We are a couple in our mid 50's who had never cruised before. We have travelled a great deal, but always independently and to be honest weren't quite sure that we would take to cruising. After reading Cruise Critic reviews we chose Celebrity Solstice and hit the jackpot. We loved the experience so much that we have now booked our second cruise.
Easy. We were staying in a suite which gave us priority boarding and we simply walked straight through the various check - in points without any delay.
Solstice is a beautiful ship. Elegant decor, easy to find your way around, spotlessly clean. Lots of quiet places to sit so that you were never really aware of the large number on board (except at the buffet). The floor to ceiling windows in the Sky Lounge were stunning. The Martini Bar was lots of fun. The lawn I'm not so sure about. Much of it was roped off to "rest" during the trip.
Fellow passengers were generally mid 40's to 60's with a smaller number of elderly passengers. There were quite a few young people too, but they tended to be involved in activities in other parts of the ship, particularly around the pool and at the Sky Lounge at night . There appeared to be only a few families with young children, but perhaps we just didn't see them.
Our sky suite was wonderful. The balcony ran across the aft and side of the ship giving us panoramic views. There was plenty of room to move our deckchairs if we wanted to avoid the sun or shade. The room itself was large and spacious. I loved the over sized porthole on the side. I had packed far too many clothes, but even I couldn't fill the ample wardrobe and drawer space provided. The bed was very comfortable and the storage space underneath for suitcases was welcome.
We chose select dining and never waited more than a few minutes to get a table. My only gripe is that most tables for two were so close together that you may as well be sitting together. Fine, if you want to talk to your neighbour and vice verse. but sometimes it was just plain awkward. We did work out halfway through the cruise that the tables for two near the serving areas were better spaced. From then on, we asked to be seated there. The food in the MDR was very good. The portion sizes were not too large and there was a good variety to choose from.
Breakfasts were had either at the buffet or in our suite on the balcony. There was a slight problem with the hot food being not so hot by the time it reached us though. We also chose the buffet for lunch as there was a good choice of salads with grilled or roasted meat. Seating could be a problem at the buffet and the atmosphere was more like a cafeteria. If you avoided the peak times it was ok though. The range of food was good. Loved the bread. Desserts and cakes became a bit monotonous. They also seemed to run out of things towards the end of the cruise such as individual serves of butter. There was sometimes a bit of confusion regarding queuing, with people obviously not realising that they had "cut in" and the staff serving them anyway. We were pleased that the food was served by the staff for most of the trip.
We ate at all three of the specialty restaurants. Two of these meals were included in our suite package. The Tuscan Grill was lovely. Our waitperson Ivana was charming and our table near the window overlooking the ship's wake was wonderful. Silk Harvest - the Asian food was a nice change, but maybe my least favourite of the three.
Our experience at Murano was mixed. Several months prior to sailing we had booked a special dinner for the last night of the cruise. Mid cruise we received a card saying that our reservation had been cancelled. as a large group had booked the restaurant six weeks prior to sailing. It became apparent that we were cancelled for financial reasons, (us v a large group who wanted the entire restaurant), but as a PR exercise it didn't go down well. We did eat at Murano at another time and found the food to be very good and the service excellent.
We also visited Cafe Baccio daily for coffee. The coffee was quite good but very expensive ($5.25). There seemed to be a better range of cakes here than those supplied at the buffet. We were entitled to in-room cappucinos and espressos as part of our suite package, but in reality this was not easy to organise. The times we were most likely to want a coffee clashed with the busiest times of day for the attendants / butlers and we were asked to order outside these times. Perhaps guests with this package should be able to collect free coffee from the cafe themselves?
Ports and shore excursions
As first timers we booked most of our tours through the ship. We knew that this would be more expensive but decided to take the easy option. Booking was easy, but there were a number of mix ups including change of dates not being noted, double bookings and not being given notice of a vacancy after being wait listed.
Lifou was a bit of a disappointment. There were no ship excursions so we chose a local tour which can only be described as chaotic, so much so that it became quite amusing (tour guide who went off for a swim mid way through the tour, bus driver found asleep in a hut after one stop, the Vanilla Bean House closed as they had expected the ship at 8 not 11...) I really don't know why a ship of this size would stop here as the locals are simply not geared up to cope.
I was looking forward to Noumea not only for the sightseeing, but for the chance of looking at French goods in the shops. However the ship arrived on a Sunday - the day that all shops are closed! Even the iconic cultural centre was closed, although you could still walk through it. Local tour operators were bemused, one stating that there had been a change in the ship's itinerary - they had expected us on the Saturday. We took the Tchou Tchou train sightseeing trip which was good, but much cheaper if you booked at the tour centre located near the shuttle bus terminal.
Isle of Pines was simply beautiful. We booked a tour on land which included an overview of the island and then time to snorkel in the natural aquarium. Locals sold fresh baguettes and one lovely lady was making sun hats out of leaves, decorating them with hibiscus flowers and giving them to tourists. Donations were accepted, but not asked for. White sand, aqua blue water, palm trees - beautiful.
Suva and Lautoka are not tourist towns so we knew to book tours out of the city. In Suva we did The Jewel of the Pacific tour and this was great. Travelling in long boats up the river through rapids to swim under a waterfall. Kava ceremony and lunch at a village. In Lautoka we sailed to Tuvalu Island and this was also a wonderful day, probably my favourite.
A highlight was the Inside Access tour which involved three hours looking at behind the scenes of the ship. Absolutely fascinating, very well organised with the officers / personnel for each section speaking to us as we arrived at various parts of the ship. It concluded with a lunch at the Tuscan Grill with a senior member of staff sitting with us answering even more questions about operations. This is such a well run ship !
All ship tours were well organised from disembarkation arrangements to transport to choice of activities. Yes, expensive but we were well looked after.
The Solstice Theatre is beautiful. We had reserved seating on the formal nights, but didn't have trouble finding seats on other nights. The entertainment program started strongly, but I felt it became a little monotonous and less entertaining towards the end.The Cirque de Soleil style show was very good as was the singer Will Martin. The illusionists were not what we expected, relying too much on card tricks. I'm sorry, but the Aussie Boys made me cringe (and I'm Australian). The Solstice Big Band was really good. Ian Cresswell did a great job as Cruise Director along with Maria.
We also attended several lectures, an art appreciation class (which led to several art auctions) and cooking demonstrations including the Master Chef competition. Essentially there was a good range of activities to choose from if you wanted to do something. Most things we went to were professionally run and enjoyable.
Service on the ship was absolutely outstanding. From the moment we boarded we encountered unfailingly polite and helpful staff wherever we went. Everyone seemed to know what was expected of them and did it well. It's a credit to not only the staff, but to the HR managers who recruit and train them and must also provide a pleasant environment below to retain the staff.
Our first cruise far exceeded our expectations. I think the secret was that we chose a ship that matched our demographic, interests and preferred standard of accommodation. We felt that we had really had a holiday instead of coming back needing a holiday, which has sometimes happened in the past.
The number of sea days and shore days were perfect so that we were able to explore all the facilities available on the ship. The destinations were a mixed bag, but the journey to get there was so enjoyable it didn't really matter.
Overall a wonderful experience.