Sensory heaven, or how agents view Infinity

Travel Weekly associate editor Margaret Myre sailed on a seven-day Alaska voyage on Celebrity Cruises' Infinity. Her report follows:

t's an odd mix, really, a luxury ship designed to convey the elegance of a transatlantic vessel half a century in the past, sweeping north to Alaska ports, where cruisers and locals alike down beers and halibut burgers in saloons with sawdust on the floors.

That was my thought when I signed on for my first Alaska cruise on Celebrity's 1,950-passenger Infinity.

My second thought was this: How do agents market a cruise where a guest can be floating tranquilly in a ship's mineral pool one day, and the next be bundled up and buckled into a four-seater floatplane of memorable maneuverability?

I didn't have to look far for answers. On the same cruise were 69 travel agents, a convivial bunch more than willing to chat with a stranger.

"You get the best of both worlds," is how Cathy Fleming said she puts it to her clients.

Fleming, with husband, Mike, owns 2-year-old Cruise Holidays, a Carlson Wagonlit agency in Rochester Hills, Mich.

The Thalassotherapy pool in the ship's glass-enclosed solarium.She spoke with me from her perch in one of the two Jacuzzis that flank the Thalassotherapy pool in the glass-walled, glass-domed solarium, steps from the ship's prized amenity, the Elemis-operated AquaSpa.

"If you want to be adventurous, you can," Fleming continued. "Or you can enjoy the Jacuzzi and look out at the passing scenery.

"That's how I market it."

The thing of it is this: Some clients want to view Alaska, some want to be part of Alaska, but all want to enjoy the ship. One way to market an Alaska cruise, I decided, is to find a ship that offers these choices in a most unusual way.

Infinity, launched in March, is such a ship, according to Cheryl Cunningham of Vacations to Go, Houston.

"Part of your destination is where you're going and part is the ship itself, just like a resort," she said. "Century was my favorite [Celebrity ship] until I went on this one. I don't feel they oversold Infinity in any way.

"It is a bit low key," she offered.

That brings up this selling advice from Kathy Newharth of First Choice Travel & Cruise, Waukesha, Wis.: "Travel agents have to qualify their clients. People who want hot-hot-hot would hate this cruise."

She said she asks her first-time clients where they stay when they travel. If their reply is an upscale hotel, they qualify for a premium ship.

Those who want to view Alaska, without getting wet or flying around mountains in the mist, have amazing opportunities on the Infinity. The ship is virtually without walls.

Celebrity's use of glass in windows and mirrors was augmented on the Infinity and its Millenium-class sister ships, the Millennium, the Summit and the Constellation, launching in May.

Windows are wall-to-wall in just about every public place, including the exterior elevators.

In one of the ship's alternate dining venues, the Oceanview Grill, which juts out over the water, mirrors on the ceiling reflect the watery view; and on the floor, among the tables, portholes look down at the sea.

I liked the windows very much. From high above the ship, in the Constellation lounge, we had a panoramic view as Infinity floated to its rendezvous with Hubbard Glacier.

The windows make the ship a good choice for the disabled, Newharth pointed out.

But she said she likes another aspect of the ship just as well: "This would be one ship to market for the spa."

The agents I spoke with loved the spa, using adjectives like "unbelievable" and "fabulous."

On the Infinity, as on every Millennium-class ship, the spa comprises 25,000 square feet of space -- more than double the size of the spas on the line's Century-class ships. It has 12 treatment rooms plus a disabled-access room and more than 40 different therapies.

Among the AquaSpa originals is the Sensory Retreat, a private cabana where guests can enjoy the sea air. Those who rent the cabana can use the Thalassotherapy pool for free. No kids are allowed in this pool.

For a spa sample, I chose the Well-Being Massage. A young woman with a British accent (they all sounded British) worked warm, aromatic oils into my skin, and it was "fabulous." She and I didn't converse much, but when I asked her where she was from, she said Atlanta.

Also receiving high marks was Infinity's specialty restaurant, the SS United States.

"I live in Houston, and we have some of the best cuisine you can find, but the SS United States was one of the best experiences I've had," said Cunningham of Vacations to Go.

"Almost everything you order is prepared tableside. The table setting is china and crystal."

The restaurant is modeled after a luxury transatlantic ship of the same name, built in 1952 and taken out of service in 1969.

Original etched glass panels, which had been created as a screen for the ballroom, were located in a Virginia storeroom and incorporated in the restaurant's walls.

Within the restaurant is a wine cellar that doubles as a private dining room for groups.

The SS United States offers one seating nightly to those who reserved in advance on board or by request. There's a $25 service charge per guest and a charge for wine and spirits.

The restaurant accommodates 134 and is served by a staff of 10 chefs and 24 waiters and maitre d's.

Were there any complaints about the ship? One agent said there weren't enough nature talks; another thought the entertainment could have been better. But all-in-all, as Fleming of Cruise Holidays said, "It's a good product."

The opening price is $849 for an inside stateroom, and the top rate is $2,049 for a balcony stateroom, per person, double.

Infinity's first roundtrip Vancouver-Alaska sailing in 2002 is May 31; the last sailing is Sept. 20.

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