Jonathan Jay Gibian
Number of Cruises: 6
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: January 19th, 2003
Itinerary: Panama Canal
All my partner and I wanted
was a pleasant 14-night cruise with much relaxation. What we got was a
10-day cruise and extreme irritation.
This is a review not only of Celebrity Cruise Line's GTS Infinity, but also of that ship's infamous January 19, 2003, sailing from Ft. Lauderdale. The trip was to have ended on February 2 in San Diego, but, in fact, it abruptly ended January 29 in Acapulco due to engine problems. This review will detail Celebrity's treatment of the Infinity's approximately 2,000 passengers during the immediate post-cruise period.
But please note: the cruise part of the trip was, as usual aboard a Celebrity ship, a very enjoyable experience. It was the "end game," so to speak, that was badly mismanaged.
IN THE BEGINNING
The boarding process at Ft. Lauderdale's cruise port should have provided us with some warning of what was to occur, had we been somewhat more alert and less focused on commencing our long-awaited vacation.
On nearly all of our previous cruises, boarding started about 11 a.m. So after spending two pre-cruise days in Ft. Lauderdale, we arrived at the pier at 10 a.m., eager to board the ship. We joined about 200 other people already gathered in the terminal's waiting area in watching the clock move slowly toward the magic hour.
But then, to everyone's dismay, Celebrity representatives started announcing that boarding would be delayed because the ship had been late in docking. By that time, there were several hundred people in the terminal area impatiently awaiting boarding.
At noon, the Celebrity reps changed their explanation and said the delay was being caused by the Coast Guard, which was reportedly performing an unannounced, full-ship inspection.
About 12:45 p.m., those cruise line reps announced they had no idea how long it would be before the boarding process started.
It was about 1:15 p.m. when boarding suddenly, and without announcement, commenced. We later surmised the delay might have been caused by Celebrity itself, deciding whether to proceed with the cruise.
Immediately after putting our carry-on items in our stateroom we went to the purser's desk (Celebrity, for some reason elects to eliminate that nautical term, calling it the "Guest Relations Desk.") to arrange for a Connect-at-Sea kit. We had just acquired a new Dell laptop computer and wanted to take advantage of the Connect-at-Sea program, which allows an Internet connection in one's stateroom -- albeit a very slow 56k connection -- for a reasonable fee.
I had emailed Celebrity's special services agents a month before the cruise, asking how much they charged for Connect-at-Sea and if a telephone kit could be reserved. They replied: "Please send this request to 1-800-882-8292. Also note there is a charge of $25 per day or $100 per week."
The number turned out to be a fax line, but when I called Celebrity customer relations, they said kits could not be reserved, but the rate was $150 for the full two-week sailing.
However, when we talked with a woman at guest relations aboard the ship, she informed us the rate was actually only $100 for the full cruise. That should have been the second hint that Celebrity didn't quite have its act together. And subsequently we experienced much difficulty in getting the telephone kit to work -- with the ship's communication officer finally being forced to give up the attempt after a full week of continual tweaking and testing. Instead, he gave us a ship's laptop equipped with a unique coupling, and plugged us into a special ship satellite circuit. As a result of the SNAFU, we were also allowed to use the Internet Cafe without the usual 50-cent-per-minute charge. Nice, but not quite what was advertised.
Incidentally, if you want to get an Internet connection in your stateroom, plan on getting to the guest relations desk as quickly as possible after boarding. Infinity (at least on the 1-19 cruise) had only 20 such kits in working order for its 2,000 passengers. I subsequently overheard -- even long before we sailed -- passengers being told there were no more kits available.
And allow me to offer an aside about the terms "cabins" and "staterooms." In this day and age, either word is correct, although "cabin" is a bit more accurate in describing most rooms aboard the ship. The exception are the suites, which are much larger and usually have a dining area, sitting area, one or two separate bedrooms, etc. But Celebrity, we are told, instructs its employees to always use the term "stateroom" and to avoid the word "cabin." Better ambiance, I guess.
INFINITY SETS SAIL - SORT OF
The trip itself started a bit late, which is not unusual aboard a cruise ship. But as we sailed away from Ft. Lauderdale, my partner and I -- from our aft-facing stateroom -- observed the starboard propulsion pod kicking up a vigorous wash, while the port pod appeared inactive. We also noted that the ship was moving more slowly than is usual. We idly speculated about possible reasons for this. Silly us -- in hindsight it was obvious: the port pod was broken!
The first two days at sea were very pleasant. Infinity is one of Celebrity's four newest vessels -- the line's Millennium-class ships: Millennium, Constellation, Summit and Infinity. We had cruised in January 2003 aboard Summit, but we found Infinity a bit more pleasant.
The Infinity entered service in May 2001. According to the Celebrity brochure, she has a passenger capacity of 1,950, but we were later told by a Celebrity executive that 2,020 passengers sailed on this cruise. She also carries a crew of 1,000. The Infinity's size is stunning: 965-feet long, and 105-feet wide, with 12 public decks. She has a draught of 26 feet and a maximum cruising speed of 24 knots,
Although all four Millennium-class vessels share the same basic deck plans, the decor aboard each is different - and, to our tastes, Infinity is a brighter and more nicely decorated ship than the Summit. However, we agree with many cruisers who are dismayed by the choice of art displayed on the Millennium-class ships. Aside from some striking and wonderful photographs displayed near the fitness center and elsewhere, we found extremely little artistic merit in most of the artwork aboard the Infinity. For example, on one pedestal in one of the ship's restaurants is a small and crude figurine of an impish half-man, half-animal, face smeared with the chocolate he is stuffing into his mouth. The figurine struck us as insulting, seeming to mock or ridicule passengers. Does this represent Celebrity's view of its dining passengers -- half animal, stuffing themselves?
Infinity offers standard cruise ship attractions, including a spa, various shops, an outdoor pool, hot tubs, fitness center, movie theater, casino, etc. Independent vendors as usual, operate the casino, shops, spa and other businesses. And Apollo catering operates the food service aboard Infinity.
A few words about Infinity's casino, Fortunes: it is nearly identical to the Summit's casino in appearance, name, size and payout -- nice appearance, adequate in size and with a very meager payout. In fact, many passengers aboard the Infinity, as well as when we were aboard the Summit, mentioned they were disappointed with the slot machine payouts and stopped frequenting the casino early in the cruise. One fellow commented it would probably be more fun to just throw his money overboard than to keep feeding it into the slot machines.
We believe Celebrity, or the vendor operating the casino, needs to boost the percentage of payouts in order to boost business. As it was, there were so few people in the casino nightly that the facility almost routinely closed about midnight -- a far cry from the 3 a.m. or so closings in packed casinos we have experienced aboard other cruise line ships.
Food service is obviously a major attraction in cruising and Infinity's passengers are offered several excellent dining alternatives. One may elect to eat nightly in the ship's two-deck restaurant, The Trellis, or at the Oceanview Restaurant, a large buffet-style facility located on an upper deck. Passengers are assigned tables in the Trellis, where they dine with the same tablemates each evening. While casual dress is always acceptable in the Oceanview, a nightly dress code applies at the Trellis.
We found the Oceanview's luncheon buffet food to be of better quality than that offered aboard Summit. However, I still don't understand why buffet line servers are required to wear plastic gloves since they never change the gloves, no matter what they do. I even observed one worker shaking hands with a passenger and then going back to his food service chores without changing the glove! Obviously, the workers have no idea why they are wearing protective gloves -- and are probably surprised when illnesses spread aboard ships.
Complimentary room service is provided on a 24-hour basis, but (except during lunch and dinner hours, when the dining room menu is available) the room service offerings are limited. An exception is breakfast, which may be ordered the prior evening for a specific delivery time. We never took advantage of in-cabin breakfast, but fellow passengers who did were enthusiastic about the meals. Breakfast in the dining room was of very good, but not of outstanding quality, consisting mainly of usual breakfast offerings: eggs Benedict; hash browns, sausage, hot or cold cereal, scrambled eggs, etc.
The ship's alternative restaurant, The United States, levies a $25 per person diner surcharge, and reservations are required, as are jacket and tie or formal wear. But the food quality in the United States is outstanding, with static entrees that are a couple of notches above those found on the dining room menu, which changes nightly.
The United States offers six-course meals that take about two and one-half hours to complete, and include a cheese course -- a comprehensive selection of various soft and hard, classic cheeses that are described by a server. (One night, after the cheese course server delivered an eloquent and flawless description of classic and exotic cheeses, I paused and asked "But you don't have Velveeta?" He stared at me for a brief second and then, trying to hide a smile, said, "No, sir, I'm sorry, but we don't." When he saw I was smiling, he laughed and walked away, chuckling.) All of the United States' servers wear tails or dinner jackets and deliver the food simultaneously to each person at a table, with many selections prepared tableside. We found it to be an extraordinary and delightful dining experience, and well worth the extra charge.
In general, we found food quality, presentation and selection somewhat better aboard Infinity than we did aboard Summit - but of substantially lesser quality than found in upscale restaurants and even from what Celebrity used to serve before being purchased by Royal Caribbean. Deserving special note, however, are the deserts served in both the Trellis and at the Oceanview. They were all uniformly outstanding and covered a wide selection, including both hot and room temperature pastries, custards, cookies, cakes and pies. The high-quality ice cream available on a limited basis in the Oceanview Restaurant was also a real treat. Of particular delight among the baked deserts was a macaroon cookie of a quality not often tasted in a restaurant of any kind.
We found service was generally better aboard Infinity, but that subjective observation is largely due to our waiter's attention to detail. Special orders didn't seem to bother servers as they did aboard Summit; I requested, and received without hesitation, a double shrimp cocktail as an appetizer every night at dinner. Our other requests, both to our waiter and to our stateroom steward, were also handled quickly and efficiently.
And a word about shipboard entertainment: Each cruise line contracts with various production companies to produce nightly theater shows for its ships. Celebrity tends to favor lesser known performers, some of whom are excellent but most of whom struggle to reach even the level of mediocrity. Shows we've seen on other cruise lines have been more of the variety type and have been highly entertaining. But Celebrity's choice of performers -- at least during our Summit and Infinity cruises -- results in far less stellar and some not very noteworthy presentations.
Infinity also offers such activities as bingo sessions, albeit with smaller jackpots than we've seen on other ships; lounge entertainers, most of whom are extremely friendly and competent; and poolside specialty bands. A small library, with very limited operating hours, is also available, as is a music-listening room. Some special, albeit sparsely attended, events were offered during the cruise, e.g., basketball free-throw competitions, table tennis "get togethers," scrabble, backgammon and other game sessions and trivia contests.
WE ARRIVE IN ARUBA
So, after spending a very relaxing initial two days at sea, with the outside temperature steadily rising from the chilly 40s we experienced in Ft. Lauderdale, Infinity reached its first port of call: Aruba.
The ship was docked there for a rather long time, from 7 a.m. Wednesday to 12:30 a.m. Thursday, although we observed most passengers returning to the ship well before sunset. It was our second visit to Aruba and we repeated what we did the first time: we rented a four-wheel-drive car and toured the small island. As before, we found Aruba's beaches are wonderful (visit Baby Beach for some delightful snorkeling or Palm Beach for wonderful swimming) and even the desert on the western side of the island proved interesting, with a desolate landscape that includes a natural bridge and a bat cave attracting many tourists.
Upon leaving Aruba, the Infinity set sail for the Panama Canal, albeit still at a reduced speed. We later learned that several technicians from Rolls Royce, which manufactured the ship's Mermaid propulsion units, boarded in Aruba and went to work trying to repair the failing port propulsion pod.
AN UNUSUAL CANAL TRANSIT
The day-long transit through the Panama Canal is one of the our more fascinating cruising experiences. Every passenger appeared excited as we approached the Gatun Locks, one of three sets of locks that raise the ship about 85 feet (26 meters) for its journey across man-made Gatun Lake (The floor of the lake is the Continental Divide!), and then lower it back to sea level upon reaching the Pacific Ocean. Each set of locks has two lanes, and each lane is probably no more than 12 inches wider than the Infinity. Cables attach the ship to electric engines called "mules" that operate along rails on either side of the ship. The mules help keep the vessel properly aligned, and assist in pulling the ship into and from each chamber of the lock. The ship is raised or lowered by water from Gatun Lake; gravity does all the work; there are no pumps! It is, indeed, an engineering marvel to see.
This Panama Canal transit was unusual: the ship kept scraping the sides of the locks despite the fact that each ship is always under the command of a skilled Panama Canal pilot during transit. We now assume the scraping, which produced quite a bit of damage and burned paint, might have been due to the ship having to steer with only its starboard propulsion pod. [Millennium-class ships, as most modern cruise vessels, do not have rudders. The ship is "steered" by swiveling the propulsions pods and/or by using bow and stern thrusters.]
During the Canal transit, a Panamanian guide delivered a commentary over the ship's closed-circuit television system that was very interesting and extremely informative.
The Canal transit has become our favorite cruise and, in fact, we're booked to go through the Canal again next year! If you don't have a balcony cabin for a transit - and we highly recommend any of the six that jut out on the corners of the aft end of Celebrity's Millennium-class ships -- you will want to observe the transit from the railing on one of the decks or at the forward end of the Constellation lounge, But if you are outside during a transit and under clear skies, remember you are only a few degrees from the Equator, and your skin will quickly start to broil after only a very few minutes unless you are wearing a heavy coating of sunscreen. Wearing a cap is also advisable.
AN ABRUPT END TO THE CRUISE
The stop at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, was unremarkable. San Jose, the capital, is far inland, and we found little of interest in the coastal area. Infinity was to have docked at Puntarenas, but instead made a tendered stop at Caldera. Tendered stops usually discourage some passengers, especially those who are older and less mobile, from going ashore. No explanation was given for the change, but we now assume it was due to maneuvering difficulties related to the ship's engine problems.
After our stop in Costa Rica, the ship proceeded at its slower pace toward Acapulco. Shortly after arriving at that city on Wednesday morning, January 29th, we learned how serious the engine problems were. A letter signed by Captain Zissi Koskinas was delivered to each stateroom, and read over the public address system: "I regret to inform you that we are experiencing a technical difficulty within our port propulsion system. One of our bearing units in that system is not functioning properly. Because of that we have reduced our speed from 23 knots to 14.5 knots."
He continued, "Our reduction in speed requires that we cancel our scheduled port call Friday in Cabo San Lucas and spend the day at sea. Also, we will arrive in San Diego one day later than scheduled…" He concluded that "as a gesture of goodwill" Celebrity would provide a $100 shipboard credit per stateroom.
Reaction to the announcement was somewhat mixed, but most passengers seemed to feel the compensation was fair and almost everyone we talked with was excited that we would have an extra day on the cruise, although it did mean most passengers had to reschedule their flight plans from San Diego. My partner and I liked the fact that the extra day was to be an "at sea" day, even though the only excursion we had booked -- a snorkeling trip -- was at Cabo San Lucas.
But even that was not to be. Although we were scheduled to sail from Acapulco Wednesday at 11 p.m., Captain Koskinas issued another announcement at 8 p.m.: "As you know, we have experienced technical difficulties with a bearing unit in our propulsion system. Since discovering this problem, we have had more time to examine the system and now find that the bearing shows more wear than we initially thought. Because of this development, we feel the most prudent course of action is to end our cruise in Acapulco."
That announcement was met with deep disappointment by all of the passengers.
A letter was dispatched to each stateroom, announcing all passengers would have to leave the ship Thursday morning. Celebrity said that except for about 500 people who were to be taken directly to the airport for morning chartered flights to San Diego, all other passengers would be given complementary accommodations at the Acapulco Princess Hotel - a first-class hotel located about an hour's bus ride from the ship. Celebrity said executives at its Miami headquarters were working to arrange additional charter flights from Acapulco to San Diego for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
CELEBRITY DROPS THE BALL
And that's the point at which Celebrity - as one of its executives later termed it - "dropped the ball." What an understatement that turned out to be.
Although the cruise line maintained it had flown 60 "go team" members into Acapulco to help passengers, those "go team" members - and there were obviously far fewer than 60 -- were of little help to anybody at any time. We later discovered they were simply Celebrity office workers who volunteered to be part of a "go team," and had no specific training in customer relations. Even worse, they were given no authority to do anything but relay instructions from Miami headquarters. In other words, they could not and did not help passengers with the resolution of any specific problems. A bulletin board could have given the same assistance as was provided by these Celebrity employees.
And remember those 500 passengers who were taken directly from the ship to the Acapulco airport? Some were, indeed, flown to San Diego, but many others said they were kept at the airport for more than five hours before Celebrity admitted it could not arrange for any more charters that day and that the remaining passengers would be taken to the Princess Hotel.
Celebrity's announcement -- which was also provided to the news media -- that all passengers were given accommodations at the Acapulco Princess Hotel, was also not true. Many passengers were instead bused to a nearby facility, the Pierre Marques, which was far inferior to the Princess. It was at that hotel we saw one passenger trying to get a "go team" member to intervene with the hotel because there was mold all over his room's walls. He was told that was a problem he had to work out himself with the hotel.
Our room was so dirty and musty smelling we insisted upon transferring to the Princess, where we had been assured we would stay. But the Celebrity representatives we talked with refused to do anything, giving us that now familiar refrain that it was a problem we would have to resolve with the hotel and "anyway, the Princess is sold out." That turned out not to be true, since when I went to the Princess front desk I was able to quickly arrange for a room. But then I had to shuttle between the two hotels to facilitate the transfer and make billing arrangements. No help from Celebrity was available.
Once at the Princess, we were given yet another letter, saying all passengers "will be flown to San Diego where you will be met in baggage claim by Celebrity agents and taken to the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina" where accommodations were to be provided until Sunday, when passengers could take their originally scheduled flights.
CELEBRITY DROPS THE BALL -- AGAIN
That was yet another false statement from Celebrity. After clearing customs and immigration, we, as well as dozens of other Infinity passengers, were directed to the first bus in a long line of Celebrity-chartered vehicles at the airport and were then taken for a long, long drive. When we and other passengers finally asked the driver where we were going, it turned out we were not being taken to the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina, located about a mile from the airport, but to another Sheraton hotel located approximately 35 miles from the airport!
When we arrived, many of the passengers aboard the various buses refused to get off, loudly demanding to be taken back to the hotel where their friends were staying and where they had been told they would be housed. A lone Celebrity representative inside the hotel, surrounded by angry passengers, kept telling people the cruise line had arranged for shuttles to take them the 35 miles back to the other hotel that evening to visit their friends.
The scene was rather incredible, with people gathered in the hotel's small lobby and all yelling at the Celebrity agent. After I angrily vented my concerns and threatened to call Celebrity management officials, she took me aside and quietly advised me to get back on the bus, telling me it would take us back to the other Sheraton hotel where we would be given a room. But she asked me not to make that public, since she didn't want everyone demanding to return to the original hotel.
When we got back to the Sheraton Hotel and Marina, a hotel official arranged for a room, but apologized for not having enough bellmen to immediately take care of our luggage. He said Celebrity had told him he needn't schedule extra bellman for the arriving 2,000 passengers because, said Celebrity, the passengers had been told to simply pack an overnight bag and the rest of their luggage would be stored at the hotel. Another falsehood. Neither we nor any other passengers we talked with had received such a notification.
Now furious, I demanded to speak with whomever was in charge for Celebrity. "That would be Juan," said one uniformed Celebrity representative, who quickly scurried away saying she would get Juan for me. After waiting about 15 minutes and not seeing that woman reappear, I asked another Celebrity representative where I might find "Juan," She replied, "Oh, he's coming in from Los Angeles and will be here in about four or five hours." The first Celebrity agent, it seems, simply wanted to get away from an angry passenger.
The other woman explained that Juan was with a group of about 200 passengers who left Acapulco for San Diego, but then, shortly after takeoff, were told they were going to Los Angeles because the San Diego airport would not let Celebrity's charter flight land that evening because of noise restrictions. The passengers were then bused back to San Diego -- and the ones we talked with were not in a very good mood when they arrived.
My partner and I eventually talked with Juan -- Juan Trescastro, of Celebrity's "Total Customer Satisfaction" division -- later that evening. We detailed all that had happened since leaving the ship in Acapulco. He admitted Celebrity had repeatedly "dropped the ball" and had not functioned very efficiently, noting that was especially true in the case of the large number of elderly passengers who needed, but did not receive, special attention.
He also admitted it probably would have been far more comfortable for Infinity's passengers -- as well as less expensive for the cruise line -- to have allowed passengers to remain aboard Infinity in Acapulco until the chartered flights were arranged. But he said the cruise line's marine division had been focused on getting the ship into dry dock as soon as possible.
DON'T ALWAYS BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ
I had long read news stories about cruise ships that, for one reason or another, halted their trips sooner than scheduled. But the accounts I read had led me to believe the passengers were always treated extremely well by the cruise lines and were given deep discounts on future cruises.
Apparently that is not always true, at least with Celebrity. The cruise line operates efficiently while at sea, but once on land -- as evidenced during this cruise -- it fell apart, not only lying to its passengers, but in failing to provide assistance when needed.
Celebrity canceled several of the Infinity's subsequent cruises, offering passengers booked on those trips a full refund and a 50 percent discount off a future cruise. But passengers aboard Infinity's ill-fated Jan. 19 cruise only received a 25 percent refund and a 25 percent, per cabin, highly restrictive discount on a future cruise that had to be taken within one year -- a difficulty for passengers who had saved for the Jan. 19 cruise for much more than a year. Although we initially viewed even that compensation as fair and adequate, we soon changed our minds. Given the company's admittedly multiple bad decisions and many false statements -- and the resulting frustrations endured by the passengers -- methinks it was a woefully inadequate action.
Overall, it was the most interesting cruise we have ever taken -- but more along the lines of that purported Chinese curse: "May your life be interesting."
Would we again sail with Celebrity? Most definitely. In fact we have already booked a January 4, 2004, Panama Canal cruise and it will be aboard the Infinity! But if something should occur on that cruise, delivering us again unto the hands of Celebrity officials onshore… well, I would rather not contemplate such a fate.
For additional information regarding the Summit and Millennium-class ships in general, you may want to read my Summit review that can be found at www.cruisereviews.com/rci/Summit4.htm. And if you are new to cruising, you may wish to look at my revised list of cruise tips. I'll be glad to send you a copy, just email your request to me at firstname.lastname@example.org