We're a multigenerational family who typically cruise once or twice a year. We've tried many of the major cruise lines and have especially enjoyed our trips with Norwegian and Holland America in recent years. We thought it was time for a change and booked a trip on the Celebrity Solstice from Hawaii to Ensenada. We were all very excited to try Celebrity and cruise on a Solstice-class ship. I will apologize in advance for the length of this review; there was a lot to write about but unfortunately for all of the wrong reasons.
The first clue that all might not go well arrived in the form of an email from Celebrity a few days before embarkation. It read "During the ship's last sailing, a small percentage of guests experienced a gastrointestinal illness. We will conduct enhanced sanitizing onboard the ship and within the terminal to help prevent any illness from affecting your cruise. Therefore, your check-in and boarding will be delayed. We ask that you not arrive for check-in before 2:00 PM."
Fair enough. By all means, clean the ship and clean it thoroughly. For good measure, we thought we would delay embarkation by a few additional hours just to be on the safe side and arrived at the terminal at 4:00pm. After checking in and boarding the ship, there were hundreds of people everywhere. Thinking it was just regular boarding-day crowds, my family split up to go to our respective staterooms. With all of our carry-on bags, we figured out where to go, found the elevators, got to the right deck, and then encountered heavy steel doors closing off the corridors. A small sign on the door indicated that cabins were not yet ready for passengers, which was indeed frustrating. Of all the Celebrity staff we encountered, from the time we checked in, lined up, boarded the ship, and made our way to the right deck, NO ONE bothered to tell the passengers anything about cabins not being ready.
My parents had it much worse. When they got to their deck, the doors blocking off the corridors had been opened so they, along with a group of other passengers, started off to find their cabins. An officer encountered the group and shouted at them to immediately get out. Lack of communication and rude staff would become twin themes of this cruise.
My daughter and I found room in the disco to sit and wait...and wait... and wait... Over the next two hours, there would only be two announcements indicating that the cabins were still not ready. Finally, at around 6:30pm, we were told that the cabins were ready so we raced up to ours quickly, only to find it completely unprepared. No linen on the beds, no towels, nothing. We went to eat and finally returned to a ready cabin around 8:00pm. Bags did not arrive until 10:30pm. This was not a good start to what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. The captain finally surfaced a few days later and referenced the boarding process in an announcement. He carefully avoided anything resembling an apology. He did insist however on ending each announcement throughout the cruise with inane inspirational quotes. This habit started out as annoying and quickly became irritating.
Public Spaces and Cabins
There's no doubt that the Solstice is a beautiful ship and her dEcor was stunning. Abundant natural light, soft colours, pleasing wall and floor coverings, and contemporary glass screens and backdrops made the Solstice feel warm and comfortable. Although the atrium was at times far too noisy, it was perhaps the most impressive space afloat. Eight glass-fronted elevators shot up and down 14 stories while a massive tree was somehow suspended half-way up. This soaring, stunning piece of maritime architecture made the ship feel more like an exclusive condo building or trendy waterfront hotel.
Cabins aboard the Solstice were equally as impressive. On our trip, we had booked both a balcony and an inside stateroom. They were identical in layout, decor, and size. Attractive artwork, light-coloured wood panelling, large and comfortable sofas, and stylish curtains, pillows, and carpeting gave the rooms a chic feel. Cabins felt roomy and modern and everything seemed to be in fine working order (well, all except the safes, both of which jammed shut on the first day). A variety of services could be accessed from the interactive tv, including menus & room service, guest account balances, photos, and international news stories. There was no children's life jacket in our room and after asking our room steward, one appeared the next day. The bathrooms were especially spacious and contemporary.
While there is a significant "wow" factor, there are some glaring design flaws. For starters, there is an absence of a traditional promenade deck. On deck Five, there is indeed some outside space but the views are primarily obscured by the lifeboats. I found two small sections on either side with chairs (about twenty in total per side) but when I decided to make myself comfortable, I soon had to retreat elsewhere as these areas turned out to be the smoking sections.
In the absence of a quiet spot on Celebrity's non-existent promenade deck, I tried without success to find a quiet spot elsewhere. The library, card room, and "Team Earth" space (whatever the heck that is) all have comfortable chairs overlooking the soaring atrium. Aha, I thought...here's the quiet spot I've been looking for. Well, any quiet was quickly shattered by the booming voice of the cruise director a few decks below. It was time for an activity and anything that happens in the atrium can be heard throughout the ship. Massive open spaces may look impressive but they allow noise to travel unimpeded, so much so that live music played in the atrium (which happens frequently) could be heard in my cabin four decks above. I could feel the floor of the cabin vibrating and the music could be heard all the way down the corridor. Of an evening, the noise is almost unbearable. The atrium becomes the hub of activity and the combination of live music, recorded music, casino machines, crowds, and announcements is deafening.
Public spaces on the Solstice are both numerous and too few. There are of course lots of venues to be parted from your money (and yes, I know that this is the ultimate goal of any cruise line). If you're a drinker, then there's a bar wherever you are. If you're a shopper with lots of cash and don't care about paying top-dollar, there are high-end jewelry and clothing options. Sadly, the souvenir shops carry the same poor supply of tacky, overpriced garbage as on most other lines. Worse in fact. Celebrity had by far the worst selection I've seen on a ship (and if you've been to the shops on HAL, you already know that the bar is set pretty low).
If you're just looking for a quiet place to relax, then you won't find too many options on the Solstice. The huge Sky Observation lounge is perhaps the most attractive space on the ship. It's a gorgeous lounge at the front of the ship with wonderful seating and views. Sadly, it was taken over on every sea day by the seemingly mandatory Park West "art" auctions. I tried to sit and ready a book one day but the salesman's pitch was unbearable. He was loud and slick and people mindlessly applauded like lemmings after the description of each piece. When the hundreds of easels and paintings were carted away each day, the lounge was then reserved for a variety of private functions so I was never able to relax and enjoy this great space.
Seats in the library were in short supply and on my cruise, the library was stripped bare of any books (an asset which most would view as mandatory in order to actually call a space a 'library'). One might assume that the books had all been quarantined due to the massive norovirus outbreak on the previous cruise but obtaining the real story would involve Celebrity being forthcoming with details, something which they seemed loathe to do throughout the cruise. Even a simple sign posted on a shelf indicating why this room had become a book-free zone was obviously out of the question
Honolulu - We had to be back on board by 4:00pm for the safety drill even though in pre-departure information, we saw that the ship would sail at midnight. It was frustrating to learn afterwards that if this boarding time was queried, passengers were told that they could stay ashore until 11:30pm as long as they watched the safety video later. We lost a night ashore in Honolulu because of this. Poor communication from Celebrity.
Maui - This is a tender port and even though the Solstice arrived at 8:00am, it was a very long process to get thousands of people ashore. We were lucky to finally arrive on shore by 10:30am. We had to be back on board at 4pm and as the last shuttle from the car rental office left at 3:00pm, we had considerably less time ashore than we had anticipated. This process was repeated again when the ship revisited Maui a few days later. Heard lots of grumbling from unhappy people about the length of the tendering process. Huge line-ups at the dock to come back to the ship. Celebrity clearly hasn't figured out an efficient way to get its passengers to and from shore in a timely fashion (and perhaps for large ships like the Solstice, it's just not possible).
Hilo - You will dock here. If you've not been to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, go! It's very impressive.
Kona - Yet another tender port. We booked a ship excursion here and were therefor able to beat some of the lines to get ashore.
I had read a number questions from people wondering if Celebrity was appropriate for children. As someone who travels with a six year old, I'm pleased to say that the answer is a resounding 'yes'. The Fun Factory is a fantastic venue offering all kinds of arts, crafts, sports, games, and Wii. Counsellors were very friendly and enthusiastic and because of the small numbers of children on board, my daughter received very personal attention. Arrangements can be made for lunch or dinner care at minimal cost. Celebrity has an edge over the other lines I've travelled on in terms of the quality of their programming.
Also of note for parents with children is that the Solstice has two outdoor pools. One of them has a maximum depth of 4' so life jackets are not necessary depending on the height of the child. The splash pad poolside was another big hit.
No ship can be perfect and the Solstice is no exception. Unfortunately, her biggest flaw is massive and potentially a deal-breaker where future cruises with Celebrity are concerned: her crew. Drawn from all over the world, the level of customer service was as varied as the nationalities of the crew. My introduction to Celebrity service came on the first evening in the buffet-style Oceanview Cafe. Due to the massive norovirus outbreak on the previous cruise, the crew were serving all dishes. The servers managed to do so without any smiles, warmth, or friendliness. The pizza server managed to literally throw my slice on a plate and shove it into my hands without once ever making eye contact. He was far too busy chatting with his co-server and clearly I had interrupted his social time by asking him to do his job.
The next night, we thought we would try 'Select' dining. A letter in our cabin informed us that this worked in two ways. We could either make a reservation or simply show up at our desired time to see what was available. We opted for the latter not knowing how the day's schedule would unfold. Upon our arrival at the main dining room desk, we were 'greeted' by a surly young woman who scowled at us. We said that we were a party of four and did not have a reservation. Her response was a curt "I no have table for four!" And that was it. Move on. I don't care where you eat but you're not eating here. Undeterred, I tried again. We would be happy to wait until a table became available - perhaps she could tell us how long this would take? "You come back in forty minutes - go have drink in martini bar!" she barked, before turning to the next in line. Sure, I'll take my six year old and we'll knock back a couple of Cosmopolitans. Thanks. This individual didn't smile, she didn't want to help, and she just clearly didn't care. She had all the warmth of a North Korean prison guard. Perhaps Celebrity's secretly outsourced its customer service training to Pyongyang...The situation was only resolved when the head waiter observed what had happened, apologized profusely, and had us seated within a few minutes.
I've been on enough cruises to know that tables are not always available if you don't have a reservation. I don't expect them to be. What I DO expect is to be treated with at least a basic level of courtesy and professionalism.
The Main Dining Room is an impressive venue to look at but the tables are placed extremely close together. It was impossible not to overhear the conversations of those beside you and, depending on your neighbours, this could be uncomfortable. We had to put up with a table of bigots beside us one evening and listen to their loud and intolerant views.
The food itself was fine but the service was painfully slow. It was impossible to finish a meal in under two hours. We also noted that there was a charge for an end-of-the-meal cappuccino. While free on HAL, there's a $5 charge for this (just as there's a $2.50 charge for orange juice, another free item on HAL).
The Oceanview Cafe was an attractive venue with ample seating. It was never difficult to find a place to sit and because of the numerous food stations, it was eventually a simple process to help yourself to breakfast and lunch. I say 'eventually' because for the first nine days of the cruise, everything was handed to you. This created huge line-ups as the crew really didn't seem to know what to do. It seemed like only one drink station ever worked and instead of having multiple glasses of water, lemonade, etc prepared for distribution, each order was taken and filled individually. One of the biggest problems was the very poor level of English spoken by the crew. Multiple explanations seemed necessary for the simplest of requests and there were always huge line-ups.
The food in the Cafe was ok but not outstanding. The selection seemed great on the first day but never really changed much after that. There were also no announcements from Celebrity on how long the ban on serving ourselves would last. Another example of exceedingly poor communication.
I ordered room service once and it took me three attempts. I first tried to order using the interactive TV but got an error message indicating that the system wasn't working. I then called, got placed on hold, and was promptly disconnected. Placed the order successfully on the third try and it didn't take too long for the food to arrive. Unfortunately, when I opened the door and said hello, I came face-to-face with another sour-faced employee who didn't smile or say hello. She simply stormed in, banged the tray down on the counter, turned, and left without a single word. Another graduate of Celebrity's Pyongyang Academy of Customer Service. Absolutely appalling, yet sadly predictable, behaviour and attitude from another Celebrity employee.
Having read reports of previous miserable journeys from Ensenada to San Diego, we were prepared for the worst. Little did we know that the actual bus journey wouldn't be anywhere near as bad as getting off the ship. We had to be out of our cabins by 8:00am and were expecting to be on our way shortly thereafter. Instead, we sat in the main theatre for 3.5 hours waiting for our bus number to be called. The cruise director was nowhere to be seen and it was left to one poor young man to keep an increasingly agitated crowd entertained (or at least to prevent a mutiny and mass exit from occurring). The first several bus numbers were called and then it just stopped - for what seemed like hours. The only Celebrity announcements were to indicate that the rain had slowed the disembarkation process. Perhaps it was true, or perhaps it was in fact because the entire process was so poorly organized. We finally left the ship at 11:30am and were at San Diego airport around 3:00pm. There were lots of unhappy people on our bus who had missed their flights and I'm so glad that we had opted to stay the night before flying home in the morning.
Celebrity could learn a few things from HAL (and probably other lines too) about customer service. HAL's crew is exclusively from Indonesia and the Philippines and they are the best I've ever encountered. Always smiling, always asking how they can help, and always hardworking. They make you feel special every day of your vacation and if there is a problem, they genuinely want to resolve it.
Celebrity may have some of the fanciest ships afloat but if guests are treated like an inconvenience (instead of valued guests who have spent thousands of dollars each to be aboard), then those guests probably won't return. I doubt I will and judging from the many unsolicited comments that I heard over the duration of the cruise, many people aboard the Solstice won't either. If I had a dollar for each time I heard someone say that they would never sail on Celebrity again, then I would be well on my way to funding my next cruise on another line.
I've always been of the opinion that there's no such thing as a bad cruise. Some are just better than others. Well, Celebrity has proved me wrong. This was a bad cruise. From shambolic embarkation and disembarkations, huge waits for tenders, disorganized meals, rude staff, and overwhelmingly poor communication, it was a really, really bad cruise.