Thomson Celebration ‘Colourful Coasts’
In December 2006 I tried Thomson’s ‘Red Sea Magic’ cruise on the ‘Thomson Celebration’. Although considered to be a budget cruise line, I was very impressed with the onboard experience. I returned to ‘Thomson Celebration’ in March 2009 to take the ‘Colourful Coasts’ package: a 7 night Fly-cruise to the Canary Islands.
Interestingly this cruise was booked on the shortest notice that I’ve ever given (about one month ahead) and was the cheapest fare that I’ve ever paid.
Thomson, a division of TUI UK Ltd., have a dominance of the UK inclusive-holiday market and the high-street with Thomson travel Agencies (the UK’s biggest chain). Thomson aims their cruise product firmly at the British mass market. They have succeeded in capturing much of My Travel (Sun cruises) business after they withdrew from cruising in spring 2005. In terms of demographics, they are popular with families and children during the school holidays, at other times, many of their passengers are over fifty. They have many repeat passengers. Many passengers fly from the midlands and North of England to join the ship. You will see lots of tattooed men with shaved heads, but don’t judge the book by the cover. They are a friendly bunch.
So can the Thomson operation still compete with an increasingly competitive UK cruise market? Read on…
The Thomson Fleet
Thomson do not operate big new ‘state-of-the-art’ ship. At the time of writting (2009) they currently have a small fleet of four smaller/older ships: Thomson Celebration, Thomson Spirit (ex HAL, ‘Nieuw Amsterdam’, 1983), Thomson Destiny (ex RCI ‘Song of America’, 1982), and Calypso (ex Canguro Verde, 1967), due to retire from the fleet at the end of 2009. In addition ‘Island Cruises’ vessel, ‘Island Escape’ (ex ‘MS Scandinavia’ cruise/ferry, 1982) joined the fleet in 2009. The aging but very popular ‘Emerald’ (1958) was dropped from the fleet in 2008 and is sadly missed by many passengers.
The ‘Thomson Celebration’, was built in 1984 Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France as Holland America Line’s ‘Noordam’ (‘Thomson Spirit’ is her sister). She is a modest 34,000 gross ton and carries around 1,254 passengers. Unique to her design and that of her sister, was the total absence of curved lines; every line on the exterior of the ship is angular, yet she has a lovely ‘real ship’ profile. Once onboard she actually feels bigger than her tonnage suggests.
There are a number of aspects of the Thomson Cruise operation that are a little different from most other cruise lines.
Many of Thomson’s cruise bookings are now made via their web site. The web site fares fluctuate up and down like ‘stocks and shares’, dependent on supply and demand, I assume. Therefore you get the price on offer at the time when you book. There are early booking offers, then fares may later rise, then fall as the departure date approaches. Unfortunately there is no certain method to insure that you book at the best time to secure the cheapest fare. They could fall the day after you book or rise – it’s mainly a matter of luck. For example I’ve seen Thomson fares at around the UK cruise standard fare of £100 per person, per night. This is hardly ‘budget’ and not unlike the levels of P&O and Fred Olsen etc. I’ve also seen ‘offers’ at £50 per person, per night.
Celebration’s very flamboyant ‘cruise director, Kane (who was very ‘able’) joked that the first two things that Thomson passengers ask each other is “Where do you come from” and “How much have you paid”.
Initially when you select a cruise on the Thomson web site, a basic fare is displayed. However just like the web sites of the UK’s low-cost airlines, there are a number of optional add-ons to the basic fare. There are of course supplements linked to the various cabin grades. Surprisingly in this technological age, the web site only allows you to pick a grade of cabin and only narrow it down to two or three decks, in most cases, i.e. you can book an “Inside cabin on deck 1 or 2” or an “Outside cabin on deck 3 or 4” etc. Allocation of the cabin number is on arrival and it is not given to you in advance. If you actually want to pick a particular cabin number, you have to phone Thomson and pay a £30 supplement.
An ‘all-inclusive’ alcoholic drinks package (currently £169 per person for a week) can also be added, although every adult member of your party must subscribe to it. Occasionally a free ‘all-inclusive’ deal is offered as an early booking incentive. Flowers and champagne etc. waiting in your cabin on arrival are also a web site option with fees. Third and fourth person in a cabin reductions are offered. I paid a fuel supplement as well. Holiday Insurance is compulsory, but it does not have to be provided by Thomson. It is important to note that all tips are INCLUDED in the Thompson fare, which is a good saving. Thomson do not have a loyalty scheme offering discounts for repeaters, like most other cruise lines do. There is a compulsory ‘tickets on departure’ fee of £30, where passengers making late bookings are required to pick up their tickets at the airports. I’m surprised that Thomson do not have the technology to issue e-tickets to the customer free of charge.
Thomson often use their own airline for fly-cruises, ‘Thomsonfly’, which helps them achieve low fares. However, these are no-frills type flights, often offering only minimal seat pitch/leg room. There is a fee of £12 if you want to book an aircraft seat sitting with your companion/partner. Personally I feel that this charge is rather unfair. There is also £12 per person for in-flight meals which explains the number of passengers eating their own packed lunches onboard. An extra baggage allowance and extra leg room also attract supplements. Despite the array of add-ons, the fares can still work out to be very competitive.
Many Thomson fly-cruise itineraries offer embarkation/disembarkation at several ports. My ‘Colourful Coasts’ cruise offered a choice of embarkation ports: ‘Tenerife’, ‘Gran Canaria ‘and ‘Madeira’, with disembarkation being at the same port eight days later. This allows Thomson to offer a wide range of flights from various regional UK Airports. Therefore passengers from the midlands and north of England are always well represented onboard their fleet.
For the record, my flights, transfers, embarkation and disembarkation were very smooth. Thomson certainly run a well oiled machine. The fact that not all passengers embark or disembark at the same port reduces the overcrowding significantly.
Celebration has nine passenger decks which all have numbers and names. The main dining room, the ‘Meridian’ is located aft on deck 4. Deck 5 is purely dedicated to public rooms, with the Lido Restaurant and photo gallery aft, the Broadway show lounge amidships, ‘Broad Street Shops’ and Hemingway’s’ Bar/casino, forward, and ‘Explorers lounge/bar, the Cinema, the Kids Zone and ‘Browsers’ library/internet and card room being at the bow. ‘Liberties’ cabaret lounge and the upper mezzanine level of the Broadway show lounge are located on deck 6, along with a proper wrap-around teak promenade deck (5 laps equal one mile). The ‘Oceans’ gym, beauty Salon and Spar are located on decks 7 and 8, being adjoined by a small stair case. Horizon’s observation bar is located on deck 9. The ship has two small outdoor pools and two whirlpools.
The ship is in very good condition although many of the public rooms still have a ‘retro’ look, even though the carpets and soft furnishings are contemporary. As you would expect there is no big atrium to greet you on boarding, just a modest reception area, with two distinctive giant table lamps. For those of you worried about the small ship experience, please rest assured that Celebration has all of the public rooms and facilities that most passengers will ever need.
Horizons Observation Bar, originally HAL’s ‘Crows Nest’ is a very attractive room with a circular bar, complete with a mast in the middle of it. The room provides great sea views from the top of the ship, overlooking the bow. It also has a small dace floor and features live music at times.
Hemingway’s is the main bar position on the port side on deck 5 and is a very attractive room. It has sea views, comfortable window side seating and a very long bar with original fixed bar stools. A very small casino area is an extension of the bar and features some gaming tables and slot machines.
The ‘Explorers lounge’ is more of an open plan space than an actual room. It is a little further towards to bow of the ship is a more intimate bar which often features a pianist. Browser’s is the Internet room (with fee) which also has a small stock of books. Adjoining is a reading/card room. A large jigsaw can normally be found on one of the tables and appears impossible to finish.
I cannot comment on the quality of the ‘Oceans Health Club’ and ‘Oceans Gym’, which feature Spa, beauty and hairdressing, or the Kids Zone, as I did not use these facilities, although these spaces and facilities are obviously not as extensive as the ones onboard mega-ships. However the beauty treatments did prove to be very popular.
The ‘Broad Street’ shops were reasonable in number and sold the normal cruise fare of T-shirts, watches, jewellery, perfume, spirits and cigarettes etc. There is of course the obligatory photo Gallery.
The ship has four self-service laundry rooms, which are popular with Brits. The machines were free to use but there was a small charge for the washing powder. A cabin pick-up laundry/dry cleaning service was also provided for a fee.
Most of the ship’s artwork was not very memorable. Without a doubt the best piece of art is a Chinese lacquer screen, which dates back from HAL days. It has been moved for its own protection, from its original location in Hemingway’s Bar, (now replaced by a big mirror which flexes with the sea) to a glass case inside the ‘Horizons’ foyer. Another piece that did catch my attention featured birds with square heads.
The ship has a reasonable amount of external deck space set on different levels. The deck furniture is now all plastic, but the promenade steamer-chairs do at least resemble wood. For sports, football, basketball and table tennis facilities were available, along with shuffle board.
There are four locations to dine onboard the Celebration. The Meridian dining room is the main dining room. Although the Meridian is single deck room, it is very spacious with plenty of room between all of the tables and chairs, which were very comfortable. There are windows along both the port and starboard sides offering sea views to those seated near them. The unusual light fittings look like they were carved out of blocks of ice. The room was always well air-conditioned, which is particularly important when you are dressed up.
The Meridian provides waiter service for breakfast, diner and evening meal. Open seating is offered at all times, and the dress code is smart-casual, apart from the formal Captain’s ‘Gala Diner’ once per week, where guest are assigned an early or late sitting which ties in with one of two Captain’s Cocktail party (held in the Broadway show lounge) and the after diner show. However, Brits being Brits, some passengers dressed up a little every evening.
The waiter service was efficient and unobtrusive and the food was excellent. In fact I think it has improved since my last Thomson cruise, and it was not bad then. I don’t know how Thomson achieved it, because the quality of dining room food definitely exceeded the fare that I paid. The meals had five courses. Luxury Items like Lobster Tail, veal, salmon, pork loin and beef were offered daily. The menu’s also contained interesting international dishes such as paella and vegetable samosa/curry. As a comparison, the food was better than I had experienced onboard NCL’s ‘Norwegian Jade’ (in the no-fee dining rooms) and better than the QE2 (Mauritania grade). The food was certainly no worse than I have experience with RCI and Fred Olsen, in fact many of the dishes were probably better.
Once per week the Meridian hosts the ‘Buffet Magnifique’, a midnight food extravaganza complete with ice sculptures and fantastic vegetable and fruit carvings.
The prices of the wines on the list were very reasonable, starting from around £10. Likewise the prices of bar drinks were on a par with the average UK pub. Thomson do NOT add a 15% service charge to drinks as many cruise lines do.
An alternative dining option is ‘Zilli’s’, which is an intimate 40 seat room at the rear of the starboard side of the Meridian. When I last cruises on ‘Celebration’ this room was ‘Mistrals’ (strangely named after a French wind), which as the name implies offered French cuisine. However towards the end of 2007, it was refitted and became Zilli’s which is celebrity chef Aldo Zilli’s new Italian inspired signature restaurant. (All the ships signage still refers to ‘Mistrals’).
The décor of Zilli’s is tasteful and modern. In fact his restaurant would not seem out of place on a Cunard or Celebrity ship. Booking is recommended and it carries an additional fee of £12.95 per person, for two courses and £16.95 for three courses. Zilli’s menu is the same daily. I decided that I must try it.
Being much smaller, the waiter service was more attentive than it the Meridian. In fact it was almost too attentive; as I was asked if my food was OK three times, by three different waiters, during the main course. Tasty Italian breads and oil were provided as standard. The portions appeared to be minimalist, but the presentation was like a work of art. The appetizer: sautéed Mushroom with goat cheese was superb. The chilli Penne pasta appetizer was very passable, but not exceptional. The main course of lamb chops were excellent – in fact it was some of the best lamb that I have ever tasted. I chose a portion of ‘Fat Chips’ to accompany the lamb and I received a dish containing four. Ironically they were probably the best chips that I have ever tasted. (When you Surname is Oliver asking for more is too much of a cliché).
My wife chose the boiled potato option and she got three small ones, but they were very nice. However, after finishing the second course I was surprisingly satisfied, so I passed on the deserts. So was the experience worth £12.95 each – yes, it probably was.
I don’t know how successful Zili’s is proving, but I never saw it full to capacity. ‘Zilli’ the brand has not been rolled out to the rest of the Thomson fleet. I did hear one couple complain that Zilli’s menu did not contain much in the way of Pasta or Pizza. Maybe many of the guests shared this stereotypical view of Italian cuisine or objected to the cover charge. The fact that the Meridian food is so good may not help it, either. Perhaps an authentic ‘Indian Restaurant’ would be more popular with some of the Thomson faithful.
Aldo Zilli has now turned his hand to providing meals for Thomsonfly, which will hopefully elevate them above some of the competitions plastic food.
The Lido restaurant (a self-service buffet) is the other main dining option. The buffet was a true ‘Lido’ with doors that opened onto the stern of the ship. There were plastic tables where one could dine on deck, overlooking the pool. Pizza and burgers were also cooked and served from a small ‘Terrace Grill’ offering a third dining option. There was also a Lido bar which served this area. This deck area was very popular with the smokers. The ‘Lido Restaurant’ worked very well and had a right and a left entrance with duplicated food on both sides. Queues of more than a handful of passengers were rare. Even at its most crowded one could easily find a table, unlike ‘King Court’ onboard the otherwise breathtaking Queen Mary 2, for example.
There was a free 24 hour self-service tea/coffee station in one corner of the Lido which had the most comprehensive range of Tea bags that I’ve ever seen at sea, plus coffee. The Lido food was truly a 24 hour service. Breakfast began at 6.00 am and merged into lunch, afternoon tea, then dinner, then midnight buffet, then the late night menu, through to 6.00 am again. Diner theme nights were offered: ‘Spanish’, ‘Italian’ ‘Great British’ and ‘Indian’. However the curry tasted nothing like Indian curry, probably being made to a Filipino recipe. Never the less it tasted pretty good.
There were always a range of reasonable self-service food choices in the lido, although the variety was not as great as on a mega-ship. Soup, salad, breads, cheese, meats, vegetable dishes were always on offer. What was not usually on offer were the more exotic meats and seafood that you would expect to find on premium cruise lines. The sweets (or should I say ‘puddings’), were very British and very popular, such as ‘Bread & Butter’ pudding, ‘Pear & Apple Crumble’ and ‘Rice Pudding’. The cakes were particularly nice and included sugar-free options. Porridge and American pancakes were often available for breakfast along with the de rigueur bacon, eggs and pastries. For evening meal table cloths, flickering candles (battery-powered), napkins and cutlery were laid out on each table, a very nice touch. A self-service afternoon tea with delicious freshly baked scones, cream, preserves and finger sandwiches was held most afternoons.
The bar waiter service could be quite slow in the Explorer’s lounge and in the Broadway Theatre. In the case of the ‘Explorers lounge’ there was usually only a single waiter. In the theatre the number of waiters was also inadequate during a show to provide prompt service. On one occasion I sat for over an hour without a waiter reaching me. Thomson might sell more drinks with more waiters strategically placed at peak times.
Room service is 24 hours and unfortunately carries addition fees, unlike most cruise lines where it is free. A continental breakfast, for example, is £4.50p. For this reason I did not see it being used very much compared to other cruise lines where it is free.
It’s important to note that all older ships do have their design and operational quirks. However these are often outweighed by the intimacy and charm.
There are eight grades of cabin, grouped in four varieties: inside, outside, deluxe and Suite. These ranged from a modest 144 square feet to a reasonable generous 294 square feet, although there are no balcony cabins. Even the lowest grades are perfectly adequate, but all of the cabins do have a ‘dated’ look. This is because much of the fitted furniture such as wardrobes, dressing tables, wall and table lamps etc. are original dating back to 1984. My research concludes that even the plastic ice bucket in my cabin was original too. The mattresses of the two twin beds in my cabin: number 476 (basic outside, deck three, amidships, one porthole) were very comfortable and obviously newish. The two beds were arranged in an L shape, one under the porthole and one along the length of the rectangular cabin. Some inside cabins also had the same layout. This is quite a common layout on older ships.
The chair in my cabins, which could have easily been an original, was quite large for the room, heavy (so difficult to move) and its upholstery was looking a little tired. The bathrooms décor of pink tiles also looked original and tired, although the toilet was probably newer. The sink and toilet worked well. The shower was a little bigger than many on modern ships, therefore the shower curtain did not stick to your back. The shower controls were old and quirky, but they worked. The shower head was the tiniest that I’ve every seen and the water pressure from it very weak, but it did the job. Thomson provides complimentary tissues, bottled shampoo, soap bars and shower cap (non-branded), which is a nice touch for a ‘budget’ operation. A chocolate is still left on your pillow each evening, so no cut-backs there, either.
I’m pleased to say that the cabin had quite a lot of lighting, including ceiling, wall, spotlights and original table type lamps. However there was such a bewildering array of light switches, even after a week I still did not know which switch turned which light on and off.
As well as being issued with a credit-card sized I.D. card, which operates your cashless account; the door locks on Celebration have a separate key-card. In 2006 the cabins had no safes, but I’m please to say they do now. However a ‘special’ electronic key has to be obtained from reception and a charge of £12 per week is added to your onboard account. Personally I think that making a profit from passenger’s security is a little below the belt. In addition you have to then carry the key (although small) everywhere with you, plus your I.D. card and door key-card. Although it’s hardly a major hardship, in an ideal world, one key that did it all would be nice.
Inconsistent air-conditioning on older ships is common. The air conditioning in my cabin worked to a fashion, but it was not very adjustable. Irrespective of what the thermostat dial indicated, on some days the cabin was hot and stuffy (especially in port) on other days it was cooler, but not always cool enough. (I remember in 2006 for a few days I could not get my cabin warm enough for the first few days). In fact the various public rooms and corridors could vary wildly in temperature as you walked through the ship. The lower deck corridors always seemed a little too warm compared to the higher decks which were generally cooler. A visit from an Engineer did not fully resolve my cabin air-con issue.
The sound insulation between cabins is not great. It is possible to hear voices, the toilet flush or the TV from the adjacent cabins. The heavy drawers and wardrobe doors can be heard slamming at times, too.
In my experience, older ships always have some engine noise. Some quite obtrusive engine/generator noise could be heard at the aft end of each passenger corridor of decks 1, 2, and 3. This was present even when in port. In fact it sounded like my old car when the ‘tappets’ needed adjusting. I’d be amazed if at least some of this noise could not be heard within certain aft cabins. Of course the only way to avoid these cabins is to pay extra to book a cabin number or trust your luck. Fortunately my cabin was amidships. Excessive vibration could also be felt in parts of the ship such as the Cinema and Show lounge, at times.
The deluxe cabins such as those on deck 6 are quite spacious at 208 sq ft, with double beds. However some have connecting doors which further reduce the sound insulation dramatically. I took a look at some of the suites on deck 7/8. Although spacious they cannot compete in terms of opulence, size or facilities with the top grades of suites on most modern ships. However, they probably don’t cost as much either. The ones that I saw obviously had much original furniture and bathrooms giving them a ‘dated’ look.
The two main entertainment venues of the ship are the ‘Broadway show lounge’ and ‘Liberties’. Although the lido deck and the Explorers bar were also used on occasions.
The ‘Broadway show lounge’ is located on deck 6 with both fixed seating and many moveable tables and chairs. There is no raked seating and there are a number of columns, so sight lines were variable. There was also an upper mezzanine level with additional seating and a bar, which tended to get rather hot as the heat from below rose. The show lounge reminded me of the QE2’s a bit. Unfortunately just like the QE2, corridors passed thorough both levels of the lounge. However the doors were shut during show times to discourage passengers just passing through. Even though there were two performances of each show – at 8.30 pm and 10.30 pm – you need to arrive at least 15 minutes early in order to not get a restricted view seat. On a positive note the room was atmospheric, not being over large. The sound quality was always reasonable.
‘Liberties’ is a cabaret lounge located on the uppermost deck, deck 6. Although not a particularly attractive room as such, it was a functional one. It is a medium-sized room with a bar, small stage and dance floor, which helped to make it quite an atmospheric room at times. Various quizzes, games shows, dance tuition, bands, singing, Karaoke and a disco all took place there regularly.
Thomson’s onboard entertainment team of ten young performers provide virtually all of the entertainment in the ‘Broadway Theatre’. This is in contrast to most other cruise lines that hire an array of guest artists with just a few production shows per week. On Celebration the on board team provides six shows, with a guest magician on my cruise providing the seventh evening of entertainment. The team also performed an afternoon play and offered several ‘sail-away’ deck parties. In addition selected members often sang in ‘Liberties’ cabaret lounge late evening.
I assume that this approach allows Thomson to reduce their entertainment budget. Now in this scenario, the strength of the onboard entertainment team reflects directly on the quality of most of the entertainment offered onboard the ship. The team were obviously very enthusiastic and energetic. However I felt some of the vocalists were mediocre, relying on ‘volume and vibrato’ rather than a great voices. Personally I though the team that I saw on the ‘Red Sea Magic’ cruise (2006) were stronger in the vocal department. Unfortunately, all of the music accompanying the performers was pre-recorded, rather than using a live band, although I doubt if there was much room on stage for a band, anyway. I would be surprised if many of my fellow passengers were too concerned as they seemed to enjoy the overall production.
The shows varied in quality with ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Spanish Passion’ being the two weakest. Although in the former, a performer, who was a Prince William look-alike, did a very good version of Stings ‘English Man in New York’. I particularly felt the shows with too much dialogue did not work so well. At times, it did not help that some members of the cast struggled to talk and sing in American accents. The shows featuring a combination of song and dance, with minimal dialogue worked best. ‘Mediterranean Nights’ featured a very energetic can-can. Even in 2009 young women flashing their bloomers still gets the crowd excited. ‘Africa’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ (which I saw in 2006) were two of the strongest shows. The former features a nice version Toto’s ‘Africa’ amongst other songs, the latter features 1970’s hits by Abba, Madonna and Queen etc. The play, the ‘Amorous Prawn’, was an ambitious undertaking and I applaud them for doing it.
In addition to the Entertainment team, there were a Jazz trio ‘Oceans’, a pop band ‘Nightbirds’ and a pianist onboard. The bands played on deck occasionally and in Liberties, the pianist played each evening in the Explorers bar. Strangely there was a white baby-grand piano in the Lido buffet but it was never played on either of my cruises. A piano accompaniment to afternoon tea, and even during the evening buffet meals, would have been a ‘classy’ touch.
The ships lido deck is quite wide and there is a permanently located covered stage, behind the pool. This was used by bands and entertainment staff for participation games and quizzes. Unfortunately the sound of deck games was relayed into the lido buffet via the P.A. This was rather annoying: why would I want to listen to deck games taking place outside while I was eating a meal inside? I suppose it was a ploy to encourage diners to join in? I’d rather have silence or listen to the piano being played.
The cinema is a nice touch and is surprisingly large with proper raked seating. New releases are repeated three times per day. Fresh popcorn is even served outside during the daytime performances. The same movies also appear on the cabin TV at times during the cruise. However more than two years later I still need to complain quality of the projection, which is still substandard. The projected image is not in sharp focus and there was a ‘blue’ colour cast on the left hand side of the image. Data projectors are no longer expensive to buy, so there are no excuses. However, they do need regular cleaning, maintenance and lamp replacement. (I’m assuming the quality of the original source material was good. If it was not, it would only compound the problem)
I’m pleased to say that Thomson have preserved many of the cruise traditions and manage to pack them all into one week. The amount of different activities and games offered daily was very impressive. These included: a crew show, Captain’s cocktail party, midnight buffets, Gala diner, buffet magnifique, baked Alaska parade, two sail-away parties, six production shows, one play, DVD Concerts, new films in the cinema and on TV, quizzes, game shows, dance classes, napkin folding, bingo, spa seminars, port talks, fashion show, carpet bowls, fruit and vegetable carving, ice sculpture, various deck sports, carpet bowels, scrabble, jigsaw, bean-bag boules, bridge, cards, Captains Q&A, cocktail demonstration, Wii games, deck quoits, and more.
Thomson often offers itineraries which are a little different from most other cruise lines. Celebration was one of the few ships offering a one week Canaries cruise in the winter/spring, for example. The ‘Colourful Coasts’ itinerary was: Las Palmas Gran Canaria, Stanta Cruz De La Palma, Funchal Madeira, sea day, Agadir Morocco, Arrecife Lanzarote, Santa Cruz Tenerife, and back to Las Palmas.
Many Thomson fly-cruise itineraries offer embarkation/disembarkation at several ports. My ‘cruise offered a choice of embarkation ports: ‘Tenerife’, ‘Gran Canaria ‘and ‘Madeira’, with disembarkation being at the same port eight days later. This allows Thomson to offer a wide range of flights from various regional UK Airports. Therefore passengers from the midlands and north of England are always well represented onboard their fleet.
In most cases the ship berthed near a town at each island, so it was possible to simply walk ashore. In Funchal, Madeira, I walked to the cable car in the bay and ascended to Monte, visiting two very extensive and very beautiful Botanical gardens. I took the traditional way down, riding a wicker sledge.
Morocco was one port where I’d definitely recommend an excursion. Unfortunately, the Marrakech option involved a four hour journey on poor roads, which I considered too far in a day. (A new road will cut this time in half by 2010). Therefore I choose a shorter trip to ‘Taroudant’, an ancient walled city. Although only four hours flight from London, Morocco’s ‘souks’ selling exotic spices, complete with donkeys pulling carts, felt like I’d travelled back in time.
Tenerife had a very good Museum ‘Museo de la Naturaleza y E Hombre’ (Natural History) as well as much modern shopping. In Lanzarote I took a tour of the amazing ‘Lunar Route’, a road cut through the volcanic lava and rock. It was truly amazing and really did resemble the moon’s surface.
The internet is full of five-star reviews of Thomson cruises from very satisfied customers. Cynical commentators have suggested that Thomson passengers are generally easily impressed because they are either cruise ‘virgins’ or have never cruised with another line to draw a comparison. Well there may be an element of truth in this, but this cannot account for all of the positive reviews. I have cruised with most of the major lines and I’m not easily impressed. Thomson’s food and service is as good as, and sometimes better than, many other mass market cruise lines.
The Thomson crew are excellent and it is they who ultimately make the cruise a success. Thomson’s ‘no tipping required’ policy proves that staff can provide excellent service by good training, having pride in their work and by good management. It is not necessary to resort to the primitive ‘carrot and stick’ methods of working for tips, to achieve excellence, which nearly all other cruise lines do. Well done Thomson.
Thomson are not about impressive state-of-the-art ships. They focus on the onboard experience. I think the small percentage of passengers that are disappointed with the Thomson experience cannot overlook the fact that Celebration is almost 25 years old. Giant atriums are aqua-parks are nowhere to be found. Two disappointed passengers that I spoke to on board did not secure a favourable ‘deal’ and paid 50% more than I did.
So in conclusion, ‘yes’ I’m still very impressed. Thomson is competing well in spite of an increasing choice of ships available to the UK public. If you are looking for a more intimate British experience with food and service at a quality which often seems to exceed the fare paid, look no further. Assuming that you are able to take advantage of one of their ‘special offers’, you will also agree that Thomson’s are still the UK market leaders in terms of value for money.
Malcolm Oliver, April 2009
Celebration ‘Red Sea Magic’ review: