Storming the Celebrity Solstice

Each June and December I join a circle of friends to celebrate the turning of the seasons for a ritual feasting and overindulgence in wine; I’m referring, of course, to the winter and summer solstice. Summer Solstice this December though, was just a tad different.

This year was a get-together with 2850 of our closest chums, including around 1700 travel agents and travel media hacks  aboard Celebrity cruise lines solstice-class superliner, the Celebrity Solstice, on an overnight famil cruise off the Sydney Heads.

Typical of most my travel experiences, not everything went to our meticulous plans.

Being highly unaccustomed to such an obscene hour for a Sunday, I was grateful that our 7.30am pickup arrived on time, and led to a quick trip to the airport and check-in in the Qantas lounge where we settled back for pre-boarding coffee. At first boarding call we hit the departure lounge to board early and avoid the hassles of stowing carry-on luggage as the flight attendant on the PA was warning that our flight was full.

My boarding pass was rejected four times by a scanner which emphatically declared I had already boarded. Assuming the usual computer glitch, the flight attendant waved us through and we strode down the sky bridge to the plane where another hostie indicated our seat aisle. On approaching our designated row we found another chap in the seat allocated to me. The seat allocations on our boarding passes were correct, so we referred the issue to a passing attendant who asked me to stand aside in a companionway to allow other passengers access while she investigated the matter.

For the next ten minutes I stood facing a toilet door while other passengers took their seats, all the time reminded about cabin bag stowage; especially as the flight is full. Scheduled departure time came and went, all passengers were seated (with the notable exception of my good self) and the cabin attendant finally returned to insist that, as I had not registered I would have to disembark. Ten excruciating minutes of staring at a dunny door while fellow passengers seated themselves all around me took their toll. I’m afraid I made a small “scene”, venting my concern at the competence of Qantas staff and loudly declaring across the plane to Mitch that she should stay on the flight and get aboard the Solstice. I would be the sacrifice at the altar of poor service. The surrounding passengers were mildly amused. I wasn’t.

I stormed back to the check-in counter where I was apologetically issued with another boarding pass and seat allocation to the “full” plane, complete with vacant seat beside me, just a few rows behind the original seat, although on the opposite side of the plane. Mitch remained in her seat, next to her new husband, a certain Mr Michael Ryan. The very same Michael Ryan Esq the Qantas Lounge booking agent assumed I was when checking us in. The bloke didn’t even look at my ID. And we didn’t check the boarding passes. There’s a lesson for every flier. People are involved so always check your documentation.

Anyway, the flight was pleasantly peaceful and I managed to stretch out and read all the weekend broadsheets despite over-attentive service from the mollified flight attendant. The cab ride to The Rocks was uneventful and soon enough we approached the passenger terminal. My first thought as the cab descended from Sydney’s George St to the Overseas Passenger Terminal (OPT) was “it looks like a huge apartment building behind”, such is the scale of the Solstice.

Here are a few facts for all you ship spotters out there:

  •  Entered service in 2008, making it the ‘youngest’ superliner to base out of Sydney
  •  Guest capacity: 2850 | Crew: 1500 | Total souls on board: 4350
  •  Gross Tonnage: 122,000 tonnes
  •  Length: 315 metres
  •  Beam: 37 metres
  •  Decks: 19

For those unfamiliar with Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal, here’s a very brief background: The OPT is located on the western side of Circular Quay on the area known as “The Rocks” – the first point of arrival for Europeans to Australia. It is owned and operated by Sydney Ports and is considered Australia’s leading international cruise ship terminal. It was opened in 1960 in the time of great sea-borne post-war immigration and according to the annual report of the Maritime Services Board in 1956/57…

“This additional facility for the passenger trade has been made necessary by the continued growth of the tourist traffic at the port and particularly by the proposals for new passenger liners of from 40,000 tons to 45,000 tons, which are expected to take up service by 1960.”

The huge queues of people waiting to board the Celebrity Solstice clearly showed the inadequacies of the facility built 50 years ago intended to serve the needs of shipping less than one-third the size of Solstice class superliners. As I had intended to experience this overnight cruise as a regular punter, the press pass stayed in my wallet and we passed the media entrance to join the ever-lengthening lines of regular joes. We cosied up to the partying team from Melbourne’s Wow! Travel and shuffled along like all the rest. Around 90 minutes later we passed through security, crossed the gangplank and received our first squirt of hand disinfectant and a welcoming mimosa from the smiling Solstice guest services team.

The time was about 12.30 and our allocated stateroom 1010 was unavailable for another hour, so we climbed to the 14th deck and the Oceanview café for lunch. Oceanview? From our height we were looking down on the sparkling sail roof of the Sydney Opera House just across the quay. We felt almost level with the roadway across the harbour bridge.

It’s important, at this point, to interrupt the narrative and put a few items in perspective.

This is the first time the Solstice has collected Australian passengers en masse (a hunded or so Qld VIPs had visited the ship the previous day ), so the crew are largely unfamiliar with the Aussie way of life. Not to mention travel writers and travel agents who, collectively as a sub-species, aren’t known for reticence, or Methodism. And spare a thought for the thousand or so guests already aboard – the poor buggers wouldn’t know what hit them.

Of the Solstice’s passenger complement, around 2000 have to be boarded in less than four hours. Of this number, the overwhelming majority are travel agents invited to inspect and experience the ship in order to better “sell” the Solstice to their clients.

The OPT boarding system has crashed, and some internal computer functions on the Solstice have failed as well. A recent cruise ex-Sydney was afflicted by a mini gastro epidemic (a pretty common malady among today’s intensive cruise experiences), making everyone aboard Solstice just a little antsy about hygiene.

It’s an overnight cruise where all newcomers intend to compress a week’s cruising experience into about 16 hours (including sleep-time if considered necessary).

And finally, there are nine (known) office Christmas parties (including the Wow! Girls) and one Greek wedding arranged for the day.

With all that in mind, what could possibly go wrong?

We were among the earliest arrivals at Oceanview café and managed to snag a table in the corner most distant from the entry. Over time the huge café quickly filled as new arrivals lumbered in dragging their overnight bags, showing increasing impatience as seating disappeared. Lunch was a buffet spanning a staggering range of international cuisines, and food was fresh, plentiful and quickly resupplied. The drinks, however, were somewhat problematic.

Nobody warned the staff about the Aussie penchant for a lunchtime bevvy, and it’s Sunday, no breathalyser to avoid, cheap drinks and a party atmosphere. I ambled off in search of a lunch wine and blithely accosted a passing waitress for a wine list. An alien concept, it seems, in the Oceanview café. But, unfazed, the charming lass asked my preference and I enquired about the provenance of their chardonnay. “It’s from California, I think” came the reply, to which I replied “I’ll have a bottle and two glasses, please”, anticipating the slinky texture of a classic Carneros drop.

Armed with a cold bottle and two glasses I returned to the table, now loaded with a global degustation thanks to Mitch’s foraging and we settled back to savour a Chilean chardy with all the charm and elegance of a Marlborough sav plonk. Memo to self … Always carry your damn reading glasses!

After checking into our luxurious stateroom, just two rooms behind the flying bridge on deck ten, we made our way down to Guest Services on deck three to make a reservation for dinner in the flagship restaurant Murano. A reservation had already been made for us in the ship’s Grand Epernay Dining Room for second sitting at 8.30, but ever since our Chef’s Table dining experience aboard the Radiance of the Seas last year, we’ve become firm advocates of cruise ship Specialty Dining.

The Solstice’s contemporary French restaurant ticked all the boxes for a good night’s grazing and I’d already checked out the restaurant online with the view to taking the 5-course degustation with matching wine flight option. With a premium of just $90pp we thought it terrific value, but unfortunately couldn’t make online reservations so close to departure date. Alas, the only available seating time was 5.30pm. After some to-ing and fro-ing we managed to escalate that time to 6pm so we confirmed the reservation and wandered off to explore the Solstice. Well, as much as you can explore a floating city in a couple of hours.

Our travels took us to the 16th deck – the Solstice Deck, where you feel you could reach out and slap another coat of Dulux on the Bridge. Down to the 15th deck we found one of Celebrity’s curious innovations; the Solstice Lawn Club. That’s right, a real 2 acre shipboard garden lawn for stretching out and catching a few rays.

As anyone familiar with the travel industry would expect, the pool areas and associated bars were awash with revellers sating their lust for Corona and creamy flesh so we headed indoors to experience the more subdued aspects of this magnificent Babylon-of-the-seas. The ‘newness’ and elegance of Solstice certainly places it in the upper levels for quality and indulgence. Fittings and decor show a focus on sophistication and style probably more suited to experienced voyagers with a discerning palate than the cruise n’ booze stage that we all seem to grow through.

Speaking of booze … we made our way deeper into the ship and eventually found ourselves in the wine & dine areas of decks four and five. Cue the Cellar Masters wine bar. My desired agenda included a tasting session of fine international drops and Mitch favoured a vodka & caviar session in the Martini Bar just across the way. What the hell! We’ll do both! Unfortunately, this is where the Solstice lost just a little of its lustre. Or was it just me suffering an extension of the morning’s Qantas misadventure?

The Solstice Cellar Masters is a ‘clubby’ wine bar with a split personality. One end is the traditional bar layout while the opposite end features an Enomatic wine-by-the-glass dispensing system that allows self-service of around a dozen different global wines in a range of portion sizes. The body of the bar comprises a number of banquettes and tables, and we settled into a cosy leather couch. It’s all rather civilised really. Well, apart for the lack of attention from the single staff member who made invisibility an art form. Finally giving up on any thought of service, we unsuccessfully attempted to pour a glass from the dispensing system before ambling off in the direction of the Martini Bar where a rowdy bunch of revellers were enjoying the antics of bar staff plying their mixing trade.

Unable to get anywhere near the bar for either martini or caviar, I went in search of a more accessible libation, eventually circumnavigating the area and returning to the wine bar. I finally managed to catch the sommelier’s attention and ultimately returned to Mitch with a rather pleasant Chablis and Fleurie, billed manually by the harried crewmember due to the ship’s POS computer malfunction.

At 4.30 the Solstice conducts its requisite safety induction for all new passengers, but this day it was delayed to 5pm due to the lateness of many boarding. The extra half hour encouraged Mitch to flag down a passing waitress who returned in short order with a couple of completely unnecessary dirty martinis. Shipboard life certainly encourages over-indulgence.

While dressing for our rather early dinner, we received a text message from a friend in the Ensemble Lounge, a bar outside Murano, Solstice’s flagship French restaurant, who invited us down for a drink. So, when 6pm arrived we presented ourselves at the restaurant carrying yet another glass of wine.

Murano is a drop-dead gorgeous fine diner, in an elegant European style with a menu that spans France and Italy. The sample Five Senses degustation menu with paired wines I viewed online raised the prospect of a fabulous meal and we sat at our table in great anticipation. We were slightly crestfallen to learn that the restaurant offered only a special fixed menu designed especially for the Solstice one-night sampler cruise, but the menu looked appealing and the slight disappointment disappeared. Then I scanned the wine list and eyed a 2008 Gevrey-Montrachet premier Cru. That will certainly make up for the lack of degustation!

Mitch started with a warm goat cheese soufflé with parmesan cream, followed by Muscovy duck breast, duck leg confit and apple compote. I went the classical route … Maine lobster bisque with cognac cream and chateaubriand with béarnaise and cabernet sauce. The Burgundy was a sublime match for all dishes. I really couldn’t have made a better choice if I’d known what I was doing. Desserts were Grand Marnier Soufflé with crème Anglaise for her and a café latte bar croquant for me. Rich!

By 8.30 we’d finished dinner and were contemplating a deck stroll, but the breeze had freshened to an uncomfortable level so we wandered among the shops and galleries of decks 4 and 5. An announcement over the Solstice PA system indicated a jewellery shopping frenzy to begin at 10pm, prompting us to park in a quiet corner of a lounge and wait the few minutes required. At ten, we joined the retail feeding frenzy and Mitch found a couple of Pandora-like bracelets to complement her growing collection.

Having transcended the nightclub scene many years ago, when on cruise it’s our habit to retire relatively early and savour a nightcap glass of champagne on the balcony. Suitably equipped, we returned to our stateroom, but the breeze forced us inside, behind the comforting barrier of window glass. In the calm and serenity of our stateroom, the day’s activities finally took their toll and we hit the sack at about 11.30.

With the lights out and tucked up in bed, we began to notice the ship’s movement. There was definitely very noticeable pitching and swaying which we attributed it to our elevation so high up the Solstice’s superstructure amplifying the ship’s movement. Although we had presumed that on-board stabilisers would have a greater effect in reducing the ship’s movement.

On waking next morning at seven, already berthed back at the OPT; we noted rain spots on the window and the heavy, grey clouds shrouding Sydney. Having prearranged meetings in Sydney at 9am, we decided to visit the Grand Epernay Dining Room for breakfast, rather than the Oceanview café. So, showered and dressed for business, we gathered our bags and left for breakfast at 7.40, intending to disembark no later than 8.30.

I can only assume that the crew of the Solstice are more accustomed to “Island Time” than working to a deadline. Service was shambolic at best, non-existent at worst. Fellow passengers all around were agitated and pleading for service while the restaurant staff wandered around aimlessly, though creatively avoiding eye contact. Although we finally placed an order at 8.00, we left the table at 8.30 after receiving only a coffee and unasked-for orange juice. Unlike boarding, the disembarkation process was as smooth as the Murano restaurant service and we were on terra firma in no time.

Only later that day did we learn of the midnight gale force storm, and 4 metre waves that rocked the Solstice, and us to sleep while causing chaos on several dance floors and bars.

The Celebrity Solstice is a magnificent addition to Australia’s summer cruising scene. The ship is a floating luxury hotel, the population of a small city, and has innovations and levels of comfort that would be the envy of many other cruise lines. Everything is fresh and decidedly upmarket with dining, entertainment, shopping and guest facilities second to none. It would be a perfect venue for the 40+ market seeking a more discerning vacation experience.

I’m hoping I’m wrong, but I’m just a little concerned that the perfect storm of staff unaccustomed to the demands of an Aussie niche market (i.e. travel agents and travel journalists) and a ‘compressed’ cruise experience might not reflect well on those people most needed to help promote the Solstice. It deserves much better.

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