SUMMARY: Before my journey to Antarctica, I often skimmed the cruise reviews asking myself "Where does one find the time to write 10 page reviews?" But the more I read, the more valuable was the information I picked up so I promised when I returned, that I would contribute my thoughts and experiences to the web's vast repository of trip knowledge and hopefully provide some useful tidbits and insights for future Celebrity/Antarctica/South America travelers. It was such a memorable experience that I have actually enjoyed writing about it to relive the voyage. Seeing Antarctica was on my mother's "bucket list" and I accompanied her to help fulfill her dream.
AIR ARRANGEMENTS VIA CELEBRITY: I vacillated over booking our own flights vs. letting Celebrity choose them, but was partial to the idea of Celebrity taking some culpability in the event the flight was delayed/cancelled. The arrangements could not have worked out better. The outbound flight on American Airlines was timed perfectly with little wasted time switching planes. We were seated near the rear and soon realized we were among fellow passengers who had flown into Miami from various places to converge for the overnight flight to Buenos Aires. We had the good fortune of no delays following some major snowstorms hitting the East. The return flight post cruise was unfortunately not until 11:30 p.m. This was not any fault of Celebrity. No international flights back to the U.S. left before mid/late evening from Buenos Aires. It was a long day at the airport, but considering the throngs of distraught and stranded passengers at the airport rerouted or trying to return to Santiago after the earthquake, we felt fortunate to be returning to our intact homes and families, regardless of the late hour.
HANDICAPPED COMMENTS: I want to mention my mother's physical condition hoping that her positive experience will encourage others her age and condition to consider this trip. As a result of several falls over the years and a recent auto accident, she was in constant pain. Standing for any length of time was agony. Our travel agent, Carl Bruno of CruisePlanners, suggested 'wheelchair assist' at the airports. It was a godsend. A representative from the airline greeted her with a wheelchair whenever we exited a plane. She was then escorted through baggage control, passport and customs, and security. She barely needed to stand or walk. She would NEVER have been able to maneuver the airport without this service. American Airlines was incredible. Carl also ordered "peer assistance" at the port. In addition, at several ports, including Montevideo and Ushuaia, we borrowed a wheelchair from Celebrity and I was able to push her through the streets. I also borrowed a wheelchair to walk her around the deck. At the buffets on board the ship, as soon as she walked in with her cane, a member of the Celebrity staff promptly offered to hold her tray as well as help her navigate the food lines. The only real challenge was the mandatory lifeboat drill. We were lined up in tight rows of about 8 people each and needed to stand for quite awhile listening to the instructions in various languages. In addition, I don't know if any accommodations are available for the hearing impaired - we did not inquire, but - she did not hear any announcements unless I repeated them to her.
EMBARKATION: It seems to make logical sense to talk about embarkation first although I hate to begin on a negative note as the trip was truly spectacular in every other way. So I'll get the negativism out of the way. We exited the aircraft, gathered our luggage and proceeded through customs. A very nice Celebrity representative greeted us and distributed color coded stick-on dots that corresponded to a transport bus. Our luggage was tagged with our cabin numbers and we were directed to wait to the side. There was way fewer seats than people but standing felt good after the long flight. (at least to me, not my mother) Close to an hour passed and we were then herded to another terminal on foot. It was a pretty long walk with our carry ons and the guide never looked back to ensure the stragglers with canes were keeping up or knew where to go. Whoever got to the terminal first was directed to stand by a particular statue and await further instructions. Again a handful of seats for 100's of passengers. The folks bringing up the rear got the instructions from other passengers as the person in charge disappeared for another hour. She returned and called 1 color and directed the others to remain and if there was room on the bus, some of us might be able to join them. We were called, along with several others, although the bus ended up not having enough room after all and several had to turn back to the airport terminal. The bus had an odd circular staircase leading to the seats, difficult for able bodied to maneuver and very challenging for those needing assistance. The bus sat for quite some time with the guide seeming a bit flustered but my limited command of Spanish did not permit me to understand the conversation she was having with the driver. After the hour drive to the pier, we exited the bus where swarms of travel weary people wandering around aimlessly until we were motioned to a building. We lined up or I should say amassed by a line of computer terminals. There were a few barriers that might lend itself to some order but no one seemed to take charge and direct us. We eventually got our turn to register and received our stateroom cards. We were led to another line for the embarkation picture, which didn't come out half bad considering what we looked like after the lengthy flight. Then on to a seatless bus. I guess there was no need for seats in them because they were so crammed with people, we held each other up by the force. Luckily, this was about a 2 minute bus ride and apparently required by the local authorities. An announcement was made that the staterooms were not ready and that we could go directly to floor 10 for a lunch buffet. The lines for the elevator were staggering but by now, we were pros at line waiting. So we lugged our carry-ons and eventually arrived on floor 10.
Our bags were not delivered until bedtime so we dined in our travel clothes looking quite grungy - perhaps that is why there were 3 empty seats at our table. We redefined "smart casual," but that is where some minor inconveniences transformed into 14 days of paradise.
DEMOGRAPHICS: The captain and many of the officers were from Greece. The remaining Celebrity crew was multinational, as were the passengers. If I had to pick a dominant language that I heard in the elevators and halls, it was German, possibly followed by Spanish. The guests for the most part all exuded warmth and friendliness, despite our obvious language barriers. There was a universal awe when standing beside the icebergs in Antarctica that spoke to all of us, regardless of our country of origin.
ANTARCTICA: The icebergs were of indescribable beauty. Standing on deck 11, they stood about the same height as we, and supposedly they are only 1/10 above water. It is mind boggling to think how deep they penetrate the ocean. One is more breathtaking than the next. Seals and penguins frequented the incredible ice floes. In addition, families of whales darted in and out regularly - humpbacks and even an orca family. It is like a water safari. Whales spewing water like the spray of a shaken soda bottle, slender sleek bodies plunging beneath the deep ocean waters to disappear - only magically to reappear a few feet away. Penguins waddling to the edge of an ice floe and jumping like parachuters off a plane or schoolchildren in line to soar into a lake. The breakfast buffet was packed full by 7 and the excitement was palpable as we approached Elephant Island at 8 that morning. The temperature was bitter cold (minus 5 Fahrenheit), but you felt an invisible pull keeping you outside so you won't miss a second of the panoramic beauty. I went back and forth between the Constellation lounge and the otherworldly paradise outside. The lounge has floor to ceiling windows which offer a spectacular 360 degree view without the icy snow and wind at your face. The hand warmers I brought were the smartest thing I packed! Onlookers were wrapped snugly in Celebrity provided blue-green plaid wool blankets. The sea at Elephant Island was so still, appearing as a leathery blend of grey and black, gently rippling endlessly as far as the eye could see. The icebergs are so very humbling. Thoughts of Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition can't help but race through your mind. 421 days of unforgiving temperatures and conditions on a vessel a fraction of the size of the Infinity. Meanwhile the water dances around in hues of aquamarine, blues and hazy whites, the sky grey and blanketing, threatening yet comforting. Periodic dips into the hot tub provided welcome warmth to face the wind pummeling across my face.
INTERNET access: I frequented the internet cafe. I generally stay disconnected from email during a vacation but it was my link to the rest of my family. I purchased the $99 package which included 287 minutes of connect time. About $20 remained at the end of the 2 weeks so it really was plenty. I indulged solely for emailing to/from the family and did not even skim the other varied and sorted messages one receives in the course of a day so I was a light user. I learned from a fellow passenger who works in broadcasting that satellites orbit the earth around the equator so when you are this far South, it is very difficult to get a signal. The internet was intermittently available, especially down in/around Antarctica but signs were clearly posted "due to weather conditions, ship maneuvering and/or ship position, internet is down" and it usually was available again by the time I passed the cafe again. I brought a laptop with a wireless card. The ship had ample wifi areas so there was never a wait for a terminal in the cafe, although, I never saw it completely filled anyway. Celebrity generously provided printing gratis for those with internet packages but I had no need for this service.
MISCELLANEOUS: DRESS CODE: There were 3 formal nights of which I'd say about 75% of the passengers participated. Corkage: I am not a drinker but Carl Bruno, our travel agent graciously sent a bottle of wine and I decided to indulge. Beware the $25 corkage fee. (or ask your room attendant for a cork screw) WEATHER/PACKING: The temperature ranged from -5 degrees in Antarctica to 90's in Buenos Aires. The majority of the trip, however, was cold. Many shorts and short sleeved shirts came home unworn. The Falklands and Ushuaia were both heavy jacket days. The sea days were mostly very cold and windy. Celebrity provided very nice warm wool blankets for on deck though. Hot chocolate was plentiful as well. ON-BOARD ACTIVITIES: A 14 day cruise got long. After I had won a Celebrity luggage tag and pen in 'Name that tune,' and attended several trivia sessions, it got old. CHILDREN: There were a smattering of children on board, but probably due to the length of the voyage and the fact it was not during a school break, passengers under the age of 20 were far and few between. PHOTO GALLERY: I really enjoyed the fact that the photographers were not constantly 'in your face.' They were not pushy or overbearing, and even had quite a sense of humor. The video of the 2 weeks (available for purchase) was amazing and a wonderful montage of culture, wildlife, and the trip's splendor. THE NEWS: "Celebrity Today" provided a great daily synopsis of the next day's activities (placed on your bed at turndown so you could plan the next day's agenda). World news summaries were also on hand each evening by the concierge, in 6 or 7 languages. We were never far from staying abreast of the Toyota scandal which seemed to frequent the headlines those 2 weeks. VALENTINE'S DAY: We embarked on Valentine's Day and the buffet displayed several tacky party store-like holiday signs and cupids suspended from the ceiling along with a large chocolate heart sitting amongst the desserts. A classy touch, however, was a rose delivered to every lady during dinner. GYM/EXERCISE: I frequented the ½ hour "Fab Abs" workout each morning led by Robson. I also availed myself of the numerous treadmills. The weight equipment seemed well maintained and plentiful. I particularly appreciated the almost infinite size adjustments on the machines. OUR CAPTAIN: Captain Michail Margaritis provided just the right amount of information across the PA system. He wouldn't win Mr. Congeniality, but I'd rather he be in charge of the safety of the ship rather than the entertainment. GERMS: This next comment is coming from someone who is a little bit over the top with hand washing, There was a constant noticeable coughing/sneezing background symphony taking place in the audience at most shows. While there were ample hand sanitizers located in the entrances to all restaurants and public rooms, the Celebrity staff was not at all proactive at encouraging or enforcing their use. I had taken several NCL voyages where staff was actually holding the spray bottles and proactively spritzing some sanitizer into your hands at every turn. While some may perceive this as invasive, I must say, rarely a cough or sneeze was heard on the Norwegian. SHOPPING: We were disappointed with the lack of Antarctica souvenirs available on the ship. We heard conflicting stories from staff - 1 salesperson said they'd be available the last day (after everyone bought all the other port t-shirts). Another later said that they all sold out on the last sailing and no additional were ordered. They did sell penguins made of sea glass, a penguin pooper candy dispenser, various books etc. In Celebrity's defense though, with the Antarctica population of zero and no gift shops, an Antarctica souvenir would not have been very authentic and likely made in China anyway!
DINING: I did not try the specialty restaurant "SS United States" but heard it was a wonderful experience with diners outnumbered by staff about 10 to 1. I frequented the Trellis restaurant and didn't feel any burning desire to eat elsewhere. We sat at table 519, the upper floor of the 2 story restaurant, near a window where we witnessed magnificent sunsets. We selected the early sitting (6:15). We never felt rushed getting back to the boat after excursions and the time worked out perfectly. The meal was leisurely but finished in plenty of time to attend a 9 p.m. show. The left side of the menu remained constant with selections available daily, all of which were tantalizing and delicious. The right side changed daily with a plentiful selection for vegetarian, meat eaters alike. I especially enjoyed their daily seafood choices - each cooked to perfection, perfectly seasoned. I pride myself on my homemade soups, but I have to say Celebrity's soups were par excellent, you could taste the fresh ingredients. I did not indulge in desserts although tempting, until the last night, the 'Paris meets New York,' New York style cheesecake served in a French pastry. After sampling this concoction, I had a momentary regret of not sampling the earlier confections, but the fact that my clothes still fit validated my decision to abstain. Our waiter, Ahron and assistant, Yudell were delightful and within a day, knew all of our preferences without asking like water without ice, decaf coffee, etc. They served with such warmth and always seemed genuinely happy to be there. LUNCH: We usually ate lunch at the Oceanview Cafe, with something for everyone, from salads to pastas, pizza to sandwiches. I particularly enjoyed the Panini station as well as the daily international specials. Breezes Pool Grill was also open for lunch and offered burgers, hotdogs, fries etc. I also learned they'd grill chicken upon request. The AquaSpa Cafe was yet another lunch alternative with a lighter fare. We sampled the fresh poached exotic fruits, daily seafood entrees, and homemade bread sticks that were to die for!
ENTERTAINMENT: Cruise Director Allan King - I've experienced more active, dynamic cruise directors, but he fulfilled his purpose and was entertaining in a dry sort of way. Evening shows: entertainment ran the gamut from spectacular to mediocre but I didn't expect Broadway each and every night of a 14 day cruise so I was not disappointed. Performers included the absolutely topnotch Celebrity dancers/singers (who WERE Broadway quality), a group of highly talented acapella singers, Brandi Chapman - a vocalist, Mark Donoghue - skilled with a variety of instruments including Mandolin, guitar, harmonica and violin. Also, your token juggler. I especially enjoyed the pianist in one of the lounges - very talented and warm personality, Tom Listebarger. One performer of mention, Brooks Aehron - although a very talented pianist, made a very distasteful reference to the decorative torches flanking the sides of the theater making him feel like he is performing at the crematorium. What a desecration of the memories of those that lost their lives in them. Many shocked concert goers exited the theater while others refused to attend his repeat performances further along the trip. CINEMA: Movies were plentiful with several showings per day. I did not take full advantage of the films thinking I could always rent when I am home rather than waste the time on the South Atlantic in front of a movie. Selections included "Bride Wars," "Knowing," "Soloist," "Easy Virtue," "Wolverine," "Duplicity," "Star Trek," "Marley and Me," "Valkyrie," "Last Chance Harvey," and "Watchmen." Other very appropriate movies considering our ports of Antarctica, Argentina etc. included "Eight Below," "Endurance Expedition," "March of the Penguins," "Evita," and "Encounters at the End of the World." Pay per view movies were also available on the televisions in the staterooms.
SPECIAL INTEREST SPEAKERS: These were both wonderful and included a retired professor Richard Ojakangas, a geologist with 38 years of research on all continents who spoke on Ernest Shackleton, penguins, glaciation, and global warming/oil. The second, Graham Sunderland, a naturalist - spoke on Antarctica, the wildlife of the South Atlantic, and whales. The subject matter for the most part was very stimulating, and the few lectures that were less than interesting to me, provided me with a wonderful mid morning nap!
PORTS: USUAIA: I can't comment on the other excursions in Ushuaia, but a Beagle Channel catamaran to Sea Wolves Island can definitely easily be found for ½ the price of the cruise sponsored trip. Once you exit the ship and walk past the security checkpoint, there are about 15 kiosks offering various boating options as well as taxi drivers and guides. Most only had 1 daily departure, however, mid morning - so if you plan to take advantage of any of these sailings, get an early start on breakfast and debarking. We chose Patagonia Adventure Explorer mainly because of the sales pitch of going on a smaller boat than a catamaran and being able to come much closer to Sea Wolves etc. We later saw that the catamarans went just as close but we enjoyed Patagonia Explorers none the less. We were roughly a group of 15, accompanied by a bilingual guide who showed us our journey on maps as well as shared with us books and information about the history of the area. The trip was 4 hours and included Sea Wolves Island, home to a colony of sea lions, Bird's Island, full with cormorant inhabitants, and the Les Eclaireurs lighthouse built in 1919. On the way back, we stopped on Bridges Island for a ½ hour walk to a scenic lookout with beautiful picture taking opportunities of the waters and surrounding snow capped mountains. We also enjoyed a very interesting talk on the aboriginal inhabitants of the area. Onboard the boat, we were served plentiful amounts of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, assorted cookies and some type of liqueur that we did not try. Ushuaia proved to be the best place for Antarctica souvenirs (made in China), but say Antarctica nonetheless. It is an extremely steep uphill climb to reach the shopping area - not wheelchair accessible.
PORT STANLEY, Falkland Islands: The ship excursion "A day at the Beach with Royalty" was sold out long before we sailed, so I booked the same excursion with Patrick Watts who many people on the web have commented on and is ½ the price. A placard with my name was on display as we tendered and the 4x4's were waiting to whisk us away to Volunteer Point. We arrived in the Falklands, population less than 2,500, an hour later than scheduled due to wave/weather conditions so we had a very short stop at Volunteer Point. We literally had to run from 1 penguin area to another to be able to view/photograph them all. It was not Patrick's fault - just not enough hours in port there. We did see King, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, adults, babies and even eggs. We had also arrived on about the only non rainy day in weeks so the drive was extremely muddy and we had to make frequent stops to pull other 4x4's in the caravan out of the peat bogs. The ride was extremely bumpy and riders should heed the warning "not recommended for guests with back, neck or mobility problems." I would also definitely recommend Patrick's operation. He delivered as advertised. One tip I read about which proved worthwhile is to pack a pair of disposable painter's shoe covers. The grounds are coated in penguin poop! My sneakers were like new after the trek with the covers. Penguins were plentiful as far as the eye could see. There were no boundaries and you could walk beside them. The ride is long - about 3 hours each way - with mostly monotone vistas of peat, rocks and occasional sheep. Our driver, Steven Vincent, in addition to expertise with a 4x4 in waist deep mud, provided entertaining stories and good music that made the 3 hours pass rather quickly.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - I took a city tour through Celebrity which was very enjoyable and included the highlights, important monuments and sites. The guide was very well versed in the history etc. Upon returning, I borrowed a wheelchair and took mom on a stroll down to the market. Buenos Aires - If you have extra time in Buenos Aires, I highly recommend getting in touch with a woman that I stumbled upon on the web - Sandra Gutrejde from My Buenos Aires Travel Guide or www.batravelguide.com. Sandra is a refreshing, delightful woman who proved to be responsive, accommodating, friendly and so helpful. I really cannot say enough positive. I approached Sandra with some ideas of my own but after explaining my mother's physical condition, she recommended against my ideas despite potentially missing out on our patronage. She was so selfless and delivered on all promises and exceeded my expectations, going above and beyond in her kindness and knowledge.
PUERTO MADRYN, Argentina - we took the courtesy shuttle to downtown, walked around a bit, and then called it a day, choosing to relax by the pool on our first warm day in 2 weeks.