I recently returned from a 14-day cruise on the Celebrity Solstice, departing from Auckland, NZ on 9 December and ending in Sydney, Australia on 23 December. Overall, the cruise was wonderful and it was one of those "bucket ... Read More
I recently returned from a 14-day cruise on the Celebrity Solstice, departing from Auckland, NZ on 9 December and ending in Sydney, Australia on 23 December. Overall, the cruise was wonderful and it was one of those "bucket list" trip of a lifetime experiences. I travelled with a good friend who was a first time cruiser and who had concerns about getting sea sickness. Luckily the patch and Dramamine seemed to work as we did experience several days of rough seas.
We also were fortunate to spend three days pre and post cruise getting to see the sights/environs of both Auckland and Sydney. In Aukland we stayed at the Crowne Plaza, which we found centrally located in the business district and convenient to the harbor and other places we visited. Our flight got us into Auckland in the morning, and after getting checked in and rating a bit we had lunch in the old ferry terminal and then caught a ferry to Waiheke Island and very much enjoyed a pleasant afternoon hiking around the Island. We didn't do any of the winery tours but those are on option for people that go there. We had dinner before retuning on the ferry, which afforded a nice view of the evening Auckland skyline on our return. Another highlight was the tour we booked through Coast to Coast, that included a visit to a craft shop, a local winery, the black sand beach of Maukatia and bird colony, and the best part--a working sheep farm. I highly recommend this tour for anybody with time in Auckland pre or post cruise as it was hands down one of the best tours I have ever taken anywhere. Although unknown to us, the other four people on the tour were also on our cruise so we already had some friendly faces as our cruise began. Our final excursion in Auckland was a day trip to the nature preserve at Titiri Matangi that we pre-booked and included a guided tour. There we saw all kinds of native birds and flora and fauna. It was an overcast and chilly day so not as nice as perhaps it could have been. That said, we still enjoyed it and met a couple on that tour that also were going to be on our cruise and turned out to be people we would spend time with later on our cruise.
Embarkation in Aukland was very easy and efficient. It probably took us a total of 20-30 minutes, if that. We got to the ship around 2:00 pm for an 8:00 pm departure and had time to explore the ship prior to the life boat muster/ drill. It was a beautiful day with bright blue skies the day we boarded so good for picture taking. Luggage was delivered promptly too. Our cabin was 8244, in the middle of the ship on the starboard (right) side and super convenient to the elevators and pretty much everywhere on the ship, with a nice balcony. This cabin gets a bit of a knock as part of the Celebrity X covers the glass portion of the outside balcony. That was not a problem at all from our perspective. Balcony was wonderful and we enjoyed time out there throughout our cruse and while in port and especially in Milford Sound. I am not sure I will be able to sail again without a balcony as I became spoiled. Cabin was pretty small but met our needs as we were seldom in it except for sleeping and getting ready for our port calls, dining, etc. The bathroom and shower were fine. The shampoo, conditioner, soap and other toiletries supplied by the ship were excellent and I never used the ones I brought. There also was a hair dryer. There was enough storage space for the two of us, with space under the beds for our suitcases.
Food and dining on the Solstice were overall good experiences with a few minor glitches and bad service at one of the speciality restaurants. We had prepaid for a meal package giving us three meals at the speciality restaurants and had arranged to have our first dinner the night we left port at the Asian restaurant Silk. The food there was okay, not great (I Iive in Asia so perhaps was just not in the mood) but the service was first rate and we loved the lemon grass creme brûlée dessert. Of the three speciality restaurants we loved Tuscan the best. This is the Italian themed one that has the filet mignon. Superb service from Ricardo and the meal overall was to die for--definitely recommend getting the antipasti platter if you have room. We left completely stuffed and it was our best dining experience of the cruise and much better than the generally higher rated and oft-raved about Murano, the French themed restaurant. We must have been there on an off night but the service was lousy--the worst on our entire cruse-and the lobster specialty we ordered overcooked and with too much sauce. We had to ask for everything from water and wine refills, to a an extra spoon that took forever to be delivered. I did not get the palate cleansing sorbet between appetizer and the main course and essentially we felt ignored. We did complain and the Assistant Maitre'd offered us a free lunch later in the cruise but they never followed up with the invitation they promised, which again just underscored the overall poor service we received and really the only sour note of the entire cruise.
Otherwise we ate in the main dining room, primarily during the late seating. Our table mates were from Australia and a riot. We really enjoyed the meals with them and the waiters and sommelier were all excellent. We generally also had our breakfasts and lunches in the main dining room when possible as the buffet on deck 14 was usually packed and the food not as good and also often cold so we found the main dining room a better option. It also gave us the opportunity to meet other people as we generally asked to be seated at the larger tables. My friend also had hamburgers a few times at the outside poolside grill and liked them. One night we did the "Taste of Film" that was held up on the lawn and featured food to compliment "The 100 Foot Journey" film we were watching. The concept was great but it was FREEZING that night, and even being bundled up in multiple blankets and my warmest clothes, it was still cold and keeping the food warm also was a bit of a challenge. I am not sure I would sign up for that again, and done tip....while it was summer in both New Zealand and Australia the only places that were really warm were Melbourne and Sydney. It chilly to downright cold everywhere else so pack accordingly. I had shorts and a swimsuit I never used.
We certainly got our use out of the speciality coffee bar and enjoyed the pastries and cookies they had there. We were not big drinkers but the martini bar was fun and we also enjoyed the lounge on Deck 5 near the specialty restaurants. It was a bit confusing though determining what was part of the "Classic Beverage" package and the ship should be more forthcoming in having that information readily available. When we asked at Customer Service we were told the ship was "green" and thus they could not provide us with a copy noting the drinks varied from bar to bar. Kind of annoying.
We attended most of the shows, and particularly enjoyed the ones by the shipboard performers, who were excellent singers, dancers, and acrobats. Probably the funniest show was the adult oriented one to determine who was telling the truth and featured Captain Tasos, Cruise Director Ben, and Hotel Director Christophe. I don't want to spoil anything but it was HILARIOUS. Definitely go if you are on a future cruise and it is offered. Although we missed the talk by Captain Tasos about the building of the Solstice that got great reviews as well, and overall we were pleased by the range of entertainment offered.
Despite our best intentions to use the gym, we really didn't go. They didn't offer very many fitness classes and the one I would have attended--Zumba--had an additional fee attached so I didn't bother. We did go to a talk on reflexology and booked a treatment, which was quite good albeit a bit pricey. My friend got her hair done several times and enjoyed the service.
Regarding ports of call and shore excursions, we did a mix of private tours with people we met pre cruise through the Cruise Critic boards and also did a couple of the ones offered by the ship. On balance, I was happy with what we did but enjoyed the smaller, private tours we took over the big cruise ship bus tours. The most expensive was the overnight trip to Queenstown that got us off the ship in Dunedin and overland to what we thought would be joining up with the ship again in Milford Sound the following day. Unfortunately there was a bad storm in the Sea of Tasmin and the Captain rightly decided it would be safer to remain in Port in Dunedin another day and only spend a short time in Milford Sound a day later than planned. As such, our excursion was reorganized and became a roundtrip to and from Dunedin and we did not get to visit Fjiordlands National Park which was the primary reason we (and most everybody else) signed up on this ship offered tour. It was hugely disappointing and we were only offered a $50 credit for missing what really would have been the highlight of this particular tour. I will give credit to the tour company for taking different routes so we got to see a range of things on the journey, which was through rolling hills dotted with sheep and some breathtaking scenery.
We LOVED Queenstown even with a lot of rain (the snow capped mountains that came from that were stunningly beautiful that evening and the following day). The food throughout was excellent, including a wine tasting at the southern most winery in the world. It was fun seeing where bungee jumping originated and the paddleboat ride to the estate where we had dinner and saw a sheep herding/sheering show was excellent. Shopping in Queenstown was good but we didnt have much time. We also enjoyed our stop at the gold mining town of Arrowtown. The only compliant we really had was the hotel they used. It was definitely not of four or even five star caliber. Our room had filthy carpet and was located in an out of the way area that did not even have elevator access. Although we were told the rooms had lakeside views, our view was out the back and of absolutely nothing. That was VERY disappointing given the overall cost ($599 per person). If I ever return to Queenstown I definitely would not opt to stay in that hotel.
Another highlight was the Rotorua Geysers and Hobbiton Movie Set tour we took the second day during our two day port call in Tauranga--the latter was a really cute town but the shops closed really early i.e. around 5-5:30pm. This was a private tour booked through Zealandier Tours, with Grant as our guide, and was EXCELLENT. The trip to the geysers and seeing the Maori show was great. We even saw (in captivity) the elusive kiwi bird. The highlight though was the trip to the Hobbiton Movie Set. I am not a Lord of the Rings or Hobbits fan by any stretch of the means but really, really enjoyed our stop there. The surrounding countryside was simply beautiful and if you like taking pictures, this was a photographers dream.
In Wellington we signed up via the ship to take a Wellington City tour, which included a cable car ride and brief trip to the botanic gardens with the bulk of the time at the Zealandia nature preserve. We had been unable to see the rare and almost extinct Takahe bird at Tiriti Matangi Island outside of Auckland and Zealandia was recommended as a place where we would likely see them as they had a pair there in captivity. We did get to see them as well as other endangered birds and even a rare tuatara lizard like creature. Personally, I suspect you can probably do this on your own as I saw Zealandia shuttles and it would have been easy enough to get into Wellington and do the cable car and botanic gardens on your own. Still, booking through the ship ensured we got off in a timely fashion for this 1/2 day tour.
Akaroa was a tender port, and very pretty being inside a former volcano. My friend opted to stay on the ship and enjoyed time at the pool and relaxing without masses of people. I took the tender in and enjoyed walking around the town and using the free wifi at the library. I was lucky enough to get on the standby list for one of the Harbor Wildlife Cruises. In hindsight, it would probably be better to pre-book on your own because I was super fortunate to get on the actual tour. This turned out to be a really nice 2 1/2 hour cruise where we saw stunning scenery as well as lots of dolphins, seals, and two penguins but very briefly. There were some nice shops and gardens too in the town of Akaroa.
As already mentioned, in Dunedin we did the overnight excursion to Queenstown offered by the ship so only briefly saw the town and famous railway station. The port was interesting too as there were logs everywhere. After Dunedin we had rough seas reaching Milford Sound. It was cold and rainy and misty when we visited Milford Sound but it was still stunningly beautiful and all of the rain had created huge waterfalls. From time to time we had a few touches of sunshine. I can only imagine what it would have been like of the weather were clearer and we could see the tops of the peaks for a sustained period. We started on our balcony but went to the top of the ship for better views and picture taking.
After Milford Sound we headed to Tasmania. Seas were REALLY rough. Huge waves on occasion. I appreciated that the Captain kept us well informed about conditions. Because of the large waves the ship had to go considerably slower than anticipated and instead of arriving in Hobart at 0800 we got there around 1330. While they extended our departure to 2100, it still felt a bit rushed there . We had booked a private tour and still got to do what we had planned albeit pretty much everything was closed by the time we got to Richmond. By far, the highlight of that tour was the stop at the Bonorong Wildlife sanctuary where we saw Tasmanian Devils, got to feed kangaroos, got our picture taken with a koala, saw wombats, and birds etc. Loved, loved, loved this stop and we were fortunate that our private tour got there before the large ship tour buses which definitely filled up the place. We also went to the top of Mount Wellington that offered beautiful views but was absolutely freezing cold and very windy,
In Melbourne, we opted to do our own thing and just bought the tram/bus pass when the ship docked. We visited the War Memorial and the Royal Botanic Gardens that were stunning. We arrived just as they were offering a free walking tour of the gardens (10:30 am) and joined that tour. Even though we didn't intend to do the full tour, our guide was so informative and there was so much to see we ended up spending about 2 1/2 hours there. We then went to the main shopping areas that were all decorated for Christmas and saw some of the arcades, bought delicious chocolates at Haighs, and generally just enjoyed the town. From there it was on to Sydney, where our cruise ended.
Entering Sydney Harbour around 5:30 am was quite an experience. It was a bit overcast but still beautiful. Disembarkation was very orderly--we had a late time as we were staying in Sydney and not heading to the airport. That gave us time to eat breakfast and take more pictures before getting off the ship. Luckily for us, we booked a hotel--Pier One Sydney Harbour, an Autograph Collection hotel in the Marriott Chain--that ended up being within walking distance from the pier. It was a bit slow going with the luggage but overall easy and luckily they had our room ready even with an early arrival. This hotel was in a great location on the Rocks and I would highly recommend it.
In Sydney, post cruise we enjoyed Tauranga Zoo, the Botanic Gardens, Manly Beach, the Opera House, and best of all doing the Harbour Bridge Climb--an unforgettable experience. We also did a day trip to the Blue Mountains (really spectacular) with a stop at the Featherdale Animal Sanctuary. Latter was especially good for seeing/photographing koala bears but for kangaroos and the overall experience the wildlife park in Hobart was better.
In sum, this was a great cruise! We were sorry to head home. I definitely would cruise with Celebrity again and also really liked the Solstice. Read Less