Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Eclipse Experience

OK, this is WAY overdue, but here is a more detailed review (as opposed to a few hurried blog photos!) of our recent cruise on the new (in summer 2010) Celebrity Eclipse, summing up the main high points before our big World of Cruising feature in the summer edition.

To start with, this is the third (of five) Celebrity Cruises ships in the Solstice class, with the 122,000-ton vessels all garnering a huge amount of critical acclaim since their launch. This was our first full look at one of the ships on a regular cruise, hence it serves as a more accurate benchmark of their overall quality.

It is also highly pertinent to the European market, as Celebrity will have all three (to be joined by the new Celebrity Silhouette in July) in either the Baltic or Mediterrean this summer, offering an unprecedented range of cruises - and cruise quality. Eclipse is also based exclusively out of Southampton for the season, meaning she is a superb ex-UK cruise choice.

To begin with, our cruise sailed from the less than inspiring confines of the Port of Miami. This may be fine for the big, mass-market cruise lines, but Celebrity must be less than delighted that their passengers are herded around this huge, impersonal and less-than-user-friendly embarkation port like so many cattle. It is not a great starting point for an upmarket holiday and the lack of sign-posting as you drive in to the port (if you are not on an organised transfer from the airport) is quite astonishing. You can see where your ship IS, but getting to it is a whole 'nother story!

Anyway, that minor quibble aside, we were soon leaving the chaotic Florida port behind for 7 days visiting San Juan (Puerto Rico), Philipsburg (St Maarten) and St Kitts, with 3 full at-sea days to enjoy all the considerable facilities of the ship. As it turned out, it was a great balance, and we were very happy to just wander the three ports of call under our own steam (trying one ship excursion, on St Kitts) and soak up some much-needed winter sun.

Looking purely at the ship, this is a BIG proposition in almost every way. Far bigger (by at least 30%) than the other members of the fleet, we were slightly wary that Celebrity's usual style for fine food and service would be rather stretched with almost 3,000 passengers to cater for (and this was a nearly-full cruise).

But we needn't have worried. The ship may be big on the outside (and l-o-n-g on the inside - pick a cabin at either end and you are always seemingly a mile away from the nearest restaurant/lounge/show!), but it is beautifully designed to be small-scale inside, with a host of places offering a quiet corner or more personal experience.

True, the main dining room, the Moonlight Sonata, is a sizeable proposition, and dining upstairs with the Select Dining scheme (Celebrity's version of the dine-when-you-want policy) can be quite busy with people coming and going for much of the time. But otherwise everything is fairly modest in size terms and easy to get to grips with.

The selection of bars and lounges is superb and there is genuinely something for everyone, from the high-tech Molecular Bar with its bubbling cocktails to the elegance and sophistication of the Ensemble Lounge and Michael's Club. Dining is a similar proposition, with no less than five alternative choices to the main dining room for dinner (six if you count the AquaSpa suite category of the health-conscious Blu restaurant).

The choices during the day also extended to an extremely pleasant range, including the real 'discovery' of the AquaSpa Cafe (again with a range of very healthy options), the Mast Grill and extensive buffet-style Oceanview Grill, as well as the Moonlight Sonata itself. There is a $5/person charge to dine at The Bistro (for lunch and dinner) and the Cafe al Bacio and Gelateria also charges for its fare. But it is perfectly possible to dine at a range of venues without any additional levy.

However, if you did, you would be missing out on the real treats of the Tuscan Grille, Murano Restaurant and the oddly eclectic Qsine. The former two are real standout, stylish and high-quality supper-club style dining rooms (which must be pre-booked at a $30/head surcharge) while the latter is Celebrity's real novel touch, a wildly varied and fun restaurant that has iPads for menus and a tapas-style ethic that doesn't even begin to describe its culinary style.

In some ways it is a work in progress as the ship is still finding out what works in its quirky format and what doesn't, but for groups of four or more it is a highly enjoyable way to spend two hours over dinner and try a huge variety of food, from Chinese and Indian to Mexican and European, all opf varying proportions (from modest appetiser-size to gargantuan enough-for-six plates!). Each dish is served in a completely different way and it is meant to be as much a fun exercise as anything else and, if you're in the right mood, it is an absolute riot.

However, for all the elegance and style throughout the ship, the one surprise element that totally captivated us was the Corning Museum Hot Glass show up on the Lawn Club deck (where there is real grass!). Here, G Brian, Dan and Jamie put on some fabulous entertainment every day, several times a day, exhibiting a real art with hot glass blowing that fair took the breath away. The trio, all from the Corning Museum, were at once hugely engrossing, educational, fun and personable, making every show different and absolutely riveting watching.

When I first heard the concept announced a few years ago (it is only on the first 3 Solstice-class ships; Silhouette and Reflection will have a different restaurant/relaxation area on the Lawn Club deck) I was convinced it would be, at best, a gimmicky five-minute wonder, but I could not have been more wrong.

The fact they held regular (free) raffles to give away art pieces made just the day before and also held an end-of-cruise auction for three outstanding works just added to the experience; we were complete glass-blowing addicts by the second day! The trio kept up a highly enjoyable banter throughout each 2-hour show and they seldom seemed to repeat themselves, making every experience something new and truly worthwhile.

So, when we're now asked to sum up our Eclipse experience, we just say it is a really Hot proposition...!