by Triton - Host / Moderator
September 25, 2009
16-Night Trans-Canal Crossing, September 25 – October 11
Author: Triton / Cruisemates.com GLBT Host and Board Moderator
We overnighted at the Olympic Fairmont in Seattle, Washington. This 5-star hotel is old school in the fashion of hospitality and superior customer service. Not only were the suite accommodations superior, but also the service in general was amazing. From the moment we walked up the stairs into the lobby – to the turndown service – to check out, every Fairmont employee we encountered was extremely polite and focused on the comfort and pleasure of our one night stay.
The next morning we visited the original Starbucks and Pikes Market. We watched them "throw the fish" and saw the beautiful arrangements (hundreds and hundreds) of fresh flowers. We stayed in the Financial District of Seattle, so it was walk-able and very much like our San Francisco (hills and all!). After lunch at the Fairmont, our driver escorted us to the GTS Infinity for boarding around 1 PM.
Check in was efficient, smooth and relaxing. It was fun to watch fellow passengers with bouquets of flowers from Pikes. All of the passengers checking in along with us were happy and sailing right through. The process took about 10 minutes, which includes our waiting in line time. It's interesting to observe the shore personnel. Some of them are contract employees, and some are =X= employees. Some seem unhappy while other personnel work as if they had the best job in the world.
We walked up the gangway to the ship and briefly waited while passengers slipped their Sea Pass card through the first entrance – and had their picture taken. Of course there had to be one cranky passenger waiting behind us. The line was only 20 deep at the ship's entrance and rather than follow the line, they decided to walk to the front of the line – wherein they were quickly and politely asked to, "Please step to the back of the line"…to which the passenger loudly huffed, "Well, get some signs up here to make it clear!!!" Yikes- not the energy any of us wanted to hear, but hey! We're stoked to be stepping onboard our home for the next 16-nights! Maybe they had a 16-hour International flight, who knows?
I'll tell ya, there's nothing like walking on board a Celebrity ship…again. The biggest smiles from the staff and an offering of champagne, sparkling water or orange juice. Every staff member smiles and welcomes the passengers aboard, asking if they are "returning home" or if this is their first sailing. Having sailed Princess and Carnival, our welcome aboard on Celebrity far surpasses them all! This really is a nice touch after waiting in line.
We bypassed the "Welcome Aboard Buffet" and headed to our cabin on deck 9. Our room was mostly finished with the exception of the fresh flowers in the bathroom and main room. Our attendant was on our heels and promised he would be there shortly, along with our Concierge Class amenities. Jose was our attendant and he and his assistant were extremely mindful throughout the cruise; not once did we have any complaints or concerns. Actually, now that I think back, there was one tiny one – but will save that for later. We're human after all. :)
We have had this cabin number before (on other M-class ships). We enjoy it because the veranda is larger (almost double in size) and bumps out so that the bow and stern can be viewed. It also comfortably accommodates two chairs, table and two loungers. This trip we did not ask for the chaise lounges though.
Being Concierge Class we were given the extra things: thicker towels, champagne, fresh fruit every day, binoculars, pillow selection, leather card holders, fresh flowers in main room and bathroom, evening canapés, Hans Grohe shower head, nice thick (large!) robes, one cloth =X= tote bag which was great for pool / beach toting, one deluxe travel bag (excellent for carry-on for our return flight), and more.
This room was in light oak, tan, brown, orange and some pink and blue. Faux granite counter tops, but still in excellent condition. The love seat, chair, bed and all within the cabin were in great condition considering the age of the Infinity and the amount of passengers she sees. (Side note- we booked a suite on a Princess Amazon cruise in April and two drawers were broken, molding and wallpaper was peeling / breaking off, cigarette burn marks in the bathroom, worst hotel bed we've slept on, no special amenities, perks or higher level of room service - and for the suite price, it was a shame). Our evening canapés on the Infinity were fun. Some like them some don't. Sometimes we went to the Afternoon Tea and brought back wonderful petite fours and mini (delicious) sandwiches for a variety during cocktail hour while we got ready for dinner.
Water pressure was always excellent, hot water all the time, and the drainage was great too – never a problem with water backing up or any foul smells. Best part of the shower, I fit! At 6'7" this is a good thing, LOL! The shampoo and toiletries and packaging were new; not the same Elemis product we enjoyed before, not horrible, but I didn't enjoy it as much.
Back to our first day…finding our table number on the credenza, we walked to the Trellis Dining room to spot our table. Rather than a table for 2, it was a table for 6. We found the Maitre'D and expressed our concern, as our cruise was booked several months' prior, with a table for 2. He told us that he was sorry for the error, but unfortunately, there were others ahead of us and we would just have to wait it out. His attitude was arrogant and dismissive. I mentioned that we were Captain's Club Elite members and thought we had priority-dining request and he disagreed with me and said there wasn't anything else to do but wait and "hope for the best".
We then went to the Aqua Spa to make our reservations for treatments and to purchase the Persian Garden pass (rather than $20 a day it was $140 for the cruise, a $180 savings). Still somewhat perplexed about the dining arrangements and Maitre'D issue, we came back to our cabin and I called the customer service department at Celebrity, as we booked directly through them. A very kind agent shared with me that we needed to seek out the Captain's Club Officer on the ship, which we did on Deck 3, next to Guest Relations. The Officer apologized profusely and did agree with us. She didn't promise the moon, but did promise to communicate with us until the problem was resolved. (Side note- every staff member in Guest Relations was courteous, communicative and always smiling, which is more than what I can say about our last cruise).
She called us back later in the evening and said to go ahead and attend the first night's dinner and the Food / Beverage Manager would be waiting for us. That evening we couldn't locate the Manager, but only the Assistant and were soon being escorted to the table for 6, not our arranged table for 2 – so I stopped him. He apologized and took us back to the lobby and asked that we go into the lounge for complimentary drinks while he figured this out. Thirty minutes later he arrived and walked us to a table for 2, but stated it was temporary until they permanently located an "acceptable" table for 2.
The next evening we arrived at the Trellis Restaurant and the F/B Manager (Eduardo) deeply apologized and said, "I am so sorry. We have failed and to make it up, I am escorting you two to the SS United States (their specialty restaurant) for a complimentary dinner and drinks." Dinner there was gastronomical and such a nice gesture. When we returned to our cabin that night we had a dozen red roses, a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries, a bottle of wine and two cards – one from Guest Services and one from the Captain's Club Officer, all apologizing and thanking us for our business and patronage!
Trellis Dining Room, Specialty Restaurant and Food Venues
The next day, I received a phone call from Rose in Guest Services telling us that they would like to give us another complimentary dinner at the SS United States, whenever we would like. We were on cloud 9. Needless to say, the next night at the dining room proved to be stellar. We were escorted to our table for 2 and our waiter, Vinod and his assistant, Lan were amazing. Vinod is from India; he was the best waiter we have ever had. Lan was from China. This was her first cruise and she was just totally amazing, so very sweet and kind to us. Ruby was our Assistant Maitre'd and she made it a point to pamper us every single day…somehow they found out what our favorites were and went out of their way to spoil us, even preparing dishes and desserts, which were not on the menu! Dining was incredible.
The menu has changed, indeed. A month ago the menu in the specialty restaurants and the main dining rooms went through an overhaul. Change is good. Some of the old favorites are still there: Caesar Salad, Prawn Cocktail, Boneless Beef short ribs over Polenta, Herb roasted chicken, the cold soups, Escargot, Oyster Rockefeller, etc. Our Sommelier (Luis, who was incredibly professional and focused on us) introduced us to a wine package – 3 bottles for $80, which was a great deal considering the vintage we chose. We were never harassed about the Riedel stemware and blending classes.
The service in the dining room was always efficient, friendly and professional. The food was hot and fresh. The pasta has even improved since last year!! We never felt rushed, but were always "doted on". Vinod, Lan and Ruby went out of their way to express their joy in serving us. When Vinod took our order he would always answer with, "Pleasure, Sir". If we did not see anything on the menu for dessert which appealed to us, he would insist on bringing something else, whether Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee. One night Ruby made a special dessert for us of Crepes with Grand Mariner sauce.
As mentioned, the menu has changed. I found the food to always be hot; never luke-warm (which was a slight problem on our last X cruise, last year). The service, again, was impeccable. All of the dining staff, for us, had the right balance of polite conversation and servitude. Even waiters and assistant waiters not in our section would smile and say, "Hello" to my partner and me.
The SS United States menu (as all of the specialty restaurants on M-Class) changed. No more Steak Diane (Boo!) but the surf and turf was simply amazing, as the goat cheese soufflé, Lobster Thermadore, Rabbit Tart, Pear and Roquefort en'croute …you name it, everything we sampled: from the Pommeroy Brut Champagne to the Chocolate Soufflé and the table-side productions were just amazing in every way. The SS United States is probably the brightest of the specialty restaurants in the M-Class ships. We loved it. The service and ambiance was still very classy. We like being spoiled, and while some think the timed presentations are dorky and find negative criticism, we enjoy it. I work in hospitality and hire only the best in class. These employees had their act together. The only food item I didn't care for at all was the Foi Gras. The Diver-Scallops Wellington was to die-for…and that was just a starter course! White gloved and tablecloth service was excellent. We have been to some of the best restaurants in San Francisco and abroad and appreciate excellent service and cuisine. I believe on a scale of 1-10 (1 low, 10 high) the food quality (for a hotel) was a 7, the presentation an 8 and the service an 8. Most ship employees (except for the Emporium venue, Spa staff and entertainers) hold two jobs, day and night. The employees at the SS United States also worked in the Aqua Spa Café (next to the Thallossotherapy Pool / Spa) during the breakfast / lunch hours. Every time I went there to get coffee, drinks or lounge an employee would comment on our dinner and how nice it was to see us, and ask, "When are you two coming back?" Sure it may appear contrived, but customer service is what it's all about!! That spoke volumes to us. And what many don't realize is that a cruise ship is basically a hotel on water! Working in the industry, I have to share with you that it is so difficult to please every person – and let's face it, when we're spending our hard-earned dollars…some tend to be unforgiving and severely critical of the most minor things, to even a one-time experience (whether "mechanical" or the quality of soap in the cabin's Loo). Good heavens- but picturing a floating hotel, it truly is remarkable what most cruise lines endure and go through, and I mean the employees. They work their butts off, all of them. These employees work week after week with a different cruise / guests and all of our quirks and personalities each and every day and they have to maintain a pleasant face. Talk about the "knights"!
Celebrity kicked up a notch their Sushi bar, so now they offer stir-fry as well. My other half had the stir-fry once and raved about it. It smelled delicious too. Three or four shaved meats to choose from along with a wide array of fresh vegetables, sauces and rice noodles.
When we were on the Princess cruise, I recall reading postings where passengers just fawned over their pizza. Having tried it twice, I did not care for it. Celebrity on the other hand never fails. The pizza bar was in full swing every day; I think my favorite was the BBQ Chicken pizza. The pizza maker was extremely friendly and good at his job. There were always fresh veggies and cheeses to add as well. Right next door was the pasta bar; I don't recall any changes there other than they did not serve "low carb" pasta this last voyage, but did have a whole-wheat product. The sauces we tried were good – and there is a baked pasta dish to choose from as well (such as Lasagna, Penne & Ham Bake, etc.).
There was an Asian Bar as well, which had Asian breakfast and lunch every day, from Dim Sum, to rice noodles and fresh vegetables to curried lamb, Teriyaki Salmon or beef, pork buns, stir-fried rice, etc. I thought this bar could use some improvement. Being a San Francisco native, I may be a little more critical of Asian cuisine, but it was still good and we enjoyed it for the most part.
The breakfast and lunch buffet were great. Unlike other cruise lines, there was no meatloaf that I could see, LOL! I say that with a smile, as everyone has their "comfort food" and meatloaf may be it for some passengers. I don't look for it on a cruise, or even my own comfort food (Mac and Cheese)…even my East Coast Mom, who loves comfort food, will "turn the other cheek", LOL and kvetch about this type of food on Celebrity. The buffet however, included a theme most every day. Breakfast was breakfast, no changes at all there: breakfast meats (including Bangers), waffles, made-to-order omelets, sautéed veggies, cereals and fresh fruit, pastries, Eggs Benedict, etc. There were two brunches, both at-sea days. The brunch was a waste of time in my opinion, really nothing out of the ordinary to make it stand out – other than the beautiful ice carvings. The food seemed to be the same as breakfast, with the addition of more meat, ham and seafood. That's it – oh and the Mimosas and Bloody Mary's (smile).
Public Areas (Including Spa / Pool)
The Infinity is a seasoned ship. She is in operation 24/7. Although we did not set out to "find" rust, chipped paint, faded fabric, etc. it was there. I know some do scrutinize and to each their own. If either of us noticed a small tear in fabric or a stain…or anything that resembled "usage" we were humbled to remember that 1900 passengers are on this grand ship 24/7 and what would OUR home look like if we had 1900 guests tromping through. Sure, most are respectful of other's ownership, but unfortunately there are some who may not show the same regard or respect, and treat things without care or appreciation and it is a full time job to combat disrespect, not to mention just the simple wear and tear. For example, we take our shoes off if we put our feet up on a chair or sofa. We have nice furniture and hope it to stay that way – but we noticed some passengers with their dirty shoes up on the sofas, chairs, tables…etc., in some pubic areas. I guess the mentality of some is, "I paid for this vacation, I'm going to do and expect what I want." Honestly, we were pleased with the condition of the ship's public areas. The crew was always cleaning. The stairway rails were always polished and disinfected. There were vacuum marks continually. Windows and mirrors never showed smudges or stains. Hand sanitizers are everywhere! Not only are they stationary, but staff walks about with a bottle squirting it into your hands before entering a public area with food. (Not so on Princess, as a matter of fact one stationary dispenser remained broken our entire 2-week voyage.) Since Celebrity adopted the no-smoking policy, the general areas smelled so much fresher to us than our last Celebrity cruise in September 2008. Now before anyone bites my head off, I AM a reformed smoker, but have been smoke-free for almost 7-years. While I want smokers to have rights, I want to have my non-smoker (and smeller) rights respected as well. : ) saying that, all cabin verandas are smoke-free and the only places we witnessed smoking were on the Lido deck (pool and grill) and starboard, deck 5. I did not research the appropriate places, but this is what I witnessed. Head's up…the Fortunes Casino is entirely smoke-free. We did spend more money there, this cruise. There were a couple of "lucky" slots that paid us, too!
The pool, Aqua Spa and locker room /sauna areas were always stocked with fresh rolled towels. Pool Butlers seemed to be more prevalent, even in the spa area – which was nice. We generally don't hang out at the pools, but rather in the spa and never really saw a lot of butler service there. Not only were there Pool Butlers everywhere, but also security was in full force. Not once did I witness the Thallossotherapy / Spa area without a security guard, and I was pleased. As most seasoned cruisers know, the moment the sea swells, so do all the pools, LOL! While friendly, the guards were observant and always watching. Not only did I witness one running to a passenger who fell down while climbing into the Thallossotherapy pool (and he RAN!) but I witnessed the security removing a chaise-hog's belongings. Now, before anyone gets cranky with me, I'm all for reserving a spot / chair for your other half, or putting a book down while you run up to grab something to drink, but as usual there were chaise hogs on this trip. One particular morning I got up early to grab coffee in the Aqua Spa to bring back to the room and noticed four chaise lounges being reserved with towels, books, etc. This was in Columbia and it was around 6:00 AM. At around 7:30 we walked through on our way to breakfast and to our zip lining tour…the chaise lounges were still unoccupied. We left after breakfast for our excursion and returned around 12:30…had lunch and walked back through the Thallossotherapy area as our cabin was directly below. Chaise lounges still un-touched, nobody there. Came back up to the area and couldn't find a lounge, only a chair. The four-some came back from their tour (they still had on their little stickers) and sat down at around 2. I was livid and shared with them how I thought it was rude they reserved these chairs for over 6-hours with nobody present, and the next time would ask a Pool Butler to remove their things. They could care less.
Later on our cruise (after several complaints from other passengers), security started removing passenger belongings if they were gone for over 30-minutes. I thought that was fair. I wish that the Security would pay closer attention to the unoccupied chaises (at least those which were unoccupied for a few hours!!).
The excursions were very good and the naturist / narrator while traveling through the Panama was excellent. Celebrity had a few different documentaries on TV regarding the Panama and those were good as well. We were happy to stay on board and watch the passage through the locks in the Panama Canal. The shores of the Canal reminded us a little of our Amazon trip, it was beautiful and relaxing. We enjoyed most of the morning and early afternoon from our veranda but made our way to the bow of the ship for some pictures.
I learned on this cruise that I should have brought more cash. Usually, I use my credit card or debit / Visa card and just let my bank figure the daily exchange rate (never a headache). I do carry small bills for tipping, etc (good rule of thumb for me is to bring $75 in singles and $25-50 in fives). On this trip, I only found two stores, which allowed the use of a credit card, and both were in Cartagena, Columbia. We zip-lined and really wanted the video, and a cold beer, but they did not take plastic. For an X-sponsored tour, we found this frustrating, as many European itineraries don't seem to have this obstacle. Like my mom asked, "Why didn't you use the ATM on board?" Hmmm, the simple things in life seem to fly right over my head sometimes!
I'm a big guy and enjoy riding in a larger vehicle (think coach) but on this cruise, the largest vehicle we rode in on an excursion was the mini-type bus. Comfortable, but on the smaller side. The Celebrity-sponsored tours always provided a safe driver and good narrator. We enjoyed riding in the bust to our destinations, as the guides were knowledgeable, friendly and always pleasant.
Following is a list of our ports and one or two descriptives for each:
Seattle: The great Pacific Northwest! Pikes Place was amazing to witness. Fresh flower bouquets were amazing. Visit the original Starbucks! City is similar to SF with hills, museums, waterways and great restaurants.
San Diego: Loved the Hop on / off Trolley. Took us to Hotel Del, Old Town, Gas Lamp Quarter and about the city (Zoo and public arts center). Nice city to leisurely stroll around.
Cabo San Lucas: Slowly leaving the quiet resort town behind with a lot of new construction. Not too many street merchants peddling. Gorgeous snorkeling /wave running waters. Los Arcos is a must!
Acapulco: The Fort across the street is a good (and free) tour! Gold Zone offers OK shopping and the cliff divers are a definite must-see. Shot Over jet boat ride is great for thrill-seekers. Hot climate!!
Huatulco: Lazy, sleepy village town with an ordinance to halt the town's growth. Lovely town with quaint shops, turquoise waters and untouched beaches and coves. Will be back!
Panama: We did not get off the ship, but there were a few all-day excursions to choose from. I recommend staying on the ship for your first passage through.
Costa Rica: I can see why many Americans retire here. The dichotomy of the jungle and city are awakening to the senses and soul! Very hot and humid here. Zip line for the adrenaline-seekers! Fun!!
Cartagena, Columbia: Definitely try the "Deluxe" tour. It's close to 6 hours but worth it. Visit the dungeons, forts and drive through the city. Shopping was offered, here but bring cash! Interesting city. Pulling up to the port reminded us of Miami Beach or Honolulu. Beautiful city and country. Listen to your tour director and do NOT make eye contact with street vendors, they will not, I repeat, will NOT leave you alone. Never have seen it worse than here.9-Days at Sea: "Aaaaahhhhh!" Need I say more? : )
I mentioned earlier that Celebrity offers the best, "Welcome Back!" Depending upon the cruise, they provide hot or wet-iced towels, punch, ice water or lemonade (hot chocolate and coffee on Canada and Alaska cruises) and on this cruise, a huge canopy over an area rug, two large sofas, two large chaise / chairs and a table. We sat once, and witnessed several passengers who needed special accommodations using these. Several staff are there to welcome passengers back with warm smiles and a, "How was your day?" This is a big bonus for us as we were on a Princess cruise to the Amazon just a few months prior and we never were offered a drink, cool towel or chair to sit in – not only that, but every single time we embarked the ship on Celebrity there were a considerate number of staff and they ALL said, "Welcome Back!" or, "How was your day?" etc. Not once did we experience this on our last Princess cruise. The same applied to my Carnival cruise several years back. The little things do add up!
Guest Services and Future Sales
We had a couple of issues that required the use of the Purser, or Guest Services and Sales.
1.On our Celebrity cruise last year I purchased a nice X-brand basketball – style tank top and some gym shorts. While in the sauna my tank disappeared once and swim trunks twice, LOL! I found my swim trunks once but not the second time and the tank never appeared.
2.Our owner's credit was never posted to our account.
3.The earlier debacle with the seating arrangement.
4.We wanted to use the new 'Celebrity Passage' offer (book any cruise, open-ended for $100 each).
5.We had a question about the free Internet package for Captain's Club members and wanted to know about a particular charge.
Each time we spoke with the Sales or Operations / Admin staff, they were mostly pleasant. Once a gentleman with a dismissive & arrogant attitude assisted me, but he quickly backed off and another assisted and did a great job explaining. Every other staff member (Guest Relations Officer, Rose especially!) was great and always greeted us with a small and genuine customer service attitude. Jose in future sales was informative and courteous.
Overall, my better half and I would rate this cruise a "7-8" on a scale of 1 (low) and 10 (high). We are seasoned =X= guests and have enjoyed every cruise we have taken on her vessels, and are looking forward to sailing on the Equinox next year.
We have never experienced a mechanical problem on Celebrity. Actually we're quite lucky, as we have only experience mechanical problems on one cruise, which was our last Princess cruise – twice we were held over because of mechanical problems with the ship's propulsion units
What stands out to us on Celebrity, vs. other cruise lines is their stellar customer service. On =X=, we have never experienced rude customer service which was not immediately rectified. We have always been treated with courtesy, dignity and respect. I can say that =X= just set the bar very high with us. We haven't found a line yet who compares with excellent guest service and exceeding our expectations.
Wishing you and yours many wonderful sailings on Celebrity or your favorite cruise line!