August 2014 - Celebrity Solstice to Alaska - Inside Passage
Celebrity does many things right, an Incredibly Wonderful, hardworking staff, Wonderful food, Beautiful cabins, elegant ships and a wide array of options to customize your vacation time. We sailed on the August 15, 2014 Inside Passage Cruise to Alaska with our family. We had multiple cabins, ours was a Concierge Level cabin, #1207 on Sky Deck. Beautifully laid out and well designed this was a pleasant roomy cabin with a small balcony. Our room attendants were friendly, helpful yet unobtrusive...although the same can be said for absolutely every staff member we encountered. Everyone was a delight and no question or concern was too small or trivial. The staff and how it relates to and works with guests is one of Celebrity Cruises very strong points. Food throughout the ship was thoughtfully prepared, well presented and tasty. Surprisingly, The Oceanview Café (the Lido buffet) was among the best we've ever experienced (this was cruise number 14 for us). The layout of Café was well planned and facilitated an easy flow throughout. The food was of equal quality to the Main Dining Room and was well displayed creating an appealing visual presentation. It would be very easy to completely blow your diet here. We also had occasion to try some of the food offerings in SPA area of the Solstice, forgive me but I forgot the name of this eatery. Again, quality was very good and beautifully presented as well as tasty. The Grand Epernay Dining Room is a breathtaking room that settles somewhere between late 90's modern and Jetsonesque in appearance. Understated, this room lets the food and service be the star of the show, and it was. A diversified menu offered many options and we were able to find a delicious entrée each evening. Our group also tried The Tuscan Grill one evening. Again, spot on service, and very good food. Here though we encountered one of the few challenges of our trip; there was a problem with several orders of steak that were not prepared as requested and arrived very overcooked. When this was brought to the attention of our waitstaff, they offered to recook the entire meal. Those with the overcooked food refused (this is not a fast service venue and the rest of us would have been finished with our meal by the time the food had been re-cooked) and chose not to finish their meal and simply requested that they not be charged. There was much discussion amongst the waitstaff and restaurant manager but in the end, they refused to remove the charges for those who didn't eat. Our group spent $300 dining in this venue and this should have been handled better.
There are a number of bars onboard and many of them were busy at all hours. The most popular spot was the Martini Bar. It is obvious that the staff here enjoys their work and wants to create a memorable experience for every passenger. The Molecular Bar is good but not outstanding, at $13 per cocktail I expect to be wooed and tempted. The multi-page menu here is somewhat overwhelming but the knowledgeable bartenders (they won't let forget how much they know and how lucky you are to be there) offer suggestions but are rather abrupt and even a bit catty in trying to get you make a decision so they can move on to the next guest. The Sky Lounge Was a spectacular space that offered panoramic views. It was sadly very underutilized and remained empty much of the time. The same was true for Quasar Nightclub which was mostly used for table tennis and for Cellar Masters Wine Bar, which just seemed to empty anytime we stopped by.
During one of our sea days we did happen upon The Corning Hot Glass Show. In a word, outstanding. Do not miss this. The artisans onboard were knowledgeable, approachable and created a sense of excitement and beauty in the work they performed. Viewing is up close and sightlines are quite good. It is amazing what they are able to accomplish with the limitations they have trying to do a glass show at sea.
When we cruise we usually purchase a pass to the Persian Gardens (Thermal Suite) for the length of cruise and did so this time. We find that it is important to spend some time unwinding, especially after a day of touring and this is a good way to do it. The Persian Gardens are a part of The Canyon Ranch Spa onboard. This is a mixed venue with both men and women. Well designed and with uninterrupted views of the ocean this was a place we went to daily. It was quite relaxing although very busy. With the addition of AquaSpa cabins the PG was far busier than we have ever experienced although this is not much of a problem. What was a problem was the PG was largely unmonitored and we were aware of one group of guests who hadn't paid for use of this area being admitted by another family member who had purchased the pass. Alternatively there are saunas in each of the dressing rooms (Men's and Women's) as well as showers and dressing areas. This would be good for those sharing cabins as it gives the possibility of showering outside your cabin while freeing up the cabin shower for other family members, however the dressing rooms are part of Canyon Ranch and so are subject to the same opening and closing hours...which is not always convenient.
As I stated earlier, this was an Inside Passage Cruise to Alaska, and we were not disappointed. Yes there was rain for about half the cruise but that was not anything we could control so we just moved on and enjoyed the stops as much as possible. Ketchikan was a pleasant stop with a little bit to do, much of it surrounding the Ketchikan Creek and the "Red Light District" building that have since been converted to restaurants, artist spaces and tourist shops. Pleasant and a good way to kill some time. We opted to spend time at the Ketchikan Historical Museum and were not disappointed, the local history is fascinating and gives a good albeit brief overview of the Ketchikan story. This stop was quite rainy and so we did not explore as much as we would had the weather been better.
Juneau was the 2nd stop and there was much to do. Of course the requisite tourist shops were there in abundance. We opted to do zip lining as "our tour" in Tongass National Forest. Yes it is scary, yes I was scared, true it was high up there but I'm so glad I did go and likely will do it again. The rush of excitement, the uncertainty of my abilities and egging on of the others in our group made it an excursion to remember. Once safely back on land, we also explored the surrounding area and happened into the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. It is tiny, and despite all odds the local population is trying mightily to preserve and restore this bit of Juneau history.
Skagway was our last Alaska stop and owing to much improved weather was one of our favorites. It has retained the frontier flavor of a bygone era. Colorful, friendly, full of tourist shops there is something for everyone in Skagway. We booked a local excursion here and paralleled, by bus, the White Pass train trail. We had numerous stops and plenty of time to photograph and do some brief exploring. As do most tours, ours culminated at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in the Klondike. The views were breathtaking and our knowledgeable guide made the trip well worth the cost. Don't forget to ask about the wild blueberries! YUM.
Victoria B.C. our final stop of this cruise was Victoria. This is truly a gem and it was unfortunate that we only had a few hours here as this would easily be an overnight stop. Beautiful, friendly and infinitely walkable, Victoria abounds with pleasant sights, people and history. If you photograph at all, be sure to have your camera with you here. Look in at The Empress Hotel, walk the side streets of charming little houses, talk to the locals...we were asked several times what our impression was of the island and people were genuinely curious to know if we liked Victoria...we did, so will you. It is an easy walk to town from the pier, walking through the neighborhood rather than along the seawall cuts the walk time to about 15 minutes.
Celebrity does many things right, from ships, to staff, to itineraries, to food. There is much to be said about their desire to create a vacation experience. However, where it goes off track it does so with alarming consequences for its' passengers:
The Life Boat Drill is one of the most chaotic, disorganized events I have ever witnessed. I observed that even the crew is not entirely sure of what to do with all the passengers. The drill is conducted indoors, so you don't actually report to your lifeboat station as on other cruises. Once you find your indoor meeting place then the chaos begins. Stand here, move there, sit here, no don't sit here, move over to the far side of the room, line up in rows, break the rows down, squeeze together more. I understand and support the need for these drills but was left wondering how this would be handled if the emergency were real. Concerning.
Music. This was the real challenge of this cruise, music. Where Celebrity goes off track badly, this is it.
From morning to night it was one continuous din. We enjoy a party as much as the next person, but the overwhelming, pulsating, pounding, driving, loud bar music made for a very unpleasant trip. I'm not elderly, not really even old but felt as if we couldn't escape the noise anywhere other than our cabin. We felt like prisoners being "musicboarded". Even in areas of the ship where you'd expect quiet, the music was over-loud, Persian Gardens (irritatingly loud screechy vocals as well the thumping music from the fitness center next door), the Solarium Pool, blasting instrumentals (here at least they willingly would turn down the volume to a reasonable level if asked), The Atrium area (the volume of music was so loud that you couldn't speak to the person standing next to you without shouting. Amazingly this is also an area where passengers and staff conduct business at the front desk, shore excursions office, etc and having to shout to be heard means having to announce your business to everyone around.). Yes, I understand that Celebrity is trying to create a "party atmosphere" however, how is it enjoyable when one is assaulted by the music? Imagine waiting outside The Grand Epernay Dining Room for the doors to open, you and several hundred others crowded into a small area with thumping bar music playing so loud that all you can do is stand and listen since there is no conversation possible, not pleasant.). Or how about the elderly female passenger outside Celebrity Central theater who repeatedly tried to get help from a staff member as she was becoming ill and needed to be assisted to a restroom but had to resort to yelling for help as the music was so loud that she could not be heard until it was too late. Not pleasant for her I'm sure. I also understand that "too loud" is a matter of opinion so others may disagree. We are not looking for a "snooze cruise" but an experience where music is appropriate to the venue in which it is located. A 15 deck open atrium that has the library, card room and ILounge backing onto it, having insanely loud, thumping, pumping music is not the answer. As others have noted, many obvious music venues where under-utilized (Sky Lounge, Quasar, Cellar Masters) and these areas sat empty most evenings or were used for table tennis (Quasar). In the Sky Lounge and Quasar, I expect dance or techno music and welcome it and will likely participate as the mood strikes me. If I choose not to be a part of the music activities, then my choice offends no one and I can move to an area of the ship where I can relax with a book, have a quiet drink, socialize with friends and recharge and re-energize myself in my own way. Let ME choose when to be part of the party. Celebrity has made a serious mistake with this marketing model and I can't help but think it will turn away more of us than attract. This why my review goes from a 5 star to a 3 star. I understand that some will say this is an unfair reduction in the rating after so many positives, but like ongoing rude service, or a too hot cabin, missed stops and bad food the music was a deal breaker since it was so pervasive and inescapable. This is my 4th cruise on Celebrity and this experience will make this my last...it appears that I am past the marketing target that Celebrity is going after.
So there it is in a large, long nutshell. Many positives. An itinerary that I would quickly recommend, a beautiful ship with an outstanding staff, delicious food, beautiful cabins and public areas. Of concern, a more than challenging life boat drill and completely overwhelming music from stem to stern at all times. A good cruise but much better when your not on the ship.