SANTIAGO DE CHILE: We decided to spend a few extra days in South America at each end of the cruise. It cost about $300 pax more in airfare than the X deal, but was well worthwhile. Arriving in Santiago airport early Thursday morning, we were met by a driver who got us to our hotel in comfort for US$42, pre-paid with VisitChile.com., who also booked the just-adequate Diego de Almagro Centro, a chain hotel recommended on TripAdvisor. The price was very reasonable and it's within walking distance of the historic center. The disadvantage is that downtown is quiet in the evening and few decent restaurants are open for dinner. However, we enjoyed pasta and fish dishes at the bustling La Piccola Italia on the main drag near La Moneda. Taxis are cheap and there are plenty of good restaurants 15 minutes ride from the center in the Bellavista district. That's also the neighborhood for lapis lazuli shops and we were happy with what Solange and Isabel helped us pick out at Azul Artesania, Bellavista 278. A day and a half was enough time to see the main sights, and on Saturday morning we were picked up by a guide who took us on a tour of the pretty wine country, stopping at Veramente vineyard to buy some good cheap white, then on to explore historic Valparaiso before dropping us at the dock terminal at 12:30. US$100 each, also prepaid through VisitChile.com.
EMBARKATION: We whizzed through Celebrity's well-staffed and efficient boarding process in the terminal and then boarded a bus to where Infinity was docked. It took an hour to cover the kilometer, as the narrow route was clogged with trucks trying to shift containers in both directions. Allow extra time in case this is the norm. THE SHIP: The ship's layout is identical to that of Celebrity Constellation, which we enjoyed on prior cruises, so we felt at home immediately. Infinity being a couple of years senior to Constellation, we wondered whether there would be signs of wear and tear, but no. Standards have been maintained by constant cleaning, varnishing and painting public areas. Our ocean view state room, mid-ships on the second level, was very stable in all weather. Our stewards were friendly, efficient and kept the place clean and tidy.
DINING: The food at the second seating in the Trellis was generally of good quality, enhanced by fun chats with our waiter Rafael and his assistant Mario. Diego was our helpful wine waiter. Escargot, not generally on the menu, could be ordered a day in advance. To break it up, we dined a couple of times at the Casual Restaurant. Don't miss the "Rodizio Dinner". A great selection of meat and sausage cuts. At breakfast, we picked up basics from the buffet and avoided the crowds by heading aft to the omelet or waffle stands. Likewise at noon, there were some interesting specialty lunch stations-- Indian curry, Mexican, etc ---of course, followed by an ice cream. Lunch in the Trellis was relaxing and some imaginative choices were offered.
ENTERTAINMENT & ACTIVITIES: I loved going to the nightly shows in the theater and was particularly impressed by 3 performers: singer Helen Jayne, pianist and comedian Emile Pandolfi, and pianist Tian Jiang. The Singers & Dancers were the most professional of the Celebrity ensembles I have yet seen on board. The Scottish Cruise Director, Allan King built a great rapport with the passengers. We looked forward to groaning at his awful jokes and he added a lot to the festive mood in the evening and throughout the cruise. One of the best activity offerings was the Discoveries Enrichment Series, mainly held on sea days. It definitely enhanced our enjoyment and would be a great feature for Celebrity to adopt on all their cruises. The two speakers couldn't have been more of a contrast. Colonel Reid was strong on the "who, what, when, why and where" of the places we visited, a goldmine of information on the history and politics of the region, based on his first-hand experience as an ex-military attache. Milos Radakovich, naturalist, was able to impart scientific information, in a delightfully light manner, on topics such as the night sky, penguins, sea mammals and pre-historic animals. The Travel Photography Seminar conducted by one of the ship photographers was a useful hour.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: Through CC contacts we took a shore excursion at Puerto Montt with the Stein's GVTours. We had a wonderful day, passing a rodeo practice before visiting Lake Llanquihue for its spectacular views of snow-capped volcanoes, saw the waterfalls at Petrohue and stopped for a nice lunch along the way. Our van's guide was the Stein's charming student daughter, whose commentary was amusing and well-informed. We took two X tours, both well organized and comfortable, the highlight being the visit to the Magallan Penguin rookery at Punto Arenas. Not to be missed. At Ushuaia, we had read that catamarans moored alongside Infinity at the dock offer 2 ½ hour Beagle Channel trips to the sea wolves (lions) colonies. We went with Canoero Catamaranes for US$40 pax. You can watch the view comfortably from inside and go out on deck for photos of the spectacular animals. There was time afterwards to walk up to the Presidio Militar that houses a maritime museum and the old prison. In Puerto Madryn, discouraged by the long drive needed to get to Peninsula Valdes, we opted to shuttle into town, and found a free van out to the EcoCentro. It promotes education on marine ecosystems, way over our heads, but there are interesting displays in a very attractive modern building, set on a headland with spectacular views. In Uruguay we took off on our own again, walking and getting cheap cab rides to the main sights. In Punta del Este, CasaPueblo was the highlight. In Montevideo, we enjoyed shopping for leather gifts at X-recommended Casa Mario. Two minor criticisms were the poor quality maps Celebrity provided of each port town, poor compared with what they provide in Europe, and the general lack of shopping tips. Maybe the latter was because the towns on this trip are mainly small and there aren't that many shops to recommend.
DISEMBARKATION and BUENOS AIRES: The staggered disembarkation process was well organized and we got off the ship at our allotted time. Standing in line 45 minutes for a taxi took longer than the $20 ride downtown. We stayed at the TripAdvisor- recommended Tryp Buenos Aires, (Sol Melia chain), off the main shopping street, Calle Florida. It's a no-frill hotel that seems to cater mainly to visiting executives, very comfortable with a complete breakfast buffet. Our air-conditioned 21 X 18 ft room seemed an enormous space after the cabin, had a flat TV, modern furniture and well-equipped bathroom. Security is tight. In addition to a doorman, you can operate the elevator only with your room key. We booked it before we left through Sol Melia's US reservation center. There is a lot to see in BA, and we were busy there for 5 days without making any side trips. At an exchange rate of 3.05 Pesos to the US$, irresistible shopping bargains are everywhere. Moderate class restaurants are a bargain. At the Palacio de La Papa Frita, Lavalle 735, we enjoyed steaks, fries, salad and great deserts, washed down by a good bottle of local Cabernet, for 100 Pesos for two. A relaxing place for lunch was on the patio outside the Evita Museum.
IN SUM: we had a marvelous time, as did all the other passengers we spoke with, and strongly recommend this cruise.