It would be unfair to say that all megacruise ships are created equal. Still, there is a certain sameness to the big behemoths when it comes to amenities.
They all have lots of places to get cocktails, overflowing buffets, specialty restaurants that offer a break from those buffets, big theaters with razzle-dazzle shows, clattering casinos, nearly useless boutiques and glistening pools surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs. Then there are the ubiquitous kid-friendly zones and sports decks, plus the spas and gyms sporting treadmills with a view.
So, the challenge for ship designers becomes one of differentiation. What can be done to make a new ship stand out?
It would be fun to be in on the brainstorming sessions where ideas are born. When a glass-blowing studio and real lawn for bocce and croquet pass muster, you've got to wonder what suggestions were jettisoned.
Yes, glass-blowing and grass are the buzz-worthy features on the new Celebrity Solstice, whose inaugural seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise departed on Nov. 23. Sailing from Port Everglades, the 122,000-ton ship carries a maximum 2,850 guests. The Solstice is Celebrity's first new ship in nearly seven years, and four more are planned in this class. The Equinox debuts in August and the Eclipse in June 2010. The names and dates for the remaining two have not been released.
The Lawn Club, as the grassy area on the 15th deck is called, is maintained by a full-time groundskeeper. The soft turf is going to need it. On a recent two-day preview cruise for press and travel agents, some of it was already showing wear. Traffic patterns are being studied.
Still, the first real lawn at sea is creating interest. As is the adjacent glass-blowing studio where cruisers can watch artists twirl molten glass into beautiful shapes. The studio is operated in conjunction with the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.
While we sailed, several artists worked together to create a conch shell, something the Northerners had to study before signing up for stints on the Caribbean cruise. Their work is for sale.
If the preview cruises are an indication, the exhibitions will be standing room only. That's partially what was causing wear on the grass. Celebrity CEO and president Dan Hanrahan said it's likely that more sturdy standing room will be added to give the grass a break.
Grass and glass, a winning combination.
For Celebrity, a premium cruise line with a reputation for superb food and service and excellent spa facilities, this is one big, beautiful ship. A $6-million art collection that includes works by Picasso, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg and Georges Braque is part of the reason. (Tip: Use the catalog in your stateroom to go on an art safari. See how many pieces you can find.)
On the preview cruise some members of the press corps noted that loyal Celebrity cruisers might lose their way on this ship. There are 15 decks, 13 of which include staterooms, 85 percent of which have balconies. As on most big ships, it's wise to poke around early and figure out which decks take you from bow to stern and which require a detour.
Celebrity is trying to change perceptions that big ships are impersonal and can't offer cozy experiences. To accomplish that, designers have made sure there are a lot of private places to relax. Cabana-type love seats near the pool provide sort-of secluded spots to share a drink or a kiss. Likewise the oversized, covered white hammocks, which might attract a more athletic sort. And there are other out-of-the-way places, including a quiet martini bar that has ice wells in the high-top table to keep the drinks super cold. (Poolside will not be one of them. When the Solstice is at capacity, you may have to fight for a chair.)
Solstice is gorgeous. We found ourselves stopping frequently to admire lighting fixtures, chairs and art displays. Navy blue and white, with lots of brownish-amber complements, is its classy palette. The lines are sleek and contemporary, especially in the Sky Observation Lounge. Celebrity, which is now owned by Royal Caribbean, was founded by Greek-based Chandris Group. Maybe that's why some spots, especially the Sky Lounge, channel Santorini.
A panoramic view
Our favorite feature on the ship was the glass elevators. Elevator banks on the port and starboard sides are separated by an open atrium. As you step onto the elevator and move to the back, it's like you are walking out onto a balcony. And from there, you can see what's happening on each floor as you go up and down. And you do that a lot.
Each time you move top to bottom, or vice versa, you pass a live tree which appears to be floating. It is planted in a cone-shaped vessel, painted with its own floral arrangement. We peered through the branches to the tableau of moving compartments on the other side.
We especially liked passing the library, with its deeply comfy overstuffed chairs and shelves of books. Someone had a good time ordering the inventory. Don't bother bringing a book onboard, unless you are the type who might drop it into the pool. You'll find plenty to choose from including current bestsellers and sumptuous art books. The power of suggestion is at work in the travel section. Books on Italy, Greece, France and Spain are plentiful. Those are the countries featured on the Solstice's European itinerary.
Plenty to taste
Eating and sleeping on the Solstice are divine. The Oceanview Cafe and Bar, the ship's main buffet, is an embarrassment of riches. It's hard to imagine you could want more than the sushi, tacos, pizza, pasta, stir-fry, carving stations, all manner of baked goods, soups, salads, cheeses, fresh fruit and the never-closing ice cream station laid out before you.
Plus, the dining area is spacious with plenty of tables with good views. No doubt seats will be at a premium at peak dining times, but there still seemed plenty of room to move around.
The two-deck Grand Epernay Dining Room is more upscale and you'll be dining with other passengers at large tables. Nothing new to veteran cruisers. At the specialty restaurants and the buffet you can keep to yourself.
On Deck 5 is an Italian-style gelateria and a French creperie, plus a coffee bar with pastries. The specialty restaurants, which require a separate fee, include French, Italian and Asian fare.
After all that, you can collapse for a snooze in your stateroom or watch a movie on the flat-panel TV. The closet seemed a bit cramped but there are some other nooks to store stuff on a longer cruise, including two large cabinets over the bed.
It's amazing, really, how much storage space can be crammed into a tiny bathroom. The bowl sink sitting on the counter is a lovely design element. Nice shampoo and lotions, too, and we liked not having that clunky dispenser on the wall of the shower.
Oh, one more thing. There's a low-mounted faucet on the 15th deck near the lawn. Use it to wash the sandy soil and grass from your bare feet after a game of bocce.
Wouldn't want to track all that onto the lush carpeting.
Times Food and Travel editor Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.