A New Century

New balconies and an eatery enhance the Celebrity treatment

By: Anne Burke

Cruise ship years are like dog years. Multiply by seven and you get the equivalent in people years. After a decade of yeoman service, the 815-foot Celebrity Century a stunner in her day was looking long in the tooth. To stay in the game, this faded beauty needed more than a nip and tuck. This job called for extreme makeover: cruise edition.

The old gal went under the knife last spring in Palermo, Italy, and emerged 28 hectic days and $55 million later, looking younger, fresher and more exciting. New carpeting, duvets, artwork and flat screens jazzed up tired-looking staterooms. The sky bar on deck 12 vanished to make room for luxury suites attended by white-gloved butlers. The spa was reborn as a grand and sophisticated space for beauty and wellness. A boutique restaurant joined the list of eateries, as did a casual sushi bar. A sports bar was reinvented as a chic martini lounge with lights that change from pink to green to blue.

But the most remarkable part of the transformation was a structural addition never before undertaken on a cruise ship. In 314 outside cabins, workmen punched out exterior walls and windows, inserted sliding-glass doors, and attached balconies like so many Lego pieces. Century now offers balconies with 375 rooms and suites, up from a paltry 61.

My friend and I checked out Century’s makeover last fall on a 13-night “Best of Europe” sailing. Once on board, we wasted little time making a reservation at the 15-table Murano, Century’s pricey new specialty restaurant. The setting here is intimate and elegant. The ceiling drips with handcrafted chandeliers and a harpist sets an unhurried pace plinking pleasantly in the background.

Guests choose between a $30-a-person, four-course, a la carte menu, or a $100-a-person, six-course “menu exceptionnel,” both designed by Celebrity’s longtime cuisine consultant, the Michelin-starred Michel Roux. We ate a la carte and wanted for nothing, save fewer interruptions from the overattentive wait staff. My goat cheese souffle was divine, the tenderloin steak Diane a revelation. Be warned: The sommelier stops by frequently and had we succumbed to his many overtures, the memory of this meal would have been lost to a boozy haze.

Our spacious balcony made all the difference in a Concierge-Class stateroom that felt smallish. We pressed against the railing to let the wind blow our hair and leaned around a divider to clink champagne flutes with our neighbors. Our two single beds were comfortable, despite the angled ends, and storage space was blessedly abundant. The bathroom was tubless, with a raised-bowl sink that was pretty but awkward. There were small signs of hurry or carelessness in the makeover: bubbles in the wood-veneer wallpaper and what looked to be dried cement on the carpet. Overall, Concierge Class seemed marginally worth the added cost. We enjoyed the daily hors d’oeuvres but the promised pillow menu never appeared and fresh flowers went unreplenished.

Sadly, Century has jumped on the surcharge bandwagon. Islands Cafe’s “suggested” gratuity of $2 per person baffled me, as I found the food and ambience both mediocre. The AquaSpa’s glorious new Persian Garden, an exotic space with Turkish steam baths and tropical-scented showers, cost $10 a day, and was all but deserted. Bar tabs include a 15 percent gratuity yet solicit an additional tip.

With a new acupuncture clinic, hip barbershop and seaview treatment rooms, the AquaSpa booked quickly. Steiner Leisure, the London-based operator of Celebrity spas, is getting into nonsurgical cosmetic procedures in a big way. Brochures promised me that for several hundred dollars worth of treatments, I would return home looking younger, slimmer and unburdened of some of my cellulite. I held on to my money.

Part of the attraction of cruising is that for a week or so, guests are made to feel important. But I think the cruise line goes overboard with its vaunted “celebrity treatment.” Being addressed as “madame” made me cringe. Our stateroom attendant was so obsequious we ducked out of sight to avoid her. Waiters intruded on mealtime conversations.

Still, the revitalized Century is a good choice for clients who prefer a smaller ship that caters to older cruisers less interested in partying than in sophistication, excellent food and personal service. On my cruise, there was little evidence of late-night carousers, which suited me fine. This “celebrity” needed her beauty sleep.

Just the Facts

Company: Celebrity Cruises
Ship: Century
Size: 70,600 tons; 815 feet
Capacity: 1,750 passengers; 904 staterooms
Hits: Stem-to-stern wireless Internet access (for a price)
Misses: Fawning attention from wait and housekeeping staff was an annoyance
Itinerary: Through April, Century will offer 4- and 5-night Western Caribbean cruises out of Miami, designed for passengers with limited vacation time.