When we flew to LA for our Panama Canal cruise on Infinity we tried not to have really high expectations because our previous cruise [back-to-back Alaska on sister ship Millennium May/June 2010] had been such a wonderful success that we were not convinced this ship could live up to that standard for interest and excitement.
In a way things did not start well. When we arrived at San Pedro pier around 11.20am there were hundreds in line, and the side of the check-in area for Suites, Concierge and Elite was not open. But, the line moved quickly and we had checked in shortly afterwards - only to be shown after security, Xrays etc.into a large waiting area, clutching our Group 9 ticket for boarding. After about an hour, with the lounge filling fast and seats at a premium, a Pier Supervisor began to use a loud hailer to call group numbers to the barriers which lead to the ship. Groups were called quite quickly, and by 12.30pm we were on the stairs and escalators and on board - in the line for SeaPass photos.
With mimosas in hand, we declined the offer of assistance to find our stateroom because we had the identical one to that on Millennium and knew the way. We toasted Infinity in our room at 1.10pm, dropped our carry-on bags and headed to the Ocean Grille for a light lunch.
That day, and over the first days at sea, we heard many complaints about embarkation in LA. However by discrete questioning of staff we discovered a couple of things. Those on the ship have no control over the activities of pier personnel, and the perceived delay in the start of boarding was due to the slow processing of disembarking passengers because of the US Customs and Immigration staff on shore being very thorough with those arriving on the previous cruise [there were still 200 passengers left to disembark at 11.30am]. We found it strange that there were so many complaints when embarkation did start before the scheduled [and publicized in our e-docs] 1pm start time - if you arrive early expect to wait?
We have sailed with Celebrity many times and their style of cruising suits us. We have found ways to enjoy the on-board dining by being careful with where and what we choose to eat. Breakfast in Michael's Club or Spa Cafe, lunch in Spa Cafe, dinner in a rotation of SS US (twice), the main dining room and the Ocean Grille. In the Trellis Dining Room we had opted to try Select Dining for the first time - it worked for us. We had made reservations on-line for preferred times before the cruise and soon found that Asst. Maitre D.' Ruby and the hostess Khadine at the door recognized us, remembered our names and our preference for a table for two. After two nights in two different sections we expressed a preference for Waiter Saul and Assistant Ardi, and Khadine placed us in this section [with Sommelier Ayhan] each night when we returned. Their service, advice, timing and friendliness made the dinners there very enjoyable. I consider the appetizers to be amongst the best dishes on the menu so I succumbed and ordered two quite often - we usually have soup and salad for lunch at Spa Cafe so we both skipped that course on most nights. Main dishes ranged from satisfactory to excellent - we found the pasta dishes with meat or seafood toppings to be overwhelming in terms of the toppings because we prefer our pasta with light sauces not a whole chicken breast or sliced sirloin. Some of the main courses were outstanding - the BBQ Sea Bass, Veal Cordon Blue Our Way, Coconut Thai Prawns and Veal Osso Buco and a couple of vegetarian dishes had us sending compliments to the chef.
On the nights in the Ocean Grille we explored alternatives - pizza, sushi, stir fry, Indian foods - and the antipasto and salad bars - all worked well. Our dinners there were more like home cooking for us and very relaxing. However we must mention the fine service there from waiters who, when told we had some wine in the main dining room, managed to arrange to have the unfinished bottle brought up to the Ocean Grille without complaint or delay. We also appreciated the visits from the Head Waiter Joseph and Restaurant Manager Danuta. In passing through the Ocean Grille on their rounds of all dining areas they stopped by for a chat and offered to assist.
Our experiences in the SS US were highlights of the cruise for us. Maitre D.' Oswald and his staff were attentive to every detail and both evenings the pacing was excellent, the presentation of dishes was camera-worthy and the flavours were intense. We appreciated the size of the dishes and managed to order five courses without feeling overwhelmed by the end of each meal [we chose just one cheese from the trolley though despite temptation]. Special mention must be made of the efforts of Sommelier Evgeny who kept track of the various wines we ordered for specific courses, and arranged to send some of the unfinished bottles to the Trellis for other nights and some to our stateroom for use on other occasions.
We did some comparisons on this cruise with the back-to-back on Millennium in May/June. We were pleasantly surprised to find the outer decks and public rooms on Infinity even cleaner - we found the guest musicians On Tap (A Cappella quartet) and guitarist Anton to be more entertaining and more popular than their equivalents on Millie. We are not fans of the dumbed-down style or amplification of the entertainment in the Celebrity Theatre, so we either do not attend, or we go for a number or two and then retreat to the smaller lounges for more polished and quieter offerings. We did enjoy hearing soloists or small groups of the Celebrity Orchestra when they performed outside the Theater - some wonderful musicians!
We attended lectures on board. We soon found that Mike Vecchionne appealed us, and his marine biology themed material was well presented with his slides. We found the other lecturer to be too 'once over lightly' and more focused on his take on ports than history and so we cherry-picked his material when re-played on TV in the stateroom.
I attended some of the Oceans Ahead series - each one conducted by an officer and featuring aspects of cruise ships; navigation, environmental issues, propulsion etc. While some officers read their PowerPoint slides unnecessarily, the material was informative.
We met some of the Senior Officers at various events and discovered a very interesting teamwork approach led by Hotel Director Leonie. She seemed to have a 'walk the talk' approach which meant she was very visible and her fellow officers all seemed always to have a smile, be quick to solve any issue we mentioned either in person or on an "attention to detail" sheet. I dropped off one of these sheets at Guest Relations early one morning to alert them to a slow draining basin and shower and then I went to the Gym. When I returned to the stateroom after a work-out, I discovered that the plumber had been, fixed the problem and left before I had a chance to warn my wife of the potential visit of a plumber!
The piping in of a barrel of Beaujolais Nouveau and subsequent tasting was a bonus - and we enjoyed the different format of the Heartbeat of the Operation events which featured the very personable Master Chef Gerard and his staff - great demos and informative Q&A sessions.
Was everything perfect? No. We experienced some annoying times on a Celebrity booked shore excursion to Pura Vida Gardens in Costa Rica because some other passengers had not brought rain gear or had not read the description and were too large or too out of shape to handle the stairs and paths in the hillside gardens. When it rained - and most of us pulled out ponchos and umbrellas - the unprepared guests wanted to cut the walk short and go back to the cafe. Our guide was torn between continuing the tour and being with the unprepared and unfit ones for safety reasons - we felt somewhat short-changed that Celebrity Shore Excursion staff had not warned ticket buyers of the weather and terrain. Our other shore excursion - horse drawn carriage ride in Cartagena featured an excellent guide on the bus to and from the ride, and some wonderfully relaxing time which produced some excellent pictures too.
We found the piped music in the Ocean Grille and lounges generally and in the Theatre before events to be too loud and up-beat for two people trying to slow down and relax. This music mean we also found it difficult to find a quiet place to sit and read or write.
Being a long distance walker - and avoiding the direct sunlight - I was annoyed at the frequent roping off of sections in the middle of both sides of the Promenade Deck which meant I had to walk up and back in handkerchief sized parts of the deck..... one side at a time would have been more to my liking.
The transit of the Panama Canal was, of course, a highlight. Some reviewers have previously commented on stateroom selection - it is important. We had a forward-facing oceanview with a window. When the tropical rainstorm arrived as we headed under the Bridge of the Americas in Panama City and pointed at the first two locks this rainfall kept passengers indoors scrambling for viewing places. We had room-service breakfast, made our own mimosas and watched the passage through the first two locks while wearing our robes, and I have some great photos to prove it. When the rain stopped after the first two locks we ventured out on deck and enjoyed the views from upper decks, from the side and aft. We really appreciated the stateroom TV bridge-cam and the commentary from the Panama Canal Commission commentator which went with it. Fortunately the rain stopped before the Pedro Miguel lock and held off for the balance of the transit. The work being done on the duplication and widening of the canal is stunning to see.
Disembarkation in Miami was remarkably quick and easy. We were directed from our lounge exactly at the time specified in the disembarkation letter, through Customs and Immigration to luggage [wonderful new carousels since our last landing here] to taxi in less than 25 minutes from the time we said goodbye to Tanushka [Captain's Club hostess] in Michael's Club.
Maybe our enjoyment of cruising with Celebrity is enhanced by our positive attitude to travel - I know that being in an upper level of the Captain's Club provides some benefits which we really appreciate [after many years of complaining]. We enjoyed ourselves and Celebrity so much we headed to the Sales Office during the cruise and booked two more - for 2012. We are looking forward to our two cruises on Century in 2011.
For photos see www.gallery.me.com/morefromles1 - more albums still to come.