Live Voyage Review: Celebrity Solstice, Western Mediterranean 2011
I just got onboard Celebrity Solstice yesterday in the port of Barcelona, Spain, and she is in exquisite shape. The whitewashed hull is absent of any blemishes, and the mirrored mid-ship “X,” exclusive only to this first ship of the Solstice class, glistens brightly in the sun but only on occasion.
But prior to boarding, my parents and I traveled to Paris for a first-time visit to Disneyland Paris which we, as avid Disney fans, absolutely loved. Of course, we were also sure to visit the traditional sites of Versailles and the Eiffel Tower.
Having only previously seen the tower out of a plane window years prior, I was absolutely stunned by how massive it actually is. For whatever reason, I had pictured it smaller. It was fantastic to marvel at this engineering triumph realizing when it was built and how it has so gracefully stood the test of time.
Our hotel, the Londres-Eiffel, was a fantastic three-star boutique hotel all of 3 blocks away from the beloved Paris landmark. The small hotel only has 30 rooms, but they were extremely comfortable and accommodating with my only nitpick being the tiny showers in some of the rooms that make the size of cruise ship showers look like that of palatial walk-in closets.
It goes without saying that the food of Paris is truly as good as all the reputations indicate. The flavors that the French creatively evoke from their dishes never fail to amaze me.
After our time in Paris, we jetted off to Barcelona where we met up with my aunt, cousin, and grandmother who are also joining us on our cruise. In Spain we all had a day of touring prior to boarding the ship.
We enjoyed an excursion to Montserrat via bus and cog train. You quickly come to realize how high up you are as breathing becomes more difficult with the thinner air while also combined with the smog of the city below. The site is a fantastic architectural nugget cradled by the baguette-shaped mountains that surround it.
We also walked around Gaudi’s Cathedral which is still unfinished and abuzz with construction activity. The architectural styling is certainly take-it-or-leave-it with much of the original structure looking extremely dirty juxtaposed against the new white stonework. I would assess the aesthetic as something of a Baroque predecessor to the work of Frank Gehry, famous for the Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles among many other free-flowing structures standing around the world.
Since onboard, our experience has been consistent with the quality that I have come to expect from the Solstice-class of Celebrity ships. I had previously sailed onboard the Equinox two years ago on a Holy Land cruise when I fell in love with these ships. In Turkey we had docked along side the Solstice which gave us an interesting perspective of these sisters.
As is still the case, the only immediate differences between the exteriors of these ships have everything to do with branding. The original concept art for this class of ships had showcased a giant “X” to be somehow applied to the entire mid-ship superstructure of the ship in lieu of the traditional smoke stack ornamentation found on the Century and Millennium class ships. In practice, this new approach is only in part effective, and clearly Celebrity came to the same conclusion as changes were made on the Equinox and her most recent fleet mates.
On the Solstice, the “X” was applied to the glass veranda railings in the form of mirrored tinting film which looks fantastic when viewed from the right angle, but at too many other times of day, the “X” is all but invisible, thus eliminating any visible exterior branding.
To remedy this, Celebrity has since added a supplementary “X” to her forward stack. The only trouble there is that these dual stacks were designed to be much smaller from those on previous Celebrity ships. So now the famous white “X” appears as the rather small afterthought that it indeed is. They did at least go a bit further with the Equinox by applying a box-letter “X” to her stack that it far more substantial and bolder than the mere weld and paint bandage found here onboard the Solstice. I would like to see Celebrity upgrade the branding on this ship one day to stay consistent with the newer vessels.
Our first day of the cruise today was a tendered visit of the port Villefranche on the Cote d’Azur. I had sailed here four years ago on back to back cruises with my parents when we explored Cannes and the Village of St. Paul. Today, we decided to round out the experience by visiting Monaco and the Grand Casino at Monte Carlo.
As is often the case with experiencing places first only known to us in movies, these locales were at first surreal to see first hand. Here we saw and drove on the Grand Prix route seen in recent movies like Iron Man 2. If you are in the market for a super yacht, Monaco is certainly the place to window shop as the harbor is bursting with a veritable navy of private vessels, and the principality just hosted an extensive yacht show in the last week or so.
I’m not much of a gambler, but when at the Grand Casino, you have to play something just to say you have. Luckily, I can report I came out 15 Euros richer from the curiously Alaska-themed video slot machine after inserting a 5 Euro bill. Huzzah! I almost ordered a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, but I inevitably resisted following in the footsteps of 007.
And now here I sit this evening at the Lawn Club enjoying a Franziskaner and sharing my experience with all of you fine folks. Cheers!
Today’s port is Livorno, Italy. We are sharing the port along with Holland-America’s Nieuw Amsterdam and MSC’s Sinfonia. Our entire travel party including my parents as well as my aunt, cousin, and grandmother booked a private van to take us to both Pisa and Lucca. As my grandmother is 82 years old, it worked out well to have a private tour where we could set our own pace. While she has done admirably to get around thus far, it is becoming increasingly clear that wheelchairs and cobblestones do not mix well.
It is also interesting to note that I don’t recall ever seeing elderly European locals in wheelchairs nor motor scooters in any of my travels. By virtue of their pedestrian culture and design of the cities, these locals must maintain their mobility to function effectively. I wonder how American health would improve if we were to merely reduce our automotive dependence by even the smallest of percentages. It’s interesting to ponder.
While my aunt kept company with my grandmother, the rest of us had the opportunity to climb to the top of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Having arrived at Pisa first thing this morning, hardly anyone was present at the Field of Miracles, and we were quickly granted access via tickets to the top. Most of the bus tours from the ships make their stop at Pisa in the afternoon. Our private driver was wise to go to Pisa early. I had seen the tower previously on an afternoon stop and was unable to go inside due to the immense amount of tourists scattered about. This time we made it in.
The experience of climbing and later descending a spiral staircase that traverses just inside the tower’s outer circumference while sensing offset angles of gravity is quite bizarre. It’s far easier than you would think to lose your sense of orientation, especially with no views of the outside short of a few openings at the stairwell landings. You can’t help but be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The view from the top is stunning, and while it’s not nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower, it does offer great unobstructed vistas of the surrounding landscape.
We then spent a great late morning and early afternoon in Lucca, a fantastic town still walled in from years ago, isolating it to mostly pedestrian access. It’s interesting to see the balance of old-world charm in the exteriors of the buildings combined with the often modern, high-style shopping of interior vendor spaces such as Sephora.
One of the highlights of Lucca is the former amphitheater, a la the Coliseum, which is now just an oval ring of tall masonry buildings, but the center arena still remains as a courtyard where you can walk around and consider the many kinetic events that had once occurred in the very space you now occupy. Also, the pizzerias of Lucca offer great tastings as do the shops offer great wares to fulfill all of your fashion label needs. The atmosphere is generally one of community complete with tent vendors and local events taking place all around.
Back on the ship, my parents and I are preparing to join the captain’s table for dinner as we have been invited as the most-cruised passengers currently aboard. We look forward to our time with the ship’s environmental officer as well as our fellow cruise mates. The food has been excellent onboard, and while tonight’s formal night dining room dish selections look to be rather uninteresting, our expectations will hopefully be exceeded. I will report back to let you all know.
As per what has become my tradition, I’m updating this live voyage review on a beautiful warm Mediterranean evening at the Lawn Club. It’s amazing how a feature such as grass on a cruise ship, which seemed like a corny idea to me when conceptualized originally, has actually turned out to be my favorite place on the Solstice-class ships. It’s such a relaxing space with the beautiful touch of nature accented by subtle warm lighting and the pulsing rumble of the ship’s engines.
Today we were in Sorrento, Italy, but I’d like to save that update for tomorrow’s day at sea and instead tell you about our time in Rome yesterday. Via the industrial port of Civitavecchia, my dad and I jaunted off with our private guide to Ostia, the ancient Roman seaport. Having already explored the Vatican, Coliseum, Circus Maximus, catacombs, etc. in our past travels, we decided to delve into the B-sides of Roman tourism and explore this more serene archaeological site.
What is first apparent is how quiet this site is early in the morning when the hordes of tourists lined up to see the Sistine Chapel are well out of the way. Sure by the end of the morning some tours started to show up, but even then, the crowds were no where near those of central Rome. It was a very relaxed tour with the opportunity to take in every element fully without distraction.
We had enjoyed the services of our tour guide in the past and were so pleased that we hired Daniele once again for this excursion. If you ever have a need for an extremely personable and knowledgeable guide for Rome, feel free to contact me for his contact information as I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending him to anybody.
Daniele personally escorted us around the massive archaeological site that consists of fascinating ancient seaport warehouses and offices, the remains of multi-story residences, baths, churches, temples, and a cemetery among many other structures. It is an entire city complex with all of the Roman necessities and pleasantries spread out across a single site available to relatively uninhibited exploration. Sure there are some areas that are roped off for safety or current restoration, but all in all, it’s all right there ready to be taken in. Most of the marble ornamentation has since been removed and repurposed elsewhere very much like the Pantheon, but many colorful fresco fragments and floor mosaics remain intact.
It’s my understanding that most, if not all, cruise ship tours bypass this site altogether. So if you happen to be taking a private tour, I highly recommend Ostia as a site to visit if you have already seen the other highlights or desire a taste of Roman antiquity without the typical crowds associated with said highlights.
After our great Indiana Jones adventure, we went out into the Roman countryside and up the hillside where the Pope has his summer residence. We went up to the small citadel adjacent to this residence to partake in a traditional Italian lunch. Private guides often take you to where they like to eat away from the tourists at restaurants that cater to a local slow-paced culinary lifestyle. Our lunch was of this variety. Gnocchi and meatballs were perfectly accompanied by a great local syrah and served with relaxed attentiveness. And the extraordinary view of the beautiful lake below was surely the icing on the cake.
The only thing that distracted from our relaxed day of touring was the curiously contrasting, fast pace of the congested Roman roads. Vespas and Smart cars abound in this race and break, race and break vehicular dance. But then you are back on your ship and relaxation quickly sets back in. La dolce vita.
As a quick aside, I’d like to share some photos of the Grand Princess that I took as we saw her in Barcelona prior to our cruise. Here you see her with Skywalkers removed from her stern. No longer does the ship sport a sort of odd spoiler or giant push-me-pull-me toy handle which was removed very shortly ago. Here you can see where some of the bulky structural supports still remain and where the entrance to the floating jetway has been retrofitted as a small patio outcropping.
With today’s day at sea, let me update you on yesterday’s excursions. Docked at Salerno, Italy, my parents and I took a day on our own in Sorrento via the ship’s shore excursions. It was one of their “on your own” tours which amounts to transportation with a tour guide accompanying you only while going and coming. We had been to Pompeii and Sorrento already, but we were so taken with the quaint atmosphere as well as the artisan woodworking upon our first visit, that we decided to return to Sorrento on the Amalfi coast.
Sorrento can best be described as a seaside town that is equal parts urban and natural. The typical hustle and bustle of Italian roadways is ever present, but it is offset by wonderful tree shade, tasty sidewalk cafes and pizzerias, and narrow pedestrian alleys.
As far as art and retail is concerned, Sorrento is best know for its intricate inlaid woodworking as applied to anything from music boxes to full-sized furniture. This generational skill is a sight to behold and, in my opinion, is only rivaled by luthiers of fine guitars.
We went to lunch at a traditional Italian pizzeria and enjoyed a glass of local red wine with our margherita pizzas. The afternoon was spent by strolling the streets and alleys of the little town, taking in all of the fantastic textures and sounds of Italian life before being driven back to our wonderful cruise ship.
While I continue to share my photos from Sorrento below, I wanted to take a moment to update you on the Celebrity Solstice a bit. A few nights back we were invited to the captain’s table and had an enjoyable evening hosted by the ship’s environmental officer who was also only 27 years of age. The dinner during that evening, including a delectable beef ragout and cherries jubilee, along with our meals in general onboard have been extremely good.
Tonight we enjoyed the Tuscan Grill specialty restaurant that presented an equally tasty selection, albeit with far too much time between our starter courses and our main meal. Otherwise, the service has equaled the great quality of the food.
We tend to be more frequent patrons of the Oceanview Cafe than the main dining room during tour-heavy cruises thanks to the casual quickness that is easiest to swallow here after a busy day ashore. The food here has met the quality of the dining rooms and has served us well during our voyage. And you can never miss out on the fantastic ice cream bar. Celebrity’s cinnamon ice cream is my top choice.
The entertainment onboard, always Celebrity’s weakest link in my opinion, has seen improvements. While the audio mix was less than optimal for Ghost Light, the production itself was surprisingly fresh with more of a narrative than you usually find at such productions. The premise here was that this old theater was closing down and was going to bring out the ghost light but only after the singers and dancers had a chance to revisit their favorite tunes. The staging was meant to resemble the backside of the theater’s sets populated by the orchestra and creatively lit with colorful LED bulbs. Song selections included many of the usual classics up through modern pieces like “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. The cast and orchestra here are very talented.
Variety performances are also to be found including so-called “action comedy” from a gentleman who played to the sparsest of crowds I have ever seen in a main show lounge. At first, it was painful to hear only crickets as he struggled with opening lines that fell flat, but he slowly but surely won over the dozens of onlookers with silly banter combined with seriously talented juggling and unicycle stunts that had me crying with laughter.
The Captain’s Club member cocktail party was this afternoon and was actually considerably more enjoyable than such parties have been in the past. It is very apparent that Celebrity is taking these events far more seriously. You can only listen to so many lounge performances of the Girl from Ipanema before it becomes a solid cliche. So I was pleased to hear the Solstice orchestra jamming to jazz standards instead, and this talented band knows jazz well. The typical free drinks were passed out as were bites to eat, but this time, the food consisted of a substantial buffet spread of snacks as gourmet as sushi as well as fruit and marshmallow skewers. And to top it all off, we were pleasantly surprised by two of the Celebrity singers as well as the onboard acapella group singing a great Beatles medley with the backing of the great orchestra. Major kudos to Celebrity for raising the bar.
Today in Dubrovnik, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited had three of its brands represented with Royal Caribbean International’s Voyager of the Seas, Pullmantur’s Zenith (formerly a Celebrity ship), and, of course, our beautiful Celebrity Solstice. The weather on this cruise has been stellar. You would consider it summer if you didn’t know better that it was indeed October. The skies are blue and the sun shines bright with Caribbean temperatures.
Today we took a tour to Dubrovnik’s relatively new aerial tramway that takes you from near the old town up the seaside mountain for unspoiled views of the ancient citadel below as well as the great blue waters beyond. The cable trip is a short one of about two minutes that ends at a station above including a beautiful outdoor terrace restaurant and amphitheater, monumental cross, and a small souvenir shop. It was a fun ride, but I still prefer the more substantial sights of the tramway in Juneau, Alaska. Here the site was rather sparse, but that might only be because it is still such a new attraction. Time will tell.
Upon descending to the base station, we then walked the rest of the way down to the old citadel of Dubrovnik, a perfectly preserved fortification. A pristine bay just outside of the massive walls services the city and today acts as a terminal for small tour boats. Just inside one of two entry gates is a series of perimeter alleys where we stumbled across a fantastic jazz street band. We stayed put for a spell to enjoy a song or two and then went on our way.
The most striking feature of the overall set of structures is the use of limestone as the exclusive building material. Even the streets are paved with this stone which now glistens with a high-gloss from the years of pedestrian foot polishing. Aside from the singular wide thoroughfare and occasional open courtyard, the city is a dense collection of shops, cafes, and churches with street lamps serving double duty as both illumination and the shops’ signage.
We seem to always enjoy a great bite of ice cream in each of these towns we visit, and Dubrovnik easily has the best we have ever had. Our orange scoops had a refreshingly tart flavor with a consistency somewhere between ice cream and sherbet.
And now as I’m writing this I’m taking a quick moment to see us sail away from the port as we pass by the first of Royal Caribbean’s latest mega ships, the Voyager of the Seas and now also the Pullmantur Zenith. They’re both beauties. It’s strange to see a former Celebrity ship sans its signature blue accented hull. Today the Zenith is all white.
Returning to the old town of Dubrovnik, it’s also fascinating to explore the alleyways closest to the seaside mountain as the shops quickly lead to an extensive series of steep stairways that continue to climb for some time.
Overall, Dubrovnik definitely feels like old Europe in its layout and construction, and it’s a very well preserved relic of the past. This is so true that HBO’s historical drama series, Game of Thrones, is filming its second season here in the city and has used many of these ancient structures in its production.
I’ve been asking passengers around the ship how they feel about being in relatively close proximity to the Middle East given current turmoil. The general consensus seems to be one of feeling secure so long as ports do not include Egypt nor Israel. We are closer to that part of the world but still not too close.
It would also seem that passengers onboard paid the going rate for our particular cruise with one couple saying that they booked only two months prior and still paid full fare. So if it’s deals you are looking for in Europe, I would suggest the Eastern Mediterranean provided you feel secure enough in that part of the world.
Tomorrow we will be arriving in Venice, and the Celebrity Solstice will pass through the grand canal on its way. I will certainly have some great pictures to share accordingly. Stay tuned.
Solstice sailed into a sunny Venice yesterday afternoon and is now preparing to leave a very rainy Venice in a few moments. The weather just hours ago was fantastic and conducive to a great day of wandering in the canal filled city. In my opinion, Venice is best enjoyed on your own and away from tours, unless of course you would like to see the inside of St. Mark’s or the Doge’s Palace. There is something so magical about getting lost within the vast labyrinth of narrow streets and waterways. Just be sure to have a map on you at all times to ensure you can never get too lost.
Our Venice journey began yesterday afternoon with the Solstice sailing through the grand canal, passing by St. Mark’s square. As we continued along, the Celebrity Eclipse, one of Solstice’s younger sisters came into view with its dual smoke stacks rising above the low-lying structures of the city. Upon docking closer to the city’s airport and just opposite from the Eclipse, I then took a boat transfer with my aunt and cousin back to the titular square where we began our meandering through the multitude of shops and eateries.
Venice is a truly unique city. Roads are replaced by canals, and cars are replaced by gondolas and motor boats. There is no fear of getting run over by a speeding Vespa. The pace is slower. The only challenge here is staying clear of low flying pigeons and their excrement. Although, it did seem like the bird population has dwindled since my previous visit four years ago, but that could just be because the streets were busier with people this time around.
My first observation upon exploring the city is that there are quite a lot of restoration projects going on currently. Typically, scaffolding in Europe is draped with a giant photograph representing the portion of the building that is covered to be less distracting. While that was partially the case here, many of these restorations were actually plastered with advertisements. For instance, it was rather odd to see the isolated Bridge of Sighs backed and surrounded by billboards as seen below.
My cousin is quite the fashionista so we quickly found ourselves passing through St. Mark’s square for the fashion district of Venice. As my aunt and cousin perused the high-end shops, I remained outside to take in the textures of the crumbling architectural facades that encase these modern fashion products. Interestingly, my family members’ observation has been that, despite the European origins of many fashion designers, the selection beyond these local shops tends to be more considerable.
It must be because Venice occurs towards the end of our Mediterranean cruises that I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the excellent but repetitive Italian and French foods once I arrive. After awhile, it’s nice to fulfill a taste for Americana when abroad to offset the rich foods we’ve certainly enjoyed up to this point. Four years ago, my parents and I grabbed a bite at McDonald’s. This time, we made a stop at Hard Rock Cafe. If it’s any consolation, I had their Legendary Local which was an arugula, parmesan cheese, and pesto aioli topped hamburger. It was incredibly tasty, and you really can’t beat the view of this particular Hard Rock’s location.
We also did some Murano glass shopping. I love the vibrant colors and often bizarre shapes that this glass manifests itself in. These artisans are refreshingly uninhibited with their creations, and it shows. The glass is not just exclusive to the island of Murano either, and there are plenty of different styles to choose from. So be sure to shop around for the piece that most strikes your fancy.
It’s great that Celebrity stays overnight in Venice because it allows you the opportunity to enjoy the city at night with a leisurely dinner ashore prior to returning to the ship. A 24-hour visit feels considerably less rushed than a 10-hour single-day stay and also goes hand in hand nicely with the ambiance of the city itself. And now that we are leaving the city, the skies have cleared up, and it’s becoming a beautiful afternoon at sea.
Yesterday we were in Kotor, Montenegro, and today and tomorrow are relaxing days at sea as we prepare to arrive once again in Barcelona to disembark our ship. Kotor was the gem of our cruise. I had never been there previously, and I was very taken with the beauty of this fjord and port.
Our ship sailed into a bay surrounded by mountains that stretched high into the sky. Similar to Alaska’s mountains in scale, these were considerably less covered with vegetation, but the trees that did spot the mountains appeared specifically placed, very much like those you would see within a model train set. In fact, the whole port appeared like a giant model train set to me, with the stunning mountains above and the Old World buildings uniformly skirting the coastline. All that was missing, it would seem, were the trains themselves.
Like Dubrovnik, Kotor has an ancient walled citadel just a short walk away from where the ship’s tenders tied off. It is nestled cozily at the base of the mountains and allows access to a fortress further up the mountain. However, the cobblestone path is very steep and uneven. With the 80% chance of rain predicted for the day, my parents and I decided to forgo journeying up a path that would no doubt become slippery too. They also charge 3 Euros just to be granted access up the mountain.
We instead decided to explore the base camp of the fortified citadel with its hodgepodge of streets and alleys flanked by the usual shops, cafes, and churches as well as night clubs and casinos. It felt very much like a condensed version of Dubrovnik’s old citadel, but that might only be because of the meandering nature of the dense passages. Overall, the construction is less consistent and grand than in Dubrovnik but is ever full of that appealing European veneer. Kotor was certainly a great conclusion to our cruise’s ports of call, and the pictures from here continue throughout the post.
My parents and I joined up with the rest of my family for dinner last night at Silk Harvest, Solstice’s Asian specialty restaurant. The service was very attentive and the dishes arrived at our table more consistently than they did at Tuscan Grill. The sushi was extremely flavorful as were the small dishes prior to our main meal. Appetizers included cream cheese wontons and spring rolls. Everything is served family style with the plates placed in the middle of the table for everyone to dig in. For the main course, our table ordered selections such as pad thai, orange chicken, and fried rice. The pad thai was nice and spicy and was not sweet like I’ve seen it served elsewhere. All the dishes were extremely tasty.
Just this evening, we ate in the main dining room for the final formal night. According to our great waiter, this was the first cruise where they offered lobster prepared with a crab stuffing which he explained was causing a bit of a delay in the galley. Brief delay or not, this dish was fantastic and the crustacean meat was very succulent. Even the menu specifically outlined the usually unwritten “surf and turf” option which added a nice steak pairing.
This final formal dinner concluded with the traditional staff fanfare and parade but without the flaming baked Alaska nor the corny rendition of Auld Lang Syne, a pleasant omission in my opinion. Instead, the beautiful retro dining room exercised its fantastic LED strip lighting to the entire spectrum of colors and to the beat of modern pop music. It was really rather impressive.
Another culinary treat on the Solstice is Bistro on Five, a casual creperie open all day save for only four hours in the very early morning. With only a $5 service charge, you are rewarded with a seldom busy dining venue that offers a wide selection of delicious crepes ranging from French to Mexican in preparation and concludes with dessert crepes. Panini sandwiches, soups, and salads are also available. I highly recommend trying out this restaurant at least once during a voyage. You very well may find yourself wanting to come back for more.
In concluding my live voyage review, I’d like to celebrate the exceptional crew onboard. The captain has a great sense of humor. The wait staff in all of the restaurants have been extremely personable. And our room steward, Anil, and his assistant have been extraordinary. He always greets you by name and both are extremely friendly and pleasantly dutiful. Celebrity has done extremely well with its staffing.
It has truly been my pleasure to share my cruise experience with you all! Until next time…