Well, I have been lucky enough to do many cruises all over the world, but I have to say that the mooring at Sydney for Celebrity Solstice for our 12-night South Pacific and Fiji cruise was the most spectacular ever. Bang in the centre at Circular Quay with views of the Harbour Bridge one way and the Opera House the other, with a continual backdrop of ferries moving back and forth in the harbour, all illuminated by bright sunshine.
We have been to Australia a number of times to visit family and usually do a trip of some kind while we are over there. We chose this cruise for the unusual destinations – options are limited from Sydney if you have less than two weeks and have already seen many parts of Australia and New Zealand by land. Even so we had quite a few sea days, although with the facilities on board this was not really a problem.
This was our fifth Celebrity cruise, with the others taken between 1999 and 2009, but this was our first on a Solstice class and we thought she was spectacular with fabulous accommodation, facilities, service and food, if perhaps just a bit too large for our taste. We also failed to think about the fact that we were going to a number of very small unspoiled islands, or at least they were until our ship disgorged 3,000 passengers plus crew!!
Our balcony cabin on deck 7 was very comfortable and well appointed, with one of the most spacious bathrooms we have experienced on cruises – and loved the shower door instead of the usual curtain! We also liked the layout of the pool area, with plenty of shade (usually at a premium in hot regions) and no difficulty in finding loungers.
The food was very good and, although I am not really a buffet person, we liked the island-type layout very much and also the fact that everything was served to you for most of the time, including the hot drinks, water and lemonade. Yes, there were obviously issues with the dreaded norovirus, although I didn’t hear of anyone who was actually ill. The precautions were in place initially for the first three days, then dropped, but revived just two days later when illness numbers apparently rose again. The efforts by the ship and its crew to keep everyone healthy were unstinting – continual cleaning, hand sanitising all around the ship (restaurants, shows, shops, etc.), and attendants in many of the public toilets to open the doors for you and keep everything in good order.
We were on first sitting in the main dining room and had asked for a table for eight. We were given a table for ten and most of those turning up were not happy that their requests hadn’t been met, including a group of four who wanted to be on their own and a couple whose son and daughter in-law had been allocated second sitting. They had all disappeared by day 2 and we were left with Stan and Lorna, a lovely New Zealand couple celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary. Another group of four Australians also joined us to make a table of 8 and that worked very well, although the Aussies did not appear every night, sometimes choosing to eat in the buffet.
With the predominance of Australians on board, dress was pretty casual. On the three formal nights, DJs were notable by their virtual absence and ties were also not that common among the men, although many did wear jackets. There were also a significant number in polo shirts, trainers, etc. and no-one appeared to have tried to enforce the dress code. Apparently the Aussies were also drinking the ship dry, with the Food & Beverage Manager reporting higher than usual consumption levels for wine and beer. Not sure whether this was just because they were Aussies or whether they all had drinks packages!! It wasn’t a problem, however, and we saw no signs of anyone the worse for wear at any stage.
The first morning at sea was a bit rough, but otherwise we generally had pretty good weather, with just a few showers of rain in some places. The onboard entertainment was a mix of the usual types of things around the pool and inside and there was also the Hot Glass show and a range of speakers including a naturalist, a historian and a destination expert.
In the evenings, there were the usual musical acts in the various bars, and the spectacular theatre had three shows from the in-house singers and dancers, plus a number of other acts, including singer Will Martin, illusionists Adam and Selina and the Aussie Boys, a very popular three-man group with an Aussie take on a Jersey Boys type theme.
The destinations were a bit of a mixed bag. We started in New Caledonia at Lifou in the Loyalty Islands. We had to tender ashore and there were no Celebrity excursions on offer. Locals provided a limited sightseeing service and there were beaches for swimming and snorkelling. We walked along to the historic (and rather dilapidated) church and then back to the next bay along for some snorkelling. It was all private enterprise, as some locals were even charging for snorkelling, although it was presented as if it was for protection of the local eco-system (and indeed perhaps it was – who I am to say?). It was good snorkelling though, even if the water wasn’t quite as warm as we were expecting!
The next stop in New Caledonia was Noumea with a bit of a featureless small town feel, not helped by the fact that we had to dock in the container port (ship too big again!). We got the free shuttle out to the passenger terminal, bought a hop-on, hop-off ticket for round the island and stopped at the Cultural Centre in the north for a look round. The building itself was a spectacular design and it was in a lovely location with fine views, but many of the displays weren’t open or under construction, which was a bit disappointing. It was a cheap enough trip, however, with us paying just AUD10 for the all-day bus ticket and my husband getting into the centre for free as an over-65, while I paid the grand sum of about GBP3.60! The Celebrity trip there was about USD66, so I wouldn’t have been best pleased if I had taken it, particularly if I was over 65 and could have got in free!
The next day was Isle of Pines, which was really beautiful and very attractive and unspoilt, whereas much of Lifou was a bit scrubby. Again, as in Lifou, we tendered ashore and there were no Celebrity excursions. We got ashore early and walked along to a good snorkelling spot, having a chance to have a good look around before it got too busy. We then lazed on another beach for a while before taking a minibus trip around the surrounding area, which was very attractive and interesting and well presented by our driver who spoke good English and gave an excellent commentary.
We then had a sea day before arriving at Suva in Fiji, which was another place like Noumea with a rather scruffy small-town look. We took a trip with one of the minibuses touting for trade outside the dock and he took us to the National Park and to a waterfall. It was a fairly good trip, despite some rain and despite the fact that our guide didn’t speak much English. The driver did, however, and we were fortunate to be sitting in the front seat with him and he was very friendly and helpful. In the afternoon we walked from the ship into town and along to the Fiji Museum, which was small but very interesting, looking at aspects of Fiji’s history, particularly the initial arrival in the region and the types of boats used for transportation. We also saw the cathedral, the law courts and the botanical gardens. All in all a good day.
The next day saw us at another Fijian port Lautoka and we again took a trip, this time more of a tour with the highlight of the Garden of the Sleeping Giant – a botanical garden specialising in orchids but also having many other species. Apparently the garden was privately owned by the US actor Raymond Burr, but is now open to the public. The guide in the gardens was very knowledgeable and we had a very enjoyable tour there. We also took in a scenic tour including beaches, towns and the sugar cane industry, while declining the shopping stop!
We then had three days back to Sydney. In the original itinerary it was 2 days and the distribution of ports was better, but even so there was plenty to do on the ship and we had a relaxing few days. Disembarkation was well organised and we were in one of the later groups to leave, but still getting off the ship at about 8.30 am. There was some confusion about where the taxi rank was, but we just walked a few minutes to the back of Circular Quay and easily caught a cab there well away from the heaving masses around the ship to spend another week with family in Sydney before flying home.
So did we enjoy it? Yes! Would we travel with Celebrity again? Yes, of course! But we may not use the Solstice class again (depending on destination). Despite the comfort and style, we found it just too big for the ports we were going to. This trip was a bit different as it was an add-on to a family visit, but normally we are driven first and foremost by destination and would probably opt for a smaller ship (if possible) if we were visiting such small and sparsely populated places.