We booked the whole package - flights, hotels and cruise - direct with Celebrity in the UK. Although our preference would have been to fly with BA, this was not an option and we flew Business Class - out with American Airlines and home, via Madrid, with Iberia. Despite Celebrity helping as much as they were able, leading up to the cruise we experienced a number of problems trying to access our flight reservations online and speaking to Iberia on the telephone so that, although we eventually managed to reserve our seats and provide all the necessary pre-flight information, online check-in kept failing and we set off with little confidence in either airline. This was compounded by hearing on the radio news on our taxi journey to Heathrow that American Airlines had just filed for bankruptcy protection in the US courts. Just another potential little problem to add to the public sector strikes called for the next day!
We had independently booked a night at the Heathrow Renaissance. It had been upgraded since our last stay and the room had better towels and toiletries, a mirrored-doored wardrobe and electronic privacy settings. It is now an even better choice for a reasonably price pre-flight stay. We caught the Hoppa bus Terminal 3 and continue to be amazed at the great service National Express provides. The drivers always help with the luggage. This time, ours even found us a luggage trolley and loaded our cases onto it. We were able to pre-purchase our tickets online making the whole process even easier.
Despite being the day of the public sector strikes everyone at Heathrow was cheerful and friendly and the airport was less crowded than normal. There were no hold-ups. We were very impressed with American Airlines from check-in at the airport to the food and service on board. The seats on the 777 jet were comfortable and it is probably the only flight we have ever been on where we had to refuse great food because we were full! Our only complaint was that we had eaten too well and had to miss out on our traditional first night dinner at Chucks in Fort Lauderdale!
We were not so impressed with our return flights on Iberia who maintained the tradition of inedible airline food.
For the three days before embarkation, we choose to stay at the Embassy Suites hotel in Fort Lauderdale as on our previous three stays in the city. It is not the most luxurious hotel but we enjoy the space in our suite and the great location close to shops and restaurants. Unlike the Heathrow Renaissance, the hotel has not changed at all in the four years we have been coming here.
When we checked-in at the hotel, the receptionist expected there to be a personalised welcome letter from Celebrity but could not find one and had to give us the usual standard letter with pick-up times. We knew from our Roll Call that some people had received emails or 'phone calls saying that boarding had been delayed for our cruise - where would we be without Cruise Critic? At her suggestion, I rang Celebrity the next morning to check when we were to be picked up from the hotel. The CSR I spoke to at first claimed that she knew nothing about boarding being delayed. When I insisted that some people had received emails or 'phone calls advising them that it had been, she put me on hold to find out more. When she came back, she thanked me because I was right and she had learned something new! So, I asked when we would be picked-up. I was put on hold again and she finally returned to say "at your hotel check-out time" although she clearly did not know when that was. Later another hotel receptionist tried her various contacts at Celebrity with little more success and by embarkation day, we had been given three different pick-up times between 11:00 and 12:30.
Luckily, we decided to be ready for the earliest time and just be patient because the transport arrived at 11:15. This would have been great if we were able to board Infinity but we were taken to the ship, where we dropped our luggage and then had to board another coach to be taken to the conference centre. Here, there was a boxed lunch, and free tea and coffee but water, and anything else, had to be purchased. We were able to check-in, check our carry-on luggage and there was some rudimentary entertainment but why, oh why could they not have left us at the comfort of our hotel until we were able to board?
As we were in a suite, we had "priority" tickets and were on the first coach from the conference centre back to the ship. Despite being told that we were being held while they made the ship ready for us, our suites and staterooms were still not ready for another hour so we headed to Bistro on Five to be their first ever customers.
The rooms were available after about an hour but, despite being dropped off early, for the first time ever, our luggage was not delivered until after we had gone to dinner.
We, like most of the people we spoke to on board, had booked this cruise long before the date of Infinity's dry-dock was announced. None of us would have chosen to book an inaugural cruise [as this was designated by Celebrity] and, after this cruise, would never do so in future. We are loyal Celebrity customers but it tried our patience much of the time. Because of the itinerary, a great many people were trying Celebrity for the first time and did not gain a favourable impression. Once we were allowed into our suites and staterooms, it was clear that they were far from ready for us. Everyone had a whole catalogue of problems. I know that we stopped mentioning things after the first day because we did not wish to be moaning the whole time. Our problems ranged from routine maintenance jobs which had not been carried out [such as a cupboard door stay whose screws had come out] through problems caused by the dry dock [our doors fitting badly resulting, at one point, to be being stuck in the bathroom when the lock broke] to amenities not meeting the specification [such as no computer, VCR/DVD player nor CD player in our suite].
At least, because of Cruise Critic, we were aware of the situation and, at least partially, prepared because, despite booking directly with them, Celebrity had never notified us about the dry dock or the changes taking place.
We tried to maintain a positive attitude throughout the cruise and, in the most part, succeeded. We were fortunate enough to be invited to dine at the Captain's table on the first formal night and he explained that he had an absolute deadline for departure of about 9:30pm and had ordained that the ship would leave at that time regardless of what supplies had not been loaded. In the event, the last container was loaded just in time but it was quickly clear that this was done at the expense of how they were loaded. Within a few days, we had named it the "Advent Calendar Cruise". Each day, a new window was opened and something else was found; one day the Christmas Decorations, on another the Roquefort cheese, and so on! However, we waited over a week for the computer for our suite to be "found" only to be told eventually by our butler that they had decided these were now only going to be provided in the Penthouse Suites.
Although things improved slightly as the second week of the cruise progressed, it was clear that senior officers, crew, management and staff on board were preoccupied with problems and their engagement with guests was minimal. It was nothing like the experience we have come to expect from Celebrity.
As far as the rest of the ship was concerned, most of the public rooms were completed by the time we embarked or within a few hours and were in much better shape than the staterooms and suites. The new aquaclass staterooms on deck 11 were not finished and work continued on these throughout the cruise.
It is sometime since we have eaten in the MDR. Although we were pleased to be able to experience dinner at the Captain's table for the first time, it did remind us of why we prefer to eat elsewhere. We also tried the MDR lunch one sea day. On both occasions, it was noisy, there was very little room between tables [even the Captain's table has little space] and I found the vibrations a problem.
We ate in the SS United States on eight occasions [including the Wine Connoisseur's Dinner], Qsine four times and Blu once as well as the "Chef's Table". When we had breakfast [increasingly less often as the cruise progressed], we ate in Blu which enabled both of us to enjoy what we prefer - a cooked breakfast for my husband and the wonderful Blu parfait and a smoothie for me. The only downside was the peculiar herb-flavoured toast. We also felt that the fresh jams available in the Aquaspa Cafe were more suited to the style of Blu than the pre-packaged jams served.
They introduced the new menu [which I believe had already been offered on the S-class ships] to the SS United States on this cruise and I very much enjoyed many of the lighter dishes now available such as the SS United States Lobster and the Pear and Pineapple GelEe Napoleon. Some of the dishes that have been on the menu for a few years, such as the Diver Scallops Wellington, have had also had their presentation improved slightly. It is nice to see that the menu is now being allowed to evolve after many years without change.
Unfortunately, the Wine Connoisseur's Dinner disappointed again. When we took part in the Wine Harvest Dinner on Infinity in 2009, it was a really special occasion with a wonderful host. Then, the menu was specially devised, the majority of guests were seated on one large table, the Cellar Master was in attendance to explain the wines and group photograph was taken. For this Wine Connoisseur's Dinner, as on Constellation in 2010, the menu was taken from the normal SS United States with only slight variation, the guests were seated on multiple small tables, there was no host, little explanation of the wine parings and no group photograph. We are unlikely to take part in this meal again.
Our first visit to Qsine was as part of a group of 6 and, although I quite enjoyed the food I ate, I found the way it was delivered to the table in bulk off-putting and did not eat very much. I had stopped eating completely by the time the deserts - ALL the deserts despite us not actually ordering ANY of them - arrived. Not only do I not appreciate my food being delivered in this way, I abhor waste. On our next visit, as a couple, we made it clear that we would decide what, how and when the food would be delivered and I enjoyed it much more when we were in control. We continued with this approached for our final two visits [as part of groups of four and six] when the others in our party agreed they also preferred receiving the food in a more controlled manner. This was our first experience of Qsine and, on reflection, we are likely to restrict ourselves to a maximum of two or three visits on a two week cruise. Because of this, we think that the Tuscan Grille is more suited to the M-class ships [with fewer speciality restaurants] than Qsine.
Our one visit to Blu for dinner we really enjoyed. The chicken consume was exceptional. As we are more likely to book suites than aqua class staterooms, our only concern would be that we could not guarantee to get a table in Blu and would not wish to be left with no suitable alternative because we did not have a reservation in a speciality restaurant. Clearly with many of aquaclass stateroom unfinished for this cruise, there was no difficulty getting a table.
I apologise for spending so long on dining but we do not go to the shows on board and dining is our entertainment. This brings us to the highlight of this cruise for us - the Chef's Table. I do not wish to say more about this than has already been posted on Cruise Critic because I would hate to spoil to occasion for anyone. Suffice it to say, we would recommend anyone [except, perhaps, those who feel dining with the Captain is "eating with the hired help" because they are unlikely to appreciate eating "in the kitchen"] to sign up for this memorable meal. It is something you will remember for years. Numbers are strictly limited so you should speak to the Restaurant Manager or the Maitre d' of a speciality restaurant as early as possible on your cruise.
When Celebrity changed the rules and it became possible to pay the surcharge for glasses priced over $12, we decided that we would both have the Premium Alcohol beverage package for this cruise. Although we calculated that we would not save a great deal, we thought that it would be worthwhile for the convenience. In reality, it was not convenient because we found we were incorrectly charged for drinks so often and it frequently took two or three attempts to have the charges removed from our account.
For a number of reasons, we also found that we were nowhere near getting our money's worth from the packages. We found the choices of wine by the glass [especially French wines] far too limited - even those priced at more than $12. After we discussed this with the Bar Manager, the sommelier in the SS United States made a real effort to offer additional wines not usually available by the glass but these were extremely expensive compared with buying these by the bottle.
There were also far too many meals when we did not make use of the beverage package: the Wine Connoisseur's Dinner, the Chef's Table and a number of meals when had a bottle of wine. When we ate in Qsine, we did not drink wine - I would have just one cider and my husband one beer. The final straw was when my husband developed gout and had to stop drinking alcohol!
Most of the interesting tours on this cruise required long journeys and these are not for us so we only booked two culinary tours in Cartagena and Lima. These we booked through Celebrity because I was unable to make private arrangements. My husband also booked the Panama train tour through Celebrity [also not available privately] but this was cancelled by the tour operator because of lack of demand.
Both tours consisted of a visit to a food market with the chef followed by a cooking demonstration at his restaurant the food from which we then ate for lunch. Having said that, the two tours were very different although we would recommend both.
In Cartagena, we visited a "warts and all" market and experienced local life in the raw. Although supposedly a top restaurant [visited the previous week by Charlie Sheen], we would probably have given it a wide berth if we had passed it in the street. They had only recently started giving the culinary tours and the demonstrations were fairly rudimentary but we had a great time and had a really tasty lunch.
In Lima, both the market and the restaurant we visited were in an upmarket area. The tours have been run for some time and the cooking demonstrations were more professional and comprehensive. Again, we enjoyed lunch but it was perhaps not quite as tasty as in Cartagena.
Because of the hassle around embarkation and the less than relaxing atmosphere on board, we did not start this cruise feeling very relaxed and never fully recovered. Consequently, we did very little in the other ports of call, not even bothering to disembark.in Coquimbo. Most people who took tours returned tired. It was not really a relaxing cruise.
In contrast to embarkation, disembarkation was the easiest we have ever experienced. Not wanting breakfast, we went to the Elite departure lounge [in the SS United States] as soon as we were ready to wait until our departure time. We were lucky enough to find no queue at the gang plank and walked straight off the ship and were very quickly on board the bus for the 8 minute drive to the terminal buildings. Here there was a short queue for our carry-on luggage to be security scanned during which our customs declarations were collected. As we had declared wooden items and sniffer dogs were checking all luggage, we expected to at least be questioned about these but - nothing. A porter found us; we collected our luggage and were on board the bus to Santiago in no time. There was a short delay while our luggage was transferred to a van [because there are strict weight limits on Chilean roads] but we were at our hotel by noon.
We booked our two day stay at the Santiago Marriott through Celebrity. It may not always be the cheapest way of booking but we have always found that we get very good rooms when we book this way [and EU law provides additional protection we consider of value]. This time we had a large twin queen bedded room on the 17th floor very close to the lifts and with a wonderful view of the Andes. The hotel may lack "typical Chilean charm" but then so did all of Santiago we saw. It appears to be a very modern city with no sign of recession but, then, that is understandable when you learn that 48% of their GDP is earned from copper mining. Compared with other places we have visited before, during and after a cruise, we found Chile to be expensive but not exorbitantly so.
The one thing that we wanted to do during our stay was take a trip into the Andes. Luckily, there was a tour office in the Mall next to our hotel and it was easy to book a half day tour for the afternoon of our only full day in Santiago. [They also offer HOHO bus tickets and city tours.] The tour cost us 24,000 pesos each [about £35 or US$50] and provided exactly what we wanted. The bus took us up through 61 hairpin bends and up 7,500 feet to the Valle Nevado ski resort where we had a short break for a photo opportunity and refreshments before returning to our hotel.
There was a slight incident at the hotel on the morning of our departure. About 30 minutes before we were due to leave, I received a 'phone call in our room and was told that our driver was waiting for us downstairs. I rushed down to speak with the driver whilst my husband dealt with our luggage. As neither the driver nor the man in a suit with him spoke any English [like most people in Sanitago], it was difficult to understand what was happening but it eventually became clear that this was not the transport arranged by Celebrity when I refused to pay them and produced my voucher. I was left with the impression that it was a scam to get us to buy transport to the airport but there may just have been a communication problem. Our driver arranged by Celebrity arrived on time and we were taken to the airport without further incident but it was a little worrying at the time.