A cruise on board Celebrity Constellation takes in lovely colonial architecture in Colombia, a fabulous beach in Aruba and the mighty locks of the Panama Canal in action
Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition. At least I didn't. It was a lazy sunny Sunday afternoon in Cartagena and we had taken a $20 cab from the cruise terminal into the centre of this Colombian city's old town, so Spanish colonial in style that it could have been transplanted straight from Andalucia.
Pausing in the cool oasis of the Bolivar Plaza gardens, we spotted groups of people wandering into this interesting old building. It turned out to be the Museo de la Inquisition, housing the many instruments of torture, which - according to my schoolboy Spanish translation of the exhibit descriptions - were not actually invented by that fearsome organisation but merely adopted with unparalleled enthusiasm.
Perhaps as some delayed recompense for its many excesses, entrance to the museum was free and it proved a chilling if fascinating way to spend a morning. It was, though, still something of relief to return to the open air and continue our stroll through the old quarter, past the many mime artists but otherwise enjoyably untroubled by touts and vendors.
We met up later with the Australian couple with whom we had shared the taxi. They had enjoyed their time, too, but were just a little miffed that they had already booked an $80 walking tour from their ship (the QE2) that was clearly going to repeat what they had just done for their share of the ($20/£10) round-trip cab rides. A similar tour (albeit slightly cheaper) was offered from our ship - Celebrity Constellation - and it was only because we had been to Cartagena before that we knew it was something we could safely do ourselves for a lot less money.
The fact is that cruise ships remain pretty poor at giving good information about ports of call to help passengers who do not always want to take a tour. But that is a small gripe about cruising, which still stands up pretty well against any other kind of holiday or transportation when it comes to value for money and efficiency.
Take British Airways and Terminal Five, for example. We did for this cruise. Sadly, the same could not be said for my wife's suitcase. Which was how we came to find ourselves frantically shopping in a Fort Lauderdale mall hours before embarking our cruise. Still, at least this afforded us the opportunity of spotting a pawnbroker calling itself "The Happy Hocker"... Once on board, we put our problem in the hands of the concierge and he spent 11 days on BA's case. Even he could not magic the case on board but he did everything he could to help (including setting up free laundry for us and the other bagless passengers). Put him in charge of BAA and/or BA and I suspect lost baggage would be a thing of the past.
His service ethic was, though, shared by the rest of the staff on board who worked equally hard to keep their customers satisfied. Food and dining standards have remained as high as they have been since this line began operating nearly 20 years ago. It still operates two sittings and fixed tables in the main restaurant (San Marco) and does not have quite the range of alternative venues of some other lines and ships, but it is very much a case of quality over quantity. This is especially so in the Ocean Liners restaurant, which costs an extra $30 but is worth every penny and is such a blow-out that once per cruise will be enough for most passengers.
Entertainment has never been Celebrity's strong point and a bit more imagination in the daily programming (lectures on the pirate history of the Caribbean are really old hat now) would be welcome. But there is a good library, decent TV programming (including pay-for new movies) and - my favourite - a proper cinema, so there is no real excuse for being bored in between ports.
Apart from Cartagena, we visited the Caymans, Aruba, Cristobal and Cozumel. Thanks to T5, we saw a few more shops than we would have planned in the Caymans but we also found the excellent Eagle Beach in Aruba and took a tour from Cristobal to see the mighty Panama Canal locks in action. Our favourite, though, was the day spent at Chankanoob near Cozumel, where there there is a snorkelling beach and dolphin pool within stumbling range of an excellent Mexican cafe.