Our Solstice experience was perhaps a bit different than indicated in the reviews of "homesweethome" and "SeattleKroozer", as follows:
We are seniors from California, USA, who sailed the Solstice 10/9/09 on the Eastern Mediterranean itinerary, spending 4 days in Rome pre-cruise thus fully relaxed. This was my first trip to Europe, not so for my lady. We opted for transfer from our hotel directly to the port with two (new) friends we discovered on Cruise Critic via the Roll Call. With Rome Cabs (highly recommended) the cost was one half the total of 150 Euro and provided relaxing door-to-door service, luggage handling and zero walking, viewed by us as a great value. (Philosophically, in this case, I define "great value" as not having to schlep luggage to the Rome Termini, on to the train, off the train at Civitavecchia, up and down the stairs there and then to the port entrance to hopefully find a bus to the ship all to save about 40 Euro total... and a potential heart attack!)
Arriving at the ship at 12:30 our luggage was accommodated and we proceeded to check-in where there was zero queue. We boarded the ship, received a glass of bubbly, were ushered to a waiting elevator and then selected lunch before 12:45. Given 2,850 people booked on this cruise we found that remarkable and a stellar start to our Solstice experience.
Shortly after lunch our cabin (6169) was ready on Continental Deck 6. Though listed as obstructed, Class 2C, the balcony is above the lifeboat which only affected the view straight down, a non-issue. Being located between the elevators made access either way convenient and only a deck above the smoking deck made my walk for that habit a short one. We found the cabin spacious for our needs with plenty of storage space, room for our luggage under the bed, the best bathroom yet, wonderful shower, very quiet and complete with other amenities as promised. The bed was heaven! Having designed interior spaces I found this design to be excellent save for one minor gripe. The closet at the end of the couch leaves little room for maneuvering, thus is clumsy to use.
We booked early (6:15) seating in the Main Dining Room (MDR) and found that time perfect. We were seated with a terrific couple from Florida (within our age bracket and with similar interests) at a quiet rectangular table next to a window on Deck 4. Adjoining our table were two more couples also of similar age. We all became fast friends. The seating area was spacious, not at all crowded as others have observed. Our servers, Stan Lopuchov and Alan Peros, were beyond skilled and very personable. There was never a need to ask for anything. Every course was preceded with a rearrangement of the proper flatware, a minor point perhaps but it was that good. Juris provided excellent wine service, and wine not consumed was corked and found on the table as we arrived the next night. The cocktail server provided service in a like manner. Yes, I know the meaning of long-winded, but this is worth saying. Almost every night Alan (from Croatia) walked my lady out of the dining room on his arm. It was classy, professional and gentlemanly; adding further to our Solstice experience.
The nightly menus provided plenty of options (we are a bit picky), the food was served promptly and always warm or cold as appropriate. Were all of the meals spectacular? No. There were one or two meals rated average at best, with the rest very good to excellent. That is a rating of 36 meals for the four of us. The other four meals were consumed at Murano with our same dinner companions, worth the price and top notch in every respect. Worthy of mention is Bistro on 5, a good value, tried only once for lunch. The Oceanview Cafe (buffet) was excellent in our view, though we only eat a common breakfast and salads for lunch, thus less than picky in this case. We found the service there adequate, not spectacular, and actually enjoyed not having trays (Trays defining a "buffet" perhaps? A common negative comment it seems). We did not try other dining opportunities as the MDR, buffet and those mentioned fully served our needs.
The service referenced above and that found throughout the entire ship deserves mention. We found all staff to be professional and very friendly. Another example in Cafe al Bacio was having an afternoon drink and upon returning the following afternoon being greeted with: "Good to see you again. Will you be having the same beverage?" (and she did remember) Only through top-down excellence in management does that occur, thus I complemented management for their effort more than once. Sure, they almost seemed surprised, but that is my nature. Give credit when due, you reap what you sow, etc. It all pays dividends.
To be very brief, the entertainment was just fine (some excellent!) depending on your taste, the grass is just peachy if you like it, the Martini Bar is a complete giggle, Sarah (from Wales) gives a great man's haircut if needed, we don't do gym workouts, the internet connection works okay (if you must!) and so on. It's all good. Enjoy what you want and let the rest go. A minor gripe was the lack of ballroom dancing opportunities. When offered in the Sky Lounge it was excellent but not offered to the extent found on our last HAL cruise in June. Perception or truth? Not sure.
Miscellanea: We found the two days at sea to be a welcome respite, both of which are formal nights, thus not having a rush for the gals to get gorgeous. Those who served us on a regular basis (Cabin and MDR attendants) easily earned generous tips above the fixed amounts. In these times of significant competition we found Celebrity and the Solstice up to the game.
Disembarkation was a breeze. We arranged Celebrity bus transfer to FCO for an 11:20 AM flight to Washington, DC. Leaving the ship at 6:30, preceded by breakfast, allowed plenty of time and the process at FCO was benign. The Italians treated us well. Arriving late in Washington from Rome, having half of the customs stations closed, being treated like cattle in what was a veritable zoo, missing our connection to LAX and all other flights that night, thus having to spend the night in DC is another story. Hundreds of people, citizens or not, suffered the same. I was actually a tad embarrassed by the process on behalf of our country. Welcome to America it was not...
Notwithstanding the end game; the overall cruise experience on the Solstice simply exceeded our every expectation. Isn't that fun to say? I can't guarantee our luck with dinner companions, or the table location or the service we received but this ship deserves your serious consideration. Where they put 2,850 people onboard is beyond me, but they were never in our face. Remarkable!
Rome, Italy, 10/5/09 to 10/9/09 As stated, we spent 4 days in Rome pre-cruise, thus not an excursion per se. I found the city's pace and traffic intolerable after those 4 days. It all drove me crazy and diminished my pleasure understanding the incredible history and enjoyment of remarkable art and architecture. An excursion from the ship may correctly be viewed differently. Okay, I am an old (grumpy?) guy from a quiet California beach town. History, art and architecture are good, chaos is not. I will leave it at that!
Messina, Sicily, 10/10/09 Through Celebrity we booked the Taormina excursion. A female guide provided excellent information with considerable wit. Well organized and fairly priced at 57 USD each. We lunched at Billy & Billy in the first square (hungry!). Don't expect great English, just point at what you want and enjoy an excellent Greek salad and a cold beer at very modest prices. An adequate WC is available. The village is most interesting, worth the time, and don't miss the local pottery.
Not due to the recent weather and horrid mud slides (God bless them) we found the route through Messina from the ship to be filthy. Sorry, but true. The local leadership needs to get those streets cleaned up, at least along the tour bus routes. (My old Chamber of Commerce roots are showing here)
Mykonos, Greece, 10/12/09 Ah, Mykonos! The tender ashore was a breeze. As said before, queues were nearly non-existent. How Celebrity does that remains remarkable. We had no excursion, electing to walk about with our dinner companions mentioned previously. The history is worth investigating, the people beyond friendly, English is spoken freely, it is CLEAN, it is beautiful, and the shops are fabulous. One caveat, bring money! Having said that, I did manage to find a nice locally-made necklace for my lady at the neatest shop I have ever seen! WC's are plentiful.
On the curious side is that the beaches are claimed to be spectacular. The water was, no doubt. The beaches we saw are darker course sand or gravel unlike where I live. Still, Mykonos was wonderful.
Athens, Greece, 10/13/09 We canceled a Celebrity excursion to do a private all-day tour with our new Cruise Critic friends with Athens Cabs for 230 Euro, total price for four, plus 20 more for extending the day. Paul of Athens Cabs arranged to have Tom (his Nephew?) drive us in a (ubiquitous) Mercedes. Fabulous! He suggested an early start at 7:30 from the ship to beat the crowds. Brilliant! We were nearly alone at all the spots, starting with the Acropolis where, when we left, it was a zoo on the way in. This tour was very inclusive and completely flexible. Following a glorious inexpensive lunch suggested by Tom we drove southeast toward Cape Sounion along the interesting coast, finally stopping for coffee and yummy deserts at a beach-side restaurant.
Two benefits accrued here. Tom had lived in America for 10 years thus he spoke perfect English and had a huge sense of humor. Second was that he knows the history as would a professor. This was a very special day!
Ephesus, Turkey, 10/14/09 Through Celebrity we booked the Ephesian Modus Vivandi excursion, including the Terrace Houses, a must see. A female guide provided excellent information with, once again, considerable wit. Well organized and just a bit pricey at 119 USD. The entrance was a complete zoo only to moderate slightly throughout the tour. The walk is quite long, over very uneven terrain, but all downhill. The WC is at the end of the long walk. Be prepared. The lunch was interesting and adequate in flavor and quantity, though not great (as you might expect). Wine was served gratis.
The ubiquitous end-of-tour carpet show (sales pitch!) turned out to be very interesting. If in the market for a beautifully made carpet I believe good values can be had, shipped free (FedEx) without tax to your home (so they claim).
To my surprise the port city of Kusadasi was by far the most beautiful (and clean!) city we encountered, together with the drive to Ephesus made for a pleasant trip. As promised, the vendors were very aggressive but we never felt threatened, in all a good time save for the huge crowds (of which we were a part of course!).
Rhodes, Greece, 10/15/09 Through Celebrity we booked a last minute excursion. A female guide provided average information without wit. Not well organized and priced at 59 USD each as I recall. The ruins were of moderate interest (I was about ruined-out at this point) after a long bus ride and without a convenient WC. Remarkably, the tour guide suggested we take the long bus ride back to old town Rhodes before hitting a WC. The ladies were stressed! The bus driver fixed that by driving immediately to the coast (just a half mile) where there was a very nice restaurant for a break and refreshments. He saved the day!
Back in Rhodes we found the old town and its history of great interest and had a fabulous lunch at Filippos Restaurant. Well, okay, it was Greek Salad and a very cold Mythos beer. We were stuck on that stuff. Be sure to ask for more olives. Yummy!
Santorini, Greece, 10/16/09 We had booked an excursion, but canceled and elected to walk about with our two friends. The tender ashore was again a breeze. The queue at the cable car was very moderate and the ride up exhilarating (well, that's one way to put it) (our male friend was scared silly). The town itself is so-so interesting and very pricey. Others who did tours, I believe, had a more fulfilling day. We did a short day, ending near the cable car on a beautiful terrace overlooking the town and bay drinking a cold bottle of guess what and using the convenient WC.
Naples, Italy, 10/18/09 Through Celebrity we booked the Exploration of Pompeii excursion. A male guide provided good information with little wit and was a bit hard to understand. Not well organized and priced at 69 USD each. The excursion participants were asked to meet on shore. There was a large crowd with several buses waiting. A Celebrity staffer simply kept shouting "go with the flow, go with the flow." There were no signs and no meaningful communication, thus a bit of chaos. After asking at each bus we found our way. This was the only example of a Celebrity failure.
Having said that, and after driving through the ugliest city we saw, Pompeii was simply incredible. Do not miss this opportunity! Other than a fairly rigorous walk at the entrance and many steps leaving, the balance of the site is easy to see. Fascinating! The WC is only at the entrance to the site so be prepared. BTW, a WC can cost half a Euro, everywhere as it did here, so pack some change.
Our up-front stop at the Cameo "factory" was interesting (to be kind). Our mandatory "shopping time" at the end of the tour was a waste of time. Not tipping the tour guide provoked a very angry stare. Oh well...