REVIEW -- February 5-12, 2012
Ft. Lauderdale -- Western Caribbean
This was my 23rd cruise and first time on any Celebrity Cruise ship. It is important to note that many comments here may seem "picky" in nature. They are meant only to reveal what a new passenger to Celebrity's Solstice might expect.
Over the years, embarkation on any ship leaving from Ft Lauderdale has become an easy process. With so many retirees living in South Florida, staffing is not a problem and they are always cheery and helpful! Lines are long because ships are huge, but they move quickly. Expect to do some serious walking, mostly because of the size of the ship. From the outside, the first views of the Solstice are a bit intimidating. It is big. Really big. I know that entering the ship on the enclosed walkways depends on the tide, but I found the extra long uphill trek a bit arduous after a long day.
Veranda forward Starboard- Deck 8
What a surprise! Roomy beyond my expectations, yet the same square foot area as on other ships- other cruise lines. Clever use of every square inch. I was finding cabinets and drawers on the second day of the cruise. Flat screen TV was great especially because it would pan to sleeping or lounging area. Sound kept going out because of an easily fixed loose connection on the back. TV at sea sucks- know that in advance and don't expect what you get at home. There is no Ellen or GMA or NCIS . . . but there is lots of CNN, MSNBC, Fox, BBC, ESPN, etc. The saving grace is the number of free movies you can get. The bathroom is large and helped by a shower that has an enclosure that is curved and full length that was easy to use with no fancy dials. All the expected amenities and lots of fresh soft towels. Could not find fault or ask for more. Lighting was a challenge, but that's something I've become used to on all new ships. Maybe they should label them. One interesting thing- this was the first ship that had a low level light adjustment in the bathroom that could be set to use as a night light. Really clever and very much appreciated! Ice buckets are shrinking and you may have to ask your room steward for more than the standard two daily refills, or a large plastic bucket like I did. I did stay away from the mini bar realizing that Celebrity probably makes a cruise profitable on people using it. The balcony was spacious and quiet and a great place to read on a lazy afternoon when there was nothing of interest going on (not often).
Special notice: on my last cruise, I elected an ocean view room thinking I would be happy with just seeing what the weather was like. Big mistake. There is nothing like having the freedom of stepping outside and watching the ship dock or the dolphins swimming alongside the hull.
The Captain was Norwegian and the balance of the officers were mostly Greek. Professional at all times and they made me feel safe. Service staff was different than most ships. They were a total mish-mash of Croatian, Italian, Indian, Hungarian, and just about every other European and Asian country. The diversity was good. but I remain unconvinced that it worked well "behind the scenes". Service, especially in the bars was often uneven, slow, and confused. Language was often a problem. I enjoy the Trivia Games and in every instance when they were hosted by a German, Italian or Greek, there was a serious problem in not understanding or hearing the question properly. Very annoying. When Assistant Cruise Director (Greg) was told of problem, he shrugged it off by saying, "Just ask them to spell any word you don't understand". Not the right answer there, big Greg.
In the months before my cruise, I read and heard, "It's a big ship, but you won't notice it. It is cozier than it looks." Those people must live in Texas. This ship is over a thousand feet long, making it one of the largest ships afloat. The dining room was about an eighth of a mile away from my stateroom! That is not "cozy". No question that the ship is elegant and extremely well appointed, but I have always been a big fan of signage and the last ship that had decent signage was the Norway, with different color carpeting forward and aft. Why can't modern ships have more signs that say Forward and Aft? And clocks? Forget about them. The only clocks I saw were on the back wall of the forward elevator banks. As in casinos, maybe they just don't want you to know the time. Speaking of elevators, the Solstice claims a new high. Not only are they fast, smooth and clean but when they arrive, a light above them changes from blue to pink . . . but be sure to look at the arrows to know if it's going up or down. I rarely waited more than a minute, if that.
The decor is muted with browns and grays repeating on all decks and corridors.
No fresh flowers, but that's an expensive extra on a ship this large. Even the theater is bland with lots of brown and only red seats and curtains to wake you up. When they rehab the ship in a few years, perhaps a dip into the box of Crayolas and add a color or two. Sound in the Solstice Theater is poor. It is much too tinny and heavy on treble. For a ship this elegant, that sound system should be top notch, not third grade.
The dining room is impressive . . . visually. I was told that there was music playing but I never heard it. If you cruise this ship, expect this elegant room to be deafening with conversations from every corner.
There are two pool areas. One is for the masses with kids and games and noise and no available lounge chairs- a big problem on this ship that they can't seem to do anything about. The other (adults only) Spa pool is quiet, shaded with some chairs available. The deck lounge chairs on the balcony deck above appear occupied with pool towels on them even earlier. Could all 2,850 passengers be using pool lounge chairs at the same time?
There are enough cocktail lounges to cater to every taste on almost every deck, forward, midships and aft. I'm sure that I didn't see them all, so I know I didn't visit them all. One, the Sky Observation Lounge high on deck 14 is special with a great look and view forward, but too large for the client profile of Celebrity. It was almost always empty, and the disco style lounge had at least 20 passengers almost every night. I'm sure you get the point. The casino was perfect- located at midships, with about half the tables and slots in use on any night. Even Bingo was downplayed and difficult to find on the daily schedule.
Getting off the ship is easy. Show your SeaPass card and it's steps to the little shops (see "Disappointments"). Returning to the ship, especially on Grand Cayman is not pleasant. There are long lines for the tenders and they move slowly in the hot sun (I'm glad it wasn't raining).
Since every newly built ship needs a gimmick, the Solstice class of ships feature a half acre of lawn on one of the highest decks. Play bocce ball, mini golf, or walk barefoot on thick healthy grass tended to by two full-time keepers. It was certainly different, but the Corning hot glass demonstration mini theater off to one side was the real attraction on Deck 15. I'm still not sure what the attraction of real grass on the top of a cruise ship really is.
The collection of specialty restaurants we all neatly arranged at the stern of Deck 5 with the main dining room directly below on decks 4 and 3. An easy way to remember where to go is "dining-aft, casino-middle, and entertainment-forward".
The passageways and rooms are decorated with large photographs by Espen Tollefson, a European artist-photographer I have never heard of. His images are
uninspired, usually boring and difficult to understand. Most have no color and I
wonder why Celebrity doesn't highlight images of other ports cruised by the Solstice during the year. This additional subliminal advertising might just convince one passenger to try another cruise.
In what has to be the greatest bargain afloat, the food in the Epernay (Main) Dining Room far exceeded my expectations. Not only a daily page of changing appetizers, soups, salads, and entrees but a good old stand by page of shrimp cocktail, onion soup, NY Sirloin and other popular standards . . . just in case nothing struck your fancy on the daily special. A very smart idea, indeed. It's impossible to talk about the food without mentioning the servers. Every table has its own Maitr'd, Waiter, Assistant Waiter and Wine Steward. Aboard the Solstice, they are among the best, and make the dining experience such a joy. I never felt rushed and I thought the service perfectly paced. The creativity, taste, and presentation deserve awards. As a current published food critic, it takes a lot to make me gush about food and service in any restaurant. Except for the super strong coffee found all over the ship, there were absolutely no complaints and nothing but praise. On one night, I made the bold decision to try one of the specialty restaurants. Tuscany Grille was tagged as an Italian gourmet jewel with
exceptional food and service. I found it slightly better that my local Olive Garden.
It was a disappointment from start to finish. My traveling companion and I were seated at a small table for two in the furthest corner of the room, close to the kitchen entry-exit. Aside from taking the order, our waiter left us in the hands of the assistant waiter, an overly 'chatty Kathy' from some Slavic country.
I expected white tablecloths, not rubber placemats. I expected salt and pepper, not two peppers. When I asked for a mild red wine, I didn't expect a screaming
strong Chianti. Note: The staff was good about replacing it. My veal Parmesan was extra thick and tough and I could only eat half. I was offered a replacement, but my appetite dissipated. The pasta was good. The starters and the side dishes were forgettable. For an extra $25 per person I missed 'lobster night' in the main dining room. A-r-g-h-h-h. When you get a recommendation to try the Tuscan Grille, my opinion is that you think twice and perhaps ask some passengers who have already been there. I cannot comment on the other added charge restaurants because I never tried them. I was too happy with the main dining experience.
The Oceanview Cafe on Deck 14 is a winner. It offers a huge buffet for breakfast. lunch and dinner. The spotlessly clean buffet tables are not always well marked, but strolling them is a lot like grazing. You're bound to find something you really like sooner or later. I did suggest that they consider enlarging the one ice cream station, or adding staff and posting what flavors were available . . . just to speed things up a little. The line was always long. At breakfast, expect to fetch your own coffee and juice unless you want something special like I did. I asked a wandering female staff member for a glass of tomato juice with ice. She asked me for my SeaPass card so she could charge me for a Virgin Mary cocktail. Of course, I explained why that was inappropriate. It's called "training".
The pizza station was open long hours and the pizza was excellent! It was a great place for a mid-afternoon or a late-night snack.
Ignore everything you read or are told. On the first formal night, I saw a total of 4 men in tuxedos. Most men wore a dark blazer and slacks with collared shirt- some ties, most not. A few were in suits. Only the most extreme violators were not permitted in the dining room. One young man had the audacity to wear shorts, a T-shirt and flip flop shoes. He was told to leave. The ladies were not much better and tried to push every rule as far as it could go. Things just are not like they once were.
Here is another area where Celebrity and other lines are cutting back. The young men and women did appear as if they were contestants from 'American Idol'. They are good (not great) and barely pull off the two production shows. Solo entertainment (magician, singer, etc.) fill the rest of the nights. The acrobats and jugglers are fun but inexpensive entertainment for a theater that seats over a thousand.
DISAPPOINTMENTS (? significant)
- Overly crowded main pool area with no lounge chairs available
I even fell, tripping over a lounge chair placed directly in the walking
path by a lady of great girth who anchored the chair in place. Perhaps
I should have been more careful.
- Bar service uneven and often unfriendly
- Language barrier with many of the staff whose job was to interact with
- Quality of food and service in Tuscan Grille
- Overly noisy main dining room
- Cruises visit many ports that are really centers of third world nations.
Chickens and horses walking through villages and ramshackle houses
may be the norm, but not what cruise ship visitors
want to see, so the cruise lines have created Disney-esque villages
with clean and neat little shops and shopping centers where
passengers disembark. In most cases, to escape this charade, a walk
past the guard gate is necessary to find land tour service or
a 'real' taxx. Not only is this common today. But when the U.S.
allows cruise ships to start visiting Havana, expect to see it on
a much grander scale.
No daily room delivery of USA News flyer, drink specials for the week, daily
crossword puzzles, other items available at Guest Relations only
Post cards of destination ports and appropriate stamps not available
How does one of the largest ships afloat have one of the smallest pools?
The shops (not owned or managed by Celebrity) offer attractive specials during
the week, but don't try to purchase them on the last day. Specials are
only good until day 5
Crowded screening area aboard ship when returning from port excursions
Placement of pool lounge chairs- Celebrity ships appear to follow another leader
when it comes to the arrangement of all lounge chairs on upper decks, They
all face inward, blocking any possibility of looking over the rail. Most
ships in other fleets arrange them to face forward appearing making the
deck look less crowded and still allowing a wide enough aisle for easy
walking. I also wondered about the extra glass mounted securely on top of
the railings. Why are they there? Wind protection? Safety? They block any
view alongside the ship . . .
Friendly attitude of staff at exit-boarding stations
Layout of buffet tables in Oceanview Cafe
Absolute cleanliness of ship in all areas
Roominess of stateroom and bathroom
High quality of food in main dining room
Quiet late nights enjoying a cocktail at the Sunset Bar at the
very aft end, looking out at the churning wake of the ship
It is important to point out that once you have purchased your cruise, there are very few ways a cruise line can make more money on you. Cruise lines usually make little or no money on the shops, casinos, and photography department. So, aside from extra charges in the boutique restaurants, and expensive drinks (especially wine), shore excursions remain a major profit center. A negotiated $25 shore excursion is marked up by the cruise line to $50 or $75
before it appears in print and available for sale. I have not purchased a shore excursion from any cruise line in more than ten years. Passengers have an innate fear of arranging anything on shore not sanctioned by the cruise. Perhaps it is a fear of being ripped off or the concern that if they leave the herd, they will be subject to "wolves".
The internet is a wonderful tool to find out what exists OFF the ship at prices half as much. I like to recommend finding an older taxi driver after the crowds have gone and asking him or her to take you on a slow driving tour that will avoid all the crowds. You will get to see the real destination (good and bad) with the personal commentary of a local to whom you may ask questions at any time. The freedom of a private tour allows you to stop at any roadside stand with your own interpreter and negotiator and stay as long as you want.
In Grand Cayman, the 3.5 hour Stingray City tour (GC88) sold on the ship for $75 per adult. It is a good tour. The professional, identical 3.5 hour tour with Moby Dick Tours is $45.00 (www.mobydicktours.com). The tour I reserved with Moby Dick was wonderful in every way. They have an experienced, safety-conscious staff with a sense of humor and a desire to show every passenger a good time. Not counting tip, I saved $30 . . . and that is only one example.
Going on your own does have some inherent risk and you need to do your homework and get some testimonials and reviews before making a reservation. Some tour operators are so small, they rely on a "clearing house" to handle all of their reservations. When a ship docks at a different-than-scheduled pier, or the weather turns nasty, there can be crazy Caribbean confusion- never a good thing.
The reservation coordinator, often some small office in Florida, is out of the loop and unable to help. Often, you're on your own. Traveling in the Caribbean is an adventure and I have never felt nervous or unsafe. Over the years, I have learned the trick of throwing some inexpensive kids toys from Target, and dog cookies in the big beach bag. They don't weight much and you can never tell when they might come in handy.
DO NOT be afraid of renting a car (always under $100) in the Caribbean. Once you are out of the main port city, the landscape often turns into what is truly a third world nation and then into winding bumpy roads past great scenery and into tiny villages where local markets offer up a bounty of low priced souvenirs, fresh produce and hot sauces and spices to take home. Waterside and beach restaurants always feature freshly caught fish and shellfish that will make you want to stay late and miss the ship. Don't. Do remember to drive on the correct side of the road and if you are nervous and a slow-poke, the resident truck drivers will let you know right away. Expect to use your credit card as a guarantee against damages to the rental, but you will be paying cash for the deal. Try to make certain that you ask for your credit card copy or receipt back . . . just to be on the safe side. They will want the car filled with gas, which is always expensive.
The rental car companies are always fairly close to the spot where the ship lands, but there is some walking, and don't expect a Hertz or Avis in every port. Do expect an adventure.