Is that Johnny Depp I spy snoozing in a hammock on the top deck Lawn Club of Celebrity Reflection? The guy sports Depp's trademark jet-black hair, designer moustache and ever-present shades. He creates quite a stir aboard the huge ship of 3048 passengers as we sail around the Mediterranean catching the last rays of summer. Although we are on Celebrity Cruises I don't really expect to encounter any movie stars. It isn't Johnny (there were no terriers in tow for one thing), but it is fun to people-watch. Mr Lookalike pops up throughout the 10 days at sea, mostly in the martini bar and even enters the "So you think you Dance with the Stars" competition to the thrill of passengers cheering from the sidelines.
While I do love my people-watching, I am a little overwhelmed to be boarding such a big ship, with so many people – alone. Once on board in Civitavecchia (the port of Rome) I head up to the very top via the groovy glass lift to touch the real grass and check out who's lounging in the private comfy cabanas. Back aft, the sunset bar is already pumping, bartenders working overtime to whizz afternoon cocktails as patrons gaze over the harbour busy with five ferries and three other cruise ships.
I've cruised on all three ships over the years. It's obvious that ours is the biggest, but I also know it's the most luxurious. Celebrity Reflection is a sister of Celebrity Solstice, now sailing from Australia on Pacific and New Zealand cruises, but four years younger and a touch bigger. It's the flagship of the fleet and although only three years old has already had a facelift. Celebrity calls its look "modern luxury" and you can't argue with that. Walking the length and breadth of it and popping into the umpteen bars, 11 restaurants and sneaky little nooks and crannies, I'm in love with it. Huge for sure, but beautiful, like some gigantic swanky New York penthouse apartment adrift in the sea – with 360-degree ever-changing views. And the centrepiece, a six-metre living tree suspended high above the grand foyer, is such a show stopper I click a photo of it every time I pass it in the glass lift.
This mid-October sailing is the last cruise of the season and we're heading to the Greek isles as well as Kusadasi and Naples.
Late autumn turns on perfect weather, warm and sunny and just a little cool at night. The temperate hovers around 25 degrees but rises to 30 in Crete; perfect conditions for treading those cobblestone streets of old Rhodes and navigating the alleyways of Mykonos and Santorini.
I eat my first dinner in the dazzling main dining room, Opus, deciding not to make a booking but wing it. I dine with just two others, Bob and David, charming men and avid cruisers from the US. After dinner they head off to join the LGBT meet-up in the Cellar Masters wine bar. Six years ago when I cruised on Celebrity Millennium, they called those get-togethers "Friends of Dorothy", but I suspect after a few innocents turned up thinking they'd be singing songs from the Wizard of Oz, the name was changed. Unfortunately, I never see the guys again – it's a big ship. They told me they were staying aboard at the end of the cruise and taking the ship across the Atlantic back to the States.
While I look forward to visiting the Greek islands, day one is a "sea day" which I love. This is when you mooch around getting to know the ship, sign up for art classes, have a spa treatment, book a speciality restaurant, form a trivia team or take a good book and escape to a room called the Hideaway. Or sprawl out all day by the pool as the ship slices through the Tyrrhenian Sea and squeezes through the Messina Strait.
Quite by chance, I sign up for the flash mob. Jamie the entertainment organiser urges passers-by to stick around for the first rehearsal, promising that after four practice runs we'll be ready for the "Thriller" flash mob, where dressed as zombies we'll converge on the central atrium stage from the dark shadows and execute some killer Michael Jackson moves to the amazement of the crowd. "Sure," I think, "I'm in."
There's plenty to do by day but as a solo passenger it's a bit trickier finding a seat in the main restaurant for dinner, where couples and groups are enjoying their own company. I decide to try a few of the speciality dining venues and also eat dinner at the Ocean Cafe (aka the buffet), which is exceptionally good. I enjoy the old-world style of Tuscan Grille where pasta and steaks are the drawcards along with the huge windows with views to the wake (tip: go for lunch). The ravioli with parmesan cream sauce and white truffle oil is my pick. I also try Murano, the French restaurant, where the show put on by the waiter who flambes my lobster tail side, slurping in the cognac and lashings of Dijon cream, is a spectacle. It's a calorific blowout but seriously delicious, as is the starter of warm goat cheese souffle. These alternative restaurants charge extra – $US45 ($61.50) for Tuscan Grille and $US50 for Murano for complete meals of three to four courses – but are worth it for a treat in a smaller dining space. I also eat in the cheapie, the Bistro on Five ($US10), where I relish a latish dinner of crepe and some quiet time watching all the comings and goings of deck 5 beyond the glass walls of the stylish cafe-style eatery.
My forays on shore are just as eclectic. In Santorini I take the tender to port and on arrival buy a €20 ($30) trip from a local tout who zooms us over to glorious Oia on his boat. This is the sensational north end of Santorini where the views are heavenly and stretch all the way back to our ship which is a white blob in a blue bay. Athens is an overnight stop and I take the blue hop-on hop-off bus for two days and spend a good deal of time idling around the Acropolis. In Mykonos I have lunch in a cafe under a trellis of glorious pink bougainvillea and later track down the hotel I stayed in exactly 35 years earlier. The new owner's wife and I have a coffee and she shows me around the place and my old room. I'm tired by Rhodes so I pay a cabbie €40 to whisk me around for an hour before settling into my own rambles. It is probably too much but Theodore, as he introduces himself, is a bit of an encyclopaedia so I reckon it's worth it.
As Kusadasi looms I consider taking one of the ship's shore excursions. I pick the biblical tour as it crams in a lot of hard-to-get-to places including Ephesus and concludes with Mass in the alleged home of the Virgin Mary high on a hill.
The cruise is a fabulous whirlwind and our flash mob performance, with ghoulish make-up and ripped T-shirts, is a five-minute hit. The only downside is the lack of options for solo travellers. I would have loved a hosted get-together over coffee or breakfast early in the cruise so I can make some contacts. The late-night "single mingle" on offer smacks of "RSVP at sea", and doesn't cut it with me.
I do, however, get to dance with "Johnny Depp".
FIVE CRUISE TIPS AND TREATS
Passengers booking suites, really do get some sweet treats. These folk have their own restaurant, Luminae, which is a sparkling little jewel of a place for breakfast, lunch and dinner away from the main restaurant. They also have a butler on hand in their suite to do the heavy lifting, and best of all have a private lounge, Michael's Club, where all drinks are complimentary and a concierge looks after their every need.
HIT THE DANCE FLOOR
If dancing in a flash mob sounds too radical, just turn up for the cha-cha, salsa and ballroom classes instead. There's absolutely no requirement to perform in public, unless you really want to enter the dance contest!
MEET THE CREW
Not everyone gets to sit at the captain's table, but everyone has the chance to meet the officers over coffee and a chat at the Cafe al Bacio. This informal mix and mingle takes place once during the cruise. Nautical types can ask all their favourite questions.
Anyone for lawn bowls? If a gym workout sounds too intense, head to the top deck Lawn Club for a game. Form a team or wait until there's an officer-passenger play-off. This is also the area for sedate pursuits such as picnics on the grass or lounge in a private cabana complete with waiter (extra). Bowls and art classes in the nearby Art Studio are free.
You don't have to go searching for entertainment on this big ship. Celebrity's new idea is to bring the entertainment to the people. By day or night, you'll just come across performers in the main foyer, while bands play right next to the most popular bars, so you can have a drink and a dance without going hunting for the night club.
Emirates flies daily to Rome via Dubai; see emirates.com/au.
Celebrity Reflection will operate 10 and 11-night eastern Mediterranean cruises from May to October 2016. Ports vary slightly but will include Athens, Santorini, Kusadasi, Crete, Mykonos and Naples. Fares for an 11-night cruise from Rome departing on August 8, 2016, start at $2219 a person twin share (interior cabin) and $3449 (ocean view cabin). A 10-night cruise departing May 27, 2016, starts at $1899 a person twin share (interior cabin) and $2929 (ocean view cabin). Celebrity's new promotion "Go big, go better, go best" offers one complimentary offer (which may include unlimited internet, $US150 spending money, a beverage package or prepaid gratuities), when an ocean view stateroom is booked.
Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.