This was our 18th cruise (of 22) with Celebrity. So, you know where our loyalties lie. This cruise was followed B2B by a one day cruise to no where out of Sydney and a 13 day cruise from Sydney R/T NZ. We spent 29 total days on Solstice.
I've done way too many cruise reviews and in the last few, I've tried to talk about things that aren't always talked about. I'll go through the routine quickly and then add some comments that might be useful for future Solstice cruisers in this area of the world.
The Singapore to Sydney itinerary that included stops in Bali, Indonesia, along with Darwin, Brisbane and Cairns/Yorkey's Knob, AU was a repositioning cruise for the AU/NZ summer cruising season. It won't be repeated this season. Maybe next which will be in 2014. Its a very good itinerary for first time visitors to South East Asia and AU. Too bad its not going to be repeated as it is an ideal B2B combined with the 13d NZ itinerary out of Sydney that left December 11th.
Solstice is the first celebrity ship in its class and is now about 4 years old. There are 4 others. There are 4 Millennium class ships and one Century class ships operating in Celebrity's fleet. Azamara cruises is a division of Celebrity offering 6 star cruises of the same caliber as, say, Crystal Cruise Lines. Most reviewers love the Solstice class ships. I am among them. Very spacious, you are not ever aware there are over 3000 bodies, including passengers and crew, on the ship until you have to tender or debark for a self arranged tour at a specific time. You may have read other reviews on this. I attribute most of the tendering, debarkation or excursion snafus to this being the first time Solstice has visited any of these ports where tendering or excursions might have been a problem. The most pertinent comment I heard from crew members when guests got angry at them was, "you're on vacation. You don't have to be anywhere else tomorrow." Moreover, I've not been on a cruise line in 20+ tries where ship's company and staff work harder to make things work than Clebrity does. If something goes wrong, I will guarantee you that you will be compensated in some way. Just don't ever lose your temper or write scathing letters. Even though you may feel like it, restrain yourself. You live among the 10% who get to do this kind of traveling. The rest of the world's population often have no such luxuries and never will.
With Solstice, Celebrity embarked on a kind of tiered pricing similar to Cunard's but not quite as class and pricing stark. Aside from the usual, inside, outside veranda, family and suite accommodations, Celebrity added Concierge and Aqua class service. Personally, these are not for me. The price difference for what you get isn't worth it. Others will disagree. It is all a matter of taste and budget. For example, in Aqua class you get a dual head shower, a few more room amenities and access to Blu - a private specialty restaurant for Aqua class patrons. Concierge class gets you a few room amenities and, in all likelihood, room attendants that have gotten high marks during their contracts for service. I have been told the service is a bit better but I have never had a complaint about cabin service when sailing in an inside, outside or veranda stateroom.
We had a Cat 2C Veranda. Very happy with both the price and accommodation. When selecting a cabin, I would advise you to spend some time looking at specific cabin comments and pictures you can find on the web. I was amazed at the differences between cabins in the same category. You should also study deck layouts and compare comments about the cabin you might find with what it looks like on the cabin layouts you can also find on the web. For example, a "hump" veranda stateroom has a very large balcony compared to the normal balcony arrangement. Some "obstructed" view verandas also have larger balconies as did our cabin 6296 whose only view restriction was directly down. Veranda cabins also have 2 different furniture arrangements. One with the bed next to the sliding door and one with the couch next to the sliding door. If you have a preference, let your TA know. Also be mindful of offered "upgrades." Before you accept one, make sure you actually like what you are getting upgraded to in terms of location and layout and compared to what you looked thoroughly at and booked. Also, watch for price drops. Check every few weeks up to your final payment date and notify your TA if a price drop appears. They'll verify it for your cabin class and re-write your reservation updating the final payment amount. The Roll Calls at Cruise Critic are excellent for this.
Buffet dining in the ocean View Cafe is handled very well with a well thought out lay-out for serving large numbers of meandering diners. Food quality is excellent. I don't think there is a buffet service in the cruise industry that is better in terms of variety as well as high quality taste and presentation. It can get a little crowded in the seating areas during peak hours on sea days. Think ahead and dine right at the end of breakfast (around 11-11:30) or for a mid-day meal at the very end of lunch service (around 2:30). Room service is also a good alternative. No extra charge and, on Solstice, quick. You can pre-order breakfast the night before and hang your order on the outside door handle. Very nice.
I had the premium beverage package for this cruise. Watch for discounts on these as the company will offer them if they are not selling enough of these packages. You can book one and then cancel and re-order at the discounted price if and when it is offered. With a discount, the daily price of beverages got down to $44pd. All cruises are going to be different. Unless you drink a lot of specialty coffees, drink a lot of wine or alcohol, both during the day and at dinner, and have more than one cocktail at night, the package is not going to buy you much. I found this out after (a) being encouraged to consume too much alcohol so I wouldn't lose money and (b) drinking too much! I cancelled the package for the second part of our cruise, drank less and spent less on booze. For me it was just a better choice overall to buy what I wanted rather than to package it. Also, rely on your section Sommelier to make wine suggestions. Unless you are an expert, forget trying to pick from the menu. It is just too extensive. Moreover, there are many wines not on the wine list that the Sommelier has tasted and will recommend. I had a Chilean Carmenera under $35 a bottle that was excellent. Try the Wente Cab ($42) and Steel Pinot Noir ($52) - all reds, which is all that I drink. My wife and I can make a bottle last two dinner seatings - which is about all an open bottle of wine will stay decent for anyway.
Sit down dining comes now in two flavors: Select and Traditional. Traditional is as it always has been. Two seatings. One at 6:30 and one at 8:30. Select is Celebrity's attempt to match the modern cruisers need for NCL like anytime dining. I don't care for the Select dining preferring traditional dining so you get to know a small group of friends who dine in the evenings together. With the inclusion of select dining, there is only a small chance you are going to randomly find a table of 10 or 12 at the traditional seating anymore that sticks together. I'm not complaining. I understand the market trends and why Celebrity has to offer what is essentially any time dining.
My dislike of Select dining is thoroughly and completely overcome by the high quality of food found in Epernay - the main dining room. My only niggle is that the best dishes always seem to appear on the same night. For example, on the second formal night, the menu included Lobster, Beef Wellington, Lamb Chops and Filet Mignon. Rather a good niggle to have I suppose! On commenting on the quality of the lobster, I was told by our section maitre d', Jesus, that Celebrity had recently changed its fleet provider of fish and beef. I will tell you, they made a good choice as the fish was of much higher quality overall than I have experienced in the past.
There are 4 specialty restaurants, not including Blu, on Solstice. These are Silk (Asian), Tuscan Grill (Italian grill), Morano (contemporary French), Bistro on 5 (Crepes, Paninis). We've been to all of them. My favorite is Tuscan. The Filet Mignon is first class. I am told that all the beef in Tuscan Grill is specially selected by hand (also in Murano). The Lobster dish in Morano is also excellent as are lamb chops. Every cruise we have been on since the advent of it the price of specialty dining has increased and not insubstantially. However, when sales are down, discounts will be offered. Watch for these. Also watch for a noon seating for lunch at Tuscan and Morano usually half price. The menu is essentially the same with a little less attentive service but still great.
We love Celebrity's entertainment, especially the production shows. The Solstice class ships feature larger main theaters. The productions have taken on a Cirque character. The performers have to know how to fly. To me this is a big deal as singing and dancing is one thing. Being an aerialist is altogether a different story. Very talented group. First rate. No further comment.
We found Singapore to be a great city to visit but very expensive if you're looking for first class accommodations, dining and entertainment. We had 2.5 days in town pre-cruise and 1 day from the ship. You cannot see this city's sites in a week or more, let alone 3 days. Plan accordingly.
Standard tourist fare attractions abound and are also pricey. Avail yourself of travel guides and pre-plan what you think you might want to do. Then, be flexible. There is a lot to see that is very affordable. We visited the Singapore Botanical Gardens (there are two of these; one down town and the other near the new cruise terminal). The older, down town Botanical Gardens is free (there is a small service charge for the Orchid Display). Also visited, the Singapore Museum of History (free with a service charge for the new display there of Singapore's history - very good). Lastly we took a short trip to Sentosa Island after we boarded the ship (it was in port for 2 full days). I had planned this in advance. It costs $29pp to ride the cable car to the island. Once there you will find a dazzling display of expensive entertainment (including a Universal Studios Theme Park) casinos and dining. We just walked through the park. Even then, it was interesting but I'd think twice if you are traveling with kids unless you want to spend a good sum on activities there.
We stayed in The Wanderlust Hotel, part of boutique chain of three hotels, in Little India. Singapore has 4 principal ethnic groups, among many, and each has its own area. The Wanderlust Hotel was at least $100pd less than the typical 4 star and $200pd less than your resort 5 stars and there are plenty of those. They have a web site. Check it out. I can recommend it both for price, quality and hospitality. It is unique. You may not like the decor - every room is different and has a theme.
You can spend $300 for a gourmet meal for 2 at a top restaurant or eat a decent plate in the market area for $3.50. I would recommend you think about where you want to eat and how much you want to spend and have a general plan. Again, be flexible. The Wanderlust offers breakfast which is included in the pd rate. It is excellent and served in Cocotte, their French influenced restaurant. We also ate two more times there for lunch. Have the baked chicken for two ($60). I can recommend it. Finally, we ate at the Empire Restaurant in Raffles Hotel. You would think otherwise given this hotel's first class, upper crust history, but its very reasonable (you can, of course, eat in their steak house for around $150pp !!). What is remarkable about Empire is that it features a menu with Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian and Indian influenced dishes. The wait staff will explain the flavors of each dish and you can pick any one of them to get a taste of the associated culture. Well worth a visit at about $25-30pp.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive. Most places you can get to from central Singapore for about $10. It costs more at night or during rush hours. It will run you $35 from the airport to central Singapore after 11pm. $25 from Central Singapore to the new Cruise Terminal during the day after about 10am. As well, you can ask the taxi drivers where they eat and get a good recommendation on plates of food for less than $5. By the way, if you like curry dishes, you are in curry heaven - hot to mild.
A couple of things on the New Singapore Cruise Terminal and embarkation from Singapore. It is massive. There is still road construction going on. Some cab drivers may not know where to drop you off. Keep your eyes open, visually find the ship you're boarding and help them out. Once inside, its easy to find your way around and staff, if somewhat new, are very friendly and eager to help. Check-in was, as it usually is with Celebrity and all of them now, painlessly easy. Take your time boarding. Pick a later hour to avoid lines and waiting around on the ship to get to your cabin. They won't be ready until around 1pm. Make your way to Bistro on 5 ($5), have a quite meal before going to your cabin around 1pm.
Bali ..... one comment. Do not use a ship board excursion. Way over priced. Getting a private guide that will meet you at the cruise terminal and take you anywhere you want to go will cost you less than $50 for a day. We used Bali Dean of Drivers with Distinction. He is very popular, has 5 or 6 other drivers and gets booked 3-6 months before your tour date. Plan ahead. Read up on Bali in advance, get out of town and see the country side. Our guide took us to Tam-a-Lot Hindu temple and a UNESCO park in the mountains that was built to preserve the rice farming way of life in Indonesia. When you do something like this, you pay your own admissions. I think we paid about $10 total for both sites. $30 for a great buffet meal at the UNESCO park ($10 a piece and I bought the driver's meal which he did not expect and was very thankful). Do the planning, hire a private guide, go where you want.
Darwin. Small, rural town in North Australia. Privately arranged Sunset Eco-Sail on a 42 foot Catamaran with 11 others ($90pp, includes nice snacks, plenty of beer, soft drinks and wine). Tried to see some wildlife but none of it was cooperating that day. Still a nice tour with a knowledgeable guide. No wind that evening which seriously disappointed me because I am a huge sailor. Darwin has a beautiful new cruise port. Spartan terminal but all that is needed. Condos, shops and restaurants that thrive in the winter months (where it is still quite warm). Quaint, super clean town that you can walk to from the ship.
Brisbane. Be prepared to dock miles from downtown at the Grain Terminal - a trip that requires a shuttle bus that is going to cost you $20 a piece. Do it and don't whine. Smaller ships dock right donw town. Solstice is not small. I recommend the CityCat once in the city itself. You'll be dropped off just a block or so from where you board. A 2.5 hour pass costs $7pp. That's enough time to ride the cat up and down the river and see just about everything you might want to see. Brisbane is very urbane and upscale. Nice but expensive restaurants all around. Pick one.
Cairns/Yorkey's Knob. What else: Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Interesting story to tell here. Even in late August, with the cruise just a few months away, Celebrity was not yet offering a tour of the GBR out of Cairns. Quite disconcerting. Our Cruise Critics roll call group had already begun to organize a private tour with Quicksilver - the best tour operator out there if you read the reviews. We were doing a lot of wheeling and dealing with them and they were none to quick to jump on our group at the price we wanted ($185pp). Going with them privately also required a bus trip of 30+ minutes to and from Yorkey's with timing that could have presented some problems and an additional cost of $15pp. At what seemed like the last minute, Celebrity offered the excursion at a good price ($229pp) that also included pick-up from the ship. We all went with that. Turned out we got a discount vendor not at all as good as Quicksilver who had a smaller platform on the reef that was overcrowded with some 300+ people from our ship who purchased the sold out tour. All-in-all, it went OK. The reef is stunning in its beauty. Well worth any look but I think Celebrity missed the mark not going with Quicksilver although I think Quicksilver wanted too much and the price that Celebrity would have had to offer to passengers to get its desired cut was just too high.
Before I make a comment on the final stop, Sydney, a word about communicable disease. We had a large number of passengers with either/or, sometimes both, Norovirus and what was probably at best bronchitis and at worst, Community Acquired Pneumonia. I am absolutely positive it was brought aboard by passengers that were sick when they arrived and should not have boarded. That's a tough pill to swallow but who tells the truth when asked if they have had a fever or diarrhea on those forms? Who doesn't have some illness after traveling up to 16 hours on an enclosed airliner with significant time changes on their bodies? You are going to get exposed. You have to be in top shape with respect to your immune system because sick people are going to board. No question about that. Some ideas: Arrive early and spend a few days getting your body clocks set. Avoid alcohol in the days pre-cruise. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Sleep. Some of the OTC immune system enhancers work. Zinc supplementation is proven to strengthen the immune system. In my opinion, Celebrity does a good job dealing with the most common cruise viruses; about as good as they can. Most of it is up to you. If you don't take care of yourself, if you smoke, if you are lazy about hand washing and sanitation, if you let yourself get run down on the cruise by partying all night, if you hack and cough all over the place without covering (forearm over the mouth) and being mindful of spreading disease with cough or sneeze, you are guilty of spreading disease to those that really try hard to be well the whole cruise. Its hard. I got Norovirus. I'm pretty sure I know right where I got it. On the lunch buffet aboard the catamaran that took us to the GBR. I took one look, saw 300+ folks milling about it, hands in the food, and knew what was going to happen. Sure enough, 48h later, I had diarrhea that lasted 3 days. Illness that lasted a week. I come prepared. I had anti diarrhea tablets, took those and drank massive amounts of Vitamin Water (contains salts and magnesium). I did not dine in public areas until I was fever free. I dealt with it. Still, I was sick for a week. I tell you this for two reasons: (1) there is a good chance you are going to get sick on a cruise of more than ten days duration. Diarrhea is usually from Norovirus unless you have blood or mucous in your stools and then it is probably Salmonella (much less common). You take Ciprofloxacin for 3 to 5 days for the later, nothing but hydration and anti diarrhea tabs for the former. You can take Tylenol or Motrin for fever. Get your doctor to write for a supply of Cipro. I get 42 tabs. If its a productive cough you have, I usually advise to wait 3-5 days; if you feel yourself improving, do nothing further but rest and take Tylenol or Motrin. If worse, take Azithromycin 500mg for 3 days. Get your doctor to write for a supply of this as well. I get 9 500mg tabs. Saty ouot of public areas until you don't have a fever. Be very wary of worsening cough and if you become short of breath, especially if over 60, go to the ships MD. You need a Chest X-Ray. These are signs of Pneumonia that may require IV antibiotics. Enough of that sad stuff. Let it suffice that I get angry with people who don't care or don't know about this sort of thing. They are the ones causing these outbreaks of communicable diseases despite the good efforts of others that do know and care and the ships company to prevent them.
Finally, Sydney. I won't say much. Great city but, like NYC of SF, a pricey place. Sydney suburbanites are well off folks. They can afford a $500 night out at the Sydney Opera House or sail boats and racing among the elite of the Royal Sydney Yacht Club. Homes on the waterfront in Sydney or the surrounding beaches go for minimum of $1,000,000 and that's for a terribly small or run down property. $4-5 million is probably the mean price of a water facing home in Sydney or Manly beach. If you can find a home for less than $400K in and around Sydney, you're doing well. Be prepared for sticker shock on clothing. You don't want to shop here for that. Food and drink are also very expensive. Most of the places you read about and want to eat at are going to cost you $100 for two with wine or cocktail. You can dine for reasonable prices but my feelings are, why do that when you have already paid for good food on the ship. I do recommend day trips to Manley Beach by ferry and to the Blue Mountains. Lots of available tours. I used Great Escapes. Good pricing, great guide. Includes a trip and admission to Featherdale Wildlife Park, Katoomba National Park and a nice meal. Check out the various Blue Mountain tours at Trip Advisor. You will berth right down town. The Cruise Terminal is laid out well. The only problem I encountered was the small size of the baggage area and how customs was set up for debarkation. The ship ran things well by releasing passengers in units of 25 or so. Baggage was staged sequentially to match released units. I was in the first unit off as we had arranged a transfer to the airport (I don't usually do this but was persuaded to do so by the service staff). Luggage was set out just for our group. However, the entering passengers intermingled with those who already had their bags and were in line for customs. It was messy but we got through it. There are porters in red shirts and black shorts in the baggage area that will help with luggage. Ask. Have some AU dollars to tip but they don't expect it. Sydney airport is also overwhelming. Once inside, go to the help desk so you get a picture of how to check in. Once I figured that out, it was easy. We flew Delta. They were very well orgnaized but check in does not start until three hours before the flight. You will need it. Walking through the airport, once checked in, is like being in a huge mall. Shops abound. That is overwhelming and a bit disconcerting as well. Instead of a bus transfer (whihc was convenient it turned out as we were first off the ship). If you do that, think about having AU dollars in hand (about $35) to pay for a cab (cabs do take credit cards, something I was misinformed about and therefore bought a transfer) and $4 in AU coins for a luggage cart at the airport.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have specific questions about the ship or ports I visited.