Solstice Cruise Day 1

In late January 2012 my husband and I set off for a 7 night cruise on the Celebrity Solstice for our belated honeymoon. We were married in June, but, coming from Michigan, we did not really want to go anywhere tropical in June. (Our summers are very nice.) We take a winter trip every year and thought we would make this one a bigger trip since it was our honeymoon. The Solstice was the perfect way to spend the week.  We splurged and booked an aft cabin S2 Sky Suite. It was the perfect decision. For information about our room and to see pictures, click the link.  Our Eastern Caribbean 7 night cruise had 3 sea days and stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

We picked this itinerary, travel dates and ship based purely on price. I knew I wanted a Suite on a Celebrity Solstice class ship in late January early-ish February and let price dictate which ship, what date and which ports. I have been on many cruises and was familiar with the ports on both the Eastern and the Western Itinerary cruises.

Our honeymoon started the day before the cruise with our continued splurge and use of frequent flier miles to upgrade ourselves to first class. Travel Tip- when picking your seat, pick a seat in the middle of the first class cabin. With this cabin, closest to the front is NOT better. The first row is out because there is no personal storage space, you have to use the overhead bin, and then have to move every time you want to access your personal items. The second row (our row) was a bad choice because they place the travelers with small children in the first 2 rows. Either the first or second row on many planes have the extra air masks if there was a loss in cabin pressure for a lap child. (Children under 2 sitting on their parent’s lap and not in a seat.) We had a 2 year old in front of us. Parenting Tip: parents please bring something to entertain your child that is not electronic. This way you have something to do with them during the taxiing, etc. The child in front of us opened and slammed the window shade and banged his chair back as his entertainment until electronics could be used. [Edited to point out, that I now have a 2 year old, and my child, which still a kid, and can be a little loud at times, never slams the window shades, nor slams back in his seat. Finally, we have never had to use the phrase, “he’s two” to explain his unacceptable behavior in a plane, unlike the lazy parent in front of us.]  Also, the sound is much more muddled in the rows not immediately in front of or behind noisy rows. Unfortunately there were no other seats that we could move to, so that is where we stayed. The other disadvantage of being too far back or too far forward is you may not get a choice of which meal you are served. On Delta they offer 2 choices, and there are only as many meals as there are seats- so, if they have run out of one choice by the time they ask your row, you are left with what’s left. (On the way to Ft. Lauderdale the flight attendants asked the last row what they wanted to eat first, on the return flight, the front row was asked their choice first.) For those travelers in the middle of the cabin, they received a choice for their meal preference, and were far enough back not to have to hear bored 2 year olds.

Quite a few cocktails and an inflight movie later, we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, obtained our luggage, and were off to stand with the crowds of people waiting for their hotel-provided airport shuttle. There are no shortage of hotels that provide airport shuttles at FLL. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, Davie Rd. For information on that stay, click to see my review.

The next morning we took our privately hired transportation to the cruise pier. We arrived around 11:10 a.m. The pier is CLOSE to the airport, if you are flying in on the same day just take a taxi to the pier. Same is true if you fly into Miami and cruise out of Miami. The porters took our luggage and we entered the terminal. We quickly made it through security, and check-in. Our picture was taken, and then we waited for it to be time for boarding. Cruise Tip: Arrive nicely dressed for your cruise. They take your picture in front a back-drop and the photos turn out nice some of the time. There is no charge for ‘sitting’ for the picture.  You only pay if you like it. Most pictures throughout your cruise are printed 8 x 10. Another tip that I learned (too late on our trip to utilize it on our trip) – you can have the picture “re-printed” in a smaller size for the same 8 x 10 price, which is $19.99.  Back to the pre-cruise photo- these pictures are typically $10 -$15 with the date on them. It’s a great souvenir.

At about 11:35 a.m. we were allowed to board. Upon entry we received a glass of champagne or a mimosa. For the non-drinkers, they did not have orange juice for some reason. It was way to early for the rooms to be ready so we went up for some lunch. I wanted a burger and fries (and onion rings, but they did not have any) so our first stop was to the Mast Grill.  They offered hot dogs, burgers and fries. Other lines have chicken sandwiches, but not Celebrity.  After, we headed over to the buffet (Oceanview Cafe) so my non-burger eating husband could get something. They have a HUGE selection in little stations. The food was very good. It was so early in the boarding process that it was not at all crowded. For the first day, if you arrive when loading starts, I would avoid the Burgers- they had been pre-prepared, which helps the quickness, but not the freshness of the food.

While waiting for the rooms to be available we just relaxed in a chaise lounge chair on the pool deck. We had our carry-on bags still so we read, listened to music, and just relaxed. Around 1:30 we went down to our floor and the doors were opened- the cabins were ready!

I’ve covered the cabin in the previous post so I will skip re-hashing that topic. Our luggage was outside our door by 4 p.m. We quickly stowed our belongings before continuing to enjoy our cabin, balcony and the welcome bottle of champagne (included for concierge class cabins and above.)

My dining preference was early seating with a 6 top table- both requests were honored. Something to note, the main dining room has a lot of 2-top tables, but most are located within 2 feet of another table, so you get served with the other table anyway. There are a few tables off on their own, but they are not the norm for a 2-top. Part of the fun is getting a table with other cruisers. It gives you more to talk about during the meal. The beginning nights include where everyone is from, what they do, etc. Then from there you can share and hear about what everyone did during the day. We arrived a little late to the dining room on the first night so as to not wait as long to be shown our table (we are big fans of waiting in fewer lines). You are shown to your seat since you need to learn your table’s location.  Since this is true for everyone the first night, that line can get long.

Dinner was terrific. I happened to keep track of the entree choices for the evening – lamb shank, salmon and spaghetti carbonara – one of my favorite dishes in Italian restaurants. The main meat dish of the night was Prime Rib, which was excellent. My spaghetti was good, but probably not as good as the prime rib. As do most lines, Celebrity offers an ‘everyday’ menu of choices you will see all week, which was listed on the left side of the menu.  On the right side were that night’s selection of the evening. One of the best items on the ‘everday’ menu were the caprese salad, and my husband was a big fan of the caesar salad- which he ate EVERY night. You get to choose between an appetizer, soup or salad option, and the main dish.  If there is more than one thing on the menu that you prefer, the waiter will bring you more than one of the course. The dessert menu comes after dinner. The everyday dessert menu has apple pie a la mode which I chose. It was fine. For my tastes, I enjoyed the desserts better on Carnival Cruise Line. But the entrees and appetizers were better on this cruise than any I had had before.

After dinner there is a short break worked into the schedule to tour the ship, spend money in the shops, gamble, etc. The show the first evening was properly titled, “Opening Night”  – a variety show sampling each of the shows for the week. It is great way to get an idea of what you want to see for the week. It was enjoyable.

After the show, we called it a night and returned to our cabin. The room was ‘turned down’ during our time out at dinner. I was completely impressed with our room stewards- I had made a short list of things that I wanted to request- extra towels, extra sheet, little things like that. They were all in the room taken care of and the portion for the butler (provided for guests in a suite) was torn off the list and had been given to our butler. It was VERY impressive. They also leave you the next day’s copy of Celebrity Today – the little schedule of the events for that day. I always read it to see if there is anything that interests me in terms of activities for the next day. It is also where you learn the dining options and hours of availability during the day. After my review it was time for one of the best parts of cruising – the nice captain gently rocking you to sleep each night. We had a great night of sleep the first night on the ship!

Stay tuned for the next installment of my cruise vacation!

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A Good Pre-Cruise Hotel in Fort Lauderdale

The Holiday Inn Express, Davie Rd, near Ft. Lauderdale was perfect for a one night pre-cruise stay. Clean & comfortable, with a free airport shuttle and wifi. The bed and bedding were VERY comfy. It is in an industrial area, so this is probably not where you would stay for a “vacation.” But for work or a short stay- it is perfect. The airport shuttle was great, even on a busy Saturday night. (The Airport shuttle area was PACKED! You call and let them know you are there, and they will be there to pick you up within 10-15 minutes. Then make sure you look out for the correct shuttle.)  The hotel check-in was fine. There was only one person on duty for our 9:30 pm check-in. There were 4 other rooms of people that arrived with us on the shuttle. As a way to avoid a long line, my husband waited for our luggage, and I went ahead to get us checked in.

The complementary breakfast in the morning was good.  There selection was HUGE. Literally they had it all. Juice and Coffee of course. Hard-boiled and scrambled eggs. Sausage. Biscuits and gravy (only so so.) Various breads and pastries. And a little machine that made on-demand pancakes, that were GOOD! There was limited seating on busy cruise departure days. And some people just “hang out” taking up precious table space.

As for heading for the cruise pier in the morning, we opted not to use the cruise shuttle (available at the hotel for a nominal per person charge), instead optioning to pay and pre-arranging our own car, so that we did not have to arrive at the pier with a van full of other people- we are always looking to stay efficient while on vacation. If we had chosen to take the hotel shuttle, we would have arrived at the pier with 10-15 other people. We would be in line to check-in with those people. Have to wait for the luggage for all of those people to be loaded and unloaded. They probably made a couple of stops. Having our own transportation eliminated a lot of waiting.

My only complaint at the hotel had to do with other guests and the lack of soundproofed rooms.  At night the people above us were clearly not in the mood for sleep. At 11:30 p.m. you could hear the pitter-patter of feet running above us. There was also jumping, and other noises. As I wanted to sleep, we called the front desk. The noise appeared to stop for a while. However, one hour later, I still heard little feet, and noise.  We called again. Eventually I fell to sleep. But that was annoying. I should have attempted to move rooms earlier. If you are like me and cannot sleep with pounding feet noises, ask for a room on the top floor. The 2nd noise complaint had to do with hearing a little dog bark in a room across the hall.  It would bark randomly at the housekeeping in the halls…  So, the rooms were not very noise-proof.

Within walking distance there is a greasy spoon looking restaurant. A 5 minute walk across the street there is a Piggly Wiggly or some other southern grocery store.  You can ask the front desk for the specific location, but it is the opposite direction of the highway. So, if you are flying (and decide not to check luggage) and want to buy sun block or wine before your cruise, you can walk down the street and get it! They also have liquor if you wanted a little bottle of something for yourself. Be careful taking this on a cruise though as you do not want to be denied entry for trying to “smuggle’ something onboard.  Overall it was a fine hotel and I would stay there again.

Happy Travels!

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Celebrity Solstice Sky Suite

We had the recent opportunity to spend a week in aft cabin 1665, S2 Sky Suite on the Celebrity Solstice from January 29th- February 5th for our belated honeymoon. It was fabulous.

The room was fantastic. For pictures of the S2 Sky Suite on the Solstice, click the link. It feels about the size of a regular hotel room. The storage was great. We had many areas that we did not use. The storage in the bathroom was equally impressive. We had drawers and shelves that went unused.

The cabin is in an alcove on the corner of the 11th floor. PERFECT location. There was a door sectioning off that area and only 1 other cabin was in that section. Perfect. We NEVER heard our neighbors from outside the door.

We did hear loud talkers in the balcony next to ours while we were both on the balcony. Some people do not know how to use their quiet voice. But overall it was a quiet room.

We received the toiletries also given to the Celebrity Aqua Class cabins- separate bottles of Shampoo, Conditioner, Hand Lotion, Bath Wash, a face spray, and chapstick. The smell was lemongrass and very mild. They also included a great sewing kit and slippers for each of us. They think of everything- even q-tips and cottonballs. There were 2 hair dryers in the room- the individual plug in kind- not the crappy vacuum, attached to the wall kind. The room also included a pair of binoculars, and 2 different sized umbrellas.

Because we had a suite, we had a Butler. Ours was Allano. He did a great job. We received afternoon tea, cookies, pastries and sandwiches, as well as canapés, each day. He also brought us a pitcher of ice water daily, as well as a cappuccino for me. Cappuccino and Espresso are included in the suite complementary upon request. We requested the water on the first day, and he brought it on his own each day after the request. Allano also shined my husband’s shoes before formal night.

Each morning we had room service breakfast which was brought by the Butler. He would call about 5 minutes before bringing it. They had a card that you could fill out with what you wanted, for how many, and when you wanted it delivered (within half hour increments). This was the MOST extensive breakfast room service menu of any ship. They offered fresh squeezed orange juice. 2-3 types of smoothies- that were so good. A vegetarian plate of sautéed vegetables with a dollop of goat cheese- yum! Plus of course the normal omelets, french toast, waffles, and continental breakfast choices. We hand wrote requesting crispy bacon on our menu- and when we did that, the bacon was crispy. The first morning the breakfast was not that hot. But it did vary as the week went on.

In theory, because of the suite, we received priority embarkation. But not really. There was no really no line at any of the stations for check-in. In the area of suite check-in, was the check in for concierge and aqua class.  And it was only because of the Celebrity staff essentially saw us continuing to wait for a check-in, did she move us in front of an Aqua Class cabin, otherwise, their line was moving much quicker than our no-line line. Once we made it through check-in, we made it to the “waiting room” to board. [It was about 11:15 am at this point.] We showed our card, indicated that we were in a suite, and were told to wait in a certain area. We waited. Then they called for boarding. The first group that was able to board was Concierge class. The second group to board were Elite Captain Club Members.  We were seated in the group with them, so we just boarded with them.  But this was confusing, and did not feel very “priority” because technically our category was not called.

Being suite guests, we also received priority tendering.  We asked our butler for this, and were given tickets with directions to go to a certain room during the morning in port for tendering. ‘Priority Tendering’ only worked going to the port, not returning. You had to go out before they did open tendering for this to work. Which meant you got off early, but not whenever you wanted.

As to the aft balcony. The Suite balcony is twice the size of the standard balcony.  It had a full-sized table- perfect for eating, and two adjustable chairs with foot stools! There was a small overhang- like less than 2 feet.  We were on an Eastern Caribbean cruise, on the outbound, there was only direct sun in the afternoon- after lunch. On the return we had direct full sun first thing in the morning. There was soot on the balcony on occasion, but the room stewards always cleaned it well each day. It appeared to be worse when we were moving at quicker speeds. As to the location and privacy. If you were standing at the end of the balcony against the railing, you would be seen from above and below, and from above if you were sitting in the middle of the balcony. If you sat against the window, you would have privacy.  I thought I would be concerned about this location, but it was not a problem. I also did not have a problem with motion sickness on this cruise. I am generally very car/sea sick. But I had the least amount of problems on this cruise.

One quick note on the tv’s. They do have an HDMI hook-up, however it does not work.  We wanted to watch a movie from the ipad, but no such luck.

Overall we were VERY happy with the room. I definitely want to stay in a suite again. Check out the pictures for the Celebrity Solstice Sky Suite S2. Fun fun!

Happy Travels!

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Cruising with a Toddler!

Editor’s Note: This blog was provided by VbC guest blogger Sara H. Thank you Sara!

Having just returned home from a 7 day Western Caribbean cruise with our 21 month old son, I learned a few tips that may help future cruisers:

Meal Time:

Dining out with young children can be a challenge no matter where you go.  On a cruise, if you choose to eat in the main dining room, meals can be longer than a typical restaurant.  Ask to have your child’s meal brought out with your appetizers.  Hungry children don’t understand the concept of a multi-course meal!  Don’t limit yourself to the kid’s menu.  On my recent Carnival cruise the kid’s menu consisted of pizza, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets.  Your children can order from the adult’s menu!  Spaghetti, baked chicken breasts, fresh fruit, and many other healthy choices are readily available every day.  Also consider bringing some prepackaged foods for your toddler such as favorite snacks, dried fruits, and cereal bars.  Your toddler will appreciate having a little taste from home especially if they are reluctant with trying new foods.

Cabin, Ship & Cruise Line Selection:

Seek professional advice!  Seriously.  We weren’t new to cruising but we were new to cruising with a toddler.  We booked our vacation after doing our own research and didn’t use a travel agent.  That proved to be disastrous when I discovered that the kiddie pool on our ship wouldn’t allow my non-potty-trained son to go in it (yes, even with a swim diaper he still wasn’t allowed in.)  Apparently, “kiddie pool” doesn’t equal “kiddie pool for all kids”.  This was a tragic mistake that I could have avoided by seeking the advice of an experienced travel agent!  Plenty of ships have pools for all age children and some even have elaborate splash pads for the children to play in.  But not our ship.  The whole cruise I heard, “I want that wa-wa”, referring to the pool we constantly walked by.

Choosing the right cabin for your family vacation is never more important than when you have a young child, particularly one that still takes naps.  Get a balcony!  7 p.m. bedtimes and mid-afternoon naps could hold you captive to your stateroom for much longer than you expect.  Having a balcony turns those moments into peaceful opportunities for relaxation and privacy! If you are cruising with others and are okay with an adjoining cabin, that could be helpful as well. You can go into the other cabin with a baby monitor while yours is all locked up and secure while your child is napping/sleeping.

Carefully select your cruise line to ensure it’s accommodating and welcoming for your children.  Some cruise lines are more excited to be sailing with children than others.  If you intend to enroll your children in the kid’s club activities, be sure to get detailed information about the activities and availability they offer.

Random Mommy Tips:

I’d suggest bringing a noisemaker, as the cruise director often makes announcements during the day that inevitably occur during your little one’s nap time.

Although we never needed it, I was prepared with motion sickness remedies for my little one.  We purchased ginger drinks from the health food store and Babies R Us sells adjustable motion sickness bands (intended for nausea relief during pregnancy but they adjust to infant size), they are invaluable if your little one experiences any issues!

Most cabins cannot accommodate any type of bath for a child, so showers are a must!  Practice showering with your little one at home so he’s not shocked by the concept on the ship.  Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue for our son but several other mom’s on the ship were discussing the concern.

Beach toys aren’t just for the beach!  Of course, you’re going to be buying a bucket and some sand toys for your days at the beach.  While you’re enjoying your sea days, fill the bucket with water and bring it out on your balcony.  Our son played for quite a while with the water and toys while we hung out on the balcony together with him.  An easy way to keep them entertained while you can relax!

Don’t forget to enjoy your vacation!  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the demands of parenting on a cruise ship but you are on vacation after all!  My son was perfectly content running around the decks (no, they won’t fall off) or chasing a basketball around the court.  Adding a young child to your cruise vacation definitely adds another element of responsibility to your vacation but it also adds an element of joy and surprise!  My son learned a whole new nautical-themed vocabulary, thoroughly enjoyed watching all the boats from the balcony, and loved the experience of cruising!

Happy Travels!

Feel free to contact VbC to help you book a cruise with your little one. We can point out which ships have outdoor waterparks and other areas of entertainment for your child to play!