Review of our Back-to-Back Panama Canal Cruises on Celebrity Infinity from Oct. 25 to Nov 22, 2009:
I will use a 1 to 6 star rating system to match the ratings generally used in the industry. Typically, 5 stars are assigned to premium cruise lines and 6 stars are reserved for the luxury cruise lines.
Food in the Main Dining Room (October 25-Nov 8 cruise): (5 stars): Executive Chef (Claudio De Carlo) Ingredients were excellent. Cooking: generally excellent. Apparently Celebrity had completely revamped their menus about two months prior to our cruise. Comments from friends who traveled on Celebrity prior to this major change-over had not been overly positive about the food. Our cruise, however, was a most pleasant surprise. Fish dishes were superb; meats were tender and beautifully prepared. Sauces were varied, flavorful, subtle, and quite exceptional. Chef Claudio De Carlo was clearly very much on top of things and must have been closely monitoring work throughout the galleys, ensuring that food preparation adhered closely to the standards spelled out in the recipes.
Food in the Main Dining Room (Nov 8 cruise-Nov. 22 cruise): (4 stars). There was a change of executive chef from the preceding cruise to the present one. The new executive chef (Denton Laing) who came on board may have been responsible for a marked deterioration in the quality of the food, although, in fairness to him, this deterioration could have been due to other personnel changes. Sauces tended to lack subtlety and flavor, meats were sometimes grossly overcooked. In one case, pork chops were coated with uninteresting, somewhat greasy, spiced bread crumbs.
Food, Buffet (3.5 stars): This was definitely inferior to the food in the main dining room. I am not a fan of buffet fare and generally skipped the main dishes and focused on salads. Salad ingredients were excellent. The pizza bar had some wonderful olives, artichokes, and roasted bell peppers that complemented my salads. Salad dressings were uniformly very good. The high standard for salad dressings was clearly maintained throughout both cruises.
1. A big problem was the main dining room being closed for lunch on all port days, forcing guests to dine at the buffet. People would get back to the ship around 2-3 PM and the buffet would be jammed. So, aside from the inferior quality, there was the problem of far too many people trying to lunch at the same time.
2. A second problem was the two lunch buffet days (within each 14-day cruise) in the main dining room. I guess this is a new experiment for Celebrity and I felt it left much to be desired. Selections were basic buffet fare (turkey or ham, egg dishes, some salads, and carved smoked salmon that was not too good). Additionally, seating arrangements and self-service were rather chaotic with lines at some of the offerings and generally sub-par service at the tables. I think we need to use our comment cards to recommend that Celebrity omit these buffet lunches in the main dining room and revert to regular lunch dining menus. It is bad enough that we are forced to go to the buffet on port days. So, for the sake of variety, Celebrity should not force upon us more buffet offerings in the main dining room.
Specialty Restaurant (5.5 stars): Food at the SS United States was superb in terms of ingredients, cooking, and variety. Service was exceptional. My only recommendation would be that they try to minimize use of butter/oils in the various main and side dishes. Times are changing and the well-informed segments of the public require high quality cuisine without undue reliance on oils or butter.
Wine List (5 stars): The wine selection on Celebrity ships is quite good. Many wines I tasted in the $50-$60 range were of exceptional quality. Also, I was able to find several very drinkable and reasonably-priced wines in the main dining room and the specialty restaurant. It was reassuring not to be subjected to pricy and unexciting wines, although Celebrity could still improve the quality and variety of its wine selections in the more affordable ($25-$30) range. In today's highly competitive world-wide wine market, Celebrity has the bargaining clout to score some outstanding low-priced, yet excellent wines, and offer them to its passengers at affordable prices.
Fellow Passengers (5 stars): Passengers on both our cruises were from above-average socioeconomic groups. Also, passenger composition was highly diverse, both in terms of geography and professional/business/interest factors. It was extremely refreshing to be on cruises that hardly produced any substantial incidents of flues and colds. I would attribute this in part to the handling of cleanliness and use of disinfectants by the staff and crew and to the higher educational level of passengers who were watchful about their personal hygiene. It also was encouraging to have a generally pleasant, happy and congenial group of fellow passengers who showed enthusiasm and enjoyment of the entertainment and activities on the ship.
Entertainment (5.5 stars): Here again, Celebrity appears to have made some dramatic improvements. It is apparently using a new production company in London for its major shows. Singers and dancers were of extremely high caliber. Several of the lounge acts (Charlie Butler, solo guitar; Vivian Clement Jazz Trio; a singing quartet) were also of exceedingly high quality. The resident orchestra included quite a wealth of talent and was superb. On several occasions, one or two members of the orchestra joined musicians who did the lounge acts. This added variety and spice to those occasions.
Excursions (?; not my thing): a bit on the pricy side. One can easily do much better independently.
Activities(4.5 stars): Included great lectures.
Service (5.5 stars): Excellent. Staff and crew appear to be very well trained and happy to be working on the ship. This, in turn, reflects on the friendliness and helpfulness they show passengers.
Captain's Club Loyal Members' Benefits (6 stars): Celebrity recently augmented their Captain's Club program with terrific new benefits for Elite members. Among other things, these included some free laundry, some free internet minutes, private breakfast lounge including some alcoholic drinks, e.g., champaign (!) and freshly squeezed juices, and private cocktail hour with free drinks. These innovations add tremendously to the overall enjoyment of cruises of Elite members with Celebrity.
They closed the main dining room (Trellis) for lunch on all port days. This is getting to be a trend with cruise lines (I suppose as part of their cost-saving efforts) and is a real negative for us. If you don't go ashore on a port day or choose to go off in the afternoon, there is little to do anyway on the ship and the buffet can get monotonous and uninteresting quite rapidly. Anyway, the buffet food is clearly inferior to the food in the main dining room. When you write your comment cards, please be sure to request that at least a small portion of the main dining room be kept open for lunch on port days. Cruise lines do respond when passengers consistently state their preferences. If passengers begin demanding (via their comment cards), more options for food at lunch time, or more varied activities throughout the cruise, some of those demands will eventually be met.
Overall (5.0 stars), I'd say Celebrity is an excellent cruise line. The Greek roots of Celebrity appear to have influenced its warm hospitality, friendliness of staff and crew, and great emphasis on excellence of service. Thus, it is unfortunate that they lack the variety and length of itineraries such as those offered by Holland America or Princess. For those of us who cruise frequently, itineraries offered by Celebrity become quite limiting after a while. They definitely need to bring some of their new, large ships (e.g., Equinox) to the West coast of the US and use them to do longer cruises to Hawaii, the Pacific, Australia, and the far East. Additionally, I'd say they need more round-trip, long, and imaginative cruises off of west coast ports (e.g., San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles). They need to be reminded of the fact that most passengers do not enjoy flying.
Value (6 stars): Value is the overall rating in the preceding paragraph divided by cost. I think Celebrity is very hard to beat when it comes to the quality of cruise experience relative to cost.