To put things into perspective I never wanted to cruise, having some pre-conceptions, not all of them positive. Overall my expectations - positive and negative - were achieved and in one or two areas, considerably exceeded - positively! My wife always wanted to try cruising because she knew she would be well looked after and pampered; her only reservation was possible sea sickness. But she had a BIG birthday coming and we both wanted to see the Antarctic - so, to start from the beginning:
Booking: Never did we find the Celebrity website user-friendly, constantly having to "go back out and come back in". Never did our registered sign-on work. Much of the site's terminology was ambiguous so we had to several times refer to our booking agent to get clarification on some important points. For such a big company we found the quality of website surprisingly bad - or is the ambiguity on purpose?
Boarding at Buenos Aires: After a 14 hour non-stop flight from London and a perfectly awful experience of getting out of Buenos Aires airport (two and a half hours of bedlam with hardly any airport or customs staff to be seen), we were not in a mood for problems getting onto the ship. Bad luck - another two hours of totally NO direction or help being given, because hardly any Celebrity or Port staff were to be seen. Even though we had paid for so-called priority booking, boarding, baggage delivery etc, nothing remotely like these things happened until in my typically fuming self, I just barged through the crowd, presented our papers to a harrassed looking Celebrity individual and with a death threat in my eyes we got through! Presumably, they were glad to get rid of us, but the ship still was somewhat late leaving because of the crowded nature of getting everyone aboard. Such an experience should NOT be part of such a holiday. That being said, disembarkation and re-boarding was a trial each time, but to be fair it is difficult to see how differently it could be handled, except by more staff and exit/entry points.
Extras (1) Wine Package: We each booked a wine package but the website was nebulous as to just how, where and when this could be used, which gave us some disappointing moments. But, overall it was a good decision; the wine list was first class and we certainly saved money by not buying wines as and when. Caveat Emptor - read the small print, when you can find it!
Extras (2) Aqua Class: We decided to go for this class of cabin/service and did not have one regret. The stateroom was fine although in reality, it could have been a typical American hotel room, anywhere in the world. But the highlight was the concierges and the very efficient, unobtrusive and friendly service they gave. Aqua Class also gave us exclusive access to the Blu Restaurant and this was an area where our expectations were considerably exceeded. We cannot speak too highly of the whole experience, human and gastronomic, especially as it was a come-when-you-like access, though just before showtime in the theatre, when the restaurant was busy, we did have to wait for a table a couple of times, but no more than 5 minutes. 5 gold stars!
Dining outside the Blu restaurant (1 - Trellis main restaurant): We dined twice in the Trellis as guests of friends (who incidentally, were NOT allowed into the Blu restaurant on our invitation). We thought the timed sittings - 1800 or 2000 hours - were unnecessarily restrictive for totally enjoying such a pleasant location and very good food.
(2 - S.S. United States speciality restaurant); Just one word - outstanding! Food, staff and ambience totally worth the $45 dollars per head cover charge, but you would not want to eat there often, with each delicious mouthful containing hundreds of delightful calories!
(3 Ocean View buffet restaurant): used only a few times but usually unbearably busy, with two many individuals taking up a table alone, so always a seating problem; it could have done with better marshalling and table clearance from the staff. Gargantuan amounts of food, some gargantuan piles on plates and equally gargantuan wastage - not the best experience, as we had anticipated.
Excursions (1) General: Back to the website, where not all available excursions were visible for pre-booking, which was supposedly more cost-effective than booking once on board ship. So it could be that you had to buy the experience on board and then pay more than you needed to - to Celebrity's benefit of course. One thing, do not bother trying to book locally by yourself. Celebrity and other cruise lines have bought up all the capacity so you are unlikely to be able to do anything locally while the ship is in port. This was especially so in the Falkland Islands, where the Celebrity Infinity was in port at the same time as Seabourn Quest, so something like 2400 passengers descended on Port Stanley - remember that the total population of the Islands is 2500! Comments from many others: the excursions were over-priced and some were described as poor for the experience "enjoyed". Especially for (2) below:
Excursions (2): Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery: Supposedly THE place to go when docking at Puerto Madryn, but first, from our personal experience, the excursion was not available for pre-booking through the website. This, however, did not stop the need for no fewer than 24, forty-seat coaches and a number of small buses to get everyone to Punta Tombo - something around 1000 passengers!! Two and a half hours each way and as the ship was in port for only about 7 hours you only got 90 minutes or so at Punta Tombo! Result: a crowded, bad-mannered, push and shove with one or two Nationalities (who shall remain nameless!), totally lacking in any form of social grace or consideration for other people - and especially, the animals. A very bad experience for most people then, but infinitely more important, for the penguins, many of whom very visibly and audibly distressed by the Tower of Babel going on around them. So here a big pointer and plea for Celebrity Cruises please. Some of the series of interesting talks given aboard ship made a huge thing out of how environmentally-friendly Celebrity cruise ships and the company's activities etc. are. Load of rubbish as far as Punta Tombo goes! Celebrity should severely limit the number of people allowed to go there at any one time, otherwise this priceless, unique but fragile glimpse of nature could soon be irreparably ruined.
Entertainment: Too may things going on at one time, but understandable with the ship at sea for all but four days and trying to cater for many needs. But when it came to priorities, we personally felt that Celebrity got it wrong. There was a fine variety show every evening with during the day, remembering where the ship was headed, totally absorbing talks about the Antactctic, its geology, geography and flora and fauna. Also talks on the various explorers who opened up the Antarctic and on the side a totally mind-blowing series of talks on astronomy. Problem? All three of those speakers had their scheduled programmes cut short because Celebrity decided people wanted more "entertainment". Did nobody remember where we were headed and how irrelevant "entertainment" may be considered by some? Words failed us.
So, will we cruise again? Never, in a ship of such a size (not just Celebrity), which we felt was basically Las Vegas -on -Sea and pretty much irrelevant to such a destination as the Southern Atlantic and the ice fields. Small ships are the way to go there, but that would mean little or no, "entertainment" or dark, sexy cocktail lounges - if such things are essential to one's cruising. Each to their own of course - you pay your money and you make your choice!
To end, the word "Outstanding" must be used for the ship's crew in all places. Outstanding is, however, not enough of a word for Antarctica even though seen at a distance most of the time, because of the ship's size. It was a lifetime experience - humbling, inspiring and tear-jerking all at the same time, that will be repeated as soon as possible - from a small ship.