This cruise featured a very international mix of passengers and like so many of our fellow cruises we traveled from afar (Taiwan via New Zealand) for what would be the last of only two Antarctic sailings by the Infinity this year. Our voyage was sold as an "Antarctic Cruise" and I assume that most passengers booked this itinerary with high hopes and expectations of seeing the white continent.
Arriving in Buenos Aires one day early, we stayed overnight in the very central Sheraton Buenos Aires Convention Center. Boarding the next day around 3pm, we were pleasantly surprised at BA's new cruise terminal. Especially after reading about the embarkation chaos in prior years. There were no queues at the baggage security screening, we then headed upstairs for our cruise paperwork and to obtain our seapasses. Although we received CC priority stickers, there were again no queues and plenty of empty counters with friendly staff. We boarded buses for a short ride to the ship. We were in our cabin less than 20 minutes after arriving at the port.
The Infinity continues to be a gracious ship and, in our opinion, is in very good shape. Public areas were kept spotless and passenger flow is excellent. There was only a small number of passengers in the lobby when we were welcomed with champagne. As we walked to our cabin, carpeting and furniture coverings seemed very new. Our cabin was large and although the dEcor is a little dated, the ship and cabins feel cozy and comfortable. Despite us arriving with too much luggage for the long cruise, we had excess wardrobe and other storage space even after unpacking everything. One big plus of the Infinity ships that was going to be in evidence throughout the next 2 weeks was the superior sound proofing between cabins. At no point in time did any noise intrude from neighboring cabins. This is unlike many other ships we have sailed on, including Celebrity's newer Solstice class. The only improvement I can suggest is to replace the clingy shower curtains with Solstice type glass doors, which I am sure will be done when Infinity is refurbished at the end of the year.
Celebrity does an excellent job running its routine operations on the ship, more on these later. However, we have had continual problems with bad communications between its land based operations and its team at sea - not only on this cruise, but many prior ones. We are Captain Club Select members and although our Captain Club's vouchers were all in the cabin upon arrival, we immediately noticed that our dining arrangements were yet again not what we had booked. We had asked for 5th floor, early seating and a table near the back of the dining room. Instead, we had been assigned 4th floor, late seating at the front of the dining room - in other words the exact opposite of what was booked. This was downright annoying since I had talked to my Celebrity reservation agent on this matter countless times (we had booked the cruise nearly a year in advance). Furthermore, I had called the Captain's Club to ensure they had captured the same. The Maitre De and Captains Club hostess onboard subsequently confirmed that all of this was in our reservation but that a systems glitch between Miami and the boat meant that our dining had been re-assigned. In the end, the best the team onboard could do was to assign us to early seating at the front of the 4th floor. This after several hours of waiting as the Maitre De was very busy moving around a number of large tour groups and had little time for individual passengers.
Our general observation is that when things go wrong, Celebrity handles them extremely poorly. The number of groups and passengers who had to change seating arrangements seemed astonishingly high on this cruise and we have never had much luck in Celebrity communicating our requests to the ship, no matter how often we triple check prior to our departure. We were told that this was due to the large number of international versus US bookings and the international reservation system having a number of bugs. This explanation doesn't seem to make much sense in an age where many global companies are able to make their systems work across the world. Furthermore, the Captain Club staff we called was obviously also in the US.
Be that as it may, we eventually settled in on our balcony for a beautiful evening sail away from BA, enjoyed a great dinner and subsequent show. With a large number of sea days on this cruise, we were able to try most ship facilities at some stage. Food was consistently of a very high standard in both the MDR and the Cafe. We always looked forward to meals and the variety was very good. The Spa Cafe continues to be a good choice for lighter meals, we enjoyed every visit to Cova Cafe and the MDR was an occasion to look forward to for every meal. Small gripes include the United States, which served up a rather disappointing afternoon tea with very soggy sandwiches. The scones, cakes and the service made up for this. In fact, the service given by the cabin and restaurant staff was always exceeding expectations.
We did notice that the dress standards are slipping and were not being enforced. Even on formal nights, tour leaders would walk through the restaurants, including the United States, in jeans and T shirts to talk with their groups. We feel that the number of formal nights has already been drastically reduced over the past number of years and that passengers (as well as their tour leaders) should make more of an effort on those few formal nights that remain. Obviously not everybody agrees with that sentiment, but it is the code. Therefore, it would be nice to see the ship staff enforce this. Instead, the ship's staff seemed to fear upsetting any of the tour leaders, presumably for fear of loosing future large group business. We overhead a number of what we felt were unreasonable requests by tour leaders and the ship's crew usually prioritized these over the needs and convenience of other passengers. I am not sure what lead to the large number of groups on this particular sailing, but to us it was not a good thing for all of those who had booked individually and did not have a tour leader to represent us.
Our first port of call on this cruise was Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. We had beautifully warm weather and had booked the 4 wheel drive tour to the King Penguin colony. Well worth it for a close up encounter with the Penguins on a great beach, which can simply not be replicated elsewhere. We also called on Ushuaia where we enjoyed a great day at the Martial glacier and a drive into Tierra Del Fuego National Park. In Puerto Madryn we drove to Peninsula Valdez for wildlife spotting and in Montevideo we enjoyed a Tour of the recently renovated Opera Solis and simply walking around this very charming city. However, the highlight of our cruise was supposed to be the two days to be spent in Antarctic waters. Unfortunately, this is where Celebrity's organization provided yet another major let down.
After Infinity reached Elephant Island, we saw our first and only iceberg on this trip. After approximately 2 hours of cruising close to the island, we were informed that the weather was going to turn bad and that we would be heading to Ushuaia for an extra day, to be simply parked in port. The entire remainder of the Antarctic itinerary was therefore cancelled with just a couple of announcement that were neither apologetic nor very caring. After all, this was the destination that the entire cruise had been sold on (at a considerable premium versus other 14 day itineraries) and that most passengers had traveled very far to see. When I enquired from the Guest Relations Manager whether we might be going back in case the weather improves the response was "are you cruising for the first time" - as if such diversions are routine and we were complete cruising novices. She quickly back paddled when she saw our CC status. Hardly a satisfactory response to any passenger though. Furthermore, I saw on the cruise critic boards from last year that Infinity's voyage met with similar obstacles and returned to Antarctica once again after diverting to Ushuaia.
Unfortunately, we did simply park the boat for two days in Ushuaia and did not return to Antarctica. While we respect the decisions of a captain on any ship, we feel that Celebrity needs to do a much better job at communicating such decisions and providing accurate information. It also needs to show a lot more empathy to passengers even if a port diversion is necessary. Here is what we did not like with how Celebrity handled the situation :
- The Captain announced that a low pressure system had approached and repeated the next morning that this was at 1014 millibars. Well, we analyzed his rather technical sounding announcement via Wikipedia and found that 1013.25 is the standard pressure at sea level and therefore 1014 really does not sound either High or Low. Furthermore, the weather and visibility outside was ok, seas were not heavier than we had during our Alaska and New Zealand cruise and neither was the wind.
- When we arrived in Ushuaia, we expected a flotilla of all the other cruise and expedition ships that were also in Antarctica at the same time to take shelter. Surprisingly there were none. In fact, we had two groups of friends cruising in Antarctica at the same time and neither of their cruises was interrupted. They have returned with glowing reports of the spectacular scenery and none thought that the weather was particularly bad. Thirdly, we were able to see ourselves at the port that Silversea's Prince Albrecht docked in Ushuaia more than half a day after us and continued on its next Antarctic visit the following day.
The Celebrity Infinity is obviously the largest and most stable ship that was operating in these waters at this time of the year. Given the above, we therefore sought out the Guest Relations Manager once again. We questioned why none of the other cruises had diverted. Even if visibility/ice/wind were supposedly affecting Paradise Bay, why did we simply not stay longer near Elephant Island or try holding patterns in another part of the peninsula? The Prince Albrecht was multiple times smaller than the Infinity and yet had managed to cruise the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia in comfort half a day after us. Therefore, there really seemed to be little rhyme or reason for the Infinity to rush back to Ushuaia so quickly. Not to mention that Silversea once again left Infinity in the dust with its next departure for the continent the following day.
The Guest Relations Manager really had no explanations for any of this and could only reply that she cannot comment on what other cruise lines do. Miami head office had decided that we would not go and that was that. We left extremely disappointed that we were being told that the itinerary had been changed due to weather, yet smaller and less equipped boats continued on their cruises. We were even more annoyed when we returned home to tales from our friends on how beautiful the Antarctic scenery was when they visited on the very same days. It appears that Celebrity can disguise any diversion under the pretext of weather and does not owe its passengers an explanation when they observe other vessels that are continuing on their itinerary without any concern. It sounded like weather was only a pretext for another reason. The GRM did say that she would feedback our comments to Miami and that somebody would be in touch to explain the itinerary change further. One month later, we have not heard.
Celebrity may have a good product when it comes to simply relaxing onboard and not caring where the next port of call might be. However, for anybody who is interested in destination cruising, like we are, we recommend giving Celebrity a wide berth. It has obviously not learnt from the debacle of its problematic 2010 Antarctic sailing a year earlier. We are repeating our attempt to go to Antarctica next year. Although Celebrity's Azamara sister is heading down there again in 2010, its probably the same mangement and we will try another line.