Cruise to New Caledonia on Celebrity Solstice: Why this was voted Australia's best cruise ship

It doesn't take long to notice that Celebrity Solstice, awarded the Best Cruise Ship – Domestic by Australian travel agents in 2015, is a something-for-everybody kinda gal.

Everyone's excited as we board the 2850-passenger ship at Sydney's Circular Quay for our seven-night New Caledonia cruise and as we chat with those around us in the line, we discover we're checking in with young honeymooners, a couple in their 70s celebrating their anniversary, a solo travelling lady in her 50s and families including young children and grandparents. They discover there's us: two sisters looking for a little R&R and reconnection time and behind us in the queue, a good-humoured middle-aged gay couple.

(Traveller and Celebrity cruises are giving our NSW readers the chance to win a nine-night Pacific cruise on board the Celebrity Solstice - click here to enter)

It doesn't take long to discover we're also travelling with party people. Mid-afternoon we stroll the ship to get our bearings and, even then, before we've sailed away, they're by the pool, enjoying the sunny Sydney day and the cocktails.

This rings alarm bells for me. I am a fan of small-ship cruising and have come onboard Celebrity Solstice because she offers Aqua Class, a suite of staterooms on a high deck in proximity to the day spa, including the Persian Garden, a relaxation area featuring heated day beds positioned behind floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the ship, a cold room, hammam, "aromatic suite" steam room and therapy showers.

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Along with a daily carafe of a cold herbal tea drink, an Aqua Class booking comes with free, unlimited access to the Persian Garden and dining in Blu, the Solstice class ship's "clean cuisine" restaurant. 

I'm figuring it will be a more serene, smaller-ship-within-a-bigger-ship vibe where I can minimise my dealings with the more party-oriented cruisers. 

But a party-people party of four are sold an upgrade at check-in and move in next door. Throughout our cruise, they carouse until the wee hours on their balcony, giving us cause to call security to quiet them. 

Another group is escorted off the ship at Noumea to find their own way home from there after a stoush. ("Hello, Mum? Can you send me the airfare?"). This can happen on any ship, anywhere, and I can't help but be impressed by how seriously the crew had taken this episode. As part of an industry that's seen its share of safety concerns, the response is reassuring in its absolute intolerance. 

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Once I have adjusted my expectations, I come to see what a successful ship Celebrity Solstice is, and how much of a good time everyone (including me, now that I'm in the right groove) is having. Aside from her good looks, she really does deliver in the something-for-everyone stakes.

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That gay couple we met in the check-in line is part of a bigger party organised through a Sydney agency that organises group bookings for gay and lesbian travellers. We see them throughout our trip, dressed in costumes for themed cocktail functions and dinners, congregating for their morning briefings about the day's entertainments, enjoying each other's company in the various bars, restaurants and entertainment areas, laughing and smiling a lot.

The female solo traveller we met on day one we run into on many occasions, and she's always with new friends, or enjoying her own company with a book by the pool, or partaking in activities.

We catch the intergenerational travellers up at the Hot Glass Show at Sea, an outdoor glassblowing studio hosted by artists from The Corning Museum of Glass that cleverly manages to rivet this all-ages family to a person. The kids think it's magic, the adults are fascinated by the artistry. 

 Across the lawn, past the picnickers and croquet players – yes, Celebrity Solstice has a living lawn on her top deck – at the Sunset Bar, we chat to a Perth couple who are enjoying an alfresco cocktail as their kids are being entertained in the kids club.

Being less of a hermit than I am, my sister takes to heading out to all the shows and comes back to our state room (where I am happily ensconced with a book – ah, the simple pleasure of reading time) laughing about hypnotist shows, enthralled by acrobats and wondering if I will ever actually join her on these outings. 

Likewise, she gets into the sales and auctions and nabs some serious bargains while I am by the pool, in a shady quiet spot doing, well, nothing. Blissful, dozy nothing. 

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But hey, if life on Celebrity Solstice is an each-to-their-own kind of deal, then I have embraced it in my own way, including in port, where we opt to wander in the New Caledonian capital, Noumea, with a private local guide who shows us the authentic side of life. Some of the party people don't make it off the ship and many who decide to lunch onshore do so at the port or in the town square, choosing to not be too adventurous.

But after we leave our guide, we find a very simple back lane Vietnamese cafe where the menu is all in French, no one speaks English and the crusty baguette full of hot chicken and salad and a local Number One beer costs us less than $10 each. It's such fun. 

Isle of Pines is my favourite call.  It's simply a day of swimming and sunning at a beach for which the cliche "tropical paradise" was surely originally coined: shining white soft sand, whispering palm trees, clear aqua water that is in the temperature sweet spot of being refreshing, yet warm enough to wallow in and in the air, an intoxicating aroma of pine trees, salt water and sweetly-scented flowers. (They should bottle it.) 

We linger as long as we can, catching the last tender back, and, honestly, that tender is among the most memorable experiences of the whole cruise. We're sitting on the small jetty, waiting for some stragglers, the crew watching the clock closely, while a fellow passenger, a vet nurse, notices a dog with a large tick. We help her as she extracts it from the grateful animal and when she finally does, everyone cheers. The stragglers arrive in the nick of time, the crew are a little loose and relieved that a long day of managing the comings and goings with military precision is over. There's just a lovely camaraderie and we passengers clap the crew as we come aside, in appreciation of the fabulous job they've done all day. 

We have the same experience of camaraderie and excellent service with our funny, warm, patient and very attentive room steward, and the perky maitre d' at Blu, who learns our names from our very first meal. 

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Blu is a very serene space with an excellent menu – it's not, as first feared, spa cuisine, but a healthier take on the usual cruise a la carte fare – and being able to dine here, free of charge, with priority seating, is the meaningful bonus of Spa Class.

(Despite my VIP access privileges, I never do get into The Persian Garden. It's full every time I try. But my treatments at the Canyon Ranch Spa, while expensive, are fantastic.)

We favour the buffet for breakfast and lunch, enjoying the variety, surprise specials and access to outdoor dining on the aft deck and enjoy the theatre, one night of Murano and its co-ordinated cloche lifts, at-table cooking and gravity-defying souffles. (All specialty dining on board, though at an extra charge, is great value for money.)

We are lucky enough to be invited to the captain's table for the formal dinner in the sumptuous Main Restaurant and are seated next to a couple who are career Qantas flight attendants of several decades. They are avid cruise-holidayers and big fans of Celebrity Solstice.

And they're even more dedicated to cruising their own way than me. These two gentlemen are travelling Suite Class, and – ah-ha – this, they tell me, is where the real small ship within a ship is. As we enjoy a nightcap with them at the onboard wine bar, Cellar Masters, they explain to me their day-to-day cruising experience is all about butlers, a private restaurant, exclusive lounge and other perks. So, I finally ascertain, it really is possible to have your small-ship experience on Celebrity Solstice. You just need to know where to look.

WIN A SOUTH PACIFIC CRUISE ABOARD CELEBRITY SOLSTICE

Traveller and Celebrity Cruises are giving our NSW readers the chance to win a nine-night Pacific cruise on board the Celebrity Solstice - click here to enter

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.celebritycruises.com.au

CRUISING THERE

Celebrity Solstice returns to Australian waters for the 2016-2017 season on November 14. A 14-night New Zealand sailing from Auckland to Sydney, departing on December 9, starts from $2299 a person for an oceanview stateroom. Phone 1800 754 500. See www.celebritycruises.com.au

Julietta Jameson was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.

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