BACKGROUND We usually choose a cruise on itinerary first, then dates, then price per night for our preferred type of cabin, then cruise line and ship, but on this occasion curiosity about the ship was our prime motivation. We’ve heard so much about what great ships the Solstice class are that we had to try one to find out for ourselves what the fuss was about.
I have to report that although Eclipse is a very good ship and we had a very enjoyable cruise, it did not represent the upward step change in standard that we had been led to expect and that’s said by someone whose previous cruise was on Fred Olsen’s 1988-built Balmoral.
We booked direct on the Celebrity website. Although this was manageable, we did not find the website reassuring or robust. Badly labelled options led me to unbook a reservation on one occasion and after booking shore excursions the cruise summary information we received by e-mail was different from our booking as shown on the website. We qualified for a free drinks package but the information on what this entitled us to was extremely confusing, especially because the offer was expressed in terms of service-exclusive prices when bar prices on ex-UK cruises are quoted inclusive of service charge. We are used to making our own bookings and this was the worst website we have encountered, though some others almost equal it.
EMBARKATION We embarked at Southampton on a Sunday, which made for a very easy drive to the cruise terminal. It was the first time we had come across a self-park arrangement and it worked very well. Luggage was collected from alongside the car and the terminal was a very short walk away. The queues at check-in were very long, but we don’t particularly hold that against Celebrity. It was just that a very large number of people chose to arrive at once in time for lunch aboard. We weren’t held in a lounge but walked straight aboard where we were greeted with complimentary prosecco or Buck’s fizz, a nice touch. We chose to find our own cabin where we were greeted very pleasantly by our stewardess. Our luggage arrived in good time to unpack before the safety drill. We had joined a roll call and met several of our fellow rollcallees for sailaway in the pleasant Sunset Bar on the top deck aft.
CABIN Our cabin, a grade 1A balcony cabin, was comfortable if a little bland. Space was adequate apart from a serious lack of drawer space. Fittings were of a high standard, and the tea/coffee making equipment most welcome to British cruisers. One tiny gripe at Celebrity: British people tend not to like coffee creamer in their tea; real milk please. In the bathroom a proper shower enclosure with doors rather than a clammy clingy curtain was much appreciated. There was a good supply of toiletries but with the strange omission of shower gel. One fellow passenger asked for some at reception and was told she didn’t qualify for it at her grade (!), but her cabin attendant soon found some for her anyway. The washbasin was tiny and had a kiitchen-size tap over it that made it impossible to wash anything other than hands at it.
PUBLIC AREAS Overall there was a quality feel to the public areas, with high-quality materials and finishes. Artwork was superb. Bars were variable but everyone should find a few that they find comfortable and attractive. The Martini Bar and Crush (and the Aqua-class dining room, Blu) aimed for cool and classy but in my opinion achieved plain and nothing-y. The Sky Observation lounge was also a bit disappointing. It could have been a fantastic place with its vast glazed area but the seating was a triumph of (60s/70s) style over comfort. Celebrity would do well to take a leaf out of the much-maligned P&O’s book by looking at the rich but clean look of their Crow’s Nest lounges. Whilst some carpets had a bit of pzazz, most were deadly boring, and I just could not believe the dullness of the décor in the main buffet restaurant, the Oceanview Café. It looked more like a works canteen than a restaurant on a supposedly upmarket ship, with partitions in the colours that 1950s kitchen cupboards usually came in. Note to bright young designers: for most people of cruise ship passenger age the 50s were a design desert, not a rich seam of retro inspiration.
OPEN DECKS The open deck areas were mainly pleasant, with an adequate supply of loungers. The Lawn Club was fantastic, a really attractive area whether for lawn-based activities or just sitting out on or alongside. Walkers and joggers were not well served. The track on deck 14 was short and boring, often encroached on by loungers and clogged by non-walkers. On most ships we have been on there is a decent promenade deck, but on Eclipse that deck was just about adequate as a smokers’ refuge, but with no access round either the front or back of the ship and virtually no view because of equipment it was not an area to linger in or to take exercise in.
DINING The food on Eclipse was a real high spot for us. We only ate in the MDR and buffet, but we felt no need to seek out anything better. MDR menus were well chosen and the food well prepared and well presented. Some cruisers judge an MDR by the number of occasions that fillet steak and lobster are served. Well, they were not much in evidence but tournedos on one evening and beef wellington made with best fillet steak on another kept me happy, and super-tasty ribeye steaks, fore-rib and on one occasion t-bone steaks should have kept most steak-lovers happy. We have not encountered such a high standard of buffet restaurant food on any other ship we have sailed on. There was always an excellent selection of hot food and Asian options and a pizza and pasta bar. Cold desserts were good and there was always a selection of stick-to-your-ribs British-style hot puddings. The only disappointment was the cold buffet, where samey salad vegetables were always accompanied by the same small selection of cold meat (a chopped spam-like offering), peeled prawns and one type of fish. Where were the shellfish, the rollmops, the hams, the salamis and other continental meats that usually liven up a ship’s cold buffet? Setting this aside, we really enjoyed our buffet lunches, often abandoning the idea of a "normal” plateful to assemble our own taster menu of the hot delights on offer.
ENTERTAINMENT We headed to the theatre for our entertainment most evenings and were rarely disappointed. One guest entertainer (a magician) was not very good, but the standard of all other guest and resident entertainers was at least adequate and often very good. The big productions by the resident singers and dancers were lavish and well performed, though without the connection to the audience that we have felt with smaller troupes. There were not as many Cirque-styles performances as we had expected, but one Chinese entertainer in the troupe kept us enthralled with solo ”changing faces” and magic shows as well as an outstanding slack-wire performance as part of one of the major productions. Singers and comedians were generally good, though the assumption that the audience would all be impressed by a ratpack-style singer was sadly mistaken in our case. Another finale of "My Way” was not our idea of entertainment. The cruise director was a complete bundle of entertainment in her own right. The theatre itself was very good, with a good view of the stage from almost all seats. The worst aspect of theatre entertainment was the audience, with large numbers of people sauntering in well after performances had started. That took the edge off our enjoyment on several occasions. Our idea of daytime entertainment is usually listening to guest speakers, and there was a very good speaker on board, a forensic psychologist. Port and destination talks mostly took place at an odd time when most people would have been at dinner, so we didn’t get to them. Some good films were shown, but the venue for them, Celebrity Central, was hopeless as a cinema with most seats far too far to the sides for optimal viewing. We loved the hot glass show; the glassblowers were real artists as well as great talkers.
SHORE DAYS We were pleasantly surprised at the good value of the ship’s tours. We took several half-day tours which averaged a very reasonable £27 ($42ish) each. We did not like the price of shuttle buses, though, at about $12 return. If the itinerary states that we are being landed somewhere nice, we do not expect the Ryanair treatment of being landed at a grotty commercial port and charged handsomely to get to anywhere decent.
DISEMBARKATION This seemed to go very smoothly. Having our own transport and not requesting an early disembarkation slot we were among the last to leave, but it was still only 9.30am, and it being Sunday again we enjoyed a stress-free drive home.
SUMMARY It’s all about expectations, isn’t it? We thoroughly enjoyed our cruise on a modern and well-appointed ship whose staff and crew all worked hard to make sure we had a good time. The hype had somehow led us to think that they would get it all right all of the time, but they didn’t. They, along with Eclipse’s designers, were human rather than superhuman, and I wouldn’t say that the ratio of hits to misses was all that different from other supposedly less prestigious ships that we have sailed on. But we have enjoyed all of our cruises, so that’s not such a bad thing. We would cruise with Celebrity again, if the itinerary and price were right, just as we would cruise again with most of the lines we have cruised with.