A cruise through the Panama Canal had been on our to-do list for some years, and we decided the time had come. We were not disappointed.
Our cruise got off to a rocky start because the ship had been on condition “Red” with the Norovirus coming into port. In addition the entire crew had to go through immigration formalities since the ship had not been to the USA for several months. As a result we were a little late leaving, and the crew were clearly tired in the early days.
The Panama Canal cruise is something everyone should try and do. It really is amazing to be on a ship that is right at the maximum size limit allowed through.
The Panama Canal is the reason almost everyone takes this cruise, and the other ports the ship stops at are not super exiting. However, they do provide the chance to get a taste of several Central America countries.
The Celebrity Infinity caters to a crowd that is either retired or close to it. This results in a more conservative cruise than might be found on other cruise lines. The quality is generally good, and the atmosphere is somewhat formal. However, there are plenty of opportunities to have fun in a “baby-boomer” kind of way.
We enjoyed eating in the MDR, and there were only a couple of occasions when anyone at our table of seven was disappointed in the meal. The selections in the buffet were OK. The one meal we had at the specialty French resturant was very good. A major disappointment was the absense of the traditional Celebrity Brunch. I don't know if this was a result of the Norovirus problems the ship had been through for a couple of months, or whether Celebrity has changed their policy.
We found the staff to be friendly and helpful. Captain Nikolaos Frantzis was frequently seen around the ship and happy to chat. The Cruise Director, Rich Clesen and the activities team were excellent.
I would rate this cruise as being at the higher end of the mass market, generally meeting expectations, but with some room for improvement.
Embarkation - 4 stars
The Infinity had come in from spending several months in South America. The entire crew had to go through their 6 month immigration process at Miami. Worse, the ship had been on code Red for the Norovirus. As a result the ship had to be subjected to a top to bottom deep clean in addition to the immigration requirements. We received a notification from Celebrity that embarkation would be pushed back 90 minutes to 2:00 p.m. We were staying overnight at a Miami airport hotel, so had flexibility. Concerned that it would likely be a zoo at 2:00, we were thinking we would try to get to the port around 3:00 p.m. However, the latest shuttle we could get from the hotel was at 1:00 p.m. (I know we could have made other arrangements, but there was a major music festival taking place in downtown Miami and we decided to take the shuttle, and risk waiting at the port). As it turned out, we arrived at the ship around 1:30 to join a line that immediately started the security and check-in process. We were booked in Concierge class, and actual check in took no longer than 10 minutes. Waiting to get through security and have photo taken took longer, but we ended up boarding the ship at a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. Kudos to the Infinity crew for making best of a tough situation
Food and Drink
Because of the Norovirus precautions, the buffet and drink stations were not self-service for the first several days of the cruise. I am not sure how much this slowed things down, but it did appear that they had cut back on selections a little.
Oceanview Cafe (buffet) 3.5 stars
The Infinity is a Millennium class ship. We have sailed previously on the Constellation, another Millennium class ship. I am not particularly keen on the layout of the buffet on these ships. The serving stations are arranged in a long central island, with a bank of elevators, stairs, and kitchen in the middle. The result is that you have to do a lot of walking to see everything that is available. At busy times this was compounded by the congestion caused by drink stations being set up to have crew member serve every one during the sanitation precautions. Having said that, there was enough to choose from that I never left hungry. I tend to find cold foods are better than hot on any buffet, since there is always a challenge of keeping food sufficiently hot. The Oceanview cafe did a pretty good job of refreshing the buffet, in addition they have a few cook to order stations.
Trellis Restaurant (Main Dining Room) 4.0 stars
I find the MDR's the most consistent element of the Celebrity ships I have been on. The MDR is spread across decks 4 and 5, the section on deck five being a mezzanine above the full dining room below. On celebrity, you choose a fixed dining time and table or you can "select" to go at any time on a first come first served basis. Fixed time seating is usually on deck 4, "select" dining is on deck 5. Fixed time seating on our cruise was at 6:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.
We like to eat at the early sitting in the main dining room, and ask to be seated at a table of eight so that we get to meet with some other people. Our request was met.
The food in the Infinity dining room is up to the standard I expect from Celebrity - good but not outstanding. Portion sizes are European rather than American style. I found them sufficient given we were offered a four course meal, and I invariably took advantage of trying something from every course. There were a couple of occasions when someone at our table was disappointed in their entree, a steak was a little tough, and duck breasts were too salty. Invariably they were offered something else.
Aqua-Spa Cafe 3.0 stars
The Aqua Cafe is located in the Adults only solarium. This is an enclosed are next to the pool, and contains the Thalassotherapy pool, and a couple of Jacuzzis. The cafe serves a limited selection of healthier food for breakfast and lunch. We would like to go there sometimes for a lighter meal - muesli for breakfast, salad for lunch.
S. S. United States 5.0 stars
The S.S United States is one of the specialty restaurants that charge a premium. The other two are Q-Sine and Bistro on Five. The cost for S.S. United States was $45.00 a person. This restaurant is Continental/ French.
The presentation and style at this restaurant is as much a part of the experience as the food itself. We were a party of four, and enjoyed a leisurely meal that took two and half hours.
Two of our party started with the Lobster Bisque. A bowl was presented with some pieces of Lobster in the bottom. The bisque itself was delivered in a teapot, and poured by the waiter into the soup bowl. There was cream on the side to be added to taste. Verdict: "delicious". The other members of the party (myself included) had a scallop in phyllo wrap. No fancy show, but nicely presented and delicious.
For the Entree, two of our party had the Chateaubriand for two. This was 16 ounce Chateaubriand that was carved at the table. A third person had duck breast. It is always fun for someone to have a dish that is cooked tableside, and I chose the lobster tail that was flambéed, with the appropriate flourish by our waiter. The actual serving of the entrees was an exercise of coordination. Our waiter, Maître d' and 2-3 assistants scurried around "staging" all the meals on a trolley close to the table. They were delivered to each guest under one of those big silver domes. The Maître d’ and our waiter took two domes each and on the count of "un, deux, trois" revealed the meals beneath, in unison with a flourish. Great fun. Fortunately, the standard of the food lived up to the show and was devoured by us with great pleasure.
We each selected from the dessert menu to round off the meal - actually could have had cheese and biscuits in addition, but chose not to.
A note about the staff; although they were very professional, they not stuffy. They had a great mix of professionalism and personality that made the evening that more fun.
Although $45.00 may seem to be a lot to pay, especially when you could be eating in the MDR for nothing, we felt it was worth doing once during the cruise. It was still significantly less than we would have paid at a regular restaurant.
Activities and Entertainment
Celebrity Cruises caters to an older market, most of the passengers on board were over 55, and many were retired. You will not find a rock climbing wall, or wave pool on the Celebrity Infinity, and the children’s programs seemed quite limited (as did the number of children on board). There is, however, no reason to be bored. We became hooked on the progressive trivia, my wife and friends enjoyed the daily water-color classes, and I enjoyed the Celebrity Life Lectures. On a lighter side, we joined the “flash-mob” which was a hoot. One or two may have known what they were doing, and then there were the rest of us.
The Celebrity Life lectures are, in my experience, always excellent. Somehow the presenters are consistently able to make a topic that I didn’t think I cared about interesting.
Rich Clesen was our Cruise Director and he is excellent. Always around, always fun, and always full of energy. Rachael, the Activities manager was a young lady from England with a great personality.
The entertainment was standard cruise fare. Three, high energy, well produced productions with a cast of 15 – 17, along with guest artists for the other evenings. The production orchestra was one of the best I have seen on any ship.
In addition, performing around the ship at different times were:
The Bandmates – The House band that provided dance music. Very Good
Déjà Vu – an easy listening group. Good
Duo Edora – Classical Guitarists that also played popular music. Excellent
Mickey LLardi – Guitar and Vocals. Good
Beau Tahana – piano/ vocal – Fair
Panama Canal Passage
Colon is at the North end of the Panama Canal, when we left there we basically spent the night going nowhere. The cruise line will have made a reservation and paid for passage (cash only, no checks or credit cards) several weeks before, and they want to make sure they build time into the itinerary to be able to make up any time lost as a result of heavy weather or other incidents. The cost to take the Infinity through was between $365,000 and $425,000 - we heard both numbers quoted by different people.
We were scheduled to enter the Gatun locks at 7:30 a.m. which appeared to be the tail end of the morning southbound convoy. We were followed by a loaded container ship, which was usually going through the second set of locks at the same time as us, which provided for some good photo opportunities.
The Captain opened the helipad on the bow of the ship to passengers for the entire canal transit. I decided I would watch the first locks from my stateroom balcony, we were on deck eight. People started taking up positions in the public areas at 5:00 a.m. I figured that by the time we got to the second set of locks, the novelty would have worn off and getting a prime spot would be easier. By the time we entered the first lock, people were 6-7 deep on the Helipad. It was hot and humid, which is probably, normal for cruise ships making the transit. The best advice we received was to see the transit from as many different places as possible, and it goes slowly enough that it was easy for me to roam all over the ship. It doesn't really matter which side of the ship your stateroom is on. Travelling North to South, there is slightly more to see from the Port side if the ship is assigned to the West lock, the Starboard if the ship draws the East lock. However, you won't know for sure which side has been assigned until you get there. Typically, cruise ship captains will request the Lock Master at the second set of locks to switch sides, and the Lock Master will frequently oblige.
I found that my favorite place to watch from was the Promenade deck (Four on the Infinity). When the ship was lowered in the lock, the deck rail would be almost level with the top. On one lock, where they lowered us 31 ft. instead of the usual 27, the top of the lock was actually above our heads as the ship pulled out. We got a close up look at the lock gates. The walls were close enough that we could have touched them if we wanted to, but the walls are quite rough and it didn't seem a smart thing to do.
The trip across Gatun Lake between the North and South locks was pleasant and lazy. There is more to see than one might think, particularly through the Cut, and the areas where they are working on the expansion project, which is not confined to the locks. Portions of the Cut are being widened and straitened.
Once you come out of the South locks, there are some good views of Panama City, with its modern high-rise architecture. The approaching evening sun provided some nice lighting on the city.