ABOARD THE GTS CONSTELLATION - I was standing at one end of the bar, chatting with a guy from Canada, when this thing waddled out of the swirling darkness in the corner of the room, seemingly headed in our direction.
It was big, round, and bluish green - like some radioactively bloated hybrid of a puffer fish and a giant toad - and it had little arms sticking out of its sides. Dozens of curved strands protruded from its back, and each was tipped with a glowing light; together, they waved as the roly-poly creature made its way forward, casting weird shadows on everything around it.
It stopped right in front of us and stood silently, its oversized belly jutting out invitingly. I couldn't resist - I reached out and poked its belly lightly, half expecting it to giggle like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
But it didn't. It just blinked at me for a moment or two with its big round eyes. Then it bent over, stretched out one of its own tiny arms, and gave me a gentle poke in the belly. Then it waddled off, maybe to pick on somebody its own size.
I suppose I've had weirder experiences in a bar, but I couldn't really tell you when. There was nothing particularly unusual about this encounter, however, since it occurred in an environment that's as close as anything I've ever seen to the intergalactic cantina in Star Wars.
I was in the middle of a week-long cruise in the Caribbean, in a shipboard lounge called The Bar at the Edge of the Earth, and my run-in with Toad Boy was not at all out of the ordinary here. In fact, if Celebrity Cruises has its way, lots of the passengers aboard Constellation will run into him and his equally bizarre cohorts during future voyages.
The Bar at the Edge of the Earth, a dark, dreamlike lounge with eerie lighting and even eerier music playing in the background, represents the culmination of a new partnership between Celebrity and Canada's famous Cirque du Soleil, an entertainment empire known for its moody, almost surreal "circus" performances.
Cirque has several permanent venues and traveling shows around the world, but it's never gone to sea - until now. Celebrity and Cirque have an exclusive, six-year agreement to present an "otherworldly experience" for two hours each night in The Bar at the Edge of the Earth on Constellation and, eventually, other Celebrity cruise ships.
Besides Toad Boy - who turned out to be a girl playing the role of a character named Pez Erizo ("bristly fish") - other Cirque characters wander the premises, among them The Wave Correspondent, who sports an illuminated coolie-style hat that casts his face in an unsettling greenish glow, and The Lantern Tuner, who temporarily brightens dark recesses of the room with a glowing light.
Constellation is the first of Celebrity's vessels to present Cirque, and its spacious onboard venue, complete with fluttering walls, computerized lighting, and 3-D special effects, was carved out of an existing observation lounge during a recent drydock. The next Celebrity ship to get a Cirque bar will be Summit in early February, with other ships to follow.
The Cirque connection is the latest in Celebrity's efforts to separate itself from the pack in the crowded cruise industry. Celebrity aims to fill a niche just below luxury lines such as Crystal, Seabourn, Silverseas, and Radisson Seven Seas, and above mass-market lines like Carnival, Holland America, and Royal Caribbean (Celebrity's sister company).
Celebrity, which has been in business for 15 years, has a smaller fleet than most major cruise lines, with just 10 ships, but it's been highly ranked by industry observers. In a 2004 readers poll in the upscale specialty magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Celebrity took top honors in the premium cruise line category, trailing only top-end lines Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas in the overall ratings.
In Conde Nast's list of the "Best Cruise Ships in the World," seven of the Top 10 were Celebrity vessels, with the No. 1 spot going to Constellation.
Celebrity President Jack Williams, one of several company executives aboard the ship for its inaugural Cirque cruise last month, said that a lot of effort had gone into transforming Celebrity into "the best premium cruise brand in the business with a touch of luxury."
"It's not all about price," he added. "People will pay a premium to get the right vacation experience."
Among Celebrity's little luxury touches are a welcoming glass of champagne for passengers as they board before sailing, and chilled towels for passengers as they reboard after visiting a port of call.
"Our real competition isn't cruise lines, but land-based resorts," said Williams, adding that Celebrity is targeting the millions of Americans who have never cruised. He cited industry research indicating that 95 percent of those who cruise rate the experience as being better than a resort vacation.
"Even chocolate doesn't get that kind of approval rating," he laughed.
"We give a 4 1/2-star experience at a 4-star price," said Dietmar Wertanzl, Celebrity's senior vice president of fleet operations. For those who might point to luxury cruise lines' smaller, more intimate ships, Wertanzl made no excuses for the size of the vessels in the Celebrity fleet.
"Bigger ships give you more choices," he said simply.
The 2,500-passenger Constellation, which was launched in 2002, certainly offers plenty of choices, starting with dining.
Celebrity has long prided itself on its cuisine, which is overseen by Michel Roux, a European master chef who catered Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding reception and now runs an award-winning restaurant, The Waterside Inn, near London.
Celebrity even boasts its own wine label, called Cellermaster Selection, which is available aboard ship, and can also be purchased via the Internet. As a reward for their loyalty, Celebrity passengers and travel agents get a price break on the wine, which comes from California's Sonoma Valley.
Dining options aboard Constellation range from its main dining room, the two-story San Marco Restaurant, to the buffet-style Seaside Cafe, to the AquaSpa Cafe, which offers light and healthy dining.
Yet another option is Ocean Liners, an elegant specialty restaurant that charges a $30-a-head premium to eat there. (Other shipboard dining venues are included in the cost of the cruise.)
For a first-rate dining experience, Ocean Liners is worth the extra charge. We ate there one night to celebrate my birthday, and the food was terrific, the service top-notch. We particularly enjoyed the moment when our table was surrounded by a phalanx of tuxedo-clad waiters who, in unison, removed the silver covers from our entrees with a flourish and a chorus of "Voila!"
Another Celebrity innovation is its "Acupuncture at Sea" program. After a trial run on one ship last year, the ancient Chinese procedure is now available on half a dozen vessels in the fleet.
Aboard each ship are doctors of oriental medicine offering treatment for everything from pain and stress management to insomnia, weight loss, and even "acupuncture facelifts." The acupuncturists also present lectures on such topics as nutrition and herbal healing.
"Guests come to us in pain and leave the ship without pain," said Philippe Manicom, director of the acupuncture program.
Swallowing my misgivings, I made an appointment for my first acupuncture treatment. Cindy Rosenberg, my acupuncturist, explained that after consulting with a patient, she might use anywhere from 4 to 24 needles. My complaints of a stiff back called for 16 needles, which she inserted - painlessly - into my hands, legs, feet, neck, and head.
As I lay on Cindy's table for 15 minutes waiting for the "chi" in my body to rearrange itself, I couldn't help feeling like a pin cushion. When I was through, though, I admit I did feel much better. (Of course, the back massage that Cindy administered before my departure might have had something to do with that, too.)
I also took advantage of another of Constellation's strong points, its extensive computer facilities. There's a computer lab aboard with 20 stations as well as a 24-hour Internet cafe with 18 more units. For those with their own laptops, there are also wireless hot spots all over the ship.
After taking a class in digital photo imaging ($20), I was able to transfer pictures from my new digital camera to a lab computer each night at no charge, freeing up my camera's memory card for more shooting the next day. Then, at the end of the cruise, for $15 the ship's technicians helped me burn all the pictures I had taken onto a CD to take home.
The Aqua Spa fitness facility, which I didn't use nearly enough during the seven-day cruise, is well equipped with treadmills, stationary bikes, Stairmasters, and other machines, and classes ranging from yoga to spinning are offered.
As far as entertainment goes, besides Cirque du Soleil, Constellation featured the usual array of Broadway-style shows in its theater, plus a string quartet and a harpist playing in smaller venues around the ship. There were a couple of comedians featured during the week, too - one of whom was former Toledoan Jeff Nease.
Back at the The Bar at the Edge of the Earth, some in the audience weren't quite sure what to make of their first encounter with Cirque at sea.
Jerry Lam, from Mississauga, Ontario, was on his first cruise, honeymooning with his new wife, Erin, and he said he found the performance "a bit disappointing."
"When you have something like Cirque, you've got certain expectations," he said. "This is a great concept, but it's not what I was expecting to see."
Dennis Torres, from Lorain, Ohio, left the bar with his wife, Gladys, after a short visit. "It was interesting for a quick stop," he said, "but then we were ready to move on."
Others, however, were enchanted with the Cirque experience.
Larry Tennis of High River, Alberta, visited The Bar at the End of the Earth with his wife and children and said they all "quite enjoyed it."
"We had seats right next to the stage, and had an opportunity to interact with the characters as they meandered through the crowd," he said.
The Cirque experience was "not quite what I expected," he said "but [it was] a lot of fun."
Williams, Celebrity's president, was aware of some passengers' reaction to Cirque, and he was quick to describe it as "very much a work in progress." As if to underscore his remark, the premier of The Bar at the End of the Earth was postponed a night because of technical problems.
In addition to the nightly experiences in the bar, Cirque is also featured in a late-night "Masquerade Ball" once on each cruise. Passengers can buy masks in the Cirque shipboard store, and are urged to wear white clothing to the ball to better show up in the bar's black lights. It's during the masquerade ball that more conventional Cirque performers - if there is such a thing - like jugglers, acrobats, and contortionists take to the stage.