We boarded the ship on January 31, after spending the night at the Hilton Beach Resort, Fort Lauderdale. The day before, we flew in from Houston, Texas. Many in our group had been upgraded to Concierge Class by our travel agent, and boarding the Solstice was the easiest embarkation ever. We dropped our luggage off from the cab, tipped the handler, and quickly went through the checkpoints to walk right on. No lines at all. It was about 1:00 PM. We could have had lunch on board, but we chose to have a brunch at Casablanca, a nice outdoor restaurant close to the Hilton.
I want to state right off that this cruise seemed different because we were going to Labadee, Haiti. Could we still have a fun time and not feel guilty, given the devastating earthquake of January 12? We had been to Labadee the year prior on Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas. Initially, the international news media had played up controversy on the subject of Labadee. Though no longer a hot topic, I was interested in exploring my own inner feelings. I planned to stay out of the casino on this trip so that I would have lots of cash to tip the Haitians and purchase their merchandise. To ease my own guilt about having fun on a luxury cruise? Perhaps, but more than anything, it seemed the right thing to do. Watching the news, my heart really went out to those who were suffering. I was glad to learn that Royal Caribbean and Celebrity were not changing ports and would continue excursions to their private peninsula as well as making lots of donations. I couldn't imagine the effect of cancelling this port on the lives of Haitians that depend on the ships for their livelihoods. Although Port-au-Prince is quite a distance from Labadee, many who work there have relatives that were affected.
Exploring the Solstice for the first time was exciting. I had to check out the real grass on the top deck, and we saw the Corning Hot Glass Museum. This is an elegant ship and different from any we had ever experienced (Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian, Carnival). It was like being in a Ritz Carlton versus a Hyatt Regency or Holiday Inn. Nevertheless, we were part of a large group with our trade association, and some members onboard stated that they missed the large grand foyers and shops of the RC ships we had cruised on the prior two years. We never made time to see the Glass Blowing Demonstration, but those in our group who did, loved it. Some went to see it a second time.
Our room was wonderful and had fresh fruit and Champaign waiting for us. We checked in as part of our trade group and mingled with our industry friends. Dinner that evening was in the main dinning room, 6:00 seating. We stayed with this arrangement every evening to be with our group. It's a great way to exchange ideas and get to know one another on a personal level; something we don't have time to do at our regular, super-busy trade show. Although we had brought five suitcases, we had no trouble finding room for all our clothing and belongings, with room to spare. Some of the nooks take some exploring to find, so don't get frustrated if at first you don't think there's enough room.
That evening we went to the Captain's Reception and show. Captain Dimitris Kafetzis has quite a sense of humor. I was sitting by the mother of one of the professional singers. This was her first time to see her daughter perform on this ship. Her daughter told her that Captain Dimitris is consistently like that, friendly and funny, but competent and professional. The chairs in the Solstice Theater are comfortable and even have ventilation coming from the back of each chair in front.
The next morning we had our first industry workshop at 8:30. Then we had lunch and informal meetings the rest of the afternoon, followed by group cocktail hour at 5:00 and dinner at 6:00. Then off to a show. It was an impersonator named Greg London, and I enjoyed it. I heard some people complaining that he wasn't as good as Danny Gans. So? I gave him a standing ovation, as did most of the crowd.
The next day, my wife and I had time to attend a ballroom dance lesson by dancers Leanne and Larry. They were extremely good and patient instructors; we've taken lots of lessons before. We learned some cool waltz moves. By getting there early, we met a passenger who was also an instructor and he graciously taught us some things as well. I wish we had time to go to other onboard dance lessons, but we were always in meetings with our trade organization.
We arrived in San Juan that afternoon and had a fun, self-guided tour of the San Cristobal fort. Coming into San Juan offers spectacular scenery if the weather is good. Be on deck for that arrival! I got some great shots for my YouTube video of this cruise.
The next day, my wife and I had a wonderful time in St. Maarten driving the Scoot Coupes, St. Maarten Beach Fun Mobile Tour (SMA2). These cars are quite thrilling. We drove all the way to Orient Beach, which is always gorgeous, and back to Philipsburg.
That evening, we enjoyed a Latin dance show on deck called Sizzle with the dancers out by the pool. After a song or two, they picked guests to dance with them. My wife was selected. Again, more great video! She danced with one of the guys for about 20 minutes, and then still had some energy left to dance with me. This was a special part of the cruise for us. We laugh when watching the video of my wife dancing with a pro.
Let me say at this point that although this was the best cruise we've ever done (out of about 12 or so), all cruises are special to us in different ways. We're pretty easy going, not "high maintenance" at all, and things that some guests find atrocious (poor service for example) don't seem to bother us. The reason I mention that here is because any cruise is what you make of it. So much is going on simultaneously and there are so many different shore excursions to select from. One person in our group, after seeing my YouTube video, said that she and her husband want to follow us next time because we do fun things and they did boring things. I did not hear any complaints of poor service from anyone on this cruise, except that someone said their in-room breakfast was late one morning. We always eat breakfast from the buffet.
One other complaint was that the day after the Tortola stop, a helicopter was filming the Solstice much of the afternoon at sea, often up close. I heard one guest say that she complained about it to the concierge and had trouble getting any kind of answer. An announcement about what was going on by the cruise director would have been nice. Still, my wife and I weren't that bothered by it. We were on Celebrity and they made us feel like true celebrities by filming us... again and again. I doubt you'll have to worry about that, though, if you go on a cruise aboard the Solstice because believe me, they got plenty of footage!
And speaking of Tortola, many of our group put together our own tour of The Baths of Virgin Gorda. Again, I got more spectacular video, and this was a great team building exercise for our group. The Baths are a must-see if you go to Tortola, although be careful with the listed shore excursion because it apparently involves some lengthy and strenuous swimming. You might want to book your own excursion in advance like we did. While on this excursion, I met a friendly guy wearing a Cruise Critic t-shirt. He said he is a frequent contributor, and that's how I learned about Cruise Critic.
The entertainment was great on the ship. We enjoyed the a cappella quartet—Metro Park, impersonator Greg London, the dancers, the band, and the singers. My wife did go to sleep during the Solstice show, which is a kind of Cirque du Soleil style production. Parts of it were a little slow, although the aerial acrobatics were amazing. Just because something is amazing doesn't mean it is entertaining. In general, circus acts along with jugglers and magicians—we tend to not like those as well as other kinds of entertainment.
For Labadee, Haiti we had booked the Malfini Beach excursion. After the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, I thought about cancelling and just shopping and giving tips, but I figured that the crew for this tour could use the money as well. We were really glad we went. Only about 18 guests sailed to this really remote and gorgeous beach with crystal clear water. It was the most relaxing part of the cruise. As you might expecet, our tour guide, Alain, was bombarded with questions about the earthquake by the passengers. His mother, brother, and sister were all in Port-au-Prince on January 12. They were okay but some other friends and cousins did not fare as well. Alain readily agreed to let me interview him for a YouTube video to explain his thoughts on whether it is wrong for tourists to have fun in Labadee so soon after an enormous disaster. Can you have a good time without guilt? He had some interesting things to say. Anyway, we had a wonderful time in Labadee. Some of the people in our group did the zip line and raved about it.
To sum it all up, this was the best cruise we have taken. The Celebrity Solstice is the most beautiful ship we have been on. We loved the ports, the entertainment, and the food in the main dining room. And those dancers! Wow. Disembarkation was super easy as well. For my video of this cruise, visit: http://www.youtube.com/richardjcaudle#p/a/u/0/vJguqMY3dHU