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Jonathan Jay Gibian

Age: n/a

Occupation:News Editor

Number of Cruises: 10

Cruise Line: Celebrity

Ship: Infinity

Sailing Date: January 3rd, 2005

Itinerary:

Lima, Peru; Arica, Chile; Valparaiso, Chile)

Celebrity cruises are most often studies in contrasts: a moment of delight ofttimes swiftly overtaken by two moments of disappointment or annoyance. On January 3, 2005, my partner and I embarked on our fourth cruise aboard Celebrity’s 91,000-ton GTS (Gas Turbine Ship) Infinity and found the 14-day cruise that ended in Chile to be faithful to that theme.

The Infinity is a magnificent vessel, and our familiarity with it failed to temper our sense of awe as we met it once again at the pier in Ft. Lauderdale. While its size is stunning, its form is graceful and pleasingly understated. In the only notable change: Celebrity added some dark blue paint where white had been the previous year, and made its “X” logo more prominent.

I still find it somewhat interesting during these times of terror attacks to sail aboard a ship that displays a giant “X” on its stack. And, to answer an oft-asked question: we are told the “X” dates to the days when Celebrity was owned by the Chandris family of Greece. The “X” is the Greek alphabet’s “Ch”-- as in Chandris. The “X” has been retained, even though Celebrity was purchased by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 1997.

The Infinity’s design, as well as that of all Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships, is intelligent and pleasing. The notable exception -- detailed in my previous Infinity reviews -- is the insipid and preposterous shipboard “art.” And those quotation marks are well-deserved.

Although there were approximately 2,000 passengers aboard her, we easily found plenty of places to enjoy privacy, although there were also numerous other places where one could find quite varied social and recreational activities.

In a similar manner, although sadly familiar with Celebrity’s haplessly inept “guest relations,” we still found ourselves surprised by the smug demeanor and openly uncaring conduct exhibited by many of the Celebrity “guest relations” staff members.

Cabin attendants and restaurant servers are generally courteous and responsive to the needs and requests of passengers. But the staff members behind the “guest relations” desk generally are not. When we interact with them, by phone or in person, and when we observe their interactions with other guests, they frequently communicate a barely-contained dismissiveness. They make it precisely and consistently clear their desire is not your satisfaction, but your departure from their presence. Their impatience erupts after about the fifth word the guest utters, when they interrupt to offer a response to the question or issue that they haven’t yet heard, but seem to think is likely.

Our theory is they find the presence of a guest to be so distasteful that, instead of listening, they would rather infer the question or issue, and be done with the passenger. Listening takes too long, and their verbal, body, and facial language are in total agreement: they have better things to do than attend to passengers. There are, to be certain, exceptions to this behavior, but they become notable for their scarcity.

You have probably seen the television advertisements depicting a man and woman who have returned from their vacation, but are still enraptured by their recent Celebrity cruise. He utters such nonsense as, “I was treated like royalty” and “I consider this a temporary banishment.” It’s a clever commercial and wonderful fiction. In an honest version, the man might well mutter: “I was treated with contempt.”

But others have different appraisals, as reflected in this missive I recently received regarding a previous review of mine about Infinity. It came from a person who declined to identify himself or herself and I present it exactly as received so that you might experience its full aroma: “It seems to me that your just a big complainer. why on earth if it was so bad would you book another cruise with infinity. I sailed on infinity and thought it was a wonderful cruise and the staff and food was wonderful too.”

In response: There is two reasons. The ship is awesome, and offered, at that time, the most enjoyable cabins we ever had The second reason is that Infinity’s early January cruises have offered the most at-sea days of comparable cruises at that time of year. And we much prefer at-sea days than the visit-a-port-a-day cruises.

One of the most distinctive events of this cruise was an outbreak of the virus formerly known as Norwalk. You’ve probably read or heard recent news reports about the increasing number of outbreaks aboard various cruise ships. However, Celebrity was apparently quite adept at keeping news of January’s outbreak from the news media. I read not one word of the situation, except for some comments on a few of the Web’s cruise-related message boards.

Our first indication something was amiss came about mid-cruise when battery-operated dispensers of hand sanitizing liquid appeared at the head of serving lines in the Oceanview buffet restaurant. After inquiring, we were told some passengers and crew members had become ill.

One of our tablemates said he had been stricken and had to wait two hours in an extremely crowded sickbay to obtain just a few moments attention from the ship’s physician. And that prompts me to issue a word of caution in favor of obtaining travel insurance: the cost of medical care aboard any cruise ship is quite exorbitant -- one gentleman wrote me that he and his wife had three very brief visits with the Infinity’s doctor. The cost totaled more than $600, to be paid on the spot by credit card.

However, the outbreak we experienced was minor in comparison with what I am told occurred on Infinity’s next leg between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires after we disembarked.

A passenger on that portion of the cruise said at least 600 people became ill with upper respiratory distress caused by the Norwalk virus, with ship’s crew members referring to the outbreak as an epidemic. One person wrote to say Infinity was being cleaned constantly with undiluted bleach, and hand sanitizer dispensers were placed in numerous locations. Buffet servers all wore gloves and passengers were neither permitted to serve themselves nor allowed to touch any utensils, other than their individual silverware. All buffet foods were portioned and served by the gloved crew members.

A personal note: In 2002 we started carrying small containers of Purell Hand Sanitizer. But several people we met aboard ship scoffed at the idea, with one couple making fun of us. We sailed with that same couple this year and, guess what? Yep, they say they now constantly use the sanitizer, especially after shaking hands with people and touching door knobs. We, however, graciously elected not to make fun of them!

Now to summarize our experiences:

Celebrity went out of its way this year to caution passengers not to arrive at the embarkation terminal until after 1 p.m. or later for the 4:30 p.m. scheduled sailing, saying new security measures would slow the boarding process. As we’ve now come to expect with Celebrity, the advice was worthless. We arrived about 11 a.m. and were rather swiftly processed and allowed to board.

One new security twist this year: our passports were taken from us by the check-in staff and were returned only the day before the end of the cruise.

Celebrity advertises arriving passengers will be greeted by gloved crew members, offered a glass of Champaign or orange juice and then personally escorted to their cabin. Indeed, they unscrewed a bottle of Champaign and offered to pour it, but no gloved crew member presented himself or herself for escort duty. However, being well familiar with the ship, we had no difficulty reaching our stateroom (Celebrity prefers to avoid the more accurate, but not quite as exotic, term “cabin.”)

We then tackled some of our usual post-boarding tasks: we checked our dining room seating and requested to be moved from the main floor to the restaurant’s less crowded balcony; we reserved a table at the ship’s specialty restaurant, the United States, for the second formal night of the cruise; and rented an in-cabin setup to allow us to connect our laptop to the Internet. But the price of that slow speed service continues to escalate. What had cost $100 for two weeks of service in 2003 now costs about $400 and provides one hour of daily connect time, with additional connect time available in 50-cent a minute packages or, with no package, at 75-cents-a-minute. We’re told a higher connect speed is planned, but we wonder how much more that will cost.

Departure was a bit late, as is not uncommon aboard cruise ships, and we sailed through a channel and into the Atlantic at dusk, passing the complex of condos where residents give each cruise ship a royal send off, complete with horns, bells, search lights, whistles and cheers. We often wonder if the cruise lines compensate those souls for providing a wonderful start to a cruise.

The two at-sea days en route to Aruba were routine, except for rather unusual rolling of the ship. By rolling, I mean a side-to-side, rotating motion. We really enjoy it! If we didn’t, we’d book a hotel room instead of a cruise ship. But the magnitude of that rolling during the first two days was impressive. With one’s gaze fixed on a spot on the horizon, the ship’s severe motion was very evident, and unlike any we had experienced.

But as enjoyable as it was for us, some passengers did not view with pleasure the abnormal rolling. It was only later that a crew member (after first making sure I was being truthful when I said I enjoyed the motion) admitted the ship’s stabilizer was malfunctioning. But the engineers apparently were able to fix the equipment, for the rolling soon subsided after we left Aruba for the Panama Canal.

Aruba is truly a desert island, and its small size (something like 9 by 16 miles) allows one to see the entire island well within a day. On its western coast are exquisite and accessible beaches. The eastern third of the island is a desert, with short bushes that look as though they’ve been tortured by a dry wind. Emaciated goats and dogs can usually be seen, as well as small lizards.

Paved roads are found mainly on the western, southern and northern portions of the island, with roads on the eastern coastal regions are often no more than dirt trails. Some are so uneven that a four-wheel-drive vehicle with generous ground clearance is required for passage.

We rented one of Suzuki’s small, 4wd SUVs, and had a great time touring the island with two friends for most of the day. Some coastal areas have dramatic bays with crashing waves that have sculpted interesting land formations, such as the Natural Bridge.

On the island’s southwest side is Baby Beach. It is notable for shallow waters that are safe for children and for those who wade, but don’t swim, as well as for its coral reefs that are densely populated with iridescent fish of diverse sizes, providing ideal snorkeling. Other beaches are better suited for swimming, but all of Aruba’s beaches are open to the general public, including those maintained by individual resort hotels.

We returned to the ship in time to do some shopping at stores located near the pier and then boarded for dinner. We usually refrain from eating in other countries, since their health rules vary and, in any case, we’ve already paid for rather extensive meals aboard the ship.

And, typing of ship’s meals, the food quality and service seemed to have slipped a bit from years past. Much of the red meat, especially steaks, tended to be on the tough side and, as usual, the cooks preferred not to honor requests for rare red meat because of health reasons. We found the ship’s fish dishes to be delicious, but the deserts were generally bland and unappealing -- unlike the previous year. We found the best selection and tastiest food at the Oceanview buffet, and we routinely ate lunch there.

Aboard a cruise ship, one may request nearly any food item and people often ask for two entrees, deserts or side dishes. I, for example, on the first night of the cruise requested the waiter serve a double shrimp cocktail as my nightly appetizer. The waiters are usually eager to please and such requests are most always cheerfully fulfilled.

One very nice static dinner feature is the availability of strip steak, salmon or chicken as alternatives, or in addition, to the menu selections that change nightly.

Infinity continues to offer an interesting and diverse selection of wines. My partner, soliciting the sommelier’s advice, shared several bottles of unusual wines with our tablemates during the cruise.

The ship offers the routine events provided by most cruise ships: the ever-present art auctions; bingo sessions, and an expensive “aqua spa” facility that Celebrity heralds as the most rejuvenating spa afloat, “an oasis for the mind and body.” New to Infinity this year was the availability of acupuncture treatments. During at-sea days, the casino offers some diversions, albeit with its now familiar poor to non-existent slot machine payouts.

We continue to find the most attractive activity aboard Infinity to be inactivity. Infinity, as do all Celebrity ships, refrains from the nearly constant PA announcements issued by cruise directors aboard other lines. Once a day, at noon, the Infinity’s captain announces (in thickly-accented English, spoken with barely a hint of inflection) the exact latitude and longitude of the ship, and gives a brief weather report. Amazingly, the barometric pressure was reported as exactly 30 inches of mercury, without exception, every single day of the cruise!

The monotony of the captain’s announcement was then followed by the phony enthusiasm of the cruise director, detailing that day’s “fabulously exciting” events. The remainder of the day is sans PA announcements and, therefore, quite conducive to napping or undistracted reading.

We attended only one of the nightly shows -- one featuring a comedian whose routine consisted entirely of grade-school toilet humor, contemptuous remarks about passengers in general, and stale insults about homosexual passengers (especially the ones who try in vain to seduce him on a daily basis). We walked out after 10 minutes.

This year we hosted a Panama Canal transit party for approximately 20 people, some of whom we met on the ship and others with whom we had corresponded via e-mail before the cruise.

Our aft-facing cabin had a huge veranda and the cabin attendant was very helpful in supplying extra chairs, a cover for the table, plastic glasses, and ice. Room service, which is complimentary except for beverages, provided plates of cheeses and crackers, along with some cookies and a few bottles of wine. It was a very nice experience and one we repeated during our last two days at sea.

Manta, Ecuador, was unremarkable… mainly because we got off the ship, walked around the dock and re-boarded. We did that because we had heard from several other passengers that traveling on your own in that nation is rather risky because of muggings, thefts and other crimes. Passengers we spoke to who had gone off on their own, usually by renting a taxi for a few hours, noted they were constantly accosted by beggars. What they found most disturbing was most of the beggars were children who apparently had been sent by their parents to get money from the tourists. In addition, on the pier we asked for but could find no taxi drivers who spoke English.

Lima, Peru, was also unremarkable – mainly because the ship doesn’t dock there. The ship actually stops in Callao, Peru, where there is little to see or do. None of the excursions offered by Celebrity in Peru were of interest to us. There were excursions, albeit very expensive ones, that several passengers took to rainforests in the mountainous regions, including the much touted Machu Picchu area. Those who made the journey were enthusiastic about the overnight trips that started in Callao, with the passengers rejoining the ship in Arica, Chile. They described the excursion as spectacular. We did shop at a large, dockside mall that offered Peruvian crafted articles and other interesting items, including unusual Alpaca clothing.

Arica is in northern Chile, just south of the Peruvian border. We heard that travel in the Arica area was much safer than in Ecuador, so, upon leaving the ship, we recruited a taxi driver and went on a four-hour, informal excursion. He was a pleasant gentleman who had spent his entire life in the Valparaiso-Santiago area, but was spending his retirement years in the less-populous Arica. The weather in Arica is unusual, since the northern water current brings very cold water near the coast, producing dense fog on most nights and much cloud cover during the day. We toured several areas of the city, as well as a fortress near the coast that had some historical significance as it was a site of a battle with Peru many years ago. The downtown shopping plaza was beautiful, but the shops were closed for siesta during most of the time the ship was docked.

Celebrity now offers the option of handling end-of-the-cruise tipping via credit card. We like to personally hand cash-bearing envelopes to those who made our trip most pleasant -- usually the waiter and his assistant, our cabin attendant and his assistant, the dinner table’s sommelier and the restaurant’s assistant maitre’d who expedites special requests and resolves any difficulties one may experience.

We usually have several requests for our cabin attendant at the start of the cruise and tip him or her well at that time, making sure they understand that is in addition to the end-of-the-cruise tip. And we always tip well above the minimum at the end of the cruise to reward, when it is provided, exceptional service.

Debarking was relatively smooth in Valparaiso, especially since all passengers flying back to the United States (and that was most of them) had a multi-hour wait until the planes departed. Our nine-hour flight to Miami, for example, didn’t leave until 10:30 that night, so we elected to take a winery tour on a chartered bus while en route to the Santiago International Airport.

We found the tour very enjoyable, with a stop at the Veramonte Winery, during which we were able to tour the facility’s production area. We then stopped at yet another winery in Casablanca Valley, where a buffet lunch was provided, along with performances by Chilean dancers and singers. It was a nice and reasonably priced effort by Celebrity to provide its passengers with some diversion during the approximately 12-hour wait. Other passengers elected to take part in a shopping excursion or an inland bus trip through some native towns.

As I have mentioned, it is certainly exciting to have the adventure of boarding a ship that’s new to you. But we also enjoy the aura of comfortableness inherent in cruising on a ship with which we are well familiar. I suggest that you consider re-sailing on ships you enjoy or, at least, not rejecting out-of-hand such an adventure.

As far as this year’s Infinity cruise: An enjoyable experience that could have been much more enjoyable if Celebrity/Royal Caribbean had a consistent and genuine interest in the satisfaction of its customers. Should you book a trip on Infinity? Certainly, but be prepared for the possibility of some rough moments.

And that is how we spent our 2005 January vacation. It will most likely be the last cruise with Celebrity for some time, or at least aboard Infinity. At this writing we are contemplating a 15-night, round trip Hawaiian cruise aboard Princess Cruise Line’s Island Princess next January. Celebrity also offers a similar January cruise aboard the Summit, but that 13-night voyage (for some inexplicable reason) eliminates Maui as a port of call. Our only hesitation at this point is that the Princess ship does not offer aft-facing cabins -- a location with which we have grown quite fond.

I have purposely omitted from this review information similar to that I provided in previous Infinity reviews in an effort to avoid boring some of you. But each year I continue to receive numerous e-mail requests for either my Cruise Tips (prepared primarily for people new to cruising) or the URLs of my previous reviews. I am happy to provide either or both.

Thanks for reading...and Bon Voyage!

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