Long Review of the Constellation – 10 Night Greek Isles Cruise – a Great Trip!
I traveled on the August 15 – 25, 2019 roundtrip voyage of the Constellation from Venice with stops in Dubrovnik, Crete, Mykonos, Athens, Rhodes, Santorini, and Katakolon. I was with my wife and 2 teenage sons (14 and 16) in an Oceanview cabin (i.e., 7004). This was the 17th cruise for my wife and me, all of them with Celebrity or Royal Caribbean. All of our other trips have been in the Caribbean or to Bermuda, but this very excellent port intensive Greek Islands cruise caught my eye because it went to so many locations in Greece. It was a really great trip overall, and we loved it.
We spent almost 3 weeks prior to the cruise traveling around Italy (to Rome, Capri, Pompeii, Tivoli, Tuscany, and Venice) by train and by car. As fun and amazing as that was, we were looking forward to getting on board the ship.
We’ve always had balconies before (except for an inside cabin on a last minute trip to Bermuda), but a balcony was going to add $2500 to the total price, and this was already our most expensive cruise and vacation, so we decided to try an Oceanview. While we obviously would have preferred a balcony, I could not justify the price and this worked out fine. This cabin had 2 upper Pullman bunks and was at the very front of the ship.
The location was very convenient and the seas were smooth, so it worked out from that perspective. But, we were awoken several mornings at about 5:30 am by sounds of the ship we hadn’t heard in our other cabin locations. One morning, it sounded like an anchor was being lowered (even though I don’t think that’s what it was) and a few other mornings I think it was an outside door just below the bridge that was also accompanied by a warning bell. It wasn’t super major, but getting awoken early like that was annoying enough that I would avoid this cabin and the immediate location in the future.
Our cabin attendant kept the cabin fresh and spotless and was helpful when we asked for ice and a corkscrew.
The Constellation is a beautiful ship in great shape. I had read a few reviews that suggested there were areas of wear and tear, but the reviewers must have been on a different ship than us. Celebrity does a first rate job keeping their ships in top shape. While the Solstice class is our favorite class, we are happy with the M-class and would definitely sail on the Connie again, particularly if the itinerary were as great as this one. The overall vibe feels classy to us, from the décor, the other passengers, amenities, and the friendliness of the crew. I understand the ship is slated for an upgrade in the spring, although I think it is beautiful as-is.
The X-Club for teenagers in the Fun Factory was a huge plus for us. Our sons spent a lot of time there and were busy with a variety of offered activities along with a friendly and engaging staff. They also made friends with a nice group of teenage boys from Spain, France, Ireland, and New Jersey who also participated in the X-Club activities. We liked how they were able to meet and become friends with kids from other countries. Their positive experience with the X-Club was a huge boon for my wife and me, because it allowed us to spend time together alone while they were having fun. If you have teens the same age, I would encourage them to go to the meet-and-greet the first night when everyone is new.
Even though RCCL is known for being more youth-friendly, my sons have always said that they prefer the X-Club experience to RCCL (which is usually more crowded and more of a factory in their opinion). In fact, they said that if a ship has a Flowrider, they would prefer the ship (i.e., RCCL) hands down on that basis alone. But if there is no Flowrider, they prefer Celebrity hands down. My oldest son turns 17 next year, which is a shame, because he will age out of the X-Club, and we will probably go back to the ships with Flowriders and other similar activities. I really wish there were a way for the X-Club to have activities for the 18 – 21 age set.
The Crew was universally great and friendly. They all work so hard, many of them are young, and most of them are far from home. I tipped our cabin attendant extra and gave envelopes to some of the staff in the nightly Captain’s Club cocktail party in the Reflections lounge and in the X-Club. We really appreciated the great service all around.
THE MAIN DINING ROOM
The MDR experience on all of our cruises, whether with Celebrity or RCCL, have gone down in recent years. I’ve read of other people on the boards commenting on the same thing, but the staffing cuts that Celebrity and RCCL have made to MDR staff feel painfully obvious to us. The staff are clearly required to service more passengers than in prior years, which causes dinner to drag out way too long (even though the number of courses have been cut as have showy desserts the waiters would set aflame table-side, like Cherries Jubilee, Baked Alaska and Crepes with Bananas Flambé).
On a human level, it also makes me uncomfortable to see human beings pressed to work as hard as they do in the MDR. I don’t fault the MDR staff at all – this is a management issue at the bean counter level. Please increase the MDR staff, Celebrity and RCCL. It used to be a positive experience for us, but has turned into a negative. We chose to eat up in the Oceanview Café for more than half of our dinners (we ate in the MDR only 4 times on the 10 night cruise and it used to be something we looked forward to).
Overworked MDR staff notwithstanding, this was some of the best food we have had on any cruise in a number of years. The menus were interesting, the food was fresh, and all of the increased choices up at the Oceanview Café for dinner (they serve Beef Wellington up there the same night it was served in the MDR) really made the food a big plus for us, and I don’t usually get excited about cruise ship food. Loved the omelets in the morning and Indian food choices.
We also enjoyed the lunch at the spa café near the Thalassotherapy pool. They had small plates with dishes like salmon salad, tuna salad, cold soba noodles, lentil salad, small spinach salads, etc.
I wondered if Celebrity increased the per-passenger food budget because this cruise was so much more expensive than our Caribbean cruises and the passengers seemed to be a bit posher and not overwhelmingly American. Or maybe it was because the ship’s head chef, Singh Deoraj, was so great. Whatever it was, the food was terrific over all.
This was my third time to Venice. It was magical when I came in the 80s and then again in the 90s (in the spring). But, I felt it was very, very crowded this time everywhere we walked, on the vaporettos, etc. We spent 3 nights here before the cruise and while it definitely was special for me, the crowds and the heat rubbed the magic off.
We ended up going over to Murano, Burano, and Torcello, which I highly recommend if you have the time. They are reachable by vaporetto rides (I think Burano and Torcello were about 45 minutes away by boat). Torcello in particular was small, quaint, charming and had some restaurants that looked very nice albeit a bit pricey.
We had the vaporetto pass that was 30 euros per person for 2 days of unlimited use and thought it was a pretty good value if you took more than 2 round trips per day, even if it was rather expensive overall in my opinion.
Our hotel was a few blocks to the East of the train station, so it was a pretty easy 15 minute walk to the people mover. I should say it was easy for us – we had to drag our suitcases over rough stones and over a bridge, which would be difficult for some people. If you are staying in Venice either before or after your cruise, you will have to make plans to get your luggage to your hotel, so think about it in advance.
The People Mover (i.e., a mono-rail from the edge of Venice to the Cruise Port) was 1.5 euros per person and was pretty easy and convenient to use, though I ended up having to pay twice for one of my tickets and so did a woman who was there at the same time. We had purchased our tickets at the machine, but then the scanner said they were invalid even though her husband’s ticket worked and so did the 3 tickets for the rest of my family. There was no attendant, we just had to buy new ones. It’s possible my ticket was too close to the scanner when I scanned one of the tickets of my family members. A minor annoyance, so just be careful.
The sail-away from Venice is a stunning trip down the canal from the cruise port, past Piazza San Marco, the Lido, and out to the Adriatic. Make sure you don’t miss it. It was really spectacular.
We took a taxi from the cruise port to the gates of the walled city. The taxi was 14 euros and was a posted and fixed rate. We arrived in the afternoon and had been concerned the crowds would make the walking of the wall too crowded, but it was really OK. We did that, although I must say you must be very mobile and steady on your feet or else it will be dangerous for you (more on that below).
We were interested in going swimming afterwards and wore our swimsuits under our shorts. It turns out there is a rocky outcropping on the outside of the walled gates (just exit near the aquarium and walk around the bend). It wasn’t fancy, but was super convenient and there were showers. I would have lingered and kept jumping in and maybe get a cold beer from a vendor, but, alas, the family had had enough and wanted to go back to the ship. It was a really nice day.
We took a taxi from the ship to the center of the old town (I think it was a fixed rate of 10 euros) and walked around the town and the port, which was very pretty and charming. We continued walking about 20 minutes and ended up at a local beach, Nea Chora Beach, which is in a residential neighborhood.
At first I didn’t think it was anything special, but we ended up having a really nice time here. It was a friendly, local, low key vibe. 2 chairs and an umbrella (along with use of the bathroom at the restaurant that managed the chairs) was only 6 euros total, for both. The water was warm and the beach sandy. We ordered food from the restaurant, and I was really impressed with how fresh, good, and inexpensive it was. Fresh octopus, fresh sardines (which are normally not appealing to me), calamari, grape leaves, etc. and a cold beer and a carafe of wine all came to 27 euros. As I said, it wasn’t the prettiest beach in my opinion, because it was in a residential neighborhood. But, that said, we had a lot of fun, I liked the food, convenience, price, and the vibe and would go back again. We walked about 20 minutes back to the town and grabbed a cab (which was actually a bit hard to find). Next time, I would ask the restaurant to help call a cab, which I assume would be about 15 euros back to the ship from this distance.
I wasn’t fully sure what to do here and had been worried about crowds and whether the beaches might be *too* interesting to my teenage sons. We ended up getting a day pass to the St. John Beach Resort (just search for them online and “info@” email address on their website). It was stunning and one of the highlights of the cruise. I highly recommend it, and this might have been our favorite day of the cruise.
I had hesitated because it was 100 euros per person, but that included transportation from the ship, a spectacular breakfast buffet (take my word for it – don’t eat breakfast on the ship – eat it here, it was that great), a thick towel, a big lunch (I had grilled calamari that was incredible), and use of the chaise longues by the pool or down by the beach (which was narrow, but had a fun dock you could jump off of). The hotel was so deluxe, I had thought they might treat us differently because we were day passers from a cruise ship, but they could not have been friendlier and we felt very welcome. Even though it was more money than I might have wanted to spend, I thought the value was terrific. The kids stayed on board, and it was a really special day for my wife and me. I would definitely do this again. They only sell 12 day passes. We met 6 other nice people from our ship who were doing the same thing, and I know everyone loved it.
Incidentally, this was listed as a tender port, but we docked instead.
The last time I was in Athens was in the winter when I was in college with my parents. Going in the summer, with heat in the high 90s, and a lot more tourists, was different, but still great. We hopped in a cab from the port and had him take us to the Acropolis. It was a fixed fare of 25 euros and took about 20 or 25 minutes. It was spectacular, and I loved it, the heat notwithstanding (although the heat was overwhelming to some – more below). After a few hours there, we walked down through the plaka and got some food at an outdoor café, which was a little pricey given it was a touristy neighborhood, but it was pretty and we enjoyed it nonetheless.
I wanted to go to the Agora, but everyone else was melting after all of the hours of walking, and we took a taxi back to the ship from the Plaka.
The ship docked at a pier right next to the walled old town, so it was an easy walk if you are reasonably mobile and steady on your feet. We walked through the old town and went to the castle, which is a Mussolini-era reconstruction that was pretty good. But, after seeing so much history over the previous month in Italy, I wasn’t super impressed walking through a reconstruction. After that, we walked about 30 minutes to Elli Beach, which was a local beach that had chair rentals, some of the clearest water I have seen anywhere, and a large, broad, nice pebbly beach. Yes, it was crowded and there were hotels behind it, but the beach was nice if you got on a decent part of it.
We didn’t rent chairs, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have gone to Elli Beach straight away (an easy 15 minute cab ride) and got some decent chairs and an umbrella at one of the establishments that was nicer than the one we plopped our towels in front of. I would spend the morning at the beach before it got too crowded and then walk around the old town and get something to eat there.
We loved, loved Santorini – but with a few important caveats. This was a tender port that was scheduled to have approximately 5 ships in port that day (and none the next day!). The cruise staff implored everyone to get up early and get on the earliest tender you can. We listened to them, and you should, too.
We were lucky enough to get on the first tender and in the first cable car up the mountain. Tickets for the cable car were 6 euros each and we were lucky again that there was no line yet and we were up to the top at about 7:30 am (a hard feat for us to corral the whole family to do this!). We had decided to go to Oia on our own and grabbed the first taxi we found, which was easy because none of the swarms had arrived yet. It was 35 euros for an approximately 30 minute cab ride to Oia (which I think we may have been overcharged – I think the official rate, if there is one, is 30 euros, which is what it cost on the way back. I didn’t care – I was just happy to get one.)
Incidentally, you can take a donkey ride up for 6 euros per person, but the crew staff advised people not to, both for safety reasons (the donkeys sometimes slip) and for animal cruelty reasons. I, for one, could never do it.
Oia was empty when we got there at 8 am and stunningly beautiful. We had it to ourselves for 20 minutes and then the first buses started to arrive and it steadily became more and more crowded. We walked around for 4 hours or so and stopped for some incredible Greek pastries, Greek coffee, and an incredible view at a bakery/café called Skiza that was on the main pedestrian drag. It was a little pricey, partly because Santorini has a 25% city tax, but the view and food was amazing. It was a nice way to get away from the crowds, which had now descended upon Oia, rest our tired feet, and enjoy the view.
By now, it was very hot and crowded and the narrow streets were packed. I actually ended up getting separated for a tense 30 minutes from my family after getting stuck behind people taking photographs that I didn’t want to interrupt (but politely would next time).
The square was packed, too. There was a woman from the ship who had fallen (a man had stepped on her ankle, I had heard) sitting, injured, on a bench and later was in wheelchair on the ship (more on injuries, below).
We walked a few blocks away and tried to get a cab, which was now impossible, so we walked for about 15 minutes to the other side of the town and were able to get a taxi for 30 euros back to Fira. We walked around and took some stunning photographs there, but by now had been off the ship for about 7 hours. We wanted to take the cable car down, but no dice – the line was at least 2 hours long so we opted to walk down. We are fit, so it was doable, but people were slipping (including us) all over the place, because some of the stones are shiny obsidian and there is a lot of donkey dung. It took us 30 minutes and while not difficult for us, I know it was difficult for others and it would be impossible and dangerous if you had any mobility issues.
I think some of the ship’s tours that go by bus to Oia go to a different tender stop and then get a bus ride that picks them up right at the water without having to navigate the cable car mess. If you are going to Oia and don’t think you can get off very early like we did and go by cab, I would probably consider that. I know some people who took the public bus were furious that they were so jammed with passengers they felt it was dangerous, so make sure you allow plenty of time for whatever you do.
As I said, Oia and Fira and our overall visit to Santorini was a highlight for us, but only because we were up very early and were able to avoid some of the mobs and we were able to walk down the mountain, albeit reluctantly, instead of taking the cable car down. Some people had no choice but to wait in the sun for a couple of hours. One woman on our return tender had waited for 1.5 hours in line and finally gave up and walked down, and was very hot and unhappy. We also so people arguing about others cutting in line. When there are this many cruise ships in port at once, I really think a better system would be ideal for everyone, both from safety and efficiency perspectives. While this was a really great day for us overall, I can see how this stop could easily be a bad one for some people, so please plan ahead.
This was our last stop, and we were feeling a little sad by now. There is a small train that runs from Katakolon to Olympia every 2 hours or so for 10 euros per person roundtrip. I knew my kids would think the train was fun, which was one of the reasons we chose it. It was also a pretty 45 minute ride through the countryside. We were off the ship at 9:00 and the train left at 10, so there was a little bit of a wait. You can search for information online about it – it is easy to find. After you arrive in Olympia, it is an easy 10 minute walk from the train station are the remains of ancient Olympia, which we really enjoyed walking around even though it was nearly 100 degrees. In fact, it was so hot that the Hellenic Red Cross very generously was handing out free bottles of water.
I would have liked to have stayed a little longer, but we needed to get on the 1:10 train back because the next one was not until 3:30, which was cutting it too close. There are a number of waterfront cafes on the way back to the pier. I would have liked to have stopped for a bit for a cold beer or glass of wine and Greek seafood like we had in Crete, but we ended up getting back on board to have lunch.
Incidentally, it was a VERY long walk from the ship to where the buses, taxi, and town were. If walking is an issue for you, please check into it in advance.
If I had to do this stop all over, I might have gone by bus or taxi to Olympia, which probably would have given us an hour head start over the train even though the train was a nice way to travel and the kids liked it. If we had done that, it think it would have given us enough time to swim at a local beach for an hour or 2, which I would have liked to have done and it would have given some more time in Olympia (I could have used another hour there at least). I had my eye on Agios Andreas, a nearby beach as a possibility that I believe was accessible by a little trolley bus, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The last day of the trip was a sea day, and we spent most of it on lounge chairs by the Thalassotherapy pool. We had had trouble getting seats there on other parts of the trip, so we were happy finally to spend some time there.
Our flight back to New York left at 11:05, which had me a little nervous. We did the baggage walk-off, which was scheduled for 7:40 am. They actually started letting people off at 7:20 a.m. We were out of the customs building by about 7:30 and grabbed a taxi right away. It was 45 euros and we were at the airport in less than 20 minutes. We checked in and were through check-in and customs by 8:20, which gave us plenty of time.
You would think we would have eaten enough by now after a vacation in Italy and a cruise, but there was a café near the gate that sold really nice sandwiches for about 5 or 6 euros each and cappuccinos. I couldn’t pass up the cappuccino, but wished I had bought sandwiches for us. The flight was 9 hours and they didn’t serve lunch until 1:00 or so and then there was only a greasy warm sandwich served an hour before landing. I would have preferred the nice sandwich from the airport J
SOME GENERAL TIPS
It can be hard to find free bathrooms, so make sure you have a handful of euro coins in case you need to go. I googled “bathrooms near me” on my phone, which was very helpful in terms of guiding us to the nearest one on several occasions.
If you have a child under 18, many (but not all) venues are free, so make sure you ask, because it is not always posted. Importantly, many of the places require photo ID, so we had our passports with us when we got off. If you are between 18 and 25, there are usually heavily discounted rates, but you need to have proof of age and your school ID.
Italy and Greece use the Euro, which was convenient for us. We used credit cards mostly, but had some cash for taxis, bathrooms, and bottles of water. In Dubrovnik, we used Euros for the taxi, but I don’t believe the Euro is taken everywhere in Croatia.
*Please* be careful on this itinerary in the summer if you have any mobility issues at all (or even if you don’t). I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but I have never seen more people injured on a vacation ever. At the Colosseum in Rome before the trip, a woman collapsed in the heat and fell to the floor while in the ticket line. Another woman fell down some stairs and cut her knee pretty bad. A lot of roads and walkways in the old towns are paved with small rocks that are uneven and slippery. We saw a woman from the ship who tripped and fell in Rhodes and her face was black and blue days later (and her glasses broken). An older woman passed out and was getting medical attention by paramedics at the Acropolis. There was the woman who had her ankle stepped on in Santorini and ended up in a wheelchair. We saw a woman on our flight home from the cruise who was in a wheelchair and her leg in a fresh cast, so we assumed she had fallen somewhere. We saw at least 5 or 6 people fall on the steps down the hill in Santorini when they couldn’t get a cable car and had to walk down. I’m not saying don’t go – but please be VERY careful!
Also, make sure you drink a lot of water!
If you’re still with me, I’m happy to answer any questions. This was a trip of a lifetime for us, and we really loved it.