Celebrity Zenith, Panama Canal, November 1998 Reviewed by Mike Hall (thehalls@elite.net)

For our twelfth cruise, and first time through the Canal, we chose Celebrity's Zenith, a line we had never cruised before but heard many good things about. We had a very good cruise with a few minor glitches, but the air-sea package from Celebrity was a fiasco.

We had a pre-day package in Acapulco, which was a very fortunate thing because if the air-sea disaster had occurred on sailing day we would have missed our cruise. AeroMexico in Mexico City claimed to have lost my reservation, and when it was finally found would not give me a seat assignment. They delayed and delayed until the plane left, leaving us and two other couples bound for the Zenith behind. We were delayed over 4 hours, our baggage was not with us, and Customs was not being understanding. Fortunately, when we arrived in Acapulco a Celebrity representative was waiting for us and cleared everything up and got us to our hotel, about 11:30 PM. That rep in Acapulco was the only good thing about the air-sea package. Celebrity needs a rep in the dirty, cavernous, badly marked, non-English friendly airport in Mexico City!!

EMBARKATION: We checked out of the hotel and onto Celebrity's bus for the tour of Acapulco prior to embarkation. We saw quite a lot of sights including the famous cliff divers, and arrived at the ship about 2:00 PM, the same time as quite a few other busses so there was a long line for embarkation. However it moved very quickly and efficiently and by 2:15 we were past the obligatory photographer and into the ship. The friendly stewardesses showed us to our cabin, and then we went up to beautiful and bountiful embarkation buffet.

CABIN: Our cabin was a category 6 on Deck 4, the Florida Deck. It was of medium size, not as big as HAL but not as small as RCCL. It was very nicely appointed and had all the necessary requirements. The shower was big enough to turn around in, there were two sizable closets and a little safe. Our Stewardess soon introduced herself and fetched an extra pillow for me cheerfully.

FOOD: We were on second seating and had Erol from Turkey as our waiter and Ioan from Romania as our assistant. The menus were lavish, well thought out and had something for everyone. I had a lot of delicious seafood with some forays into turkey and pasta, and Renée almost universally opted for the beef, lamb or pork. IMHO the food was very very good, although I still think RCCL remains the best food afloat. On some nights the food seemed pretentious rather than gourmet, i.e. baby sea bass stuffed with filet of trout with lemon caper sauce. We tried both the breakfast buffet and the dining room breakfast and both were great, except the juices were apparently from concentrate and were watery. We also had breakfast in the cabin a couple of times, which is a little more than just the customary continental breakfast (omelettes are available, for example). We had the dining room lunch, the buffet lunch and once the grill aft ... all were good although the grill made a better hamburger than the dining room did!!

The ship also offered the much discussed "casual alternative dining". The only trouble was, that they offered it on the CASUAL nights, and one of the INFORMAL nights. Somehow they seem to be missing the whole point of "casual" alternative dining!!

ACTIVITIES: There are all the usual activities on board. We had a great tour of the galley, won a little bit in the Casino (yeah, everybody says that ...), attended some lectures and classes, tried our had at the daily quiz and had a great time. We are not fitness buffs, but our table mates said that the fitness program was quite comprehensive and the machines in the gym very acceptable.

ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment on the ship was quite eclectic, from the DJ in the disco to the versatile pianist in Harry's Tavern. It was always possible to find what you liked. The main shows were quite good, although the production numbers did not quite have the glitz of the big shows on Carnival. We had a singer, a Harmonicat, a magician, a "multi-instrumentalist" (alpen horns to goat bells) and a guy who balanced on ladders and rode unicycles. It was typical cruise ship fare ... the harmonica guy said the cruise ships are the "new vaudeville".

PORTS: Hualtulco, Mexico is an up and coming resort area with beautiful beaches. We did not go to the beach but heard from those who did that they were wonderful. Unfortunately a tragedy occurred here, after the tenders were done and the passengers were aboard, as a tender slipped from its hoists as it was being raised and a crewman was killed when it hit the water upside down. We were delayed about 4 hours while they tried to raise the boat and secure it.

Punta Rena, Costa Rica (changed from Puerto Caldera). This is a better dock, just a few miles up the coast. Unfortunately, due to our delay in Hualtulco we arrived 4 hours late, and the tour we wanted to the Poas Volcano was canceled (because, they said, the clouds come up in the afternoon and block visibility of the volcano.) We switched to the shorter tour, to the village of Sarchi which offers crafts and local arts ... especially decorated ox carts (fitted out as mini-bars). We saw a lot of nice scenery including coffee, banana, and sugar plantations. We returned to the ship in good time, but the tours that went to the capital San Jose ran into a 7 mile traffic jam and did not get back to the ship until 9:30 PM. They were accommodated in the dining room as they arrived and were all taken care of, however.

Cartagena Colombia. The ship warned that anything except the ships tour was not recommended. Consequently almost everybody opted for that, and the ship had rows and rows of 20 passenger mini busses lined up on the dock for a nice tour which included old forts, souvenir shops, residential areas, scenery, emerald shopping and a general view of the city. Renée says she LOVED Cartagena.

Aruba. We arrived late, due to head winds and rough seas, and all tours were canceled. Those who got a cab or van to take them around reported that the island is mostly desert with rocks and cactus. We went shopping and my wife found some lovely Dutch table linens and dresses at very reasonable prices.

St. Thomas. We had been here many times, and elected this time to repeat the St. John's national park tour. The tour was very scenic and interesting, with the Rockefeller estate, old sugar plantation, many beautiful bays and so on. However a major glitch occurred at the end, when the ferry boat that brought us over changed its mooring place but did not tell the taxi drivers that it did. So the taxi dropped us off at the old dock and told us the boat would be there shortly. After quite a wait, another passenger came running over and said "The boat is two blocks away and is ready to leave!" A group of about 50 people had to run those two blocks, including many senior citizens who had difficulty walking, in order to catch the boat. Complaints were met with the crew saying "aw, it's just a little screw-up". Well, I thought it was a BIG screw up, and not what one expects to happen on a ship's tour.

THE CANAL!! What can I say ... it is a wonderful experience which has to be experienced to be believed. It is pretty much an all day prospect and there is something to be seen most of the time, from the locks to the Gailliard Cut to the incredible Gatun Lake! It absolutely is not to be missed!

DISEMBARKING: Disembarking was "by the numbers" and began about 8:15. By 10:00, we were down to the last number and got off. Finding baggage was pretty easy (easier if you have some distinctive mark on yours, like the dayglo pink tags we put on ours). Customs only took a few minutes, and we figured we would have a couple of hours to explore Old Town San Juan before our flight ... that is, until we saw the line at the American Airlines baggage check! Someone had not thought this out well... there were hundreds of passengers dragging their baggage along in the hot sun, with no sign of line control devices, porters pushing in with loaded carts,people elbowing for position, all in all a simple madhouse. It took one and a half hours waiting in the hot sun to get to the counter, where the harassed clerk at least listened to our complaints and moved as quickly as she could to get our bags checked. That pretty well ruined our plans to explore the Old Town, but we made one last try, asked a taxi driver if he could take us to Old Town for fifteen minutes and then to the airport. He said "yes, yes" and we took off ... right on to the freeway. I asked twice if this was the way to Old Town and he smiled and nodded, and eventually pulled up right in front of the airport. So our last hope to see San Juan fell to the language barrier! The flight home, fortunately, was uneventful although long and tiring.

ONE LINERS: Here are some quick answers to questions frequently asked on rec.travel.cruises:
Age group ... the trip was definitely mostly 45 to 75. We ran into the parents of a few kids, and they said there were only 10 kids altogether on board.
Liquor consumption was very light. I don't think I saw a single drunk the whole 10 days.
There were 3 formal nights, and there were just enough tuxedos there that I did not feel out of place in mine. Dark suits for the men and cocktail dresses for the women were the norm.
Elevator service was very good, with little waiting except at peak times and on Canal transit day.
Soft Drinks were 1.75 everywhere. Mixed drinks ran from $3.95 to $6.50. Coffee and tea were free 24 hours in the Windsurf Cafe.
SUMMARY: A very good trip in spite of a few minor glitches and two major fiascos. The ship is wonderful, the service is great, the food is very very good, and the Canal itself is an outstanding experience. The air-sea package was a disaster.
E-mail inquiries cheerfully answered.
Mike and Renée Hall, the halls@elite.net
For more information, e-mail thehalls@elite.net.

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