My adult daughter, who happens to be mobility challenged, had a semester off in her university studies and she has always wanted to explore Australia and New Zealand. Being that we are mega cruise fans and love Celebrity as a brand, we embarked on a month long odyssey together - she, myself and Celebrity - we booked back to back cruises on the Solstice - the 12 night departing Sydney on January 16 and the 18 night departing Auckland on January 28. I will review the second cruise separately so do look for that.
How do I love Celebrity, let me count the ways........we cruised Aqua Class and I cannot recommend Aqua Class more highly. Forget Concierge class, you get nothing for it except a gold Seapass card. But, with Aqua Class, you are able to dine in the very special restaurant Blu - which exists solely for Aqua Class passengers. The food and service are excellent and crucially, you have complete freedom as to when you dine - no need to make a reservation, you just show up anytime it's open and the maitre'd, who after your first or second meal with them will most likely have memorized your cabin number, will show you to a beautifully appointed table - many tables are right at the floor to ceiling windows, but all tables have beautiful ocean views. Also with Aqua Class, you get afternoon canapes in your cabin, flowers in your room, free admittance to the Persian Garden in the spa - but, meh, no biggie to any of those - but Blu, yes, yes - Blu alone is the reason to book Aqua - and the up charge when for Aqua is minimal - the value add is great. And, hey, if you're looking for a non-white Seapass card, yes, with Aqua class, you get an aqua colored card - and people 'in the know' know that it's better to be aqua than gold!
Our cabin was beautiful, but, we knew it would be, as this is my fourth (and fifth, with the back to back) cruise with Celebrity. We very much enjoyed our veranda, often enjoying coffee in the mornings on it as we would sail into ports, or wine in the evenings as we would leave a port, or while contemplating a sunset. We had a great view of the navigational bridge, so our veranda also provided a great captain-peeking spot, fun to watch him working while docking.
The crew in general, as a whole, and to a man/woman - was extraordinary. The cruise director, Ian, was from our perspective, for us, the best cruise director to date - and why, because he was ubiquitous, omnipresent. He was everywhere. He wasn't an ivory tower cruise director who stayed in his office all day long, emerging only to introduce the acts in the theater - no, he was always around, eager to talk to you directly, to engage one to one, anxious to hear your comments. He was actively involved with the passengers. Now, maybe that made things harder for the activities staff itself, I have no idea at all, but from the passenger perspective, it was great to have him on the front line - he acted as the host of the vessel, making sure as a good host does, that all guests were happy and that their needs and their wants, were met.
The activities staff was fun and energetic. Rachel, who ran most of the activities of which we were a part, notably the dance clubs (which later performed onstage at the end of the cruise in the large Solstice Theater, great fun), was super warm and dynamic. All of the staff were eager to engage the engageable, and for the hopelessly non participatory, that was ok, too - but we have always found that the more involved you are, the more fun you have and the Celebrity staff always makes things fun! There are so many things to do on board, that we learned to bring our highlighter from home - every night, when we return to our cabin after dinner, music, the headlining entertainment in the Solstice Theater, the Groove dance party for instance, participating in a gameshow in the Celebrity Central theater, etc and et al, we look forward to going through the next day's schedule which is left on your turned down, chocolate bedecked bed. We check the times of all of the activities, highlight the ones we want to participate in/go to, and listen to any messages that might be left on our cabin voicemail reminding us of any activities that we are participating in that might be rehearsing the next day such as the passenger choir or one of the two performing dance clubs (no skill necessary!) - and anticipate the fun for the next day! Anticipation is half the fun!
On shore days, there was lots of staff from the housekeeping department stationed at the disembarkation stations to give assistance to anyone who needed it. We, due my daughter's mobility needs, needed it - and we never had to ask. Every need was anticipated. Going up or down the gangways, through security, onto or off of the tender boats in ports where we had to anchor vs dock at a pier - the housekeeping staff was always there, with smiles and strong arms. I had been concerned as we were two women traveling alone, and my daughter always needs her walker - she can't walk without it - but the staff always helped - whether it was to get her on or off a tender or to use the lift on the stage of the Solstice Theater (as we always like to sit in the front row!) or to escort her to the front of a long re-entry line so that she wouldn't have to stand for an extended period of time - the Celebrity staff was on point, always there, attentive and friendly.
As far as shore excursions on this cruise went, we were very pleased. We tend to choose full day excursions that generally visit several local highlights. Lunch is included in these full day excursions and somehow Celebrity always finds amazing spots for lunch - take from your mind any thought of tour buses dumping scores of tourists at some zero star side of the road diner. No, rather, every lunch that we had with every shore excursion was outstanding. Take, for instance, our lunch at the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens outside of Sydney - the barramundi (native Australian fish) was incredible, all of the dishes were 5 star quality. Or lunch at the Rochford Winery outside of Melbourne, or our lunch at the Mt. Potts Lodge in New Zealand in the Southern Alps or the authentic Maori inspired lunch at Tamaki Pa in Rotorua, New Zealand.......all excellent, and not rushed or 2nd rate in any way. It bothers me actually when I hear people saying bad things about ship sponsored shore excursions as I don't think that the process is fully understood as to what goes on to "produce" these shore excursions - how great a job the company does, especially when one considers how many guests sign up for the excursions.
What is crucial to know, is that nearly 100% of the time, though not always, there is a Celebrity escort on board each coach, to critique the excursion, the guide, the coach driver, the destinations themselves. Celebrity contracts with a local tour provider who in turn, contracts with specific tour guides/carriers. In the end, Celebrity is responsible for the shore excursion, and to ensure quality, Celebrity sends an employee as an escort on every tour coach. In Rotorua, New Zealand, we had a driver/guide, meaning that the driver was also the guide. This can work fine, though optimally, each coach has a separate driver and a separate guide. In this case, the driver was an abysmal guide, the worst guide in the history of all guides, ever! Luckily, there were several destinations on this excursion, and each destination was quite excellent and we had guides at each destination. But on board, oh wow, bad news. Luckily, I spoke with our Celebrity escort the next day, and she told me that she made sure that this driver would never work as a part of a Celebrity excursion again - that yes, he could drive for a Celebrity sponsored excursion, but he must always have a separate guide. People complained up and down about this driver (who was a lousy guide!!), and in the end, Celebrity has to answer for this, and they did. I have taken, hmmmmm, at least 30 Celebrity shore excursions and this was the only bad experience that I have had - and remember, the destinations themselves on this day were excellent, it was just that on the bus ride, there was no commentary, no historical context.
Entertainment was very good, Celebrity never skimps - very high quality and varied performers. And the shipboard talent, "The Stars of the Solstice", wow! They put on three full scale separate and unique production shows during the cruise - Broadway worthy stuff - excellent! Poolside in the afternoons always has live music/bands, weather permitting; every bar either has a gifted musical performer or bartenders that are performing, such as at the Molecular Bar or the Martini Bar!
The only thing that makes getting off the ship bearable is if you have another cruise already booked - and since we had the back to back cruise booked, staying in the same cabin, well, we had no time at all to wait! The cruise ended in Auckland, but of course that is where the next one began. We booked a ship sponsored full day shore excursion in Auckland, so while most of the ship was disembarking for good, we were off to see the rainforest, the gannet colony, have lunch at the Soljans Estate Winery - then back to the ship, back to our cabin, where our belongings were right there where we left them - all set to enjoy the next cruise, 18 nights - more of New Zealand along with lots of ports in the southern half of Australia! Aussie Aussie Aussie oi oi oi!