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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE | INAUGURAL CRUISE

How to Navigate a New Ship's Bumpy Turf

February 04, 2001|TERRY WILLIAMS | Terry Williams is a freelance writer living in San Diego

Last summer, excited about the growing number of new cruise ships and looking for a way to celebrate our youngest's graduation from high school, I lobbied to take an inaugural cruise. The Millennium, Celebrity Cruises' newest and largest ship, was to be launched June 17 on a Baltic route. As a veteran of more than half a dozen cruises, I thought an inaugural trip sounded fun.

But my husband, Steve, ever the family pragmatist, was leery. "Think of it this way," he said. "You're moving into a new house, inviting 2,000 paying guests to visit while you unpack. And, oh, yes, your house just happens to be a 91,000-ton floating hotel with a new gas turbine engine on its maiden voyage."

So we compromised and signed up for the second trip, a July 1 sailing originating in Amsterdam and visiting Oslo; Stockholm; Helsinki, Finland; St. Petersburg, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; Gdynia, Poland; Rostock, Germany; and Copenhagen before returning to Amsterdam on July 15.

All seemed well until we received a phone call from Evelyn Hartley, our travel agent: Had we heard? The inaugural Millennium cruise had been canceled, the passengers' money refunded, and each was given a coupon good for another Celebrity cruise within the next 18 months.

So there we were, Steve, sons Kevin and Brendan and me, the unwitting and unwilling inaugural cruisers, despite our best intentions. With 55 new ships to be launched by 2005, according to Cruise Lines International Assn., here's some advice for those who are taking an inaugural cruise:

* Don't expect the cruise company to make a fuss because it's an inaugural cruise. Millennium passengers received a little decorative box the last night, but otherwise, there was little recognition that the cruise was unique. Because we had no expectations, we weren't bothered, but some of the other cruisers were expecting more--streamers at departure, free drinks upon embarkation, flowers in the staterooms or complimentary commemorative photographs--and they complained about it when they got none of those things.

* Don't be surprised when some features advertised in the brochure aren't ready. Some of the problems were quickly rectified: The scanty collection of books in the library multiplied overnight; the golf simulation room, which looked like a dismantled movie set the first day, was in business by the end of the cruise; and the neat piles of paneling stacked in the halls slowly shrank.

But other issues remained throughout the cruise: The Tower Teen night club was changed to a plant conservatory and boutique, and the reading lights never were installed in the library.

* Expect periodic inconveniences. Millennium had a variety of electrical problems: elevators that randomly stopped working; banks of running machines that halted suddenly, catapulting the runners into the control panels; and lights in one of the smaller nightclubs that went out for half an hour. To Celebrity's credit, the staff worked hard and discreetly to fix the problems (including the workman, complete with workbench, welding torch and mask, I ran across at 3 a.m. during one of my walkabouts), and by the fifth day, the problems seemed largely resolved.

* Entertainment might be uneven as the staff finds its sea legs. The cruise director's relief was palpable after the first full-scale dance production went off without a hitch, but the comedian with the risque routine received a less-than-warm reception and soon disappeared. Stewart B. Nelson, the guest oceanographer with a passion for Russian history, was such a hit with his talks about Peter the Great and the Baltic Sea that he was scheduled for additional impromptu talks. The Cinema and Conference Center theater wasn't ready, so the movies were moved to a limited schedule of afternoon showings in the cavernous Celebrity Theater. And the most incongruent entertainment I saw was "Marijuana and the Cocaine--A Socio-Political Dilemma," a presentation that started with a film I realized I'd last seen in junior high school.

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