This review was written over the course of our Solstice cruise (7th ~ 17th August 09) and details my thoughts and experiences 'little by little' as the trip progressed. Please note these are my own 'personal' observations. In other words please do not take what I say verbatim ~ any comments expressed here are, as you would expect, open to being challenged by my fellow passengers whose views may well differ from my own.
Similarly I have not ventured into the realms of reviewing our Ports of Call and have concentrated my efforts on a critique of our onboard experience only.
You will also soon realize that I have a tendency to waffle, so please accept my apologies in advance if this review turns out to be a tome of considerable length.
We arrived at the port of Civitavecchia at about 10.45am having stayed overnight at a local hotel in the area. There were already a small number of passengers ahead of us (around 100 people) and we were quickly ushered into a temporary lounge to wait. After probably no more than about 10 minutes we were invited to present our paperwork and within 30 minutes of our arrival were being welcomed onboard with a glass of champagne and whisked by lift in the direction of the Ocean View Restaurant on the 14th Floor for lunch. I cannot fault check-in at all. It was by far the most efficient I have experienced.
Once in the foyer of the buffet we purchased two soda cards (equal to $5.75 per day, per person) for the teens in our group and headed inside for a bite to eat... not before having first utilized the hand sanitizers that are stationed here and throughout the ship. It was pleasing to see that no one seemed to shirk or undervalue the importance of doing this. The buffet area itself is large and consists of multiple stations/islands offering all manner of hot and cold food items. There really does appear to be something to cater for everyone. Some of the more popular offerings are duplicated i.e. offered at more than one station, which I found a bit confusing at first as I was expecting to see something different at each one. At quieter times, fewer stations are open.
Fed and watered we headed off to explore our new 'home' awaiting the announcement to say that our staterooms were ready. This news eventually came through at about 1.30pm.
Our cabins (we had two) were situated on Deck 7 on the "hump". In comparison to Princess, our cabins could only be described as a step up to the standard balcony cabin we would normally book. Our room had the settee near the bathroom, the bed (very comfortable) by the balcony. The sofa sat opposite a wall-mounted flat-screen TV (with interactive elements to allow you, in theory, to see your bill online, order excursions, view your photos etc). I say 'in theory' as we somehow managed to add the same photo to the basket about 19 times and then couldn't find the delete button. I wouldn't mind, but it's wasn't even a photo we particularly liked nor wanted... unless, of course, I knew how to shave about 20lb off my profile with Paintshop Pro! The wardrobe/drawer space was more than adequate with ample hangers provided.
The bathroom was, in contrast to Princess, a real success... if only for the generous size of the shower cubicle and the proper screen (as opposed to a curtain). There was more than enough storage space for your toiletries etc. The only negative here would be the size of towels. A couple of bath sheets definitely wouldn't have gone amiss and we resorted to using the beach towels that were provided instead.
Please note both of our balconies were slightly affected by the infamous X! Approximately a third of each one had a triangular shaped tinted film applied to the glass. I can honestly say this would not deter me from booking these staterooms again. For us it really wasn't a big deal or something to get worked up about. You can see through it and I suppose I would describe it as like looking through a tinted car windscreen. I might feel a bit differently about a stateroom with the entire glass tinted, but as ours was only partially obscured it was fine.
The proximity of our cabin to the bank of lifts was a great bonus and the location itself was very quiet with little or no through traffic other than from those folk in neighboring staterooms.
That said we had families with young children on either side of our stateroom. Noise travels and we could, most evenings, hear crying through the walls. This led to the conclusion that the partition walls could be better sound proofed. Mind you I got my own back by causing my own disturbance when we finally disembarked at 6am on the 17th. Believe me there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth... such was my reluctance to get off the ship.
We had first sitting for dinner in the Grand Epernay Restaurant ~ a table for 4 on the upper level. Although the time for this was listed as a 6.15pm start, it was not unusual to see guests arriving at 7pm or even 7.20pm (as was the case one night). Having arrived promptly ourselves, it was a little disappointing to see so many of the tables nearby remaining unoccupied for the first half an hour or so.
The Sommelier was much in evidence and the Maitre'd also made a point of dropping by our table each night... a gesture we appreciated and welcomed. Similarly our waiter and his assistant were both very affable and attentive ~ as was the case with every member of staff we came into contact with. It really was service with smile. After the first couple of nights when we were offered bottled water with our meal, our waiters soon picked up on our personal preferences e.g. that we were just as happy with a jug of ordinary ice water, my husband preferred beer rather than wine, I didn't want a speciality coffee... just a regular cup etc.
The restaurant itself had a contemporary feel and my main criticism here would be the close proximity of the tables to each other. At a guess I would say there was barely 18-20 inches between us and the guests sat on the tables neighboring ours. The standard of food I would put on a par with that offered by Princess, although I didn't always find the menus on offer as 'tempting' as those offered by PCL. Nevertheless we had no complaints per se.
We did, however, miss the 'Anytime Dining' option that would be our first choice on Princess. I also appreciate that not everyone reading this Celebrity forum relishes the idea of this being introduced on Celebrity. As they say each to their own.
We did not visit any of the speciality restaurants on board.
I have to say that with only one or two exceptions everyone 'scrubbed up well'. Certainly in the dining room it would appear that most had made an effort to dress up with the majority of men wearing a suit and tie or tux and just a few in smart slacks and blazers. Women wore a variety of outfits ranging from long evening dresses to trousers with a nice top. Put it like this the general atmosphere on board was befitting the occasion.
At the start of our cruise I had booked a couple of hair appointments to coincide with the formal nights. My hair is mid length and sits on my shoulders, fine in texture but quite thick. All the same I was a bit shocked at the price for a straightforward wash and blow dry. Whilst I was more than happy with the end result I felt the charge of $66 was a bit steep so cancelled the second appointment. Personally I couldn't justify that sort of money when I could do my hair 'almost' as well myself.
Evening Attire Generally
I will admit to being a little surprised at how casually some folk were dressed each evening. I suppose it had been a perception of mine that the evening dress code on Celebrity would be along the lines of something you might wear to a fancy restaurant. Whilst I am far from passing judgement on others for their relaxed style (maybe I'm even a tad envious), I was just a little taken aback at the amount of jeans and shorts seen around the ship after 9 pm. Occasionally it seemed in conflict with the general ambience on board... at other times totally appropriate e.g. for the 'flava' deck party. With hindsight I now realize I needn't have fretted quite so much about my own 'wardrobe'. So much time had been expended prior to leaving trying to plan what I was going to wear each evening... worrying that I might let the side down by being underdressed, when in truth it seems to me that most things are acceptable.
Given the time of year (school holidays etc) the Solstice was, I assume, sailing at optimum capacity. Whilst all ages were represented, I would put the average age across the ship as in their early 50s. There were also lots of family groups. Compared to our previous Med cruises (this was our 6th cruise in this neck of the woods) there were also a much greater proportion of passengers on board for whom English was not their first language. At a guess I would put the percentage at about 45%. This was definitely a multi-national sailing. Never before had I heard so many different languages being spoken, which did, to a small degree, create some barriers with communication... finding ourselves often having to resort to smiles, nods and gestures. With hindsight it would have been good had I learnt some basic phrases before I had left home.
The girls (17 & 18yrs) unusually for them struggled "initially" to meet and make new friends and felt this was compounded by the lack of a place where those in their age group might naturally gravitate to of an evening. Whilst it is true that the under 18's are well catered for in terms of activities put on by Celebrity... young adults 17yrs (particularly those who don't want to attend the teen centre) through to 20yrs seemed to struggle to hook up with others. It is perhaps a difficult age at the best of times, but our past experiences with PCL would indicate that new friendships have been made much more seamlessly.
The evening entertainment was ~ in our opinion ~ a bit hit and miss! There are a plethora of beautiful venues on the Solstice but certainly during the "early" part of the evening (immediately after the first dinner sitting ~ between 8 and 10pm) many of these areas seem devoid of both guests and atmosphere. How sad to see areas such as the Sky lounge empty, a lone pianist playing to an audience of six, the talents of the string quartet unseen by the majority. The theatre was generously sized, but again you couldn't help but notice rows of empty seats especially at the early shows. For all that the Martini Bar always seemed to be doing a brisk trade: with Karaoke in the Sky Lounge also proving popular with guests (especially at the later evening sessions).
Personally we didn't warm to Celebrity Central as a venue. Indeed I met a number of people who didn't discover this location at all... thinking (wrongly) that it was the the small atrium immediately outside of Quasar... the disco. The comedian showcased here, as did the Mr & Mrs show... but we were left speculating whether these sorts of acts might have been better held in a larger auditorium.
For all that the 'Flava' Evening/Ibiza White Night was a real success. Held by the pool on Deck 12 there was a wonderful party atmosphere and by the end of the evening most passengers were up dancing and generally having a great time. Well Done Celebrity. Interestingly no one was invited to 'wear' white, which I seem to recall was the case on previous sailings.
The Sizzler Party was also well supported and if you are a chocolate lover, you shouldn't miss the chocolate buffet held late one evening in the Sky Lounge. Headlines (the main band) are very good with a large repertoire.
The 'variety' style acts on board did not appeal to us personally, but of the Celebrity own productions the 'Solstice' show is definitely not to be missed. The acrobatic skills displayed were breathtaking.
Overall I would perhaps give Princess the edge for the scheduling of their entertainment options. The location of their evening venues, which are more or less located on one floor seem to flow better... if that makes sense. This is not meant as a criticism of Celebrity more an observation.
Entertainment... of a different sort!
Here I will digress a little by recounting something that happened to the girls one evening. You will recall that I said earlier that they were having trouble meeting new people... well an incident occurred where they met two of their fellow passengers quite intimately!
Situated by the covered pool are a number of cabanas with cloth-covered hoods to shield and cocoon the occupants. At about 9.30pm one evening the girls were sat inside one of these (facing out to sea) when a 'middle aged' couple came along and got into the jacuzzi situated about 3 feet away from where they were sitting. This duo could be seen quite clearly because they were reflected in the glass through which the girls were looking. Well I won't detail what happened next, but I am sure you can imagine! Meanwhile the occupants of the jacuzzi had no idea the girls where there. This caused something of a dilemma for the girls who then didn't know how to extradite themselves from what was now quite an embarrassing situation. Loud coughs by them had gone unheard. In the end I believe they practically crawled away from the scene commando style, eyes averted and I think no one was any the wiser! I'm sure there is a moral to this story? Answers on a postcard please!
It was lovely to meet up with some of the wonderful people from our roll-call ~ by luck rather than design I hasten to add. Initially there was a hiccup with communications and our much-awaited connections party was cancelled by Celebrity HQ 'apparently' due to a perceived lack of support. Given that the last number recorded by us as participating was 38, this more than exceeded the minimum of 25 people required by Celebrity. It didn't help either, that some of our roll-call had arranged tours together and were waiting until the party (which we thought would be scheduled for our first sea day) to hook up and exchange stateroom numbers etc. No party... no way of finding each other! In the event, after a number of visits to Customer Relations, a meeting was put on for us all... a little belatedly. As they say 'better late than never'.
Price of beer
Probably no more expensive than any other cruise line or when purchasing ashore but my husband did note that his choice of bottled beer normally sells at home in the UK for about 80 pence per bottle (roughly $1.30), whereas on the ship it is being sold for $6.00 plus the tip. Needless to say this did not seem to deter Homer from sampling a gallon or ten during the course of the cruise!
Anyone venturing to these shores during August is going to be expecting the weather to be on the warm side (UK readers would interpret this as being very hot). In the past I have likened the heat to stepping into an oven. Whilst temperatures were consistently in the high 80s/low 90s, this cruise 'felt' cooler than our previous experiences in the Med. This may in part have been down to the light breeze, which seemed to follow us from port to port. Equally the sea was, by and large, like a millpond with little or no movement felt throughout the trip. The Solstice certainly gives passengers a smooth ride.
The Med itinerary is synonymous with being described as 'port intensive' so for those staying onboard while the majority are ashore, then the areas around the pools are particularly peaceful... with bar staff often outnumbering the passenger numbers on deck. As more people return from their tours then, as you would expect, the outside decks become more and more crowded. Unless you specifically want to be by the pool, sun loungers can normally still be found but you may need to wander up to a higher deck to find one. The exception to this would be sea days when, I'm told, some folk were up before 6 am reserving their places on deck ahead of the masses.
I loved the fact that there was a plentiful supply of pool towels left on both the loungers themselves and in carts close by. This is a much better idea than on Princess where towels are left in your stateroom for use on deck ~ one per person ~ the onus being on the passenger to carry them to the pools and return them back to their cabin at the end of the day.
In a word... ABYSMAL! Celebrity were the first to admit and apologize for the multitude of problems with the internet connection on our sailing. Initially a satellite problem was at fault and later on an issue with the hardware itself. Having brought a laptop with us for checking email from our stateroom, the problems with the slow service, the intermittent connection etc did render us more than frustrated at times. Having drawn the matter to the notice of staff in the Internet Cafe it was heartening that they were quick to reimburse us for time lost and in discussions with them it was obvious that they were being proactive in trying to get matters resolved. I believe an engineer had been flown in to try and get things back up and running at satisfactory speeds. Hopefully future sailings will not be similarly affected.
The Solstice is the most beautiful of ships and the interior designers should be congratulated. As you would expect from a new ship everything is in pristine condition and there is already evidence of maintenance crew touching up paintwork etc to ensure she remains that way.
Overall I would rate this cruise as a resounding success. By and large it met our expectations and more. Any negativity on my part was not sufficient to spoil our enjoyment of this vacation and I would be more than happy to recommend this ship to others.
Celebrity... I'll be back!
PS: Princess you are far from abandoned... I will be back to sail with you too (fingers crossed).