Dominic Rolfe navigates soothing spas, stylish eateries and a genuine lawn as the Celebrity Solstice shows off its sleek lines.
There are a few things I never expected on a cruise – the daily Greek-philosopher-meets-Dorothy Parker aphorisms from the bridge ("Always remember you are unique, just like everyone else," the captain pronounced over the loudspeaker one evening, to general bemusement); passengers under 50 years of age; bath towels artfully (and, after one martini too many, frighteningly) twisted into frogs, monkeys and scorpions by the room attendants; a half-hectare of grass with golf holes and bocce tournaments; and my encrusted inner bloke giving in as feebly as he did when face-to-face with an array of spa treatments.
The Celebrity Solstice is part of the premium "Celebrity" fleet run by Royal Caribbean cruises. According to the Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2012, the 2850-berth, 315-metre Solstice will be the highest-rated liner in the region this season, its first time in Australian waters. The ship arrives in Sydney next Sunday, four years after it was commissioned, and will make trips to Tahiti, New Zealand and around Australia. There's also a bite-size one-nighter out through Sydney Heads and back again at dawn.
True to its premium billing, the Solstice's fitout is sleek, sophisticated and, after an hour or so of wandering around, simple to navigate. It's also smart – 85 per cent of the rooms have balconies – and with no blaring megascreens, waterslides or beer-swilling bars, it's blessedly free of the usual garish party-cruise adornments. This is the country-club eye for the floating guy. And with a live glass-blowing show, 10 impressive restaurants, a chesterfield-filled whisky room and an ice-topped martini bar, it's the sort of thing you can easily choose ahead of the Hamptons.
If you're not willing to shell out for the penthouse suites (or perhaps you don't think you will have time to tickle the ivories on the baby grand that comes with those rooms), the 130 top-floor Aqua Class rooms are your wormhole to real relaxation afloat. Aqua Class also offers unlimited access to the adults-only, soul-soothing Persian Garden aromatherapy steam room and Blu, the healthy-option Mediterranean-style restaurant for breakfast and dinner. The "clean-cuisine" at Blu ranges from bocconcini with egg tomatoes to quail with couscous. And there's an excellent selection of new- and old-world wines from a novella-length wine list.
The cabins have a half-teardrop design that gives them comfortable roominess. The sedately coloured interior works without being dull, and the bed is dreamily tucked in with 100 per cent Egyptian cotton. There's a pillow menu, and a mattress so restful you'll want to note down the label to upgrade your own bedroom. Showers are set with five body-soothing jets, and there are Bulgari toiletries. For the aura of added restfulness, cabins in this class are limited to two occupants so the corridors are free of the madding hordes and I rarely see queues at the lifts from this floor – a true cruising chokepoint.
But on a boat such as this, it's about getting beyond the confines. If you're not out on a shore excursion, the three-storey entertainment theatre features everything from singers and comedians to scientists and hypnotists. Sun-loving lounge lizards can snaffle a deckchair on one of two outdoor levels that surround the main outer deck pools. Nearby, there's a calming indoor pool area tagged with whirlpools and huge comfy chairs that quickly convert into private pods. At mealtimes, pick up a healthy snack at the cafe, from Bircher muesli to self-serve salads.
Just beyond the pool area is the AquaSpa by Elemis treatment lounge, a haven of primping and preening. The spa offers the usual wraps and facials to more interventionist "medi-spa" treatments such as Botox (should that be "Boat"ox?) and teeth whitening. Check the daily deals, which often offer a package of treatments.
Having anticipated a long day pounding the streets of Pompeii and meandering around the vertiginous Amalfi coast on a shore visit, I book for a pep-up. Boarding the ship, I slip into my bathrobe and drag myself to the spa.
Ninety minutes later, after a full-body massage with hot stones, mini facial, scalp massage and a dash of reflexology, the day's fatigue is completely purged and I drift dreamily down to dinner at Blu. By the time I flop into the leather lounge at the Grand Foyer after dinner for some live jazz, body and soul are ready for the evening. As are a gaggle of fellow passengers – an ebullient gay couple from California and a funky mother and daughter from London – who more than provide the rest of the night's entertainment. Still, as lovely as the spa treatment is, it isn't the absolute highlight of the Solstice. That is the beautiful, natural simplicity of the lawn. An expanse of the real deal without a square metre of gimmicky artificial turf.
And in the late afternoon, barefoot on the soft grass, tossing a bocce ball while holding a slug of sangria as a stunning Adriatic coast drifts by, I have another of those unexpected realisations: I enjoyed cruising far more than I ever thought I would.
Treat yourself: five of the best
You might be floating around but there's no need to let your body feel all at sea, with a range of spa treatments available on the Celebrity Solstice. Here are five of our picks.
Could there be a more appropriate massage on a cruise liner than the seaweed massage? Relax with a heated seaweed body mask and then get wrapped in warm essential oils. Swedish, deep tissue, Thai herbal poultice and bamboo massages are also available.
If you're not happy with your choppers, this 30-minute teeth-whitening treatment, called GO SMiLE, should help.
Pain management acupuncture
As you cross the oceanic meridians, get your body's "qi" meridians sorted out with a therapeutic acupuncture session.
Elemis aroma stone therapy
Hot rocks on the high seas? Soothe those landlubber blues with heated basalt stones placed on "key energy points" that help with the soothing massage that follows.
Fire and Ice manicure
A combination of cooling gels and heated stones is used during the Fire and Ice manicure to leave your nails nourished.
Dominic Rolfe was a guest on Celebrity Solstice. A 13-night cruise from Sydney to Auckland from December 10 starts at $2245 for an inside cabin. An Aqua Class room starts at $3735.