This was our 5th cruise with Celebrity (4th since 2007) and our 3rd on a Solstice class ship (other two were Silhouette and Equinox). This class of ship, with 2,800 passengers, is about as large as I’d like to cruise on. Generally, our experience on this cruise was excellent. I’d rate the other two Solstice-class cruises as 9.5 each. This one would be 8.5. First of all, the very good things:
• Embarkation and boarding: This was a snap. We arranged our own transportation at Auckland airport upon arrival (shuttle through town, to the wharf). This was cheaper than the Celebrity transfer. Upon arrival at the ship (about 9AM), though we weren’t able to board right away, we dropped off our luggage and toured around Auckland. When we returned to the ship we were able to board immediately with very quick registration.
• The cabin. The Solstice-class cabins are very well-designed. Efficient bathrooms with glass shower enclosure and enough storage for all toiletries. Very, very comfortable king-sized bed. Extra blankets, comfortable pillows (and I’m fussy about pillows). Sufficient closet space (unless you’ve packed a very large wardrobe), extra storage cabinet above the bed and enough drawers in the dressing vanity. Lots of room under the bed for suitcases. Good sized (not great) balcony. On past cruises when we’ve toured with 10 other friends, part of the balcony divider can be folded back that resulted in a 6 cabin length balcony...great fun.
• The crew. Have never been disappointed with any of the crew we’ve met. Our waiters were great. Our cabin attendants were very friendly and especially attentive.
• Jonny Mantra (guitarist and vocalist). Very, very talented guy, we made a point of seeing him as often as we could. We also enjoyed the Sea Harmony Trio (classical trio) and The Les DeMerle Jazz Quartet.
• Meals. I’ve read a review or two of this cruise that have panned the meals and presentations. I don’t understand this. We had early sitting. All meals were attractively presented. There was a standing menu of 5 entrees (I seem to recall) plus a daily menu with 5 (I believe) new entrees every night just like our other cruises. There was not one dinner I ordered that I didn’t like (one quibble was a steak that, half of it anyway, was a little tough). If there was something we wanted, our waiter was only too eager to get for us (e.g. we frequently asked for a side-order vegetable that had accompanied another entree). We noticed that Celebrity (or perhaps just this ship) seems to be paying attention to portion-size which is a good thing (judging by the ever-growing size of many people). Each portion served on Solstice was the right size and, if it hadn’t been, there would not have been an issue ordering seconds (we know this because, on a previous cruise, a friend often ordered two full dinners!). Although we have eaten in Murano, Tuscan Grille and Silk Harvest on past cruises, we didn’t do that on this cruise. We don’t feel the cover charge is worth it in terms of food quality. Sure, there might be different choices and certainly a different atmosphere, but there’s not enough value to us in the up-charge at the specialty restaurants. We had about 2/3’s of our breakfasts in the dining room and the rest in the Oceanview cafe. Between breakfast and dinner we grazed at various times in the Oceanview, unless we were ashore. The Oceanview had plenty of choice for us and no meal had to be repeated. There wasn’t much we didn’t like (the pasta bar was especially good). We also grazed at the masthead grille as well as the healthy alternative breakfast that was available at the Aquaspa cafe.
• On board activities: There was always a seemingly large choice of activities on the ship. We attended one or two a day, certainly not as many as on past cruises. It seemed that the ones we were interested in happened to be scheduled around or about the same time. We were otherwise quite content to pass the time on the walking/jogging track, reading, exploring, chatting with other passengers and such.
• Ports-of-call: All terrific. Although not a port-of-call per se, the sail-through of Doubtful, Dusky and Milford Sounds (unusually great weather, apparently) was absolutely spectacular. Christchurch was a highlight...all the television coverage in the world of the earthquake doesn't prepare you for the extent of the devastation and the amount of work that's been done and still has to be done to rebuild this city. Wellington (where we had a terrific pub lunch and local beers at The Old Bailey) was a bustling city and Dunedin was beautiful. And the early morning arrival through the harbour of Sydney was really a great experience.
• Disembarkation: Very well organized. Compared to past cruises (especially the Med in 2007 aboard Millennium) finding our suitcases was a breeze. We were off the ship and had cases in hand in no time.
Where Celebrity can improve:
• Excursions: We’ve not had issues with excursions before. This cruise was the exception. We booked 3 excursions. One was fine. However, for our excursion to Christchurch, we purposely made sure we were positioned on the tender to ensure we were among the first off to line-up for our coach. On shore, however, there was a mass of people with no discernible queues for the coaches (I can imagine what it might have been like if this was a 4,000 passenger ship!). By the time we found the line to our coach within this mess, we were the last to board and unable to sit beside each other (being experienced with this, that’s what we wanted to avoid!). If it’s a 10 or 15 minute shuttle, who cares? But it was a 90 minute ride into Christchurch (our thanks to another passenger who offered to switch his seat on the trip back so we could sit together). There needs to be better organization. Another excursion was a walking tour and hike up Mount Mauao in Tauranga. The cost was $79 each. We didn’t realize that there was no admission fee at Mount Mauao to hike the path to the summit. Although the tour guides were very nice, the commentary was nowhere near worth $160 to us. As well, although we were led to believe there was transportation to the starting point (and at one point one guide said to the other, right after we got off the ship, “don’t hurry, the coach isn’t here yet”), there was no bus and we walked to Mount Mauao (not that it was too far, it took about 25 minutes). The point is that the walk to Mauao, up Mauao and back to the ship is free...but we paid $160!!
• Beverages: On past cruises we’ve purchased wine packages (on-board Equinox we purchased a 5 bottle package for $145...av. of $29 per bottle). On Solstice a 5 bottle package was $210 ($42 per bottle). With a number of bottles on the extensive wine list between $30 and $40, there was absolutely no incentive to buy a package. As well, Celebrity has a very poor choice in the on-board beer selection. We were on a NZ/OZ cruise, but there were no “destination” beers available (they had NZ/OZ wine). The selection was pretty well limited to American mass-market beers (Bud et al) and 1 or 2 European beers (Amstel and Boddington’s). This isn’t good enough. Being a ‘luxury’ cruise line, Celebrity should avoid the mass-market, tasteless, plonk. Celebrity cruises the world and so should offer beer from the many flavourful craft brewers from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the U.S. and Europe. And, while they’re at it, they should offer more wine from Canada and the U.S.
• Piped-in music: Sometimes you just want a quiet place to sit down and read a book, or maybe just watch the sea or perhaps to grab a snack or early breakfast. However, at 6:50 AM in the Oceanview cafe, with perhaps 30 other passengers getting an early breakfast, and none younger than 50 (maybe even 55), there’s noticeable hip hop playing with suggestive sexual lyrics. Not the time, place or demographic for that! Likewise, at 9:00 AM in the Skyview lounge, with about 20 passengers sitting in the silence, reading, again all in the 50+ range...crew members come in and start the muzak. Again, hip hop. But the volume is low...okay, I can handle that. But 10 minutes later more crew come in and the volume goes up. Now it’s just irritating and off I go looking for another place.
All-in-all it was a very enjoyable cruise for us with a few hiccups. On past cruises we’ve made a point of attending most of the evening theatre shows, but on this cruise, expending lots of energy exploring our ports of call and having the early dinner, we didn’t feel like attending the evening performances. The only one we can comment on was the one show we did see...the comedian. We struck out on that one as he wasn’t very good (I won’t mention his name because I can’t be bothered to look it up). Anyway, despite a few minor things this was overall a very satisfying experience and we will definitely cruise on Celebrity again.