Celebrity Solstice Review - May 4, 2009 - Eastern MediterraneanABOUT USFirst off let me give you some general information about us. We are both in our mid 30's and have two young children (who didn't come with us on this cruise). We grew up in Southern California and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are big time foodies, enjoy going to the theater and like listening to music ranging from jazz standards to top-40. Somewhat new to cruising, this was our first time on Celebrity but our third cruise.We booked this trip to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary. For this vacation, we tagged 3 nights in Paris pre-cruise, then took an overnight train to Rome to catch the ship for this 11 night Eastern Mediterranean cruise with ports in Santorini, Mykonos, Istanbul, Kusadasi/Ephesus, Athens, and Naples/Capri. We then took 2 nights post-cruise in Rome before heading back to California.EMBARKATIONWe connected with 3 other couples through Cruise Critic and arranged transfer from Rome to the Port of Civitavecchia. A large van from Rome Cabs picked us up at Rome Termini approximately 11:00AM then drove through the city to pick up others from their hotels. Timing was perfect and we arrived at the port of Civitavecchia at around 1:00PM. With this being Solstice's first Eastern Mediterranean sailing, we weren't sure if we would be allowed on the ship prior to the posted boarding time of 3:00PM. When we arrived, there were plenty of other guests who mentioned they were on the ship well before noon. We were told the rooms weren't ready, but we went ahead and dropped of our carry-on bags in our Aqua Class room on Deck 11. We had room 1450 just under the Aqua Spa Salon. After dropping off our carry-on bags we headed over to the Aqua Spa Cafe for a nice, quiet and delicious lunch. We were so tired from the train travel that we didn't want to deal with the crowd and lines at the Oceanview Cafe. Our impressions of the food at the Spa Cafe were better than expected. More on food below.THE SHIPNot going to say too much about the ship as others have already commented. This ship is absolutely beautiful! There were other ships doing similar itineraries but one of the main reasons we booked Solstice was because it was a new ship with design and decor that match our tastes. In two words... Contemporary Elegance. Reminded me of the Sofitel brand of hotels we see throughout the world. However, speaking with other guests on the ship, some said they hated the decor and used words like "antiseptic" or "sterile" to describe it. Many of these folks sailed on the Millennium class and were constantly making comparisons and complaints. I couldn't say much to rebut since we haven't sailed on those other ships. We personally love the ship's design and decor and the pictures you see posted on-line don't do justice.THE STATEROOMOur AQ cabin was spacious and beautiful. Again not going to mention too much to avoid repetition from other reviews. I specifically chose the location of the cabin under the Aqua Spa Salon because there is no activity in the salon in the evenings and that it is also very close to the relaxation room, spa, and gym. We never heard any noise from the deck above. We would highly recommend that if you're booking an AQ cabin and use the Spa amenities often, to book one of the forward cabins. This also avoids the "alleged" soot that some have mentioned on prior sailings. My only complaint was that there is very little storage space for an 11 night cruise. We overpacked! but managed to get everything stored and hidden. We know now for our next Europe cruise to pack light and make use of the ships laundry and dry cleaning services.Aqua ClassTo us, AQ was definitely worth the couple of hundred dollars difference from Concierge class. Not sure how else to describe, but here's a list (in no particular order) of main points (positive and negative) about AQ class- priority embarkation line was short when we arrived at the port - loved the large jetted shower- fresh flowers were a nice touch- extra toiletries were especially nice and not overly scented- proximity to Aqua Spa amenities (if booking a forward cabin)- food in Blu was excellent (more on food later)- more diverse room service options (used it several times)- huge fluffy towels and bathrobes- we enjoyed receiving fresh fruit daily (great to have on hand after spending time in the gym)- ice tea has a strange after taste but was refreshed daily and tasted better with sweetener or sugar- daily water bottles (we requested 4 per day) were appreciated for taking with you to the gym and on a couple of the hot port days- relaxation room was great however, it is not exclusive to AQ guests. It got quite loud sometimes since the room is also used as a waiting room for those getting a spa treatment. - the afternoon canapes are disgusting! Tried them the first day. It's like eating wallpaper paste! We overheard some folks in the halls complaining why they don't automatically receive them anymore and now have to fill out a card to get them, but I see how wasteful it could be if they provided them automatically to everyone in CC and AQ.THE FOODBlu - Because we were booked in an AQ room, we were assigned to Blu. We decided to choose late dining because of the port intensive itinerary. Again, we're foodies and eat at many fine dining establishments in the San Francisco Bay area and Napa Valley. So, after reading many mixed reviews of Blu, we were a little worried and came in with low expectations. In the end, we were actually quite impressed with the food there. The service was great but a little spotty (e.g. water glasses weren't always filled). But this didn't bother us. The Maitre 'd came by our table every night to see how we were doing and to chat with us. We also had wonderful "table mates". The menu selection was very diverse, and the portion sizes were just right. Not too little and not too large. We never left the table feeling hungry or bloated and we were always satisfied. Preparation, presentation, flavor and freshness were on par with many of the great land restaurants we've dined at. Heard a few complaints about there not being enough food on the plates. I say if you want more, just order another dish! Our server figured out from the beginning that we enjoy pasta. So she came with a pasta/starch dish every night for us to taste and share along with our main entree. We also thought the dessert selection was excellent. Not too sweet and not too bland. Everything was just right. We had breakfast in Blu once and it was also a wonderful experience. Breakfast service ended in Blu at around 9:00am. Because there were so few people dining there in the morning, the service was great and the food came very hot. It was a nice, quiet and intimate breakfast. I only wish we could have woken up earlier to enjoy the breakfast experience there more often. But sleeping in is a must when you're on vacation! In general, eating in Blu was truly a clean dining experience. We tended to stick with our servers recommendations which were spot on. Eating there and avoiding the Oceanview Cafe was also a great way for us to maintain portion control yet still feel very satisfied with our meal. Happy to say that we actually maintained our weight after returning from the cruise. We were curious about the specialty restaurants and had a chance to eat at all 4 of them.Bistro on Five - This was a surprise! Ate there for lunch one day and thought it was delicious. We highly recommend the Cowboy and Mediterranean crepes. Minor issue for us there is that the texture of the crepes seemed to be more like a tortilla. So it was more like a quesadilla than a crepe. It wasn't as much an issue for the savory dishes, but it was for the dessert crepes. We expected the dessert crepes to be soft, light and fluffy (the way the French do it). But it was the same tortilla like texture of the savory crepes. Flavors however were still excellent. For dessert go for the Banana Nutella crepe!Tuscan Grille - We ate at Tuscan Grille after spending a day in Athens. This was a mistake. We should have booked Tuscan Grille for another day because we had a fairly large, but very delicious authentic Greek meal for lunch while in port. So we came back to the ship feeling not too hungry. The food portions at Tuscan Grill were way too large. We felt very wasteful by not finishing each plate. I was already pretty full after the delicious crabmeat appetizer I had. All-in-all the flavors of the food at Tuscan Grille were great. The steaks there are just as good as the ones offered in Blu. Except Tuscan Grill will give you a steak 2-3 times the size. So, in our opinion, if you eat in Blu, there's no need to eat at Tuscan Grille. But if you are not in Blu, eat at Tuscan Grill but be prepared for a very large dinner.Murano - This was our best dining experience. Service was excellent and the waitstaff was very friendly. I only wish they were a little more personable as they seemed to be very robotic. They seemed too concerned about what fork or knife to lay down, and to make sure no breadcrumb was left on your table. We personally don't care about all this and really are more into the food flavors, ingredients, and preparation. But alas, the waitstaff came to life when we engaged them in more conversation. When we were seated, we were shortly presented with a mise en bouche of salmon pate with creme fraiche and caviar. This was delicious and left us wanting more! If you like fois gras, the fois gras appetizer they have is hands down the best we've tasted. We each ordered it along with a second appetizer. The cheese souffle there was also excellent. Salads were also fresh and perfectly seasoned. After the salad and soup, we were then served with a refreshing intermezzo of mango granite to cleanse our palates. Since it was formal night and we didn't want to miss out on lobster, we each ordered the surf and turf entree. Again, food was prepared well and tasted great. We declined the cheese course and ordered dessert which to our surprise was just okay. In general, the appetizers were the highlight of the meal. The next time we eat there, I would be inclined to just order multiple appetizer and salad courses and I would be happy. This is the only specialty restaurant that I would recommend as a must-do.Silk Harvest - This was our biggest disappointment. I had some high expectations after reading the rave reviews on Cruise Critic about this Asian fusion restaurant. The atmosphere in the restaurant was buzzing. There was a large group of 20+ people occupying the center table and they were being quite...festive. Some complained but it didn't bother us. As far as the food goes, I really wanted to like this place. Maybe it's what we ordered or maybe we ordered too much and got full after the first few dishes, but something was just not right. We ordered a couple of the small plates for appetizers as well as a sushi sampler plate. These we pretty good but not great. Then came the green curry pork and the pad thai. We are both asian so these were just not tasting right at all. I don't know what was fusion about it at all. I had no idea of what they were trying to fuse....asian-french, asian-american, etc? There was no flavor to the dishes at all and the pork in the curry was too chewy. The waiter came by and I asked for more fish sauce, chili, cilantro and some other seasonings. They were happy to provide this but we later just gave up and decided to get dessert. Then the Maitre 'd came by and spoke with us. Great guy! We had a wonderful discussion about the ship, various dining venues and the great service we've been receiving. He then asked about the food. I was honest and told him what we thought and he took notes. He basically explained that this is their first time trying to do Asian fusion and Silk Harvest has been having a very difficult time trying to balance the flavors to appeal to everyone and that they've been working to fine tune the menu. Our general impression of this place is that the food here is definitely not fusion. Basically, we can get a better pad thai or green curry at our local hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant for less than $10 total. And land based P.F. Chang's is 10 times better. On the brighter side, the Maitre 'd was appreciative of our comments and the time we took to talk with him. He said verbatim... "well, you are a key customer and we want you sail with us again". Thought that was a strange comment. To our surprise, when we returned to our cabin, we saw that the cover to the restaurant was credited back in full. Wow! We were very surprised with this gesture!Oceanview Cafe - We only ate at the Oceanview Cafe buffet 3-4 times during the entire trip and only for a light breakfast or to pick up a small late night snack. So can't say much about their lunch or dinner. In general, food was pretty good and very diverse. We enjoyed the various egg type dishes as well as the pastries. The chocolate desserts there were delicious! They had this one awesome melt-in-your mouth chocolate desert that looked like a Hostess Ding Dong. It made for a great late night snack to go with tea or coffee.Grand Epernay - We had lunch once in Grand Epernay. Lunch was good but not great. A little bland. But if the lunch we had in Grand Epernay is indicative of what their dinner is like, then I'm glad we booked AQ for Blu alone. We also went to Grand Epernay for the "Mother's Day Brunch". The staff handed out single stem roses to all the women which was nice. The food station setup was beautiful and made for nice pictures. There were two chocolate fondue fountains flanking a huge dessert presentation. There were meat carving stations, a cheese station, a waffle station, several entree stations, etc. Lots off food to choose from. Food was pretty good. As far as flavor goes, it's pretty much what you would get at the Oceanview cafe for breakfast and lunch. THE PORTS OF CALL:Santorini - Wish we had spent more time here. It is such a beautiful place. The ship arrived at 2:00PM and was scheduled to leave a 11:00PM. So we felt very rushed to take it all in. The daily newsletter indicated that tender tickets would be available for distribution beginning 8:00AM. So, I decided to be the first one in line at 7:30AM. It was a good move as I later learned that many folks didn't get on to the island until close to 4:00PM! We took the tender a little after 2 and took the cable car. After a little searching for the bus stop to Oia, we learned that the bus only ran hourly. By the time the next bus came, it was already 3:30PM and we didn't make it to Oia until almost 4PM! After rushing to view the Oia sights, we were fortunate to bump into some friends we met on our Rome-Port transfer who had rented a car. We hitched a ride with them back to Fira and had some time to walk around and have delicious souvlaki and lamb meatball dinner. Near the end of the day, the line for the cable car was very long and wrapped around a couple of blocks! It was getting very cold so we decided to walk down the donkey trail! Interesting experience and it got very challenging to try and "dodge the bullets" as the sun started setting. In hindsight, we should have rented a car as the island seems to be very drivable. Those that booked excursions through Celebrity had no problem getting to the island early, but everyone still ended up in Fira to either catch the cable car, ride the donkey, or walk down back to the tender. Lots of congestion. We were the only ship in port that evening, so I can imagine what a nightmare it would be if there was another one scheduled to depart in the evening as well.Mykonos - This was our lazy port day and one of our favorite ports. We took our time getting out of bed and eating breakfast. I had purchased shuttle tickets to take us to town ($10 each). Saw a few walking to town but glad we didn't as it is not very scenic and there is no pedestrian walkway. We spent time strolling the shops, taking pictures, and enjoying the scenery. Before heading back to the ship, we ended the day sitting at an outdoor restaurant/cafe and had some delicious Greek salad and a mixed seafood plate while watching the people pass by. Istanbul - We toured Istanbul on our own. Unfortunately, the first day we were there, we made the mistake of buying shuttle tickets through the ship. Traffic was terrible going into town and much worse getting back to the ship. Coming back was almost a 2 hour process. Also, the shuttle stops running at around 6:30. This didn't make sense to us since it is an overnight port. First day we visited the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. That evening, a large group of us (arranged through Cruise Critic roll-call) went to Sultana's, a Turkish dinner show. It was a very good show not only featuring some belly dancers but also some authentic Turkish folk dancing. There was some audience participation that also featured some of our Cruise Critic friends. The food at Sultana's was also quite good and featured some authentic appetizers and desserts. For the 2nd day in Istanbul, we decided to take the tram and spend the morning at Topkapi Palace. The tram was quick, easily accessible and around 2 Lira. After an exhausting day, we headed back to the ship and enjoyed room service lunch on our balcony as we sailed away from Istanbul.Kusadasi/Ephesus - This port was the unexpected surprise port of our cruise. We had little knowledge and went in with no clue as to what we were going to see. We had arranged a private tour through Ekol Travel and did a Jeep Safari tour to the village of Sirence followed by a tour of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses, and a visit to the House of Virgin Mary. Surprisingly, there were only 3 or 4 other cars from our ship that caravanned along with us. We thought this was the best way to see the countryside as the driver and guide took us off-road for some beautiful scenery. Be warned though that this excursion is not for the faint of heart. One couple turned back likely due to fear of heights. At many points during the excursion we were hugging the mountainside along some steep cliffs. Our guide Tanner was excellent. He's a graduate in archaeology and ancient civilizations and gave us so much information. At one point we did end up at a rug presentation following a great lunch at the same location. But that was okay with us as we know this business is their livelihood. We also weren't able to see a presentation when we were in Istanbul so it was quite interesting. After a long 8 hour excursion, we were dropped off in Kusadasi then headed to a restaurant for an authentic Turkish dinner.Athens - We had arranged a private tour of Athens with Jordan Ntaioglou and shared it with another couple we met through Cruise Critic. He was highly recommended on the boards and we were very lucky to secure him. Jordan is a very funny and informative guide. He is so proud of his Greek culture and was very happy to educate us about Greek history. Prior to stopping at each site, he would give us a brief explanation of the site as well as the history of its existence. He would then drop us off to allow us to spend time at the site as well as for some photos. After returning back to the cab he would quiz us on what we learned. He sure kept us on our toes! He took us to many of the main Athens sites as well as a chance to see the changing of the guard. It was a warm day, and by the end of it, we were "ruined" out! The highlight of the tour was when he took us to an authentic Greek taverna for lunch. The food was probably the best tasting food we had on the entire trip! As much as we loved our tour guide and visiting the Acropolis, we probably wouldn't visit Athens again. We found it to be too smoggy and dirty, and on a warm and crowded day at the ruins, it is not very enjoyable.Naples/Capri - With this being the last day before the end of the cruise we made this another lazy port day. Having been to Italy before, we decided to go to Capri again. We took an early hydrofoil to Capri at around 8:30AM. Got to the island and immediately bought our return ticket back for 2:30PM. Luckily there were no huge lines for the funicular. Once we were up at the top, we had some delicious pastries and espresso with our table mates from Blu. We then walked lazily around the town for a little souvenir shopping and visited the gardens of Augustus for some photos. As the day progressed, there were more and more people on the island. So, we skipped lunch, had some gelato then headed back down the funicular to catch the hydrofoil back to the ship for a late lunch at the Mast Grill. We were so in the mood for burgers!THE GYM/SPA:With all the food we were eating, we thought it would be good to spend some time in the gym. I enrolled in 3 spin classes (@ $12 per class) while my wife spent some time on the treadmill. The machines were never crowded and there seemed to always be availability.Following our day in Capri, we headed back to the ship early and took advantage of the 50% discount they had on spa treatments. We each had the hot stone massage and thought it was one of the best massages we've ever had. The great thing is that I never got a sales pitch for product. However, my wife did and promptly said "no".ENTERTAINMENT/ACTIVITIES:There were 3 main shows. Two of them seemed to be your run-of-the-mill variety cruise show. We were happy to see that the Broadway review show featured some of the more modern musical pieces. But I think a lot of the guests just had no idea. We saw a lot of blank stares when one of the singers sang a song from Wicked. The Solstice show was pretty unique. It was Cirque du Soleil'ish but definitely not as good. The singing and vocal quality for the shows were just okay. But we have to give credit to the two principal dancers that were very good and were seen in all three shows.Oceans 4 was great, but we got tired of hearing them every night after the main shows. There were 3 other guest headliners playing; one a former broadway actor who was pretty good. He sang excerpts from various musicals and some standards. The other headliner was a vocalist/impressionist/comedian. I didn't care for her at all. The final headliner was a juggler whom we did not see.Surprisingly there was a lot to do in the evenings. There was a dance band "Top Secret" playing in the Sky Lounge until midnight almost every night. We enjoyed listening and dancing along with them but many retired early because of the early morning ports the following day. Spoke with the lead singer of the band and this sailing marked the end of thier contract. So not sure who's replacing them.To our surprise, Quasar was a happening spot (second to the martini bar)! Quasar was packed on a couple of the nights and we enjoyed meeting people there for drinks and dancing until 2:00AM on the nights before sea days. I think the large youthful international presence on board made for a great nightlife. One of our favorite days at sea was at the lawn club. We met so many great people and decided to meet up for some bocce and drinks. Pre-cruise, I personally didn't care much for the lawn based on reviews I've read, but now we are so happy with it. It is probably one of the best features this ship has to offer. That sea day spending time with new friends on the lawn will be one to remember.We later met up with the same people for some drinks at the martini bar. We ordered a few drinks including the flight of 6 which made for a great show.My wife sang karaoke one night and was called to compete in the "Starring You" competition as one of the top 6! We were so excited even though she was a little anxious to perform in front of 100's of people. She did a great job singing but unfortunately did not make it to the top 3. We had so much fun, and it was also a great way to get to meet new people who stopped us in the hallways, elevators, and lounges to congratulate her for a job well done.THE STAFF:Throughout the cruise, we had a lot of chances to talk to many of the wonderful staff members. These included the dining staff, entertainers, concierge, housekeeping, etc. These discussions were not about, "I need this" or "please bring me that". These discussions were about them and their lives. They have such a difficult job of making sure that we are all safe and taken care of. And regardless of their personal situations, they always put a smile on their face and always provided us with great service. We have much respect for them and for all the crew on Solstice.The last night of the cruise, we were quite surprised to get a call from one of the activities staff members to get together for some drinks. We met up with several of the activities coordinators in Quasar where we had some champagne and had a chance to talk about our cruise experience. It was great to get to know these folks on a more personal level and gathering also offered us a chance to let them know of how appreciative we are of the great job they were doing in bringing life to the guests. One interesting bit of info....turns out a lot of the staff on Solstice may be getting transfered to Equinox.HOT TOPICS:Dress CodeFormal nights were great on this sailing. It makes for a different buzz throughout the ship. My wife and I enjoy getting dressed up. We rarely get a chance to do this with two kids at home. And I work in a very casual environment. So this is something we enjoy doing. I wore a tux on both formal nights and my wife wore long dresses. I would say a good 50% of the men were in tuxes and the rest in dark suits. The women were all dressed very elegantly. Didn't see anything outside of the dress code on formal nights in the dining room.Smart casual nights was a different story. Keep in mind however that this sailing had a very international crowd. Lots of folks from South America and Europe. So, the definition of smart casual and their interpretation varied widely.In regards to the Cruise Critic hot topic of jeans on smart casual nights, I was able to get clarification from guest relations and also from the Maitre 'd at Blu. To set things straight for those on Cruise Critic, jeans are okay in the main dining rooms on smart casual nights and fall are under the definition of "pants". None of the documentation or cruise dailies mention anything about not wearing jeans. The pants just can't be torn, faded, or have holes. It was in the minority but I saw plenty of well dressed folks wearing dark jeans in the dining rooms. Women wore them with heels and nice blouses. Men wore them with blazers. We partook in the jean wearing trend on a couple of the nights. Put together well, we think it looks very nice and fits with the overall theme and decor of the ship. Go to any nice restaurant in Europe and this is what you'll see. But for the most part, we saw lots of what we call "casual office wear" (slacks/khakis and dress shirts and polos). In fact those that wore Hawaiian shirts and khakis were those that seem to stand out in a crowd...especially with this being a Mediterranean cruise. In the end, no one seemed to really care who was wearing what on smart casual nights. Everyone was there to have a good time.DEBARKATION:Debarkation was quick and painless. A few days prior, we received a questionnaire asking about our transport arrangements. We had arranged an early transfer back to our hotel in Rome so had a 7:15 debarkation time. BTW, we stayed 2 nights at Albergo del Senato post cruise. It's a great hotel! Despite the small rooms, it was a great location. Our room with a view of the Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda was amazing! The buffet breakfast they offer in the morning is also pretty extensive for Rome hotel. The per diem is a little pricey but well worth it for the location and view. X FOR A NEW GENERATION:My general impression of these new class of ships is that if X is trying to market to an new demographic, they are doing the right thing with the Solstice class. It's no doubt that the annoying complaints we heard on the ship from some seasoned X cruisers are due to "changes from the norm". But we were hinted by a few staff that in order to maintain a stronghold in the industry there are some changes in the works as X is working hard to revamp and re-establish their image from a line that caters to baby-boomers and above to a line for a new generation with more expendable income and different needs and expectations. At the same time they still aim to be a cut above the rest. Perhaps X now stands for "X-Generation"...We were so happy with our cruise and thoroughly enjoyed the ship and what it had to offer. This sailing has a diverse itinerary with ports offering a great history lesson on ancient civilizations, the Ottoman empire, and a taste of the Muslim culture. Along with it a splash of some beautiful ports for leisure and relaxation. Solstice brings a fresh new look different from what one would expect from a traditional megaliner. The food was excellent and the service was great. Sure, there were some minor bumps we encountered. But we are all human and with time, things will improve or change. It certainly was the best vacation that we've had to date. To top it off, we've made so many new friends and hope to be in touch with them for years to come. Gotta love those social networking sites. The Solstice class is one that we will stick with for a long time. It has the contemporary elegance that we look for in a vacation experience. We've booked our next cruise on Eclipse for Northern Europe and are looking forward to another great time...and to what new changes X has to offer in 2010.