Celebrity Cruises is a happy medium between a floating Six Flags and a Waldorf-Astoria at sea.
Not too young, not too old. Not too wild, not too calm. And from a cost perspective, not too kitschy, not too extravagant. Put another way, if cruise lines were department stores, compared to Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean’s mainstream Macy’s, or Azamara, Oceania, and Windstar, Celebrity Nordstrom would be luxury class Saks Fifth Avenue, or Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas. Ultra luxury Le Bon Marché. (I’ve never been there either.)
Celebrity, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Group, is part of the premium cruise category, which includes Holland America, Princess and Cunard. Each of these lines has a distinctive personality, and a few things that set Celebrity apart from most of its classmates are onboard activities that actually involve sweating and cheering, a spicy late-night comedian, and a main dining room with service and food on par upscale specialty restaurants. Depending on the time of year and the itinerary, Celebrity cruises also seem to have the desirable adult-to-child ratio for adults, usually in their 50s, who want at least a few tikes at their vacation rental for a few days longer. For example, cruises on the Mexican Riviera tend to be younger than cruises on Alaska.
Speaking of which, with mostly seven-night voyages beginning in late September, Celebrity will be offering itineraries to the fun and sunny Mexican Riviera destination for the first time in 15 years. The upcoming season also marks the first time Celebrity Solstice will be homeported in Southern California, carrying up to 2,852 fully vaccinated passengers from World Cruise Center in San Pedro to Pacific ports such as Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Ensenada and Catalina Island brings .
Prior to the September 24th arrival of Solstice in the Port of Los Angeles, the first celebrity ship there since the pandemic, we paid a week’s visit to the oldest of its namesake five-ship class on an Alaskan sail from Seattle. I’m happy to report that the German built, high mileage luxury liner looks and performs great after 14 years. Even with the postponement of a dry dock renovation scheduled for last October, the ship, one of 15 in Celebrity’s fleet, is a beauty. The cruise line promises Solstice will look even fancier in the coming months; A “complete renovation of the textiles” is underway, with new carpets, curtains and furniture being clandestinely installed between and during the sails.
What is cooking?
Since many passengers want a trip full of flavor from a sea cruise, let’s start with the food. The most pleasant and delicious surprise was the consistent quality of dishes emerging from the main dining room galley – the best of my 11 cruises since COVID-19. No supply chain or labor issues under the supervision of Executive Chef Manish Naik. Plates were brought to the table as ordered, at the right temperature and, with a few exceptions, comparable to what usually costs extra in specialty restaurants. Sublime was the prime rib on the fourth night at the Grand Epernay Restaurant, the main dining room for those not booked in Retreat or Aqua class cabins; These larger donors have the option of being served in the more exclusive Luminae and Blu dining rooms, respectively.
As eclectic and inviting as the lunch and dinner buffets at the sprawling Oceanview Cafe appeared, most of what was sampled leaned toward the mediocre. Hamburgers, pizzas, and even ice cream weren’t worth the calories all week, which isn’t bad. Positive exceptions at the buffet were the daily Indian dishes, cold salads and the wonderful German sausage station towards the end of the cruise.
Also on the plus side were the ship’s four specialty restaurants. No disrespect to the a la carte Sushi on Five, which makes for a mean sunset bun and grilled pork ramen bowl, but it’s a no-brainer favorite among French-accented Murano, Southern Italian-influenced Tuscan Grille, and Le Petit Chef, where expanded, select reality meets luxury cuisine.
Murano is the most elegant onboard dining experience with impeccable service. But for all the fancy goodies, which include three main courses cooked right at the table – all the winners are lobster, chateaubriand and sole – the stately bistro doesn’t have any bravado. The hearty Wellington scallop appetizers and lobster chowder, along with some amazing desserts, are well worth the $60 per person and 18% tip. If you really want to treat yourself, opt for the five-course food and wine tour for $107.
After being disappointed by dozens of Italian specialty restaurants that don’t get any better than Olive Garden, how nice is it to recommend the Tuscan Grille ($55 per person plus 18% tip). Located on Deck 5, like the other upscale restaurants, the oregano-dusted steakhouse offers killer beef and veal meatballs, lobster rigatoni alfredo, tiramisu, and something else its sister restaurants don’t have: an unparalleled romantic view. Eating at the rear is often accompanied by distracting noise and vibration from the roar of the engines, but not on Solstice. That’s impressive for an older ship.
Next door, Le Petit Chef proves that gimmicky restaurants don’t always cut corners when it comes to food. The concept of having an animated little chef depicting each course right on your table followed by reality is adorable and TikTok worthy. Dual menus that change every two days have themes that elicit thrills, laughter, and even a tear or two. The two-hour 4-D experience can be enjoyed at top restaurants around the world, but at sea it’s a celebrity exclusive. The additional charge of $60 per person plus 18% tip is a steal considering the price per person was $145 when Le Petit Chef was at the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles from February through May of this year .
Put the knife and fork away
On a ship that cooks 13,000 meals a day and cooks 1,700 cocks on Lobster Night alone, it’s hard to understand that there’s more to do on Celebrity Solstice than food. In truth, each day offers more than 60 activities, and that’s not even including what’s planned for youth participating in the Camp at Sea program. Every morning begins with fitness classes and every evening is crowned by a DJ-hosted dance party. In between there are trivia games, shopping events, casino tournaments, dance and origami classes, wine and martini tastings, spa treatments — and that’s exactly what happens inside. Outdoors, the fleet’s first Lawn Club features half an acre of real grass for bocce ball competitions, movies under the stars, and the most tranquil sunbathing on the ship.
Also outside is the fleet’s first hot glass studio. What sounds like a snoring use of prime real estate on the upper deck is actually a hit with savvy passengers; Courses that are taught individually every 20 minutes are regularly sold out. Thrilled by three coveted spots was Mary Lawson, a former Irvine resident and current Texan who, like her husband and 16-year-old son, spent $120 and braved a 2,100-degree furnace to create a unique and stunning memento made from molten to make glass.
“It’s something healthy that we can do as a family,” said the mother, who no doubt proudly displays her jellyfish at home alongside her husband’s pumpkin and son’s equally beautiful heart.
Different artistic talents are presented by professionals in the bars, lounges and foyer, where the sounds of classical, pop, rock, disco, country, R&B and other genres can be heard day and night. The large, 1,113-seat Solstice Theater hosts production shows, often featuring a live orchestra. The current line-up of singers, dancers and aerialists is great, as are the shows that continue throughout the Mexican Riviera’s Solstice season. “Amade” is an elaborate and provocative musical journey from classical to modern; “Rock City” explodes with power ballads; and “Broadway Cabaret” on the final night gives the singers a stage to belt out their favorite show tunes.
At press time, celebrity (www.celebritycruises.com) offered deep discounts with shipboard credit for sailing on the Solstice. Prices for seven-day Mexican Riviera cruises start at under $500 per person, including taxes and fees.