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Cruise Review Solstice Australia Great Barrier Reef 10/15-10/27/19

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Intro:
This will be a multi-part review with some photos of our 12-night Australia Great Barrier Reef cruise from 10/15-10/27 on Celebrity Solstice. My wife and I are 50-something empty-nesters, and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef was a bucket-list item for her.   We usually do one or two cruises a year; we've done cruised most of the major lines but mostly on Royal Caribbean.  This was our second Celebrity cruise.
 
This trip was a long time coming and involved a lot of planning. I booked it way back in January 2018, 20 months ahead. Celebrity offers a variety of Australia and New Zealand itineraries, but this itinerary is only offered by Celebrity a couple of times a year.  
 
The 12-night itinerary was:
Day 1: Embark from Sydney
Day 2: Newcastle
Day 3-4: At Sea
Day 5: Airlie Beach
Day 6: Cairns (in port overnight)
Day 7: Cairns
Day 8: Port Douglas
Day 9: Cruising Willis Island
Day 10: At Sea
Day 11: Brisbane
Day 12: At Sea
Day 13: Disembark in Sydney
 
So basically the itinerary goes from Sydney up the east coast of Australia and back The port stops on days 5-8 allow you to travel out to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling, scuba diving, and other underwater activities.

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Pre-Cruise Planning:
When you book an Australia cruise and you live in the USA, brace yourself for sticker shock the first time you go to price flights.  A lot of people on the roll call thread were doing back-to-back cruises with the second half cruising New Zealand;  I wish I could have done the same to make the air fare more worthwhile.
 
I ended up booking my air through Celebrity Choice Air for the first time; normally I'm too Type-A to not book things directly myself,  but the Choice Air prices were much better than what I could get myself.
 
What made this trip so challenging for the excessive planner like me is that unlike my prior experience with Caribbean and Euro cruises:
  1. There were much fewer data points. It's a challenge to find reviews of this itinerary relative to the usual cruises I've taken. I think I found 4 or 5 in-depth reviews going back 3 years.  I got a lot of great information from this Jan 2018 review: https://boards.cruisecritic.com/topic/2507242-photo-review-solstice-12-night-great-barrier-reef-jan-2-2018/
  2. The GBR ports are all ports requiring tendering, and a few involve an additional 20-30 minute shuttle bus trip to get from port to town.  This makes it tougher to reliably predict when you can make it off the ship to be able to take an independent excursion.
  3. The independent tour providers in Australia are much less dependent on the cruise business for their livelihood, so they don't cater their schedule to cruises.  When you talk with tour providers they are friendly and they want your business, but they are up-front about the tendering risks, and if you're late they're not going to hold the boat for you.  That's not a negative on them.   The cruises just don't stop there often enough to make it worth their while to adjust their normal tour schedules, and the long travel times to and from the reef are a big factor in scheduling as well.
  4. The tour providers seem to be much larger outfits in Australia. In the past I've grouped together with people on roll cal threads pre-cruise to charter 4-12 person tours in the Med and Caribbean. When the catamarans are hauling hundreds of people in a single trip to the reef, chartering becomes effectively impossible.
 
The tendering situation definitely eliminated a lot of independent tour options, at least for my acceptable level of risk.  We found an independent snorkel tour In Port Douglas that we could comfortably make with priority tendering, and we decided to stay overnight in Cairns to enable my wife to scuba early the next morning.   For the other tender stops we bit the bullet and went with Celebrity tours.

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Flight/Sydney Day 1:
We couldn’t get a direct flight from Chicago to Sydney. We ended up flying Air New Zealand with a connection through Auckland.  With the 16-hour time difference and an overall travel time of over 22 hours, if you leave Chicago on Friday night you get into Sydney late on Sunday morning. 
 
The outbound flight got off to an expensive rocky start.  With a 12-day cruise including snorkel gear, we needed to bring three checked bags.   I had checked online and found out that Air NZ allowed us one free checked bag each, and what I read online was that a third bag would be $60. What I found out while checking in was that Air NZ gouges travelers like me that aren’t familiar with their rules; if we had prepaid online for the third bag it would have been $60, but in the airport it would cost us $180. Nothing much we could do at that point but hand over the credit card.  I licked my wounds with a few vastly overpriced $19 rum-and-cokes in the Ohare international terminal.   
 
Other than gouging me on the luggage (yeah, maybe I should have read the fine print), the rest of my Air NZ experience was good.  The service was good, the flights were on time, the the online entertainment system worked and the coach seats were a little roomier than expected.
 
Our cruise departed on Tuesday, so we had two days to sightsee around Sydney. I was reluctant to make any detailed plans ahead of time because traditionally one or both of us have trouble sleeping on planes.  We got in around 11am on Sunday and took a taxi to the hotel.  This was the last taxi we took; Uber worked really well in Sydney for getting around.
 
We were booked for two nights pre-cruise at the Sydney Shangri-La in the part of town known as the Rocks, which is near the harbor. We were very happy with our hotel choice, and there was a lot to see and do and eat withing a reasonable walk from the hotel.  This was the first time I had booked a hotel from the Visa Signature program, and it all worked as advertised, with us ending up with a nice room upgrade.  We arrived around noon, got checked in, and ventured out for to explore Sydney.
 
With yelp app in hand, we walked a few blocks to Harts Pub, which is a casual place known for their craft beers.  I had a burger, my wife had the bbq pork sandwich, and the fries were outstanding.  From there we grabbed an Uber to the Sydney Opera House and got signed up for the next guided tour. We wandered around a bit taking pictures until tour time.  The tour was about an hour and I thought it was a good value, we got to see a lot of the interior and learned about some of the architectural design.  After that we walked around the Royal Botanical Gardens and Circular Quay.
 
Here's a picture of the inside of the main hall of the Sydney Opera House:
 
image.thumb.png.7952d5deffb100e7f40ad59d2815d2bf.png
 
 
We had dinner at “Fish at the Rocks,” which bills itself as the top seafood restaurant in Sydney.  We had some initial confusion with the menu, because "Entree" in the USA is a main course, whereas here it meant appetizer.  I strategically had the "Ravioli of tiger prawn and Moreton Bay bug” because I wanted to try the Moreton Bay bugs without actually having to look at them :-). My wife has the scallops.   Both were very good.
 
After dinner we headed up to the Blu bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri-La, which had some great views.
 
image.thumb.png.e09603809c177d801f76cbe3ba53bf68.png
 

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Sydney Day 2:
The buffet breakfast in Cafe Mix at the Shangri-La was outstanding, one of my top buffet breakfasts ever. Most importantly, the "Crisp Bacon" was crisp (more on that later).
 
My wife's into fish and coral and her own salt water aquarium, so when we travel we visit a lot of aquariums.   We walked to the Sea Life Sydney aquarium and added on the glass bottom boat option.  The aquarium has a large reef exhibit, and the glass bottom boat basically takes you over the top of the exhibit that you otherwise walk underneath through tunnels.  The boat tour ended up being worthwhile not so much because the glass bottom views were good, but because it ended up as a private tour where my wife could ask lots of questions.
 
Here's a picture of a shark from one of the tunnels:
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We had lunch at Helm Bar & Bistro in Darling Harbour near the aquarium.   We both had fish and chips, and the fish was very good, nice and crunchy.   The fries were so-so. 
 
I looked into options for a boat tour around the harbour, and settled on just taking the water taxi route round trip.   There was no narration but it was a relatively cheap way to see the harbour.
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After the water taxi tour, the jet lag was catching up to us, so we went back to hotel to rest and hit the hot tub in the fitness center.   We had good Italian food for dinner at Rosetta Trattoria a few blocks from the hotel and crashed early.

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Sydney Day 3 (Embarkation Day):
We woke up to see the Solstice from our hotel window:
image.thumb.png.dadf5ccd822cc49608a727a3d263f75d.png
 
Our cruise mode of operation is to board as early as possible and get on with the cruise!   We had another scrumptious breakfast, ran a few errands, and Uber'd to the port around 11am.  Check-in was pretty smooth and we were on board by 11:45.   We headed to the dining room to verify our dining table for traditional early seating.   This cruise we snagged a nice window table for two, which was an extra treat.
 
I don't have many negative comments to make in this review, I'm generally happy and easy-going, but Celebrity:  STOP ASSAULTING YOUR CUSTOMERS ON DAY ONE WITH CONSTANT PITCHES FOR DRINK AND FOOD PACKAGES!!!  My gosh it got annoying, we literally couldn't walk 50 feet without a crew member stopping us to try to pitch us on a package, and we already had both. It got so bad that my wife pinned a sticky note on her shirt saying "Yes, I already have drink and dining packages".   
 
We were in 8344 which is one of the center aft Sunset Veranda cabins.  We like to cruise in aft cabins for the generally larger balconies and the 180-degree views.  The balcony wasn't as deep as some cruise aft cabins I've had, but it was good size and a little wider than normal because of a storage closet next door.
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With a 12-day cruise, to break things up we had booked the 3-night specialty dining package plus another meal in Qsine.  We ate in the main dining room the first night, and throughout the cruise I thought the waitstaff was very good and the food overall was good.  Some meals were better than others, but the waitstaff was eager to make sure you were happy.
 
The sailaway from Sydney Harbor was very pretty, we saw some of the sailaway from the dining room and went up to watch the rest from the balcony.

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Cruise Day 2 (Newcastle):
We took the "Newcastle Sights Tour" through Celebrity, which was your basic narrated bus sightseeing tour through town, with stops at Blackbutt Reserve and Fort Scratchley. At Blackbutt Reserve we saw some kangaroos, emu's, and other animals.
image.thumb.png.1f8dd9fd3243ae0e2ed3552622659f14.png
 
 
image.thumb.png.155fbe5226fb49c84a43c997146e721a.pngHere's the fort:
 
 
Here's the fort:
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In the evening we did Le Petit Chef at Qsine, which had only been added to Solstice recently.  It's a dining experience where they use overhead lighting to project high definition animation onto your tabletop and plates.  Four animated chefs each take turns preparing a course projected onto your plate, and then the waiters replace the animation with the real dish.  The food was very good and the animations were fun. We enjoyed it a lot.
image.thumb.png.e7da7f580b36fbc2c182ed656eeed7de.png

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Cruise Day 3-4 (At Sea):    
We kicked back and mostly hung out on the pool deck reading.
 
Cruise Day 5 (Airlie Beach): 
We had read that the snorkeling was better at the next two stops, so we had booked the "Whitehaven Bullet" tour through Celebrity. Whitehaven Beach is reportedly one of the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world, and you can only get there by boat or air.  We took a fast boat for a little over an hour to get to the island, climbed up to an observation deck to take photos, and then got to spend two hours in the water and on the beach.   It was a very beautiful spot, and the sand felt like little pillows.
image.thumb.png.3b29875a337ba400397d800982df2c1e.png
 
image.thumb.png.6d8981b37400920d6828f75ea01830a2.png
 
 
 
 

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Cruise Day 6-7  (Cairns): 
Solstice anchored a ways offshore from Yorkey's Knob; to get to Cairns you had to take a 20-30 minute tender boat ride plus a 20-minute shuttle bus ride to Cairns for $14/pp 1-way.
 
For the first day at Cairns we had booked a Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tour through Celebrity, their provider was Sunlover Reef Cruises. The trip took us out to Arlington Reef.  The Sunlover catamaran picked us up directly from the ship, which was nice and saved us the tender boat ride.   We later heard a lot of horror stories about how slow the tender service was that morning.
 
From the Australian coast in Queensland (Queensland is Northeast state in Australia) to the Great Barrier Reef is a 1-2 hour boat trip, with the furthest outermost parts of the reef the most desirable to visit.  The larger snorkel/dive providers have built permanent pontoons close to the reefs, and they ferry the tourists out to the pontoons in large catamarans carrying a few hundred people.  It makes for about an 8-hour day of touring because the round trip transit time is 3-4 hours by itself.   The pontoons might also offer a glass bottom boat tour or an underwater viewing area for non-snorkelers.
 
Here's a picture of the catamaran next to the pontoon:
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As usual, none of the underwater pictures we took turned out very well, this was the best one:
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Because our #1 must-do on the trip was letting my wife scuba dive at the GBR, and the dive boats leave early in the morning from Cairns, we decided to stay overnight in Cairns.  The Hilton Cairns was nice, affordable, and only a block from the dive shop check-in.  Here's the view of Cairns from the hotel:
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The dive provider was Silverswift, they had a boat which went to three different spots for scuba and snorkeling.  We were very impressed with the crew, they were extremely safety conscious and took great care of everyone.
 
The snorkeling and diving were spectacular.

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Cruise Day 8  (Port Douglas): 
 
This was the last of our Great Barrier Reef stops.   Similar to Cairns, Solstice anchored a ways offshore, and to get to town you had to take a 20-30 minute tender boat ride plus a 20-minute shuttle bus ride for $10/pp 1-way.
 
In Port Douglas, for some reason Celebrity did not offer a snorkel tour.   The ship arrived at 7am and I had booked us a highly-rated third-party snorkel tour that didn't leave until 10am, so we could feel comfortable making the tender trip in time.  The tour provider was Quicksilver, which has a large snorkel pontoon out on Agincourt Reef.   Here is one of their stock photos that they gave us:
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You can see from the shot below that snorkeling from the pontoons is actually easier than snorkeling from most boats, because the pontoon gives you easier access get your fins on/off and get into and out of the water:
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Here's our favorite shot of the trip, from Quicksilver's pro photographer:
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This was our favorite snorkeling stop, even though the water was a little rougher than the previous days. 

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Cruise Day 9-10  (Willis Island/At Sea): 
After four straight days of touring including lots of swimming by our out-of-shape bodies, we were ready to kick back and relax.   We had accomplished our goals for this trip, so everything after this was gravy.   The Solstice did a sail-by of Willis Island, which is a small island with a 4-person meteorological station:
image.thumb.png.cf612d90818a9e2f662556b81a5f3e8b.png
 
 
 
Cruise Day 11  (Brisbane): 
In Brisbane we went with the "Brisbane Sights and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary" tour, basically another bus tour with a few photo stops and a few hours at an animal sanctuary.  I found Brisbane to be very pretty, they justifiably refer to it as the River City.
image.thumb.png.97f7eff93735de49318f2f69b10f6522.png
 
At the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary we were able to get our pictures taken with a Koala and wander around to see a variety of animals.  You could even pet the kangaroos, who seemed overfed and mostly just wanted to chill in the shade.
 
Here's a kangaroo slumber party:
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Here's a vertical kangaroo:
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Here's a koala:
image.thumb.png.e0fad847692ad8d72d3b46420a6089c0.png
 
 
After the tour we got dropped back at Anzac Square and explored a bit.   We managed to find a fair-size Discount Souvenirs store that was a bit of a tacky tourist trap but filled the need for cheap trinkets.

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Cruise Day 12  (At Sea): 
The seas were a little rough the last day.   Around 5pm we listed to one side a little bit and they closed off all the outside decks and asked us to stay indoors the rest of the night.   The skies looked a little scary for a bit but we outran the worst of the storm in an hour or so.
 
 
General Cruise Comments and Closing Notes: 
This was a destination cruise for us, we picked it for the itinerary rather than the ship.  We had previously sailed on Equinox (same class as Solstice), so we didn't have many surprises. A few things worth highlighting:
  • Solstice is still a fine ship but it's starting to show its age a bit, I think it's due for Edge'ification in 2021.
  • I was very happy with the service onboard, whether stateroom attendant, waiters, bartenders, whatever. They wanted to make you happy.
  • I do like the food on Celebrity; the main dining room is a small step up from RCCL or Carnival or NCL, and the buffet is a major step up. My only complaint with the breakfast buffet was that the bacon labeled as "crisp bacon" in the buffet was always half-raw, but I managed to survive somehow.
  • We did Murano one night and Tuscan Grill twice, and I thought both were worth the specialty dining upcharge.
  • I love the World Class Bar on the Solstice class ships, it was our usual pre-dinner hangout.
  • I absolutely hate the way the Solstice class ships lack good lounge entertainment space with decent sight lines, and frequently misuse what space they have.  YMMV, but I would shake my head every time I would see that the house band was playing in the Foyer rather than the Sky Lounge.
  • Overall, we loved this cruise.  I just wish we'd have been able to stick around for the back-to-back.
 
 

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Thanks for the review. We’re currently in Margaret River and heading to Port Douglas on Thursday. Love it there. Haven’t done Quick Silver, we use Wave Length 

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Great review, it's on our, bucket list. Thanks for posting 

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11 hours ago, kevink said:
Sydney Day 2:
The buffet breakfast in Cafe Mix at the Shangri-La was outstanding, one of my top buffet breakfasts ever. Most importantly, the "Crisp Bacon" was crisp (more on that later).

 

Thanks for your review.  I am sailing on Solstice next year so I am eagerly gathering information on the ship, ports, etc. I have a couple of questions if you don't mind. The Shangri-La is one of the hotels I am looking at for a pre-cruise stay.  Was your room a "club" room?  Also, you mentioned the buffet; was that included in your room rate or a separate charge? TIA

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5 hours ago, mchell810 said:

 

The Shangri-La is one of the hotels I am looking at for a pre-cruise stay.  Was your room a "club" room?  Also, you mentioned the buffet; was that included in your room rate or a separate charge? TIA

 

Hi,

it wasn't a Horizon Club room.  Free breakfast isn't standard at the hotel, it was included in the package I booked though. I understand it's pretty pricey if it's not included, something like $42 AUD.

 

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We did this cruise March / April last year and it was our first ever cruise - we loved every minute of it.... so much so we've booked 2 further cruises (on Celebrity) 1 for 2020 and 1 for 2021

We stayed at the Holiday Inn old Sydney the night before the cruise - it is basically the closest hotel to the cruise terminal...just a 2-3 minute downhill walk to the terminal. It wasn't cheap from memory, but it was Easter holidays when we stayed there.... We just didn't fancy lugging our suitcases for miles to get to the cruise terminal

 

On our cruise we were unable to tender in to Airlie beach - the weather was a bit rough and about 8am the captain said he had spoken to the Harbour master in Airlie beach who informed him the harbour was closed - we didn't have any excursions booked for Airlie beach so it wasn't too much of a problem.

 

We were warned about the constant upselling of drink and speciality dining packages on Celebrity and although it was a pain a couple of times we soon got used to it and just said 'no thank you' every time we were asked and continued walking - the staff were fine about it.

 

I'd recommend this cruise to everyone - if you go during the 'summer' months Jan / Feb / Mar / April it can be very hot and humid in Nth Queensland - when we were in Cairns and Port Douglas the temperature was about 35-36 decrees Celsius (96 F) and about 95% humidity. Sydney also had one of it's hottest weeks in April (we stayed on for 4 days) and the temperature was 38 degrees Celsius one day!

Edited by Muffinz

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We were also on this cruise and commend Kevin for his excellent and thorough review. It was the third of 4 B2Bs on the Solstice. By then, the crew recognized us as "family" and didn't hit on us with endless appeals for drink/specialty dining packages. But we did receive way too many phone messages from the casino and future cruise staff. We have to deal with these calls daily at home, and would like to be free of them on vacation. But when there is an officer whose title is "Revenue Officer" on board, you should be prepared for anything that will separate you from your money!

 

A major safety concern was that while some of the contracted tenders were more efficient in moving large numbers of people, they weren't configured to American safety standards in boarding and disembarking. Safety rails were non-existent and many of us depend on them to steady ourselves as the boat lurches in the waves. We witnessed many near-falls.

 

Overall, the cruise was great and we can recommend early spring in Australia to avoid the searing heat and humidity of summer. We were fortunate, too, to have missed the terrible fires in New South Wales, and worry about all the wildlife in peril, especially the koalas.

 

 

Edited by missm

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2 hours ago, kevink said:

Hi,

it wasn't a Horizon Club room.  Free breakfast isn't standard at the hotel, it was included in the package I booked though. I understand it's pretty pricey if it's not included, something like $42 AUD.

 

Thanks.

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Thanks for the nice write up.

As we live over here we have often had holidays in these places and you brought back a lot of memories.

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Beautiful pics and lovely write-up.  I adored the "kangaroo slumber party" in particular!  Thanks for taking the time to do this.

 

Oddly enough, we were on the Solstice in September, and I'm on the Eclipse right now, and I've never been offered a drink or dining package by anyone onboard.  I wonder if I look mean or something.  😄 

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