like Green Day, Annie Lennox, Mike & The Mechanics and Phillip Phillips.
"Rockumentary," a tribute to rock music from the 60s, 70s and 89s, incorporates songs by greats like The Beatles, Billy Joel, Elton John and others. The catch is that passengers get to choose the ending by voting via the Celebrity app. (Note: Do this before the show. I assumed it would be done live, but by the time the show started, it was too late.)
Eden's first iteration on Edge consisted of heady, hours-long, Adam-and-Eve-themed performance art that featured dancers, jugglers, acrobats and sitar players who would touch cruisers and stand face-to-face with them, just inches apart. Feedback from creeped-out passengers prompted the line to tweak the show so that it was shorter and less hands-on.
On Celebrity Apex, the line has revamped the Eden's entertainment completely, opting for one show every night on seven-night voyages. Each has a separate theme -- such as Night of Dreams, Night of Arts, Night of Enchantment and Night of the Year -- and while some are only 45 minutes in duration, others last for hours, incorporating different mini-performance pieces, so there's almost always something happening if you meander in after dinner.
Although the performances still showcase singers, dancers and acrobats, they're less abstract. They do still involve light passenger participation, but it's heavy on guessing games and witty banter, minus the aforementioned touching. We loved what we saw when we caught an "Alice in Wonderland"-themed performance on the "Night of Dreams."
Because Celebrity Apex is the second vessel in its class, Celebrity had the benefit of learning from mistakes made on Celebrity Edge. On Apex, several tweaks were made in addition to the ones affecting Eden. Extra shade covers have been added at the popular Sunset Bar, which overlooks the vessel's wake, offering phenomenal views.
Additionally, extra windbreaks were added at both the Rooftop Garden Grill and the Magic Carpet. However, when I ate at the latter, I had trouble keeping my hair out of my face (and, therefore, my food), and I had to constantly secure things like napkins, empty wine glasses and small bits of food. Twice during dessert, I was hit with rogue teabag wrappers.
One area where I was surprised not to see changes was in the ship's Infinite Veranda cabins. The majority of balcony cabins fall into this hotly debated category, which debuted on Celebrity Edge to mixed reviews.
Featuring a window that goes up and down with the push of a button instead of a traditional walk-out balcony, Infinite Verandas add more interior square footage. But unless passengers close the set of folding doors to seal the room off from the "balcony" area, all it does is allow hot air into the room.
Additionally, instead of curtains, each balcony window has an electric shade that, like the window itself, can be controlled with a button or the Celebrity app. I sailed on Edge in an Infinite Veranda with a window shade that didn't work properly, and I couldn't help but think how much easier curtains would have been.
Now that Celebrity Cruises rolls basic Wi-Fi in with just about all fares, I was incredulous about the quality of the connection, especially given that a lot more people will now be using it.
Two weeks prior to this sailing, I cruised on Celebrity Millennium and found the basic connection to be abysmal. It was spotty at best in public areas and nearly nonexistent in my cabin. (As media, I was upgraded to the faster package in order to get my work done, but for the average passenger, streaming Wi-Fi for two devices would have cost more than $400 for the weeklong sailing.)
I'm pleased to say that, on Apex, I have been using the same free basic Wi-Fi as everyone else, and I have had no trouble posting to social media, uploading photos or publishing my assignments. To my immense surprise, I have also been able to get my "Schitt's Creek" fix by streaming Netflix to my cabin TV with no issues (something I'm not supposed to be able to do without the streaming package).
Additionally, the ship's cabins have been outfitted with new door locks that allow doors to be more efficiently opened with either a keycard or the Celebrity app. And not only do they work well; they look super sleek, too.
As of June 3, inside cabins on the ship's June 19 voyage started at $1,589 per person (double occupancy). Of course, the line's new Always Included program means that gratuities and basic drink and Wi-Fi packages are included, but that's still a lot for the least fancy accommodations.
Given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's necessary for ships to implement certain precautions onboard. These are likely to be relaxed as things become safer and governments roll back their requirements in the ports that the ships visit.
Currently, all passengers and crew must wear masks onboard Celebrity Apex when not in their cabins, at the pool, or eating or drinking. Although we saw this strictly enforced for the first half of the sailing (including on ship-sponsored shore excursions, which are available but not required), toward the end, people were walking around maskless onboard.
Additionally, signs on tables, chairs, counters, casino machines and floors inside the elevators remind people to keep their distance from one another. Because the ship is sailing at just 30% capacity, social distancing is easier in onboard dining venues, and cruisers with set-seating dining are no longer placed at tables with strangers.
Further, certain tweaks have been made to ensure less traffic in public areas, such as the fitness center and spa. A temporary policy now requires passengers wishing to work out to make appointments to do so. And, if you have a spa treatment, expect that a robe will be delivered to your cabin for you to change into before you go, eliminating pre-treatment crowding in the changing rooms.