Escaping the day-to-day routine of domestic drudgery however briefly is one of great attractions of a cruise, discovers Mike Dolan.
I’m lying on my back on a half-acre lawn clipped to perfection staring at the Milky Way blazing in the inky blackness above. And remarkably I’m at sea on a cruise a few kilometres from Sydney’s CBD. The grass quality would make any bowls club proud … and I can feel the soothing motion of the waves and smell the brine on the breeze. This unexpected discovery on the ship’s top deck instantly won me over a little like stumbling on an oasis in a desert.
The week before I was in two minds whether or not to sign up for the mini-cruise on Celebrity Solstice, a ship ranked among the world’s top 25 super-liners and, at 316 metres long, equivalent to three football fields.
“It’s only 18 hours,” said a friend, who was much keener than me. “You’ll be off before you know whether you like it or not.”
And a week later, we're queueing to embark at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal opposite the Opera House. For those who don’t like queuing, get there at least 30 minutes before official boarding time or an hour before it sails.
Within 90 minutes, we were in our sea-view, balcony stateroom (that’s cabin in cruise-speak), which was a little narrow, but nicely furnished with an en-suite bathroom and our outside perch above the waves.
The key to the stateroom looks like a credit card, which is just as well as it doubles-up as such on this cashless cruise. The cost of every extra buy goes onto your account so it’s best not to lose it as not all the other 3199 passengers may be as honest as you.
At the centre of the ship was what we called “the hub”, a central atrium stretching up 13 decks, where eight glass-fronted lifts are at your disposal to explore the ship.
On our arrival, deck two of the “hub” was alive with the sounds of the Impreza String Trio (from the Ukraine), playing Mozart’s Third Concerto for Violin and Orchestra ... and considering there were only three of them, they shone. During “the two-for-one cocktail hour”, a quintet was playing Blues/Jazz and that’s when we noted a general drift to deck 14 and the Ocean View Cafe.
Almost everyone was sitting starboard (inside and on the terrace), where there were sublime views of the Opera House. From portside, you could see a few disgruntled guests on the balconies of the Grand Hyatt, whose view of the Opera House had been unexpectedly comprosmised with the immense monotony of our hull.
“Oh dear,” chimed in the friend, “my local butcher and his wife only paid $480 on the internet for this cruise ... some of those suites over there cost more than $800 a night ... and let’s face it they don’t get any free feeds.”
That afternoon the Ocean View catered for international tastes that would have impressed many members of the United Nations.
There was Thai (green curry), Spanish (paella), British (roast beef with all the trimmings), Indian (chicken tikka masala), Mexican (beef or chicken fajitas), French (tuna Nicoise), Italian (pizza and pasta), German (chicken schnitzel), American (steak and Waldorf salad) ... and so it went on, but we ended up eating most of the “Sinful Pastries”.
Whereas we were fingering up the crumbs of our last two pastries, we did note piles of left-over food on the plates of others. Well, it must be the excitement of all that delicious free food ... but to be fair, a waiter told us that on longer cruises most passengers soon synchronise their portions with their stomach size.
Our tour of the ship continued to reggae thumping at the Pool Bar on deck 13, where two swimming pools (inside and out) were half-full. Personally, I reckon alcohol and water don’t mix, but many of the swimmers seemed to disagree ... Luckily, there were attentive lifeguards.
The facilities were impressive there was a hockey goal shooting area, basketball facilities, a shopping mall, casino, nightclub/disco, library, card/games area, children’s creche and play area, a theatre and five other restaurants.
But our favourite haunt was Michael’s Club a cosy North American-style apres-ski lounge with fireplaces, velvet chairs, rugs, Doric columns, mahogany panelling and pools of warm light over comfy leather sofas where you could while away the early evening in conversation over a cocktail.
For the evening meal, we chose Silk Harvest an Asian fusion restaurant with friendly and efficient staff, but our banquet mixed flavours from so many different countries it was difficult to know the origins of what we were eating. There was excellent feedback from the French restaurant, Murano, and the Tuscan Grill. Each feature restaurant charges a different surcharge. At Silk Harvest, we paid $5 extra a head, but the meals are free at the Grand Epernay, where table service in white tuxedos and silver service is the go. No thongs, please.
That night, we didn’t go to the casino or watch the stand-up comedy/singing act. Instead, we returned to the starry lawn with a half-bottle of champagne.
The next morning, after an early rise we had an extravagantly delicious breakfast at the Ocean View, where a table of 15 wives, who had left their husbands at home, revealed why they all had to cruise again … and the sooner the better.
“Just think of not having to shop, cook, clear up and wash up for a week,” said one to a chant of approval. “Eighteen hours hasn’t been long enough.”
We disembarked in a jiffy and, as we walked through Sydney’s CBD, we had to laugh as the paving stones seemed to rise and fall like waves. This common after-effect lasted until lunch when terra firma returned and the demands of day-to-day livng returned as the weekly food shop beckoned.
Celebrity Cruises’ early 2013 program: Tropical Queensland (11 nights, departs Sydney March 28); Hawaii & Tahiti (18 nights, departs Sydney April 8; Auckland to Sydney/Melbourne, 12 nights, departs March 16); Hawaii, 11 nights, departs April 25). For details and other cruises, visit Celebrity Cruises or call 1800 754 500.