This was our 4th cruise, having previously been on Princess (twice) and P&O. Overall, I had high expectations but was a little concerned by the number of negative comments recently, particularly from the Australian market.
However, in fact this was a fantastic cruise and clearly superior to what we had experienced before. If you are planning to go on the Solstice, I definatley recommend it - it does seem that some people are just too critical these days!
From Circular Quay had no issues at all - about 30 minutes all up with staff helpfully serving drinks whilst we waited. Champagne was offered when we got aboard and then it was off to explore the ship.
Frankly, it is stunning. Although now about 4 years old it looks almost brand new. The styling is a mix of modern (but not tacky) that blends very well with some more traditional spaces throughout the ship, such as the Ensemble Bar area. The use of dark wood tones does bring the whole effect together. We were particularly impressed with the quality of artwork on display around the ship - given I try to use the stairs whenever possible, it was nice to be able to stop for breath and appreciate an interesting piece of art or craft on the way! Probably my only reservation is that the atrium is so tall that it looks far better on the way down than it does from the bottom, and as usual too much prime space is devoted to boutique shops.
The quality touches are everywhere - even the corridors are beautifully decorated with wood finishes and interesting artwork.
We had an Aqua class cabin on deck 11. It was larger than we expected, very nicely furnished and had a good amount of storage space, especially when you put the bags under your bed. The bathroom is superior to that on a typical ship with the Aqua class fancy shower a nice touch. The balcony was large with both chairs and footstools and plenty of place to stretch out. There was a bottle of champagne waiting for us - I think this is an Aqua class benefit. The cabin steward was efficient and friendly, although a little more 'out of sight' than I have seen before.
As an aside, there are pillars that support the top decks which adjoin the balconies on decks 12 and 11 in places. This is not a problem on deck 11, where the pillar comes in one side of your balcony but does not get in the way. However, I would probably avoid deck 12 as I think that the pillars and overhang would interfere a little with the balcony. The stern balconies are mostly not covered, so there would not be much shade if the sun was at that end of the ship.
My wife usually hates the buffet on ships and will not go anywhere near it. However, we went there whilst waiting for our rooms to open up and she was converted, mainly by the pasta bar where you select your choices and it is cooked up to order. The buffet was great and a class above what we have seen before. We used it only occasionally as we prefer formal dining, but there was a great range, high quality and good hygiene, although no trays. The best part is that you can take your food outside to the Oceanview Bar (or even the Sunset Bar) and we never had any trouble getting an outside table just at the stern to eat with a great view.
We were in Aqua class so got to use Blu. Overall it was great with Linda (the assistant MD) a constant presence, making everyone welcome and she really couldn't do enough for you. The food was generally strong - the cook to order approach is best seen with meat dishes which were more succulent and better cooked as a result. Breakfast in Blu was fine, although as the menu never changes it gets a bit repetitive. We missed the 'special of the day' which we had seen before on other cruises.
However, we also tried out the MDR a few times. It really is an amazing room and has more of a buzz than the sedate Blu. The food was pretty much as good as Blu and the service was good as well. We were happy to use either, depending on our mood. Overall, menus were a bit limited and the one slight letdown was desserts - they were fine but not terribly creative. The main meals were better, with some interesting choices offered. I thought the meat dishes were very strong.
Room service breakfast was great, although the ordering form is a bit of a mess which usually resulted in us getting far more than we needed. The food was pretty hot when it arrived and they call ahead to let you know they are coming. It was a nice break and we enjoyed being able to get a hot breakfast served in the room - we haven't seen this before. I am not sure whether you can do this in all classes.
We went to all three specialty restaurants. Tuscan Grille was strong, Silk Harvest excellent (the duck dish was astonishing) and of course Murano was the highlight, with lobster (perfectly) cooked table side. I never mind paying the cover charge if the quality is there and it was good in all cases. They do a package price for all three if you book in advance.
We did order the premium wine package and we were impressed - the selection was good and all the wines decent quality. Overall, I was surprised that the drinks prices were pretty reasonable all round - you pay more in Sydney for most things.
There are a load of public areas and, as mentioned elsewhere, the ship is never crowded or even seemingly particularly busy. There are plenty of places to go and sit which are quiet and out of the way. We loved the main Ensemble Bar and also the stunning (but totally empty) Michael's Club, which does various tastings in the evenings which are worth a look. Probably the highlight is the Molecular Bar, which serves 'gastronomic' cocktails. As the cruise went on word spread about this place - the range and creativity of the cocktails was first rate. Generally, the deck was fine even on sea days, with lots of little hideaways. The lawn is underused and probably not the best use of space, but there are some great seats at the stern around the lawn near the Sunset bar that we used a lot.
The Hot Glass Show is something that I was aware of getting on, but didn't think much about. In fact, it was amazing - the evening shows in particular are spectacular and we missed the main show one night to watch 2 hours rush past watching these guys work. The thing that was a surprise was the quality of the glassblowers - all highly skilled and making very complex and stunning creations. Although the night we were there, they spent about an hour making a seahorse which was quite amazing, until it fell off the pipe and shattered right at the end. The poor guy was nearly in tears, and the crowd were not far away either! Very popular so get a seat early. This is a huge attraction for these ships and not to be missed, and they give away most of their work for free in a raffle each session.
The production shows at the Theatre were very good, and as noted elsewhere the final Cirque show was quite brilliant, easily the best I have seen at sea. The other shows were mixed, with some great standouts and a few forgettable. The CD was Ian, who did a solid job but probably not as high profile as I have seen elsewhere. Overall, daytime entertainment was a bit more 'safe' than I have seen before, and the fun factor was a bit missing. They pushed the staff talent show to the middle of the day, didn't do a passenger show and generally lacked a bit of fun, but it was all professional and well organised. I would say my only reservation was that the entertainment staff lacked the personality and energy that I have seen before - they seemed to lack a bit of charisma.
Not much to say about these - the tendering was well organised but we did not get off in Brisbane as it was miles from the town. To be honest I prefer to be tendered to somewhere useful than tie up at a commercial port miles from anywhere. We did two Celebrity-organised shore excursions and usual rules apply - they were over-priced but well organised and convenient. I am just too lazy to do it myself. The boat based tours had the boats coming alongside rather than having to tender back to shore and embark there, which saved some time.
I have been a fan of Princess, but the reality is they have lost me by putting their oldest ships (Sun and Dawn) in Australia. They simply are not of the same quality as the Solstice. I would find it hard to go back to an older ship now - I am happy with smaller ships but don't like older ships unless they have been properly renovated, rather than just the cracks papered over. The great thing about the Solstice is that it is a perfectly modern, high class, beautiful ship. The food is above average and the standards are reflected in the passengers, who were pretty refined and dressed up for formal nights and appropriately the rest of the time. Hopefully, by putting ships like the Solstice in Australia the other lines will pick up their act and start sending the top ships more in future. I will certainly be a Celebrity customer again if I get the chance.