Cruise - Solstice Inaugural - Thanksgiving 2008
This was our 10th cruise on Celebrity and 12th cruise overall. We are a family of 4, myself in my mid 40s, husband mid-50's (getting his 1st senior discount!) and our 2 teenagers aged 14 and 16. My husband and I are originally from the UK but have lived in the USA for the past 20 years.
This past summer we sailed on the Celebrity Galaxy in Europe, and were looking forward to trying a larger ship and sailing on our first ever inaugural on the Solstice over Thanksgiving. We were prepared for possible teething problems, as this was a new ship but thought that the excitement and fanfare of being on the inaugural sailing would make up for any shortcomings.
We flew down the day before on Jet Blue. Our plane had a technical problem and was delayed 2 hours, so instead of arriving at 1pm we arrived at 3pm. Glad we didn't fly in the day of the cruise and have to race to the port, unlike some of the other people on the flight. We spent the night at the Embassy Suites in Fort Lauderdale. No complaints about the hotel, but the Managers Cocktail Party and Breakfast were very crowded. Had a super meal at Cocos, an Asian fusion restaurant close to the hotel. Took the Hotel Shuttle to the port at 11am.
Dropped our bags and were taken to a waiting room. After about 10 minutes we went into the check-in area, did our paperwork and received an inaugural luggage tag as a gift from Port Everglades and a small bag as a gift from the check-in staff. Had the obligatory picture taken and were onboard well before 12 noon. We were greeted with a glass of champagne on the ship and directed to the buffet on deck 14 for lunch.
We had 2 interconnecting SVs, 8344 (bed by the verandah) and 8353 (bed by the bathroom), and the cabin numbers are correct, not a typo! To the left of 8344 is a storage closet for the carts that are used for moving luggage. I was concerned that they may rattle at night, but they never disturbed us. The plus side was that the extra space from the storage area meant we had a larger than normal verandah, and when opened up with the adjacent one it was very spacious with 2 lounge chairs and a table, (but no foot stools), per verandah. We had heard about the single door and vestibule system for connecting cabins but were never asked whether we would like to use it and found it easy to access each other's cabins via the verandah.
The bathroom was larger than on other ships and very well laid out. The curved design of the shower worked well and there was plenty of storage. The toiletries were in individual bottles rather than in dispensers typically found on other ships in the fleet. There is a dim light on all the time in the bathroom that comes in handy at night.
Extra space in the bathroom means however that closet space in the cabin is significantly reduced. There is a good-sized safe in the closet, which further reduces storage, and with hindsight may have been better located in the console below the TV. There were a half dozen drawers near the TV and locker storage above the bed, so we had ample space for clothes for 2 for a 7 day cruise, but I think it might be a tight squeeze in a triple or quad or on a longer cruise.
The cabin seemed to be thoughtfully laid out apart from a couple of minor irritants. The phone had a very bright display that couldn't be dimmed so we had to put a card over it at night. The water carafe found on other ships is missing on the Solstice, although they do have a bottle of Evian for purchase prominently displayed!
For the record, I am not a fan of buffets because of the lines and the feeding trough mentality of the people eating there. The Oceanview Cafe, to my surprise, was totally different. The long lines, trays and people with food piled high on them are a thing of the past. Food is served at individual stations - carvery, soup and salad bar, Asian and pasta and pizza stations and, and as there are no trays, people put a sensible amount of food on their plates, and then go back for more later if they are still hungry. Far less waste and less gluttony, a win win situation all round!
I did feel that there were major gaps in when food was actually available. Lunch finished at 2:30, afternoon tea was 4-5 and sushi didn't open until 6pm. Anyone wanting to pick up a light snack around 5 to go with a cocktail while they listened to the guitarist and watched the sun set, was pretty much out of luck.
Grand Epernay Dining Room
For us the Grand Epernay was anything but "grand". We had asked for a table for 4 for late seating. Our 4 top was in fact a 10 top that had been pulled apart to form a table for 2 and 2 tables for 4 with about 6 inches between them, so it felt for all intents and purposes like being on a large table, which is not what we wanted. The 2nd disappointment was that there appeared to be what can best be described as 2 separate rooms as you walked into the dining room before you reached the large open area with the staircase, wine tower and view of the beautiful ceiling. Our table was in one of those rooms and our view was of a curtainless window on the one side, the waiters station on the other, and a thin neon stripe which changed color each evening, so nothing "grand" at all about that. Giving Celebrity the benefit of the doubt, we didn't ask to change tables as we assumed that as we were on our 10th Celebrity cruise and the people on the table adjacent to us were Captains Club Elite, that the ship had to be full and all the nicer tables must have been taken by people with even more cruises under their belts than us. Imagine our surprise and disappointment a few days later when we discovered that the ship was in fact only 2/3 full. Celebrity, I think you dropped the ball on this one.
When we cruised in Summer I felt the food was less impressive than in the Michel Roux years and was looking forward to sampling the Blau era proper when the new food was unveiled on the Solstice. I have to say it still has a long way to go. I guess 'adequate" rather than "good" would be a fair description. Appetizers and soups were generally good, and then it was downhill from there. A lot of the main courses tasted like they had been hanging around a while and kept warm. My main gripe though was the accuracy of the menu. It had well known dishes such as Navarin of Lamb, but what was served was not what you would expect when ordering that dish, i.e. we were served a grilled lamb chop on a bed of lentils instead of a hearty lamb stew. We gave up after 3 nights in the dining room and opted for pasta in the buffet one night, 2 nights at Silk Harvest and one night at Tuscan Grille.
There is now a Brunch served in the dining room in place of the Midnight Buffet. I thought the food was very nicely laid out and there was ample choice of both breakfast dishes and entrees along with fabulous cheese and fresh fruit platters. As it was open seating we got to see how nice the dining room really was if you weren't stuck in the "cheap seats".
We first ate here Thanksgiving Night and came back the next night with our kids, as the food really impressed us. We had shao mai and spring rolls to start, coconut pork curry, pepper beef, fried rice and orange chicken. The food tasted healthy, fresh and delicious compared to dinner in the dining room.
We ate here on our last night but did not enjoy it as much as we had hoped. We weren't starving so opted for the leek soup, anticipating it would be light. Unfortunately it was a heavy cream based soup that sapped our appetite. I had the filet mignon, which turned out to be an overly large portion and temperature wise had been waiting a while before it was served. I think they should consider offering a petite filet as well as a regular sized one. We passed on dessert, as we were so full. In all fairness, I think we would have enjoyed this restaurant much more had we gone at the beginning of the cruise when we were still hungry!
Bistro on Five, Cafe Al Bacchio
We never used either venue, but did notice whenever we walked by that they never seemed busy and usually the only people eating in there were ships officers and other crewmembers. It is a shame that the Bistro had a menu change and a cover charge introduced right before our sailing, as it was a venue I had been looking forward to trying.
We had room service most mornings for breakfast. It was always delivered right on time and the order was always correct. They were nice enough to even bring me smoked salmon and a toasted bagel, which I wrote onto the menu. We often ordered hot tea in the cabin in the afternoon, as it was such a hike to get up to the buffet and hot milks at night and these came very quickly.
Don't wish to sound like a grouch, but I didn't find the bars onboard overly impressive. The crows-nest type lounge at the top of the ship was divided into smaller intimate areas which although nice, proved detrimental when they held large Captains Club events in there, as it was impossible to see the band or whoever was talking unless you were in the centre part of the lounge near the stage. The trend on Solstice seems to be towards smaller more intimate bars instead of the large Rendezvous style lounge that can be found on other ships. I think I prefer the latter.
As a wine drinker, I had been looking forward to trying "Tastings", the wine bar. It wasn't quite what I had imagined and had optics containing wine in special temperature controlled cases. Whenever we looked in the place was always empty. Perhaps they just did wine tasting events here?
The Passport bar was a good venue for a pre-dinner drink, although the dance floor was very small. Tried the Sunset bar but the hybrid techno/new age music played there drove us away. The bar near the specialty restaurants was quite good, but we didn't care for the adjacent Michaels Bar. It was an odd shape and looked really uncomfortable, a bit too "stiff upper lip" for me!
Our favorite bar was the Oceanview Bar with it's comfortable sofas, aft views and it's excellent staff, Jocelyn the bartender and O'Neil the bar waiter. At sunset there was a guitarist that we enjoyed listening to while we sipped a glass of sauvignon blanc and watched the sun set. This was a really underutilized area and unfortunately the bar was closed by 8pm if not earlier.
Let me preface this section by saying that this was probably the least lively ship we have ever sailed on. I'm not sure whether it was because of the large number of older people onboard or whether the entertainment team hadn't really got in the swing of things yet. I didn't find the cruise director particularly inspiring or very visible around the ship. There were some new and innovative forms of entertainment onboard - glass blowing, lawn games (when the lawn wasn't resting), table laying demonstrations(!), but they weren't my cup of tea and I found I really missed some of the tried and tested activities like 60s, 70s and 80s theme nights with the decade music quizzes before them, the daily quiz in the library and the daily newspapers. There was also a lot less trivia. Karaoke didn't appear until the latter part of the cruise. In the evening, if you didn't follow either path a) the show or path b) the casino, there wasn't a lot to do after dinner if you didn't want to drink. There was a comedian at midnight, but as we were typically at a loss for what to do between 10pm and midnight we had inevitably retired for the night before he came on. People were raving about him and an earlier show, perhaps in the theatre, would have been nice.
I have to commend Celebrity in introducing a guest lecturer programme on the Solstice, as it was a feature we really enjoyed. We attended all the lectures by Walter Cunningham, an astronaut on Apollo 7 and Ian Wright, a photographer in the "Swinging 60's". I would have liked to see the 3rd lecturer onboard, Bill Miller, a ship historian, but we never seemed to be in the right place at the right time to catch him.
Show-wise we caught the tail end of Ghostlight, which seemed to be the standard "collection of Broadway songs" type show. The quality of singers and dancers though was greatly improved. We also saw the variety show at the end of the cruise, which featured many of the onboard entertainers and showcased (unfortunately) the Xylopunk, who although talented, began to grate after the 3rd song, so we left.
On the day we had a 10pm departure from Puerto Rico, the cruise director had been "bigging up" the sailaway party that night called Sizzle, saying it was an unmissable show and was something really special that would be the highlight of the cruise. I had hoped there might be fireworks and a band onshore as we pulled away from the dock, celebrating Solstices first port visited on her inaugural voyage.... Instead it was just a latin themed sailaway party. The party band came on and performed 15 minutes before announcing they were going to take a short break, (huh? Sizzle had only just started!). I'm not sure when Celebrity made the switch from reggae bands, Caribbean music and rum cocktails to latin music and mojitos, but I prefer island music when I'm in the islands. I reckon the show fizzled out rather than sizzled.
The quality of the onboard musicians was very good. We enjoyed Jefferson Ang the guitarist, the string quartet and the Modern Jazz Trio. Additionally there was a steel drum player, acapela group and pianist/singer as well as the party band.
We usually spend a lot of time in the solarium on cruises, as we are not sun-worshippers. The solarium on Solstice was visually stunning, but we were unable to use it as the pool was unheated and the room temperature was cold. You would need a blanket to spend any length of time in there. Hopefully this area will become more user friendly in the future.
We had 2 excellent couples massages, one a deep tissue and one a hot stones massage. It was a shame we had to endure high-pressure sales pitches at the end of both massages, and unusually, on this cruise, saying "No" didn't put an end it. It would have been a nicer experience if we could have eliminated the hard sell, and no, we didn't buy a product in the end - a bath soak for the price of a weeks worth of groceries for a family of 4 with teenagers is not our thing!
Our kids had a great cruise. The teen facilities on board were nice, the counselor was enthusiastic and they had lots of activities (Wii, karaoke, parties) to keep them busy. There were 50 teens onboard and my kids made lots of friends. They said this was the best cruise they have ever been on.
Ports of Call
We visited San Juan PR, St Maarten and St Kitts. We walked around San Juan and visited Fort Dan Cristobal and El Morro by ourselves. In St Maarten we took a private tour with Joe Liburd and spent time at Le Galion beach, Maho Beach and Marigot. In St Kitts we had a private island tour with Ilva Wallace.
We didn't participate in any of the events for Select members other than the Select and Elite cocktail party which was very crowded. I feel I must say that the sheet of coupons in the cabin was pretty useless and always involved purchasing something to get any benefit, i.e. buy one glass of wine get one free, rather than getting a coupon for a free glass of wine like on RCCL. I remember the good old days of Captains Club when we got a free spa treatment and free Cova chocolates after just a couple of cruises. The current benefits are a joke. How about offering a free (not $5) visit to Bistro on 5 for Select and Elite, a free glass of wine, one free bag of laundry, 10 minutes free internet so we can print our boarding pass and a decent table location in the dining room instead?
The crew is the Solstice's biggest asset and they were superb. Everyone we passed in the hallway greeted us, nothing was too much trouble and staff went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. Our cabin attendant Annaliza was the best, as were our friends O'Neil and Jocelyn in the Oceanview Bar. I think the staff in the main dining room is still working out the kinks and hopefully service there will soon improve as well.
We had one of the later disembarkation times, 10am, as we had an afternoon flight home. Our number was called at 9:00 and we lingered until 9:15 before disembarking. Finding our bags was easy and we found a free shuttle to the airport outside the terminal.
In conclusion this cruise was nice but a bit boring. The ship is beautiful, the crew is outstanding but there was nothing special about this inaugural voyage. I had hoped there would be a sense of occasion onboard, with excitement and fanfare as we sailed in and out of ports for the first ever time, but there wasn't. No wow factor, no pizzazz, no fireworks, nothing. It was just a big anticlimax.
Been there, done that, won't do an inaugural again.