My pre-cruise stay was at the Days Inn Oakland Park. While this hotel was a steal online there was a reason for it that was not readily advertised. It was by active train tracks and while the room itself was clean and the staff friendly, the constant noise all night kept waking me up and it wasn't a good night's sleep. If you can sleep through a freight train then this is the right hotel for you.
Embarkation was not quite as smooth as it could have been. I think this was attributable to a mix up between Celebrity and the charter company. Arriving at the recommended time by Atlantis only caused more waiting although some of it had to do with people who didn't have their paperwork properly completed. By the time I cleared the check-in line boarding of the vessel had begun and the throngs of people in the waiting area when I arrived were now gone. This overwhelmed the staff onboard that didn't have enough champagne ready and I missed a glass of bubbly. No biggie though but it was a nice touch that others received. I'm not sure if this is standard practice for all Celebrity or just our charter but it is similar to NCL's Freestyle 2.0 initiative.
Once onboard I headed to the stateroom to dump off the carry-on bag and get something to eat. By this time it was going towards 2:30PM and I was starving. I headed up to the Oceanview Cafe on the Lido Deck for some lunch. The setup of the buffet is very functional because it is the action station concept as opposed to the straight line buffet so you could pick and choose what you wanted. The only problem was the salad station was always backward. The lettuce would be in the center and the toppings on the left and then on the right was the salad dressing so the line formed to the right of the lettuce and the people who fixed their salads had to cut across the line to get the dressing. Food selection was ok - not great but it's a buffet so I don't expect excellence here. However, the food nearly everywhere onboard was disappointing in the quality that went into preparation. Presentation was excellent but the cooking of it seemed very hit or miss - mostly miss in the Oceanview Cafe. One other point about this venue outside of its bright dEcor is the bar along the windows that is at horizon level. Whoever designed this space didn't actually visualize what views you'd get when looking out the window. You'd either have to bend down or in my case being tall crane your neck to see the horizon.
After finishing a late lunch at the Oceanview it was off to explore the ship with friends who I had intended to surprise later that day on the cruise who saw me first! We headed forward on the Lido Deck past the pool area where the wet zone fountains were working. Impressive show but another waste of deck space on this cruise during the day and during the night for our particular sailing. Further forward was the Solarium which housed the in-door pool and exquisite dEcor. It was a nice place to escape the hot sun with a stark contrast that a jacket or towel needed to be worn because the air conditioning was far too cold in this area unless you were in direct sunlight and that was very hard to come by. Going even further forward was the Sky Lounge at the very front of the ship. This venue served as the indoor nightclub venue and was very nicely decorated. It had plenty of loungers and places to hang out but the dance floor was not big enough to accommodate a large crowd without being packed in like a sardine. Something with the ship's power system caused a problem the first night out and the power went dead to the light system and sound system that was brought onboard. It was resolved later that night and the party went on.
The fitness center below the Sky Lounge was always a popular place. Lines for gym equipment were quite frequent and for cardio equipment that it made visiting the gym too much of a hassle so I just opted for the stairs whenever possible. The gym was pretty large and probably wouldn't have been that intensely busy if it were a standard cruise. There were plenty of classes offered including cycling and ab attacks but I could never get myself up in time for any of the classes I wanted to attend.
Working our way down to the Entertainment Deck from the forward elevator bank we discovered the balcony section of the Solstice Theater. The first thing we realized was that there were seats that were obstructed by poles and that we'd have to get there early to get good seating which was on the floor of the theater (Deck 3). If you like to shop there are two floors of boutiques onboard starting with the Galleria Boutiques on the Entertainment Deck (5) on the starboard side and on the Shops on the Boulevard on Promenade Deck (4) portside. The boutiques themselves were quite pricey for merchandise ranging from Solstice gear to anything else. It was cheaper to buy off the ship in ports. The funniest thing I found in the shops was on Deck 4 in the Solstice signature collection area. While looking at the magnets I discovered that one which had the ship's name on it actually had a picture of a Grand-class PRINCESS cruise ship on it. I don't know if anyone noticed it but a friend I made onboard didn't. Make sure you're actually getting a souvenir of the ship you are on when you're purchasing magnets.
Back on the Entertainment Deck (5) going aft was the Art Gallery area. It was very functional and brightly lit and showcasing all different works of art that would later be for sale at the art auction that was held in the Sky Lounge during the day. This area actually had it's own bar which had some neat decorations including one vase that seemed to get a lot of people's attention. I'll let future cruisers figure out which one I'm talking about.
Heading further aft was the Cafe al Bacio. This cafe had every type of drink you could want that was coffee related but only had a limited selection of teas and none of them were in latte form. Since I'm allergic to coffee this venue was not very functional for me but the string band playing there was great to listen to with a glass of hot tea from the buffet upstairs. Bistro on Five is also in this area. This restaurant was too far out of the way for after the parties ended on the pool deck and the Oceanview Cafe was closed. I never got to dine there but the dEcor was nice and contemporary to fit in with the rest of the ship.
Going aft was Michael's Club which reminded me of an elegant ocean liner hangout. Sadly I didn't get to enjoy this venue during the cruise outside of taking the picture and exploring the initial day. Next door was the specialty restaurant Murano. This restaurant seemed very small and very intimate. The dEcor was faux wood accentuated by inviting chairs. The menu seemed to offer a huge selection but I didn't dine here on this cruise because it turned out to be a popular venue each night and booked up quickly.
In the aft end of the deck were Tuscan Grille and the exclusive Blu restaurant. Both of these restaurants I ate in. Tuscan Grille's dEcor was very dimly lit with candlelight at the tables and serving a mixture of Italian, seafood and steak cuisine. It was a less intimate but still romantic dining venue than Murano and it also had a view of the ship's wake. Blu is the restaurant with the most interesting dEcor onboard including the impressive roses on the walls. The dEcor here is far lighter with the presence of blue and white being the major colors used. The menu in Blu was entirely organic and hosted many different creations and for a nominal service charge of $5 per person non-Aqua class guests on our cruise could dine there (keep in mind this was a charter).
Down to deck 4, the Promenade Deck, where the balcony of the two story Grand Epernay was. This restaurant didn't look as bad as the pictures made it seem. The purple helped off set the otherwise white and steel sterile environment that reminded me of a hospital. The chandelier and the wine cellar also added some elegance to a room that really lacked eye pleasing dEcor. This was the least favorite space on the ship for me.
Cellar Masters and the Martini Bar were mid-ship. Both were haunts on this cruise and great social meeting spots either for the singles gatherings (wine bar) or just to meet random new people (Martini Bar). The Martini Bar's chilled bar was very neat and the frost on the bar was fun to play with while waiting for friends to show up. The bartenders at this bar were extraordinary and the bar waiter from Croatia worked this area frequently.
Going forward was Fortune's Casino. I don't gamble so this place had little to do for me but it was a haunt of two people I knew on the cruise, my roommate and a friend. Since it was non-smoking my friend spent less time there than usual but I appreciated the smoke-free atmosphere. The staff in there was nice to me considering I never once gambled the entire cruise but would lurk there in a rare dull moment to watch a friend or the roommate lose money. My friend hit a $6,000 slot but my roommate said the payouts were lousy so it definitely was hit or miss.
The entertainment court is further forward and consists of Celebrity Central which is like a mini-theater venue and Quasar - Solstice's regular nightclub venue. For some events it was obnoxiously small and for others it was perfect depending on the entertainment booked in there. No matter who was in there the air conditioning never seemed to work as it was always hot in there. Quasar was a small Jetson-type nightclub. It was used for after hours a few times during the cruise and I don't believe the charter company put equipment in this area but the bass could be heard all the way up to deck 7 where our room was in the wee early hours of the morning. It didn't keep me awake but it did annoy my roommate. Not sure if this is just unique to our sailing but worthy of note.
On Deck 3 was the Grand Foyer with the Guest Relations Desk. The walls behind guest relations light up at night and during the day the drapes are opened to allow natural light in. It's a very well decorated area and only adds to the beauty of the central atrium area which spans three full decks. On the opposite end of the Guest relations was the Passport Bar and this is where Matt Yee setup shop for his show most nights.
THE STATEROOM My stateroom was 7173 and my stateroom attendants were Loudres and Felipe. Both were from the Philippines and both gave excellent service and accommodated any small requests that I had. I made it a point to help them out by letting them know when the stateroom was empty so they could come in and clean or would tell them to come down and clean it while relaxing on the balcony. Both were very friendly and I gave them extras like the free duffel bag the charter guests get as well as a tip and a good write up in the Celebrity cruise questionnaire. The stateroom itself was in excellent condition. Everything was still very new and very clean. The beds were very comfortable but the sofa was harder than a rock! Sitting on that thing for more than a half hour hurt!! The bathroom was extra spacious compared to most other ships I've sailed on. The shower was larger and the doors made sure no water seeped out. Plenty of storage space within the bathroom to put two people's toiletries and trust me there was a ton of them! This was definitely designed with us in mind!
THE SERVICE As mentioned previously the stateroom stewardess and steward were fantastic. Service all over was phenomenal from the Guest Relations desk where a nice lady helped me work out a solution to the problem of a suddenly canceled excursion and changing larger bills into smaller ones for tips ashore. A call down to guest relations fixed some mini-bar charges on my account that belonged to my roommate without me having to venture down there and doing it in person. Each time every person was more than happy to deal with you.
Casino staff was friendly although trying to get me to play frequently. They did learn to appreciate the watching mentality and greeted me warmly each time I came in looking for either my roommate or one of my friends (they knew who both were)! Boutique staff was kind and very helpful, especially when it came down to choosing which type of lip balm to buy since they had two different types (who knew there was a difference but there was)! Bar staff were always incredibly nice when you actually ordered from a bar. Service at the poolside bars was hit or miss during the larger deck parties but that was due to sheer volume of orders they were dealing with and never-ending lines. It was amazing that in four different places you could pay four different prices for the same item such as a Red Bull or water. Since my bar bill was lower than expected I didn't say anything but thought some consistency there might be helpful in the future.
Dining room staff was hit or miss. If you told the waiter in Grand Epernay you were speed dining you could get out of there eating a full meal within 45 minutes. If you didn't you were stuck there for up to 1.5 hours and the larger tables you sat at the longer it took. I think the service issue had something to do with the kitchen being overwhelmed during peak times with the open seating dining concept. Other times I think it was just that the waiter had so far to walk between the station and the table that it took forever for a larger table to get served so everyone could eat together. I was stunned to find an old friend who switched cruise lines from Norwegian to Celebrity. Nalan, a young lady from Turkey, was working in Oceanview Cafe in the AM when I saw her and she was also working in Blu Restaurant. Through our connection in Blu we dined there the night the ship was in Curacao and most people were ashore. She provided the same excellent service I remembered from her on the 12-day Egypt/Med cruise on the NCL Jewel in 2007.
ENTERTAINMENT This section will be done in a chronological format based on the events that I experienced onboard starting with Day 1 - Fort Lauderdale and ending on Day 7 - Last Sea Day.
Day 1 - Ft Lauderdale - Embarkation was delayed so the Muster station drill approached fast at 4:30PM. The video shown during this drill was exceptionally funny as the people seemed more robotic than animated. Once this was over it was up to the pool deck for our Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. It would have been the bon voyage party but we weren't leaving until 10:30PM. It was still fun and a great way to meet some new people. From there it was down to the singles mingle at Quasar. The nightclub was a bit dark and the music a little loud to really talk with anyone but it helped to get you out there as a single. My roommate and I went back to the room and dressed for dinner but decided to catch the early Kimberley Locke showing and go to dinner afterward. Not knowing who Kimberley Locke was made it intriguing and she definitely had an incredible voice and it was well worth the delayed departure to experience her in concert. At 10:30PM we pulled out of Fort Lauderdale and had a party up on deck. The people in the condo towers were still awake and gave us a wonderful send off as usual and it was interesting to leave so late. After this it was off to the nightclub in Sky which was insanely hot and packed. When the music started getting really good something happened with the power and everything went off, music and lights too. While the problem did get eventually fixed from what I heard I decided to retire for the evening.
Day 2 - At Sea - Nice lazy day by the pool in the shade to do some homework and relax making new friends. At 1PM was Project Runway and the always funny Malcolm hosted the event which showcased creativity of a few teams onboard with whatever they could find in 30 seconds on the pool deck and grab as well as three sheets which they could do anything too. While they were designing their costumes the boutiques put on a fashion show of things you could buy onboard. It was an amusing way to pass the time. The BooFont sisters left something to be desired during their performance. I had no idea who they were but this was the first time I saw them and they weren't entertaining or on key so I skipped their shows completely. Later in the early evening was the first t-dance. Camouflage was the attire and as usual this is the first BIG party of the cruise. It is also where I met friends I hope to keep in touch with and sail again for years to come. That night was the comedy showcase. Each entertainer was amusing and had individual shows throughout the cruise which I never got to see. Whoops!
Day 3 - Labadee, Haiti - Not too much going on this day because everyone was ashore in the sun. The evening's entertainment consisted of two Friends of Bill W meetings (someone didn't proofread the final copy of Celebrity Today) and ironically a Friends of Dorothy gathering!!! Ha ha!! I caught the Hot Glass Show as well as Celebrity's production of Solstice which was incredible! It was a Cirque-style show with amazing acrobatics and incredible use of the entire theater including ceiling apparatus to come out over the audience. Very well done by the Celebrity dance troupe and technical team. It was another early to bed night as the 80's party was before my time in music.
Day 4 - Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic - A nice late morning arrival into Casa de Campo allowed for sleeping in. Watched the ship pull in from the Oceanview Cafe and then forward on the Sun Deck. Went ashore and took the shore excursion that visited Altos de Chavon and the Mississippi River Boat cruise. Ruben, our tour guide, was not very helpful when we were at the Altos de Chavon. He spun us on our own after showing us the meeting spot and we had over an hour to kill. If shopping is not your thing then maybe you want to skip this stop all together or better yet just take a taxi and go on your own as a couple of guys I met from DC did. We arrived back to the ship in time to freshen up for the Classic Disco t-dance and our castoff from DR. The staff lined the pier to wave us off which was very nice of them. It was off to dinner after trying to find my roommate in his outfit without success. Later it was Miss Ritchfield 1981's turn at the spotlight in the theater and she was funny as always. Her recorded grass cutting both during the day and at night (looped on a special channel) were hilarious to watch. She always keeps things fresh. This night was the first big open deck party night at the pool. Brazil was a new party this time around and the attire was Sao Paulo or beach. I chose beach and danced the night away until the music stopped at 4:45AM and moved to the after hours down in Quasar.
Day 5 - Willemstead, Curacao - Thankfully we arrived late at 1PM so we had plenty of time to sleep in or at least I did. The roommate was up and at the gym already competing for the elliptical. We cleared customs later than expected but this was probably attributable to the ambitious itinerary we had. Either way it was off to the "Curacao Experience". My other tour had been canceled so this I booked which was similar with a stop at a local artist's house who was very welcoming and definitely loved his work. His work is showcased in China - ask him about it. He's very humbled if you ask about his artwork off the island. (His name escapes me at the moment). Next stop was the Hato Caves. Since this is a commercial cave there were limited spaces where you could take pictures. The tour guide was very informative and once again very friendly. The last stop was the slavery museum. A lady with a heavy Curacao brogue gave us a very long one hour tour of the entire museum. By the time the tour completed and we were returning to the ship most of the shops were closing (at 6PM). No shopping to be had here which was a tragedy because the locals missed out on a lot of money. That night two parties were held in honor of our arrival. One the charter company knew about which was on Punda a little walking distance from the ship and the other was at the fort very close to the ship which was docked at the mega pier. I wanted to support the locals for their fireworks show later on so I went to the party. When it started at 6PM to 7PM it wasn't really spectacular so I made haste back to the ship and met up with the roommate and saw Pulse! This was another Celebrity show and once again it was phenomenal work by the dance troupe. I don't know the African-American woman's name but she had the best voice out of all of the singers and she really shined that night. As we pulled away at 11PM Curacao shot off some fireworks. They were very pretty and it was very nice of Curacao to be so gay friendly. I danced for a short while at the 90's Divas party and then accompanied my roommate to Matt Yee's "The Remake of Divas Live." Through his performance I somehow managed to drink a little too much and paid for it with a slight hangover the next morning. It has something to do with "oui, oui oui, oui oui, mmm". Ha ha!
Day 6 - At Sea - Woke up fashionably late and had brunch in the main dining room. Same selection you could find in the Oceanview Cafe most days with the exception of the lunch food at one table. At 1PM it was time for yet more hilarious pool games once again organized and put on by Malcolm. Time for a disco nap!! Tonight's the big night! Woke up later and went to the Tuscan Grille for an 8:30PM reservation in my White Party attire with my roommate and his date and my date. The service was slow enough to put us right up to the late show of Chita Rivera who was our special guest star for this cruise. I went to her show and since I'm young and had no clue that she was, I lasted three songs before leaving to finish getting ready for the party. This was the night to go all out for costumes and dancing! It started at 11PM and didn't move to after hours until around 7AM. It was still going until 9:30AM when it finally ended in Sky Lounge. I managed to out dance the other two guys who said I was old for leaving at 4:45AM during the Brazil party earlier in the week!!
Day 7 - At Sea - Well it was 9:30AM when the music stopped. Not sure what to do. Didn't feel like eating more like sleeping but thanks to Red Bull I couldn't get to sleep right away so I took care of some onboard stuff. Back to the room to sleep the day away and get packed to go home! In the late afternoon was the final t-dance of the cruise Splash! What a perfect way to end the cruise with complimentary cocktails for 1 hour and music spun by Manny Lehman. It was the last dance with all the new friends I made because after dinner and Ghost Light's the most phenomenal production show of them all it was back to the room to throw the luggage outside the door and get into bed.
DISEMBARKATION It flowed very smoothly as the walk-offs went first and I was the third group off. Luggage was still being taken ashore by porters from the ship when I disembarked at 8:05AM. It was hideously early considering my flight wasn't until 1:45PM. I realize they have to get the rooms ready for the next cruise but this is the earliest I've ever been off a ship in Fort Lauderdale. Purchased the onboard transfer to the airport and it was very convenient right outside the terminal and off to the airport to sit around and wait for the flight.
In conclusion, the Celebrity Solstice ship itself was a ship designed to be contemporary while keeping old school charm. She definitely lives up to this and her intricate areas that can be explored by the mid-ship elevator banks such as Team Earth which was on my floor made the exploration of her that much more entertaining. When the ship entertains you by itself without the crew that says a lot. With the exception of the dEcor of the Grand Epernay and the wasted space of the Lawn Club, this ship is definitely worth sailing on again. I do hope to try out Atlantis again next year if scheduling permits. The primary Atlantis entertainers were mixed in my opinion. Kimberley Locke was fantastic but a more all around age appropriate guest star for later in the cruise might have been more helpful to pack the house. The comedians seemed funny but they were always up against an even more incredible deck party with incredible lights by Guy Smith and as always the incredible laser show provided by Kyle Garner. Without all this entertainment I do believe the Solstice would be an excellent ship to sail on. I would recommend the Solstice for anyone either gay or straight on a gay or straight cruise!