Penguins, seals, sea lions, birds and around the Horn. What a trip!
I am an expat Brit., living in Florida for the last 30 years, with my wife. I have cruised regularly since I was 3 years old and worked on the ships both during, and after, Hotel School, which is how I met my wife. We love cruising, and go whenever we can. I simply do not know how many cruises I have taken in my life. This cruise, 14 days on Infinity, is one of the "Once in a lifetime" cruises, which any traveler should do.
Linda and I boarded our American Airlines flight close to midnight from Miami to Santiago on a Friday night, and arrived in Santiago, on time, close to 10am on Saturday morning. The flight was uneventful and enjoyable enough. The disappointment comes when you deplane in Santiago, and have to pay the $131 each for a tourist entry visa. The only positive is that the "visa" is good for the life of the passport.
We had booked the 1 night pre cruise package at the Grand Hyatt Santiago, and took the cab there, as we had booked our own airline tickets. After leaving our luggage with the concierge we took another cab into the old city. After a couple of hours walking around, taking pictures, and enjoying Chilean Crystal beer, at a sidewalk cafe, we returned to the hotel so that we could spend the rest of the day by the pool.
The rooms are luxurious, as one would expect, but the views of the Andes are breathtaking, especially from the upper floors, where our room was. After an early dinner we had an early night, as the tiredness had now well and truly set in. On Sunday morning we watched a spectacular sunrise over the Andes, put out the Infinity tagged luggage, and then left for a nice walk through the park close to the hotel. We returned for breakfast in the banquet room provided for all Celebrity guests, and at around 10.30am boarded the bus for our 2 hour ride to Valparaiso.
The overall pre cruise package was very nice and the facilities are second to none. The price was high, however, in my opinion. It was painless though, and well organized and we did not see our luggage again until we had checked into our cabin on Infinity. This was our second time on Infinity and seventh on Celebrity and we have never had anything but a great check in experience with them. This was no exception. We were off the bus and checked in within a couple of minutes. As the ship is at the other end of the port from the terminal there is a constant flow of buses taking guests back and forth. These buses leave every couple of minutes and the spreading out of guests means an easy entrance onto the ship also.
One of the nice things we found about the terminal was the booth selling Chilean wine. As you are allowed 2 bottles on board each we purchased 4 bottles for the cabin. This proved to be a boon as we sat on our balcony for a glass of wine on most evenings before we went for dinner or cocktails. The cabin itself, an outside with balcony, midships on level 7, was as roomy as we wanted, had plenty of storage space, incredibly comfy beds (a nice recent upgrade on all Celebrity ships) and a nice place to call home for 2 weeks. The standard of our cabin steward was as high as always, and we never wanted for anything, including ice for our wine bucket, supplied once we put the wine in our cabin.
Lind and I love the Millennium class ships and have sailed on all of them. The layout is spacious, never crowded, well laid out and has some really nice areas to relax, enjoy the people watching, socialize or just relax. The size of the ship at 90,000 tons is big but not mega big, and with 2,000 guests is not overcrowded. We especially love Cova Cafe, the inside pool area and the Constellation Lounge, above the bridge, where you can watch the world go in front of the floor to ceiling windows. This proved a great place to be on the sea days on this cruise. The ship is clean, well maintained and clubby. On this particular cruise we were often assailed with the smell of bleach, due to the constant wiping down of all surfaces by masked spray bottle toting crew members. This was due to Norwalk virus prevention and was a small price to pay for peace of mind. The only issue I had was when I brushed my sweatshirt on a freshly wiped balustrade and lost the color in my sleeve. No questions were asked by the shop attendant, however, as she immediately replaced it.
After lunch at the casual dining area we got back off the ship and took the bus back to the terminal and walked around Valparaiso and its historic district. The city is a little shabby but still an attractive and friendly place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Open seating dining followed as we sailed at 9pm and we enjoyed a table facing the large picture windows in the stern as we sailed out. The overall quality of the food on Celebrity ships is very good. Service is impeccable and attentive and, it has not slipped one iota in my opinion over the last few years, contrary to several comments I have read. Our regular table for dinner proved to be a window table for 2, a requisite that we have on each cruise as we like to spend our time together whenever we cruise. Our table service was excellent, as was the beverage and wine service. In fact the friendliness and service throughout the ship is second to none, and one of things we love about Celebrity.
We docked at La Coquimbo for La Serena, on Monday morning and took a cab to Plaza las Armas, the center of the town. After walking around the town we then walked to the beach and took some photos of the lighthouse and beach walking horses. We then walked back to the town center where we enjoyed some people watching while enjoying the Crystal. We had arranged to meet the same cab driver and he took us back to Coquimbo following the beach road. At Coquimbo there is a small fishing fleet and some small restaurants and fresh seafood stalls. I enjoyed the best Ceviche I have ever eaten and we enjoyed the sunny warm afternoon. The weather on this cruise starts and finishes warm and sunny. It is summer in the southern hemisphere and for the first and last 4 days it was beautiful beach/pool weather. The middle week is cool and can be cloudy and windy.
The first sea day was windy as we sailed into a stiff wind coming up from Antarctica. The ship is large enough that you do not feel any movement, however. The indoor pool, the lounges, the activities and the relaxation of doing nothing, makes time at sea pass very quickly, I always think, and after the first sea day we arrived at Puerto Montt and the first tender ride.
We had booked a ship tour here, as we did at 3 other ports also. I have to say that the standard of tours on this cruise, and the professionalism and organization of the tour staff was the best we have ever encountered. There was a young Brazilian lady who spoke any language, it seemed, that was spoken to her. She expedited the tours and kept everything moving very smoothly, which in tender ports is never easy. We took 4 ships tours during the cruise and each one was on time, well organized and well worth the money. A minor complaint I had, which I passed on to Celebrity, were the constant disclaimers which came from the tour desk, and the printed materials. There is a difference in preparing guests for eventualities and scaring them away. We spoke to several people who did not take a particular tour because they were scared by what they read/heard. It is a radical concept that the very people who are charged with selling tours are the ones who actually scared away sales! With unpredictable weather and the pristine wilderness of several of these ports we could understand why people may have complained in the past but, in my opinion, if Celebrity puts out the facts correctly and honestly then people should be able to make an educated decision.
The tour we took was to Osorno volcano, the rapids, lunch at the lake and a shopping stop in a small town. The driver and guide decided to visit the volcano and the rapids before lunch to beat a cold front coming in. This proved to be a fortuitous decision in that rain and wind arrived later in the day. It was comical on the volcano, however, with the winds so strong that one could hardly stand. The stop at therapids was sunny and warm, and very photogenic. The lunch of fresh salmon was exceptional, and we had a lovely day in Puerto Montt. The scenery is gorgeous and the weather held out until late afternoon.
The next 2 days were spent at sea, although the itinerary spoke of Chilean Fjords and the Straits of Magellan. The activities on board are there for any guests who want them but many guests it seemed just wanted to relax. The outside pools are nice when not too cold or windy, but the inside heated pool is great at any time, as we have found out on several other cooler cruises. We especially love the built in recliners and water jets. The dance classes and the shopping seemed to be the busiest areas. One of the things I did not like was the fact that the dance classes were scheduled every day in the Constellation lounge. The music and constant nattering were a distraction, to say the least. With all of the lounges, sound systems and dance floors this location was not a good choice to me.The dance classes could just as easily have been scheduled elsewhere where they did not impose on others, simply trying to read or watch the world go by. This lounge is great to watch and we indeed saw many whales, hundreds of Penguins jumping out of the water as we came close, many dolphins and lots of birds. I hope that Infinity moves the more active activities to a different lounge in future, however, and leaves Constellation Lounge as a quiet day area something which it has always advertised it as.
We ate in the United States restaurant on one of the sea days and had a memorable dinner and evening together, as we always do in the specialty restaurants. Even though the food is very good throughout the ship the food, service and ambience of the specialty restaurants on Celebrity is always something to be savored at least once every cruise.
Food and service are a constant with Infinity, but I do not feel that the same can be said about the entertainment. The variety shows are just so so in my opinion, although that opinion is very subjective. We have never enjoyed the specialty shows and reviews as much as the individual entertainers on Celebrity, and this cruise was no exception. The Acapella singers (Sound Waves) were very popular along with Julio Urbina, the guitarist, and they both played at our other favorite location on Infinity, Cova Cafe. We always enjoy sipping coffee and people watching, and the entertainers always add to the ambience. The lounges on Infinity are not too large and never overcrowded. The couple of bands playing in these lounges were poor, however, and as we are not dancers we never enjoyed them as much as Cova Cafe.
After the 2 sea days we arrived to sunny and cool Punta Arenas. We had booked a tour to Magdalena Island and the penguin colony. We were not disappointed although the Celebrity disclaimers tried to dissuade us. There is a 90 minute ferry ride across the Magellan straits to the island, and the disclaimers said that the ferry ride was not good for those prone to seasickness, prompting some not to take the tour. What a shame. It was awesome! The ferries are new and large enough not to be an issue. We took seasickness pills at breakfast just in case, but never felt that we needed them. Maybe the Celebrity folks should advise seasickness pills instead of warning folks off.
When you visit a large colony such as this one you are not prepared for the sheer numbers of penguins and their close proximity. They waddle right up to you, swim, stand together, walk around the island and are just the most adorable creatures. You can not touch them, feed them or take flash photography but the penguins were not told that they should not come up to you. They just have no fear of us. This ranks right up there along with swimming with Dolphins as one of life's wildlife highlights. After 90 minutes or so on the island the 90 minute ferry ride took us back to the town and the bus dropped us off in the main square for a little sightseeing. The town is small and after wandering around for a short time we returned to the pier and the tender ride back to the ship.
During the day the wind had picked up and the tender ride was a little rough with several waves breaking over the tender, sending water into the boat. It was a fun ride and the ship stayed in position to board/debark tender passengers in the lee of the winds, so it was never really dangerous. I heard that Carnival Splendor had to cancel their visit due to high seas in the next couple of days, however, so I think that we were probably very lucky to have gone to Magdalena Island when we did.
The next day in Ushuaia was another highlight in that we took the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego tour. The small catamaran that took us down the Beagle Channel, very close to colonies of hundreds of sea lions, seals, thousands of cormorants and other birds and just breathtaking scenery. Again the weather was clear, cool and sunny with no wind, and just a spectacular day. The Tierra del Fuego National Park was beautiful, and we had time to walk around Ushuaia and take pictures in town. That evening, although it was cold we climbed to the top deck above the bridge and were awestruck as to the number and clarity of the stars. We had never seen anything approaching the picture of the heavens.
Both Linda and I had been concerned about the weather at Cape Horn and whether we would get to see it, or if it would be just a grey ugly photo standing at the ship's rail. We needn't have worried. The weather was cold, grey but with no wind and clear visibility. We were up early along with everybody else, watched us sail very close to the cape, then spent a very enjoyable morning listening to the naturalist, who sails on all of the cruises, giving color commentary of the history and flora and fauna of the area, and the history and color of one of the most desolate and isolated places on earth. We were extremely surprised to realize that we were at almost 60 degrees south and only 600 miles from Antarctica.
The rest of the day was a sea day and it was a pleasant surprise to sail past Carnival Splendor, a ship I had only just worked on in Fort Lauderdale, as she had sailed on this cruise, repositioning to California. The last ship's tour we took was in Puerto Madryn, the next day, and to Peninsular Valdes. This whole area is a preserve and you are not allowed onto the beach or shoreline as penguins, Elephant Seals, seals and sealions make it their homes. It truly is a pristine beautiful wilderness but one which is a desert, unlike the southern Patagonia mountains. This was the port where the other large penguin colony is and many people who took that tour also said how great it was.
Again we got really close to a large number of sea creatures and we had another great day. As with other tours Celebrity had issued several disclaimers about the standards of the buses and the fact that dust could get into the buses on the dusty bumpy roads. Well the buses were up to North American standards, no dust got into the bus, and although a little bumpy the extended time spent in the bus was never uncomfortable. I came to the conclusion that all of the disclaimers are for the sake of the same passengers who expect perfection. Taking this cruise is not about sitting in an armchair and watching the world on television. This is a pristine, unique, unspoiled and totally different area than any we have ever encountered previously. It is also unpredictable and can change within minutes. For those passengers expecting perfection in weather and environment this is not for them.
After one final sea day, where the weather was perfect, we tendered into another pleasant surprise port. This was Punta del Este. This city, billed as the t Tropez of South America, was one which we had thought would be forgettable. We were totally wrong and loved the place. It really is clean, friendly, chic and one which has hit close to the top of our "must return to" places. The beaches are clean and are on both the River Plate side and the ocean side. The food was wonderful, and, as it was summer, the weather was spectacular. As many Argentinians also vacation there is both a large Argentinian population and Uruguayan, along with many Brazilians.
The final day was spent in Montevideo, and a great lunch again at the Old Port, where we had eaten 2 years previously on our first Infinity cruise to Rio and Carnaval. As with Punta del Este the people are friendly, it is a wonderful city just to walk and we sailed for Buenos Aires, and the end of the cruise.
Disembarkation in Buenos Aires was smooth and seamless and we drank coffee in the United States until 9am when we left and took a cab to the Sheraton, and a day room. As with embark we have always had easy stress free debarks with Celebrity. With the flights going back to the States at midnight, just like flying down, it makes sense to get a hotel room for the day. The Sheraton, and the Marriott are both close to Calle Florida and the shopping area. It is also a nice walk to San Telmo and the Plaza Dorrego flea market. Unfortunately the flea market has grown much busier since we were last there and it has lost much of its charm. Nevertheless we spent a nice day in Buenos Aires and the hotel, had a great dinner at Puerto Madero, the old warehouse district, and then took a cab to the airport.
In summary I would thoroughly recommend this cruise and the Infinity and Celebrity to anybody who is looking for a different cruise and destination, literally off the beaten path. You will not be disappointed as long as you realize that you are the visitor and nature is the host.