The Solstice is an impressive and attractive new ship. Service was generally attentive and the food was good though not spectacular. One caveat for younger and middle-aged passengers is that the typical clientele of Solstice (and perhaps other Celebrity ships) is quite old. This translated to mostly empty bars and few late-night activities, a virtual traffic jam of motorized scooters and events largely geared towards this demographic. Even the cruise director joked about what the scheduled "80s dance night" meant. We went and there weren't more than a dozen passengers dancing to the tunes of Duran Duran and the Pointer Sisters. My GF and I are also used to more adventurous and authentic travel experiences. The food gluttony, sterile environment and crass selling of products and services were abundant, but of course that's cruising in America (or just life in America) and nothing unique to Celebrity. All said, we had an enjoyable time and never lacked for things to do. The Solstice is likely as fine a mega-ship as there is cruising the Caribbean. It's certainly a far cry from the tackiness of Carnival and some of the other new ship offerings.
Fort Lauderdale and embarkation:
We got a good rate at the W on Fort Lauderdale Beach and really liked this stylish hotel. The views and location are unbeatable. For dinner we took my parents to Cafe Sharaku, an intimate 18-seat French-Japanese fusion restaurant a short cab ride away. Despite its very plain atmosphere and strip mall locale the food was fantastic. And it was very reasonably priced for fine cuisine. I particularly liked the miso Chilean sea bass and the chocolate souffle. This place could use some additional business. Despite Zagat's #1 food rating in Fort Lauderdale it was still a mostly empty restaurant on a Saturday night.
Embarkation was a breeze. We arrived at the ship around 12:30 p.m. and were on board by 1:00. The welcome champagne was a nice touch. We explored the ship quite a bit and had a snack at the Spa Cafe and another bite to eat at the Oceanview Cafe.
The Solstice is really quite an appealing ship, both aesthetically and in its layout. Three lower decks house restaurants, bars, gift shops, the casino and theaters. Three or so upper decks have the pools, outside decks, spa, fitness center, cafe, a few bars and the uniquely Celebrity lawn. Most of the staterooms are on the decks in between. Everything is connected through a grand atrium that rises from top to bottom. The shipboard art is quite varied and interesting, ranging from a floating tree in a red cone to an entryway filled with bug sounds to unique works in each stairwell. The public bathrooms (not usually something to boast about) were rather stylish for a ship.
The main dining room is perhaps the least visually attractive of the restaurant venues particularly in comparison to the specialty restaurants and other public spaces on the lower decks. Each specialty restaurants is uniquely designed and quite tasteful in appearance. We liked the Ensemble bar before dinner and wish we had frequented the wine bar (Cellar Masters), a particularly nice space. We also enjoyed the martini bar. If there's a complaint about the lower decks it's the abundance of shops on two floors (which were always quiet) that gives the feel of a posh indoor shopping mall. Also the secondary theater (Celebrity Central) is too small, filling to capacity well before the midnight comedy show and bingo. The disco (Quasar) had a fun vibe but was almost always empty except for a bartender and DJ. Again, this was not the club scene crowd.
The upper decks are also generally well-designed. Despite its 2,800 passenger capacity the Solstice did not feel crowded most of the time. If there was one place that did it was the Oceanview Cafe, particularly on sea days. The food stations are a bit confusing and the cafe always seemed to attract the crowd that can't go more than 18 minutes between meals. Although lounge chairs were readily available in the pool area and decks above, they were set so close together I felt like a sardine. We enjoyed the outdoor patio of the Oceanview Cafe for breakfast and the Sunset Bar above for drinks. The Sky Lounge has a cool vibe (and view) if not a cavernous feel. By the end of the cruise I had grown to really like the lawn deck, both for its fashionable appearance and the solitude it provided. About the only waste of space is Team Earth, an unused area off the atrium dedicated to promoting Celebrity's supposed conservation efforts. This seemed mostly intended as a marketing ploy to rehabilitate the image of Celebrity's parent Royal Caribbean, which a decade ago pled guilty to multiple felony counts for dumping hazardous waste from its ships.
Ultimately actions speak louder than words.
My GF and I are both fitness buffs and wanted to work off all the food, so we used the fitness center almost every day. Perhaps telling of cruise ship passengers, this was also a place to find some peace and quiet amidst a great 180 degree view. I never had a problem getting on a machine and sometimes had the ego-boosting experience of being the only person running (or even exceeding 3 mph) on a long line of treadmills. I felt a bit like Usain Bolt out there. The equipment is top of the line although I didn't care for the automated 25 minute limits on the cardio equipment, which interrupted the regular flow of a workout. Also, the gym was kept way too warm - an occasional problem in other parts of the ship too such as the Celebrity Central theater when it was crowded. The outdoor "jogging track" is sort of a joke. Perhaps it's fine for walking but its sharp angles and regular usage as a pathway make running or jogging difficult. Of course, most cruises aren't particularly geared towards the active set and this one was no exception. (Exhibit A was a Segway tour in San Juan listed in the shore excursion brochure as "strenuous.")
We had a sky suite (7307) in the aft of the ship. The balcony faces back and there is a giant porthole on the side. We really liked the room although it did have two oddly-positioned poles set in the middle (both of which could be a hazard in the darkness of night). The parents had the suite one deck below us with one pole situated in a different, less obtrusive spot. The bathroom was the nicest I've seen on a cruise ship. One advantage of a suite is having a full bathtub. The wrap-around balcony was quite spacious. For less mobile passengers, one design flaw on the Solstice is the lack of an aft stairwell. This meant walking halfway down the ship from the room to go anywhere.
One's dining experience on the Solstice probably depends more than anything on having realistic expectations. The food is certainly not comparable to a 4 or 5-star restaurant or particularly innovative for anyone into fine cuisine. But it's also quite superior to the kinds of mass-produced meals you typically get at a hotel. And the service is really unparalleled.
For starters, there is no lack of food. Besides the main dining room, the Solstice has five restaurants that have a surcharge: Murano (French), Tuscan Grille (Italian steakhouse), Silk Harvest (Asian), Blu (limited to certain cabin classes) and Bistro on 5 (crepes and sandwiches). We tried each of them and generally found their service and atmosphere to exceed their quality, although this is not to say the food wasn't generally good with the above caveat. I liked Silk Harvest the best in terms of variety and taste. As a general rule in the specialty restaurants, I preferred the appetizers and salads to the entrees or desserts. Steak and lobster, for example, did not compare with a good steakhouse or seafood restaurant. And many dishes were over-sauced and lacked subtle flavors. With the exception of sushi at Silk Harvest, I didn't think the fish at any of the restaurants was of particular high quality (likely the result of the limits on freshness that a cruise mandates). We enjoyed the crepes and the feel of Bistro on 5 and thought it was under-utilized by passengers.
With the specialty restaurants, you are paying for variety, extra service and a more intimate and unique atmosphere rather than the food. In this respect I thought it was worth the additional charge. But if you stick with the main dining room you are not really losing out on quality. Again, Silk Harvest is the one exception if you want to try something different from the standard cruise fare.
The higher deck options were generally good. We ate breakfast most days at the Oceanview Cafe although finding breakfast can be challenging if you want to sleep in. The main dining room breakfast (that ends at 9:30) was disappointing, as it was basically the same food you could get upstairs but with a wait to be served. The buffet brunch on the first day is worth seeing (think ice sculptures and the presentation of the old midnight buffets) but again the food options are the same if not less than what you get at Oceanview. The highlights of Oceanview were the pasta bar, carved meat and some of the salads. The Indian food (made by an Indian chef who took great pride in it) was tasty and a pleasant surprise. The Mast Grill serves decent burgers and dogs, and is a good option when soaking in the sun on deck. The bread served throughout the ship was made in-house and uniformly excellent.
As for drinks, the ship offered a nice selection of wine, beer (good choice of imports) and cocktails at acceptable prices. The drink packages hardly seem worthwhile at $40 or $50/day unless you drink like a fish, which we did not.
With a few exceptions, the service across the ship was very good. Our cabin steward was attentive and friendly (we still pine for his distinctive "hello" and "have a nice day" every time we walked down the hall). Our butler at the start was new and not around much. A problem with a pressed shirt that came back stained was quickly rectified by guest services. Staff really went out of their way to be friendly. As mentioned, the specialty restaurants had particularly outstanding service.
It's troubling, however, to know that the great service on the Solstice and other cruise ships comes at a significant cost to the employees themselves. Most of the staff come from developing countries. One waiter told us (with a smile of course) that he works 14 hour days and hasn't had a day off in 3 months. Nor does Celebrity provide him with health care or other benefits. If he or a family member gets sick, he has no safety net. The poor labor standards of cruise companies keep costs low of course, but it's hard to shake the nagging feeling that cruise lines don't treat their staff well because passengers don't demand it. Collectively we should demand better practices or take our travel dollars elsewhere.
The other service issue - also not generally a problem ascribed to the staff themselves but rather to the cruise companies - is the constant sales of everything from spa treatments to jewelry to the extortionist-priced internet access, etc. I don't want to be asked repeatedly while on vacation to pony up to support a company's bottom line. For example, my GF received a 10-minute dissertation about beauty products at the end of a massage. I got a cold answer from the shore excursions desk when asking a general question about what to do on my own in port. I found myself reminded more than once of a statement made by an early Carnival executive: "A cruise passenger is like a wet towel. First you squeeze him this way, and then you squeeze him that way."
Cruise ship activities are what they are, and the few we did were fair. As always, the galley tour was sort of interesting. The glass show was surprisingly entertaining, at least for a half hour or so. Bingo was a logistical mess, and after standing in line for half an hour we finally skipped it when it didn't look like we would get in to the smaller theater where it was held. We went to one show (called Solstice). It's a bit of a rip-off of Cirque de Soleil but for a cruise ship seemed well done. The shipboard comedian for the week was Kevin Flynn, by far the funniest I've seen on a cruise. His midnight shows were definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
There's not a whole lot to say about the short time in port. To the extent that one can experience any foreign culture on a cruise we tried to do so by getting away from the crowds. We chose to do things on our own rather than the group shore excursions. In San Juan, we walked around the fort and the old town. We enjoyed dinner at an excellent Latin-Asian fusion restaurant called Dragonfly, just two blocks from the ship. It's well worth it. In St. Thomas, we took a taxi to Red Hook and then the ferry to St. John. We spent a few hours away from the crowds on the beach at Cinnamon Bay. In St. Martin, we took a taxi to the French side and found a beach chair on Orient Beach among mostly European tourists.
We were glad that Celebrity has one of the most restrictive smoking policies at sea. That being said, it should go further by not permitting smoking in any indoor area (in line with most of America). The Sky Lounge was made less appealing by virtue of the fact that at times it was quite smoky.
Because none of us had flights before 1:30 p.m. we took it easy on the last morning and had a leisurely breakfast on deck at the Oceanview Cafe. So we were able to avoid the sad experience of waiting for our numbers to be called in a crowded indoor lounge. When we were ready we walked right off the ship. Unlike embarkation, the lines were quite long to go through customs (about 30 minutes). It appeared that there weren't the number of customs agents needed for a ship of this size.
A cruise isn't perhaps our first choice of vacations but with the expectations we had the Solstice really fared quite well. The ship, food and service were generally very positive, and we had a good time. For whatever reason Celebrity attracts an older demographic - the average age on our sailing was 60s and above. This is not a positive or negative but something that younger passengers should consider when choosing this line. In retrospect, if we ever did another mass-market cruise we'd probably still choose to go with a more tasteful, muted ship like the Solstice than the rowdier, gaudier boats of Carnival or Royal Caribbean.
One final point - we'd feel more comfortable cruising in the future if the cruise lines were better corporate citizens - paying their share of taxes (they mostly don't), serving as stewards of the environment and protecting their workers. Devils on the Deep Blue Sea by Kristoffer Garin provides some insight into how the cruise companies operate in avoidance of U.S. laws and don't always act in the best interests of their passengers or crew. It's well worth reading before taking a cruise on the Solstice or any other ship.