OVERVIEW This was our first visit to Australasia and hopefully, will not be our last. Our limited experience of both Australia and new Zealand was invariably positive. All the places we visited and ports we docked at were uniquely beautiful. The cruise itself was fabulous with good weather all the way save for one roughish day at sea as we neared the end of the Tasman crossing. The ship was beautiful, clean, well-furnished in an understated way but, having been in service now for almost five years, is starting to show its age and needs a bit of refurbishment in some of the public places.
We had sailed on a Solstice class ship before, the Eclipse in June 2011, so we knew what to expect. The ships are almost identical with a couple of minor layout differences and with a Silk Harvest speciality restaurant as opposed to the newer Qsine brand on the Eclipse. However, although it is the older vessel by some two years, if anything, we preferred the vibe on the Solstice.
BEFORE THE CRUISE
We flew from South Africa direct to Perth where we overnighted with some dear friends who had emigrated to Australia some forty years ago. We loved Perth -- an underrated city always seen to be very much the second cousin to the bigger, better known cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. We had about a day and a half to get a feel of this beautiful city situated on the meandering Swan River and we were fortunate to be shown many of the major sites of the Perth/Fremantle conurbation.
The following night we few via Brisbane to Cairns where we had pre-booked a three night package that included a full day excursion to the Great Barrier Reef (awesome) and a day trip to the Kuranda world heritage rainforest site (including an exciting cable car ride way above the forests, a trip on the scenic Kuranda train and a visit to the Tjupakai village for a taste of original Aborigine culture).
Then it was onto Sydney for a four night stay before we joined our cruise. We had a pre-booked full day tour of Sydney that included a pleasant harbour cruise with lunch and were introduced to most of the major sites of this impressive cosmopolitan city. We also did the "mandatory" tour to the Blue Mountains but unfortunately inclement weather prevented us from experiencing the renowned beauty of this area. The rest of our stay in Sydney was spent wandering around on our own. Our hotel was situated overlooking Darling Harbour so we were perfectly located to see sites such as the harbour bridge, Darling harbour area, the fish market, the Quays and the Opera House in our own time.
Prior to joining the cruise we met up with some friends from the USA who had just disembarked the Solstice after completing a 30+ day circumnavigation of New Zealand and Australia. It was an all too brief visit but they whet our appetite for what was to come on our own cruise.
At registration we received a pleasant surprise to be upgrade to Concierge class. Embarkation proceeded smoothly and we were on board a little over 40 minutes from the time we arrived at the pier.
We invariably select our cruises for the itinerary and, given our ever-depleting travel budget, we were not disappointed in the choice we made in selecting the Sydney to Auckland option. The first port of call was Melbourne where we met up with a niece who had recently emigrated to Australia. We spent a delightful day catching up on news and experiencing some of the sights of this truly beautiful city. Then after a generally calm (except for one rough night) Tasman crossing it was onto the Sounds. We cruised gently through Milford, Dusky and doubtful Sounds -- all impressive and uniquely beautiful but, we have to agree with most pundits, that Milford Sound is the most majestic.
We were impressed with each of the ports we visited during the New Zealand part of the cruise. In fact we were blown away by the sheer beauty of New Zealand, especially South Island. We did all the touristy things in each port visited such as:
- A scenic tour of Dunedin
- A wonderful 90 minute scenic ride through rolling hills and lakes from Akaroa (where we docked) to Christchurch
- A walking tour on our own through Christchurch that was depressing but uplifting at the same time witnessing the spirit of the local population in rebuilding their city after the devastating earthquakes a couple of years back. The containerised "ReStart " shopping complex that has become a commercial success is particularly inspiring.
- The "mandatory" funicular ride up the hillside overlooking downtown Wellington and walk through the beautiful botanical gardens
- A Maori cultural experience in Rotorua including a traditional "hangi" Maori meal (prepared and cooked on hot stones in an earth oven).
The food on the Solstice was invariably good and, for the first time since we became cruise aficionados, we were not tempted to sample the (increasingly expensive) speciality restaurants. Most nights we ate at the main Grand Epernay restaurant where we had the Select dining option. We never had to wait for a table and on most nights, were assigned out table for two at a window setting. Service was generally fast and attentive, the food excellent with more than enough variety of choice.
We generally had lunch at the Ocean View buffet restaurant but although usually crowded, we always managed to find a seat to enjoy that fare of the day. Good variety of meals on offer and if one was ever al a loss on what choice to make there was always an impressive range of pizzas and pastas available. On the two occasions we decided to have a casual dinner at the Ocean View we were more than happy with the fare on offer.
We alternated breakfast between the Ocean View Cafe, the Aqua Health bar and room service. On one occasion we had seated breakfast in the main dining room but were somewhat disappointed in both the quality of food and the service which we found to be rushed. On balance we prefer the self- service breakfast option or room service (which we thought was very efficient and a useful option especially on days where ship's excursions started pretty early).
Attentive and pleasant throughout the cruise. Celebrity obviously places a strong emphasis on staff training. All staff are invariably polite, generally knowledgeable and willing to do that little bit extra with a smile.
As is typical of the cruise industry, entertainment ranged from the excellent to the (let us be kind) less than satisfactory. The entertainment programme is comprehensive and there is always something on the go that is of interest be it a guest lecture, a trivia quiz, cooking demonstration or dance class. A variety of bands, singers and an excellent A Capella group, were on hand to entertain guests throughout the day.
We had a concierge class cabin on the 12th deck situated below the Ocean View Cafe and just off the pool area. We were a little concerned at first that this location might prove to be noisy but this was not the case. In fact we are very impressed with the sound proofing system employed by Celebrity -- even though a band was blaring at the pool deck we could not hear the music in our cabin at all.
Concierge cabins appear to be identical in size to a normal balcony but because our cabin was situated on the corner of " bubble", we had a particularly large balcony with two full size loungers that we found useful. However, because the cabins on the 12th deck are situated below the Ocean View cafe, they have a partially restricted vertical view that we found to be especially disappointing when we cruised the Sounds as we could not see the majestic peaks of the fjords from our balcony so had to view these on deck.
Facilities and amenities
Although starting to show her age and probably due for refurbishment, the ship is spotlessly clean and well maintained. We had no complaints about any of the facilities available. Some such as the Lawn Club area and especially the Quasar disco lounge on deck 4, appear to be underutilised and perhaps could be reconceived?
Disembarkation was the smoothest we have yet experienced. As Concierge calls passengers we had a separate departure lounge serving a continental breakfast so we managed to avoid the crush as we waited for our disembarkation number to be called.
We spent two days in Auckland prior to commencing the long flight back to South Africa. Friends who had emigrated to New Zealand almost twenty years ago, met us at our hotel and gave us a full day tour of Auckland and surrounds. As with all the places we visited, we were impressed by the beauty of the Auckland area. A visit to a gannet colony on the outskirts of the city was a memorable highlight. We experienced two minor earthquakes while we were in Auckland - 3.1 and 3.9 magnitude quakes. Although insignificant by most standards we certainly felt the second one while we were in our hotel room on the 20th floor -- quite noticeable shuddering and rumbling for a long five or six seconds, so we can only imagine how frightening a devastating earthquake such as the one that hit Christchurch must have felt like.
All in all a great cruise and wonderful experience Down Under. This was our second experience of the Solstice class. We had some misgivings about the size of the class when we cruised the Eclipse in 2011. However, this time the size of the vessel did not bother us at all. We never felt crowded. Frankly, it is difficult to fault the Solstice class brand. It invariably offers a quality experience that, given the costly times in which we live, also provides reasonable value for the money spent.
However, our next cruise will again be on a smaller Millennium class ship. It will be interesting to see whether this size of vessel is still our preferred choice!