Solstice Review 17/08/09 Great Ship - Inconsistent Service
One of the strange things that has been commented on before on Cruise Critic is that people on the same cruise can have vastly different experiences. I think a lot of this comes down to expectation and prior experience. I am writing this by way of warning because this review isn't from the point of view of a veteran mass market cruiser but rather someone new to cruising who is used to holidaying at resorts on land like the Aman Resorts in Asia, Sandy Lane in Barbados, Four Seasons anywhere, Stein Eriksen in Deer Valley...
I will preface this review by saying that we had a really lovely family holiday aboard the Solstice. This was our second cruise, and our first with Celebrity (last year we sailed around Scandinavia on the RC Jewel of the Seas.) We had a really fabulous experience on our first cruise last year which led us to book aboard the Solstice. We booked with Celebrity on the basis that they seemed to offer a more luxurious, upmarket experience and were very excited about the new Solstice class of ships. The ship itself was certainly above and beyond our expectations - it is light, modern and luxurious. Sadly the service really lets the ship down, it is frustratingly inconsistent across venues and the staff ranged from very friendly to decidedly surly. The ship was completely full so Celebrity probably doesn't need any tips from me about how to run their business but in order to guarantee repeat customers I really think they need to focus on their staff management and training.
Cabins: My cabin was great, a celebrity suite on deck 11 with an extra large balcony. Very comfortable with all the mod cons of a good hotel. My biggest tip to Celebrity here would be to remove the frosted glass between the living room and bedroom and replace it with clear glass and a blind. A few of the people in our group had the option to be in a Celebrity suite but preferred to stay in their sky suites because they didn't want to be in a bedroom which was essentially like an inside cabin. I really missed being able to see the sea from my bed - but all in all this issue is minor, I was very comfortable and well looked after by my cabin attendant. The Butler was pretty invisible but I get the impression this is only a perk if you have specific things for them to do. I didn't ask for anything and never ate in my room so the Butler service was close to nil, which suited me fine. I saw a Penthouse and a Royal suite both of which were very nicely appointed.
Murano: We arrived aboard thinking we would come here frequently but ate here only once on our first night aboard. Sadly the whole experience comes off as a parody of what one might expect from a Michelin starred restaurant on shore. Instead of attentive and polite the service tends to come off as greasy and obsequious. By way of background we all adore French food and have been lucky enough to eat at many very fine French restaurants in Europe and America - with this in mind the food is only just ok, but tends towards being stodgy and overwrought- the soufflEs were sadly sagging by the time they reached the table. The management staff went out of their way on a number of occasions to let us know that we were very lucky to be given a table because they were so busy - suffice to say that in good restaurants the key is making the customer feel the exact opposite, they they are pleased and delighted to have you as a guest regardless of how busy they might be. In short, the management staff at Murano have a great deal to learn about top class service, the snob factor they try to bring to the experience is almost comedically out of place at sea.
Tuscan Grille: We ate here many times during the course of the cruise - the food is tasty and the service friendly. The restaurant managers were always very welcoming and charming but the basic level of table service was poor. Glasses would go unfilled, plates uncleared, all while 4 or 5 waiters would be working our table at once. It seemed that the staff had very limited training in the basics of efficient restaurant service. Orders were frequently taken wrongly or forgotten altogether, of course we're on holiday so we're pretty relaxed about all these sorts of details but they are worth pointing out in a review. The food is nice, the pastas are tasty, and the steaks competently cooked but certainly nothing you probably can't have at your local neighbourhood Italian.
Silk Harvest: The manager at Silk Harvest was really great and always went out of his way to get us a table - but again the table service suffered from the same slightly amateurish problems as the other restaurants, but the food was always quick and tasty - the sushi was lovely and fresh.
Oceanview Cafe: As far as buffet food goes it is very hard to fault the Oceanview, everything seems fresh and tasty, plenty of choice all day. The crowds can be a little aggressive at breakfast but all in all this venue does exactly what it should do, and it does it very well.
Grand Epernay: We ate here twice and both times the food was good and the service friendly. The first time was at the captain's table which we all thoroughly enjoyed and the second time was towards the end of the cruise at our own table. The food here isn't haute cuisine, but it is prepared in a way that probably appeals to the broadest audience. I had Chateaubriand one night and pork chop the other and both were good. I had a middle course of soup one night which was pretty closely related to something you would probably find in a tin at your local supermarket but still all absolutely fine. We found all the napkin waving, light flashing, drum banging, Auld Lang Syne singing on the last formal night to be absolutely totally bizarre. It was like being in a TGI Fridays or something and again really totally destroyed any illusion of sophistication that had been carefully created by the dEcor and dress code. Although again, while we found it odd one or two of the tables around us seemed to enjoy it, so it might just be that we are totally out of step with the demographic and routines of cruising.
Quasar + Martini+ Sky : The design elements of Quasar are cool but the space itself doesn't really work, it is an awkward corridor of a room and there is no natural flow between the bar and dancefloor. Conversely Sky is a really fabulous room but is sadly underutilized. There were a lot of Spanish speakers on our cruise and the DJ in Quasar played almost exclusively Spanish language pop music which was a bit disappointing and as a result really alienated a lot of English speakers we spoke to, who went once but didn't go back. Consequently the crowd was largely the same core of very young Spanish speakers every night. The DJ became friendly with them and had a clipboard to get all their facebook details on the last night... sometimes becoming overly friendly with a small group of passengers can affect the ability of staff to cater to a wider audience. The bartenders in Quasar were decidedly unfriendly and a cash tip really had to be laid down in order to guarantee any kind of consistent service. We found this to be an ongoing problem, I understand that for a lot of the barstaff their livelihood depends on tips but they really need to work on the basic upfront levels of politeness and friendliness. We spoke to some Australian people on the cruise who commented that they found many of the staff throughout the boat to be surly unless engaged in an activity which involved an upsell or a tip which was something that our party of 11 also consistently found. I agree in tipping for good service but (chicken and egg) the good service has to be forthcoming in order to warrant a tip... I understand that it is probably a very difficult life on board ship, but its really not the customer's fault.
The Martini bar was a great venue for a pre/post-dinner drinks and the staff there really set an excellent example. Carlito always served us quickly and efficiently and went out of his way to make our experience a good one. Consequently we always went out of our way to make sure he was generously tipped. Celebrity really need to set the bar higher and spend more time auditing the behaviour of their staff. The good service here highlighted in many ways how patchy the service was elsewhere. The only downside is probably the music which is too loud and a terrible Euro/techno mix from about 1999. One time when we were in the bar alone we asked them to turn it down enough so we could have a conversation and our waiter very apologetically told us that management wouldn't allow them to turn the music down. By the pool was the same, bad pop music played much too loud. It's a little as though someone at Celebrity thinks that very loud music played by the pool (and everywhere else) creates a party atmosphere. In reality it just creates noise pollution and inhibits conversation. I'm 28 and used to nightclub environments so I can only imagine how annoying this must be for older passengers.
Those used to real four and five star service will probably come away decidedly disappointed. If what you are looking for is huge amounts of food, huge numbers of people, huge cocktails and loud 'party' music piped throughout the ship then you will undoubtedly come away happy. I would recommend the Solstice, but with the important caveat that the overall experience is more Holiday Inn than Four Seasons.