This was our first Celebrity cruise from Southampton, although we had previously done 2 Caribbean cruises with them. This was our third cruise since my wife became a wheelchair user, the others being with P&O, so it would be interesting to compare Eclipse with Azura and Ventura.
We travelled down the night before staying overnight at the Premier Inn at Southampton airport the second time we had stayed here and it did not disappoint, especially as we had managed to book a room for only Â£29.
We had free parking which worked very smoothly, with ABP you park the car yourself instead of the valet parking system used by CPS, the Blue badge car park is adjacent to the luggage drop off point which was very convenient. We arrived about 11:45 and were on board by about 12:30; however the cabins were not available until 2:00, so we headed for the Ocean view cafe to get cracking on our 2 weeks of over eating.
The accessible stateroom seemed slightly smaller than the equivalent on Azura/Ventura, but they are certainly more luxurious, P&O's staterooms seemed a little more utilitarian. However Celebrity is a bit meaner when it comes to storage space. Unlike the AB cabins there is no over bed storage and the wardrobe has only double hanging, there is no full height open drawer storage as P&O have; and a lot less normal drawer space than P&O's accessible cabins have. But somehow we managed to unpack and stow everything once our cases arrived.
Where Celebrity's HC cabins do score though is with the automatic door openers, this makes entry and exit with a wheelchair so much easier. This system also applies to the public restrooms and again makes wheelchair access a doddle. Initially the lack of separated disabled toilets seemed a bit disconcerting, this meant that we had to use the ladies facilities only, but in fact this was never a problem at least not for us, although I did get some strange looks when we used busy toilets.
The ship itself is beautiful but in an understated sort of way, there is no "wow" factor with the Solstice class, although the MDR when the tables are fully set for dinner looks quite magnificent. Our cabin was in the forward section of deck 7 but fairly close to the forward lifts, which is essential for wheelchair users. Once you know the location of the main areas navigating your way around the ship is fairly easy, all the dining areas are in the aft sections, unlike the Princess Grand class with their midship dining rooms which means you can only access their larger aft dining room via the stairs or lifts.
Food quality is always a personal issue but we give Eclipse 5 stars for all their food and dining venues. The Oceanview buffet restaurant has a well-designed central servery area with access from both side's seating areas, unlike Grand class ships. We only ate breakfast and lunch here, it did get crowded at busy periods but we always managed to find seats somewhere. For dinner we had chosen Select dining, Celebrity's version of Anytime dining, on Eclipse this now occupies the entire upper tier on deck 4, clearly it is becoming increasingly popular. We never pre-booked a time or table but never had to wait to be seated, however we always shared a table and never requested a table for two. We never had a bad food experience except for one fish dish which was quite dry; however we had been advised by the waiter in his explanation of the day's menu that this would be the case, so we had been warned. We booked two speciality restaurants, Murano and Tuscan Grill, we enjoyed Tuscan best, mainly because of the superb view over the wake from its location aft on deck 5, but both provided a fine dining experience and a bit more personal service than you do get in the MDR.
Entertainment on Celebrity is not as good as P&O, there were only 3 production shows on our 14 day cruise, there were guest entertainers in the Theatre on the other nights but ventriloquists, illusionists, jugglers and some singers don't really excite us, but we did watch a good comedian and also an excellent violinist, however 2 or 3 good quality Tribute acts would have been most welcome. Other than the Theatre and the Sky Observation lounge the remaining entertainment areas on Eclipse are only adjuncts to the various bars, there are no venues which match Manhattan or Malabar on Azura. As for the regular entertainers on board, the party band Twist of 8 were quite good and the 4 man A Cappella group was worth watching, although their best offering was as the Four Seasons in the Jersey Boys section of the West End and Broadway musicals production show.
We had booked 3 accessible shore excursions, Malaga, Rome and Lisbon, and these were very enjoyable. The first 2 were combined with a minimal walking AB tour using full size coaches which had a lift at the rear side for wheelchair access. A section of normal seats had been removed to allow for 3 wheelchair passengers who were unable to transfer to normal seats, they also included 3 or 4 HC passengers who could transfer and had collapsible chairs that could be stowed in the luggage bays. This process worked well but loading and unloading the wheelchairs is of course time consuming. The Lisbon coach was smaller and only catered for HC passengers and their partners, but it utilised the same loading principle. Unfortunately the air conditioning was not working correctly and with the temp. about 29 deg it became somewhat uncomfortable in the coach. Pricing for the first 2 trips was reasonable and in line with normal AB tours, the Lisbon excursion being limited to HC passengers was much higher and was priced similar to P&O accessible excursions.
At the other Ports we went ashore under our own steam, utilising the Port shuttle bus at Livorno, the tender shuttle at Villefranche, and walking into town at Genoa and Gibraltar. The tender experience at Villefranche was excellent, Celebrity do insist that wheelchair passengers are able to stand outside their chair, if necessary, but in fact my wife was able to remain seated throughout. One of the exit port doors has a lift arrangement that runs down over the stairs that lead to the loading platform, and then the wheelchair is pushed across a short gangway onto the tender. I suspect that in more open water than the Villefranche bay, e.g. Grand Cayman, the sea may be too rough to allow wheelchair tendering.
Using a wheelchair ashore is always problematic, poor pavement and road surfaces, lack of kerb cut outs and poor wheelchair access into shops and cafes are just a few of them, but probably the main problem is the lack of adequate accessible toilets. This is where the benefit of utilising organised shore excursions comes in, these are normally planned to ensure that one of the stops does have good quality toilet facilities.
So what were our views when comparing the Solstice class ships to the Grand class ships? As far as accessibility is concerned I think Celebrity has the edge, virtually all the doors seemed to be automatic including the public toilet doors. Accessible shore excursion were much better value on Celebrity, at least those which were combined with able bodied minimal walking tours were; I have also priced the accessible tours for our next year's Baltic cruise, from this year's price list, and these also seem quite reasonably priced, and there is one in each port of call. But Celebrity and P&O are equal when it comes to the service they provide for HC passengers, staff take over pushing the chair when leaving and boarding the ship, and they also want to push the chair in all the restaurants Celebrity also scored on the pool and sunbathing decks where it uses a seamless wood look floor covering which makes it far easier to push a wheelchair than the carpet type floorings used on the Grand Class, these also feature regular edging strips over which the chair bounces. Overall service standards on Eclipse are higher than P&O, we saw far more daytime cleaning of the Buffet and pool deck areas than we noticed on Azura/Ventura, and the ship always looked pristine. There is probably little to choose between P&O and Celebrity as regards food quality and choice, both offer a wide range of dishes of a very high standard considering the numbers they cater for when compared to a normal restaurant. Many people on CC and other forums suggest that on board charges are far higher on Celebrity than P&O, this is true for gratuities which are almost double, but even then the amount is quite low. However we found drink prices to be on a par with P&O, I paid Â£4.70 - Â£6.00 per glass of wine on Celebrity compared with Â£4.75 - Â£8.00 on Ventura in June, and cocktails and spirit mixers were Â£4.40 on Celebrity against Â£4.75 on Ventura. Speciality restaurant charges at $30 - $40 are not dissimilar to P&O. The Eclipse from Southampton does not add the normal 15% gratuity charge to the drinks bill, but I suspect that it is probably built into the bar tariff. Entertainment on P&O is significantly better than Celebrity, there were at least double the number of production shows on our 14 day June cruise on Ventura, and with the higher number of venues on P&O there was also much more variety each evening.
We have already booked another Eclipse cruise for next June and we bought a future cruise booking whilst on this cruise which I hope to use for a 2014 cruise when that brochure is launched next spring. Since we need an accessible cabin early booking is essential, but generally with Celebrity there are some good discounts to be had at brochure launch, normally significantly better than P&O offer.