Celebrity Solstice Cruise Review by rossigan: First time but not the last...
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First time but not the last...
We did the ’18 Night Tahitian Treasures Cruise’ from Sydney to Honolulu trip via New Zealand and Tahiti leaving on 11th April 2014. We were in Aqua Class, room 1651 on the 11th level. This was our 1st cruise on any ship and therefore I have tried to focus on information (as opposed to opinion) which I think would be more useful for other newcomers like ourselves. Overall the cruise was better than expected as I probably read too much negative feedback from various on-line critics before heading off. Generally the seas were calm except for the last 2 or 3 days when there was a bit of a gale. Even under these conditions, we did not feel sick as the ship remained relatively stable. All references to monies are in US dollars unless stated otherwise.
Having arrived at the dock, we found we had to drop off our bags with men who were placing them under a large tarpaulin for transfer to the ship later in the day. They were armed with stapler and spare More luggage tags for those who came ill-prepared. However we retained one of our airplane style carry-on bags where we put our permitted two bottles of wine and as we were a bit nervous about the security with our bags, we put all of our documents and valuables in it as well. While waiting, we had to fill in 2 forms being handed out by people on the dock. One was the standard government form when leaving Australia and another was a declaration that we didn’t have any colds, flu, etc. A passenger near us looked like she was ready to go to hospital with something terrible but she seemed to get on the ship without any troubles. We met her a few days later and she confirmed that she had recovered from her ordeal.
There were 3 queues on the dock, one for people with suites or certain Captain’s Club membership, one for aqua and concierge class and one for the rest. People started queuing in the aqua/concierge line a bit after 10am and they opened the gates half an hour early at 11am for the two priority queues but always allowing the suites/Captain’s Club to jump the queue as it were. It didn’t really matter though as it didn’t take long to get to challenge no. 1 – the check-in counter. I forgot our on-line check-in printout and I was admonished by the staff member (and my wife) for doing so. As punishment I was asked to fill in a form which took less than a minute and gave them a credit card (Amex) for swiping for on-board expenses. We were then photographed and in return we were given our id cards. Challenge no. 2 was passport control which was fast and easy; challenge no. 3 was doing the x-ray thing in the same manner as airports do. I was interested to see the fellow in front of us carrying two big packs of diet coke without any problems. And as an aside, we met a fellow passenger who didn’t get his dropped-off bag delivered to his door like the rest of us but rather, many hours later he received a message asking him to report to the “you’re in trouble” room down on level 2 where he had to open his bag in front of other similar passengers to explain his Swiss knife and unexpectedly, his thongs. His thongs were given the ok but the knife was confiscated for the duration of the voyage. He was then allowed to take his bag to his room. Challenge 4 was to walk the gang plank (job well done) and challenge no. 5 was accepting a glass of champagne on-board though I have to confess that we helped ourselves to many more glasses over the next hour or two while we explored the ship. Getting on-board from start to finish was no more than 20 minutes.
The staff were out in force past the free champagne spot encouraging sign-ups for the specialty dining, drink packages and I think, excursions. Interestingly enough, we couldn’t sign up, for the dining packages on the internet prior to departure but could easily do so once on-board. I asked many people why this was so but nobody had a sensible answer. Indeed there have been other mysteries about the cruise that were like this and I tried my best to solve as many as possible. One bit of advice I have when you get on-board is just to walk into all the different places even though it might be hard to find a staff member and start asking questions when you find one.
To be found on the 3rd level; it has its uses. On the stands near the queue, there is the ‘Australia Today’ printout and a selection of other countries, information sheets on the various destinations and spare copies of the ‘Celebrity Today’ printout giving the day’s activities which you get every night in your room for the next day. At the desk, they can get on the internet and print stuff out for you though like everyone else, the internet is painfully slow so such things are best done in the quiet hours, early in the morning or late at night when there are no queues. They have a special machine that will punch a hole in your Id card so that it can be attached to a lanyard and hung around your neck. The exchange of currencies can be done but it can be expensive with an approximate 7.5% margin added to the AUD$/US$ exchange rate (1.01/0.86). My advice (and what we did) is to setup a credit card facility and then pay off amounts from time to time in US$ that we had brought with us from Australia. We spent about $1,200 on the trip all up which included drinks, internet access, an excursion and who knows what else. We also were able to change US$ notes to smaller denominations suitable for tipping which we preferred to do this way in preference to sticking a tip on those ubiquitous dockets. Being Australians we tipped when we thought the service was praiseworthy as opposed to Americans who seem to do it regardless.
A thought I had was that it would be extremely useful if Celebrity setup an intranet on the ship. Apart from the obvious benefits of providing an alternative to a whole array of printouts and announcements, gateway to the internet etc., it would be excellent for guests like ourselves via an app on our electronic devices to give any staff member a tick or a cross with optional commentary for good or bad service. Celebrity could then have a reward system for those staff who score the best in their category. And Celebrity, if you’re reading this, think about it and contact me if you want to get more detail on how it could work.
We tried every place which was everything except for secret places for those in suites and high scoring Captain’s Club passengers. We quite liked the food everywhere though dishes can vary and service can be quite random on occasions. There are two different types of places to eat, those where you just arrive and grab a table wherever you can – Oceanview Café, Mast Grill, AquaSpa Café, Gelateria; and the restaurant types where you arrive and you are ushered to your table and a menu is provided – Grand Épernay (aka the ‘Main Dining Room’ or ‘MDR’), Bistro on Five, Blu, Murano, Tuscan Grille and Silk Harvest. The allocation of tables is done when you arrive so if you want a view then you need to turn up when they open or perhaps even earlier and then ask for a view or perhaps you might turn up at the right time when somebody is leaving except in the case of Murano where there is a limited view. And then there is the Café al Bacío and the many bars which you can order at the counter/bar or wait for someone to serve you when you seat yourself nearby. I am generally impatient so I tended to go up and order rather than wait for someone to find me. Sometimes they tried to encourage me to go and sit down and wait but I kind of worked out a system to get some action depending on where we were. It is important to note that with many things on-board you will need to look after yourself but best to do it with charm in preference to aggression. I had some dollar notes too which can always help to endear yourself to an individual if you frequent the same place quite a bit; thank you Dario at the Passport Bar.
The buffet (aka as the Oceanview Café) was big and quite good for a buffet if that’s what you’re into, and it had the benefit of being open all hours of the day and night though what’s available varies depending on the time. And I appreciated it that they provided hot plates. It was very useful as it was simple to go there in the most casual wear, especially given its proximity to the pool area. Many mornings I popped up there early to grab a mug (they don’t really have cups) of tea and a bit of fruit to bring down to our room 2 floors below.
Our default dining room however was Blu which we thought was pretty good. Like most places, they tended to rush you through your meals but we didn’t mind that. It is not that different to the Grand Épernay other than it’s a lot smaller, it feels a bit more posh and there were a few extra things like fresh orange juice (as opposed to the standard orange juice which tasted like cordial), a trolley brought to your table to make your cereal/fruit combo for you and I think the menu selection is probably better too but I wasn’t observant enough to work that one out.
We went to the specialty restaurants five times in all. We did the Specialty Dining package for 3 meals and twice we couldn’t resist a two for one offer at the Murano on the first night and a later offer at the Silk Harvest at a reduced price with a glass of champagne thrown in. These offers seem to occur randomly and it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We thought the Silk Harvest was great and the Murano was too with certain orders like lobster or crepes being prepared at the table. The Tuscan Grille was disappointing which is a pity because we love Italian and it has the best views at the back (stern) of the ship. We spoke to some others and they agreed too so maybe they’re just going through a bad patch. Anyway, it was my wife’s birthday so they didn’t let us down as they provided us with a delightful, personalised birthday cake. I asked for the cake beforehand though I did notice later on when I read some of the brochures in our room that they offer all sorts of specialty packages for birthdays and other important occasions at a price of course though I didn’t get charged for our cake.
We didn’t go for the drinks packages as we thought it would encourage us to get drunk all the time particularly on sea days of which there were many. We’re essentially white wine drinkers and don’t mind ordering the cheaper stuff as nowadays in our view, it’s all ok really. Cheaper in the context of Celebrity is a bottle costing between $30 and $35. So we had two approaches to our afternoon drinking. One was to buy a bottle at the bar which is sometimes a bit tricky as they encourage you to buy by the glass and so tend to keep the bottle list out of sight. It is there though but the list can vary by bar and what they have can vary from what they have on their list. Stick with it though. It’s not that hard really and it can be fun for people with my sense of humour and you do end up with an ice bucket. On occasions we took the unfinished bottle to dinner though apparently it’s not appropriate to go to the specialty restaurants (excluding Blu) with a bottle in hand. Nevertheless we took one from the Ensemble Lounge to the Murano. The other alternative is to buy by the glass which we did at the Passport Bar for the happy hour between 4 and 6 and way past our bedtime between 10 and 12. The wine is $5 per glass, the beer is $3.50 per glass, certain cocktails are $6 and all with a glass container of nibbles thrown in (if you ask for it) though they do add on a gratuity to the bill. Getting served can be tricky on occasions but we worked out a system that made an impatient person like me happy. As a word of warning, drink waiters will appear in all sorts of places, but mainly when dining and you may request a glass of wine and not ask the price as it seems vulgar to mention such things. The default charge is around $11. Better by the bottle.
The standard coffee tends to be pretty ordinary, similar to our experiences in America. Sorry America. In pursuit of something better you are compelled to order a cappuccino or similar which costs around $5.25 no matter where you are. We got into the habit of going to the Café al Bacío after breakfast when there are no queues and ordering a takeaway and getting a bigger cup as a bonus. Still, we found even the purchased coffee was very weak (like in America) and so we had to ask for an ‘XtraShot Espresso’ which then took the price up to $6.50. The Café al Bacío comes with free cakes, pastries which can be ordered without the need for a coffee being ordered.
Hamburgers, chips and hot dogs were available at the Mast Grill in the pool area and they looked a bit much for us but we had a go. They didn’t taste too bad at all. There can be quite a queue for a feed but we went there when it was raining so that kept the punters away.
Bistro on Five does crepes but they do other things as well. They’re open long hours and have a flat charge of $5 per person. It was good enough for us to go back a 2nd time.
Port or Starboard? (Left or Right?)
And for those who think too much we have the question of which side of the ship to have the cabin (aka the ‘stateroom’). I have to say that there wasn’t much in it in the end. Given our route, for most of the time we got the afternoon sun which we liked but then there others who may disagree. In summary this is how it went at each port. Sydney: faced the dock and the Bridge but away from the Opera House. Bay of Islands: faced away from the port. Auckland: faced the dock but away from the city. Papeete: faced the dock and exposed to the night time music coming from the direction of the Vaima Centre, though closing our balcony doors did the trick. Moorea & Bora Bora: more or less faced out to sea away from the island.
Places to Stop and See
Getting to the Bay of Islands meant being taken by a boat of up to 100 people to the mainland (aka ‘tendering’). We wanted to get off as early possible as we had sights to see and most importantly, we hate having to wait around. Because we couldn’t get off till 9am, it was always going to be a challenge to get off quickly. They have a system where they hand out numbered tickets at the Cellar Masters wine bar (and for Australians, this has nothing to do with the wine selling company). Only one person has to turn up on behalf of others to get these tickets so I took a book down 50 minutes early, dragged a comfortable seat over to the short queue that had formed of a dozen or so, and read a book. By the time they were ready to hand out tickets, the queue was very long indeed. Anyway we got straight off the ship and walked to the Waitangi exhibition which was close by but they wanted NZ$25 (free for locals) and more seriously, they wanted to take 4 hours of our time. We declined but not before having a coffee. We walked the couple of kilometres to Pahrua though a free shuttle bus was available and then caught the ferry (NZ$24 return) to Russell, enjoyed a very nice fish, chips and wine and then returned to the tender. They x-ray, airport style, all your stuff when you get back on-board the ship so there is no bringing back more wine or other contraband.
Auckland was easy as you just walk off when you want though I was surprised that more locals weren’t at the dockside trying to offer great things to thousands of cashed-up tourists. As for ourselves, we were entertained by Kiwi friends.
Papeete likewise was easy to get off too and we went in search of a hire car only to find that Avis were charging far too much and what looked like a long wait to get served. After a couple of hours we grabbed a $50 per person tour around the main part of the island (‘grand tour’ they called it) for 4 hours but in the end took quite a bit longer than that. It was quite a circus getting on the ‘truck’ in the first place but we got there in the end. The ‘truck’ had sideways bench seats with no one sitting on the middle bench which made it all very sociable facing each other making it quite a fun time. Though I did see others in ‘trucks’ that weren’t so lucky in that they had people crammed in on the middle bench. Diego was the guide and he was good for the first hour or so but he then got distracted and we didn’t see much of him after that. Tahiti was quite hot and humid and we were surprised that it was so difficult to find an ice-cream. Eventually we got Diego to stop the ‘truck’ at a Mobil service station for a very welcome ice-cream (Magnum in our case). All up, quite enjoyable.
Because the tendering started early at 7am there was no need to queue at the Cellar Masters. In fact we went on the first tender even though we had tickets to a later one as some of those who were supposed to go on it, didn’t. Always keep a lookout for this sort of stuff. And in fact, the same thing happened at Bora Bora. Because we were off straight away, we had first go at what the locals were offering dockside. We rented a Fiat Panda off Albert Rent-a-Car for 6,800PF (about $75) for 4 hours plus petrol. If we had gone for 8 hours, it would have been 8,000PF. Avis nearby also had offerings but I think they were more expensive and I think that their cars were pre-booked. It takes about 3 hours to go around the island including miscellaneous stops but being Easter Sunday, we had to work hard to find a café which we eventually did. We also went for a spin up to Belvedere to check out the view.
We got a tender boat to Bora Bora in the same way as Moorea. We had booked a tour with Celebrity for us to ‘truck’ around the island for about $65 each but we missed out on booking the trip leaving at 8.30 and had to settle for the one at 11.30. Because we couldn’t resist being one of the first to get ashore, we were now faced with a problem of having to wait for 3 extra hours. But luck’s a fortune and we were able to get a couple of spare seats next to each other on the 8.30 tour after everybody else had been seated. The ‘truck’ had seating in the traditional manner as opposed to the seating at Papeete and therefore was not as sociable. Our tour guide was a delightful woman and so much better than Diego back at Papeete. We went round the island, bought a ‘Bloody Mary’, shopped in downtown Bora Bora which isn’t very big and then returned to the ship early afternoon. As with the other French Polynesian destinations, I was surprised by the shortage of places for refreshments though there were plenty of clothes and black pearl shops.
We were booked to go to Los Angeles after spending a few days in Honolulu, so we were quite excited about having the opportunity to bypass the US immigration problems that we had experienced at Los Angeles in the past. I have to report that we were sucked in bad because it was an even greater stuff-dealing with US immigration on-board the ship. We were left a note advising what time we had to turn up at the Sky Observation Lounge. They staggered the arrival times so as to make it work smoothly. But what a mess it ended up. It seemed many passengers ignored the staggered arrival times and no staff were there to deal with that but more frustratingly was that they created a new queue resulting in many getting in very quickly and others having to wait a long, long time. It was very bad timing to upset so many passengers at the very end of the cruise.
Bits and Pieces
The Solstice Shop on deck 4 had quite a reasonable stock of various pharmaceuticals including sea-sickness remedies at surprisingly sensible prices. You should bring your own clothes hangers to supplement the few on offer. Bring US dollars with you. Walking up the stairs in preference to the lifts is necessary if you are watching your weight as you’re going to eat too much. The chairs on the stateroom balcony are particularly well designed for hanging wet clothes off them. We booked a Mediterranean trip while on-board and we felt it was a better deal than what we would have got otherwise. I went to the online@celebrity lounge on deck 6 to organise our wi-fi internet after finding it impossible to do so using the television in our stateroom. I spent a bit over $100 over 18 days which I generally used for dealing with emails on our iPhones/iPads but also for some other enquiry as well. Less
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