Celebrity SOLSTICE (Dec 7-14, 2008)
OVERVIEW My wife and I are both in our late 20s and are avid cruisers, sailing over 20 times on multiple cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Princess, Disney and Carnival. Up until this year, Royal Caribbean has been our cruise line of choice, although we are starting to branch out and try others. We've been planning to sail on the Solstice since the initial artist renderings came out and when three extra sailings were added as a result of an early completion of the Solstice, we jumped at the chance for the low rates which were, on average $400 per person less than other sailings for a balcony cabin. We came into our sailing with high expectations, having heard rave reviews of Celebrity from our friends and colleagues back home.
ACCOMMODATIONS We sailed in a Sky Suite on deck twelve, cabin 2118. The location was great, one floor below the Oceanview Cafe and located just down the hall from the pool deck and stunning solarium. The suite itself was gorgeous. An extra long couch and coffee table near the door, a 40" Samsung LCD tv, a queen bed, a nice sized desk, plenty of storage space and an oversized bathroom adorned with granite and a rainfall showerhead. The photos of these suites don't do them justice. I was initially disappointed with the room dEcor upon seeing photos from those on the inaugural sailing, but seeing it in person is a completely different experience. These cabins are gorgeous. The one negative aspect of the location of this room is that the room stewards park their trolley outside this room, so every time you walk in or out, you're in their way. Our butler Sebastian was wonderful and really took service to the next level. He ensured we had a fresh pitcher of ice water each day, setup our balcony table for breakfast, arranged a dinner in Blu, and did a fantastic job of decorating the cabin to celebrate my wife's birthday. We enjoyed each of our interactions with Sebastian, who is one of Celebrity's hardest working employees.
DINING Dining itself was hit and miss on the Solstice. The restaurants themselves were gorgeous, every single one of them. The service is what was rather inconsistent, which may be attributed to the crew still familiarizing themselves with processes onboard a new ship. Overall the meals ranged from mediocre (Grand Epernay) to out of this world (Blu and Murano), and we have detailed our experiences in each of the restaurants below.
Grand Epernay - By far the most stunning main dining room at sea. We had a table for two (547) on deck four. These are one of two tops that are literally 18 inches away from an adjoining two top. We were fortunate enough to have a wonderful couple seated next to us who we enjoyed conversing with. What we didn't care for is that the waiters essentially treated our table, as well as our neighbors, as one table and served us each at the same time, regardless of our actual pace of eating. We waited for them, they waited for us. Not really the individual type of attention we're used to getting onboard a cruise. We ate in Grand Epernay three nights for dinner and service was quite slow each time. Breakfast service was also slow. In terms of food quality, we had no major complaints, but saw no noticeable difference in quality from the offerings on Royal Caribbean.
Tuscan Grille - A truly fantastic steakhouse with an outstanding wine list and extremely tasty menu items. Service was fantastic with lots of individual attention. Some of our favorite menu items were the crostini appetizer, a succulent Ribeye entrEe which was cooked to perfection with a tasty Italian rub and a crème brulee with Pop Rocks candy sprinkled on top for dessert - truly a treat that left us wanting more. The restaurant is located aft on deck five and offers spectacular 180 degree views of the ocean. I suggest booking here in advance.
Silk Harvest - A beautifully decorated Asian fusion restaurant onboard the Solstice which offers a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine. Our dinner began with Miso soup, followed by a trio of appetizers including Chinese style ribs (very little meat), chicken eggrolls and cream cheese wontons. Before moving onto the main course, we ordered some sushi with both spicy tuna rolls and California rolls. I enjoyed the orange chicken entrEe which was breaded, not battered. The orange flavor was very subtle and not spicy. Sara ordered chicken pad thai which is generally one of her favorite dishes, but was prepared with an excessive amount of salt. Dessert was nothing to write home about. The highlight of the restaurant is the variety of Asian beers including San Miguel from the Philippines and my personal favorite, Singha from Thailand. If given the opportunity, we likely wouldn't return to Silk Harvest, certainly not worth the $20 per person cover charge.
Murano - An elegant, intimate French restaurant with fantastic service and a variety of dishes prepared tableside by their top notch staff. Amongst our favorites were the sweetbread appetizer, the pear and Roquefort cheese salad, the Filet Mignon entrEe (with a sauce prepared tableside) and the Murano signature dessert sampler. Every moment from the time we walked in the door we were carefully looked after by their attentive staff. The outstanding service coupled with the tastiest dishes onboard the Solstice made for a fantastic ending to our vacation. Of all the specialty restaurants onboard, we highly recommend this one.
Blu - An absolute treat. This restaurant is the main dining room for guests staying in Aqua Class accommodations, but is also available to suite guests on a space available basis. Our butler arranged a dinner for us in Blu on Tuesday evening, and we were seated by ourselves at a four top, next to the beautiful rose wall. The menu, which initially didn't excite us turned out to be one of our favorite meals onboard the Solstice. We began with a baked brie appetizer which is by far the tastiest brie I've ever had in my life. For a main course, I enjoyed the short ribs which were boneless, fat free and absolutely delicious. I kept it simple and went with Tahitian vanilla and Belgian dark chocolate ice cream which were a fantastic ending to a great meal. Service was top notch and the atmosphere was fantastic. Blu itself would make the surcharge for Aqua Class more than pay for itself, we absolutely loved it.
Bistro on Five - Dubbed "Bistro for Five" by fellow Cruise Critic members, this casual crepe restaurant has received a lot of attention for the $5 surcharge added just days prior to the inaugural sailing and the menu which evolved from an initial concept of homestyle foods like meatloaf and mac n' cheese to strictly crepes and sandwiches. With few exceptions, every time we walked by Bistro on Five, the place was virtually empty. We stopped in for a late lunch and enjoyed every bite of our meal. Service started off terrible with no one acknowledging us for nearly ten minutes, although several waiters walked by. We both started off with the Country Vegetable soup which can only be described as perfect. The broth was rich and full of flavor, yet not over powering or excessively salty. I tried two different crepes, the ham & cheese and the buffalo chicken. Sara had a sweet & sour chicken crepe as well as a strawberry dessert crepe. We ended with the vanilla crème brulee. It was a very tasty meal and we only wished we had tried Bistro on Five earlier in the cruise. Well worth the $5 per person surcharge.
Oceanview Cafe - A well laid out buffet with multiple stations offering three meals daily as well as a tea service in the afternoon. Breakfast is served each morning with pastries, an egg station, carved meats and arguably the tastiest waffles on the high seas. Lunch ranges from pizza and pasta to salads and steaks with an Asian stir fry station in the back. The afternoon tea service offers a nice selection of miniature sandwiches along with tasty pastries. One of the most popular areas of the Oceanview Cafe is the ice cream station located at the entrance. Hand dipped ice cream with a variety of candy toppings to suit even the most discriminating tastes.
PORTS I'm not going to spend too much time talking about the ports because they played no role whatsoever in our selection of this cruise. We selected the Solstice solely for the ship itself. We've been to San Juan many times, so didn't even bother disembarking for the ship's visit from 2-10pm. St. Maarten is a great island that we've been to many times and this particular itinerary on Solstice offered an extra long stay from 9am-11pm, truly a fantastic way to get out and explore the entire island. We ventured off to Maho Beach, which is in the direct landing path of the St. Maarten airport and allows residents and tourists alike to get an up close view of departing and arriving aircraft. It was quite a fun experience and the taxi ride was a mere $18 each way. St. Kitts was our final port of call and we did some touristy shopping at the port area. After arriving back at the ship, we heard others raving about the island tours they took and the sheer beauty of the island itself. It made us wish we had ventured out more. For those on future cruises who want to venture out on a tour, look for Basil - a local tour operator who calls himself the "spice of the islands." No pressure sales pitch and a 2.5 hour tour in a new air conditioned van for only $20 per person.
PUBLIC AREAS The Lawn - One of Solstice's features that Celebrity has been touting for months leading up to the ship's debut. Although beautiful, it was also a disappointment. As others have reported, the lawn is definitely showing signs of wear and is frequently "resting" which prohibits guest use. I'd be shocked if The Lawn survives on the Solstice past the first drydock and expect something else to be debuted on the Celebrity Equinox. On a related note, as guests were disembarking today large portions of the lawn, specifically the areas by the hot glass show (which were showing the most wear), were being replaced. I hope passengers on the next cruise have more of an opportunity to enjoy the lawn than those on our cruise did.
The Solarium - A stunning glass enclosed pool area adorned with flowers that included two whirlpools and an unheated swimming pool. This area was for the exclusive use of guests aged 16 and older. There are some beautiful dome like chairs that face both the solarium and the sea and are somewhat bed-like, yet shaped in a circle. Very comfortable, relaxing and private. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of people placing down shirts and towels to reserve the chairs, yet not returning for hours. This also happened at the cabanas and hammocks, located outside the solarium at the main pool area.
Solstice Theatre - A beautiful venue which hosted several production shows and lectures throughout our cruise. Our personal favorite was the Tribute to Broadway which included selections from Broadway hits Hairspray, Wicked, Rent and numerous others. "Solstice: The Show" was a cirque style production which many passengers enjoyed, but we found it a little too over the top and left about halfway through.
OVERALL 4 / 5 Stars - We had extremely high hopes for our first cruise on Celebrity and perhaps our expectations were a bit too high, especially for a new ship. The dEcor and physical facilities of the ship are truly the highlight. This is the by far the most beautiful ship we've ever sailed on and I can't imagine many disputes to that. The service for the most part was good, although spotty at times and we experienced both disappointing and exceptional service at different points throughout the cruise. This is to be expected though and I don't think we've ever had, nor would we expect, a spotless experience. My recommendation is to go into this ship with an open mind, be patient and understanding of the crew who are still getting used to the ship and it's new processes and also keep in mind that this staff is not only trying to adapt to new working conditions, but are also away from their families at one of the most important times of the year - the holidays. Would we sail Solstice again? Absolutely. But would we pay a surcharge to sail on a Celebrity ship versus a Royal Caribbean? Probably not.
FOOTNOTE I would say that the average age of passengers on our sailing was late 50s, with only about a dozen kids onboard. The daily cruise staff programs were geared much more toward an older crowd and were scheduled intermittently throughout the day as opposed to back to back like on other cruise lines. We frequently found ourselves with nothing to do, which was relaxing at times, but boring the rest. Pools operated from 7am-8pm so those who are hoping for a moonlight swim are out of luck. For a fantastic post dinner experience, stop by the Martini Bar on deck four and try their martini sampler. You'll be treated to six different mini-martinis at a value price of $18.50. Don't make the same mistake we did -the martini sampler on an empty stomach can put a damper on your evening!