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.
Puerto Quetzal Is the main port on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. There is very little at the port itself. We were fortunate and moored at the Marina, where there was a market area with 80 - 100 vendors selling souvenirs, and a couple of bars/cafes.
We took the Coffee Estate and Antigua excursion. The tour started with an hour and a half bus ride to the coffee plantation – Finca Colombia. The plantation is close to Antigua, is family owned, and had been run by the family for four generations. The tour of the plantation itself was conducted by the owner (her son now manages the enterprise). Not surprisingly, coffee growing is more than a job to her; it is her life and passion. The tour of the plantation itself was fascinating. Our visit was completed by an opportunity to sit in the garden and enjoy the coffee and local "cookies". And, of course buy some coffee.
We then had 15 minute ride to Antigua.
The tour of Antigua started with a visit to the Jade factory, which I found mildly interesting but could happily have missed. As is common, the greater part of the facility was a shop. The stop here was 45 - 60 minutes, which for me was at least 30 minutes too long.
We then walked to the main square where our guide described each of the main buildings. By the time we arrived there, the Cathedral was closed, and we were not able to go inside. Missing out on another cathedral was not a major deal for me. In Antigua, we were continually subjected to street vendors selling their goods, here they were mainly women. One in particular tried to sell me a rather attractive blanket. The price started out at $60, by the time we were round to the other side of the sqare the price was $10 and we were on first a first name basis. Mainly because I didn't want to carry it, I didn’t buy it. I have no idea whether it was truly hand-made.
We then went for a pleasant, although unremarkable, buffet lunch before walking back to the bus for our ride back to the ship.
My initial impression of Antigua was disappointment. It is not a particularly attractive city. Upon reflection, and after talking to some of our fellow cruises, I realize I would have enjoyed it more if I had the opportunity to wander around by ourselves. Time constraints would have meant we couldn't have done the coffee plantation as well however.
One of the pleasant surprises was how much cooler it was in Antigua than at the ship. The temperature at the ship was 95 - 100, at Antigua, at elevation of some 5,000 feet it was in the 70's. Unfortunately, it was very misty, and the surrounding volcanos were all but invisible. From what our guide was saying, this was not unusual and had been that way for several days.
Riding to and from Antigua, you realize that Guatemala is a poor country. Once down from the mountain side, You drive through sugar cane fields, along a road that is the main highway serving the port and Guatemala city. The towns you pass by are made up largely of shacks, and litter is scattered along the entire route.
This was another short stay, and since there is no dock, we had to be tendered ashore. Actually that turned into a good thing, because the view of Cabo San Lucas from just off-shore is better than most on-shore. We did invest $10 each for a water taxi to give us a 45 minute excursion to the Arch Rock, which proved to be money well spent. I am not sure how you would get to see it on foot, and it would be a shame to be there and miss it. The whole Land’s End rock formation was worth taking the boat to see.
The town itself is the usual collection of souvenir shops and bars. The Marina is provides sights of some nice, expensive, yachts. However there is evidence of the impact of the recent recession – development projects abandoned half finished.
We did not take an organized excursion in Cartagena. We took advantage of the free shuttle to the end of the pier, and took a taxi to the old town. I had decided to get some Colombian currency for the trip, although I don't think it is necessary. US Dollars are accepted to the point that the price is typically given in Dollars, you often have to ask to get it in Pesos. The price for the taxi worked out to be the same in Pesos or Dollars. A couple of purchases we made were definitely less expensive in Pesos, and a couple of small places only accepted Pesos. The old town is safe, although we were continually being asked to buy something from the street vendors, including taxi drivers wanting to take us back to the ship. Official taxis are easy to identify, they are bright yellow, and the driver wears a light blue shirt with the word Taxi all over it. Most of the taxis seemed to be the same model car. We were warned that the areas between the cruise dock and the old town were not safe, but this did not impact us. Cartagena is pleasant place to spend a couple of hours if the street vendors don’t get you down.
Everything we had read and heard about Colon told us it is not a safe place to try and do on your own. We opted to take an excursion that visited the visitor centers for the Panama Canal expansion and the existing locks. This turned out to be really interesting excursion. We went first to see the expansion. After a 20 minute video went to two observation points to see the work being done and the construction site for the new locks. Truly amazing. We then were bussed to the existing locks, and got great views of a fully loaded container ship and a cruise ship going through. We were fortunate that there were only two buses at these sites. When we actually came through the locks the next day, there were many more people there. Getting a good viewing spot would have been a lot more difficult.
Driving through Colon, you do have to travel through some of the poorest, most rundown neighborhoods I have ever seen. It is easy to understand why the cruise people warn you not to go out alone.
There is fairly large shopping area within the "safe" confines of the cruise port where you can find a number of bars and cafes (most of which seemed to provide Wi-Fi access). In addition there is a supermarket and a duty free electronics store. It didn't seem to me that there were any great deals there.
Our stay in Puerto Vallarta was short, the ship left at 2:30 p.m. We took a taxi to the old town for about $20, and strolled along the board-walk. I had brought Pesos with me, which once again proved unnecessary. We were able to get a better deal on a handbag that my wife wanted, but I wouldn’t bother with Pesos next time I went.
Puerto Vallarta was a pleasant surprise. They have done a good job at developing the Boardwalk, and it made for a very pleasant stroll.
The "port" at Puntarenas is a simple jetty jutting out to the sea. It is just wide enough to allow a bus in each direction and limited foot traffic. The distance along the jetty from the front of the ship is probably 150-200 yards. The day we were there, two cruise ships docked either side of the jetty at about the same time. Disembarkation was delayed for both ships while they got both ships tied up and all the equipment in place. Buses for the excursions backed up along the jetty. The Infinity handles most of their excursions out of the Theater, and the system is generally smooth and effective. Since all the earlier excursions were delayed, there was a mass of people waiting, and for some unaccountable reason Housekeeping chose that time to close the restrooms for cleaning.
We took the Rainforest Skywalk, Pura Vida Gardens, and Lunch tour. After about an hour's drive, we arrived at the Santa Lucia Hotel for a short bathroom break, and then were driven a few minutes up the road to the beginning of the trail. It took about 1 1/4 hours to complete the walk. It was mainly downhill, fairly strenuous (most of the group were seniors). There are three suspension bridges that you cross, that are probably 50 -100 yards long each. They are quite bouncy and swing a little as everyone goes over them. Nobody in our group had any problems and crossing them was fun. The guides will tell you that there is a 50/50 chance of seeing animals. As the day went on, it became more clear that there is little chance of seeing animals at that time of day, especially in the dry season, The noise of the road and people scare them, also by the time the tours get there it has become too hot. Apparently in the wet season, the noise from the water helps to mask the other noises. However, we had been forewarned by friends so were not overly disappointed. Our guide was excellent at talking about the trees, plants, and vegetation. After the walk, we returned to the hotel where we served with fresh fruit and a drink. Very refreshing and welcome! We then drove to the Pura Vida Restaurant and botanical gardens for a very nice lunch. We spent some time looking around the gardens before being driven back to the ship. The gardens were pleasant, and the view of the bay below was great (although somewhat misty on our visit). Do not expect an organized botanical garden, but rather a small country estate.
This tour gave us a good introduction to Costa Rica. We saw some of the countryside, and our guides were very good at explaining about life in their country. The tour was a pleasant day out. It was not the sort of tour that you come back saying that was amazing, but if you don't set your expectations too high and want something that is not overly strenuous, it can be an interesting one to take. Don't expect excitement.