A friend and I booked this Celebrity Solstice cruise, after getting a terrific internet deal, just three weeks before we left. Both of us have cruised before, but not a lot; we have been more inclined to travel on our own. But this Celebrity Solstice trip has made a believer of me. I will never give up making my own way around the world, but spending time on this particular cruise ship was pretty wonderful.
We are both Floridians and so we just drove from Palm Beach County to Port Everglades on the morning we were due to leave. We did a little internet sleuthing and wound up leaving the car at Park 'n' Fly, near the port but somewhat cheaper. I think we paid around $80 for the week, and a shuttle dropped us off at the ship and picked us up. There was no wait at all for the shuttle on the day we embarked; on the final day we waited for 20 minutes or so, which was not a big deal.
Embarkation couldn't have been easier. We arrived around 11:30 a.m., sailed through the lines, sat for maybe 10-15 minutes (and listened to one man complain bitterly about that) and then walked onto the ship. I heard that people who boarded later in the day had to wait a long time, but we had no problem at all.
Once on board we went straight to Bistro on 5 for lunch (thanks for the tip, Cruise Critic!). There we had a quiet and quite delicious lunch (I'm still longing for another Mediterranean crepe, not to mention the banana and Nutella). We met a couple at the next table who became our friends for the cruise, and we were happy to be far from the madding crowd.
Our stateroom was ready around 1 or 1:30, so after lunch we went straight there and unpacked.
The stateroom was pretty much what I expected -- comfortable and big enough, but the two of us often had to choreograph our movements to avoid walking into each other or the beds. (If you're a couple and have the beds pushed together, I imagine you have a little more floor space.) There is enough storage but some of it is in odd places. My friend is short and had to stand on the bed to use the space above it. I expected to shove my luggage under the bed, but the life jacket and other emergency equipment take up a lot of that space.
Two very nice things about our room. The bathroom is roomy enough so that you don't have to stand on one leg to wash (thank you, Celebrity, for a real shower door). And our balcony, on the hump, would have been big enough for four people to relax there, or for six or eight to have a rousing party. (Fortunately for our neighbors, we saved any rousing parties for another cruise.)
We had signed up for select dining, and that worked out well enough, although we probably missed making any connections with fellow diners. We ate in the main dining room maybe four times -- a couple of times at a table for two, and on one of the formal nights with a big table of friendly (and somewhat older) strangers whom we never saw again. One night we went to Murano, which is lovely but a little stuffy for my taste. The lobster there was very good, but the best meal I had all week was the lamb shank on the first night in the main dining room.
For other meals we ate mostly at the buffet, which I enjoyed for breakfast (delicious omelets) more than for lunch. I'm a salad-eater, and for some reason the buffet's selection of vegetables and other salad fixings seemed really odd and limited. I would have thought that an expansive salad bar, with lots of vegetables and meats and cheeses, would be a given in a restaurant like that.
We ordered room-service breakfast the first couple of days, but that didn't work out so well. My friend's toast was undercooked (and one day was rolls, not toast). And, since I'm a tea-drinker, I wasn't happy that the hot water for my tea always came in a pot usually used for coffee - the coffee taste ruins the tea. (Many hotels and restaurants do this, and it's always a turnoff. Get teapots!)
We did eat lunch at the AquaSpa Cafe one day; I liked the food a lot but we had trouble getting a table for the four of us: There's just not enough room there for all the people who like that healthful menu.
We also heard from a couple of single cruisers that they had a very hard time with the dining choices. They asked to be placed with other singles and never were. It seems like this is an obvious request and one not too hard to fulfill. Can Celebrity not put together a seating plan for singles who want to hang with other singles?
I'm no cruising veteran, but I have to say the eastern Caribbean ports are not my favorites. San Juan seemed promising, but we arrived late and didn't feel we had enough time to see it properly: We rode around Old San Juan on the free trolley and then had a nice dinner at La Mallorquina, an old-timey restaurant my sister had recommended, but there was no time to do anything more.
St. Thomas is pretty but we had no interest in shopping for jewelry. We took a cab to Magens Bay (which friends had told me was the most beautiful beach they'd ever seen). We were disappointed because, while it's pretty, it's also overrun with cruise-ship passengers like us. You can barely see the bay for the bathing suits. We stayed less than an hour and went back to the ship early.
In St. Martin we discovered the city bus, which charged us only $2 to go over to the French side to Marigot. The outdoor market was fun (although I suspect a lot of that stuff is made in China), but the restaurants there seemed overpriced and, once again, we went back to the ship early. Actually, that was a bonus because the ship is lovely on port days -- uncrowded and quiet. After you've done enough cruising to have seen a lot of these ports, I can imagine rarely getting off the ship at all.
As for entertainment, the main theater's shows turned out not to be our thing. The Cirque-style show, in particular, is pretty low-rent compared to the real Cirque du Soleil. On the other hand, we loved some of the smaller musical acts that played in the lounges around the ship. We became Adagio String Quartet and Jana Seale groupies and went to as many of their performances as we could. (Jana has a light, beautiful voice, and I was tickled that she played so much folk music from the '60s and '70s; she's too young to have lived through that stuff the first time around.) We only caught Metro Park, the a cappella group, a couple of times; for some reason they never sing more than 15 minutes, and they didn't sing in the lounges where we tended to be.
I also really enjoyed Nancy Howland Walker, the improv performer from Chicago, who led three or more improv workshops for passengers -- the best ones were a stitch, although occasionally she was hamstrung by passengers whose native language wasn't English and who didn't understand what they were supposed to be doing. Nancy is really approachable, and I enjoyed running into her around the ship and going to as many of her programs as I could.
My roommate went to a couple of the kitchen and cooking activities: She took a tour of the galleys and got to be sous-chef at one cooking demonstration, which she loved.
We weren't as impressed with the glass show as everyone else seems to be; we'd both seen glass-blowing at other times, and this didn't seem to be so unusual. But we did love the lawn club - it's a beautiful, peaceful place to be, especially after sunset. I couldn't imagine why you'd need a lawn on a ship, but now I'm a convert.
I'm also a huge fan of the solarium, where I spent long afternoons reading and enjoying the peace and quiet. My friend gravitated to the sunny places around the pool, but I was happy to discover lots of places in the shade.
Service: Because we used select dining, we never had the same wait-staff twice. We also saw very little of our room steward: He was responsive, but we didn't ask for much and didn't establish any rapport with him. But we did love Yolande, a Guyanese server in the Sunset Bar, who greeted us by name, even after the first meeting, and couldn't have been more delightful. I was impressed, in general, by how friendly the staff is, and Capt. Gerry's daily announcements ("it's me again") made us laugh.
On our last day we chose to do the express disembarkation, and that worked out well: We were told we'd be off the ship by 7:35 a.m., and we were.
Unfortunately, some of our fellow passengers didn't make the process any easier: We got to the main dining room around 7:10 and were told to line up around the room, which we did. But a few jerks who arrived later tried to cut in line and got into shouting matches with some who had followed the rules. Except for that minor blip, this disembarkation went so smoothly that I couldn't figure out why people got so riled up about the minor frustrations. They've just had a lovely weeklong vacation - why are they so hot and bothered?
(The staff might help that process by using stanchions or even police tape to show where we're supposed to line up, so that there's no guessing wrong or pretending not to understand the rules.)
In any case, we loved the Solstice - especially the quieter, more relaxed parts of it. I was amused to see a video that a fellow passenger made of his experience on the same cruise - all bright lights, dancing and carousing. Our trip was the opposite, and that's why I loved it.