I’m the first to admit that my bags were packed full of assumptions, judgements and presuppositions towards my ‘luxury cruise’ from Sydney to Auckland aboard the Celebrity Solstice.
As a well-seasoned traveller, I of course had the whole thing sussed before I even boarded the massive vessel on glorious Sydney harbour and was convinced my partner (another 30-something-nomad) and I were in for four days and nights of grey nomads (‘the cruising set’), overweight and/or loud tourists jostling for a below-par buffet, cringe-worthy cabaret shows and seniors shuffling around on deck to Zumba classes.
But, wow, was I wrong with a capital W!Cruising on the Solstice, as we refreshingly discovered, is very much a ‘something-for-everyone’ kind of holiday.
Even the check-in queue at Sydney’s Circular Quay was made up of such a variety of passengers we were forced to swallow our first incorrect assumption about ‘cruising types’.
From the loved-up young newlyweds who would make the most of their plush-but-cosy cabin and the romantic dining options; to the jovial middle-aged gay couple who later confessed to adoring the glass blowing show, cabaret performances and the cocktail bar made of ice; to the solo female traveller who was all about her own ‘down time’ when boarding and who confessed to us later that in fact the ships’ bevvy of activities had transformed her into a ‘joiner’; to us – the toughest crowd to win over – with our internal eye-rolling and sarcastic swipes that quickly turned into wide-eyed looks of wonder and (dare I say it) excitement to match our tantalised (and picky) tastebuds, and our well-serviced penchant for a daily sweat session in the gym.
Yes, our collective tail was between its legs! It certainly didn’t hurt that our very first cruising experience was well-padded with champagne, five star restaurants, an on-call butler, private lounge, exotic spa treatments and VIP service, aboard the Best Domestic Cruise Ship 2015 by Australian travel agents. We were quickly impressed with all the bounties the Solstice had to offer and discovered that even aboard an enormous cruise liner, it is actually possible to have that intimate, small-ship cruising experience – if you know where to look.
Life on board…
Like the rest of the ship, there is a ‘class’ of room to suit every taste and flight of fancy. We were nestled snuggly in a Veranda Stateroom – which meant we had a slightly cramped, yet neatly adorned and well-equipped cabin with a small private veranda.
The veranda was the one addition worth springing for when choosing your room type, purely to experience that awe-inspiring ‘just me and the open ocean’ feeling from the privacy of your room. If you can justify the extra cost, AquaClass Staterooms not only give you A LOT of worthwhile extras; including preferential treatment at the ship’s spa, an upgraded room service menu, priority boarding and alighting the ship, but this class also gives you exclusive access to Blu – one of the better, clean-eating dining options on this ship dedicated purely for AquaClass and above.
If you, like us, might be inclined towards ‘avoiding the masses’ where possible, the better rooms are all located on upper decks where getting to and from the spa, gym and fine dining areas are so quick and easy you’d be forgiven in thinking there were no lower decks on the ship. You’ll also be thankful for the priority boarding and disembarkation when the masses are herded into smaller ‘tender’ boats for shore excursions – no explanation necessary.
The dining experience aboard the Solstice easily served me up with the biggest helping of ‘eating my words’. Convinced that the quality, variety and hygiene of the food was going to be underwhelming at best, I admit I approached lunch on the first day in the main buffet area – the Oceanview Café – with trepidation.
What I discovered was a fresh, clean and vast array of just about every cuisine you can imagine complete with full salad bar, made to order pizza and pasta and a variety of appetisers, desserts, juices, fruit – you name it.
Later, as media VIP, I was fortunate enough to get a squiz ‘below deck’ where we were told in detail of the dictatorial hygiene standards that these massive ships must comply with. I was shocked to learn that the sighting of more than a single fly (like, two flies) could mean the loss of a ship’s license to operate. The volume of food and dishes alone that churn through these cruise liners every day is absolutely astounding and to maintain these health and safety standards at such volume and quality is not only comforting but very, very, very impressive.
The options for casual, specialty and fine dining on board are surprisingly wide. Aside from the main breakfast and lunch buffet and the main dining room where all guests enjoy a three-course fine dining dinner each night, there are healthy options like; the AquaSpa Café, Poolside Grill and the new specialty addition, Sushi on Five modern Japanese addition to the Solstice as part of its 2016 multi-million-dollar upgrade. Where Solstice really shines however, are its specialty restaurants – of which there are several – which really are of an unexpectedly high. Worth a special mention are Murano; the ship’s contemporary take on French cuisine with impeccable service and intimate, classic décor to ensure an experience-privée. If tableside lobster preparation is your bag, then Murano will provide along with a thoughtfully designed menu, exquisite presentation and an impressive selection of artisanal cheeses from around the world to finish you off. Then there’s Blu – if you can manage an AquaClass fare – a serene space for breakfast or dinner.
Blu is clean cuisine at a good standard in the popular concept of ‘spa dining’. Don’t confuse ‘clean’ for ‘boring’ however, Blu’s menu is imaginative and indulgent, but just free of the fuss and pretence of other cuisines. Try for a window-side table and if you’re lucky you’ll get a moonlit ocean view while you dine. While Sushi on Five sadly wasn’t in existence when we travelled on the Solstice, this welcome Japanese addition to the Solstice dining stable by chef Yoshikazu “Yoshi” Okada offers passengers a lighter affair with Asian-inspired cocktails, hand-rolled sushi, melt-in-your-mouth sashimi and of course Japanese beers and premium sakes.
While we gave most of the casinos, cabaret shows, shops and public bars and lounges a bit of a wide birth to maintain our ‘small ship vibe’, the options were literally endless if you wanted to fill your day with croquet, Black Jack, live jazz, theatre and musical performances, art and craft classes – you name it Solstice provides. While we steered clear of a lot of the activities, we absolutely loved Hot Glass at Sea, an outdoor glass blowing show on the top deck, hosted by artists from The Corning Museum of Glass.
Kids and adults alike were mesmerized by the skill and precision of their work and if not for the gale-force winds at sea, one could be forgiven for thinking you were on the island of Murano in Venice. As for the shopping on board, well unless you’re in the ‘let’s buy a diamond, Darling’ class then the shopping was a bit too high-end for most. Having said that, the ship now features the cruise line’s very first Tiffany & Co. store offering exclusive designs to passengers at tax-free and duty-free prices. Did someone say little blue box?
A couple of nice touches have apparently been added since we were onboard with the multi-million-dollar facelift. The Lawn Club Cabanas are six brand new alcove-style cabanas bordering the real grass lawn on the top deck where guests can enjoy multiple different views (out to sea or facing the new outdoor cinema), service from a private butler, chilled towels and fresh fruit ice-blocks! ‘A Taste of Film’ is another new addition, which is a gastronomic and cinema adventure all rolled into one. Big-screen movies that evoke a specific cultural and epicurean journey are paired with the appropriate cuisine (brought to you by a butler while you watch) to bring scenes from the screen to life. Now that’s what I call indulging your senses!
Health & Wellness
Along with the food experience, fitness was another touchy point for us boarding the Solstice. But, if you think all you’ll do is eat your weight in food on a cruising holiday, think again! With a gym and fitness centre as well-equipped as the Solstice’s there’s really no excuse for gaining those extra kilos. And, if you ever thought running on a treadmill was tough on solid ground, try keeping your balance when jogging to the constant swaying of the tides at high sea. The upside? Bracing for the ebb and flow of the waves gives you a core workout on the treadmill like you’ll never get on dry land. After hitting the gym for a quick circuit, why not try a yoga or Pilates class, Zumba, Spin or even a personal training session before hitting the unsurpassed serenity of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub – aaaaaand relax!
Canyon Ranch is one of the world’s leading spa and wellness brands and partnered with the Solstice to offer the largest and most comprehensive SpaClub at Sea – period. Pamper yourself with a wide choice of therapies ranging from beauty (waxing, pedi/mani, lash extensions etc) to therapies like facials, acupuncture, body scrubs, reflexology and, of course, massage.
The treatment rooms are all like little oases in themselves and the staff are superbly trained ensuring you’ll float out of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub renewed. Just to add a little extra something-something to your pamper experience, try out the Persian Garden before or after your spa treatment. This tranquil space is a Turkish-style steam room where different grottos release a variety of dry heat, steam and mists into the air with aromatherapy-filled vapours while you lie on heated ceramic beds staring out at the big blue through floor-to-ceiling windows. Sheer bliss.
While the four days and nights on the Solstice truly did outdo expectations in so many delightfully ‘eat your assumptions’ kind of ways, it wasn’t until we sailed into land on day four, that the full cruising experience really hit me.
There’s something so uniquely awe-inspiring and humbling about seeing land for the first time, after even only a few days at sea with water filling your every vista. It was 7am on the morning of my birthday (a nice touch) that I peered out over my veranda and saw the first of a majestic smattering of 144 islands off the east coast of the far North Island of New Zealand, the beautiful Bay of Islands. We sailed upon these dark, contrasty rock formations with such quiet serenity that it almost felt like we were creeping up on some new found, unchartered territory.
Even with the immensity of the Solstice, we approached with grace and entered this stunning region, surprisingly, with a respect I didn’t think was possible of a cruise ship this size. And yes, the full day of exploration around the picturesque islands was as stunning as you’d imagine, highlighted with an exhilarating Jet boat ride, hikes up and down the island’s green, green pastures (complete with roaming sheep) and one of the very best pub platters and buttery Chardonnays we’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring at New Zealand’s oldest pub, the gorgeous Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell.
But the one lesson we certainly learned from this day, unlike any other, is that for all the controversy and hypercritical opinions of cruising in general, one thing’s for absolute certain.
There are some places in this world where approaching by water is the only, and the very best way to see certain coastlines and landscapes. Places like Alaska, Antarctica, the Caribbean and well, the Bay of Islands…are all places we agreed that cruising would be the way to go. The final verdict was this; we would cruise again, if the destination depended upon it.
“Celebrity Cruises has a special last minute luxury offer for a nine-night South Pacific cruise (a saving of up to $800 pp). Fares start at AU$1299 for a balcony stateroom on a nine-night South Pacific cruise on Celebrity Solstice.
Departing on 25 March 2017, the roundtrip voyage from Sydney will call at the pristine island of Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, vibrant Noumea in New Caledonia and sails the inviting waters of Mystery Island and Isle of Pines.
Fares for an interior stateroom starts from $1,099 per person, $1,199 per person for an Oceanview stateroom, $1,449 for a Concierge Class stateroom and $1,549 for an AquaClass verandah stateroom. For more information about Celebrity Cruises or to book a cruise, visit celebritycruises.com.au, call 1800 754 500 or contact your travel agent.”