Suite Dreams are Made of This

Written by Mark McElroy

Our Celebrity Suite Experience has two HAL Mariners thinking of jumping ship.

The last time Clyde and I cruised with Holland America — our go-to for luxury travel on the high seas — the sparkle of our early voyages on HAL had begun to fade. Since COVID, venues seem understaffed. The smiles of the crew begin to look a bit strained. Menus — even in the highfalutin’ Pinnacle Grill — have become repetitive and tired. Worse, the overall level of service is sinking — and you don’t want to think about anything sinking when you’re on board a cruise ship! 

In other words, lately HAL’s standards are eroding like a mud cliff in a hurricane, and what used to be extraordinary has become decidedly ordinary. Now: if you’re willing to shell out for extra perks — a Neptune Suite, or HAL’s Cub Orange upgrades — you can still have some remarkable experiences … but since we’ve been sailing on HAL for years, we remember when that level of great service used to be the standard. Paying extra for it now feels like we’re being nickel and dimed … which isn’t the greatest feeling when you’ve already paid thousands just to be onboard. 

So the time had come, we decided, to see if the grass — or maybe the seas — would be greener on a Celebrity ship. This isn’t a decision we took lightly. I mean, as soon as we complete our HAL cruise later this year, we’ll be five-star Mariners, with months and months of time spent on HAL ships under our belts. Our status on HAL comes with benefits we’ve grown accustomed to: free laundry (a godsend on long voyages — and Clyde can really, really pack a lot of laundry into that little navy blue cloth bag!), deep discounts on specialty dining, and better upgrade options (that help us secure those nicer rooms for nicer prices). 

By jumping ship to Celebrity, we give up a lot. But we’ve sailed the seven seas long enough to recognize when the tide is turning … and with that in mind, we committed mutiny and booked a Celebrity Cruise. Could Celebrity be our new North Star, guiding us to the pampering and indulgence we once enjoyed on HAL? We decided to dive in and find out. 

Feeling slightly traitorous, we booked a suite on a Celebrity cruise to several familiar Asian ports: Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. Would we miss our familiar HAL perks? Yes … but the siren song of potentially greater service and better value lured us in!

Stepping onto a Celebrity ship felt like stepping into a different universe: one where everything was sort of like what we had experienced before … but better.

The Atrium at the heart of the Celebrity Solstice.

The expansive, ten-story atrium soared and gleamed. Color palates were fresher and more modern. Instead of HAL’s somewhat dated charms, every single environment onboard — the public areas, the hallways, the suites themselves — felt shiny, fresh, and new … and this was on one of Celebrity’s less-updated, less-recently remodeled ships!

And while our suite was smaller than a Neptune Suite on the older HAL ships (the newer ships, you know, have greatly compressed HAL’s suite floor plans), it didn’t feel worn or dated in the least … and the floor to ceiling windows integrated the balcony into the room in a way that made the whole suite feel more expansive. 

As far as accommodations go, we had just one issue: noise. As it happened, we were booked into a range of suites positioned just under the buffet restaurant area. There, Celebrity has added tables and chairs to an uncarpeted expanse of floor never meant to host furniture. So: early in the morning, we heard carts rolling overhead, prepping the buffet. All day, we heard tables and chairs being shifted by enthusiastic diners. And late at night, we could hear the buffet being disassembled and the cleaning begin. 

Nothing like a room service breakfast to get you over a sleepless night of hearing the buffet being disassembled, cleaned, and replaced again!

Celebrity has to know about this, and we know from talking to other passengers that we were not the first to complain. And while Celebrity couldn’t offer a fix — they’d have to toss tables and chairs overboard to do it — they did offer us some money back for our trouble, which was nice. 

As much as we liked the ship’s overall environment, as avid card players, the time we invested in finding a great place to play Gin turned out to be a losing bet. Celebrity does offer a dedicated room for card playing, but it has three big strikes against it: no food service, no beverage service, and hordes of mahjong players whose clickety-clacking tiles make conversation all but impossible. 

And while the ship boasted enough deck lounge chairs to host an army of sun worshippers, tables fit for two card sharks were scarce as a calm day in the Bermuda Triangle. This scarcity wasn’t just inconvenient; it was a stark contrast to the thoughtfulness and lavish appointments found elsewhere on the ship. 

First world problems, for sure … but the availability of flexible card-playing spaces is the one area where HAL trumps Celebrity. 

Desperate for a place to play cards, we finally took to sneaking into restaurants unused during the day to sit at their tables!

It was hard to be too upset by this, though, when Celebrity was winning us over one sumptuous detail at a time with sea changes that had us wondering why we hadn’t jumped ship sooner. 

Here’s the three-story, automated wine rack, a fixture of the main dining room.

In our suites-only dining room, we were greeted every meal … not just by the pleasant clink of fine china and the warm hum of conversation, but by our names, spoken with a familiarity that set us beaming. The staff knew our names before we arrived … called us by name every time they interacted with us … learned our seating and beverage preferences (Chardonnay for Clyde, gin and tonic for me) … and even mentioned Clyde’s mango allergy every meal, just to make sure we knew they were looking out for us. 

On Celebrity ships, upscale dining is still an event.

This level of attention was common to all our servers and every staff member we interacted with. And while you can get this kind of support in HAL’s Club Orange … HAL doesn’t have anything that matches the service suite guest receive when returning from tours or taking in on-board shows. 

On Holland America, returning to the ship after a day or touring means standing in long lines, often in the sun or rain … even for suite guests. But on Celebrity, our suite support staff appeared out of nowhere each time we arrived home and whisked us away from the burgeoning line, past the envious glances of our fellow passengers, and right to the head of the line. 

This feels a bit like cutting line in school … but one you get used to this kind of attention, you wonder how you ever cruised without it. 

As for entertainment, while Holland America often spoke of priority seating, it was Celebrity that transformed words into action. Each evening show became an event we anticipated with gusto, knowing that as suite guests, prime seats awaited us. No longer did we need to hover around the auditorium’s entrance, timing our arrival to snag a decent view. Instead, we arrived just as the show started, confident in our reserved seating—a subtle luxury that elevated our experience.

And then there was David’s Lounge, our retreat within a retreat. While the Neptune Lounge on Holland America held its charm, David’s was a haven where the bartender knew to craft my gin and tonic just so, and afternoon tea was an affair of high-quality nibbles that would’ve made even the most discerning duchess nod in approval. Each visit felt less like stepping into a lounge and more like returning to a friend’s plush living room, albeit one with a particularly skilled mixologist and an endless supply of canapés.

Service and the tended bar in David’s Lounge (for suite guests) puts Holland America’s Neptune Lounge to shame.

Will we still sail on HAL? Sure! (We have at least one more cruise booked on Holland America, after all.) And — we’ll enjoy it, I’m sure, especially since we’re paying for Club Orange levels of service. HAL is like an old and familiar friend: pleasant to see, easy to be with … but maybe not offering much in the way of surprises. 

At the same time: Celebrity’s levels of luxury — and not just luxury, but thoughtful luxury — have proven to be, for us, an irresistible siren’s song. We can’t wait to explore new horizons on Celebrity … where suite guests really do feel like celebrities … and suites come with sweet perks you can’t buy for any amount of money on HAL.

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).