Fancy the big ship Caribbean adventure? Discover what it’s like to be treated like a star on board Celebrity Equinox on a five island cruise.
Sunshine-seeking celebrities, including the X-Factor’s Simon Cowell, flock to the Caribbean in winter. But the biggest star in the region is the beautiful and elegant Equinox – Celebrity’s Solstice Class ship launched in 2009. Equinox’s identical sister ship Eclipse now sails from Southampton and has all the ‘firsts’ on board that Equinox has, such as a real grass lawn and glass-blowing show.
It takes a lot to upstage the Caribbean, but Equinox has a serene and sleek attractiveness that gives even the most picture-perfect island a run for its money. I first spotted her on the horizon at Fort Lauderdale and the excitement of passengers – a mix of mainly American, British, Canadian and German couples – was palatable as we waited to embark on a 10-night Caribbean trip. I was unsure what to expect, but after my glass of champagne on boarding and a peek at all the activities on offer, I was glad that four out of the nine days would be spent at sea.
A five o’clock departure meant a sunset sailing party on deck as we left Fort Lauderdale for two days at sea on our way to the Caribbean island of St Maarten. Stretching the length of three football pitches and weighing 122,000 tonnes, Equinox is a big ship with a small vessel vibe, with plenty of intimate places to eat, drink and chill-out without feeling as if you’re on board with 2,850 passengers. Minimal announcements maintain this peaceful atmosphere, punctuated only by a steel band around the pool or string quartet in the grand lobby.
The Solstice Class ships have some lovely touches, particularly in the cabins. I learnt, for example, that a team of well-travelled women were drafted in as design consultants – the result is fog-free bathroom mirrors and a rounded, soft-edged cabin design. Solstice Class cabins are 15 per cent bigger than the rest of the fleet and most (85 per cent) have balconies. Standard staterooms can be upgraded to Concierge Class – with your own concierge and fruit and canapés served every day – or AquaClass with brand-name products, bottled water, access to the AquaSpa relaxation room and Persian Garden, and dining in the exclusive Blu clean cuisine restaurant (which is only open to AquaClass passengers).
SO MUCH TO DO, SO LITTLE TIME
During my first two days at sea I went from worrying about getting bored, to panicking about fitting everything in. I decided to immerse myself in the Celebrity Life programme, which provides language, craft, cooking and fitness classes across the ship. There is also a gym, jogging track and basketball court – or you could always take the stairs instead of the solar-powered lifts, all part of a green initiative that you can learn about in the Team Earth ‘eco area’ that overlooks the main atrium.
There are also two outdoor pools with wooden decking and white sail-like cabanas, plus an indoor pool and whirlpools in a solarium next to the AquaSpa where you can have a massage, Elemis treatment or, if you prefer something more permanent even Botox out some wrinkles at the medi-spa.
If getting fit or self-improving is not your thing, there are a huge number of other entertainment options on offer. Equinox has a casino, shops, kids club, library and internet room, as well as special additions like the Equinox Theatre where acrobats swing out over the audience. It is next door to the intimate Celebrity Central where comedy and film screenings are held. The ship is also home to two firsts at sea – a glass-blowing studio with live demonstrations in partnership with the Corning Museum of Glass and the half-acre real grass lawn where guests can play croquet, putting and boules.
Our first port of call was Philipsburg on the Dutch side of St Maarten; the smallest landmass in the world to be shared by two different nations, the Dutch and the French. I opted for a Fun Mobile tour in a small ‘scoot coupe’ (a mini three-wheeled car, steered like a scooter) to explore the island and cross from one ‘side’ to the other. The country has a rugged coastline, where we stopped to see sea urchins and have a dip and a rum punch at a beach resort. Brightly-painted bars line the lively waterfront promenade fronted by a white beach.
In the next port of Castries in St Lucia I decided to explore alone and soon ended up being warned that I was straying into the less-welcoming part of town. I hopped on a crammed minibus, which the driver told me would leave “when we’re full” and took a trip through the rainforested countyside to a rocky beach, where I saw fellow passengers with the distinctive Celebrity X on their beach towels.
A jeep safari is a great way to explore the rustling sugar cane fields, wild Atlantic coastline and small villages dotted with colourful churches of Barbados – as well as take a peek at the celebrity haunt of Sandy Lane. It was easily combined with a rum punch-soaked snorkelling trip to the shipwrecks, just off the beautiful white sand of Carlisle Bay, with Equinox standing proud in the distance back at the capital Bridgetown.
Next stop, St Kitts. A rickety ride on the Caribbean’s only train (outside of Cuba) takes you past abandoned sugar cane fields, ruined fortresses, volcanic black sand beaches and towering mountains on a tour of the coast. Boat trips are the best way to see the yachtie playground of the US Virgin Island of St Thomas, where I took a catamaran snorkel trip and with champagne in hand pretended I was a celebrity for the day.
Back on board I felt like a star anyway. Genuinely friendly staff quickly learned my name and were on hand to provide information and a quick, efficient service. Attention to detail really made a difference as did the dining which was excellent.
As far as food is concerned it was hard to know where to start. Let me brief you on some of the options.
The main restaurant Silhouette is split over two levels. There are two sittings or guests can pay for Celebrity Select to dine at any time. Other inclusive options are snacks at the Mast Grill, light lunches at AquaSpa cafe, cakes at Cafe al Bacio and an all day (until 1am) buffet at OceanView cafe.
There are also four speciality dining options which carry surcharges, from a bargain $5 at the retro-styled Bistro on Five, up to (a still reasonable) $35 at Murano – an innovative French restaurant decorated with dark woods and heavy artwork.
My favourite was Silk Harvest ($25) where staff will artfully arrange the menu on the sumptuous tablecloths, and you can sample pretty much anything you fancy. Bliss.
One of the biggest surprises was the range of nightlife options available. The oak-aged Cellar Masters wine bar, the frosted Martini Bar, Galleria Tastings for liquid nitrogen cocktails made by ‘liquid chefs’ and the Sunset Bar for a quiet beer hidden at the aft of the ship behind the Lawn Club. The Sky Observation Lounge at the bow of the ship is a live music venue with great views in the day and twinkling ceiling ‘stars’ overhead at night. Quasar is a retro nightclub just the right side of kitsch with plastic egg chairs hanging from the ceiling.
The number of quirky attractions and entertainment options make Equinox one celebrity that definitely has the X-factor.
NEED TO KNOW
Fort Lauderdale, St Maarten, St Lucia, Barbados, St Kitts and St Thomas
What makes it different?
A 2:1 guest to staff ratio and she’s the first ship to have a hot glass-blowing studio and also real grass lawn at sea.
Who is the cruise aimed at?
Mainly the American market, but caters to British tastes in buffet and entertainment. On board it’s mostly couples in the 45-65 age group, with younger guests and some families on board.
Visa and other requirements:
Because you’ll be arriving via the USA you’ll need a $14 ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authority), check www.usembassy.org.uk as the situation changes depending on security issues.
What to take and what to bring home:
Bring two sets of formal wear for a 10-night cruise. All islands have diamond shops near the terminals, but visit the towns for local souvenirs; St Thomas and St Maarten are best for duty-free goods such as electricals. Mount Gay Rum from Barbados and Bounty Rum from St Lucia are best tipples to bring home.
Guide prices and what’s included:
Itinerary changes slightly to visit Dominica instead of St Lucia on a 11-night Ultimate Caribbean Cruise from £1,426pp. Prices are based on two adults travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis and includes flights from London. Based on departures March 2011. Includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
Tel: 0845 456 0523