Philip M. Haggerty
Occupation:Retired City Attorney
Number of Cruises: 7
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: December 8th, 2002
Itinerary: Panama Canal
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: December 8th, 2002
My name is Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and retired health services provider. This would be our seventh cruise, and our third on a Celebrity vessel. The first was a seven day Mexican Riviera trip on Carnival’s Elation. The next was an eleven day Caribbean cruise on Enchanted Isle, owned by the now bankrupt Commodore Line. The third and fourth were both on Celebrity ships, a seven day Eastern Caribbean cruise on Galaxy and a 14 day Santiago to Buenos Aires trip on Mercury. Next came an eleven day cruise/tour to Alaska, the cruise portion being on Sun Princess, and our last was a seven day cruise to the Western Caribbean on Norwegian Sun. We have written reviews for the last four trips and they should still be available on this site.
My purpose has been to provide detailed, specific information which might be of use to anyone contemplating a similar itinerary in particular, and to provide general information of use to neophyte cruisers. I also endeavor to compare ships and cruise lines. Of necessity, these comparisons are limited to my experience, and the opinions I express are mostly personal, flavored with comments from fellow passengers. For example, neither Edith or I gamble, so our comments on the casino are a reflection of what others may tell us. We are not great dancers, but on this cruise we had Fred and Ginger to watch. Nor are we deck loungers, spending long periods of time stretched out next to the main pool, but I can report what the decks looked like. No one can do all the things that a cruise ship offers, or experience all the venues provided. My e-mail address will be attached so that anyone can communicate with me concerning this review, or any other cruising thoughts or experiences that they want to share.
There are six major areas of pre-cruise preparation - what cruise to take - insurance-how to purchase your cruise - getting to and from the ship - what to bring with you - what off-ship excursions can be planned and/or purchased .
What cruise line to take and where to go usually depends on whether or not you have cruised before. The choices these days are legion. Basically the world of cruising is divided into categories based on ship size, itinerary and the degree of shipboard amenities provided. If you draw the line at 1000 passengers, there are six major cruise lines operating out of the United States. These are: Carnival, Holland-America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess. I do not count Disney because of its extremely limited itinerary. The Crystal line ships, which just had its third vessel, Crystal Serenity, come into service, carry fewer than 1000 passengers, but not by much. Silversea and Seabourn are super-luxury lines with four or five ships carrying not more than 400 passengers. The same can be said of Radisson. Then there are the “adventure” or “expedition” cruises, which range from the super luxurious Hanseatic and Europa through Bremen and down to the smaller Cruise West vessels, Quark Expeditions and the Russian ice breakers. Costa Cruises, Olympic, Cunard and Orient are somewhere in between, with few ships, and limited itineraries. So by far the most American passengers board one of the many vessels owned and operated by the six major all-purpose cruise lines.
These lines sail in eight general areas with major duplication in the more popular locations. For example, all sail the Caribbean, most sail to Alaska, the Mexican Riviera and more recently, Hawaii. Some do the Panama Canal and South America. Many sail to Europe and when there, cruise the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. The Pacific Ocean has opened up to more cruises by a few major lines.
The services and amenities of all these major lines are very similar. All meals in the main dining rooms and buffets, including room service, are provided as part of the fare; all liquor and soft drinks are charged; all excursions are extra. A number of lines have added “alternative” restaurants for which there may or may not be an additional charge of up to $25.00 per person for the “special service” provided. Tipping is encouraged, and billed on some lines (although you can opt out of these charges if you fuss enough). All entertainment, from very similar glitzy Las Vegas type shows through dancing and incidental music, is included. Spas are available with a wide range of charged services, but gyms with substantial exercise equipment are provided without charge. All ships have casinos, apparently non-stop bingo games and frequent art auctions, which in my book comes under the heading of a spectator sport.
The advantages and disadvantages of these large ships are also very similar. Except for Celebrity, the food is “hotel banquet”; pretty good, with a limited selection, and nicely presented by a usually competent if somewhat rushed wait staff consisting of a waiter and assistant waiter assigned to a group of tables. Celebrity alone prepares each serving individually, resulting in higher quality; and their dining room staff is larger, allowing for a less rushed service. The entertainment offered by all lines is professional, and at least one or two of the shows will be appealing to almost everyone. There is plenty to do, or you can do nothing if you wish. The sailing is normally very smooth and relaxing, since these are large ships with stabilizers, and are not disturbed by most normal seas. The cabin attendants seem universally efficient and pleasant. There is sometimes a language issue which varies a great deal from ship to ship and line to line. Everyone reports that almost all the crew members are very pleasant and try to be helpful, but on large ships this tends to be on the impersonal side. Lines at debarkation, tenders (if necessary) and buffets are common given the number of passengers. An effort seems to me in the works to improve debarkation, with Norwegian Cruise Lines serving as a good example of how it should be done. Some embarkation delays appear to be inevitable.
If the similarities are so prevalent, on what basis can a choice be made? Price is not as large a factor as one might think. While you can really spend a bundle on high end Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal and Radisson cruises; the “brochure price” variances between the six major lines are not great. In addition, each line has an early purchase discount program, repeat passenger benefits and a variety of discount programs depending on how full they are. The big price differences are found between the cabins themselves, from extremely expensive suites to fairly cheap inside cabins, despite the fact that the passengers are all eating the same food, seeing the same shows, taking the same excursions and enjoying every aspect of the voyage with most of the same amenities.
If you really want to find out about cruise lines, cruise ships and cruising in general there are two good books available at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble. They are: “Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2002” Douglas Ward; Berlitz Publishing Co. and “Unofficial Guide to Cruises 2003”; Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger; Wiley Publishing Co. The Berlitz book lists every cruise ship in alphabetical order in addition to its general cruising sections. It rates them on a scale of 1 to 2000; with the highest score being given to the Hapag-Lloyd vessel Europa - 1857 points.
By comparison, most Celebrity vessels are in the low 1700s, Carnival in the 1300-1400 range along with Norwegian Cruise Lines and Costa. Princess, Holland-American and Royal Caribbean come in in the 1500 range. Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea are in the middle to high 1700 area. The Unofficial Guide, in rating ships, does so by cruise line, with each lines’ ships grouped with their “sister ships”. The rating is two-fold - Quality from 1 to 10, and a similar scale for a category called “Value’. This value scale is based on a ratio of the cost at the cruise lines brochure rate compared to the quality offered. The Unofficial Guide rating includes shore excursions, but Berlitz does not beyond rating special features such as Zodiac boats available on expedition cruises, and any special adventure assistance provided as part of the basic fare. The only problem with the Unofficial Guide is that some ships, including Europa and the similarly highly rated Hanseatic and Bremen are not even shown since they operate mostly on special charters. Europa, for example sails in 2003 on a round the world trip of 223 days with 125 stops, although you don’t have to do the whole trip; it is divided into separately priced segments of 25-30 days each. The general sections of each of these books will tell you just about anything you may want to know about cruising, and can be of great assistance to a beginning cruiser.
So if you can spend pretty much what you want to and find little difference between ships sailing for the major cruise lines; the itinerary can become an extremely important factor. While some people do virtually no shore visiting, much less taking shore excursions, where you go is still important, as well as how long you travel. Another factor is the ratio between port days, in which the boat is docked for up to 15 hours (although 9 to 12 is more common); and sea days with no port exposure. We think it makes little sense to sail on a ship and spend all day each day in a tourist oriented port, so we try to have a mixture between sailing and seeing the places we are visiting. We know that there are some cruisers who really, really love shopping in foreign ports, and some who never leave the ship. Each choice is individual, but everyone has to consider the itinerary and length of the cruise. We know that surveys conducted by the lines ask questions on both points. The lines are out to make money, but to do so they have to serve their customers’ desires in order to get them to spend what is almost the ultimate in discretionary dollars. The advantage to us, the customer, is that tastes are so diverse that a wide range of product, growing wider all the time, is being offered. Since we personally feel that there is great similarity in itinerary selection these days, we are guided first by our personal schedule and thereafter by the service level, including cuisine, provided. All things being equal, our choice of cruise lines among the major providers would be Celebrity based on the food, the high ratio of crew to passenger complement and the generally smooth overall operation.
We buy insurance from a company called CSA. As an associate travel agent, I get a commission on this as well as on the cruise fare since this firm is affiliated with my agency. But I do not buy the total amount which we will spend on travel; usually buying about 65-75% of the cost, depending on how much the air fare runs. The insurance provides health coverage, baggage loss, baggage delay costs, theft loss and cancellation for a valid reason.
Buying a cruise is a major consideration of course. Cruise lines prefer to deal with travel agencies. A good agent can not only give you a lot of advice on the ships, their itineraries and features, but on how to get the best price. The standard commission is 16% of the basic cruise fare, not including taxes. Port charges are part of most cruises and sometimes are rolled into the quoted price, and sometimes stated separately.
The commission on the air portion of a cruise trip may be less. But travel agents want repeat customers, so they would rather sell two cruises at a lower rate, even with a lower per cruise commission, than one cruise at a higher rate. Referrals are also a major source of new customers, so agents will try to get the lowest possible cost to increase their volume and reputation. Some agencies, like mine, will sell “associate travel agent” status to non-professional agents. We have found this to be very handy since it enables me to call the cruise line directly and do my own booking. The documents are then sent to my agency. We split the commission. I also have access to a lot of information and special promotions because of this relationship.
Do you love the internet? A number of lines now offer cruises which can be purchased over the internet. However much I use cyberspace to get information, I agree with the recommendation of both cruise books not to buy cruises through this method. The selection may be very limited; and it is not possible to do any negotiation about cabins, special offers or upgrades, or even sometimes, prices. Travel agents can do all these things by phone; but you cannot on the net.
What about discounts? Again the cruise books I mentioned have some very realistic information, but actual practices change from line to line and cruise to cruise. Everyone offers a form of early booking discount, with variances as to what is “early” and how much is offered. The most expensive suites and the cheapest cabins sell first. Veranda cabins, particularly for warm climate trips, are next in demand. All lines want a deposit, usually 25% on making the reservation, and full payment about 60 days prior to sail date. It was once thought that if you waited until the last minute, you could get a bargain rate. There may be some small truth in this, but most cruise lines will not undersell their early discount passengers, and the choice may be very limited or non-existent. There are still a lot of “Special Offers” out there, some by large travel agencies that have “block booked“ space in advance, some by the lines themselves if they feel that a particular cruise is not moving well based on early sales. You can find these on the net (some risk involved if you don‘t know the agency), through your local travel agent (safer), or through brochures supplied by cruise lines to past passengers or simply people who asked to be put on the mailing list. We like to plan somewhat in advance, especially for longer and special trips like South America, the Panama Canal, and upcoming cruises to the Mediterranean (combined with a time share week in Spain) and the Baltic (combined with a six day pre-cruise land tour). We were more flexible in going on our Norwegian Sun Caribbean cruise, and are thinking about a special offer Caribbean trip in March on Grand Princess, a pretty big ship.
Getting to and from the ship can be a hassle depending on the location of the embarkation and debarkation ports. When we did the Alaska cruise, we let Princess buy the airfare since it was cheaper that way due to that line’s extensive business with
Alaska Airlines. When we went to South America, we bought roundtrip tickets from American Airlines to Santiago, and caught a “commuter” Aerolineas Argentinas flight across the Andes from Buenos Aires to Santiago. This worked out well and was far less expensive than the Celebrity air pricing. We let Celebrity buy the tickets to and from San Juan for the cruise on Galaxy, and the price was about the same as doing it ourselves. When we did the Commodore trip we purchased our own tickets since we were not returning directly to Phoenix at the conclusion of the cruise. When we took the Mexican Riviera cruise we drove to LA and stayed in a hotel near the pier that keeps your car in covered parking for a week at no extra cost beyond the one night’s stay. For this trip we bought our own tickets since there are many cheap flights from Phoenix to San Diego. The message is, it pays to check around to see if you can beat the cruise lines air fare pricing, or if the convenience of having them do it is better.
The next big concern is - what to wear, and what else to bring. First of all, make a written list of all you need to bring with you. Don’t forget to put down items like an extension cord (needed on most ships), binoculars if you are going to Alaska, and the cuff links and shirt studs for your formal shirt. - I did forget them once, and it is difficult to find a place that sells sets. Obviously the length of the cruise and the expected weather have a lot to do with your clothing selection. Personal taste matters too, and different cruise lines have different passengers. For example, the passengers on Norwegian Sun were far more casual than those on Mercury. In fact I did not wear my tux on the second “formal” night on Sun, and most others skipped it also. You can consult the cruise books mentioned above for good suggestions, including comments on the typical types of fellow passengers and their probable range on the casual to formal scale. You can get on the internet to check the weather forecast just about anywhere in the world, including Punta Arenas, Chile at the tip of South America. The Caribbean certainly is casual, but Alaska, even in the summer, requires warm stuff if you are going out on deck, as you will want to, to get a good view of the glaciers. The internet sites for some cruise lines will give you information on the number of formal nights and some tips on the approach to the clothing issue. Our tendency, and I suspect it is common, is to bring too much. On every cruise, except the 14 day South American trip, we have had clothes which we never wore. The problem nowadays is that the airlines are starting to get sticky about the size of suitcases you can bring with you, even in baggage; so it behooves everyone to try to keep the clothing at a minimum. Remember, most cruise lines have self service laundries (Celebrity does not), and all offer laundry and dry cleaning services.
Finally, how do you get the most out of port opportunities? Research, research, research. This can be both fun and frustrating. Some ports will have an immense amount of information available in printed form as well as on the net; others will have little, and that will be well hidden, or in another language. How do you get from Gydnia to Torun in Poland? Who offers what snorkeling package in Cabo San Lucas,? How much and when? I may start the process months in advance in the library and by browsing at local large bookstores. For general information about a country, region or even city in many cases, the Lonely Planet and Moon Handbook series are invaluable.
Frommers and Fodors offer excellent information on restaurants and hotels useful if you are staying over after the cruise or arriving a few days early. For specific information about trips and excursions, Moon and the Lonely Planet will often have the names of providers and their websites or e-mail addresses. You can plug in searches to google.com and with a little experience can narrow things down a bit.
The cruise lines themselves want to sell you their excursions. The advantages are that the line, while not a guarantor or insurer of the tour provider, will have checked their vendors out at least to some extent. And on a cruise line arranged excursion they will hold the ship if there is a delay in returning. I have seen this happen a couple of times. The disadvantages are cost, lack of flexibility and lack of imagination. We think we should try to get the flavor of the country, and while some cruise excursions will do this, some are simply glorified shopping trips to stores that are replicated in every port. If you are considering Alaska, and especially if you are going via Princess or Holland-American; you cannot do better price wise or for itinerary choice than buying the ships’ excursions. Both these lines have cruised so long in this area that they offer a wide selection, and the season is so short and limited that there are no bargain prices on land anyway. In busy ports, if you have enough time, you can usually find a local vendor at less cost and as much reliability as the ones offered by the cruise. We usually end up with a combination. You can also buy many tours directly from vendors on the net; and most cruise lines offer a system for you to pre-buy their excursions on their web sites once you have paid your full fare and have a confirmed reservation number. The lines offer a lot of information on their excursions on their sites, and will in some cases provide detailed booklets or other written material on their trips.
Planning Our Canal Cruise
Anyone planning to cruise the Panama Canal should read “The Path Between the Seas”, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster Press, 1977. Subtitled “The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914”; it is a marvelous account of this immense project, and will certainly create a lasting impression. It is amazing that the engineering and planning done over 95 years ago has operated the canal all that time and up to this day virtually without change and without a failure. The Canal itself is operated by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), an agency of the Country of Panama, under local law and the provisions of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977. The website of this agency, which has a wealth of information, is: www.pancanal.com.
As noted above, Celebrity’s website allows pre-purchase of their land excursions, and charges your credit card immediately. With sufficient time prior to the excursion date, you can cancel many tours and get a credit; but if you pre-purchase some excursions which involve major commitments, such as air or helicopter flights, I would be very careful and check into the cancellation policy in detail. Also, internet bookings close typically 10 days prior to sailing, and ships excursions can thereafter only be purchased at the “Shore Excursion Desk” maintained on board in some form or another by all lines. In Cabo San Lucas our port time was limited, 10:30 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., and this port requires a tender to debark. The late arrival made it impossible for me to find a vendor on the net who would guarantee pick up and return within those time frames, and I was unwilling to simply take a chance on shore on my own. So I booked a snorkel tour through Celebrity. Edith wanted to see the area, and since Cabo itself is small, and the surrounding area is spread out, she bought a bus tour.
We would be in Acapulco a long time, from 8:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. We found a local vendor at a reasonable price for a four hour tour which we figured would give us a good idea of the city’s layout. Mexican cities have a fast, efficient, cheap and frequent bus service, so we planned to wing it by local transportation thereafter. We researched some restaurants by travel books.
Our next stop is Puntarenas Bay in Costa Rica. There is not much of a town here, and Celebrity offers a number of fairly extensive nature oriented trips. Because of the length involved, and our desire for certainty in the time department, we opted for a Celebrity Sky Walk in the Forest excursion.
We then were to cruise the Canal proper and come out in the Caribbean. The original itinerary included a four hour stop in Cartagena, Columbia, but this port has been dropped by many cruise lines, so we go on to Aruba. We have been here twice before and feel we know this delightful island well, so we will be on our own and expect to enjoy it.
Day 1 - We Set Sail
It is a one hour flight from our home in Phoenix to San Diego. This is an interesting city to land in, with the planes coming directly down over the central city buildings into a small airport. A short cab ride takes you to the pier. The boarding process was very fast since we were Sky Suite passengers, but it seemed to be moving nicely for everyone. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it was 3:45 and boarding started at noon. The pier set-up had us drop off our luggage at a special loading area first.
We posed for the usual gangway photo, and as on every cruise, this turned out to be the only decent photograph taken of us on the entire trip. Unlike past Celebrity cruises, we were not escorted to our stateroom. Our cabin was number 6119, a Sky Suite as noted. “Suite” is really a misnomer, since it is only one room plus a bathroom. But it is of a pretty decent size, with room for a couch and armchair, a good desk arrangement, a coffee table, a walk-in closet and a good sized veranda containing a teak lounge and teak chair with fully padded seat cushions and back rests. The lighting system was excellent and the art work very nice. The bathroom had a tub/shower setup and a good supply of toiletries, including shampoo bottles, although Celebrity also uses an in-shower shampoo dispenser. The ice bucket is fully insulated, unlike the glass bucket on Norwegian Sun, which mostly held melted ice. Altogether it was a very pleasant, stateroom, with no cramped feeling or sense of crowding. Since we got it as Captain’s Club members as an upgrade from a normal veranda cabin, it was well worth the price.
Our cabin attendant, Odetta from Lithuania, came by shortly to introduce herself, followed by Alfred from Bombay, our butler. I was not sure of how much we would use a butler, but both were very pleasant.
Since our luggage had not yet arrived, and we had a couple of hours until dinner, we wandered around to get oriented. This is a large vessel, 91,000 tons; which is more of a measure of size than weight. Since the passenger complement is slightly less than 2000 in 1019 staterooms, which is very little more than on the standard sized Mercury, Galaxy and Zenith (77,000 tons), there is more space on board per passenger, a space ratio of about 46, which is very high. The result is that the public spaces are larger in size and greater in number, making for an uncrowded feeling throughout the ship.
The shops, on Deck 5, are far larger and more varied than on Sun Princess or Norwegian Sun. The photo gallery is very large. There are a number of lounges and seating areas scattered throughout the ship. A small area called the Conservatory on Deck 11 is a delight. The library runs through two floors, with several comfortable couches. There is a room for listening to music on discs. The children’s play area is aft on deck 11 and completely isolated from the rest of the ship. The gym and spa area is reasonably spacious although the exercise floor was crowded for the stretch classes. The theater holds 900 people, and is very well designed with three levels and good sight lines for all but a few seats. The seating is sofa style, with small tables for drinks between double seats. The casino is on Deck 4, and you have to go through it only if you are proceeding forward to the photo gallery or the Deck 4 entrance to the theater. (There is also a theater entrance on Deck 5.) It can be avoided and one side is non-smoking so the arrangement is not too bad. The main dining room, as is usual on all Celebrity ships, is a two deck affair at the aft end, with windows looking out to sea.
There is an enclosed internet room, and a “cinema” theater seating about 300, which was used for most lectures. There were several meeting rooms of varying sizes available, and one alternative dining room, the United States Dining Room, of which more later.
There are three elevator banks. The main bank is set to one side of the ship and has four glass enclosed elevators which, if looked at from above, would form a circle, so each elevator is partially rounded. Two of them look out over the side of the ship, which makes for an interesting ride. They move very quickly, but unfortunately are accompanied by a recorded voice which announces the floor, “going up” or “going down” and “door closing” or “door opening”. The universal desire of all passengers was to “put a sock in it”. There are two other banks of three elevators each, one forward and one aft.
As we requested, we were assigned a table at the main seating, normally 6:00 P.M.
Our table held ten people, the largest we had ever experienced. Our companions for dining would be Tyler and Ruth from Texas; Jules and Pat from Oceanside, California; and from the Tampa Bay area, John and Susan and their friends Evelyn and Irene. We are going to be a very compatible group.
It always seems that the first dinner is not up to the usual Celebrity standards. My tomato bisque soup and mushroom appetizer were quite good, but the fish (hake) was pretty bland and the dessert, a swan puff, only adequate. Edith requested the vegetarian menu, which has to be asked for separately, and is not part of the regular menu, and found her entree to be dull also. Our waiter is a young man named Arslan, of Turkish-German ancestry, and seems very competent. Our assistant waiter is Clifton from Jamaica.
After dinner I went up on deck to watch us pull away from San Diego. We were supposed to sail at 8:00, but did not pull away until 9:45. San Diego Harbor is small, but striking during the day. At night, with all the Christmas lights on the office buildings, it was very attractive, albeit somewhat chilly. We went to the opening show and realized that the cruise director, Ray, was the same director we had on our South American trip on Mercury. The “show” was the usual abbreviated routine plus introductions of the cruise director’s staff. We had requested an additional blanket since ships are well refrigerated, and it was awaiting us, so we retired and slept well as we always do at sea.
Day 2 - At Sea
This was a slightly cloudy and cool day. We ate breakfast in the buffet on Deck 10. The Celebrity buffet layout is the best by far of the four lines we have traveled. There are four stations for the main buffet with a separate omelet station. There is also a “light fare” buffet station next to the aqua spa and Thalassotherapy pool. It is reasonably easy to move about, and waiters will carry your trays to a table. The tables have comfortable chairs, fully padded in some sections. The seating areas extend out over the side of the ship, and in these “bay window” areas there are glass “portholes” in the floor so you can look straight down to the ocean. The food is typical, but with a pretty large selection, the opportunity to have english muffins or bagels toasted while you wait, and a good selection of fruit. Waiters also will carry trays of danish pastries around, and coffee, although it was sometimes difficult to find a coffee waiter. The breakfast buffet often featured very delicious potatoes.
We checked our boarding photo, which turned out well, so we bought it for $9.50. I do not know why this photo is always good, while the formal photos area always bad. Maybe because we are so relaxed and happy at the time we are actually boarding.
The mandatory lifeboat drill was at 10:30. We went to the Thalassotherapy pool and the “light buffet” for lunch. It tasted good and made us feel virtuous. We attended a lecture on Cortez and a shopping talk which followed. This was the first of the formal nights and started with the “Captain’s Reception”, which was pretty much of a waste of time since the officers did not stick around to chat, and the reception was held on three levels around the central atrium, which is not very conducive to conversation. Dinner however, was a major improvement with an excellent salmon stuffed with crab mousse appetizer, a very good duck a la orange, a good onion soup and a delicious chocolate truffle cake. All our dinner companions seemed much happier with their choices also.
The show started at 9:00 and we arrived 15 minutes early to find it about 85% full. We sat in the last row of the upper deck, but could see and hear well anyway. The show was “They’ve Got Rhythm” and featured the singer/dance troupe doing songs by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter. I love good old show tunes, so I found this very enjoyable, and the capacity audience did also. We learned that we would have to arrive about 30-40 minutes early to get good seats for these big shows, and they were all SRO throughout the trip. This may have been partly due to the fact that we had a lot of sea days on this trip and people always go to the shows on sea days, while some might skip the shows after a long port day.
On the way back from the show we passed through the Cova Cafe de Milano coffee lounge and heard the string quartet, called the Enigma Quartet [admirers of Edward Elgar ?]. This group normally plays in the dining room for dinner. We listened to their little concert until it ended at 10:30, and found it very delightful. I looked for them every day thereafter in the daily newssheet, but unfortunately this was their only performance.
Celebrity would do well to have them play on a few other occasions, as they were a marvelous way to end a pleasant day. We enjoyed another good nights sleep.
Day 3 - Cabo San Lucas
We were still sailing as we awoke and not due to arrive until 9:00 A.M. We ate a quick breakfast and I went to stretch class, which was quite full. Cabo is a tender port with a fairly small harbor. As suite passengers we were entitled to a priority tender pass, and left on the first boat, landing at 10:00. Unlike Carnival, and like Norwegian, Celebrity uses its own lifeboats for tenders. There was an RCI ship in port ahead of us. Edith wanted to buy tennis type sneakers, and we wandered around past the usual tourist stuff until we were directed to a store which sold nothing but sneakers. She got a nice pair for $17.00 US. Edith left on her bus tour at noon and I went back on board for a light lunch before returning for my snorkel excursion. My original snorkel trip to the Santa Maria Island area was cancelled. When I got back on shore I discovered that I had left my substitute ticket in the stateroom and brought my cancelled tour ticket instead. Fortunately Celebrity had an excursion department representative on shore and he was able to provide me with a substitute very efficiently. The excursion I ended up with was called the “Snorkel and Sail Fiesta”. It started with a fairly short snorkeling visit near the Arches at the tip of the peninsula. We then sailed into the Arches and back out where we hoisted the sails on the catamaran and went out into the Pacific. I regretted not bringing my camera, since I could have had excellent photos of the Arches, sea lions and birds. Sailing on the open sea was exhilarating and we all sang and danced. We returned at 5:00, just in time to change for dinner. Edith had success in purchasing a very nice silver pendant for about $30,00 US in San Jose del Cabo, a small and far less touristy town about 10 miles up the coast (east) from where we landed. She also enjoyed the visit to the Botanical Garden and the glass factory.
Our dinner group was down with Jules and Pat missing. I had an excellent fruit supreme appetizer, a fine mushroom bisque and very well prepared sea bream followed by tiramisu. The vegetables served with my fish included spinach which was delicious. Celebrity shows a great deal of variety in its accompanying vegetables which is a sure sign of the French influence of Michael Roux who designs their meals. These vegetables are much better prepared and with greater variety and imagination than on any other ship. Celebrity’s tiramisu dessert is of the creamy custard variety. Every restaurant seems to have its own idea of what tiramisu should be, and it is sort of entertaining wondering what you will get after you order.
The show was a comedienne, and I was fortunate enough to snooze through most of it. She was followed by an entertaining pianist. Edith’s vegetarian entree had been on the skimpy side so we decided to stay up for the “Caribbean Buffet” at 11:30. As usual it was on the outside pool deck, and unfortunately accompanied by horribly loud music.
I do not know why bands feel they have to be amplified until they blow you off the deck. You can actually hear the music better if it is quieter. We had a quick snack, set our watches ahead 1 hour as advised and retired at 1:00 A.M.; very unusual for us.
Day 4 - At Sea
We had intended to get up at 8:00 for a “Sculpt Session” in the gym, but due to our late evening we did not awake until 9:00. This also frustrated our plans to have breakfast in the dining room, so we went to the buffet where we had a delightful seat aft with windows overlooking the sea behind us as well as to the side, We do wish the breakfast waiters would circulate additional coffee more often and fewer sticky buns.
It is nice to have full size linen napkins in the buffet as well as plenty of china plates and bowls.
I had checked our account on the room TV the night before and sure enough, I had been double charged for my snorkel trip because of the ticket problem. I went to Guest Relations where they promised to correct it. We will see. Edith went to a lecture, and I stretched out on our veranda lounge listening to the sea. She then went to a computer class and I walked around the ship. Deck 4 has an outside promenade and as you walk forward you really have a sense of the sea rushing past. The weather today was noticeably warmer. Every night we get a little card delivered to our cabin which has the weather and temperature forecast for the next day.
In the afternoon we went to a lecture on the history of Acapulco and then went to the Captain’s Club wine tasting party. I did no tasting and Edith did not like any of the samples provided.
We had dinner this night in the United States Dining Room. It holds about 130 people and we had a table for two. The service is very personal and attentive without being pushy or annoying. The dinner consists of four courses. The first is a choice of appetizer, soup or salad; the second is the entree from a selection of about twelve choices, the third is a selection of cheeses and the fourth is dessert. The meal actually started with a tiny cup of excellent gazpacho. I had lobster veloute’, which is a delightful bisque; while Edith had a goat cheese souffle and very much enjoyed it. My entree was saltimbocca with a superb sauce and very well prepared vegetables of course. Edith had sea bass which she said was excellent. We tried about four of the cheeses, all of which were fairly mild and quite tasty. For dessert I could not resist the crepes suzette with its flaming tableside preparation, while Edith had an assortment of pastries, mousse and ice cream, each in individual small cups. I finished with an excellent espresso. It was a very leisurely dining experience, beginning at 7:00 and ending about 9:30. During the course of dinner the Captain with three of his senior officers accompanied by their ladies showed up. Since the menu does not change throughout the trip, I doubt that they dine there often. It was very nice to have a quiet dining experience and we enjoyed the attentive and highly professional service as well as the food. I felt it was worth the $25.00 per person charge. They obviously cannot make money on this charge given the additional service and the complete kitchen staff required, but the extensive and expensive wine menu probably makes it a profitable, or at least a break-even operation.
After dinner we went to the show, but saw only the last half since it started at 9:00. We then walked around the deck outside for a while since it was warm and pleasant, had tea in the buffet and went to bed.
Day 5 - Acapulco
We got up early to meet our internet arranged tour. The ship docked next to a port building which had some stores and afforded a place for the various tour guides to meet their guests. Our representative did not show up until 9:00, and we were the only persons on this tour. Our internet pricing was $20.00 US per person, but our driver thought it was $20.00 per hour for the car. However, after the first stop he checked with his office, via cell phone - what else these days no matter where you are - and told us our internet price would be honored. Acapulco is a fairly large city surrounding an attractive bay which is ringed with hotels. The pier is near the old town or “Zocalo” area towards the north side of the bay. We drove down the bay on the main street past all the hotels and continued south out of town, past another small bay, to the ocean coast where we visited the Princess Hotel, constructed in 1971 in the form of a Mayan temple . Evidently this quite elegant establishment does not mind tourists wandering around because several tour buses were there also with their passengers and Edith and I walking about and admiring the beautiful grounds and the beach with its beautiful full surf.
We then went back towards town and stopped at Las Brisas, a very elegant hillside community (gated) overlooking the bay. The original developer, who started it in 1958, had built a unique interdenominational chapel at the top open to the public. It had a magnificent view and the crypts of the developer’s two sons who were killed in the 60s in an auto accident returning from Mexico City. We drove back through town where we went past our driver’s home and waved at his wife and two young daughters before proceeding up a hilly area north of town where we visited a hotel built in the late 30’s before there was much of anything attracting tourists to Acapulco. We then went to see the famous cliff divers, which are interesting, and I took some photos, two of which caught the divers in mid-air very well. Although we had the names of some restaurants, it was getting warm and we told the driver to take us back to the ship for a snack at about 2:00 P.M. All in all it was well worth the $40.00 plus tip. We went back into town and strolled around the Zocalo area which is very near the pier. We visited an old, small, circular “cathedral” which was filled with local worshippers. There were no tourists or tourist shops, although there were plenty of stores filled with local customers, and it was delightful to see the people in their everyday lives and community.
We returned to the ship in time for our afternoon tea brought to our cabin by Alfred. This tea, with small sandwiches and pastries, and cappuccino for me, had become a regular routine every day, and was quite pleasant, although contributing to an expanding waistline. Dinner that night was excellent with a great scallop appetizer, a fine clear broth soup, a very nicely done sole meuniere, and a delicious chocolate pastry dessert. The show was a Folklorico Mexicano dance production, which was colorful, but we have seen a lot of these at home and altogether it was rather sleep inducing. Since it had been a long day we skipped the deck party and tex-mex buffet.
Day 6 - At Sea
This was the first of two consecutive sea days and we slept in until 8:00. Many others probably did the same since the dining room was fairly empty. I went to a port talk and Edith to a health lecture. We had lunch in the main dining room, and the service was a little slow, which concerned us since we had a 1:30 lecture and barely made it. The ship was definitely “at sea”, with lots of whitecaps showing and definite motion. I enjoy this and find it most relaxing. People reported seeing a very active and acrobatic pod of dolphins off the aft in the morning, and we were sorry we missed them. Edith went to an amber jewelry presentation and I walked about. This was the second formal night. Dinner was excellent as usual. I had a delightful frog’s legs appetizer, a fine soup, delicious lamb chops and my favorite, a sacher torte, for dessert. Edith reported that her selections, including fish, were also fine. We went to the show which was again full although we got there 20 minutes early. We actually had seats in the second row center and had a lot of fun watching the song and dance troupe again, this time with an aerial acrobat act. We had a late cup of tea and went to bed.
Day 7 - At Sea
We got up early to go to the Thalassotherapy pool at 7:30. It was not turned on so I called Guest Relations since the schedule said it was open at 7:00, and it came on about 5 minutes later. Edith had a computer class at 10:00 and from experience knew she had to get there early to get a seat at one of the terminals, so we went to the buffet. Our assistant waiter Clifton was working so he carried our trays to a window seat where we enjoyed the ocean view. I went to a lecture and we then ate lunch in the dining room with a couple, Harriet and Lewis, from Tulsa whom we had met at the lifeboat drill. Their room was two doors from us, and we had discussed shore plans. They told us at lunch they were going to find an all day tour in Costa Rica, and asked us to go along, so we cancelled the Sky Walk in the Forest which we had booked from Celebrity on the net prior to sailing. There was no problem in getting credit for this and our double charge for the Cabo snorkel trip had been corrected also. Edith went to another lecture and an arts and crafts class, and I goofed off again until the Captain’s Club cocktail party followed by dinner. I had cold cherry soup, which may sound odd, but was really good. It was followed by a filet mignon which was done as ordered. We then went to see the singer portion of the singer and comedienne show and enjoyed him. Once again we had tea in the buffet and went to bed.
Day 8 - Costa Rica
We had a room service light breakfast at 6:30 and met Harriet and Lewis at 7:00 to disembark. We were met at the pier by two of their friends and began to negotiate with van tours. The other couple backed out of the idea, but we found two other couples, Tom and Penny from California and Peter and Anita from Amsterdam and we agreed on a price, $75.00 per couple for the entire day. We set out, first stopping at a point on the coast that apparently had been planned as a resort, but where only the entrance building had been built. The area behind it had white faced monkeys and coatimundi who came right up to us to beg for food. These creatures are relatives of the raccoon, with long snouts and a long tail, about the size of a basset hound. We are familiar with them since we had seen them on prior trips to Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy preserve in southeastern Arizona. They really went after Edith after she started feeding them a banana she had brought from our cabin fruit basket. Then one of them ran back to the van about a hundred yards away and crawled through the open window and stole our guide’s lunch sack, running away as he vainly chased it, and we cheered.
We then went on the tree canopy walk which we had cancelled on the ship. Dealing directly at the site was much cheaper; costing us about $30.00 US (26,400 colons) each, compared to $85.00 apiece for the ship purchased Sky Walk only. It was a pretty good hike up into the hills and jungle, with pedestrian suspension bridges across valleys and through the tree canopy. We saw a few birds, but it was really too late in the day (about noon) to see much. Our guide had recently graduated from a school for guides run as part of the country’s educational system, and was very pleasant and informative. Costa Rica has a 95+% literacy rate with an excellent school system. We heard later though that another passenger on a later group fell and was injured and had great difficulty getting helped out. We then traveled through the country to a town called Sarchi. We stopped at one town on the way to see a beautiful church. Costa Rica is not really a third world country. The homes and farms are neat and clean, the buildings well constructed, the roads pretty good, and the entire place has an air of general well being. Anita and Peter had spent several weeks there a few years ago and liked it very much. Of course they had their parents in Holland to take care of their two young children, which would make any trip even nicer for a young couple. We then arrived at Sarchi, which is a town about fifty miles inland, but not far from San Jose. Costa Rica is very mountainous, and there was cloud cover on the major mountains preventing views of the volcanoes. Sarchi is noted for a “factory” which makes souvenir ox-carts. Harriet and Lewis intended all along to buy one and they did. These carts are essentially boxes on wheels, about four feet long, three deep and two wide, with a tongue for pulling in front and solid wooden wheels about three feet in diameter. They are all individually painted in very bright colors, and would make cute patio pieces of furniture. Their cost runs from $230.00 to $295.00 with a $100.00 shipping fee. We got a photograph of the one Lewis and Harriet bought. We bought coffee at a reasonable price, we thought; until we found out that Peter and Anita had gone across the street to a local store and bought the same coffee for $1.00 per package less. We then returned to the ship, stopping to see a red tin church, which looked as though it was red stone, on the way, in addition to driving through a local (Sunday) town rodeo. We would like to return to Costa Rica for a more extended visit. We were told that the two main sources of income used to be bananas and coffee, but now they are tourism and computer chips!
Dinner was again excellent with a ravioli appetizer, fish soup, scallops and a “calypso” mousse. The after dinner show was a comedian/juggler who was very enjoyable and a country western singing duo who were good, but who might have been more enjoyable if less amplified.
Day 9 - At Sea
This was a very lazy day. We got up too late to exercise and had breakfast with a Canadian couple who were originally from India. He works in computers in a town called Iqualuit on Baffin Island, a very remote place just west of Greenland and northeast of Hudson’s Bay; and he was amazed to learn we not only had heard of it but had been there. Of course our visit was not intentional; it resulted from an emergency landing on a flight from Phoenix to Germany when we had to disembark a critically ill passenger, but we were there nonetheless. I went to a computer class and Edith shopped. We ate lunch in the dining room and it was outstanding. We had a delightful spinach-mushroom ravioli following a spring roll appetizer and tasty cold fruit soup. I read for a while after lunch in the Conservatory on Deck 11, and this was very pleasant. We went to the canal lecture which was held in the Celebrity Theater and was well attended. It was a pretty good talk, but slides would have helped. The ship’s television also ran a Nova Discovery program narrated and written by David McCullough, and did so several times. McCullough had made this show apparently shortly after his book came out, so some of the information was dated, but it was more informative by far on the history of the construction than the lecture. We went back to the cabin for another “tea” brought by the always enthusiastic and cheerful Alfred. Another good dinner with pork chops and excellent vegetables. The show was another singer/dancer troupe affair called “Let’s Rock”, which even had some older rock numbers I recognized, but, while well done, was a little too loud.
Day 10 - The Panama Canal
This was the reason for the cruise, and it certainly did not disappoint me, although perhaps I found it more interesting than did Edith. I got up at 6:00. We stopped outside the entrance into the lock staging area after passing under a beautiful bridge which carries the North American Highway traffic on its last leg from Alaska to Panama. We could see Panama City off to the south. It is a very good sized city with many gleaming high rise office buildings and a population of over 1 million, about half the entire population of Panama. We went through the first locks behind a couple of ships, and were thus able to see the operation well. There are actually two side by side locks at each step, and there are three steps up on the Pacific side and three down on the Caribbean side. Because of the twisted shape of the Panama peninsula, we actually travel northwest to go from the Pacific to the Atlantic, so it is a little disorienting with the sun coming up behind us off the port side! The first set of locks is two steps up, followed by a short trip on Miraflores Lake to the third step up. You then arrive at the beginning of the Culebra or Gaillard Cut, the most difficult construction portion of the Canal due to constant mudslides. It still is not stable, and there in continual dredging going on. The cut is now twice as wide as it was when the Canal opened in 1914.
Our Cruise Director had gotten off at the locks to proceed overland, and on the way climbed up Golden Hill in the Cut and waved at us passing below. We then passed into Gatun Lake for a relaxed sail of about thirty miles through the greenest country imaginable to the Caribbean locks where we waited for a couple of hours before descending in three connected steps to sea level. The total rise and drop is 85 feet.
There was considerable commercial traffic going through which caused the delay.
We passed the time by joining our table companions in the stateroom of Jules and Pat for a small party. Descending was more interesting because you can see the locks’ huge gates better. The lock operation is amazingly smooth and quiet, operating exactly as designed 100 years ago without a hitch. The Canal was closed briefly in 1915 due to a rock slide into the Gaillard Cut, but this has been the only stoppage in its history. The only changes have been an updating of the electric engines which pull the boats through the locks. The gates themselves operate by hydraulic power, and the electricity is generated by a hydroelectric plant on the dam which created Gatun Lake and made the whole system possible. We were told that Infinity is the largest ship by dimension, and the second largest by weight ever to have made the transit, and its toll charges of $210,000+ was only $700.00 less than the highest ever paid. The average toll is about $47,000.The actual clearance for both sides and front and rear is a total of 5 feet; 2½ on each side, which is only 6 inches less than the maximum allowable. That is cutting it as close as you can, and it actually seemed closer than that on Deck 4 promenade along the side of the ship.
We got to the Caribbean at about 5:30 and docked in Cristobal as we were eating dinner. This meant that the trip through took about ten hours. The timing is under the control of the Panama Canal Authority and depends, I imagine, on the amount and the direction of the traffic. More traffic goes from the Atlantic to Pacific than the other way; about 109 million tons West to East compared to 84 million tons East to West in fiscal year 2001 according to the Authority website. Because of the delay in our arrival we were allowed off after dinner and did not have to re-embark until 10:45 for an 11:00 departure. Effectively however, the only place to go was the large dockside flea market, which consequently was jammed with people and did rather well. We bought a nice woven basket made by almost clothed Indians from the Wounaam and Embera tribes which inhabit the rainforest in the jungle between Panama and Columbia, and a local Panamanian T shirt. The Indians favored us with a dance when they were not selling woven ware.
Day 11 - At Sea
We slept until 8:00, had a light breakfast and followed with the Thalassotherapy pool and lunch. We attended a lecture and shopping talk on Aruba, and then another stretch class instead of the second Captain‘s Club cocktail party. How virtuous can you get! It was cool and comfortable on the veranda and the ship was really moving along.
Our second United States Dining Room experience was also delightful. We had the usual small appetizer, not on the menu, and I had a cold fruit soup while Edith had the Caesar’s Salad. We split the Long Island Duckling which was carved at the table, and I had the chocolate souffle’ following the cheese course, while Edith had a Waldorf Pudding. We thought that the dining room was not as full as on the earlier night, but there was one man dining by himself. We went to the show which features a “Comedy Impressionist” who failed on both counts as far as we were concerned, although many in the audience apparently loved him.
Day 12- Aruba
We have been here twice before and appreciate the Dutch cleanliness and organized
appearance of everything, as well as the home-like (to these Arizonans) desert and sun climate. We landed at 8:00 in hopes of finding a land-based snorkel tour, but without success since the operations seem to be based in the hotel strip several miles away. We returned to the pier area where I was able to sign on a ship based snorkel trip which would return by 1:00 P.M. Edith went off for a walking tour of Oranjestad.
My snorkeling tour was based off a pier on a small island a few miles south of town and away from the hotels. The pier was built out over a coral patch so the fish were plentiful almost as soon as you entered the water. I spent over an hour in the water and had great viewing and a wonderful time. One fellow swimmer’s comment summed it up: “Every time I thought I should get back to shore, I saw another different and beautiful fish to follow”. We had a casual lunch (included in the cost) on an open veranda, and returned on a bus with a driver who provided a good deal of interesting information about Aruba in a 20 minute ride. Edith had already had lunch on board so we went into town and boarded a City bus as we had done on a prior trip. For $2.00 each we had a delightful trip around the northern part of the island where we had not been before. We got to see more of the real Aruba this way. The homes are neat and clean, and often very colorful. Since it is so arid here, there is not much grass, but Arubans decorate their front yards with trees and plants in pots and planters, making their homes look very nice anyway. This is a busy, prosperous and pleasant community with a wide ethnic mix and cosmopolitan ambience. We returned to Oranjestad and walked around the tourist shop area for a while. Despite what the ship’s shopping guides said, we concluded that there were no real bargains to be had, although the selection of quality merchandise is very extensive indeed.
Back on board we had tea and then dinner. I had a good duck consomme’, a pastry appetizer, and tilapia, a fish we often have had home. It was very well prepared here, nice and moist and