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Celebrity’s Summit stands above rest

Old-time decor + superb food = first-class cruise

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Modern cruise ships mount all the latest bells and whistles, but Celebrity Cruises' newest ship, the Summit, looks to the past in one special way.

Like its sister ships, the Millennium and Infinity, the Summit pays tribute to one of the great ocean liners of yesteryear. The Millennium featured the actual French walnut paneling and other memorabilia from the RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, while the Infinity put on display original carved glass paneling and other artifacts from America's greatest liner, the United States of the 1950s.

Now the Summit salutes the most celebrated of all transatlantic liners, the Normandie, in its alternative restaurant. Bearing the same name as the 1930s ship, the restaurant features an Art Deco design reminiscent of the great French liner. The "pieces de resistance," however, are the two sets of large gold-lacquered panels that divide the central colonnade. The panels, which originally decorated the first-class smoking room of the Normandie, were obtained by the line at an auction at Christie's.

Also aboard from the Normandie is an eight-foot bronze statue, "La Normandie," which once overlooked the grand staircase of the legendary liner. Today it stands at the foot of the spiral stair leading to the Summit's main dining room, the Cosmopolitan restaurant.

Having these reminders of the renowned trans-Atlantic liner in the dining rooms of the Summit is particularly appropriate, because one of the great appeals of the new Celebrity ship is its cuisine.

Created by master chef Marcel Roux, cookbook author and owner of the Waterside Inn, the only three-star restaurant in Britain, Celebrity's cuisine ranks among the best in cruising.

One reason is Roux's insistence that food on all Celebrity ships be prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients. "You'll find no ready-made or convenience foods," said Roux.

Though one can take all meals with waiter service in the main dining room, most passengers choose to have breakfast — and often lunch — in the Waterfall Cafe, the large casual-dining buffet restaurant on the pool deck. I was impressed with the food selection, which was broader than on most other ships. Among the breakfast fruits, for instance, were mounds of raspberries and marionberries. French brioches were offered, along with other breads, and salad fixings included walnuts and pine nuts.

An unusual dining option is offered in the Waterfall Grill section of the cafe — ethnic buffets that change daily. I enjoyed the Asian selections at one lunch; other cuisines include Italian, French, sushi, Texas barbecue and Mexican. Behind the grill, at the stern of the ship, is a canvas-covered open deck that I found particularly attractive.

And finally, the cafe tempts diners with two ice-cream bars near the exits, each with a set of stools and a good selection of flavors and toppings. No wonder passengers gain weight on cruises!

Summit's elegant AquaSpa is one of the largest at sea with 25,000 square feet. In addition to the usual spa facilities and services — fitness machines, aerobics room, treatment rooms and pool — it offers a variety of what it calls "sensory heaven ceremonies and rituals." These is a menu of therapies that combine the philosophies of 10 ancient cultures. The Asian Ceremony of Stone, for instance, is a five-hour treatment that includes an Etruscan Chamber Rasul, Aroma Stone Therapy, Exotic Hand Ritual, Sole Delight Foot Treatment and Frangipani Conditioning Hair and Scalp Ritual. Price: $425.

More than half of Summit's 1,019 staterooms have verandas, a much-desired feature. The ship also has 235 ocean-view cabins, 206 inside cabins and 50 suites. All cabins have hair dryers, safes and mini-bars in addition to telephone and televisions. While they are comfortable and well decorated, their entry space is tight. One cannot open the doors of the closet and bathroom at the same time, which leads to Alphonse-and-Gaston rituals when one occupant seeks to enter the bathroom when the other is at the closet.

Entertainment covers the usual cruise gamut and then some.

The Celebrity Theater, the main show lounge, presents Broadway-style revues nightly in a balconied venue ringed with realistic-looking alcoves of "flames." A string quartet provides background music at cocktail time.

Such range of choice, plus a high standard of quality, is why Celebrity's ships — and the Summit in particular — rate a cut above the mainstream of cruise liners.