We loved our family Mediterranean cruise on the Equinox in August 2011 so much, that we did it again this year! This time, a 12 night cruise out of Barcelona on the Solstice, with an overnight in Venice. There are five of us - my husband and I and our three technically adult children, ages 22, 20 and 18. Our daughter has a physical disability, cerebral palsy, and although getting around Europe with a walker or wheelchair is not the easiest thing to do, the staff of Celebrity make the journey very easy. The Solstice Class of ships in particular, are extremely handicapped accessible. Her stateroom this cruise, and last summer on the Equinox, was expertly outfitted with mobility/usage aids, including an automatic door opener - all she had to do was insert her SeaPass card and the cabin door automatically opened - super convenient and promoted her independence. All public doors, including the public bathrooms, on the Solstice Class ships open automatically or have a button to push - NO heavy doors to pull open, none. The Millennium Class ships, however, cannot make that same claim - most of the public doors do not open automatically, none of the bathroom doors do, and some of the doors which go out onto the outside decks are not only extraordinarily heavy, but are quite narrow. This is important information, I believe, if you are traveling with an assistive mobility device - the Solstice Class ships are definitely fully accessible, in our experience, but not so the Millennium Class.
We arrived in Barcelona 2 days before embarkation, allowing for one afternoon/evening of independent exploration and one full day of touring with Barcelona Day Tours. We stayed 2 nights at the Hotel Casa Camper, which we absolutely loved. It is in a fantastic vibrant central location of the city. Please refer to my TripAdvisor review for more extensive details. We booked a full day tour with Barcelona Day Tours, months in advance of our arrival. We were thrilled with their knowledge and expertise. We did a full day tour of Barcelona including a drive to Montserrat where we saw the Black Madonna at the basilica. From home, we reserved timed admission to La Sagrada Familia. Again, for more extensive details on our tour with Barcelona Day Tours, please refer to my TripAdvisor review, but the bottom line is that we had a fantastic all inclusive super informative fun day!
We boarded the ship on August 3 and had several sea days before our first port of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Having sailed on the Equinox last year, the Solstice, although older, did not show it - she is a beautiful ship, super clean, extremely elegant, all up to Celebrity standards. Throughout the voyage, we engaged in lots of trivia games; my husband again became very familiar with all of the poker dealers; our boys frequented the gym and engaged in the ship's version of the Olympics games, the official version of which was being held concurrently in London; and we enjoyed the onboard professional entertainment thoroughly. I don't know where Celebrity finds the talent in their shows - the dancers, several in particular, are always exceptional, Dancing with the Stars calibre. The Cirque-du-Soleil-style show, the various musicals including Doug Cameron and funny men Paul Boland and Steve Rawlings, for which I would pay big money to see, the dance parties, the acappella group and the flamenco guitarist, the party band - there seems to be a standard formula that Celebrity has for it's entertainment - all acts are exceptional and entertaining. We loved our cruise director, Alejandro, who as all cruise directors on Celebrity do, had boundless energy and addressed all pursuits with ultimate enthusiasm. The food ranged from excellent to very good. We had the 2nd seating in the Grand Epernay dining room and were very pleased with our serving staff.
Since there were five of us, we had two cabins, 7139 which is accessible for our daughter, and 7137. Our stateroom attendant was notably fantastic - responsive, friendly, efficient, effective - not to mention quite adept at towel art! We discovered on our last cruise that on shore excursion days, it is difficult to mobilize a family of 5 and have them totally ready to go by 8 or 8:30 am. We came up with the idea that we would be able to maintain our sanity much easier if we had breakfast in our cabins - to not attempt to go to the dining room or buffet. This allows us to have more time in the bathrooms, time to dress, etc, while eating at the same time - one of the kids could be in the bathroom at the same time one of them was eating, etc. So on most shore excursion days, we ordered in-cabin breakfast service, and found that our stateroom attendant was our food server! He did everything for us, our in-cabin food as well as our laundry! Once when we had to call him to come and lock the stocked-for-purchase refrigerator in the cabin that our kids had, he was actually in the laundry room at that moment, doing our laundry! Apparently, the attendants carry phones with them so that calls from their guests go directly to them - very efficient and excellent for the guests, continuity of care, so to speak. (We did not find that to be the case on the Summit, however.)
One of the absolute highlights of a cruise on a Solstice Class ship is the wine and cheese party on the lawn, in the Lawn Club. There was only one on this cruise, I was hoping for two, but at least there was one. It was held during the sail away from Naples. There you are, on a blanket on the lawn - ACTUAL REAL GRASS - with pillows, and a small stool used as a table to hold your wine of choice as well as a gratis cheese and fruit tray - relaxing as the classical guitarist plays in the background, as the sun is setting over Naples, looking out at Mt. Vesuvius - and you wonder how can such a magical perfect experience be happening to you? And then there is the Sunset Bar, which is also on Deck 15, my favorite place on the ship, when there is no wine and cheese party on the lawn, that is. It is situated aft, with the ocean around you on 3 sides. The Lawn Club is just behind you, port and starboard. The fresh air envelops you, the sun shines or sets on you (unless you want to sit under the tent top), all as your friendly server who knows you after the first day, serves you your favorite libation. Heavenly! Sadly, the Millennium Class ships don't have a Lawn Club, and their Sunset Bar is really the Oceanview Bar, so it isn't quite the same.
I wanted to mention that the Captain's Club event is very nice - the Captain and top officers are there to greet you, wine and cosmopolitan cocktails are served gratis, lovely food stations, as well as an award presentation to the person/couple with the highest number of Captain's Club points on that sailing. We were very lucky to have been playing trivia with this couple, from Belgium, the whole cruise, so we felt almost like part of their family when they were presented with their award. The higher the number of points you accumulate through frequent cruising with Celebrity, the more of these events that are available. On this cruise, we were still a "Classic" member, but the party, though technically the most basic, was anything but that. Celebrity rewards their loyal customers, and I have "Elite" in my sites!
Our first port of call was Dubrovnik, Croatia, on August 6, 2012. We booked the shore excursion DU10 Highlights of Dubrovnik Riviera. The stop at the Konavoski Dvori Restaurant was a bit of a throwaway as we spent nearly all of our allotted time there waiting in a very long line for the bathroom. We managed to snap a few photos and eat a quick snack of local ham, cheese, bread, wine, which was very nice, but hurried. I do wish the bathroom situation there had been better, as it was a picturesque spot - an old mill next to the Ljuta River. Cavtat was a beautiful seaside village, very lovely, scenic, although for us, frankly the highlight of this excursion came after our children took the bus back to the ship, leaving my husband and I to explore Dubrovnik on our own. We discovered the most charming local jeweler inside the old city, inside the wall; here is their information - BENI, vi Toma Barisa, Od Puca 25. It was a family run store, the son, his wife, and the 'old man'. I found a pair of traditional Dubrovnik Puca/Kolarin earrings - round silver balls, fairly ornate but also simple at the same time. I wasn't happy with the length of the hook, so the 'old man' in his broken English with the help of his daughter-in-law, completely replaced the hooks, put in a chain - all very nice, and extremely reasonably priced. My husband and I then walked the entire wall of the old city, up and down, in blistering heat, but loved every minute, finding the views unparalleled. He and I then grabbed the Celebrity shuttle outside of the walls and returned to the ship on our own. That is something crucial to know about nearly all of the Celebrity excursions - usually, you don't need to return to the ship with your actual guide/bus - the ship nearly always runs shuttles to the key destinations and you can leave your shore excursion and return to the ship on your own - very handy!
Our next stop was Venice, the city of cities! The sail into Venice was spectacular - the ship really played this up, as they should have, as there is nothing like it - to slowly sail in on the Grand Canal with St. Mark's Square RIGHT THERE, a stone's throw from the decks, really amazing! For over an hour on the dramatic approach to the city, theme music was broadcast throughout the ship and on the public outer decks, by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Boccelli to name a few, setting the mood very effectively.
On Day 1 of our stay in Venice, we booked the shore excursion VE02, Doge's Palace, St. Mark's Cathedral & Glass Showroom. This was an excellent excursion, covering key highlights of the city. Our guide was very good. I would enjoy returning in order to spend more time in St. Mark's Cathedral. It is definitely a spot where you just want to sit, stay quiet, and simply take it in. The tour of the Doge's Palace was excellent. The glass showroom, eh, was ok - there was a quick demonstration then time to shop, and given the world renown reputation of Murano glass, something to see for sure, but not really our style. After the tour, we were free to return to the ship on our own. We used this opportunity to take a gondola ride. This, we recommend strongly, you must do on your own - do not do this as a shore excursion. We are a family of five, and the ship shore excursion price for a gondola ride for the 5 of us was approximately $100 per person!!! However, doing it on our own, that is how much we paid IN TOTAL for the 5 of us - a tremendous and overwhelming savings!! To get a gondola ride is very very easy. There are reputable stands all over. We went to one of the ubiquitous Paul & Shark Yachting stands - they operate nearly all of the gondolas in Venice! - and had a wonderful tour, approximately 45 minutes in length, very memorable. Someday, my husband and I will return and take a romantic gondola ride at night, just the two of us, with the sun setting, but this ride was a wonderful family experience, for sure!
On Day 2 in Venice, our 3 kids stayed on board, according to plan, and my husband and I went on shore excursion VE06, Secret Venice Walking Tour. WOW, we loved this excursion!! Our tour guide was super engaging, very informed, and to see the sights of Venice on foot, venues that are far away from the fray of Piazza San Marco - definitely a highlight of our cruise! We HIGHLY recommend this excursion!! Everything that we saw was as detailed in the description, but after the walking tour, instead of returning immediately to the ship, we spent several hours on our own in the city. We feel so lucky to have been able to have had this magical experience of exploring Venice completely on our own (with a map!), truly an opportunity of a lifetime, at least the lifetime of yours truly. Based upon a port exploration talk given on board, we took the gondola "bus" across the Grand Canal from the San Marco District to explore the Artistic District or Dorsoduro, and simply fell in love with the area - few people, secluded, lovely. We loved discovering the gondola workshop, Squero san Trovaso (as seen by us on CBS Sunday Morning several years ago!) as well as enjoying some delicious gelato at Bar Laguna. We walked back to the San Marco District on the Academia Bridge, spanning the Grand Canal, and returned to the Solstice on the Celebrity water shuttle.
Split, Croatia, was our next port of call, and we booked shore excursion AT06, Dalmatian Coastline & Village Life. The Solstice docked at sea and the ship's lifeboats acted as tenders - this was handled efficiently and effectively. We met our tour guide at the dock in Split, where he ultimately brought us through Split as well as Trogir. The palace of Emperor Diocletian now essentially encapsulates the modern city of 'old' Split, the old and the new seamlessly meshing together. We especially enjoyed the smaller town of Trogir, a World Unesco Heritate Site. The Cathedral of St. Lawrence, with the klapa singers in the square, was very memorable. I had 'visions of Rick Steves' with the klapa singers - very enjoyable! Our guide then took us to Jurlinovi Dvori in Draga-Primosten for a full lunch - amazing! Authentic, delicious, very local! The pork chops there were the best ever! All of the dishes were served family style by the 'lady of the house'. Very lovely.
Naples was our next port of call. Since we had docked in Naples last year, August 2011, on the Equinox, and had seen SO VERY much on our shore excursion NP08, Exclusive Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento & Pompeii, we decided to do Naples on our own this year. We decided to divide our family of 5 into 2 groups, my 20 year old son and I, and my husband with the other 2 kids. Since my daughter has a physical disability, my husband and she and our 18 year old son, decided to go into Naples with the wheelchair and do the Rick Steves self-guided walking tour of Naples which focuses on the Centro Storico/Spaccanapoli. As it turned out, from an accessible perspective, the whole area was frought with hazards - lots of construction was going on at the time, so many walkways were hard to pass. They took a cab from the port directly to the start of Spaccanapoli - the cab driver ignored all red lights and made the drive particularly exciting/terrifying for my 18 year old son, who would go to Naples again any time if he could have the same cab ride experience! The city itself, other than parts of the Centro Storico, was heavily graffiti-ed and in general, ill kept, full of loose garbage, dirty - very sad considering the historic nature of the area. They happily stumbled upon Scaturchio, patisserie and gelateria. The sfogliatelle, the clam shell-esque pastry, was warm, with a delicious lemon filling - exquisite!
My 20 yr old son and I, in the divide and conquer plan of attack on Naples, went to Capri. Since Capri demands a higher level of physical agility, I knew that my daughter who needs a walker/wheelchair, would be far less able to negotiate many of the aspects of the island. My son and I took the 8:05am SNAV Hydrofoil from the dock at Naples to Capri, arriving in Capri at approximately 9am. Our plan was to go directly to the Blue Grotto but we learned that the chop was too high that day, as well as the next, and so the Blue Grotto was 'closed', much to our disappointment. So, we took the funicular to Capri Town and then the bus to Anacapri. We then directly accessed the Ski Lift to the top of Anacapri Mountain. This is a single seat chair lift with no lock or bar over your lap - something that here in the USA would never be approved, for obvious safety reasons! We were a bit freaked out with no locking mechanisms on the lap bar, as the chair lift goes on and on, a 12 minute ride, very very high, with the land well below your dangling feet, ending at the top awarding the hearty traveler with amazingly spectacular views of the entire island but particularly of the Faraglioni rocks, the iconic rock formations that are the symbol of Capri. We took the ski lift back down to Anacapri, explored Anacapri for some time enjoying the fresh granitas, then the bus back to Capri. The sights and scenes that are viewed from the bus themselves and from every vantage point on the island are spectacular, beautiful, not to be missed. In Capri Town, as I had mentioned earlier, we had wanted to go to the Blue Grotto, but since it was 'closed' due to high chop, we wandered around the dock area, not sure what to do but not willing to give up on our quest, looking a bit forlorn and disappointed, when we were approached by a hearty soul, a local fisherman who's t-shirt advertised himself as the Pizza Man, "Rent a Boat with the Pizza Man" - is what his shirt said. He looked super local, authentic, and he seemed to know everyone around (thus, I though, hmmm, he must be safe!). He asked us if we wanted to take a cruise in his fishing boat around the island and the long sublimated adventurer in me said, "YES! WHY NOT!!??" We negotiated a price, which actually means that I accepted without question the price that he quoted, and off my son and I went. I am so glad that we did! Though the Blue Grotto was off the list, we still saw fantastic scenic water sites, rock formations that were breathtaking, other less famous but stunningly beautiful grottos that he negotiated his boat into, plus, he took us through the Faraglioni rock formations! He even opened a bottle of white wine which the 3 of us shared, on our 80 minute journey. We have fantastic photos that Pizza Man took of us going through the rocks! He was a skilled tour guide, broken English but still able to get across his points, such an adventure, in his smallish fishing boat, just my son and I, an adventure never to be forgotten! I know I am using the word 'adventure' often, but truly, that's what it was!
Our next port of call was Civitavecchia, the gateway to Rome. Since we spent nearly three days touring Rome last summer and enjoying it thoroughly, we decided to take an alternate non-Rome shore excursion, deciding on CV25 Olive Oil Tasting & Scenic Drive. We enjoyed this very much. We saw a good deal of Tuscany/Tarquinia/Piansano, and got a fantastic narrative from the tour guide as we proceeded along. We enjoyed the historical village of Tuscania but the highlight was the lunch at the Cerrosughero Estate, which is a working olive oil plantation, as well as an Inn, where many varieties of olive oil are produced on site. We were served a lovely lunch of several varieties of their olive oil, their own jams and honey, several hams, artichokes, salads, breads - very rustic, authentic, delicious. We sat on the outdoor grape-vine-enwrapped patio overlooking the estate, quite picturesque. We were there for a bit over an hour, and were given an opportunity to purchase the olive oil, but at no time was any pressure put on us to do so. We did buy some to take home with us, as the oil was outstanding, and also very reasonably priced. On the drive back to the ship, we saw several Roman aqueducts still in place along the roadside dating back to Emperor Trajan, very neat to see.
Our next port of call was Florence. This was our first time in Florence, and we were rather devastated after we booked the cruise, to learn that we would be there on a Monday - the one day of the week when the two most notable major museums in Florence are closed, the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. (WHY do these museums close once a week??? GRRRR!!!) What this meant is that we would not be able to see the actual "David" by Michelangelo nor Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" - two of the most iconic works of art anywhere, ever. I was seriously ready to cancel our plans for the cruise, but, luckily, sanity prevailed and though it is true that we did not get to go to these two museums, Florence is a huge gorgeous uber historical city unto itself, and along with Pisa, there was no shortage of things to do. Not to mention that though we didn't see the ORIGINAL "David", we saw umpteen life-size copies, including the one in Piazza della Signoria which is where the original stood for centuries, where Michelangelo intended it to be.
The ship docks in Livorno, about 12 miles from Pisa. We did not book a ship shore excursion as we knew that we wanted to not only see as much of Florence as possible, but also to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa - myself and my 2 sons - and there was no shore excursion that combined both, for obvious reasons of time constraints. Therefore, months earlier, we booked a private excursion for the five of us through Tuscany Car Tours "www.tuscanycartours.com", and we are so thrilled that we did. Our driver/guide, Paolo Rigacci, picked us up at the Solstice at 8am for a 9 hour private tour. Paolo was very friendly, and very informative. He took us directly to Pisa (we had pre-booked our timed tickets to climb the tower); he parked very close. We spent probably two hours in Pisa, climbing, exploring, taking lots of the kitschy photos of us trying to prop up the tower. On our ride to Florence, Paolo continued his informative talk about the area - Tuscany - focusing in on wine production and classifications, knowing our interest in wine. In Florence, he took us first to Michelangelo Square which offers a breathtaking panorama of the city, including the famous Ponte Vecchio. Paolo made sure that we saw all of the major sites in the city, parking very close to them. Though we weren't able to go into many, as there is so much to see, we had time to walk around on our own and ultimately we were glad that the two major museums were closed. We got a fantastic thorough overview of the city itself, and next time we visit, as Florence will surely be an overlapping port of call on a future Celebrity cruise for us, we will visit specific museums. Paolo recommended a local authentic cafe for lunch which we absolutely loved - La Grotta Guelfa (please refer to my TripAdvisor review for more specifics.) We had a fantastic day in Florence and Pisa!
Our next port of call was Toulon, France, where we decided to book the shore excursion TU03 Aix-en-Provence. Such a beautiful picture perfect postcard of a town! Our guide gave us an informative guided walking tour, leaving us plenty of time at the end to explore on our own. We happened to be in town while two markets were going on, a big clothing market and a farmer's and flower market. At the farmer's market, we purchased fresh peaches and fresh apple-pear cider. The cider was delicious but the peaches were extraordinary, ranking in our minds as the best peaches we have ever had along with the peaches from last summer's cruise on the Equinox, the peaches from the village of Sirince in Turkey. We definitely recommend this shore excursion as it provided an excellent trip into the countryside and a lovely visit to Aix. We had no interest in seeing Marseille, from our research, and we were very happy with our choice.
An excellent cruise, and in our opinion, for our family, a Celebrity cruise is the best way to see Europe.