Jet Set Sail • Celebrity Cruises • Barcelona
There have been a handful of times in my life when I have felt like a very important person. Swishing around like a princess in an ivory wedding dress, even as I got out of the car to droplets of rain outside the church, I felt like someone very special as I lifted the tulle netting underneath the skirt and gathered it up into my arms. I can remember walking down the steps built into the rocks at The Cliff restaurant in Barbados on a pre baby holiday, passing Gary Linekar on the stairs and gasped when I saw the flaming torches lighting up the beautifully laid tables over looking the Stingrays gliding through the lapping shore. I can vividly remember thinking wow, I feel so lucky to be here. And stepping out of the taxi to the private jet terminal at Stansted Airport a few weeks ago set the tone for another special experience.
I'd been invited to join the inaugural Jet Set Sail flight to Barcelona with Celebrity Cruises, a brand new initiative to start your holiday with Celebrity as you mean to go on. There was a sense of calmness and measured excitement given the early hour, with everyone almost gliding around the plush carpet and holding glasses of Prosecco in their hands. No harsh "Bing bong flight number..." announcements over the tannoy making you wince at 6am, just an array of smiling faces, elegantly dressed Celebrity staff gently asking if the soon to be cruisers needed any help with their hand luggage or paperwork. There were no frantic dashes to the check in desk, no other halves waiting anxiously at the terminal doors looking out for their partners who had taken the car to the airport parking, everyone had driven right up to the hanger, parked and breezed onto the red carpet. Literally.
The trouble is when you know this is how you can travel, it makes you never want to go back! No long queues at security, streams of people corralled towards the scanners like sheep about to be dipped, no trek to the departure gate which you just know always happens to be the furthest away leaving you a little breathless when you hand over your boarding card. Oh no, this is the way to travel and for much less than you'd think.
I am a girl with impossibly high expectations and the difference between the private jet terminal and the norm that I have experienced was quite remarkable. There was plenty of seating in the contemporarily decorated departures lounge, magazines and papers to read, a mezzanine level for those wanting a quieter space and spotlessly clean floors with coffee, tea and pastries on tap for anyone feeling peckish before a two course breakfast on board. People pottered up to the refreshments bar and could help themselves or be served by one of the well presented terminal staff.
One of my favourite things about airports is people watching and I loved looking around at groups of friends chinking their glasses of bubbly toasting the beginning of their holiday and others thumbing their slightly dog eared brochures from their hand luggage, that have obviously been excitedly flicked through over the last few months.
The very best thing for me about jetting off from the private terminal is the difference in time. No two hour mooch at what feels like the crack of sparrows around half empty shops, meandering in a sort of zombie like state looking for mints and a bottle of water to fling in your handbag, that's already stuffed with expensive children's magazines that come with an unnecessarily large free plastic toy, just a very civilised hour from arriving to boarding the aeroplane.
I was in a lovely group of travel bloggers and cruise journalists and we hung back letting the other passengers embark the plane first and settled into our seats. There's allocated seating so no jostling or splitting families, 31 inch rows of seats slightly larger than your standard economy flight and a bottle of water on the seat waiting for you. Aeroplane food can be notoriously bad, especially scrambled eggs I find, but the breakfast was delicious and before I remembered to reach for my camera I'd eaten the lot!
The flight to Barcelona felt quick and easy and as we all chatted non stop throughout the flight, I had to admit that I'd never really considered a cruise holiday before and felt a little intimidated by this great hunk of metal on the sea.
Luckily the Celebrity team from the Marketing Department who joined us for the trip are the experts in the cruise way of life and instantly put me at ease. To be honest I had never stood next to a ship, only ever seen them in photos or online and heard about what they are like inside from family who regularly book. We landed in almost the same soggy weather I'd been drenched in on our wedding day but our great British spirit wasn't to be dampened and we oohed and aahed through the coach windows as we headed to the port.
It sounds like an obvious thing to say but the ship was vast. It made me feel like a tiny ant scuttling along the rope line to the security point at the entrance to the ship. As you stand on the dock and crane your neck backwards to take in every floor right to the top of the open deck, it makes you feel almost childlike, and I instantly remembered that feeling of being dwarfed by the giant sixth formers at school.
There was a dedicated queuing system for those who had booked the Jet Set Sail experience as as our line tootled past the other passengers one remarked in jest that they had picked the wrong queue, to which I explained that we had arrived in style from Stansted and she elbowed her husband and said next time we need to book that. You can board the ship for most of the day before the 4pm sailing time. But I suspect the dreadful weather meant that more passengers chose to arrive a little earlier rather than stop for lunch in Barcelona en route and we all made our way through the gift shop and supplies stands to the gangway.
We waited at one of the crew boarding points and it was fascinating to see the change over in staff as we cleared security with the personnel on duty. It's a multicultural word on board, so many languages, ages and loyal staff who have worked on the Celebrity liners for years. The staff fly into Barcelona which is the home of the Equinox when not at sea from all over the world. The operation beneath the cabins is extraordinary. I got a very sneak peek on a whistle stop tour of the main facilities on board at the staff quarters and you cannot believe the hustle and bustle compared to the more serene atmosphere in the rest of the ship. Luggage trolleys on auto drive delivering thousands of suitcases to individual cabins, crisp white polo shirts darting in and out of doorways in contrast to the soft music transcending throughout the upper decks with the glass elevators giving you a real sense of scale as you hop between levels.
The main atrium is grand but not gaudy and the ship in it's entirety was elegantly decorated with each bar, restaurant and lounge area having it's own unique identity. The sound of the musicians flooded the main staircase and you couldn't help but stop to take in the beautiful orchestral music.
The upside to a rainy departure day is that everyone mills about inside. It was heart warming to see couples sat with their feet up, paper or book in hand, drink resting on the table beside them, tiny droplets of condensation from the freezing cold ice slowly dripping down the side of the tumbler. People relaxing. Friends at the bar, perched on bar stools exchanging banter with the barmen and watching their cocktail shaking and making skills.
We headed straight to the Luminae restaurant for lunch which is open for Suite Class passengers, which was much smaller than I expected. In a good way! I was under the impression that cruise ships is all about scale and size and it was a pleasant surprise to sit in a much more intimate setting. It's fine dining that fills you up. Exquisitely presented dishes from an ample choice of menu and the simple white decor had a romantic and serene feel about it. All three courses were delicious, the portions were very generous and we passed around dishes to snap our blog photos. We raised glasses full of wine to a happy 24 hours and spent the next hour learning more about what life is like on board.
The challenge with just 24 hours from start to finish is that we wanted to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible! And a few of us who hadn't been on board the Equinox before whizzed through the main decks led by the Marketing Director who knew every inch of the ship and put passengers at ease with welcoming hellos and good afternoons as we raced through the lounges, main restaurant, lawn club and spa.
There was a ripple of excitement and anticipation, you could tell those who were seasoned cruisers who had settled into life at sea within minutes and those who were getting more familiar with the ship's layout and flicking through the on board guides, discussing the first stop. We snuck into the theatre where a guide to all the destinations on the cruise was being held and walked at pace through the casino, slipped around the back of the jaw dropping glass wine rack, the highlight of the main dining room, which offers flexible dining options from 6pm to 9.30pm. It was good to know that you could chose whether you wanted to share a table or whether you preferred to eat just with your travel companion something I assumed was just a given. That shared tables were standard cruise practise. But you could see people making friends in those first few hours and why the split level dining area works so well.
There are times when you wish it was sunny and times when it's quite handy it's not and for me heading out to view the pool ad jacuzzi area was one of those. The fierce rain meant the pools were empty and I got to capture just how beautifully laid out the loungers are, the perfect symmetry in design and I loved wandering down into the indoor pool and spa seeing the uniform X's on the wooden loungers. There's almost military perfectionism and style to the pool areas and passengers were already taking full advantage of the Canyon Ranch spa with acupuncture treatments to one side and massages to another. It made you want to strip to your bathers and join them!
Dotted around the indoor pool are heavenly pods and hammocks overlooking the ocean. Room for two, a good book with a glass of something at the ready. It was something out of a picture perfect glossy brochure except it was real. And I kept thinking about the lucky people who would be whiling away a few dreamy hours gently rocking as the ship powers through the waves of the Mediterranean.
I managed to see the bright lights of the on board nightclub, get a proper look at the children's club areas which were immaculately clean and well designed for the different age groups. Quite frankly they would be as spoilt in the kid's club as you would be having dinner by yourselves!
We all met back at the gangway and gathered our overnight bags to head into the city. I had grand plans to take in as many of the streets and sights of Barcelona as possible that afternoon but the weather had other ideas. And it actually worked brilliantly. Because instead of everyone splitting up and heading in different directions we all sat in the hotel bar for the next 4 hours, chatting, laughing and getting to know each other over Barcelona's best G&Ts. I got to really pick their brains about what makes a Celebrity Cruise different to their competitors and why people travel with them over and over again.
The team were so open to our feedback from our early morning flight and I got this overwhelming sense of pride from the manager behind the whole Jet Set Sail vision and execution. They have worked hard to get to know their customer so well, they want to offer unrivalled customer service and I felt it in spades.
The drive to hone the service so it works like clockwork and each passenger gets the sense of their modern luxury ethos from the moment their holiday starts as they empty their suitcases from the boot of the car.
We waved a number of the Celebrity team goodbye who were catching the last flight home to London and had an hour as the rain eased off to take a stroll through the streets near to the hotel before changing and heading off for a wonderful dinner at a renowned local restaurant. Sometimes you just click with people and that evening I felt as though I was among very old friends.
We woke up bright and early to rays of sunshine and I darted up to the rooftop to snap the incredible view of the city. Barcelona has a magical almost mystical charm at that time in the morning. It was so quiet it felt as though the electricity of the cosmopolitan city had been dialled down to zero before 8 am. There was a smell of Jasmine in the air, shadows on the deck and I could hardly bring myself to leave, wishing I had time for a quick swim but the taxi was waiting to take us back to the airport.
I kept thinking on the flight home that it hadn't felt like I was on a ship, as silly as that must sound to read. It felt like you were in a new town that just so happened to be floating on water. I hadn't appreciated the mix of people on board, the opportunity that a cruise gives you to take in so many different destinations in just one trip, until I actually saw it for myself. I may or may not have fallen in love with the idea of the Adriatic holiday! Seeing the ship with my own eyes made me realise how much Rich and I would love the cruise experience, the world class food, the quality entertainment and facilities that evoke a more intimate Las Vegas hotel and the like minded passengers with a passion for travelling in contemporary opulence.
It's the people that make the Celebrity experience, little touches that make you feel more welcome which assure you that you are going to be well looked after, the modern luxury that starts from the moment you drive up to the private terminal.
You can find Celebrity at Taste of London this weekend so if you are visiting make sure you stop by at their Lawn Club.
Check out all the current offers on board the Equinox. Prices start at £599 per person for an interior cabin setting sail from Barcelona on 25th June 2016.
Thank you to Celebrity Cruises and their team for the very kind invitation to Jet Sail Sail to Barcelona for an eye opening 24 hour experience.