INFINITY ACROSS THE EQUATOR AND THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA
We have cruised with Celebrity twelve times and overall we again enjoyed our 15 days aboard the recently "Solsticised" Infinity. The attention of the staff, ambiance, ports of call and new friends all contributed to a happy trip up the Pacific Coast, through the Canal and back home to Florida. We shared experiences with new cruisecritic pals from many parts of the world: Australia, Canada, England, Switzerland, Wales and the USA from Cape Cod to Minnesota, from California to the Carolinas.
This report will touch on some highs, some lows of the cruise and share travel tips.
Infinity set sail from Valparaiso. We discovered it's as important to reserve the flight down well in advance as it is to reserve the cruise itself. American Airlines shocked us with their $3000 quote for one-way, economy flights from Miami to Santiago. Royal Celebrity travel agency First Choice came to the rescue with $600 seats on LAN Chile's comfortable, more modern plane, and their free drink policy!
US Citizens pay $140 reciprocal visa tax, Canadians and Australians a bit less. If you have dual citizenship, use another passport to enter Chile.
On arrival we were met by a driver from Chilean Journey (Manager Alvin Schuler at email@example.com), who took us into Santiago ($40) to the Eurotel El Bosque, TripAdvisor recommended and reserved through booking.com. A no-frills hotel but adequate (air-conditioned and quiet room) and Las Condes is a great neighborhood. The manager at the front desk was bilingual and helpful. We can recommend some restaurants within walking distance: Pinpilinpausha for its sea bass and Patagonian lamb chops, Ebro at Plaza El Bosque suites for the set lunch menu, Tiramisu for shrimp brochette and pizzas (be warned that it's a favorite family place, busy on weekends) and Mr Jack for its hamburgers and cold Chilean beer.
A metro station is a few blocks away. The metro cars are modern, clean and efficient. We took a train to the stop at Bellavista, the Bohemian bar and restaurant district below Cerro hill. For COP 1800 ($3) a funicular takes you up to the summit for a sensational city and mountain view (smog permitting).
A few years ago we went to Artesania Cerro Azul at 278 Bellavista St. to buy lapis lazuli jewelry. We returned to receive a warm welcome, drink coffee with the owner and buy more earrings, bracelets etc. Price bargaining is part of the experience.
On the day we sailed, we had pre-arranged a group of four cruisecritic couples to be picked up from different hotels and be shuttled to Valparaiso. The pick-up by Chilean Journey went smoothly and by 10:45 we were on the highway towards the port. On a Sunday it's about 1 Â½ hours' drive away. We extended the drive by stopping off at delightful organic winery, Vinedos Emiliana, to buy their reds and whites ($5 to $12 a bottle) and local olive oil ($4 a bottle). As we were in no hurry (and it appears neither was he!) the driver decided on a short diversion to show us the resort town of Vina del Mar.
EMBARKATION AND THE SHIP
Many passengers also arrived about 1:00pm. The counters were well staffed and we didn't wait long on line to check in. The ship was docked a few hundred yards from the terminal and shuttle buses ran frequently.
The ship layout was familiar as we sailed on the "Solsticised" Constellation last year. Our cabin was on Deck 7 mid ships on the port side. We were shocked at the condition the cabin was in on our arrival: cigarette butts in an ashtray on the balcony, a half-used box of sanitary towels and other rubbish left in the bathroom cupboards, the safety deposit box battery dead, and ragged, un-ironed bath robes. One of the drawers in the closet was broken. During the days ahead we had to fight to get adequate supplies of soap and shampoo, and communication with the steward was complicated: we had to call him through Guest Relations not directly to his cell phone. Millions spent to Solsticise didn't extend to cabin bathrooms. No fault of the steward but the toilet bowl porcelain was ingrained with dirt, the grout was grimy, and there was rust on the metal door post. Another gripe was the cheap toilet paper, so flimsy it tears into shreds.
We chose Select Dining rather than early or late sitting in Trellis, the main restaurant, so in principle we could dine whenever. In fact a wait was to be expected if you wished to dine between 7:00 and 8:00 pm. Fernanda the hostess was lovely and coped well with surges of guests at peak hours. The food was generally excellent but we did complain a couple of times and our issues were taken seriously. Once head chef Miguel Angel came out to talk with us. It's the waiters' job to ensure the plate is hot and all is in order and they seemed less alert than usual. We noticed that portions were smaller than in the past: a three shrimp cocktail and three oysters Rockefeller for starters. Main course vegetables were not varied and often skimpy--one or two tiny carrots as a garnish.
We splurged twice and had the best meal of the cruise in the SS United States restaurant. The staff tried hard to make Qsine an extraordinary dining experience for us but the hullabaloo about the menu was distracting and made us uncomfortable.
Bistro On Five is an oasis, particularly at noon if you can't face the scrum in the buffet. The staff is friendly, their daily soup is always good and the Grand Marnier crepes are yummy.
ON BOARD ACTIVITIES
Unlike my companion, I tried to see the shows in the theater. This time, the Celebrity Singers & Dancers were the best for me. Guest performers were unpredictable. Jennifer Fair has a fabulous voice.
We enjoyed the enrichment series speakers on the history of sea dogs and on natural history.
PORTS OF CALL
Coquimbo/ La Serena: if it's your first visit, take a tour into the interior of the region. There's nothing for tourists in Coquimbo so we went a few miles over to La Serena. The first taxi driver asked $30 to take four of us. We said "no" and the second cabby agreed to $20. In fact there is a public bus service that costs a dollar (COP500) each way and that's how we returned. In La Serena there is a handicraft market, cathedral and old colonial section. We went to a big supermarket and bought supplies.
Arica: Through cruisecritic we organized with Sertours (www.sertours.cl Victor Carrasco, Tour Operator) to take us in three groups of twelve to the main sites. Our bilingual guide Ivan was informative and pleasant. We got to see ancient geogliphs in the Azapa Valley, 10,000 year old Chinchorro mummies and the view from the top of Morro hill. Sertours included an "Aymara picnic" which turned out to be a delightful buffet of typical local fare served in a spotlessly clean cabin near the mummies' museum.
Lima: A cruisecritic member arranged an excellent tour for a dozen of us with Peru Inca Wonders (www.peruincawonders.com). Our professional and charming guide was Vanessa Vasquez. Lima is huge with nine million inhabitants and horrendous traffic but we got to see a lot: Pachamac pre-Colombian ruins, the Gold Museum, Miraflores town center, the coastline and the sensational colonial-style buildings in the historical center. Our buffet lunch at Aromas Peruanos in Miraflores included samples of typical local cuisine.
Manta: the official birthplace of the "Panama" hat is nearby Monte Cristi and you can see them being made as well as make your purchase. Manta itself has an interesting archeological museum and is a center for tuna packaging plants (we passed Sunkist) and Pacoche jungle is close by. With luck Howler Monkeys can be seen and a guide steered some of our group to see what he claimed was the rear end of a monkey, hanging in a tree.
Panama Canal: we reached Miraflores, the Pacific entrance, about 9:00 a.m. and emerged from Gatun locks into the Caribbean Sea eight hours later. The Canal rightly claims to be one of the man-made wonders of the world. It's fascinating to experience being lifted 84 feet through the locks, sailing for miles across immense artificial Lake Gatun, and then be lowered to the level of the Caribbean. The heat is oppressive even as a spectator so what it was like 100 years ago to dig the canal is hard to imagine. It helps get an understanding of the magnitude of the project by reading David McCullough's riveting tale of "The Path between the Seas".
Colon/Panama City: we took a Celebrity tour, "The Shaping of Panama", to the capital city in a coach of 35 passengers. Our guide Rosalba was bilingual, cheerful and full of information about the history of the country from its birth to the present. The newly completed turnpike makes the trip from Colon to the outskirts quite rapid. We visited the area of the Canal Authority buildings, modern sky-scraper offices and condos and the old colonial city center. Lunch was at the Holiday Inn! A pity as the buffet was 100% American. As with any large group, Rosalba was rightly concerned about keeping the tour on track and on time without losing anyone. She succeeded and all seemed pleased with the experience.
Cartagena: we "left the best till last". The Cartagena we saw was clean, attractively zoned and the old colonial district is lovely. Our cruisecritic crew of eight was fortunate to have chosen a wonderful guide, Marelvy Pena-Hall (www.tourismcartagena.com). Marelvy is multilingual and she and her American husband, a well-known painter, write as well as guide. Marelvy first took us up to La Popa fortress to orientate us and show us a panoramic view of the city, the port and surrounding area. Later we explored old and modern neighborhoods, including Las Bovedas for local artisan works. At Plazoleta de Las Bovedas, Local 8, Ana Raquel Gil sold us charming dresses for little girls. We ended our tour in the old colonial city center, which has been carefully restored, and visited the Gold Museum.
DISEMBARKATION AND FAREWELL
Infinity docked before dawn and had set up staggered disembarkation times to suit passengers' needs. We left the ship at 9:00 am, the Immigration and customs officer waved us through without delay. A smooth end to a well-run cruise, which we can recommend with some doubts expressed above, if not unreservedly.
We do plan to sail on the Celebrity fleet again in future.