Solstice cruise -â€" 10-23-11
This is a rather long review / recap of our trip to Europe via the Celebrity Solstice. Overall this was not our "Best" Celebrity cruise, mostly due to bad luck in our draw of Main Dining Room servers. Other cruise critic members on our cruise raved about their service team. If you just want the summary, scroll way down to the last few paragraphs.
Our flights from the US to Barcelona went well. We landed early, but rather than deplaning at a gate we were made to deplane on the tarmac and enter into shuttle buses. In all, it took 90 minutes from the time the plane "Parked" until we had our luggage. A quick taxi ride brought us to the Hilton Diagonal. We explored the immediate area (the nearby beach and a large shopping mall with many eateries directly across the street) while waiting for our traveling friends.
Using the free internet at McDonalds, we checked their flight and found they were also early. Assuming about the same amount of airport time, we thought they could be almost getting into a taxi, so we headed back to the Hilton. After only a ten minute wait we saw them get out of a taxi. By now, there was a line to check in, but soon enough we were on our way to the famous Ramblas and a walking tour at 13:00. Suffice it to say we saw a lot of Barcelona that day before heading back to our hotel using the metro system.
The next morning was Sunday and nearly everything in the neighborhood was closed. There were heavy metal gates over the entrance area to the mall. We walked around quite a bit and found a cafÃ© that was open, but soon enough our agreed to 11:00 meeting time arrived and we squeezed into a taxi for transfer to the ship. The terminal and check in process at Barcelona is something that the cruise lines should try to copy everywhere. It couldn't have been 15 minutes from arrival until we were getting our welcome aboard photos taken for the facial recognition software. We enjoyed our welcome aboard beverage and headed to the Oceanview cafÃ© for lunch. We found a table in a sheltered outdoor area by the Oceanview bar. After lunch, we headed up to view the lawn club and began exploring the ship.
About 1:20 PM the announcement was made that the rooms were ready. We found our cabin, #8339, a 1C veranda near the aft of the ship. What our T/A told us is true, the one design flaw in the Solstice class is the lack of rear lifts or stairs. We don't mind walking, but found that the distance from the nearest public stairs made us avoid returning to the cabin unless very necessary. Our traveling friends were next door in 8341, a cabin that the deck plan shows as having a larger, angled balcony. Well the cabin directly above them on deck 9 has a larger one, but on deck 8 it is 8343 that has the larger balcony with the angle. After three years I am surprised that Celebrity has not corrected the on line deck plans.
The 4:15 muster drill was comfortable enough with our assigned meeting place being in one of the specialty restaurants, but we were all the way aft once again. At the conclusion of the drill, to avoid what appeared to be an eternal line for the lifts (and as we were on deck 5 and headed to deck 14, we wanted the lift!) we walked all the way forward only to return aft for our cruise critic roll call sail away party at the Sunset bar.
We have fixed early seating dinner at table 307, a table for four. We are near a window, and it is a quieter spot. However, it is also kind of in a side section of the Grand Epernay dining room. We did not realize how elegant the MDR really is until later in the cruise. We met our wait staff, Nehamias and Orlando. Our first meal in the MDR was very good to near excellent, except that it was nearly 8:30 before we left our 6:15 seating. We were surprised that at dessert time no dessert tray was presented. We later learned that Celebrity has not had dessert trays on the Solstice Class ships, but they still have them on the M-Class. In my opinion, this takes the dining experience down a notch.
We listed to the party band playing in the Grand Foyer, but nowhere was a seat to be found. Our friends went to the welcome aboard show; we went to the fifth deck and found two chairs at a table where a charming couple from the UK, but living in Spain, was seated. They were very happy to be on board after a 4 hour drive from their current residence, and they were enjoying their beverage package while listening to the tunes. Soon enough, they left for their second seating dinner and we stayed until the band ended their set at 9:00. We went to the Sky Lounge for a DJ Ballroom Dance hour. There was but one other couple there so it seemed a good "Practice" but was rather boring. We went back to the Grand Foyer as we knew that "Top Notch," the party band was starting up again at 9:30.
Since the show was still on, and late seating guests were likely just on their Salad course, we had no trouble finding seats. The first few tunes were great for dancing and there were few others around; it was great fun. Our friends joined us after the show and we stayed up until well after 11:00 (very late for us!). Any who say Celebrity is asleep after 10 PM have not been on this cruise, we found many people staying up late, enjoying the entertainment and their beverage packages.
Monday and Tuesday were both sea days as we headed east to the Adriatic Sea and Dubrovnik, Croatia, our first port of call. We engaged in many fun activities, including the Hot Glass Show. The weather is a little cool and windy for the outdoor pool, but the Solarium is perfect. We often see the question "Are the pools heated?" on cruise critic, and the answer is a definite yes. Some would argue the hot tubs could be hotter (they are really "Warm tubs") and we never had any difficulty getting a deck chair. There were over 600 passengers who showed up for the Galley tour "Heartbeat of the Operation," and ship's personnel told us that this was the largest group in many months. We attended two travel lectures, on Dubrovnik and Venice. The speaker is funny but unfortunately rather dry. The first day she was scheduled to be in "Celebrity Central;" I arrived 10 minutes early to find standing room only. I waited nearby to see what the Solstice staff would "Do" about this, and noted on my schedule that nothing was scheduled for many hours in the main theater. While I think the decision should have been made sooner, the ships staff did "Do the right thing" and moved the talk to the main theater. Future sessions were also booked in the theater. By the way, the theater was nearly at capacity for the talks on both Dubrovnik and Venice. Overall, at this point, four days into the cruise, we are happy with the quality of food in nearly every venue. The one thing lacking is good coffee (without paying more for it.) Many coffee drinkers seem to become tea drinkers as the cruise progressed. You won't find comments in this review on the specialty restaurants as that is not our thing; rather, we enjoy getting to know our wait staff and as we often find is the case, by the second evening they anticipate many of our choices. (Well, this changed -â€" see near the end of the review!)
Wednesday we visited Dubrovnik. The four of us were the first passengers off the boat as we were meeting a privately arranged guide recommended by Rick Steve's. He took us to the top of Mount Sud and explained about their war for independence from 1991 to 1995. Photo ops were numerous. He left us at the entrance to the old city, and we climbed the walls and walked (and climbed) the perimeter. We then walked the Stradum and explored some of the side streets and alleys, before being quite tired of the walking (and climbing) we found a taxi for the 10 Euro trip back to the Solstice. We enjoyed a really nice lunch on board, and fell asleep in the Solarium.
Thursday morning felt like a sea day as we headed toward Venice. While enjoying the hot tub a rare, non-noon announcement was made that we were "Running ahead of schedule" and sail in would begin an hour earlier than expected. This certainly affected our plans so we were quick to return to our cabin to shower and get ready to explore Venice. Here however I need to report another unhappy Celebrity "Change." They now "Sell" passes to the bow of the ship for sail in. The nickel and diming is reaching Princess proportions (and that is not a complement, sorry). Last year on the Infinity the bow was open to all for our Panama Canal passage My opinion is it should be open to all whenever the bow can be made accessible to the passengers. This class ship affords few good viewing spots on deck 5 due to the lifeboats, so it's really only the top deck and the bow that has unobstructed views.
Anyway, the sail in was very nice with a brilliant blue sky. We never could get a good place to view so we headed to the Oceanview cafÃ© to get some lunch before the crowd. We obtained a table at the windows and had one of the best views on the ship as we passed St Mark's square. By the time the announcement was made that we could go ashore it was 1:55, a scant 5 minutes prior to our scheduled 2:00 arrival time. We made the most of our time in Venice for the afternoon, evening, and following morning. We found the best part of the visit was simply walking the back streets away from the commercial streets.
On Friday, Venice departure was again quite lovely, and enjoyed immensely from our balcony. Friday afternoon was again a bit of a "Sea day" feel to it as we headed toward Kotor, Montenegro, our Saturday call. By this time we determined that while our main dining room wait staff were really nice guys, the two hour plus meals were becoming annoying, especially as all the nearby tables served by another team were routinely finished 20-30 minutes before we were. We spoke with our waiter and he assured us service would speed up the rest of the cruise.
Saturday morning we enjoyed a wonderful sail into Kotor. Kotor sits at the end of a bay often referred to as "Fiord like" and it is a stunning location. Kotor was our only tender port, but without too much effort we secured tickets for tender #2 and were on land not long after the anchor was dropped. Kotor was a very pleasant surprise and in a number of ways was one of the highlights of the cruise. Sail away was delayed as we watched some of the ship's tour buses arrive back more than a little tardy, but this allowed us to see Kotor and its walls "Lit up" in the evening. Conversely, we had no view for the sail away.
Sunday was the last sea day of the cruise and the second formal night. We were quite surprised that the MDR menu did not seem to reflect formal night. Nehamias told us that the lobster entrÃ©e was scheduled for Wednesday, the second to last evening, after Livorno.
Monday began four days of intense port calls, to be followed by disembarkation on Friday. We called at Naples and were again off the ship very early. Following instructions from Rick Steve's book, we found the nearby ferry docks and ticket offices and obtained tickets on the 8:05 hydrofoil to Capri. It was a shame that the ferry windows were so dirty as to make photos of our approach impossible. We got off in Capri and immediately bought the day transportation passes, toured the island by bus and went to the top of Mount Salerno on the chairlift. By 1:00 we had done it all, and decided to return to the ship via Sorrento. This turned out to be a great decision as we truly enjoyed Sorrento and were sorry we only had 2.5 hours there. Finally, we took the ferry back from Sorrento to Naples to find the "Free" port shuttle bus waiting to take us back to the Solstice.
We made a great point the evening before of telling Nehamias that we needed to complete dinner by 7:45 tonight, as we wanted to attend another event. Upon arrival, we reminded him of our schedule. It was close, but they did get us through by 7:50 for the only time on the cruise.
The Solstice really decorated the main foyer for Halloween. We greatly enjoyed the party band in the main foyer but did not stay up for the 10:30 Halloween party as we needed an early start for Rome the next Morning.
Tuesday was Rome. We were on the first port shuttle bus and made the 7:35 train to Rome. This was a holiday (All Saint's day) in Italy and Rome was absolutely jammed with people. Our friends had been there before in August and said that the lines for the Coliseum and Forum were at least double what they were in August. We saw the outside of many sights and took the 2:45 train back to the port simply to escape the crowds. This gave us a welcome respite to enjoy the hot tub and soak our tired feet. Despite the fact that half of our wait team's tables were empty, dinner was back to two hours.
Wednesday we called at Livorno. No free port shuttle here. We were able to secure a taxi to take the four of us to the train station for 25 Euro. We obtained our tickets and just missed the 7:33 train to Pisa so we had to settle for the 7:50. We really enjoyed our day of touring Lucca and Pisa. We climbed the leaning tower and thought the whole area of the "Field of miracles" truly was a miracle, looking brand new. To save time, we took a taxi back from Pisa to the ship for about 45 Euro.
Wednesday night we were the only table occupied at 6:20 served by our wait staff. Our orders were quickly taken and appetizers brought rather promptly. By 6:50 or so, most of the other tables had arrived. We were served our soup/salad course and then -â€" nothing. More than an hour went by between the soup/salad course and the main entrÃ©e. Before the hour was up, I went looking for our matre de as earlier in the evening he gave his pitch for great marks on the ship's feedback form. He apologized profusely and promised to make things better. We were finally served our entrees (at the same time as all the other tables) and the "Chef's recommendation" (A thick coated pork chop) was horrible. Another at our table ordered a beef dish which was also inedible. Makes one wonder -â€" were they sitting too long?
I had also ordered the lobster entrÃ©e but it was nowhere to be seen. A full 20 minutes later, the Lobster appeared. While it tasted good, no offer of drawn butter was made although other tables (different servers) had it. Long story short, it was 8:30 before we left the dining room that evening.
Thursday we were scheduled to dock in Marseille, France. Due to high winds, the captain had advised us we were diverting to Toulon, France. In reality we did not dock in Toulon but rather across the bay near a small town. Some quick research found a few DIY options and we did visit Toulon and their open air market. A rain shower chased us into a cafÃ© for mediocre coffee (but better than that served on the ship). We ferried back over to the small town and found they had a nicer market than Toulon. All in all, we had an enjoyable day in France and headed back, for the last time, to the Solstice.
A soak in the hot tub helped ease the pain of the last four days of intense walking, we did most of our packing, and prepared for our last dinner on board. At the conclusion of the dining debacle the night before, our matre de asked how he could "Make things right?" We responded that if he "Comp'd us" to dinner the last night in the Tuscan Grill that would sure help. He promised to get back to us but we never heard anything from him.
Before dinner we were able to track him down and he did get the four of us entrance into the Tuscan Grill for the last meal. It was a fabulous meal with superb service; a great way to end the cruise after the disappointment the evening prior. Rather than us leaving the ship feeling down, we ended on a real up note.
That lasted until disembarkation. We were in no hurry to depart the ship and had requested and been given an 8:30 time slot. All went according to plan until we went to retrieve our luggage and two (out of four) of our suitcases were not on the assigned belt. As good as embarkation was, disembarkation was bad. A Celebrity representative helped us and in a few minutes found one of the two missing cases. It took an hour (while our friends, who had all the cases, waited patiently) and I was filling out the "Lost luggage form" when the same helpful representative came running "I found it!" Both of the missing and now found cases had the disembarkation tags ripped off of them. In the future, self-disembarkation looks like a better idea!
Now that we left the terminal at the tail end of everyone, in a rain storm, the taxi queue was so long it was wrapped around the sheltered area into the open rain. 45 minutes later we were finally in a taxi headed to our hotels for one last night in Barcelona before heading back to the USA.
We had an eventful day, touring La Sagrida Familia and Park Guell. Four younger men attempted to pickpocket me as we got on the Metro after Park Guell, but I had nothing of value in my pockets (thank you Rick Steve's!) and I shoved them away and they ran out the door before the train left the station.
The final morning we were picked up at our hotel by arranged cab and taken to the airport where everything went smoothly to our 9.5 hour flight home. The plane seemed small and cramped and suddenly the prospect of the next cruise leaving from Bayonne looks better and better.
This was a very active cruise, but we expected the long port days with lots of walking. After we booked the cruise, Celebrity reversed the direction of the cruise and port calls, resulting in sea days up front and back to back port calls the last four days. We were locked in due to nonrefundable air arrangements. In some cases I am sure the ports were less crowded, but Rome became a disappointment due to this.
The food was not up to the standard experienced on the Infinity exactly one year prior. Service in the main dining room for us was much poorer than the Infinity. The ship is very nice (in fact, spotless and glistening) but we prefer the M-Class as everything seems more personal.
We really enjoyed the party band on those evenings we could obtain decent seating. The "Grand foyer" concept looks nice but there is not enough seating at all and especially not with a view of the band. The jazz group and string quartet were also very talented.
Other entertainment on the ship (the main shows) seemed mediocre. We went early to get good seats for "Solstice -â€" the show" and ended up sleeping through much of it. While artistically marvelous, the lack of a story made it boring.
We enjoyed the ports -â€" this was all new for us. We would not "Rush back" to these same ports, although some of them offer more we would like to explore.
Will we sail Celebrity again? Yes, we still feel "X" and "HAL" are the best for us. We bought a future passage certificate while on board. We would prefer "M" class X ships, but we also hope that "Solsticisizing" them does not take away the aspects we most enjoy. On the other hand, we are considering the Silhouette out of Bayonne this winter simply as we would not need to fly to the ship.
Our final opinion is 3.5 out of 5 stars for the cruise-line portion of this trip.