This cruise meant a few things to Alison and I. For starters, I first proposed marriage to Alison in the "Ocean Liners" speciality restaurant aboard the Constellation, and we always planned to "do the Canal" for our honeymoon. As it turned out we couldn't get the timing quite right, so this would be the first Panama Canal cruise suitable for us since our marriage last March.
It's also completed the pack of the 4 sister ships. We've been on Millennium (Transatlantic), Summit (Alaska) and, of course, Constellation (our first Celebrity cruise after we got together, to the Caribbean and another Transatlantic).
Alison tells me Infinity is going into dry dock, though we're not clear at the moment (we're on the last leg from Cartegena to Fort Lauderdale) exactly what she's going in for. But a few things (not too many) could use a spruce-up.
We had a stateroom on deck 8 and, hotwater aside (see below), you could not fault it. We had Japanese neighbors to one side, so not a lot of conversation there (I don't even like sushi) and an American couple the other side, who were pleasant enough to chat to. The first day aboard we were both looking over the side when a few hundred porpoises went past. It was no accident - they did it on porpoise - and our neighbors shifted their balcony chairs and tables around to get a better look.
OK, let's get it over with - lifeboat drill. The authorities have ignored my request for a "loyalty card" system whereby you earn a point for every drill you do and if you get five points or more you can just have an annual refresher and watch everyone else from the confines of the Martini Bar. At least, this time, the Captain showed (and continued to show throughout the cruise) some humor. He said something along the lines that if there was a real emergency his voice would direct everyone what to do. In the unlikely event, he told us, that he was incapacitated someone else (a Greek I think) would take over. In the very unlikely event that he, too, was unavailable, a third Greek would assume command. In the very, very unlikely event that all three were unavailable, the Captain suggested, we should make peace with our God and every man for himself.
If I had to pick one word that means the most about this cruise, it would have to be "temperature". Infinity just doesn't seem to be able to get it right. The most obvious (and enduring) issue with temperature for us staid Brits was getting water hot enough to make a decent cup of tea. Not to mention the tea itself, which we find odd. Also the milk (too much long-life - or whatever you Americans call it) for our taste, but that is purely a taste thing. But trying to brew a good cup of hot tea (once, of course, we've moved past the staff's assumption that if we ask for tea we must mean iced tea) is impossible with lukewarm water. We strongly suggest to any Celebrity managers who read this that they send their catering managers to London to have tea in Fortnum and Mason. The tea there isn't just a refreshing beverage - it's a whole experience not to be missed, and would, without doubt, let them see a new angle to the term "elegant tea".
But there were other issues with temperature, too. Firstly, the water in the stateroom bathrooms. I understand why the mixer tap isn't marked "H" and "C", because "H" and "L" would be much more accurate. We were not the only ones to raise this issue and there was quite a bit of overheard conversation about it. But cleaning your teeth in "L" (lukewarm) water is not pleasant - it softens the bristles on your toothbrush such that one came off altogether, lodging itself between two of my teeth is such a way that no amount of toothpicks and further brushing (in the selfsame lukewarm water) would shift it. Finally a sharp fingernail did the trick. But please, Celebrity, try and give us H and C water in the staterooms. School Physics tells us that if water is raised to any temperature above ambient then some energy has been used to get it there, and amid all the Celebrity "green" claims this irks.
This, of course, was a warm weather cruise that - arguably - needed ample supplies of cold water, and I found myself wondering whether - if Infinity were used on an Alaskan cruise - you'd get "C" and "L" and be left with an equally strong desire for some hot water. It reminds me of the old joke about a man going to a backwoods motel and asking, "do you have hot and cold running water?" only to be told, "Yes, Sir; Hot in summer and cold in winter".
One final point on temperature - whether it's these cold rock things they're using now or something else eludes me, but getting a really cold carton of milk or a truly solid portion of butter was a rare experience in the Deck 10 buffet restaurant.
Our first port of call after leaving San Diego was at Cabo San Lucas, where we tried, for the first time ever, parasailing. A very enjoyable adventure to fit snugly between breakfast and lunch. When we got back to our stateroom our neighbors had rearranged their balcony furnishings again and we all watched some dolphins and a turtle swim past.
Our table waiter was excellent, not that we've ever had a bad one on Celebrity. His name was Christophe, and he was from Goa in India. I asked him, purely out of curiosity, one day, why there was so little of his country's cuisine on the cruise ships, mentioning that, in the UK, you never travel far - even in small towns - without finding an Indian food outlet. To cut a long story short, he said that if I wanted some Indian food, I would have some. True to his word, the next evening, with the approval of the Maitre, I was served a three-course Indian banquet, including a very acceptable chicken curry, chappati, rice and pappadum.
The average age on the cruise was probably around 250. There were no kids at all, not one, which is why, I guess, the kids' entertainers were trying to recruit anyone below pensionable age to join in fun, games and children's discos. Even I was a target, but I wasn't going to wear one of those wristbands for anyone. Imaging trying to get a martini when you're wearing a band that says you're a member of the kiddy club. No way! Still, having no kids around made it quieter, and I managed to transfer my usual idea of throwing badly-behaved kids overboard to anyone with dentures or a blue rinse.
The bingo sold out every day, of course, with walking-stick wielding passengers fighting for best position. But that all finished around 8.30 once the cocoa round had started. (If anyone's getting offended by this - I'm making it all up as a poor attempt at humor, OK? Besides, I like cocoa too.) Seriously, it did mean that most of the more strenuous excursions had few takers, despite the fact the ship almost emptied on port days. Maybe Diamonds International suited the demographic.
We ran into our neighbors on the way back to our stateroom - they were carrying eight towels from the pool area.
We did notice far fewer staff around generally. Whether this was the demographic, the anticipation of dry dock or, more worryingly, an attempt by Celebrity to cut costs, we cannot know. On previous X cruises you could never go out of your stateroom without bumping into 3 or 4 cheerful staff in the corridors. This time we were lucky if we saw one. In the buffet restaurant on Deck 10 we only once had an offer to carry the trays to our table. Not a worry to us as such, we're perfectly able to carry our own trays, but considering the aforementioned demographic, you'd have thought this would be an area that would have been addressed. There seemed to be fewer people, too, clearing away in those public areas. It would be interesting to learn what the guest/staff ratio was on this ship compared with previous ones.
There seemed to be a lot of enthusiastic chat between the majority of American guests. Something about an election, apparently.
Our next port of call was Acapulco. Alison had stayed there on vacation previously marriage and I had no great enthusiasm for going ashore, so, as we frequently do, we stayed on the ship to enjoy the almost deserted amenities. We spent a while on the balcony watching turtles and rays right alongside the ship in the harbor, while our neighbors had somehow managed to get a sun-lounger from somewhere and installed it on their balcony, plus a few more yellow towels with which to cover it.
We had our first visit to the "United States of America" specialty restaurant. (Note here that uncharacteristically for me, I have adopted, just this once, the USA spelling of speciality in deference to the restaurant's pedigree. Don't get used to it, I won't be doing it again - English is a language that was invented by - and there's a clue in the name here - the English. Oh, please, get a sense of humor. Damn, I did it again.)
The difference between this restaurant and those on the other three sister ships is both amazing and stunning, though when you consider what X was trying to achieve with the overall theme you can perfectly well understand why. Whereas the other three are dark and atmospheric (to suit their lineage), this one is bright and airy. From a personal viewpoint it was a shame that the central circular area was not retained, however, since this was the area where I went down on one knee five years ago on the Constellation with my marriage proposal.
The meal, as ever, was excellent, though the goat cheese soufflE was not the best I have had. We chose the basic menu this time, not least because we had been entertained by Charles in the Martini bar demonstrating how to juggle glasses and bottles without ending up with your arms in a reef knot and a floor full of broken glass. Time to avoid the wine and prevent Alison from standing on the top deck later that night proclaiming she can fly and sitting in the stateroom next morning proclaiming "Never again."
Our next port of call, where was it now? Oh yes, Huatulco. I knew nothing about the place before we visited and still don't really, apart from the fact they have lots of pelicans amusing the tourists by diving for fish and they have some kind of army barracks near where we docked, the soldiers giving us frequent displays of their marching and instrumental capabilities. Once again we made the best of an almost empty ship.
Our neighbors too, apparently, importing a second sun lounger and a dozen or so additional yellow towels. We peeked round when they went out - not much standing space left now.
We had two excursions organized for Puntarenas in Costa Rica. From what little we saw of the country, it is a curious mix of wealth and poverty, yet fiercely defensive of its ecological stance. The tour guides on the two trips would tell us how important their rain forests and ecology are to them and to the world at large, and one can only applaud their commitment.
The first one was "The Original Canopy Tour", implying by its title that there are others since then. Maybe they were better, maybe not, but we had no reason to complain on this one, with a 15 minute walk ending at the first of nine platforms from which we each, in turn, slid down to the next in line. I wish I could say my technique was so good I could have afforded time to admire the undergrowth far below, but I spent a lot of time trying to stay feet-first. Yes, I know, lean back and run our (gloved) hand along the wire to stay straight. That sound great and is easy to do on the platform, yet not so easy to remember when your going at Mach 2 down somebody's washing line. The complimentary bottle of cold water when we finished was nectar. Our only disappointment, though there was no way to blame the tour people for it, was an almost complete lack of wildlife.
So, another hour-long bus ride to the dock, a quick snack and onto the second bus of the day for our "Sky Walk In The Trees" tour. Basically a high-level walk in the rain forest. One the way, the guide mentioned we'd see some crocodiles, but when we reached the bridge it had started raining, such that he asked us whether we still wanted to see the crocs in view of the rain. Well, it was hardly a downpour and we'd not seen crocs before, so we walked across the bridge and took snaphots of the reptiles playing the "we're crocodiles and we never move a muscle for anyone" game. We also saw a spoonbill walking along the riverbank, the bird being very careful to stay well out of reach of the crocs and putting a lie to any impression we might have had that they were plastic models left there to impress gullible tourists. (Did you know there's no such word as "gullible" in Websters? It's true - look it up if you don't believe me.)
The tour guide's question about getting wet turned out to be the joke of the day. We were driven on the bus to a high point in the rain forest and told we would be picked up by the same bus in about an hour's time, lower down the trail. By this time it was raining properly, far worse than the wimpy drizzle we'd had on crocodile bridge. By the time the day was over, we fully understood why the forest had picked up the prefix "rain". We were each offered a walking cane and told to follow the guide. We were mostly dressed for the warm summer climate of Costa Rica (though Alison and I had bought special shirts designed to let your skin breathe and sweat to escape while keeping any nasty bugs on their own side of the fence) but the tour guide donned waterproofs. (Several people suggested Celebrity should have warned us to bring all-weather gear with us.)
We followed the guide down the pathways, as did a steadily-growing river of muddy water. Before we'd gone more than a few hundred feet we were soaked everywhere, and I mean everywhere. It wasn't cold, thankfully, and it wasn't wet. "What?" I heard you say. No it wasn't wet. "Wet" just doesn't tell it. "Soaked" and "drenched" get closer, but nowhere near enough. I don't think a suitable adjective has been invented yet, so we'll have to get the Websters/OED people to take the tour I guess.
One of the laughable things was that some people in our tour party were still trying to avoid stepping in pools of water, as if that would somehow keep them dryer. But it was a lost cause - you just walked where your feet fell in the sure knowledge your fluid levels were incapable of absorbing any more. We crossed three suspension bridges on our trip, Indiana Jones style, but I don't remember Indy being quite so sodden. We suspected there was a fourth bridge, but the tour guide had just about given up by then, we think; it was moving across the line between "fun" and "get me back to the ship so I can leap fully clothed into the Lassie Therapy pool to get a bit dryer".
But, of course, no self-respecting tour would be complete without passing through at least one souvenir shop, wasting the best part of an hour when people really did want to get back to the ship. Our clothes still haven't dried, five days later. And we still didn't see any wildlife!
On the next leg the Captain, on his daily announcement, told us he thought we were going the right way but just in case had checked with another ship and we were probably going to make it to Panama OK. I really warm to this man and hope I'm not spoiling all his jokes here.
Then we made the journey to the start of the Panama Canal. We ordered breakfast on room service, assuming (correctly as it turned out) that the public eateries and the "Ten Forward" (how come it looks so different on Star Trek?) would be overcrowded. We waited in the line with our ever present tugboat until we were admitted to the first Milaflores lock. I think I expected the rise to be more obvious, but it was so gentle that we hardly noticed this first step and in subsequent levels had to line our eyes up with a suitable lamp post to see when we were moving. Anyone who imagines a traditional-style canal with parallel sides (as I guess I had) has got it completely wrong. The docks are much as you expect, apart from those "locomotives", eight of which hauled Infinity through each lock with the sides so close the people in the aft suites were reaching out and touching them. In the middle part it's vaguely reminiscent of Alaska's inside passage in terms of topography, though it's a lot busier and noisier and the trees are decidedly more tropical. Once again, to our disappointment, we saw no wildlife beyond a few birds and a couple of dockers crazed by the midday heat. (OK, I lied about that last bit.)
It took the full day to transit the canal and, I must be honest, the experience was a little strange, veering occasionally to boring. I'm sure that sounds ungrateful, but I guess our expectations had been rather different from the reality, and it was almost in an air of gratitude that we emerged into the open ocean and the end of the day.
Lots of noise from next door. We think they may be installing their own pool.
The same night we had booked our second visit to the "United States of America" specialty restaurant. This time, stone cold sober, we opted for the "menu exceptional", complete with a wine to accompany (and compliment) each of the six courses. Here we were a little disappointed. On previous cruises we'd been told about each wine by the sommelier as he served it, but on this occasion he didn't even visit our table, leaving the service of our wine to the main waiting staff, who - I guess from their training - knew more about the food than the wine. To add insult to injury, the port was laced with black sediment that remained coating our glasses when we'd got half way through. There was an apology from the waiter and a replacement, but - for a restaurant that prides itself so highly on detail, the apology should have come from the maitre, the sommelier, or both, probably with some kind of explanation. I can't really say there was much wrong with the meal (in fact the goat cheese soufflE was back to its best), but this lack of attention to detail needs addressing.
And I know it's a French-style restaurant, but does each and every cheese have to be French? OK, I'd like to see some British cheeses on there, but could understand why they're not. But are there no contending cheeses in the US that could grace a restaurant called the "United States of America"?
We got invited to the Captain's table for the last formal night/baked Alaska parade. (I really must Google this tradition some time.) The perfectly charming Captain's Club Hostess Ria (from South Africa) arranged it so Alison wore her head-turning highlighter gown - we call it that because it's the same color as the yellow marker pen and would be just the thing to wear if you were going to fall overboard on a dark night. I wore my traditional Scottish Formal Dress, complete with kilt, so we had a few photos taken. We were warned that the Captain doesn't attend these dinners so, true to prediction, we were hosted by the Staff Captain. He was Greek, I believe.
We've just got back from a tour of the Navigation Bridge, this following an invitation from last night's dinner. We've been on one before (Royal Caribbean) and this was very similar, though I suspect the technology on Infinity was slightly older. We did learn, however, the main reason Infinity goes into dry dock tomorrow - they're fitting a diesel engine in addition to the two gas turbines, so, presumably the sister ships will be similarly altered. It's driven, it seems, as with everything, by cost. Whereas gas turbines are very clean, the fuel is expensive, hence the installation of the new engine to be used, so we were told, when speed is not important. It all makes economic sense, but I wonder whether it flies in the face of Celebrity's "green" image. We then started to wonder where they would fit the new engine. Presumably it will fit centrally between the two existing ones, but it sounds like a lot of work to the ship's structure and engine room, with ramifications in the Navigation Bridge too.
I suggested maybe it would be a huge outboard, since the Penthouse suites are quite roomy and we could steal a bit of space between them. OK, it could be a bit of extra noise for the premium-paying guests, and they'd probably have to move into the bedrooms when the engineers were pulling the cord-starter.
Following on from the cost-cutting issues, I'm sure there are so many opinions as to what could or should be cut or retained. It's not Celebrity's fault that the World is in financial crisis, but the worry is that standards will be dropped until Celebrity is just another cruise line, whereas at the moment it likes to think it's in the lower end of the luxury levels. I earnestly hope they don't lose that, because they certainly do have an edge over RC et al, and there's a huge gap before you reach the Crystal class. The options are to cut costs or put prices up (or some combination between the two) and neither of these will be popular with guests. Personally, I rue any compromise of quality, and the reduction of formality for dining to the extent people wear pretty much what they want when they want is such an erosion. But that's a personal viewpoint. Those who suggest they should not be dictated to have similar rights, but I would like to see Celebrity set out its stall and remain "up there", with people who don't want these little extras freely able to select a different cruise line. But, market forces being what they are, I am probably in the minority and things will gradually be reduced/relaxed.
It must be difficult to be in Celebrity's position. They need to cut costs, as we all do, but if they take anything away there is uproar. It's hard to think of anything they could stop doing that wouldn't have an effect on someone. This time the bottle of champagne left in our stateroom (because of our honeymoon) was akin to paint stripper, and we drank less than the first two glasses. The "gifts" of bags was (either by accident or design) not given until we queried it - we didn't bring a beach bag because we expected there to be one there. The small box of chocolates given to returning guests was again absent until we queried it. Small things, but they add up to give an impression of corner-cutting.
So, tomorrow it's Fort Lauderdale and back to being a civilian. Time before I close to restate one of my favorite rants. Far too often on cruises we hear of a few guests - thankfully very few - who gripe and complain at the staff as if they are in some way inferior. This cruise was no exception. Almost without exception, the blame for the imagined error is more with the guest than the staff member, and I am urged to try and remind guests that the staff are people too - they have good days and bad days, they make mistakes just like the rest of the human race. But - from the moment I step aboard a Celebrity ship until I step off again, they make me feel special. I don't change in any way, I'm still be same boring guy I am at home, so it's something the X staff do that makes me feel special, nothing to do with me. So they all get what they deserve - my thanks and complete respect. Read Less