My daughter and I took this cruise as a back to back cruise with the previous cruise - the 12 night Australia/New Zealand which began in Sydney and ended in Auckland. In our minds, this 18 night cruise which began in Auckland, is a continuation of the first, one big long amazing 30 night cruise on the beautiful Celebrity Solstice - but, there were some distinctions to this 2nd cruise, particularly since this was the first time EVER that the Solstice, or any Celebrity ship of the Solstice class, had come to the ports of Adelaide, Esperance or Albany in Australia. You might want to read my review of that cruise, for details about the perks of sailing Aqua Class, if you are interested - the 12 night Sydney to Auckland, which began on January 16, 2013. We are big fans of Aqua Class.
In Auckland we went on a full day Celebrity shore excursion, which brought us back to the ship a few hours before the Solstice set sail. The experience of doing a back to back cruise is intoxicating - to see your fellow passengers packing up and having to leave, knowing that you get to continue on - yes, intoxicating! Though, trust me, we got our comeuppance on day 19 when it was our turn to get off the ship. It was particularly hard to leave - first, because we had at that point, been on board for a full 31 days so we got very close to many of the crew, as they do become like your 2nd family, but it was additionally difficult to leave because nearly a full third of the ship was staying on to do the next cruise which was of the top half of the Australian continent - thus, that third of the passengers was doing a full circumnavigation of the continent, pretty exciting for them. We could have done that, but we chose to back to back with the 12 night New Zealand/Australian cruise as we wanted a double dose of New Zealand. There were so many things to see in the New Zealand cities - lots of "Lord of the Rings" excursions, which particularly interested my adult daughter, but also the Maori culture is so rich in New Zealand - there were many Maori cultural centers that we wanted to visit. No offense to Australia, but the excursions there were somewhat redundant - more kangaroos, more koalas, more crocodiles - and so we wanted to spend more time in New Zealand - so green, so hilly, so lush.
We very much enjoyed our day in Auckland, visiting the Takapu Refuge Gannet Colony, but especially loving the Rain Forest Express "Water Care" narrow gauge railway, which was built over 100 years ago to service a water supply pipe - gorgeous views, stunning vegetation, and lots of fun in this train that looks like a toy. We had a delicious lunch at the Soljans Estate Winery. Then, back to the Solstice and back to our cabin, the same cabin as in our first cruise - so we never had to pack up - our belongings were right there where we left them. It was a bit strange as there were no familiar faces on board, other than the friendly crew. But, after a day or so, we made new friends and never missed a beat!
In Tauranga, New Zealand, we had an excellent shore excursion to the Hobbiton movie set, a must see destination for "Lord of the Rings" fans. The staff there was lovely, making an on the spot accommodation for my mobility challenged daughter - the hills around the hobbit holes were very hard to negotiate, and so one of the employees gave her a private tour on a vehicle called a "mule", which is a very small truck, but larger than a golf cart! Very nice of them to do this! The Kiwis and the Aussies are some of the friendliest, most genuine people we have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
In Akaroa, we had a fabulous excursion to the Willowbank KoTane Maori Cultural Experience, an excursion which I highly recommend. This is a "one stop shopping" destination - an excellent kiwi breeding program where we saw kiwis in nocturnal settings very close to us; a nature reserve where we had intimate encounters with keas, the large native parrots (and lots of other indigenous animals here, lots!), a full blown multi faceted extended Maori show (opportunities for audience participation!) along with an excellent lunch - plus, a very nice gift shop! Our coach guide took us on an excellent drive through Christchurch where we saw very closely the horrible devastation caused by the February 2011 earthquake. The keas, I have to say, were very interested in my daughter's wheelchair, pecking away at the wheels - hysterical and very memorable!
In Dunedin, we took the Royal Otago Tour shore excursion where we loved visiting Larnach Castle, the Yellow Eyed Penguin Reserve and the Royal Albatross Colony. The Penguin Reserve is NOT handicapped accessible, AT ALL - there is zero way that someone with a true mobility challenge such as needing a walker, can walk in the penguin blinds, up the paths etc - so, again, we were the happy recipients of the compassion of kind people - my daughter spent the tour time in the penguin hospital where she saw nearly 20 penguins very up close and personal! I wish I had stayed with her! I went on the traditional tour and saw 5 penguins, at a deep distance.......the time of day and the time of year were not optimal to seeing many of the penguins in their natural habitat. But how lovely of the staff at the Penguin Reserve to make sure that my daughter had such an excellent alternative experience.
There was quite a bit of fog outside of Dunedin, which was rather exciting as the ship's fog horn sounded for approximately 8 hours - very plaintive to hear.
Cruising through Fjorland National Park in southwest New Zealand is something that we will never forget, a once in a lifetime experience although since we did back to back cruises, twice in a lifetime for us, twice in a two week period, in fact! To wake up and have your coffee on your veranda while cruising through Dusky Sound, ahhhhh, that is the life! We were also very lucky that we received an invitation to pass through Milford Sound - the most dramatic of the 3 sounds - Dusky, Doubtful and Milford - on the heliport of the ship. Now that, yes that was indeed a once in a lifetime experience. The prior cruise, we passed through Milford on Deck 12 - the outdoor deck in front of the gym - very dramatic indeed, but a bit crowded.
One of our favorite Celebrity shore excursions was out of Sydney to Tobruk Sheep Station, SY78 - excellent authentic lunch, sheep dog herding demonstrations, interactions with the sheep as well as with the sheep dogs and other farm animals; committed friendly staff. They were all so nice to my daughter who like the trooper that she is, wanted to do all of the participatory activities - the staff helped her with all of these, i.e. the whip cracking lesson - the Tobruk employee put his Aussie cowboy hat on her and he helped her hold the whip, and they cracked away, very kind and so memorable for her.
On day 2 in Sydney, at the tour of the Opera House, we were surprised to see how un-handicapped accessible it was! The building was built in the 1970s and yet, unbelievably, elevators were only added 8 years ago. If you are coming to see a performance and you need to have a handicapped parking spot, you actually have to call ahead and reserve a parking spot! Perpetuating the marginalization of people with disabilities, the elevators are far from where you want to actually be, so that you have to separate from the main body of people. To the credit of the staff, we were given what was essentially a private tour, because the tour itself zips back and forth in areas where there is no elevator. Yes, it is a stunning building, but, very odd to me that a building like this, which is a societal focal point, a place for all people to join communally in the pursuit of artistic transcendence - that it was built in the 1970s, not the 1870s or earlier - with no thought to an entire vital segment of the population. People in wheelchairs don't go the opera?? Really??
We took a private excursion in Hobart, Tasmania, expertly and thoughtfully run by Eye See Personalized Tours. The owner and operator, Judy Livingston, is sincerely empathic and worked hard to make sure that my daughter was able to fully participate in all aspects of the tour. We had a fabulous time at the Bonorong animal preserve and a very moving experience at Port Arthur, the largest remaining prison from the convict days.
So, this is the point in the cruise when things started to get a bit dicey, due to the high winds, and resultant high seas, which caused us to arrive in Adelaide 3 hours late. The chop was so strong that the day at sea before Adelaide for many of the passengers, was spent in the sick bay or in their rooms. I in fact posted a video online of the huge tree which is onboard the Solstice, suspended in the air in the area of the glass elevators, so that when you ride the elevators, you can see this tree growing out of a huge diamond shaped pot, suspended in the air, the ship creating a mega-terrarium of sorts! Normally, the leaves and the branches on the tree never move, but on this sea day, the leaves and branches were swaying quite dramatically! That was the most telling sign, to me, of the rough seas! Our 3 hour delayed arrival into Adelaide was not a problem for any of us that had booked a ship's shore excursion, which we had. Though we arrived 3 hours late, the captain made up the time at the other end, leaving 3 hours later than originally scheduled, so no time lost in port. Upon approach to Adelaide, despite our delayed arrival, the proverbial welcome mat was rolled out for the Solstice. Seemingly, the entire town turned out on shore and at the port building itself, where a band playing Aussie folk songs was performing for us, and a greeter on a loudspeaker was calling out to us - we had not even docked, we were still well away from the pier! Such a warm welcome!
Returning to the problematic issues with Adelaide, besides the delay due to high chop, was that the docking procedure did not go smoothly - remember, I said that this was the VERY FIRST TIME that the Solstice or any ship of it's class, had ever come to this port. The gangway wasn't lining up; after docking preliminarily, the captain had to actually move away from the dock to adjust the ship 45 meters to facilitate the gangway placement - it was fascinating to watch the process from our veranda. The captain and several other officers were in the navigational bridge looking out anxiously - it was clear that they were frustrated and not happy at all! - they and everyone, were doing the best that they could. This was a new situation and all staff - Celebrity staff, and the port staff - acted professionally, calmly, and did all that they could. From our perspective, it was very exciting to be a part of something new, and to see how things go when things don't go exactly as planned. Because of the issues, only one gangway was able to be used - since the ship was late to arrive, and with only one gangway, you can imagine the congestion of everyone wanting to disembark all at the same time - but again, crew comported themselves with aplomb, and once we were in Adelaide, we had a fabulous day, enjoying especially the Cleland Wildlife Park where we actually held a koala. Returning to the ship, because of the gangway issues, only a limited number of guests were allowed on the single gangway at a single time - so again, great congestion. The Adelaide port volunteers (the entire town came out for the Solstice, truly, so warm and welcoming!) saw my daughter get off our tour coach, with her wheelchair, and they immediately spirited her away to the front of the line so that the long line of passengers trying to get back on board was quickly to our rear. I felt badly, but compassion for the physically challenged was front and center - exhibited throughout the cruise by all crew and all port personnel, tour guides, at all times.
The captain produced an explanatory video which was played in a loop on Ch. 2 on board, in which he outlined in detail the meteorological details which were causing the high chop. He explained how he needed to avoid even worse problems to our SW, which was part of the reason for the delay in Adelaide, as well as to why the chop was so high, causing many to feel discomfort on board. Details given to the passengers are always very helpful, to keep everyone in the loop, as in the absence of knowledge, hypotheses and mistruths fill in the void, which is never a good thing on a ship!
After two sea days, our next port was Esperance. We had to anchor at sea, using the ship's lifeboats as tenders. Unfortunately, again Mother Nature stepped in with very rough waters, making the return tendering process rather complicated - the chop was at times, ferocious, such that the tenders needed quite a bit of extra time to get close, safely, to the ship. The captains of the individual tenders had nerves of steel and proved their excellence as quality maritime officers in the skills that they demonstrated. And for those that are mobility challenged, extra care needed to be taken due to the rough seas at the tender platforms getting back on board - but, again, the incredibly empathic and capable (and strong!) crew proved that all things are possible and everyone returned safely back to the ship, and were, if I may, all the richer for having experienced this exciting adventure!
As we approached Albany, our next port of call, 6 prop planes flew over the ship in formation as a welcome. This is a charming town with a lovely center, very sweet. We did an "off the reservation" tour of Whale World - there is an animal sanctuary there that is not a part of the regular tour, which we knew about only through catching a brief reference to it on the ship's shore excursion TV channel, as it is not widely publicized. Again, the compassion of others was crucial - we asked the Celebrity sanctioned tour guide about the animal sanctuary, stating that we might prefer that to the all too realistic detailed tour of the whaling station (not for the faint of heart) - with the cooperation of the Whale World staff, we got a private tour of the sanctuary, experiencing perhaps the best kangaroo and koala encounters of the oh so many that we had, of our entire month long journey.
Perth was our final port of call and sadly, the end of our month long cruise on the Solstice! As I said in the beginning, it was very difficult for us to leave as 1/3 of the passengers were staying on for the next cruise, to circumnavigate the continent. Our time though, was sadly at an end and we will forever cherish the memories of our great times on the Solstice! Before it was all over though, we enjoyed a ship's shore excursion into Perth, exploring Kings Park at length. If I am lucky enough to ever come again, I would spend a lot of time in Fremantle, the port town - very charming, modern boutiques in refurbished port buildings, lots of outdoor cafes, all very nice, subtly trendy.
Some specifics about our onboard experience include a shout out to our cabin attendant who was quite fabulous - my daughter has a thing for collecting a stuffed animal in noteworthy areas; for instance, when in Australia, she picked up a stuffed kangaroo, in New Zealand she found just the right stuffed kiwi, etc - our cabin attendant joined in the fun by making sure that each animal received it's own chocolate at turndown every night. She also would pose the animals - for instance, one day when we got back to our cabin from a long shore excursion, we gleefully found that she had posed our Mickey Mouse (we had picked him up pre-cruise in DisneyLand) on the desk chair looking out the balcony door, looking through binoculars! And of course, she made excellent towel art - the towel swans, that she somehow managed to also look like hearts at the same time that they looked like swans, with our stuffed kiwi in the middle, flanked by the lamb and the kangaroo - well, there is a large photo of it in our album, oh yes, there is! It's these touches that make you feel like you are at home.
Valentine's Day was on board, and in Blu as well as the main dining room and specialty restaurants, every woman was presented with a lovely red rose - a tasteful nod to the day.
All of the activities staff were superb - energetic, engaging, enthused! We feel strongly that you get out of a cruise what you put into it. We got involved in the two dance clubs that practiced on every sea day and on the final day of the cruise, performed in the ship talent show - it was great fun and we made many new friends! A particular fun activity for me was volunteering to be one of the three judges on the mock Iron Chef show, where the Executive Chef battled it out in "kitchen stadium" against the Cruise Director! The entertainment was first rate - the "brought in" talent as well as the on board talent provided by the "Stars of the Celebrity Solstice" - and the many musical on board performers, that you could find anywhere and everywhere, from the afternoon through late into the night - all quite wonderful.
As I have said in other reviews, the only thing that makes getting off the ship bearable is if you have another cruise booked to look forward to, and yes, yes, we will be on the Celebrity Equinox in April! We will miss the crew of the Solstice, but I trust that we will make many new friends on the TransAtlantic!