We had booked cruise only with our UK TA and booked our own flights with US Air from Manchester to Fort Lauderdale via Philadelphia, arriving the day before and staying overnight at the Best Western Oceanside on Seabreeze Boulvd., overlooking Port Everglades. Fortunately the weather in Philadelphia had improved from a few weeks before and all our flights were on schedule, although we were about 30 minutes late arriving in Fort Lauderdale. We had booked in June 2009 and this routing gave us the best price at the time, we had checked US TA prices but these were only a few pounds lower, and this was offset by the excellent pre-paid gratuities exchange rate we secured from the UK TA, and our own flights were much cheaper than booking fly cruise with Celebrity, even after taking account of our own hotel accommodation.
We took a cab from the hotel about noon and were through the booking in process and on board by about 12:45, despite a problem we had booking in because US Air and Philadelphia immigration seemed to have jumped the gun and ceased using green I95 visa waivers for UK passengers before they should. One other point, despite checking at booking in that they had taken account of our request to have the final bill left in US dollars and not be converted to GBP, I still had to get Guest Relations to correctly set it up during the cruise.
We were offered the quarter full (three quarter empty) complimentary glass of champagne, which was finished before the lift arrived, and were inspecting our cabin a few minutes later, and it did not disappoint. Ours had the bed by the bathroom which would be our normal first choice as it means the sitting area and balcony become one large lounge or living space. The bathroom is excellent, a very large shower cubicle with glass sliding doors, in fact it may even be too big, the sink and worktop take up almost the full length of the long wall opposite the door, with a full height shelf space at one end, the top half has a glass door and the lower section a wood door. The toilet is at the opposite end to this, between the shower and the counter, and there is more shelf space under the counter. Certainly the biggest standard cabin bathroom I have seen on a cruise ship except for the few ships that include a bath as well as a shower in their standard cabins. Unfortunately the wardrobe and cupboard/shelf space in the cabin is barely adequate, and for a 14 plus day cruise it might become a problem. The wardrobe is narrow, barely able to fit a jacket and has the safe under half its width, not a lot of room for long dresses and ladies pants, although I think on Equinox the safe location has been changed, There are 5/6 narrow drawers in the vanity unit, and another shallow one at the dressing table end where the hair dryer is stored. The rest of this unit houses the fridge/minibar and a large cupboard above it, which you will probably use to store some of the minibar contents to make room for your own water, beer and soft drink bottles to go in the fridge. Opposite this is a 3 seater sofa, which in our cabin could be converted to another bed and therefore lost the under seat storage, and an oval coffee table between it and the vanity unit. The bed, as usual, is huge by UK standards and has quite a deep mattress and a quilted and padded mattress topper which made it very comfortable. Alongside the bed are two of the smallest bedside tables I have seen, they have open shelves but are so narrow that it is almost impossible to make much use of them. There are then two large covered shelves over the bed, which are quite tall but only shallow and a bit impractical for keeping items segregated, and these will be taken by the steward for storing the surplus bedding taken off overnight if you don't claim them early. One of the cabin walls is indented to make the cabin wider by the bed and I assume this design is standard throughout the ship, now I may be a nerd but on checking the indented cabin wall I thought that the cabin with the bed by the balcony is likely to be the larger of the two, which may interest other nerds. Personally I would like to see a clever blending of the storage space on the Princess Grand class ships into this cabin to make my ideal standard ships cabin design.
The balcony is a good size, the brochure says 53 sq ft, it is probably 8.5-9 ft wide by a little over 6 ft deep, and has 2 rather nice reclining chairs and a reasonably large wooden topped round table, more than adequate for dining on.
The 32" flat screen TV has a hinged wall bracket to allow you to watch comfortably from the bed or the sofa and for Brits the TV channels are excellent, with BBC World, Sky News, Sky Sports News, ESPN (the UK version) and the London-Hong Kong based CNN. Americans have to make do with Fox News and MSNBC, Canadians get nothing. There is a wide selection of free to view films, but unless you get Norovirus and are quarantined in the cabin you are unlikely to find time to view them.
We chose Celebrity Select dining and were disappointed that the service was inferior to our experience on Millenium; according to other Cruise Critic contributors this may not be limited to Select dining. Although my wife liked the dEcor of the MDR I thought it a bit stark, and the sections were too large and the tables too close together, it also lacked the natural light that the Millenium class MDR's have with their windows at the stern. I think that Princess do enclosed dining rooms much better with smaller sections that tend to create an intimate restaurant feel, rather than Solstices school refectory look. The food quality was quite good, although maybe no better than Princess or P&O, but the service standard had declined measurably from our Millenium cruise. Murano was the only specialty restaurant we tried and this was excellent, the service was attentive without being intrusive and the food was superb, but a little too rich for my taste and I was unable to finish my main course of Surf 'n Turf, which never the less was cooked to perfection. The cafeteria on Solstice has a better than average designed serving area, consisting of about 8 separate stations and plenty of space between for you to browse without getting in each others way. I just wish I knew which end of a station was the correct one to start from; I always seemed to meet someone else in the middle coming the opposite way! For Brits we have our own English breakfast station, with back bacon, British bangers, fried bread, tomatoes, baked beans and black pudding, the latter however came with fried onions, which I found a little strange. On most days finding a seat was no problem, but breakfast on debarkation day does get crowded. We did sample coffees from Cafe Al Bacio, but they were nothing special so we stayed with the free issue coffee, which itself varied in quality.
I was disappointed with the theatre layout, it seems no bigger than Millenium's despite Solstice being 15 feet wider, but checking the deck plans it does appear that Solstice has a more tapered fore section which might account for this. We only visited it twice and then only saw parts of each show, on both occasions it appeared full but with lots of single spaces dotted everywhere. Maybe the cruise lines should train their waiters to cover usherette duties as well as serving drinks. The production show we saw was pretty average from both singing and dancing, and did not encourage us to go back. This reduction in entertainment quality was also a major point made by cruisers from other lines that we met at the airport on our return. Possibly this is a saving necessitated by the recession.
Since we were travelling with my SIL and her husband from Canada our need for evening entertainment was not vital, but we did enjoy the Brian Elwood trio and tended to seek out his venues, which were mainly the Grand Foyer and the Ensemble lounge. One event worth watching, or participating in, was the Latin Dance party on the pool deck as we sailed away from San Juan. Here Sizzle, 4 couples from the dance troupe, lead the Latin dancing, think Mark Ramprakash and Karen Hardy's Samba on Strictly Come Dancing, and it provided a very entertaining evening.
The upper deck areas have lots of places to find sunny or shady lounging areas, we especially liked the canvas canopies which give some shelter from the sun, rather like palm trees on a beach. The lawn area is an interesting concept, but on our cruise it was hardly used, there was some boule, or bocce as I think celebrity call it, taking place but it was normally quiet; and as this is an area where smoking is allowed we tended not to linger too long. We only briefly dallied at the hot glass show and I am still trying to fathom a Pyrex connection to cruising. On sea days and for sailaways they had a group playing by the pool, they were not totally useless but less than 50% of their repertoire was truly acceptable, but as they were trying to cover all the past 50/60 years of music and genres, I suppose they were doing their best. However they were certainly far better than the piped musak played around the Mast bar at other times, I am not sure what genre this would be classed as, but it was way off beam for the majority of the age groups on the cruise.
The lack of distinct entertainment venues on Celebrity as say compared to Princess is very noticeable, other than the theatre there is the Sky observation lounge and this is very under used, it is quite large and rather like a combination of Skywalkers & Club Fusion on Princess, but seemed only to be used for very late night shows. Then there is the Ensemble Lounge, which is a very small venue and could be classed as a meeting place prior to eating in Murano; and finally there are Quasar and Celebrity central/entertainment court. We never saw anyone in Quasar, and also never saw any entertainment in the court which is just alongside, we must have always picked the wrong time to be there! So if you do not want to see the show one evening then you might struggle to find some worthwhile entertainment, other than the musical groups playing in the bars. Being a family group of 4 we were not too bothered about show type entertainment and quite enjoyed the laid back feel of the evenings, but couples on their own could be bored. I hope Eclipse is better set up for our September Med. Cruise.
I have not bothered to comment on the ports because for us they could have been any hot Caribbean Island where our wives could shop and we could linger over a beer, or even venture into the sea, as we did in St. Maarten.
Disembarkation was very quick, our time was 8:50 but when we arrived at the location they were well beyond our number. We had late flights so were in no hurry to disembark but by 9:30 they were asking all remaining passengers to leave, we were among the last few off and it made locating our luggage very easy, the cases were all on their own in the centre of this vast hanger.
Overall you may have gathered that I was a bit under whelmed with Solstice, perhaps my expectations had been raised too high by all the positive reviews and comments I had read. However I was very happy with the cabin, apart from the lack of storage, the deck space, and the food quality was good, but the ship does lack the wow factor that I feel when I board a Princess ship; and the entertainment was decidedly low key, much more so than our Millenium cruise, and definitely less than on Princess, or even dear old P&O. Despite these reservations I do think that the Solstice class represents a change in the right direction for mass market cruise lines, it has a modern feel and a generous passenger to space ratio, but I think it could have been even better with just a bit more thought from the designers.