Celebrity Infinity Cruise Review by Philip M. Haggerty: Infinity - Cruise to Nowhere
Philip M. Haggerty
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Infinity - Cruise to Nowhere
Hawaii Cruise Review
November 16-27 2003
My name is Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and former health services provider. We live in Phoenix, Arizona and this would be our 10th cruise. Our prior cruises have been: Carnival's Elation to the Mexican Riviera, the now defunct Commodore Lines Enchanted Isle for 11 days in the Caribbean; a 7 day Caribbean cruise on Celebrity's Galaxy; from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Celebrity's Mercury; to Alaska on Sun Princess; another 7 day Caribbean cruise on Norwegian Sun; a trans-canal on Celebrity's Infinity; a Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity's Millennium and a Baltic cruise on Regal Princess.
Why this cruise?
Very simply, neither of us had been to Hawaii before. We thought that the itinerary, with two stops on the Big Island, two days on Maui and one on Kauai, followed by an More overnight stop in Honolulu, would give us a good look at the islands. We also arranged for a time share week on the Big Island following the cruise, and the timing of this also gave us two extra days in Honolulu.
Federal Law requires that ships which are not U.S. flag vessels, (and this means every cruise vessel now operating), must land at one foreign port somewhere on any trip in which they touch a U.S. port. So Hawaiian cruises (1) either depart from or return to Ensenada, Mexico or Vancouver, British Columbia or (2) depart and return to Hawaii, but detour to Fanning Island, a tiny independent nation a days sail from the islands. We sailed from Ensenada, spent four days at sea, and seven days traveling from port to port in Hawaii.
Review Format - What Is Covered and What Is Not
I suppose there are people who call their travel agents, tell them to book a cruise, and do nothing until the day before embarkation when they pack and take off. We like to plan a lot, and feel that this is part of the fun of cruising. So we divide the review into pre-embarkation planning, getting to the ship; the cruise proper, port visits, and debarkation, followed by an overall picture of how we liked it, and the reasons for our feelings. We will add a short section on Hawaii visitation, but not a review of our post cruise travels since this is a cruise review and not a travel review. Since we do not gamble, we will not review the Casino, which seemed fairly nice. Except for a free demonstration, and the purchase of some face powder, we do not use the spa facilities. We can't rate the service or comfort of the poolside deck lounge area either. We do not play trivia games or newlywed games. If I tried Karaoke with my singing voice, the Captain would signal for another lifeboat drill, or perhaps just abandon ship. We did not attend any art auctions because once you have done this two or three times, there is nothing new, either by way of art works or in the presentations.
Pre-planning Any Cruise
If you have questions about any ship or cruise line, you can get a review of most ships and cruise lines in the "Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2003" Douglas Ward; Berlitz Publishing Co.; the "Unofficial Guide to Cruises 2003"; Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger; Wiley Publishing Co. and "Stern's Guide to Cruise Vacations 2003"; Steven B. Stern, 13th ed. Pelican Publishing Co. You can find (or order) these at most large bookstores such as Borders or Barnes and Noble. All three of these books will also provide a wealth of detailed information on cruising. Since itineraries are subject to change, and not set much more than a year in advance, you should go to the cruise lines' websites to get the correct itineraries and dates. You then can check with your travel agent to see the brochures which will give you a schematic of the ships' layouts and cabin locations. In many cases you can order brochures directly from the cruise lines, but these brochures for the major lines cover separate specific destination areas, and not the entire cruise line repertory in one brochure. (Small lines with few ships are an exception.) The pricing options vary widely. Every line has an early booking discount; many offer specials in the last days before sailing if you want to take a chance; and there are a variety of "specials" and package deals through various travel agencies. No one recommends that you do your booking through the net; having your travel agent do the actual talking to the booking clerks is best; but the net can provide a lot of information. Some people make the itinerary the prime factor, some the cruise line or specific ship, and others are controlled by time constraints and the availability of cruises within their budget range. Like many people, we consider the itinerary first, and then look at the cruise line and date options. As an exception. we decided that since we had never sailed on Holland-American, specifically looked for a convenient date and itinerary on this line for our next cruise, and succeeded in booking a short Caribbean trip on Veendam next March.
Once you have decided on the cruise line and itinerary, the next decision concerns the actual accommodations to be selected. The range here is again very large, from suites of more than 3000 square feet (how big is your house?) to "standard" cabins of about 180 square feet. Obviously the difference is price. These days the newer ships feature "veranda" cabins which make up almost half the cabins available. Then there are a variety of staterooms labeled "suites"; some of which, like Celebrity's "sky suites" are little more than larger cabins with added amenities and features such as butler service, access to spa facilities at a reduced rate, etc. Many people, like us, enjoy the outside access of a veranda, where you can sit on a small deck all your own and enjoy the sound and smell of the ocean for a better "at sea" experience. Others, including a travel agent I know, book the lowest cost inside cabin on the theory that they don't spend much time there, and they can enjoy the rest of the ship to the same extent as the people in the largest suite. Traditionally the higher decks are more costly for identical cabins. Very often the costlier suites are on the upper decks; the Millennium class ships of Celebrity being an exception with all its expensive suites being located on deck 6. Most cabins have only showers, and only very expensive suites have double sinks. Unless you bring an excessive amount of luggage, you will find that cabins, even the smallest, hold a large amount of clothing, toiletries, etc. Ships architects have long mastered the art of squeezing the maximum amount of storage space out of every square foot of cabin area. Hotel architects could learn a lot by observing how ships utilize space. What about your bags? In most cases they will fit under the bed, but the ship will store them elsewhere if necessary.
This of course leads to the topic of what to pack. The cruise lines will offer their suggestions, as will the books cited above. However the season, destination, length of cruise and type of ship control this. Some lines such as Holland America, Celebrity and Princess tend to more formality than Carnival or Disney Lines. A new, somewhat upscale line, Oceania, has no formal nights and neither does the very expensive Seabourn Line. But no line actually requires formal wear, although they may not admit passengers to the main dining rooms for dinner in bathing wear, cut-offs or shorts. Aside from that, the weather and the destinations basically control what to bring in the way of clothes. Some ships have self-service laundries, and the Berlitz guide will tell you which these will be; although if you closely peruse the ships' layouts in the brochures, you may discover the laundry rooms on your own.
Getting to the Ship and Back Home
The next consideration is planning the route to and from the ports of embarkation and debarkation, which very well may not be the same city. All cruise lines offer to purchase air fare to and from the cruises for you. If they do so, they will normally include the transportation between the airport and the pier both ways. You can purchase your own air tickets, of course, and you may be able to buy transfers to and from the pier separately. If you are going round trip from the same city for departure and return; a common event for Caribbean cruises, you can probably do better buying your own air tickets, especially if you are good at internet shopping. Your travel agent may be willing to help if you have bought the cruise from him or her, even though their commissions these days on air travel are virtually non-existent. If you are required to use "open jaw" flights; i.e. leaving from different cities for embarkation and debarkation, it is a little more complex to get any savings compared to the cruise lines, who can save money by block booking on major airlines. [For a good example of pre-cruise flight planning, read the review of our Celebrity Mercury cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires in January 2002 on this website.] However you may end up with weird routings as we did on this cruise because we felt we should use Celebrity in order to insure the right connections to Ensenada. You can vary the departure dates, but the cruise line might charge extra for this service. Celebrity waives any deviation charges for cruisers who are members of its Captains Club. If you can do so, always provide extra time, and for safety's sake, an extra day in planning your air connection to the departure city.
Finally, there is the issue of trip insurance. We recommend it, but suggest that you buy from one of the independent insurers rather than the cruise line. The basic reason is that insurance you buy from the cruise line only covers you for services supplied by them. If you fly independently, take off on shore excursions that you book yourself, or extend the trip before or after on your own, the cruise line insurance will not cover you. However your own carrier will cover all events within the dates you specify. We have found a firm known as CSA to be responsive and reasonable. Incidentally, you do not have to insure for all the costs; but you can pick a figure you would settle for to cover the travel portion. In other words, you don't have to add the flight cost to the cruise cost because you would probably not lose both. The main point is that with any coverage you get theft insurance, baggage loss, baggage delay and health coverage. You can even get pre-existing health condition coverage if you buy a higher priced policy as soon as you book the cruise. Talk to you travel agent about various policies that are available since they are commissionable also. It is worth it for peace of mind.
Off to the Islands
Getting to the ship was really strange. Celebrity flew us from Phoenix to Los Angeles by United shuttle, and then by noisy and vibrating United commuter turbo-prop from Los Angeles to San Diego. Air mileage from Phoenix to San Diego is 310 miles and takes 50 minutes. It was 498 air miles via LAX and 3 hours total travel time. The only explanation for this idiocy is that Celebrity possibly does not do business with the so-called "regional" carriers like Air West and Southwest which had 7 direct flights from Phoenix to San Diego in the same time frame.
As we arrived in San Diego, at 9:30 A.M. after getting up at 4:30 for a for a 7:30 flight from Phoenix, we saw Infinity in the harbor where it had debarked its passengers returning from Hawaii. At about 10:15 I saw it sail away for Ensenada. The Celebrity staff which met us at the commuter terminal where we arrived were pleasant and efficient, but nonetheless we waited in the terminal until noon before we boarded a bus for our Mexico destination. Once past the border, a 30 minute trip, the rest of the ride was quite nice. There is a great view of San Diego all the way north to La Jolla as you go west through the hills outside Tijuana, and for the next hour you drive along the coast with the mountains on one side and good to spectacular views of the ocean on the other. The road is basically a four lane divided highway, so traffic moves smoothly. There is a great deal of construction going on in this stretch of road, clearly directed towards Americans with many homes as well as high rise condos. Half the roadway traffic signs are in English. Although the Celebrity staff had told us it would take 2Â½ hours, after about one hour and fifteen minutes we rounded a curve to see a wide bay and Infinity docked at the harbor; a beautiful sight. We stopped at the Hotel Coral beneath a university on the hillside with striking architecture. The hotel was advertising a "bargain" special of a two day stay for $280.00 U.S. Not my idea of a bargain, although it looked like a nice place. The check-in was extremely fast and we re-boarded our bus for a fairly quick trip to the pier. We were the second bus to arrive, and the ship was not ready for us as we could see the stern lines to the dock being tightened into their final position, and the gangways being put in place. After about 15 minutes we were allowed on board with no further delay beyond the obligatory boarding photo shoot. We were greeted with champagne, which we declined, and provided an escort to our cabin. We were "at home" by 3:15; very good time once we left the airport. Our luggage arrived about 4:00, the fastest we have ever experienced. Shortly afterwards our cabin steward, Ralph appeared, and then we were greeted by our butler, Alfred, who had also been our butler on Infinity in December 2002 when we sailed through the Panama Canal. Since we knew we had the same stateroom, we had our travel agent "request" Alfred, but of course had no idea if he was still on the ship or what his cabin assignments might be.
Since we had our luggage, we were able to unpack, make a quick trip to the dining room to check on the menu, and then shower and change for dinner, much better than the usual experience of eating in our traveling clothes. Our dinner companions arrived slowly. First were Tony and Linda from Atlanta, then Louis and Paulette from Sonoma, California, followed by Pat and Bill from Florida. There still was room for another couple. Jim and Dawn from Fort Collins, Colorado joined us on the first sea day. Our waitress was Adela, a very attractive young lady from the Czech Republic, and her assistant was Kemal from Turkey. The dinner was as the smoothest and best we had ever had for an initial shipboard meal. As we ate we could see buses still arriving at the pier. There had been some delays, and Pat and Bill had endured a breakdown just short of the border near San Ysidro, California. After dinner we went to the first night "show" which was a typical abbreviated event with introductions of staff members by the Cruise Director. We then sailed away.
Infinity as a Ship
We returned to our cabin to turn in early. The cabin measures about 251 square feet with a 57 square foot veranda, compared to a "Premium" outside cabin with 191 square feet and a 41 square foot veranda, or a "Deluxe" ocean view cabin of 170 square feet with a 37 square foot veranda or an ocean view cabin and inside cabin of 170 square feet and no veranda. The walls are paneled wood with attractive paintings and good lighting. One wall is mirrored. The bathroom is small but efficient, with a great deal of shelf and other storage space which was not close to being entirely used. There is a hair dryer in the bathroom, not in the cabin as on Regal Princess! Aside from the bed the sky suites have room for a small sofa and an upholstered arm chair with small table, in addition to a desk with its own chair. The closet is ample with a sort of "walk-in" area. There are adequate drawers and shelves. The veranda has a teak arm chair and lounge chair with ottoman, all outfitted with full padded cushions which are very comfortable. All cabins have safes. The television is a decent size. I could have requested an internet hook-up had I brought a laptop. Celebrity supplies its suite guests a small pair of binoculars and two very large umbrellas in addition to a sizeable carryall bag. We are also provided with personalized stationary and a bottle of complimentary champagne which sat in its ice bucket untouched for the entire trip. All cabins have thermos pitchers for water, with a daily change of fresh ice. The overall impression of the cabins is that they are very clean, extremely efficient, and quite attractive in an art deco style.
Infinity lived up to its reputation as a spotless, clean, spacious and relaxing ship. It has a displacement of 91,000 tons. This is a measure of the interior size, and is of value in measuring the amount of space per passenger. With a maximum standard passenger complement of 2000, this works out to a 45.5 space ratio. By comparisons, some cruise ships have a ratio as low as 29; while the super luxury ships like those of the SilverSeas line can run to a ratio of more than 60. Since the standard cabins on most of the larger (1200+ passenger) ships tend to be about the same size; from 175 to 195 square feet, the larger area means that the public spaces on a high space ratio ship like Infinity and its three sister ships; Millennium, Summit and Constellation, are larger, and there are more of them. The consequence for the passengers is a feeling of spaciousness and luxury.
As on most ships this size, Decks 6, 7, 8 and 9 of Infinity are almost entirely devoted to cabins, as are Deck 2 and part of Deck 3. Deck 10 is the usual pool deck and buffet deck, Decks 11 and 12 are walking decks and sports decks, with the highest deck featuring a large lounge-night club forward with excellent views. Deck 3 is the deck with the "front desk", bank and excursion office, movie theater and meeting rooms. Decks 4 and 5 have the main theater forward and the main dining room aft, with the shops, casino, lounges, photo gallery and the like between the theater and the dining room. Nowadays alternative dining rooms are found at various levels, and the United States, which is Infinity's luxury alternative dining room is on Deck 3. Celebrity puts its children's center at the aft end of Deck 11, almost completely out of sight and sound. But then Celebrity does not normally cater to children, and there have seldom been more that 15 or 20 on the cruises we have taken with them.
We try to walk a lot while on board, using the stairs for almost all occasions, and Deck 7 and 8 close to midship is probably the most convenient location and one I try for when booking, although we had no choice but Deck 6 on this trip. But no matter what your desires may be, these are big ships, close to 900 feet long, and you are going to do some hoofing, like it or not.
Monday - Thursday Sea Days
These were definitely "sea" days, with strong winds up to 45 knots and 8 foot swells. While Edith and I were not bothered, we heard that some people were seasick, and we saw a lot of patches to prevent mal de mer. At times the waves in the pools were extreme, even in the Thalassotherapy pool. You could almost body surf from one end to the other, and since this pool is covered and heated, it was fun. Out on our balcony we had salt sea spray for a definite ocean feel. On the whole, we found no inconvenience and a nice "sailor's" atmosphere. It was chilly outside, and there was little use of the regular outside poolside deck chairs, but since we don't indulge in this form of relaxation, we did not care.
We immediately noticed one change on board. Celebrity decided to provide a full time librarian, the first we have seen on any cruise. This was a very nice touch, and Erin was both good and enthusiastic in her job. Celebrity deserves high marks for this addition. Prior to this, the job was assigned to other employees, often dancers or other entertainers, and their schedules and backgrounds were not conducive to providing support. Erin also ran daily programs for those interested in books, including one dedicated to mystery writers which I greatly enjoyed and which was well attended.
Daily Shipboard Activities
We noticed that there seemed to be a larger number of daily informational programs, called the "Discoveries Enrichment Series" There were usually about 5 scattered through the day. At least two were conducted by naturalists on the Islands, their wildlife and sea life. There was one series on the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor by a gentleman with a distinct viewpoint on the politics involved. Neither Edith or I attended, but Tony from our table really enjoyed him. There also was a lady of Hawaiian descent talking about the history of the Islands, the hula (conducting "lessons") and an introduction to the Hawaiian language. While we did not attend all the nature talks, we went to a number of them and found the speakers very well qualified and enlightening. Celebrity appeared to be extending the number and scope of this series from prior cruises and is to be encouraged in this. Aside from that, there were the usual array of "sports" activities, trivia contests, bingo, art auctions, jewelry seminars, spa information promotion talks, and port shopping talks. There were a few free exercise classes in the gym and dance classes. We attended one stretch class and were the only ones there. Despite this, the instructor held the class, even though it was on one of the rough early sea days. This was in contrast to Princess, where the instructor cancelled a class where three of us showed up on the grounds the sea was too high. And this was on Regal Princess where the gym was on the 2nd deck with sea motion barely perceptible. Credit should be given to Celebrity for serving the interests of the passengers, not the crew! There was usually at least one movie per day.
The entertainment was standard for all cruises on larger ships, but the big shows were better than on most trips we have taken. Celebrity always has a quartet playing show tunes or semi-classical music. This one was the Rainbow Quartet and while doing a very nice job, leaned to show tunes without any of the light classical music occasionally played by the Enigma Quartet which we greatly enjoyed on our Millennium and Mercury cruises. These quartets often play in the Cova Cafe de Milano, and area on Deck 5 which often offered pastries (free) as well as a broad coffee selection in a very pleasant environment. We did notice that the servers would ask once if you wanted anything to drink, and if you waved them off, that was it. You were never bothered or made to feel that you really should have ordered that "Drink of the Day" advertised in the daily ship's news letter. There also was a dance band, a pianist and the "Black and White Duo" playing dance music before dinner each day in the Rendez-Vous (sic) lounge near the main dining hall. We felt that they leaned to the country and honky-tonk too much, and were not the best we had heard compared to other trips. We missed our lovely Amanda; Mary Amanda Fairchild; the harpist from Millennium.
On a cruise of this length there were four production shows. As Captain's Club members, we were invited to a backstage tour, which was interrupted when one of the movable dance band stages slid across the main stage, due to the high seas, into another portable stage containing the grand piano. This limited our tour a little since our guide, who was the production manager for all events in the main theater, had to secure things quickly. But he did have time to tell us about the production shows. They are contracted for by Celebrity from a firm which puts them together for cruise lines and perhaps other venues. They cost about $1 million each, so they are kept in the cruise line repertoire for five or six years. This means that if you cruise the same lines frequently, you will see the same shows, although usually with different performers. So Edith and I had seen all four of these big shows on Millennium and on our prior Infinity cruise. Nonetheless, we do find these "Las Vegas" style shows enjoyable. The casts are fairly small with five "leads", who are basically singers and 12 "singers and dancers" who are largely dancers. This provides a fairly cozy feel, and the sense that you actually know the individual performers after one or two shows.
The other Celebrity Theater shows had a variety of different acts. They included a magician/musician, Garin Bader, whom we had seen on an earlier cruise and who is pretty entertaining and talented; a comedian who we skipped as usual; and a singer, David McClaine, who had a decent repertoire, and who was not nearly as loud as the singer on Regal Princess who drove us from the room. There also was a musician with an unusual instrument, a sort of electrified zither, who was fairly entertaining. And on one of the island days a group of local entertainers, mostly hula dancers, from ages about four years old up, came on board to put on their semi-professional act.
The Celebrity Theater holds about 900 with comfortable seats, good sight lines from virtually all seats, and the ability to stage almost anything. The shows as always were hosted by the Cruise Director, Don Fluke, who was very pleasant and informative, with no attempts to be a comedian; which was appreciated.
You cannot expect true Broadway or Las Vegas caliber shows on a cruise ship; but within the framework of this type of venue, the entertainment was quite good. The Princess cruise shows we have seen on two cruises were about equal in quality, and the entertainment on both of these lines were superior to our single experience with Carnival and far above our one Norwegian trip. We look forward to Veendam in March and Serenity in September; with Galaxy in between in May.
Cuisine and the Dining Venues
This has always been a Celebrity strong point, and it seemed to improve on this cruise. The main dining room is on two levels at the aft end of decks four and five, with a grand staircase connecting the two floors. We always choose the main, or early seating. I mentioned the smooth service and fine presentation on the first night, and this continued throughout the voyage. Celebrity always has a variety of vegetables, and they are always well prepared and presented. If a restaurant does its vegetables proud, then you can be sure the rest of the food will be prepared extremely well also. Cruise lines are traditionally limited in the variety of selections they can offer at any one meal, but with the addition of a vegetarian menu, the option of ordering steak or salmon on any evening and a wide range of appetizers, this is not a problem. And Celebrity never duplicates any menu items on any cruise, even its two week trips. In addition, this line has somehow arranged its table coverage so that the wait staff is not overworked and never appears rushed as they do on Princess. Adela had a chance to discuss food items with us and chat with us during and after every meal. Our assistant maitre d' also visited us every night and clearly was keeping track of things. We seldom include this individual in our tipping plan since they often appear to do nothing, but that was not the case, at least with our maitre d' on Infinity. Since everyone's taste in food differs, I will not include a recitation of my menu selections (although I did keep notes on each meal). Suffice to say that I was not disappointed with a single choice, and there were only a very few notes of dissatisfaction at our table for the entire trip among all ten of us. We also dined in the specialty restaurant, the United States, once again, and as on our first Infinity cruise, were delighted by the service as well as the meal. It costs $50.00 for two, and should be done at least once on every cruise on the four Millennium class ships which offer such a choice.
We also think the buffet setup and quality on Celebrity is better than on any other ship. There are four separate buffet lines (although they are not all always opened up), so there is a minimum of delay. The food has some imagination, and is usually quite warm, if not exactly hot. Breakfasts have a fairly good selection, with usually about four fruits along with the usual selections. There is a separate omelet station. There is also a sushi bar open in the evenings, and a pizza station which makes its own pizzas on the spot. We had a spinach pizza one night which was delicious. Next to the Aqua Spa and Thalassotherapy pool is a special "Healthy foods" small buffet open for breakfast and lunch. We enjoyed the fresh papaya obtainable there (but probably only on Hawaiian trips). There is also an outside grill for those who cannot live without hamburgers or hot dogs. At dinner there is a set up for alternative dining in the buffet area, but we never tried this although we heard that it was nice.
The meal components on Crystal, SilverSeas, Radisson, Oceania and Seabourn lines are all reported to be at the gourmet level. No large ship like Infinity can reach this level. But again, these luxury lines charge at least 50% more than Celebrity, which is no more expensive than Princess or Holland American and only slightly more than Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Carnival. But the food and service on Celebrity cannot be matched by Princess, NCL or Carnival. I cannot speak for Holland American (yet), but I have heard from those who have traveled RCI that it is not even close to Celebrity in food and food service.
The most salient factor of shore excursions on this cruise was the simple but critical fact that Hawaii is in the United States. This meant that we could research all sorts of possibilities for excursions well in advance, and make arrangements by telephone or internet with ease and mutual understanding. The next factor is that every port, with the possible exception of Hilo, has a wide range of shore expedition choices. Celebrity supplied us with a slick, multi page brochure of all its sponsored shore excursions. We did not take one. In fact the only shore trip we bought was a snorkeling trip for me, purchased directly from the Pacific Whale Foundation for the internet price of a little over $68.00. Their trip was a double snorkel trip, the first part being to the island of Molokini, basically a small semicircle of a volcano top, off Maui; followed by lunch in the afternoon and a second dive on the ocean side of Lanai. This was a 7Â½ excursion, and quite a bargain as well as providing us with a truly wonderful diving experience at Molokini. The fish were plentiful at both sites, and the coral at Molokini was amazing in its color and variety. The internet provided a wide range of diving tours at almost every port.
What we did was rent cars and travel on our own. Our plans to meet an old friend who had moved to Hilo were frustrated by the weather. The ship sailed into the harbor, but when past the breakwater was actually tossed against the pier by a severe sea which came in over the breakwater. Then the Captain was apparently informed that the weather would get worse, so he turned around and sailed away without docking, leaving my friend John waiting for me on the pier. We simply sailed around the Big Island to Kailua-Kona on the leeward side, arriving in the evening instead of the next day. We though we could tender in and check on our rental car arrangements, but after waiting by the tenders for an hour or so, we were told that the lights at the tender pier were not sufficient to allow us to land, and that the Coast Guard barred any tendering.
The Big Island - First Pass
The next day we drove our rental car clear across the Big Island, through the delightful town of Waimae and into Hilo, which we explored on foot. We saw that the waves were still very high, and auto travel was barred on the bay front street. Hilo is a quaint town, with stores from the 50s and a busy farmer's market. We ate at a very nice restaurant called Kaikodo, which we located by accident, located at 60 Keawe Street, a block up from the waterfront and a block down from the Federal Courthouse and Post Office. Traveling by car in Hawaii is not rapid since the only four lane roads are a brief stretch on Maui and on Oahu. The speed limit on the Big Island is 55 mph, with many stretches lower than that. We found out later that most if not all Hawaii police forces do not use regular, publicly owned official police cars, but have the police officers drive whatever car they choose to buy and run at public expense, and furnish it with a blue light for the top as its sole designation that it is a police vehicle. So you really have to watch the limits. The rental cost was not high, but the gasoline charge was, and gas is very expensive on the islands, about 40 cents more than even California. We heard on a local television show that the actual cost of transporting gas to Hawaii is only about 6 or 7 cents a gallon, so the gas companies are raking it in.
Our next port was Lahaina and we used our cell phone to call the rental agency, which told us the van was on the way to pick us up and take us to the airport. Cell phones work well here. We drove up Mount Haleakala, over 10,000 feet of twisting but good roads. A favorite tour is to ride a bike down after being driven to the top, but we saw several people biking all the way up, and a few who we saw made it to the top. The diversity of Hawaii is surprising. As you go through different elevations the scenery changes. At about 3000 feet it looked like New England with deciduous trees, rolling hills and lots of cows. Hawaii is great for livestock. The views into the crater on Haleakala are good, and we could see the top of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island 80 miles to the south. This is a highly recommended trip, especially in your own vehicle. We looked all over Halakeala for the state bird, the endangered nene, which looks like a small goose, but found none. Towns along the north coast were well developed and looked like southern California. Real estate prices are sky high, especially on Maui.
The ship stayed overnight in Lahaina, and the next day was my snorkel trip described above. Edith wandered around Lahaina which she reported to be hot and totally tourist oriented, nowhere nearly as interesting as the real Hawaiian towns we had seen the prior day. A lot of people went to a typical staged luau, which includes a show. The reviews were mixed, but most thought is was pretty expensive for what you got, especially since the ship put on the same type of polynesian show as its regular offering, and there is of course no charge for that. There is a trip called "The road to Hana" which involves a long drive around Haleakela through a semi-tropical area with true "South Pacific" hidden valleys and waterfalls. If you have your own transportation, you can probably enjoy it on the first day, since there is no worry about getting back to the ship on any time schedule. Infinity is very good about allowing early diners eat at the late seating on these nights. We plan on this trip on our next visit.
Kauai Kauai, the next stop, is a truly beautiful island. There are two major areas to visit here. One is the Waimea area on the west side of the island, and the other is the Hanalei district on the north coast which is basically a seashore of reported beauty. The Waimea trip involves driving up a ridge with a beautiful canyon on one side, called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and a series of ridges running down to the Na Pali coast on the west. We chose the Waimea trip, and drove our rental car west out of Lihue, the port town, on Route 50 through small towns on the south coast and then turned north. The road is actually an inverted Y, with two roads up joining together after a few miles. We recommend taking the 2nd, westernmost road up because it is much easier to spot from the road you are on. This road is Route 550 and is marked. There were low lying clouds which barred our view west to the coast, but about halfway up is a lookout point with a large parking area clearly labeled as the Waimea Canyon Lookout. This is a good vantage point for the canyon, and we enjoyed the view. It does look a little like our own Arizona Grand Canyon in terms of colors, We spotted a feral goat about 400-feet below us and could clearly hear his neighing in the quiet air. This lookout place is as high as the tour buses go. We drove on to the next to highest spot, Kalalau Lookout, which would have provided a view down to the western coast except that it was covered with clouds, a frequent occurrence probably. We then walked up a road to the east, closed to auto traffic, to the Puu O Kila Lookout, through drizzling rain. We could not see much and started back when we ran into two fellow passengers from Infinity. The man lives in Maui and was showing his girl friend around the islands. They were going to walk down a trail, So we went back for another look. As the clouds cleared away to the east and south and we could suddenly see all the way down the Waimea Canyon to the shore on the south coast about 15 miles away. Then, in just a couple of minutes, the clouds closed in again, and the view was lost. Of course you have to remember that across this canyon to the east is another range which creates the highest annual rainfall, over 450 inches a year average, on the face of the earth. We returned and where the road branched off, took the eastern route which was shorter, but provided a number of good coastal views. This is a tour to be taken if you have a chance, and can be done with much more freedom and at lower cost in a rental car. On the way back, and close to the main town of Lihue we stopped at a large Trading Post at a stoplight. This place also was a Museum for the necklaces made by the native Hawaiians who are the only residents of the private island of Ni'ihau, which is located about 12 miles northwest of Kauia, and clearly visible on our trip down the canyon. These necklaces are made from tiny, flower shaped seashells found only on the shores of that island. They are extremely beautiful, but very costly, with some marvelous specimens in the museum costing up to $6,000.00; and standard strands starting at $150.00. Like our Navajo rugs, the museum specimens usually had the names of the makers attached. Despite the clouds we thought the Waimea Canyon trip was just great, and we thought Kauai was a marvelous place.
Oahu and Honolulu
We then sailed to Honolulu, where we would have an overnight stay on the ship before debarking on Thanksgiving Day. So on Wednesday we left the ship and walked around the downtown area near the pier for a few blocks before we caught a city bus to the Waikiki area. Seniors showing Medicare cards, I had mine of course, but Edith is still too young for one, get to travel for half price, that is $1.00. We continued past the east end of Waikiki Beach (it is about two miles in length) to the Honolulu Zoo, which is just below Diamondhead. There we saw a lot of nene in a fine exhibit area. We walked back along the beach to the Parc Waikiki Hotel where we would be staying, and had a very nice lunch, with an extremely pleasant and helpful waitress. Since Honolulu is a pretty good sized city, about 800,000; and has only one freeway, we stopped at our hotel desk to get directions from the airport where we would pick up our rental car the next day. They had the directions on a printed card. We traveled back by bus to a small but very authentic and somewhat exotic Chinatown near downtown, and walked back through it to the ship's pier. We had a special party that afternoon for Select and Elite Captain's Club members (five and more Celebrity cruises) which was attended by perhaps 15 couples and gave us a chance to have a nice chat with some staff members.
Debarkation was quite relaxed since we had priority treatment again as Captain's Club members, and had no plane or tour to catch. Even more relaxed were Bill and Pat from our table who were not leaving the ship at all, but proceeding back to the states on board for a round trip. Our priority status also gave us a separate baggage area which let us get on an airport bus to pick up our rental car without waiting in a very long line in the pier building. We again rented a car and drove across Oahu to the northwest coast. We detoured to drive around Schofield Barracks, the Army Post featured in the novel, and subsequent movie, From Here to Eternity. The old post barracks are attractive and functional at the same time. They exemplify Army efficiency when it is really working well. We hoped to see good surfers at work on the northeast coast with its famous Banzai Pipeline waves at Sunset Beach, but there were very few waves at all, so this was disappointing. Oahu is roughly square, trailing off to the south east, so that there is a southwest coast, a northwest coast, a northeast coast and a south coast with Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Waikiki and Diamondhead all in a row. We drove clear down the north east coast and through a tunnel south back to Honolulu.
Since many cruisers will stay an extra day or so in Honolulu, it is appropriate to describe in our ports of call section of this review. A prime attraction is the USS Arizona Pearl Harbor Memorial. It is a U.S. Navy facility and operation, and is free and open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do not bring any bags, even handbags or camera bags. Photos are permitted, its the bags that are seen as security risks. You line up for tickets and are given (not sold) a ticket for a specific tour in first come-first served order. The trips out to the Memorial across the harbor towards Ford Island are by navy run tenders, and they stop at about 4:00 in the afternoon. Since the number of people allowed on the Memorial is strictly limited by its size, unless you get there early, you may not be able to get a ticket. There is a small museum on land which can be visited freely at any time. We were a little late on Friday morning, and had not brought hats or sunscreen. So we decided not to wait, and to come back later. We went back at about 1:30 or 2:00 to see no line, but to find out that there were no more tickets available either. So our attempts to see them memorial were a failure, although we did enjoy the museum, which I enjoyed since I distinctly recall being the first in my family to hear the radio newscast that we had been attacked and telling my family who were reading the Sunday newspapers.
The shopping on Waikiki is amazing. There are more stores, and more high end shopping than any place I have ever been except New York City. Since this was the start of the Christmas season, the stores were all open to 10:00 and jammed with customers, a substantial number of whom were apparently Japanese, and who were freely buying. But there were obviously a goodly number of locals and mainland tourists as well. The beach itself is not bad at all. The surf was not high here either, but the water, as in all the islands, is extremely clean, clear and pleasant for swimming. Traffic in Honolulu is bad, and driving is not much fun, but we got used to it in two days. One way streets are a special problem, and it is not always clear how you get onto the single in town freeway, H1, or where the exits will take you.
If you shop at only one place in all the Islands, this place is Baileys Antiques and Aloha Shirts, Inc. This is a crowded, funky, marvelous store with more aloha shirts than you could imagine, including not only decently priced contemporary ones, but shirts from the 1940s running $150.00 and more. It is located at 517 Kapahulu Avenue, which is also the street fronting the Zoo, and is 90° to Kalakaua Avenue, the main street running along Waikiki beach to Diamondhead. I left my credit card at the store on my way out of town, and called them from the airport. They had found it and at my request, mailed it to our time share in Kailua. Like many places in the Islands, we found the tradespeople at Bailey's to be extremely friendly and pleasant, and rather laid back rather than frantically trying to sell you things.
Of course there are a number of Hilo Hattie's, the trademark Hawaiian wear store chain. They carry a lot of decent quality merchandise without being terribly expensive, and would be our next choice for shopping.
We ate at two good restaurants outside the hotel. One was the Sunset Grill in Restaurant Row, about halfway from downtown to Waikiki, and Kincaids, which is actually a chain restaurant, in a shopping center just west of Waikiki. Edith had a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner at the Sunset Grill, but, as in just about everyplace we ate in Hawaii, if they had fresh fish, that is what I chose, and in these two restaurants, with satisfaction. We drove around Diamondhead, but the timing did not work out well for climbing it, which we understand is spectacular if you get to the top at sunrise or sunset.
The Big Island Revisited
After Oahu, we went back to the Big Island for a week's stay at a nice timeshare about a mile from the main part of Kailua. If you cruise there, and can take a trip to the town of Waimea, we recommend seeing the Parker Ranch Historic house. This was once the largest cattle ranch in the United States, and still may be, although it is no longer owned by any member of the family. The original Parker jumped ship in 1809 and a few years later married the niece of the warrior King Kamehameha who united the Islands by defeating all of the local kings and chiefs in a series of bloody wars, and established the Hawaiian monarchy which lasted until the end of the 19th century. The photos of the Parker family are fascinating. Also worth visiting are the coffee plantations and a coffee cooperative on the Naapoopoo road to Kealakekua Bay near Captain Cook, south of Kailua on Highway 11. The Bay itself has good snorkeling. For body surfing there is a good although very small beach called White Sands Beach, or Disappearing Beach about 3-4 miles south of Kailua on Alii Drive, near a supposedly very good restaurant called Jamison's. It is called "Disappearing Beach" because the sands wash away each winter, and return each spring. The first day I was there, the surf was up and body surfing was great. Also, in Kailua, in the Safeway shopping center, is a restaurant that everyone, with good reason, recommends, with the unlikely name of Oodles of Noodles. Don't let the name or location put you off. It is delightful, had excellent food, and is reasonably priced. We also ate at Huggo's (that's correct, two "g"s) near downtown Kailua. The setting was just great, we sat outside on a porch area overlooking the bay with the waves slapping the rocks beneath us, and the service was excellent. But I thought the meal left something to be desired. It did not touch the delicious ono I had a few days earlier at a very unpretentious restaurant in the tourist area just near the tender pier. I think it was called the Galley, and was upstairs. Edith did not like the lasagna there however; but I guess you should not expect great Italian food at a seafood restaurant. Aside from this, the great attraction on the Big Island is the volcano, but it was not erupting and since it is a 90 mile drive from Kailua, we did not bother to try it. We also visited a friend who was staying at one of the very high end resorts on the Kohala Coast. The Big Island, like Oahu, is roughly square, with a long Kona coast on the southwest side. Kailua is often called Kailua-Kona for that reason. The Kohala coast is very barren except for these resorts, which are pretty much self contained, with no true towns very close by. The windward, or north east side is quite extensive, including the Hilo area. It is also subtropical and gets a huge amount of rain, 150 inches a year being typical of Hilo, whereas the Kohala and Kona coasts only get from 6 to 10 inches. The reason for this is that the big mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, separate the windward from the leeward sides, and the prevailing winds running into these huge mountains, drop all their moisture on the windward side. The south east coast is basically the side of Mauna Loa, with its volcano offshoot, the Kileaua Caldera about two-thirds of the way down at 4000 feet sending its lava flow, when flowing, into the sea. To get from one side to the other there are three routes, one through the Volcano National Park past the Kileaua Caldera; one up north through Waimea, and one between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, called the Saddle Road, which is forbidden to rental cars even though it is entirely passable according to reviews I have read. The Waimea route is so pleasant that I would see no reason to try the Saddle Road unless both peaks were clear of clouds, in which case it might be spectacular. Or you could rent a four wheel drive for lots of money and really go road trekking!
Hawaii Overall as a Cruise Destination
The islands have a wide variety of topography, and a wealth of attractions. There are a host of activities geared to the tourist trade which by now is the greatest source of income, the sugar and pineapple cultivation industry largely having moved away. There are also a great many books available everywhere, covering all possible aspects of what is really a rather small state. The weather never changes much, with winter being considered the rainy season and summer the dry. But these terms are relative, since location counts more than time, and no weather system stays around too long - everything blows through in a day or so. It is strange to hear a weather reporter on a local station describe a morning temperature of 60° as "nippy". The only problem is choosing among the various attractions, with six or seven choices at most locations. In addition, this is the easiest place to avoid the high cost of cruise sponsored tours since there is a lot of competition, rental cars are cheap (although gas is not), and directions are in English. Well sort of in English - Hawaiian street names are difficult to pronounce and remember; and signs are not always as informative as they should be. Public transit in Honolulu is excellent, and while available, sporadic in the smaller islands. Food is California priced; that is, higher than most places outside New York, and not really too outrageous. Of course the tendency is not to dine extensively on land since you can return to great food on the ship; but daytime shore excursions often mean land lunches. With a good set of maps, some advance research, and a spirit of adventure, you can really have a great time in this beautiful place. We did, and we are seriously planning doing the whole cruise over again next November and seeing what we did not have the chance to see this trip.
This was an excellent cruise. We felt that Celebrity had moved its service and food up a notch from its prior very high ranking. We liked their touches beginning with escorting you to your cabin on arrival. We enjoyed having the daily news sheets with world news and sports, delivered to our suite, but available for every one and in several languages at the Guest Relations area. We loved the concept of having a librarian, and appreciated the staff's willingness to conduct exercise classes for two people. We were delighted by the enthusiastic cooperation of the dining room staff in assisting our birthday party for our waitress. We admired the special service in the United States Dining Room; the excellent stateroom care and the overall appearance of the ship. We greatly enjoyed the relaxed entertainment in the quiet and delightful Cafe Cove de Milano.
We know that there were people who were not as pleased with the cruise as we were, but we think that perhaps their expectations might have been different. We know that the husband in one of our table groups was not nearly as pleased with the excursions that his wife loved, but we can hardly put the blame for that on Celebrity. There are always things that come up that could have been better. We were a little miffed with the confusion and eventual failure to allow tendering into Kailua-Kona after our forced abandonment of the landing in Hilo; but this was really a factor of weather. Nobody really enjoys tendering, but with large cruise ships there is no other choice in many ports. It would be impossible to suit the entertainment standards of all passengers. After all, I would prefer classical music, opera and real ballet; but this would be an unrealistic expectation. As standard cruise type entertainment goes, this cruise was again a touch above other Celebrity cruises, and much better than any comparable line. We feel the best individual performers we have had were Lindsey Hamilton, a soprano who had played West End shows in London, and who entertained in Celebrity Theater shows on Mercury around Cap e Horn, and Amanda Fairchild, the harpist on Millennium for our Mediterranean cruise; but the overall level was very high on this cruise. Within the limitations of providing for the general level of taste and expectations of 2000 people, Celebrity does a very fine job, and better than any other line in its major ship category. We think that every cruise line we have been on, including Celebrity, could do a better job with its daily programs, but we are not sure exactly how. This trip was one of the best for the lectures on the ports to be visited and the conditions, wildlife and customs to be expected on shore; better than on any other Celebrity trip, so perhaps there is improvement in that facet of passenger enrichment. For the first time ever on any cruise, we thought that the formal portrait actually looked like us, and we bought it.
We have already noted our dissatisfaction with Celebrity's arrangements for getting us to San Diego, and there were some problems with the buses carrying people to Ensenada. I would guess that this problem is more a factor of the ports selected for embarkation than anything else, and there may be little choice; although there were clear choices on air transportation between Phoenix and San Diego. We should have done our own air purchases, and bought separate airport to ship transportation vouchers at both ends of the trip.
Hawaii is worth seeing, and if you have never been there, a cruise like this is a great way to get to know the islands in a relaxed and reasonably informative way. If you are going to do it, do it on Infinity. Less
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