Celebrity Solstice at sea

By Greg Fleming

Greg Fleming cruises (and sometimes jogs) across the Tasman on Celebrity Solstice
Celebrity Solstice is the highest-rated ship in Australasia for service, dining and accommodation. Supplied
Celebrity Solstice is the highest-rated ship in Australasia for service, dining and accommodation. Supplied

I've been on a few ships in my time but I'm certain none has had a lawnkeeper on board.

Celebrity Solstice does and his job is to take care of the half-acre of lawn between the ship's funnels on the 15th deck.

That spot of lawn is perfect for a picnic, which is what we journalists on board were offered one afternoon near the end of our whirlwind four-day cruise from Sydney to Auckland (with a day stop at the Bay of Islands).

The picnic invite came as a surprise - we'd already eaten our way through most of the 10 on-board restaurants but it'd be rude to refuse - so there we were mid-afternoon on a perfectly manicured cruise-ship lawn, nibbling on club sandwiches and cupcakes.

There were a few other Celebrity surprises too - the good kind: embarking in Sydney in a record 25 minutes, seeing a tree suspended in mid-air as I sped past in one of the glass elevators (part of the ship's Team Earth exhibition, which uses photography and museum-quality exhibits to promote conservation), and discovering some rather fine artworks in the various stairway landings - the most notable the Damien Hirst bone china plates.

This was my first experience on a Celebrity ship, a line proving very popular with cruisers in this part of the world. It purports to offer guests a taste of "modern luxury at sea", including great food, five-star service and entertainment options as varied as the buffet (anyone for glass-blowing?), and yes, even lawn bowls.

Solstice has just completed a record-breaking down-under season and will be back in these waters later this year after a dry-dock spruce up and refit.

And the line more than lives up to that promise.

I met just one couple who were first time cruisers on a Celebrity ship. Everyone else was on their third or fourth cruise with the line, often on Solstice herself. Familiarity, it seems, breeds the opposite of contempt with these cruisers.

Perhaps that explains why everyone walked with intent and knew which buffet station they were going to.

Despite perfectly good maps on every floor it took me a full day wandering about the enormous ship (when built in 2008 it was the biggest cruise ship in the world), before I felt orientated - the buffet station thing I'm still figuring out.

With almost 3000 passengers and 1300 crew, this was also my chance to find a place where I could slip away to read and watch the ocean - which, despite the plethora of entertainment options, bars and cafes available on cruise ships these days - remains my cruise-ship go-to. On Solstice that turned out to be a corner of the little-used Sky Observation Lounge on the 14th deck and, come sundown, the salubrious, old-school charm of Michael's Club on deck 5 - complimentary Nespresso and an obliging Belgium concierge, Jole.

Suitably impressed by the design and layout of the ship, I had the next few days to get to grips with the food.

Celebrity dining

Celebrity take their food seriously.

There are a number of specialty restaurants on board (all incur an extra charge) and I dined at three: the Tuscan Grille - an upmarket Italian steak house, Silk Harvest - Asian Fusion - and the formal French restaurant Murano.

My first bite of the goat cheese souffle at Murano, suggested this was going to be a very special evening, an impression continued by the main - a perfectly cooked rack of lamb. A dessert of crepes - made, with some theatre, at the table - topped off a superb meal. It'll cost you US$50 ($73) per person to eat at Murano, but it's well worth it.

The less formal Tuscan Grille was a hit with those who enjoyed big hearty helpings and lots of rich pasta sauces - or steak, lots of steak - dry-aged and huge, and not for the faint-hearted. My entree of steak tartar, a simple dish that even the finest restaurants struggle with, was excellent.

Some in our party enjoyed Silk Harvest, even the cream cheese won-tons! I think I exhausted my patience with the Asian Fusion concept some years back in Auckland.

But even if you didn't set foot in one of the specialty restaurants you'd still eat like a king on Solstice.

The Ocean View Cafe on the 14th deck (really the 13th but, as on most ships, superstition dictates there is no 13th deck) offered an enormous selection of food throughout the day and night: cuisine from India, Mexico, Thailand, China, fresh salads, hand-made pizza, grilled minute steaks and chicken breast, fresh fruit, pastries even an ice cream bar, and of course if you prefer to dine privately, just pick up your tv remote and order room service.

Most mornings, I'd take breakfast at Ocean View, if I was early enough to nab a window seat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is also available at the Grand Epernay Dining Room.

Take breakfast there if you enjoy being fussed over; dinner there is good, the French onion soup served with a thick crusting of Gruyere cheese a stand-out, but make sure you leave room for the pecan pie - sometimes the simplest things are the best.

Solstice life

Cruise ship life inevitably leads to over-indulgence, so twice a day I hit the gym. And Celebrity Solstice boasts a good one - running machines set before a stunning floor-to-ceiling vista on the 12th deck.

I set the screen on my cross-trainer to a run in Marin County, but many just gazed out to sea as the endorphins kicked in and willed away last night's creme brulee.

The gym does get busy, proving cruisers these days are as concerned about their health and well-being as they are about their food and travel destinations. Often these days the destination is the ship itself. Yoga and fitness classes were well-subscribed, and the daily free Zumba class by the outdoor pool was as popular with spectators (thanks to a pneumatic Latin instructor) as participants.

The spa was popular too.

This was a decidedly younger crowd than that on the last Sydney to Auckland cruise I took (on Holland America's Ms Noordam).

That younger demographic lent this trans-Tasman crossing a welcome sense of energy and adventure.

While formal nights on most cruise lines are a thing of the past (who wants to pack a suit and tux in your luggage?), Solstice offered one voluntary semi-formal evening, which was embraced with enthusiasm by most on board.

That night the ship buzzed with a sense of occasion, the bars were pumping and live bands and djs filled the various stages.

Out came the suits and little black dresses; and there must be some connection between formal attire and shopping, because the smart-set were busy swiping their ship cards at the duty-free stores.

Celebrity entertainment

Hey - you're cruising, so take the opportunity to check out activities you probably wouldn't at other times - spa tours, art talks, ukelele lessons, acupuncture demos, a jazz quartet, a Texas Hold'em tournament, or ping pong and meet me on a deck chair by the pool when you've finished.

Come evening the most popular show on board this leg was Aucklander Steve Larkins' Freddie Mercury tribute Mercury Rising, which saw the main Solstice theatre at capacity as Steve (wearing a fake set of Freddie teeth) and band swung through Queen's most iconic songs.

Larkins has the voice and comic flair to elevate this above the usual tribute fare and he could've easily played for another hour.

Other entertainment highlights were Groove Line, a Motown-themed tribute (some of the band have worked with Stevie Wonder, and they've got some stories) and, on one evening, a mind-reading show in the smaller Celebrity Central (why is everyone's favourite love song by Celine Dion?).

Trans-Tasman jogging

Early on my last morning aboard Celebrity Solstice, I went for a run on the jogging track (which circles the pool area on deck 12) and set myself the task of mentally listing things this cruise didn't get right.

The service had been stellar, the ship spotless and the food good to excellent (although the fast-food needs some attention), and the entertainment programme nicely varied.

For me, it came down to one very first-world problem, walkers on the jogging track.

You can't walk or jog around the entire circumference of the ship on the lower decks as you can on other ships and on the Solstice, the jogging track is better described as a walking track, unless you get there at sunrise. I jogged and dodged the strollers and soon resigned myself to returning to my screen-guided Marin County gym programme. No wonder this ship has earnt the reputation as "the best in Australian waters" - that jogging track notwithstanding.

Solstice facts

* 85 % of the staterooms on Celebrity Solstice have balconies.
* Celebrity Solstice is the highest rated ship in Australasia for service, dining and accommodation according to the Berlitz Guide 2015.
* You can order room service and check your on board account on your stateroom's tv.
* AquaClass passengers have extra amenities infused into the stateroom experience and priority seating in the exclusive restaurant, Blu.

+Plus traveled courtesy of Celebrity cruises

- NZ Herald

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