This is a great itinerary if you're looking for a tour to the Panama Canal and/or South America, and also want a relaxed, "disconnected" feeling with a lot of days at sea. It would have been a great cruise, but sadly, Celebrity wasn't on top of its game. Three ports were affected due to lack of proper planning regarding immigration requirements, and the customer service reaction was poor, to put it mildly.
Pre-cruise/embarkation - we arrived two days early to rest up and stayed at the Hampton Inn Cruise Port in Ft. Lauderdale. This is a good hotel for a short stay before a cruise. Free shuttles are available to both the airport and cruise port, there is a shopping center next door if you forgot something before leaving home, and there are a few restaurants within walking distance. Embarkation was chaotic, though. The Celebrity website had said for several days that check-in would be at 1:30, though it didn't say why. We later learned this was because of a norovirus outbreak on the previous cruise, and they had to deep clean the ship as a result. Celebrity decided to summarily revoke priority boarding for Concierge Class without telling anybody, so when I dropped my parents off at 1:15, they reported standing in line for an hour and a half, and rude personnel to boot when they asked about priority boarding. I should note that by the time I dropped off the rental car and returned at 2:15, it only took about 25 minutes to board. I had also mistakenly forgotten the printout of our cruise ticket, but was accommodated by the check-in and security personnel with no problem.
Room/ship - our stateroom was fine, and for what I wanted to accomplish most on this trip - sit on my balcony and vegetate while listening to the sea - it fit the bill perfectly. The bed was comfortable and I slept very well all cruise long. I was a little disappointed that the bathroom had only a shower, though, and no tub, plus the wardrobe closet door was broken. I thought the layout of the ship was fine overall, with plenty of viewing areas on the open decks. My wife and I especially enjoyed the back of the Oceanview Cafe to watch the sun set. One quirk with the Millennium Class setup is that it's hard to figure out how to get to Deck 11 at first, at least until you get used to the layout. Public areas were generally spacious and well laid-out. The whirlpools on Deck 10 were great, especially towards the end of the cruise when it was a bit on the chilly side at sea.
The balcony also afforded us some excellent whale and dolphin watching down the coasts of Ecuador and Peru (we saw many, several of which were just feet off of the side of the ship).
Itinerary - this received mixed reviews from our group. I loved the itinerary, not just for the canal crossing, but because I was looking for an opportunity to decompress after a few tough months at work, and the ample at-sea days (8 in total) provided just what the doctor ordered. My mom, on the other hand, didn't like being cooped up so much. If you prefer more time in ports as opposed to the ship, you might want to consider accordingly.
Of course, the highlight of the cruise is the Panama Canal crossing, which I thought was awesome and lived up to its billing. I alternated watching positions to see the canal from different perspectives - from my balcony, from the aft of the ship from the Oceanview Cafe, and from the heliport in the forward section of Deck 5. The heliport gives you the best experience through the Gatun and Miraflores locks, while you are awarded a stunning view of the Bridge of the Americas from the back of the Oceanview Cafe, right after you pass the Miraflores locks. Our cabin on the port side also afforded a spectacular view of the Panama City skyline after passing Miraflores.
The big problem with this particular itinerary, though, was the immigration snafu in both Peru and Chile. The one in Peru was handled acceptably. Celebrity *claims* they found out only after leaving Manta that the Peruvian authorities wanted to stamp all passports. As a result, the captain sped things up and arrived in Lima Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning. While it was somewhat annoying to not be able to get off the ship all afternoon and evening (and the port in Lima smells to high heaven, so you don't really want to open your balcony either!), I at least appreciated that doing so kept debarkation and shore excursions running on-time the next day. The situation in Arica, though, was simply unacceptable. We were informed at 8 P.M. the night before arriving that yet again, they "just found out" that the authorities in Chile wanted to stamp all passports, and as such, even though we were to arrive in Arica at 6 A.M. as scheduled, no one would be permitted off until 3 P.M. This meant, of course, that the excursion me, my wife, and my uncle were looking forward to most - the trip to the Altiplano in Lauca National Park - wasn't going to happen. First off, no notification was provided by the shore excursions desk about this; I had to take it upon myself to walk down to the office and ask. But what put me off the most was the dismissive, "not our problem" attitude of Guest Relations. I find it highly dubious that Celebrity couldn't have found out about these immigration formalities ahead of time, but even if that was true, a little compassion was in order for messing up two ports in a row. Instead, we were stiffly told "you signed a contract and were told this could happen", and they had the gall to lecture us about how much money Celebrity was losing as a result of the snafu.
Now fully cursed, we had yet another problem in our next port of La Serena. This port was changed to a tender system a few weeks before departure. I have no problem with that. What I DO have a problem with is the absolute shambles of the process to get people off. We were told to get tickets beginning at 8:30 A.M. from the Martini Bar. For some unknown and yet undisclosed reason, tendering for anyone not on a Celebrity shore excursion was delayed until almost 10:30. We didn't get off until 11, which cut our time in port from the scheduled 6 1/2 hours to only 4 1/2. Coming back after our excursion, we were "greeted" with a one hour wait for a tender back to the ship. And once again, plenty of excuses but no real apology from Celebrity management.
Dining - another mixed bag. My wife and I, along with my dad, don't have any special meal needs and had no real complaints. We didn't bother with the specialty dining rooms (though you are inundated with upsell requests throughout the cruise), so our experience was limited to Trellis and the Oceanview Cafe. Dinner in Trellis was generally very good, and while the food was tasty, it could have used more spice. I am a beef guy and was happy with the quality of the steaks and prime rib. And the apple pie a la mode is awesome. I was disappointed in the hot cream soups, however; there was consistently a cardboard flavor to them, with the lack of heat making it worse. I found the lunch offerings in Trellis rather uninspiring, though, so we preferred to go to the Oceanview Cafe. The pasta bar is good and the pizza is OK. My mom, dad, and uncle frequently visited the "Asian Delights" section and noted that the dishes there were generally very good.
Alas, my mom and uncle are vegetarians, and their experience didn't work out so well. First, it took 3 days to finally get their special Indian vegetarian meal request, which they had requested weeks in advance, right, and the headwaiter at lunch on Day 2 really showed no interest in trying to fix things. Second, once this issue was fixed, they noted the quality of the offerings was lacking, with poor taste and basically the same curry on offer every day. What makes this all the more puzzling is that the Indian vegetarian dishes on Deck 10 were pretty good, but the ones in the main dining room were borderline inedible. Very strange, since you would think the same people cook the food...
Shore excursions - we mixed both private and Celebrity excursions, with private tours in Cartagena, Lima, La Serena, and Valparaiso, and Celebrity tours in Colon and Arica. We used "Dora de Explorer" in Cartagena, South Excursions in Lima and La Serena, and PortCompass in Valparaiso to get us to our hotel in Santiago.
I was impressed with Cartagena; it really is a beautiful city and "Dora de Explorer" was terrific, especially our walking tour of the old colonial city.
Colon is a dump (don't venture here without an organized tour), and we did the Panama Canal Railway. I like train rides in general, though was a little surprised you don't get better views of the canal from the train.
I wasn't impressed with Manta - a hot, dusty place with nothing really to see outside of the shopping center where the shuttle bus drops you off. Take a shore excursion if you stop here.
Our South Excursions city tour in Lima was good. The St. Francis of Assissi church is simply spectacular, with its 17th century Spanish tiling and catacombs in the cellar. We also stopped at a nice natural history museum.
Arica got messed up because of the immigration snafu, but we were rebooked on the "Atacama Coastal Walk" tour, which actually turned out to be excellent, if a little more challenging than advertised (fine for me, though not for the others, who had some issues with the narrow, up-and-down path). If you can make it to the end, you are rewarded with a fine view of a rock covered with sea lions.
La Serena also got messed up because of the tender debacle, but South Excursions made the best of it and still got us to the Elqui Valley and back, albeit with an abbreviated schedule. It is a long drive to the valley, but it is beautiful, and affords you an opportunity to tour a winery on a normal schedule. A stop was also included in the downtown area of La Serena to see the market square and a couple of historic churches. Although the port lacks facilities, I found La Serena/Coquimbo itself to be the best maintained/developed port cities of all.
Valparaiso was disembarkation day, with a tour to show us around and get us to our hotel in Santiago. "Don Walter" was a fabulous tour guide, and gave us more than our money's worth with a tour of both the new and old Valparaiso/Vina del Mar and a quick drive-by of Santiago, with a stop atop San Cristobal Hill.
Service - can't complain at all about our cabin attendant or most of the waiters we encountered in the main dining room, who were top notch, as we've come to expect. A special shout-out to Elves and Salinas, who were great. We used "Celebrity Select" dining, and being late eaters (generally after 8), had no problems getting a table or with the service provided. The only exception was on the last two days, where the service was very slow, and not particularly crisp. I also have to commend the crew's handling of the previous norovirus outbreak. Although self service was curtailed in the buffet line for the first 3 days, their attention to detail prevented another outbreak - all 15 days passed without incident.
Guest relations was another story - poor, poor service and an uncaring, "not our problem" attitude towards the port issues created by Celebrity.
Entertainment - neither my wife or I care much for shows, but we did see the "White Magic" show, along with the "Las Pampas Devils" gaucho show, both of which were good. I also enjoyed the "Beyond the Podium" natural history series (the speaker names escape me, but the presentation on the flora and fauna of Chile, from the Atacama to Patagonia, was especially good). If I had one suggestion, it would be to add some movie showings in the theater during at-sea days.
The casino did exactly what it was supposed to do - take my money :)
Disembarkation - fast and painless for a change. The system was well organized, no queues anywhere either on the ship or in the customs hall, and we were on our way from gangway to our tour to Santiago in less than half an hour (would have been even less if customs hadn't asked about two boxes of medical supplies - not Celebrity's fault obviously).
Summary - there were plenty of good things about this cruise. But the problems with immigration in Arica and tendering in La Serena were inexcusable, made worse by the "can't care less" attitude of Guest Relations. Sadly, we won't be returning to Celebrity Cruises again after this experience.