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Two Celebrity ships, one newer, bigger, the other soon to bid farewell, go head to head. Louise Goldsbury compares notes.
In an industry so focused on the biggest, fanciest or newest creation, it may seem surprising that the operator of Australia's youngest cruise ship, Celebrity Solstice, would send its oldest to Sydney. But the truth is the Celebrity Century, built in 1995, is still several years fresher than many others in our local fleets.
Like a glamorous, ageless star, this senior Celebrity has been nipped, tucked, polished and primed for a good time Down Under. After a 23-night trans-Pacific crossing from San Francisco, it sailed into Sydney Harbour on October 10, for its final season with Celebrity Cruises. And who doesn't love a farewell tour?
The ship will spend the next few months based in Australia operating 11 cruises including a new eight-night South Australian sojourn; a two-week trip to Singapore via Airlie Beach, Cairns, Darwin and Bali; and the line's first sailing to combine tropical Queensland with Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Then it's off to explore Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, before moving on to its new owners in China.
Despite the imminent handover to another company in April 2015, the ship's presentation has not been let go. When I was a passenger earlier this year, cruising along the Californian coast, I looked hard for signs of neglect, but all I could fault was the slightly faded carpet in my cabin.
Public areas, such as the snow-white Martini Ice Bar, are in mint condition. (I double-checked every night.) The Canyon Ranch SpaClub was only installed this year, so it really is spanking new. Nevertheless, I dutifully researched a lovely massage by Nina, followed by an afternoon of ocean-inspecting from a window-facing lounge in the adults-only Persian Garden.
The next day, as I lay by the pool, I was struck by how fun and indulgent it felt. Does life get any better than basking in the sunshine with a drinks waiter, a water view, a freshly grilled cheeseburger and a band performing Pharrell Williams' Happy with a Malaysian accent? I think not.
But then, life did get better when we had an exceptional dinner in the wine room at Murano ($US45 per person or buy a dining package for a discount). My lobster was cooked tableside, and the goat cheese souffle was the standout meal of the week. The full-service main restaurant, The Grand, is also excellent and all dishes (from entrees to desserts, steak, seafood and vegetarian) are served at no extra cost.
For lighter food, there's an AquaSpa cafe, sushi cafe, a buffet, and late-night pizza and pasta (also free of charge). Cova Cafe is great for a decent coffee or tea and complementary snacks. In the evenings, plenty of bars and a theatre cater to varying ages, moods and music tastes. A quiet option is the open-air Sunset Bar, located at the stern, with a perfect daydreaming view of the ship's wake.
Century's evaluation among passengers as well as experts is consistently favourable. The most recent reviews on Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com) - the cruising world's equivalent of Trip Advisor - rate the ship four or five stars, and according to "the cruise industry bible", Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, it's the second-highest rated superliner based in Australia, behind Celebrity Solstice.
However, unlike other brands whose ships are quite similar, these two Celebrity cousins are significantly different. Most obviously, the 1814-passenger Century is much smaller than the 2850-passenger Solstice. It's not a small ship, by any means, but it's easier to get around and meet people.
When it comes to the ambience onboard, in a nutshell, Century is classic, Solstice is classy. Century's vibe is calmer than Australia's P&O or Carnival, but that may have been due to the lack of Aussie guests on my American cruise. Another thing missing from the Century, which is a drawcard for the Solstice, is the Lawn Club on the grass-covered top deck.
Itineraries also differ but both explore the South Pacific. Only Solstice makes it as far as Tahiti, crosses to New Zealand and loops around the whole of Australia. It also operates repositioning voyages between Sydney and Hawaii, with more time at sea than in ports.
Among its claims to fame, Celebrity Century was the first (and now the last) "Celebrity Class" vessel. Introducing a new design 20 years ago, it was the first ship to have the award-winning Murano restaurant and the ice-topped Martini Bar, which have grown to become the line's most popular venues.
This isn't Century's first time here - it was based in Sydney for the 2011-12 season, so 2014-15 will be like a reunion as well as a farewell. Captain Theodoros Zakkas says he is glad to return to "some of the most beautiful ports in the world" before his ship's retirement. "It's been a few years since we were in Australia, and the crew and I are looking forward to another stellar season as we love having the fun, friendly Australian guests on board," he said.
The doubling of the Celebrity fleet, albeit for one summer, is part of parent company Royal Caribbean International's regional expansion, which will see the 3,800-passenger Explorer of the Seas joining Radiance of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas in Sydney from summer 2015-16. For the first time, the line will also "home-port" a ship in Brisbane for five months, when Legend of the Seas arrives in December 2015. Around the same time is the inaugural short season planned by sister company Azamara Club Cruises, tracing the east coast and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Celebrity Century is due to be transferred in April to a Chinese cruise agency, Ctrip. The last sail of the Century from Australia will be a 14-night "bon voyage" to Singapore on January 11, 2015, visiting Airlie Beach, Cairns, Darwin and Bali. Cabins are still available.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CELEBRITY CRUISE
So, which Celebrity would suit you? It depends on your preference for size and style of ship, most desired destinations, and whether you'd like to be part of cruise history.
Carrying two-thirds the number of passengers of Solstice, this well-maintained ship belies its 19-year vintage while keeping alive the best of traditional-style cruising.
- Cruise fans who want to say goodbye to the first and the last of the Century Class ships.
- First-timers and families, who may feel more comfortable with the intimacy of this smaller vessel.
- Southeast Asia, South Pacific and South Australia itineraries.
Don't miss: Fine dining in Murano, then settle into a fluffy chair at the Martini Bar and order the six-sample flight of cocktails (an absolute bargain at US$16).
You'll love: By day, the pool deck with live music, two pools, three hot tubs, an extra-long bar, and a burger and hot dog grill. By night, live bands and dancing in the Crystal Room.
Arguably the most beautiful big ship based in Australia, Solstice appeals to couples and singles who appreciate decadent touches, such as poolside cabanas and a grass-covered sun deck.
- Travellers seeking a modern upper-premium ship that is large enough to provide a wide range of activities and five exceptional specialty restaurants.
- New Zealand, South Pacific, Tahiti and Hawaii itineraries
- Parents will also appreciate the large number of family cabins and good children's clubs.
Don't miss: The unusual spectacle of a glass-blowing studio, and having a picnic or playing bocce at the Lawn Club.
You'll love: From summer 2015-16, the new Suite Class will introduce an exclusive restaurant, VIP lounge, and all-inclusive benefits such as premium drinks, unlimited internet access and dining at any specialty restaurant.
RATING: The highest rated cruise ship in Australia
SIZE: 122,000 tonnes
UNIQUE FEATURES: Lawn Club on a grass-covered sun deck, glass-blowing studio
SWIMMING POOLS: 3
HOT TUBS: 6
SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS: 5 (Murano, Tuscan Grille, Silk Harvest, Blu, Bistro on Five, Cafe al Bacio & Gelateria)
BALCONY CABINS: 85 per cent
FAMILY CABINS: 20 per cent
LOCAL ITINERARIES: Australia, New Zealand, South Pacific
RATING: The second-highest rated cruise ship in Australia
BUILT: 1995 (refurbished 2006)
SIZE: 71,545 tonnes
UNIQUE FEATURES: Mini-cinema, stand-alone AquaSpa Cafe for healthy meals
SWIMMING POOLS: 2
HOT TUBS: 4
SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS: 3 (Murano, Cova Cafe, Sushi Cafe)
BALCONY CABINS: 45 per cent
FAMILY CABINS: 30 per cent
LOCAL ITINERARIES: Australia, South Pacific, Asia repositioning
FEATURES IN COMMON
One staff member for every two to three guests.
"Pool butler" service.
Canyon Ranch SpaClub.
Persian Garden relaxation room.
Beauty salon, hairdresser and barber.
Gym and fitness classes.
Two-storey main restaurant plus other specialty restaurants.
Nightly shows in the theatres.
Daytime lectures, classes and tastings.
Dining packages available.
Beverage packages available.
Youth clubs: Toddler Time (under three ccompanied by parents); Shipmates (ages three to five); Cadets (ages six to eight); Ensigns: ages nine to 11; X Club for teens (age 12+).
EXPLORE CELEBRITY SOLSTICE AND CENTURY IN THE PHOTO GALLERY ABOVE.
Celebrity Century's 12-night South Pacific & Fiji itinerary (departing Sydney on December 22 and November 19) is priced from $1499 per person for an inside cabin.
Celebrity Solstice's 12-night voyage to Auckland (departing Sydney on November 27) is priced from $1,799 per person and includes calls at Melbourne, Akaroa, Wellington and Tauranga, as well as scenic cruising through New Zealand's magnificent Milford Sound, Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound.
Celebrity Millennium will also visit Australia at the end of its fourth consecutive Asia season in 2015-16.
The writer was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.