This is a review of a cruise on the newest Celebrity ship, the Solstice. The cruise left Fort Lauderdale and cruised to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Marteen, and St. Kitts. The ship is 122,000 tons and holds up to 2850 passengers. It had its inaugural sailing on November 23rd, 2008 (http://www.celebritycruises.com/plancruise/ships/ship.do;jsessionid=0000wPCLkZdUhPO9HTzgcVdW9PR:12hdebebp?shipCode=SL&cS=FLASH).
As has become customary with Celebrity cruises, the embarkation process was quick and easy. One thing that has changed recently is that if you book online, you will not receive the documentation in the mail. Instead you get pdf file which you can print if you like. This of course means that you will need to get your luggage tags at the pier. This only takes a few minutes, but is something Celebrity may want to address in the future. At any rate, you are quickly on your way to be greeted at the door with the customary glass of champagne.
When you first enter the Grand Foyer, you are struck by the richness of the marble, teak, and brass, as well as the scale. Whether looking toward the massive staircases spanning three decks or the elegant glass elevators rising ten decks, you can feel the huge size difference between this and the previous Millennium class ships. And yet, the lines and the traffic flow prevent you from ever being aware of the additional 800 passengers this ship can handle.
If you are like most cruisers the first places you will want to check out is your cabin or the buffet for lunch. The newly designed cabins are very nice with new layout and amenities. From the large flat screen TV mounted on the wall over a new roomy dresser to the newly designed closet space, these cabins feel a lot more like a bedroom than a ship’s cabin. The bathroom sports a circular glass enclosed shower that is far nicer than the tiny square shower used in most other ships. And finally, the bed. Celebrity has followed in the footsteps of major hotel chains in giving priority to a luxurious, comfortable bed that is far superior to the cot you may have experienced on previous cruises.
Next a quick ride to deck 14 for lunch. Fearing the usual cattle call of four symmetric buffet lines you will be pleased by the free flowing feel of the new buffet. Each type of food is given its own station allowing the cruiser to almost always be able to find something to eat without waiting in any line. The variety, presentation, and quality of the food in the buffet is superior to previous cruises. The only line you will usually encounter is for the famous home-made ice cream where lines formed for the daily seven or eight delicious flavors, including cinnamon, ginger, and coconut amongst the common staples of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
After the usual muster drill, the next place you may want to stop by is the dining room to check your tables. This is where Celebrity has slipped in recent cruises. Where in the past, one could always expect to get the requested type of seating; Celebrity now seems to place people randomly. Don’t wait until dinner time to check your table, as there were a large number of unhappy diners wanting changes made. Promises by the restaurant manager and maitre’d to resolve issues were for the most part broken.
The dining room itself is as classic and beautiful as any seen on other ships. The white linen, crystal, and silverware is set off by the beautiful, yet subtle lighting and the two story glass and chrome wine tower. Diners will not be disappointed by the food choices and presentation, although there is a tendency that the food in the dining room doesn’t quite measure up to that in the new ‘specialty’ restaurants. Fillet Mignon was absent from the menu and the much anticipated ‘lobster night’ was a small rock lobster tail, along with shrimp and scallops on a bed of risotto. Any comment about the food and you are directed to the great food to be found in the specialty restaurants. These, of which there are several on the Solstice, require reservations and a surcharge to cover the lavish French, Asian, and Italian feasts that are served in each.
Next it’s time for a tour around the ship to see all the new stuff. In keeping up with RCCL’s rock climbing wall and skating rink, Celebrity has included amenities not usually found on a cruise ship. Up on deck 15, a large portion of the deck is covered with a lush green lawn where bocce, croquet, and putting competitions are held. Just off the lawn, Corning has supplied artisans from its glass museum to give live glass-blowing demonstrations throughout the cruise.
Other customary amenities, such as the library and card rooms existed but were a bit sparse compared to many other ships. The Internet Café was set up with all laptops in small cubicles. This could lead to noisy conditions; however the exorbitant charge for Internet access probably kept attendance to a minimum. Charges topped out at sixty-five cents a minute, but could be brought down if you are willing to pre-pay for a package with a minimum time of over an hour. Most ports have Internet cafes and are a much better bargain. A nearby shop in San Juan for instance charged $3.50 for twenty minutes.
Another area Celebrity falls behind RCCL is in its frequent traveler programs. On RCCL there is a nice concierge lounge where there is 24 hour coffee, happy hour drinks, a light breakfast, and a helpful and friendly concierge. On Celebrity there will be a hostess tucked away somewhere, usually focusing on selling future voyages. Coupons for discounts and freebies, and invitations to special events have become almost non-existent.
An area of great improvement on this ship and cruise was the casino. It is no longer a smoking area. Hopefully this is a change that is being brought about on all cruise ships. Based on the number of people crowding the tables and machines during this cruise, the gambling revenue did not suffer from the new policy.
The after dinner shows ranged from as good to much better than other cruises. The standard production shows had a little more flair and flash and almost all shows were punctuated with Cirque type acrobats. The show on the second night, titled Solstice was a parade of these type acts and a visual treat. There were also more areas for live performances around the ship, both during the day, and after the shows in the evening.
Of course, what would a cruise be without ports of call? This first stop was in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The friendliness of the locals and the ambience of Old San Juan is always a treat. While there are many shore excursions offered there, a simple stroll around this part of the city is fun, entertaining, and free. (Unless you are drawn to the many shopping areas within easy walking distance.) As stated earlier, there is a cheap Internet café a block away, as well as store where you can by drinks or snacks to take back onboard.
The next stop was St. Martin, or St. Marteen as it is called on the Dutch side. This is the smallest island in the world to be divided between two countries. The division is all but invisible and locals cross back and forth at will. There was a definite look and feel difference between the two sides. This could easily be seen while traveling down roads which were French on one side and Dutch on the other. There are two major shopping districts; Philipsburg on the Dutch side is a short walk, taxi ride, or water taxi from the port. Marigot, on the French side is a bit of a ride away, but is worth the effort for it’s flavor and culture.
The last stop on this cruise was St. Kitts, in the Leeward Islands. St. Kitts, along with its sister island Nevis are British colonies and English is the language. Like many Caribbean islands, tourism has replace Sugar Cane as the main industry. There are many remote and beautiful places to visit on this small island, including Frigate Bay, the Batik factory at Romney Manor, and the Fortress on Brimstone Hill.
The itineraries are subject to change from cruise to cruise so you will want to check to find the cruise which visits the ports you are interested in. This sailing offered three days at sea, allowing ample opportunity to explore the new ship, or relax in the spa or solarium.
As massive as this ship is and with the large number of fellow cruisers, there are still many nooks and crannies where one can find a little quiet and solitude. Out in the sun, there are several small decks which most passengers never see or know about. Inside there are many small rooms and corridors where you can settle with a book or a quiet glass of wine with friend and family. On the other hand, there are many bistros and public areas where you can gather at any time to enjoy some live music and the company of others.