I was onboard the 16-deck Celebrity Solstice when it departed Auckland in January this year with a passenger list of 2,450. With only six of the 1,426 staterooms unoccupied, the crew of 1,850 would be kept busy on the 14-day itinerary.
Travelling at about 16 knots (30 kilometres per hour) on average our route would take in New Zealand from Auckland to the achingly beautiful Marlborough Sounds and then across the Tasman Sea to Hobart before making its way to Melbourne and then on to Sydney.
Along the way, we’d take in New Zealand’s spectacular coastal landscapes and be invited to drinks on the ship’s helipad to view the famous Milford Sound, the most spectacular sight of all.
The at-sea days (five in total) were especially hectic with options from sunset drinks on the ship’s real grass lawn to live hot glass blowing exhibitions, while during port days in Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Hobart, the shore excursion options were many. A newsletter delivered to staterooms each evening sets out all the options for the day ahead.
Meal times are the biggest events of the day. According to the ship’s Australian executive chef consistency in exactly what’s offered is high on the list of the cruise line’s priorities as regular passengers expect to be able to replicate their dining experiences from previous cruises. Consistency has to be at the expense of variety but there’s always lots to choose from at each sitting.
The executive chef, with a budget of around $1.5 million for this cruise, is responsible for stocking the kitchens and creating the menus. Meal preparations are worked out right down to the number of human hand movements required on each dish. The kitchens onboard the Solstice can manage to serve a meal or dessert to 1,000 people every 18 minutes.
There are two main restaurants in which passengers dine at no extra cost (excluding beverages). The dining room is a full-service restaurant-style experience with white table cloths, waiters and two menus each offering four courses: the regular menu and the daily menu. The other dining option included in the tariff is the buffet restaurant, a more casual affair.
For a night on the town, (at extra cost) there are the four speciality restaurants: a French, Italian and Asian, and Blu that serves spa-style cuisine for passengers travelling in AquaClass.
Formal nights are occasionally declared on at-sea days when passengers are required to dress up for dinner in all but the buffet restaurant. If you don’t, you’ll spoil the fun for the other passengers as on those nights the atmosphere onboard transforms into a kind of glamour from the early days of cruising when only the wealthy sailed, the men in their dinner jackets and the women with their jewellery out of the safe for the evening: think Poseidon Adventure, or if you’d rather not perhaps the Atlantic crossing made by Marilyn Monroe’s character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
There are around 20 bars onboard where passengers meet up before or after dinner. Some are styled to look like gentleman’s clubs from the 20s and others are hipper, like the vodka bar which serves a pretty fabulous apple martini. You can prop yourself up at a frozen ice counter that keeps your cocktail chilled while you chat.
Passengers are encouraged to purchase beverage packages before they sail at a discount or onboard. You have to estimate how much soft drink, espresso, bottled water, cocktails or wine and other alcohol you think you might drink per day and any unused portion is not refunded. Likewise with internet packages, any wireless time you don’t use isn’t refunded.
Celebrity isn’t an all-inclusive cruise line so the other extra costs you may incur (depending on your class of travel) include some of the on-demand movies in your stateroom, child minding or kids’ club fees, shore excursions and coaches into town for independent exploration. The gym is free.
Other things onboard you might like to spend on are the Persian Garden (a place with open views, steam rooms and heated day beds), shopping in the boutiques, the casino, acupuncture, teeth whitening and spa treatments.
A compulsory 15 per cent service charge is added to the extras you pay for onboard. Also, an extra US$12.50 (about A$13) per day per person is added to your stateroom account.
There were around 200 children/teenagers onboard my cruise though you wouldn’t know it. A mum and dad told me they’d barely glimpsed their two teenage sons since the departure.
Cruising on a ship the size of Celebrity Solstice is a bit like flying on an A380 in that long embarkation and disembarkation queues are inevitable given the number of people who have to be moved on and off.
Rooms are tidied twice per day and used towels replaced but stateroom attendants are not like the butlers on smaller luxury ships. It isn’t their role to handle your luggage (beyond delivering it to your stateroom upon arrival) or to fetch things for you, or arrange land tours or speciality restaurant reservations or anything else.
From April 2015 Celebrity will begin rolling out a Suite Class experience across all of its ships. Suite Class guests will experience benefits like their own restaurant serving a menu inspired by the local cuisine of the destination using high-quality ingredients, a VIP lounge, complimentary premium drinks and full 24-hour butler service including unpacking luggage, unlimited internet access, an in-suite minibar with complimentary water, soft drinks and beers, priority check-in and embarkation, Bulgari bathroom amenities, plush robes, premium bedding and a pillow menu, reserved theatre seating and a daily high-end afternoon tea service served in the guest’s suite.