We cruise 3-4 times a year, since we are very close to Fort Lauderdale and find cruising such an affordable family vacation and so easy with young children.
We have been on the Solstice twice (last 2 Christmas cruises) so the ship was completely familiar and allowed the children to have complete freedom onboard (they are 8&9). I booked this cruise only a few weeks out, due to an amazing online sale, so I did not have much time to research the ports and plan very thoughtful excursions, but we did have a fantastic time in any case.
We flew directly from Miami to London, on Virgin. Great airline but very small seats in economy and two out of four of our TVs not working....not so great on a 9 hour flight with children, you know? We landed and went straight to the ship via National Express coach and saved about $200 by doing this. Once in Southhampton, it was just about a mile taxi to the ship and we went right on.
Of course the ship was new and spotless...we all had to squeeze into one room due to the last minute sale booking, but we managed. Normally, we book two adjoining veranda rooms which is preferable, but this room had a large balcony which helped. I purposely packed very light because I knew the room could not handle too much "stuff." We actually skipped the 3 formal nights in the dining room since those clothes would have added another suitcase AND we are not big fans of getting all fancy on vacation. So, we hit the buffet on those nights instead.
I have a lot of images of the ship and all the ports, with commentaries, on my website at http://www.lenahyde.com/blog (July 2011) I am a professional photographer but take all my personal photos using a small point and shoot camera.
I will say a bit here about each port to help anyone who may be sailing:
Gibraltar: not the greatest, toured the rock with a private taxi driver we met in town, eh....next time I would stay on the ship and have the pool to ourselves.
Southern France: totally missed going to Provence (2 hours away) due to a debacle with transport. The ship was a 45 minute drive from town, THEN you go to Provence from there. Take the public ferry, it is much faster and less expensive than the ship's coaches ($20 pp).
Florence: about 2 hours away, very hot and very crowded. I would suggest a private tour here in an air conditioned car. You can combine with Pisa if you are crazy like us. Kids HAD to see the leaning tower...it was beautiful. Bring lots of sunscreen and an umbrella for shade anywhere you go in Italy and Spain. Temps were well over 100 degrees in all ports in these countries. Best pizza & Gelato we ever had!
Rome: about 2 hours away, but easy to get to via train and station is walking distance to ship. We did not realize all of the ports were so far from the cities listed on Celebrity's itinerary...just getting to town uses up a huge chunk of your day, so plan all the places you want to see and your day plan ahead of time.
Arrange tickets to the Vatican in advance or you can get them on the ship for $270/per person!
Cadiz: Adorable town, we did the hop on/off bus tour at the port and it was good.
Sardinia: at the pier we found affordable guides who do 2 hour trips in nice cool Mercedes vans. Very affordable and we were able to see the whole area.
Lisbon: highly recommend wehatetourismtours.com....a great day and such a cool company! We ate tons of local foods we would have never found without our guide.
Vigo: exhausted at this point, so we just walked off the ship and explored the charming old town. You have to Try the churros for breakfast! Great little mall at the port, especially for women's clothing.
There were not tons of children on the ship, definitely mostly elderly cruisers, but we enjoyed ourselves and our time together. The kids' camp was never crowded and the counselors were fabulous. My boys must have attended 80% of the glass blowing shows and that were a highlight of the trip for us as well. The grass lawn makes the Solstice class of ships our favorite. Service and food are fantastic as well. The only not-so-great aspect of the cruise was the web service....I need to stay in touch with my company daily and the rates are just insane for a very spotty connection. I suggest you log on, download all your email, then log off. Compose all your replies, then log on and hit send. Hopefully, the connection will not drop too many times...back up everything too. I could only get a signal in the iLounge, never in the room.
At the end of the trip, we spent four nights in London which was terrific. Back on National Express to Victoria Station then taxi to our hotel. At such a late booking date, the only nice, yet affordable hotel I could find with two beds in a room was the Crown Plaza Kensington. Recently renovated, I found it to be a fantastic bargain (for London) and in a wonderful neighborhood, with a tube station a minute's walk away and lots of restaurants and cafes lining the same street. Additional, a great market and pharmacy are right across the street. Free wifi in the lobby, a breakfast buffet, and helpful concierge made this a hotel I would certainly return to again.
Hope this info helps my fellow travelers!
More info are images are here: http://www.lenahyde.com/blog (July 2011)