We are firm fans of Celebrity but this was our first cruise aboard their newest ship Celebrity Solstice. We had chosen their ten day Eastern Mediterranean cruise which left from Civitevecchia and journeyed to Messina, Athens, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos, Santaroni and Naples.
We were soon walking around the ship and I have to say that we were bowled over by it's quality and grandeur. It was soon quite clear that a lot of money and a lot of know how had been expended in the ship's design and facilities. Its elegance is quite different to that of the QM2, which is 'grand county house elegance', as the Solstice is far more 'modern chic boutique style elegance'. It is however quite stunning and the quality of such things as the chairs and fittings in many of the bars and public rooms is a real indication of this. Equally on some of the sun decks there are huge sun beds, whilst there are cabanas near the open pool, sun tents in the indoor pool and comfortable couches on the aft deck and the piece de resistance is the Lawn Club on deck 15. This is a huge piece of real lawn around which there are a limited number of tables and chairs, a bar and a feeling of great calm and peace. We were to use this a great deal to play boule or just to relax with a book and amazingly it never seemed to get crowded, unlike the outdoor pool and to a lesser extent the indoor pool areas. Unfortunately the thalossophery pool facility has disappeared -- apparently a victim of Health and Safety legislation -- the nanny state obviously exists on both sides of the Atlantic! Another design feature, similar in many ships is that of a large central atrium served by 8 glass lifts and including a real tree and from the lift atrium (not from the tree) one could view many of the bars and facilities such as the coffee shop, library and card room. Spreading out from the central atrium on decks four and five were the shops on the boulevard, the casino and the numerous restaurants and bars. All in all a stunningly designed and executed ship which oozed modern quality and freshness ..... we were instant converts.
Interestingly we talked with many of the staff, some of whom we knew from the Constellation and they were equally positive about the ship and its facilities and one really sensed that they had a genuine pride about it ..... a thing I had only sensed before at Grill Level on QM2.
The main restaurant is the Grand Epernay and again the design is stunning with the ceiling lighting arranged to look like champagne bubbles and the organisation of the upper tier into discretely sized units a clever feature.
This is the standard restaurant and I have to say that both the quality and variety of the food were outstanding and it almost beggers believe how such a level can be achieved for so many people. There is a very American flavour to the menu, which is no bad thing unless one is hoping for meat and two veg, which this restaurant will not deliver. However the seafood was excellent, as were the various hot and cold soups and the variety of salads. My only minor criticism was that the menu was a little weak on fish dishes but that was a minor blip. The service was also superb being both friendly and efficient, and the sommelier was knowledgable and equally efficient. Like most ships the free coffee served at the end of the meal was mass produced but this could be rectified by going to the Cafe al Bacio which served outstanding coffee for a couple of dollars and proved the ideal way to finish ones meal. However ones eating choices only started with the Epernay for if one wanted, one could eat in about six or seven other eating venues provided one was prepared to pay the supplement which varied from 5 dollars to 30 dollars per head. Three of these restaurants were almost immediately booked up by the largely American clientele, which was not a reflection on the standard of the Epernay but more of the American mind set when on holiday, which is very different from that of their GB counterpart. These restaurants were the Murano (elegant French at 30$); Tuscan Grill (Italian American high quality steak house at 30$); Silk Harvest (sophisticated Asian and fusion at 20$) and Bistro on Five (crepes, salads and light food at 5$).
We only ate at these restaurants twice -- firstly one night at the Bistro as we just wanted something very light and it was excellent, although it was the one pay restaurant that one did not need to book in advance and was not much used. Secondly we went to the Murano and found it to be an outstanding 5 star restaurant with impecable service -- some of the signature dishes included a superb snail tortellini, crab tien, a wonderful dover sole veronique and for dessert (and one of the best I have ever tasted) a superb crepe suzette ballon rouge, which the head waiter cooked at one's table. The whole meal was an absolute steal for 30$ per head, as in London one would easily pay £100 per head, but this is where the American and US attitudes may diverge and where the Celebrity cruise philosophy comes into play (see later).
Breakfasts and Lunch
For breakfast one has the choice of cabin service or of going to the buffet ot restaurant. The free cabin service has been extended and is now very extensive and includes a whole variety of hot options, although inevitably they are not piping hot by the time they reach your cabin. We tried this a couple of times and then opted for the buffet where the choice is vast and caters for the health conscious to the cholesterol crammer in equal measure. Lunch was a choice between the buffet, the grill or on some days a set meal -- we usually opted for the buffet which was well organised and had a vast array of salads, as well as a wide choice of hot dishes, but was something that was not overly noteworthy, although to be fair I can't get excited about most buffets ..... you are eating rather than dining! One other thing to note is that there is also an extensive free 24 hour room service menu, which we did have the need to try but was another excellent service that was offered in the standard cruise price. Finally we met some people who had gone Aqua class where they have their own restaurant called Blu and they were singing the praises of this .... so one takes one's choice.
There are a whole range of bar options and I have to say that many of them were outstanding, depending on ones choice of tipple. My three favourites were -- the Martini Bar which is a fun area with a counter made of ice and a number of 'performing' barmen with outstanding juggling tricks whilst making your drink. A great place for a pre dinner drink but immensely popular with the American clientele so a little crowded and hectic. On the other hand Celler Masters was a most elegant setting for a glass of wine served by very able bar staff, who I later learned had had to pass strict tests on wine knowledge set by the overall Cellermaster, Laszlo who we had first met as a senior sommelier on the QM2 and is a definite class act. Another wonderful setting for a quiet drink is the sumptuously decorated Michaels Club which is in marked contrast to the one on Constellation, where the resident entertainer Perry Grant holds court. Here the mood is soft with a tinkling piano, only a few people and a brilliant Ukranian barman called Max who makes wonderful martinis and cocktails. How about this for professionalism -- we met Max last May on Constellation and when we walked into his bar he immediately remembered our names, the brand of gin I liked and the brand of champagne my wife preferred and he greeted us like long lost friends .... I was amazed at his memory but he wan't and saw it as all part of his job.
We do not bother much with the organised entertainment and in fact only took in one show and no other organised activity apart from one wine tasting. However if I had wanted an emphasis on this aspect I think that I would have been disappointed as the shows were mainly the Celebrity troupe supplemented by an English violinst, an American comedian and an American impressionist. The one show we did go to we enjoyed very much which was Bobby Arvon, the guy who sang Happy Days and who was a real old style crooner and consumate entertainer.
The itinerary was the standard Eastern Med one which we have done many times before but always enjoy visiting the majority of ports and particularly Athens, Rhodes and Mykonos. We went on organised trips at Messina for Taormina and at Athens for the ancient sights and the Plaka and these were fine and one simply recognises one is paying for the convenience of ship to ship transport and for a guide. Other than that we did our own thing at Rhodes, Mykonos and Naples but stayed on the ship at both Kusadasi and Santorini to enjoy the full benefits of the Solstice without many people about ..... quite wonderful and so relaxing. It is a quite beautiful part of the world and in particular the Greek people are so wonderfully friendly and superb ambassadors for their country. We usually try and have lunch in a non touristy restaurant (found by asking a few of the locals where they eat) in order to get a better feel of the local culture and this way one meets some delightful people who just want to please you with their food and their culture. Incidentally the food is twice as good and half as dear.
The Celebrity Formula
Here I am going to be a little contentious and no doubt will be misconstrued by those who are over sensitive to what they perceive as snobbery. Celebrity is an excellent cruise line but it is not for everybody -- this is said not on the lines of class distinction but on the lines of what people want from a cruise line. Celebrity offers a high quality package at a very reasonable price for what is included but on top of this it offers a variety of extras that one has to pay to enjoy. This formula is fine with the Americans who are literally queing up to spend the extra, provided it is of a high quality and enhances the enjoyment of their holiday. However I have noted on these pages that many Brits want an all-in package and do not expect to pay a lot more for extras ..... if this is your requirement then Celebrity is probably not for you.
The reality with tips at 12$ pp per day, pay restaurants (if you choose them), drinks with service charge, treatments, trips, etc. that one has to budget probably about an extra 500$ a person for a two week cruise. I personally have no problem with this formula, as it is in fact a cheaper one than say Grill class in Cunard where one pays far more up front but less for added extras -- in fact the basic price of say Princess Grill to Concierge is probably double. However if you are the type of cruiser that wants a lot of organised entertainment, wants fairly standard British meals, wants a launderette, wants to make tea in your cabin, doesn't like at least two or three formal nights, doesn't like a heavy emphasis on US requirements and objects to paying standard tips and 15% on all waiter servce functions then Celebrity is NOT for you whereas perhaps P&0 or Thomson are. Again I emphasise this is not a snobby comment (although I will be amazed if I don't get some abuse from the chip on the shoulder brigade) just a matching of needs to the type of offering that is given.
Incidentally, I was very pleased to see the way that standards are upheld on the Solstice, as on the first day security guards visited an adjacent cabin, where a passenger had been smoking on his balcony and made it very clear to him that if it happened again he would be off the ship at the next port. No I wasn't the snitch, I assume they had sensors.
In marked contrast to embarkation it was a bit of a nightmare for travellers making their own arrangements. One had the choice of using a Celerity transfer bus to Rome at £60 per person and off loading you at a non helpful set down point or of pre booking a taxi at say £110 or of taking the free shuttle to the port gates and then walking the 3/4 mile to the station, as there are no local taxis available as they are only interested in taking you to Rome. We chose the latter option and almost inevitably were met by huge crowds at the station and an uncomfortable journey into Rome on a train where there was no provision for luggage. Although the cheap option I am not sure the return local train journey was the best and in retrospect would use this for the outward journey and order a taxi for the return.
A great cruise on a stunning ship which was rather like a floating, high quality Pleasure Palace that is organised on US lines and which is based on the Celebrity formula of providing a high quality basic package with add on extras at the choice of the individual passenger. Will I be using Celebrity again? ........ You bet ya ..... you see, I am already influenced by the US style which in a nutshell wants high quality facilities and service but doesn't mind paying for it .... and as they say, there's the rub.