Eastern Caribbean on the Celebrity Solstice
3/15/09 to 3/22/09
Ports of Call Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten;
Tortola, BVI; Labadee, Haiti
We booked this cruise almost 2 years ago, as soon as the bookings on the new Solstice class ship were opened up. We waited anxiously to see any information about Solstice as well as watching the weekly shipyard webcam updates showing the construction progress. Like many Celebrity fans, we were excited that our favorite cruise line finally had a new ship and we were booked on it. To share in the excitement with others, we joined the Cruise Critic Roll Call LINK, as we have done on most of our cruises. Since this was an official Cruise Critic group cruise, it was a very active thread; and we made many friends before we boarded the Solstice. It was also a reunion cruise for our group of Martini Mates who we have sailed with since 2005. This was going to be a fun cruise.
In October 2008, we received an invitation from Celebrity Cruises to attend the official naming ceremony and sail on a two day pre-inaugural cruise. Words cannot describe the excitement we felt to be able to experience the Solstice on one of its first cruises. It was an amazing experience. It allowed me to take lots of photos of the ship that can also be viewed from the homepage. Since we have so many photos of the ship on that web page, this review will focus more on the ports and activities.
The night before embarkation, we had arranged a pre-cruise dinner at a Ft. Lauderdale restaurant, Bravo Ristorante Italiano (www.bravoitaliano.com). We asked to be seated outside in an area that they normally use for larger parties. It was a perfect opportunity for those who traveled here from colder parts of the country to begin to experience our warm South Florida winter weather. Twenty of us got to meet new friends and get reacquainted with old ones before boarding the ship. It was a great way to get a head start on the cruise and it added an extra day’s fun to the adventure. We had a great time and great food. Our sides were hurting from laughing so much.
A preview of coming attractions occurred when one of our group surprised her husband by asking him to marry her -- again. Without Tom knowing anything about it, Jo had made arrangements for them to renew their vows on board the ship. She had announced it to the people on the Cruise Critic thread, and had invited us all to the event. Tom was totally surprised, and he was amazed that Jo had kept the secret for almost a year.
As we arrived at the port around 11:00AM, there was still a large crowd of people disembarking from the previous cruise. This was a good indication that we probably weren’t going to get on as early as we would have liked. However, since eight of our friends who would be cruising with us drove to the port in a caravan, we had delightful company while we waited.
Before the cruise, Jim, one of the Martini Mates, had put together a great website for our rollcall. It included photos of most of our fellow cruisers on Cruise Critic as well as a little information about them. While waiting to board, we recognized several folks and got to meet them before our planned sailaway gathering. It was so nice to finally be able to meet some of the people we had been chatting with for so many months.
Once the guys returned their rental cars to Thrifty, we finally got started on the embarkation process by waiting in lines for our Sea Pass cards and completing the necessary paperwork. It went very quickly. Since there were ten of us boarding together, we stopped for our first photo inside the terminal. The timing worked out perfectly, since boarding started just as we were walking away from the photographers. One thing we remembered from our previous cruise on Solstice was the very steep gangplank we had to walk up. This could be an issue for passengers with mobility issues. It was still very steep. We were on the Solstice by noon and heading for the buffet line.
The muster drill was at 4:00, thirty minutes before departure. It was nice that the information session was held inside and it went relatively fast. A major complaint though was that once it was over, it was a mob scene trying to leave the area. It was a total log jam of people. Since we were on the Promenade deck, we were directed outside to the promenade to move toward the front part of the ship. This helped temporarily, but once we tried to get back into the ship to get to the stairs, there was another log jam. It was very disorganized. Since the last time we were on Solstice it was only half full, I was worried that this crowded mess could be a preview of coming attractions. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
As soon as we were able to get out of the muster drill crowd, we headed for the Cruise Critic sailaway get together at the Sunset Bar. It is a great place to watch the ship sail from Port Everglades. It is just a lovely setting and I always enjoy it. Of course I enjoy any first sailaway, because it is the start of a cruise. We got to meet a whole lot of the folks we had been talking to on the roll call in this first official Cruise Critic meeting. This was a great beginning to what would be a most enjoyable cruise.
Since we had been on Solstice in November, I didn’t have to do my normal routine of taking photos of the entire ship before it filled up with people. Hundreds of photos I previously took of the Solstice showing rooms, various cabin classes, menus, etc. can be found on our website at this LINK. I did walk around casually to get reacquainted with the beautiful ship. While wandering through the Aqua Spa, we found that Jo and Tom from our roll call were being used as models for the services offered in the spa. I just had to take their photos so they could remember the embarrassing moments.
The Solstice is a gorgeous ship. It is very well laid out and for the most part has excellent traffic flow. I particularly like being able to avoid walking through the casino. The Shops on the Boulevard run along the port side of the casino and have a lovely walkway that separates them.
The elevators are in two major banks of eight each. However, they are arranged with four facing starboard and four facing port side. This allows you to access only four at a time, depending upon which side you choose. For the most part, the separation does keep the rush to the one elevator that arrives a bit more manageable, since the number of people waiting in either area is less. My favorite thing about the elevators is that the color of the light above the elevator changes from blue to orange when an elevator arrives. It is amazing how much a little thing like that helps.
There were a few areas that I didn’t see on our pre-inaugural cruise. One was the Relaxation Lounge on deck 11. This is an area for those that book Aqua Class cabins. It is a very comfortable room at the front of the ship with a lovely view. The drink bar with orange and lemonade looked very tempting. The entry area in the spa section of the ship is also quite nice with a spiral staircase.
I had also not seen Online Celebrity, the area where you could use Celebrity’s computers to go online, nor the Passport Lounge. This time I saw both.
I also wasn't able to get any good photos of Celebrity Central, which is a very nice more intimate theater that is used for the late night adult comedians, enrichment series and many other activities.
I couldn't resist trying to get photos of the unique planter box used for the tree in the atrium. It is quite pretty and can be seen from so many different angles while walking the stairs, riding the elevators or just enjoying the many public areas adjoining the atrium.
One of the reasons we had booked our cruise almost two years early was to be able to get an aft cabin. We thoroughly enjoy aft cabins on most ships due to the view off the back of the ship and the larger balconies. Since there aren’t that many aft balconies on a ship, they are very prized and need to be booked early.
Unfortunately, desirability is not the case on Solstice. The balconies are about the same depth as a normal size balcony. They aren’t uniform in size, and some are very narrow while others are wider. Also there is almost no cover over the verandah, unlike the M Class ships which have a very deep aft balcony that is mostly covered. Since Solstice is 3.5 football fields in length and the closest elevator is midship, the walk from our aft cabin was always a long one to wherever we wanted to go. Other than the aft view, these cabins are not that desirable on this class ship.
The cabin itself was just like the standard verandah cabin we had for the pre-inaugural, except our bed was by the balcony rather than the closet. To Carol and me, this is the preferred layout. It provides more room where activity goes on in the cabin and it makes it easier to get into the small closet. There isn’t much drawer space, but this is partially offset by the two storage cabinets above the bed. That worked fine for us, but I imagine shorter people can’t reach up there without standing on the bed.
I found the beds to be relatively comfortable; but many people, including Carol, found them to be too hard. On a plus side, the beds sat high enough off the floor to allow storage of all our suitcases underneath.
The bathrooms are relatively roomy, particularly the shower. A very nice feature is the night light that comes on when you turn off the main light. We always bring a night light when we travel. This week we didn’t need it.
Our stateroom attendant was Emily from the Philippines. She was a very sweet person and tried to be helpful. However, since her assistant, David, had a tendency to forget things we asked for, it reflected on her performance. We were disappointed that we never had any towel animals waiting on our bed at night. We always enjoy being surprised with a new creation each evening; but not on this cruise. For the most part, they did a good job; but nothing special. Emily also got sick in the middle of the cruise which didn’t help.
With this being a Caribbean cruise, dress was very casual most of the day. I was pleasantly surprised that most people did have formal attire on for formal nights. If I have to suffer wearing a tuxedo, I don’t want to be alone. I also only saw one person wearing shorts to the main dining room one night. On most cruises there are many more dress scofflaws.
Every night the Martini Mates, which had grown into a very large group by the end of the cruise, would meet in the Martini Bar at 5:00 for a drink before our 6:00 dinner seating. Those who had late seating also joined us at 5:00 whenever they could. We would have an enjoyable get together with lots of talk about the day’s activities and endless laughing every night. These gatherings were so much fun. It really makes the cruise very special.
Since all of us wore our little flashing lighted martini lapel pins, we were quite a noticeable group. It was rather humorous how so many of the Solstice staff wanted to obtain a martini pin. Our regular martini bar waiter, Florin from Romania, did an exceptional job of taking care of the large group’s needs. He earned his pin quickly.
While walking around the ship, other passengers regularly asked us where they could get a pin. So we would have to go through the whole Martini Mates story and their needing to come join us in the martini bar to get one. It was also fun to go to the shows at night and spot all the pins around the theater.
One of the reasons we love Celebrity is the food. The variety and quality is quite good and the specialty restaurants just superb. The food in the Grand Épernay Restaurant was well prepared and well presented. The only minor complaint was that the desserts seemed a bit less exciting than previous cruises. Also, there were no soufflés during this cruise, which was disappointing. But we never went away hungry or unhappy with the meal.
Since there were twelve people in our group who wanted to sit together each night, we had requested two tables of six located next to each other. This worked out great so that we could switch around each night and sit with everyone during the week. We had an outstanding waiter, Wilmar from the Philippines. His assistant was Anom from Indonesia. In addition to being an excellent waiter with a great personality, Wilmar was also an entertainer. After dinner he would sing to our two tables. To make it look authentic, he would hold a large pepper mill in his hand to make it look like a microphone. Other guests and waiters would gather around to listen to him. He was a great guy. He was one of those people who go above and beyond to make a cruise very special and memorable.
Wilmar the Entertainer
We also had an excellent Sommelier, Saravanan from India. Both he and Wilmar also earned their martini pins. The Solstice has a first class management group in the Épernay. From the top down, they were very friendly and helpful. One of the Martini Mate traditions is to make and wear at the end of the last dinner of the cruise, what is called a "Gumby Hat" out of a napkin. It's our silly way of easing the saddness of the last night before departure. Our fun loving Wilmar and Saravanan couldn't resist joining in.
We enjoy going to the specialty restaurants, even though the food in the main dining room is very good. We enjoyed the Tuscan Grille last time, so we looked forward to trying it again. Once again the meal was very good; but I made the mistake of ordering the rib eye steak. I remember reading that the Tuscan Grille rib eye is the same as the one served in the Épernay. It was good, although a little thin for what would be expected in a specialty restaurant. When going to a specialty restaurant, always get something that is special, and the rib eye was not.
Murano is the specialty restaurant that is not to be missed. It is a French restaurant with some unusual descriptions on the menu, but the dishes are fabulous, and some of them are prepared at the table. Carol had a balsamic strawberry crepe dessert, called Crepe Balon Rouge, that was to die for. The service level in Murano is exceptional and it, along with the fine food, makes for a wonderful evening. The $30 per person charge is well worth it. If you have to choose just one specialty restaurant, Murano is the one.
The Oceanview Café is the buffet. The food islands are well spaced out so that there is plenty of room to maneuver. Once again the selection and quality of food was quite good. Some people don’t like that there are no trays available to put plates on; but I found that they really aren’t needed since the large square plates are quite ample, and you don’t need multiple plates. The main complaint we did have was that it was quite challenging at times to find a table to sit at, especially on the first day. The other potential problem is that the floors were slippery in some areas. We ate lunch here every day and most breakfasts.
Toward the end of the week, we began going to the Épernay for breakfast. The main benefit to the Épernay was that we didn’t have to hunt for a table. Also, I thought the eggs; particularly the eggs Benedict were much fresher in the Épernay. Carol likes grits for breakfast, and they were not served in the Oceanview; but she could order them in the dining room. One day we went to the Bistro on Five for their breakfast of wonderful crepes. They were very tasty. The extra $5 charge is supposed to be for the service; and I must say we had very personal and excellent attention. Of course we were the first ones in there; but we did enjoy our conversation with our waiter while waiting for the delicious breakfast to be prepared.
A must do meal event is the “Starring You” brunch. It was served on Deck 3 of the Grand Épernay Restaurant from 10:00 AM till 1:00 PM of the morning we arrived in San Juan. Since our arrival time in San Juan wasn’t until 2:00 PM, it fit the schedule very well. It was a brunch version of the Midnight Buffet which isn’t done anymore. It was a lovely spread with delicious food and ice sculptures. I really preferred it to a Midnight Buffet, since I normally didn’t eat at the midnight affair and only took photos. This worked out where we could sleep late and have a very enjoyable brunch. Go early because the Solstice normally arrives in San Juan early.
There is a lot of entertainment on the Solstice. I was very impressed with various musicians in the lounges and those playing around the ship. The standout was the a cappella group, Ocean’s Four, a very talented and entertaining group. They performed in several venues throughout the cruise, but we saw them every night in the Entertainment Court outside the Solstice Theater after the show. The problem with this location was that people would stop to listen to them, which would make it difficult for those leaving the theater to get by. But they were worth stopping to listen to.
The production shows were quite good. We had seen two of them before, but wanted to see them again as well as the one we hadn’t seen. Unfortunately, unlike other cruises we have been on, no photography was allowed during the shows, not even without flash. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed. But fortunately I had been able to take photos on the pre-inaugural. I have included a few from that cruise
The first show was Solstice: The Show. It is a unique show for a cruise ship in that the theater is designed for various aerial performances that move all around the theater. It is a Cirque du Soleil type show focusing on acrobatics and other skills. This show requires performers with exceptional skills. What is incredible is that these performers are in all of the shows and can sing and dance as well.
The second production show was Pulse. I was skeptical at first because it starts off with a Stomp type performance. It then moved on to some very well performed current music. This was the show that I hadn’t seen, and I did enjoy it.
The third show was Ghost Light: The Spirit of Broadway. The name says it all. It was also an enjoyable show. It always amazes me how Celebrity is able to find and keep such talented versatile people.
Another unique form of entertainment is being able to play bocce ball on the grass on deck 15. At night the plastic balls light up, which is fun to watch. When I originally heard that there was going to be a lawn on a cruise ship, it didn’t make sense to me. Having now been on the Solstice twice, I thoroughly love having the grass. It is just comforting to have it around.
Probably the most unique show on Solstice is the Corning Hot Glass Show. It is performed on the top of the ship next to the lawn. It is most entertaining to watch the craftsmen make beautiful objects out of blobs of molten glass. They also provide interesting information on the art of glass blowing and how they create the various shapes and colors.
Media and Events
Cruise Critic Connections Party – A great benefit of being a member of Cruise Critic http://www.cruisecritic.com is to be able to join a roll call of other Cruise Critic members who will actually be on your cruise. Since we normally travel alone, it gives us a chance to meet and get to know people on the roll call before the cruise. This way we get the pleasure of finally meeting these people when we get on the ship. Cruise Critic and Celebrity have joined together to provide what they call a Connections Party. Ours was arranged on the first sea day in the Ensemble Lounge at 10:00 AM. With almost 100 cruisers signed up for the party, the Ensemble Lounge was just too small. Even though some people didn’t show, it was very crowded with not enough seats. It did help to get people to meet each other, since everyone was very close together. Cruise Director Dru Pavlov came to the party. He welcomed everyone and talked a little about the Solstice and the upcoming cruise. When he was finished Dru stayed awhile, answered questions, and got to meet a lot of people. Lots of additional pictures related to the Cruise Critic people and activities can be seen on our Snapfish album at this LINK. In order to see the captions in the slideshow, go to the bottom of the slideshow screen and click on the rectangular icon with the gray center next to the word "share".
The party had gone on for about a half hour when the photographer wanted to get everyone together to take a group photo. Since there were so many people, we had to go down to the main staircase. There was no way to take a photo in the Ensemble Lounge. She was concerned because they hadn’t expected that many people and hadn’t set up any auxiliary lighting for this large of a group. It was humorous watching the little photographer standing on a chair trying to organize a large group of fun loving cruisers. The end result turned out very nicely, and she is to be commended for her patience as well as her talent.
Cabin Crawl – Jo and Tom set up what is called a cabin crawl. This is where cruisers open up their cabin so everyone in the group can see what the other cabin categories look like. We met in Cafe al Bacio and then we started crawl up the stairs and through the halls. Some people served wine or snacks to provide energy and incentive for everyone to keep on crawling to the next cabin. With the large group we had, it was challenging to get everyone in and out of cabins, but it all worked out. I was particularly pleased to finally see a regular inside cabin. There aren't that many on the Solstice. Jim and Kathleen, Jack and Debbie and Carol and I had adjoining aft cabins, so we opened up the balcony dividers to provide for a smooth traffic flow with one door in and one door out.
The highlight of the crawl was at the end when we were able to tour Ray and Sandy’s Penthouse Suite. This is the largest and nicest cabin on the Solstice and was a real treat to be able to have it on the crawl. Since it was so full of people, I was glad that I had taken a lot of photos of it when it was empty during the pre-inaugural cruise.
Farewell Luncheon – On the last day of the cruise, Cruise Critic set up a nice luncheon in the Grand Épernay. It was a farewell get together, plus we had a small gift exchange for those that wanted to participate. It was a really nice way to finish up the cruise.
Wedding Renewal – At the pre-cruise dinner in Ft. Lauderdale, Jo asked Tom to renew their marriage while on board. Although everyone that was on the roll call had known about it, since Tom doesn’t read or post on the roll call, it was a total surprise to him. He accepted her proposal and the renewal was performed in Michaels Club. Michaels was overflowing with people. It was a very nice ceremony with the Captain officiating. Since this was the Captain’s first marriage at sea, he was a bit nervous, but he did a fine job. There were champagne toasts and wedding cake.
Even though it had been ten years since they were married, Jo and Tom were still able to push cake into each others faces.
Later that night, Ray and Sandy hosted a party with the “newlyweds” in their penthouse suite. It was a great way to celebrate their wedding renewal and a great way to finish a most enjoyable day.
Celebrity Today bulletin –The Celebrity Today daily bulletin is very informative and easy to read. It is designed where the activities page can be separated and carried with you all day. Although the bulletin was informative, the daily activities were kind of bland. I was disappointed that there wasn’t an ice or food carving show or even a kitchen tour or napkin folding demonstration. The enrichment programs weren’t too exciting, with the main ones being about income taxes. Since we were pretty busy with the Cruise Critic group activities, it really wasn’t a big deal for us, but had I not had a bunch of friends on the ship, there wouldn’t have been much to do other than read a book. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Ports of Call
We had previously cruised to all of the ports other than Tortola. Our main focus for this cruise was our friends and the Solstice. Since we live in South Florida, traveling to the Caribbean is not as appealing as it is for those coming from colder climates. I hoped that the excursions we had booked would be somewhat enjoyable.
San Juan, Puerto Rico:
As always, cruising into San Juan past the El Morro Fort is a treat to behold. No matter how many times we have done this, I always go to the upper decks to watch us pass this lovely area. We weren’t supposed to arrive until 2:00 PM, so when we looked out the window and saw we were approaching the fort, I ran up to deck 14 to get some photos. I was disappointed that I was too late to get photos of the other side of the fort, but these were good enough.
We had been to San Juan many times on land trips and cruises, so the last thing I wanted to do was take a city tour. However, while reading some other reviews on Cruise Critic, I found a place that does private tours on Segways. A Segway is a two wheeled self balancing electric vehicle. I have always wanted to try riding one. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it. For $42, I booked a 45 minute tour through Segway Tours of Puerto Rico (www.segwaytourspr.com). This is the same outfit that the cruise lines use, but they do a longer more expensive tour for them. Since we weren’t able to get a reservation before 4:00 PM and we had a 6:00 PM seating at the Tuscan Grille, this seemed like it would work out fine.
Jim and I both booked the tour. Kathleen was going to go to, but some physical issues required that she cancel. Since the tour was located at the pier next to the one the Solstice arrived at, I had some time before the tour to take a shortwalk around Old Town San Juan. It is an interesting and pretty place. The pier is right next to Old Town, so it is very convenient to see the sights. The Eurodam was right next to the Solstice.
The first part of the tour was a training session. The instructors first showed the two teenage sons of the couple that were going with us how to control the Segway.
They caught on quickly. We weren’t surprised. After all they were kids, they adapt quickly. When my turn came to get up on this strange looking vehicle, I had an idea of what the instructors were going to tell me based on the previous instructions; but it didn’t make me more confident that it would be easy to do. It actually was easier than I expected. Within a short time, I was maneuvering pretty well and having a good time. The Segway really felt like it was an extension of me. This was going to be a fun tour.
Then it was Jim’s turn. He was a bit more apprehensive than me during the training session. The look of fear wasn’t a good sign. I was concerned that he might back out, which he later told me he was considering. But like the rest of us, he got comfortable and we were ready for the tour. Then they put the crash helmets on. It wasn’t a great look with it over my hat, but I did need protection from the sun as well as a possible accident.
We were very fortunate to have a lovely lady guide named Nataliya. I had read other favorable reviews about her before the cruise, and they were quite correct. She was a very good guide, while also making sure that we were mastering our newly acquired skill. She took us around the fort while stopping periodically to explain the sights we were seeing. Nataliya knows her history and shared entertaining stories with us. I have been on many sightseeing tours, but this was the most unique one yet. Segways are the only motorized vehicles that were able to go on the path we traveled. Nataliya stopped at a lovely fountain and took photos of us. We also stopped at a movie set where a new movie was being filmed. They stopped filming for us to go through the set. We were quite surprised at that. The views from around the fort were quite nice.
On the way back, the traffic in Old San Juan was like a parking lot. With the Segways we just buzzed right through to our destination with no problem. Jim and I really hated to have to give the Segways back. They were so much fun. I look forward to doing future Segway tours. This had been an awesome day, and we were going to finish it off with dinner with friends at the Tuscan Grille. A great day indeed!
Phillipsburg, St. Maarten:
We hadn’t been to St. Maarten in ten years, so we were looking forward to returning to this very lovely mountainous island. We awoke to find ourselves in port with the Carnival Glory right next to us on our port side. Looking over her, we could see the lovely white sand, turquoise water and mountains. St. Maarten was prettier than I remembered.
I couldn’t believe the large shopping area right at the end of the pier. It had really changed since our first visit. I had hoped to be able to go into Phillipsburg after our excursion to do some shopping, since Carol wanted to get me a present for my upcoming birthday. I found out later that it wouldn’t be necessary to go into town. There were more than enough shops right at the pier.
But first, our Cruise Critic group had scheduled a day on the Lord Sheffield Tall Ship (www.lordsheffield.com). The group met in the Café al Bacio area at 10:30 for us to walk over to the ship. We debarked and looked up to see Bob aiming his camera down to take a photo of the group.
As we walked off the pier, we could look back and see how close the Solstice was to the Glory. It is a narrow pier.
A representative was supposed to meet us at the pier, but he wasn’t there. Our representative never arrived, so we walked to the Lord Sheffield. It was about a ten minute walk. The ship sat at the end of its pier waiting for its next group of excited sailors. It was a big vessel and because I didn’t have my ultra wide angle lens on the camera, I couldn’t get it all in one photo. It might have even been a challenge to get it all in with that lens since it was positioned where it was difficult to get a good shot.
There was lots of deck space with a very small cabin, so everyone positioned themselves around the decks where they could be comfortable for the trip. However, the maximum capacity for the Lord was 25 and we were full. There weren’t a lot of places to sit in the shade, so the potential for sunburn was great. But what did we expect, we were on a sailboat. Once again we were lucky with the weather being just lovely and perfect for a day sailing around St. Maarten.
From the Lord Sheffield, we could see that St. Maarten had lots of development along the shoreline. It really is a lovely island.
The Lord Sheffield Pirates of St. Maarten Day Cruise provides an open bar, snacks and what they call world famous BBQ ribs/chicken. The hit of the cruise was the Presidente Beer from the Dominican Republic. Our very friendly bartender/waitress was constantly trying to keep us full of our favorite beverage. She really did an excellent job considering that she had to serve 25 people by herself. One of the mates did help with some of the food later on; but she handled everyone’s needs very well during the whole trip.
During the cruise we stopped at a couple beaches. Snorkels and noodles were available for those that wanted to jump in the water. Jumping off the bow was a popular way to get in the water. I was ready to jump in, because St. Maarten is supposed to have some very nice snorkeling. I was not expecting the cold water. It was shocking to jump in to what I was expecting to be the temperate waters of the Caribbean. After a few minutes the shock went away and I guess the numbness took over, but I did get acclimated and it was most enjoyable.
Ray and I swam toward where the guide told us the best snorkeling was. Well, it wasn’t. The visibility was not good; there was no coral and very few fish or other sea life around. Although it was great exercise, I was disappointed that the snorkeling wasn’t as advertised. I am sure there is good snorkeling on St. Maarten; it just wasn’t near the beaches we stopped at. On the positive side the area we stopped at to swim was quite a pretty area.
We stayed at the first beach for quite a while. Since the Lord is not the Solstice, the boat had a tendency to have a lot of rock and roll movement. I get seasick quite easily, so Carol and I both take ginger pills before getting on small boats. As a result, we didn’t have any issues, but a few unlucky folks did during the excursion.
Jim and I both wanted to be able to try to go to the beach that is at the end of the airport runway in St. Maarten, so that we could take some photos of the planes flying in just over the beach. We had seen these photos online, and they are quite impressive. The Solstice crew had told us that it would be a cab ride of over an hour to get to the beach; so we had written it off. By being on the Lord Sheffield, we were able to at least see the beach from the water; and got to see a few planes land. It really does look like a safety hazard.
What I had not thought of was what it was like on the beach when a large jet takes off. The sand gets blown around and the noise must be ear shattering.
With the mountains being close to the end of the runway, the planes have what appears to be a very steep ascent and then a turn. It really does seem like a poorly selected location for an airport, but then again, it is an island.
Our next stop was at a beautiful beach. We soon found out that it was a clothing optional beach when a catamaran sailed by and anchored close to us. Two of the girls onboard had chosen to exercise that option. It was very considerate of them.
The water seemed a bit warmer at this beach, but it could have been because I was already used to it or distracted by our neighbors. Several of the group swam in to take a walk on the beach while others just swam around the boat or tried to find decent snorkeling spots.
It was now about 2:30 PM and the only food we had been given was a few chips and some cheese and crackers. At long last the World Famous BBQ ribs/chicken were served. The crew walked around with a plate of ribs and chicken. There were no paper plates to use, just napkins, so it was rather messy. But they did taste very good. The taste was enhanced because it was late in the day and we were quite hungry. I was surprised that there were no sides to go along with the BBQ, just the ribs and chicken. I guess it would have been difficult to eat a salad and/or sides on the napkin. Desert was some cut up fruit. After overeating for several days on the Solstice, this light meal was quite enough, but it should have been served earlier and on plates.
After we got back to the pier and started walking back to the ship, I realized that it had become much warmer. The sun was quite hot. That is probably why I had some red areas on my body that normally don’t get burned. Being in the ocean breeze on the boat lulled me into a false sense of security that the sun wasn’t too strong. Fortunately the sunburn I had received did not prevent me from enjoying the rest of the cruise. I was lucky.
We got back to the shopping area just before 4:00 PM. We had time to shop. I was pleased that many of the shops that were advertised as being in downtown Phillipsburg were also there in this convenient shopping area. Carol wanted me to find a present for my upcoming birthday, but I didn’t expect to find anything I couldn’t live without. I was wrong again. Carol insisted that I buy an absolutely gorgeous diamond ring that we found at Ballerina Jewelers (www.ballerina-jewelers.com), right by the pier. I had been looking for a new ring for many years and this one was quite special. I guess I couldn’t live without it. Since it was a much bigger gift than she would have given for a birthday, it was also considered a present to celebrate our upcoming twentieth anniversary.
This had been a very nice day and we were finishing it off with dinner at Murano with four of our dear friends. Cruises are such a great vacation.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands:
When we booked the cruise we were excited that we would get to visit Tortola, since it was supposed to be a really beautiful destination that we had not yet visited. Unfortunately, we would only be in port from 7:00 AM till 1:00 PM. Not enough time to see much of Tortola. One of the excursions that was offered was a boat ride to the nearby island of Virgin Gorda to see the area known as the Baths. Since the Baths are listed in the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book, it sounded like it could be a good way to spend the day.
The day started early with our meeting up with the tour group at 7:30 AM. We walked to the end of the pier and loaded on to one of the many small busses waiting to take us to the ferry dock for the ride over to Virgin Gorda. It was a short ride. The ferry was the Daphne Elise. After everyone was packed in to two ferries, we started the 30 minute ride to Virgin Gorda. As we got closer, we could see that it was a very pretty island indeed and much less developed than the others we had visited.
When we got off the ferry, there were lots of small vehicles to tour us around the island. Our group of nine fit perfectly, with Jack sitting up front, into a pickup truck. It was fitted with a couple of benches to provide seating for tours. It was not particularly uncomfortable, but leg room was non-existent. Since we were all friends, it wasn’t that bad; and it was an experience we won’t soon forget. A big plus was that we had a great driver named Ivan who told us all about the island and stopped to let us get out and take photos regularly. Since my main reason for taking this excursion was to take photos of this lovely island, I was quite pleased that we had lucked out and gotten the very friendly and helpful Ivan.
Our first stop was at an absolutely beautiful Savannah Bay Beach with white sand, clear water and just a lovely view. It was the kind of beach most people dream about. Since we were more interested in taking photos particularly of the Baths rather than swimming, it seemed like we were there a longer time than we needed to be, especially since this was a short tour. But it was a beautiful stop.
Ivan warned us about the Manchineel Tree. It is one of the most poisonous trees in the world. Just touching it can cause severe medical problems. Even standing under it in the rain can cause severe swelling and blistering. Eating the fruit can be deadly. There are signs on the tree to keep people from hanging bags from the tree, since the poison can be transferred to a person through a strap that hangs on the tree. Needless to say, everyone avoided it.
At last we were back on the pickup truck and heading for the Baths. Ivan drove us to a photo stop above Savannah Bay to show us its beauty from above.
After we arrived at an area above the Baths, we were given a safety lecture and told about what we could do when we got to the beach. There is a steep, curvy, narrow 350 yard path down to the Baths. With everyone trying to go down it at the same time, it was a slow process. Coincidentally the Solstice and the path were both the same length, 350 yards; but it was a lot easier to walk the upper deck of the Solstice.
Once we arrived at the Baths, we could see why it was so popular. The water was very clear and the large boulders were very impressive. A lot of folks were swimming and others were just walking around enjoying the unique beauty of this area. In reading about the Baths, the highlight of a visit here is to take the trail to beautiful Devil’s Bay and stop along the way to see the famous salt water grottos. With the trail being a twenty minute walk each way and the stop only being a little over an hour, there should have been more time allocated there.
The safety lecture warned us about the narrow passages along the Devil’s Bay trail and the first one on the path lived up to its reputation. I would have had to crawl on my hands and knees to get through that one.
After we had enjoyed the Baths enough, we headed back up to top to get something to drink and just look around the area. It was a very lush area with lots of flowers and pretty scenery. The restaurant/bar is very nice and a great place to just hang around and take in this lovely island. Carol got a great mango colada. After falling in love with the Presidente beer on the Lord Sheffield, Ray was thrilled that they had it there also. Both of us got the beer. Jack wanted a Presidente too, since he hadn’t been on the Lord Sheffield to try one. After hearing Ray rave about how good they were, Jack couldn’t resist ordering one; but unfortunately Ray had gotten the last one. Jack harassed Ray about taking his Presidente for the rest of the trip. Since Presidente is sold in South Florida, when we got home we bought Jack some so he could try it.
We decided to head back to the ferry earlier than the others to hopefully be on the first boat and get a good seat. Since there had been two ferries on the way over, we thought we could get back to Tortola earlier and perhaps have time to look around a little. We were the first ones on the Daphne Elise. There was a sign saying to wait for the attendant before boarding. We waited and he told us it was OK to get on.
The breeze was nice so it wasn’t a bad place to wait for the rest of the group to arrive. Pretty soon the other busses arrived and a bunch of people came walking toward the ferry anxious to get on and get a good seat. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait to get permission to board from the attendant. One of the crew had opened the engine room hatch that was located in the main aisle, to do something in the engine room. The first person to get on the boat was looking toward the upper deck where he wanted to get a seat, rather than where he was walking. He fell into the hatch. Everyone rushed over to see if he was OK and to assist him. He came out of the hatch and hobbled toward the ladder to the upper deck. We were very glad to see that he was able to walk. He was hurting but could have easily had some serious injuries or been killed.
There were no safety procedures communicated on this ferry. The crew also didn’t seem too interested in helping the passengers on either leg of the trip. It was an older boat, and was way overcrowded. Everyone was on this one boat for the trip back, whereas they had been split up between two boats the way over. Way too crowded for a ferry. Carol said that all she could think about during the journey back to Tortola was the newscasts we see about capsized, overloaded ferries. Not a good way to end an excursion.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the places we visited on Virgin Gorda, I wish we had just stayed on Tortola and seen some of it. This is too short of a port stop to go to a different island. Arranging a private tour to the Baths that went directly to them would be the best way, if exploring the Baths is what you want to do. It would eliminate a lot of the wasted time and allow plenty of time to explore the grottos and Devil’s Bay even with the short port stop.
On the way back to Tortola, we did get to see some nice views of the island as well as the Solstice next to an Ocean Village ship. It is a United Kingdom cruise line that we have seen in Europe but not in the Caribbean.
After we got back on the Solstice and were heading to our next port Labadee, the Captain announced that due to a medical emergency we would have to go into St. Thomas to drop off a passenger. We were concerned that the fellow who fell into the engine compartment might have had some delayed medical issues. We later found out that a passenger had contracted spinal meningitis.
It was nice to be able to see an extra port on the cruise, but we were only there for a few minutes, so we just had a quick look at St. Thomas and were off again toward Labadee.
Our scheduled arrival time in Labadee was 10:00 AM, but due to the stop in St. Thomas, we didn’t arrive until 11:30 AM. With us having a 12:00 PM excursion, we were concerned about missing it. Since Labadee is a tender port and the Solstice had 2,850 passengers anxious to get off, we were afraid that our late arrival was going to make for a difficult time getting on a tender. We had gone down to the theater to get early tender tickets, but everyone else had the same idea. The ticket line snaked all through the corridors. Later in the morning after getting our tender tickets, there was an announcement for people on early excursions to wait in the theater to get the first tenders, rather than to meet on the island as the excursion tickets stated. That was good news indeed.
I always enjoy the tender rides in Labadee because they are large boats that are made specifically for Labadee; but more importantly, it provides for great photos of the ship you are coming from. In October 2009 the pier that is being constructed will be completed and it will be much easier to get off the ship. However, that means that you will have to take an excursion to get the beautiful view of the ship surrounded by the lovely turquoise water.
Labadee is a really nice port stop. There are a lot of things to see and do. There’s a really nice water park for the kids, including a huge slide. It is a really pretty place to have fun.
Our excursion for the day was the Thriller Jet Boat Ride. We had done this the last time we stopped there and wanted to be able to go with some of our friends so they could experience it too. When we did this ride the last time in 2006, the boat was full and the excursions sold out very early. This time we knew that Jim and Kathleen had to cancel their spots, but we still couldn’t believe that there were only eight people on this excursion. Perhaps people cancelled because we were late or for other reasons; but we did have the boat to ourselves. It was nice. Later on we did see that the afternoon Thriller Jet Boat Rides were quite full as they usually are.
With only 8 out of a 36 passenger capacity, we could spread out anywhere on the boat. As we traveled along the Northern coast of Haiti, we saw lots of fisherman in their small boats with what looked like home made sails. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere and it is sad to see this kind of poverty. Fortunately for many Haitians, RCL has provided them with a way to make money by working for them on Labadee or by selling souvenirs in the Haitian market.
Our first stop was at a sunken tanker. It just sits there with the waves rolling over it. Eventually it will totally rust away to nothing.
Haiti is on the western side of the very mountainous island of Dominica, with clear water and lots of vegetation. It is unfortunate that their neighbors on the Eastern half of the island, the Dominican Republic get most of the tourist dollars; since the Haitian people could sure use some money flowing into their economy. The nice part of this excursion, other than being able to ride in a fast boat is that we were able to see more of the Haitian landscape than just the commercial area of Labadee.
We were all offered the opportunity to drive the Thriller Boat. Both Ray and I did. I had done it last time, but it is fun to drive the floating power house. From the driver’s seat, I could really see how long the front end of the boat was. What surprised me when driving it was the extreme under-steer. You would think that a boat like that would have a very tight wheel, but it really needed to be turned a lot to get the boat to move where you wanted it to go.
After we returned to the dock, Carol went back to the Solstice and I showed Bonnie and Ray where the Artisan’s and Haitian Markets were and then went on by myself to explore Labadee.
I was surprised at how much construction had been done since the last time we were here in 2006. The most apparent addition is the very long zipline ride. I have ziplined before in Costa Rica and really enjoyed it. This would be a really nice one to try. Maybe next time. In addition to the pier that was being built, there were lots of other buildings under construction. I don’t know what they will be used for, but I am sure it will add to the pleasure of visiting this enjoyable port.
Normally a barbecue lunch is served on shore when in Labadee. Since we arrived so late, there wasn’t time to set it up. Since hunger isn’t something that I experience on a cruise, this wasn’t a big deal to me. There would be plenty of food when we returned to the Solstice.
I walked out to my favorite area on Labadee, Dragon’s Breath Point. It’s a really pretty place where the waves crash into the volcanic rock that the Point is made out of. There are also beautiful unobstructed views of the area. From there, you also have a great view of the zipliners coming in below. Since most people are more interested in swimming and laying on the Labadee beaches, very few people come out to the Point. It makes it a very serene place to spend some time.
From the Point, I could see the Solstice, but because it is so long it actually looked like there were two separate ships in port.
On my return to the tender dock, I stopped at my favorite spots on Labadee above a gorgeous beach to get one last photo of the Solstice.
The cruise was almost over but we still had formal night and a day at sea to go. After four straight days of touring, I was ready for a relaxing day at sea.
A nice part of living in South Florida is that there is no rush to get off the ship to get to the airport. Our car was waiting for us in the parking lot. We were able to have a nice leisurely breakfast in the Grand Épernay. There also wasn’t any rush to get our carry-on bags and walk down to the theater to wait for our number to be called. We had been told to wait in the theater on deck 4, but since we were disembarking on deck 5, it made more sense to wait up there in the upper level of the theater, since we could hear the announcements on either deck. This kept us from having to get in a crowd at the elevators/stairs when our numbers were called. The disembarkation process was very fast and it was easy to find our luggage.
Even though the cruise was over, we still had some more time with some of our Martini Mates who were staying in South Florida a little while longer. So unlike other disembarkations, this one wasn’t as much of a let down. But anytime a cruise ends, the post-cruise depression begins to set in.
When we booked this cruise, we couldn’t wait to see this lovely new class of Celebrity ship. By the time embarkation day arrived it was more about spending time with our friends from prior cruises and finally getting to meet and spend time with the folks we had been talking with for almost two years. The Solstice is a very beautiful ship and the service was very good. We had some very nice excursions and really enjoyed the ports, but more importantly we got to spend time with friends we don’t get to see too often; and meet new friends that we look forward to cruising with again in the future.
Below is a link to the Shutterfly albums with other photos from the vacations:
Many photos of the Solstice can be seen on our Sosltice Pre-Inaugural page at this LINK.