Kate Preece sees New Zealand and Australia from a new point of view, aboard the Celebrity Solstice.
The clock says it’s morning, but it’s dark. I open the curtains, the sun streams in fiercely and the scene over the balcony is: Akaroa; Dunedin; Fiordland; Hobart; Melbourne… The stunning vistas switch in and out like slides in a slide viewer as one day ends and the new day dawns.
It’s one of the perks of being on a cruise ship. You unpack, settle into a comfortable pattern, and everything around your vessel changes as your latitude and your longitude shift.
It was with slight trepidation that I set sail with as many as 4130 other people. I’d never been on a cruise. (Would I get sea sick?) But when your 122,000-tonne ship comes in – mine the Celebrity Solstice – you jump aboard.
When I told people I would be cruising around New Zealand and Australia, the first comments were about food, and the projected weight-gain. On the Celebrity Solstice, 18,000 meals are plated up every day, so perhaps the rumours were true.
There are eight bakers (four on the morning shift; four on the evening), one of whom is charged with making the 5000 bread sticks required daily, another the 3500 croissants. Every day 540kg of flour is used, because all the bread (except for the gluten-free options) is made from scratch. There are dressing, fruit, cheese, salads and other ingredient- or product-focused roles that keep these kitchens pumping – especially at the peak dinner hour when diners saunter into the a la carte dining restaurant, the Grand Epernay, for a civilised meal. “It’s a jungle,” says executive chef Vic Mancilla of the hectic kitchen movements, “For one hour, no one talks.”
The food and beverage crew are on a mix of contracts, ranging from four to eight months long, depending on which part they play in this orchestra of ceaseless dinner gongs.
The daily checks by the public health specialist and the fact there are 75 cleaners alongside the 250 chefs, in the 16 kitchens, puts to bed the fear of food poisoning stemming from the stainless-steel sanctuaries. And, to counter any sloppy hygiene practices of fellow passengers, crew are stationed at buffet restaurant and ship entrances, to manually squirt hand sanitiser on every passenger’s outstretched palm.
If you want to take your dining experience up a notch, reserve a table at any one of the specialty dining restaurants – all four of which have their own kitchen crew.
My first experience at the Italian restaurant, Tuscan, started with calamari, went on to fish and finished with tiramisu – as guided, expertly, by our Croatian waiter. As we headed out of Wellington Harbour, our stemless glasses were topped up with the most amazing Tuscan red (Tommasi Poggio Al Tufo Cabernet Sauvignon 2015) and as the meal progressed, limoncello arrived to add extra zing to the dinner – not that it needed it. The menu was $67 per person, and, if you had a beverage package like us, the wine free-flowing.
Food is a great conversation starter, so it’s worth opting for the ‘shared’ table option at an à la carte restaurant. Admittedly, it can be a little like a game of Russian roulette… but, with so many food options, you can always dine and dash without going to bed hungry.
On a huge floating hotel, in the middle of the Tasman Sea, 70 different nationalities work alongside one another in harmony. If they don’t, they’ll get kicked off at the next port – just ask Captain Tasos Kafetzis. According to him, the United Nations could learn something from this crew. And so could you – talking to those around you will add another dimension to your holiday.
Our captain, who achieved that title at just 34, is from Greece, began his career as an officer apprentice at 19. Today, the 41-year-old spends three months sailing us through the calm seas, then returns home to the Greek Islands for three months. (Fun fact: his brother, Dimitrios, captains another of the Celebrity Cruise fleet.)
It sounds rather idyllic, sailing around the world and getting paid for the pleasure, and that’s what attracts people to the cruise ship life in the first place. Whether it’s an officer, dancer or beauty therapist, they will all say it started with one contract, which had them hooked. For some, such as food and beverage director Mihai Olaeriu, life on shore just seems too slow now: “Where else can you get this adrenaline?” he tells me, after 24 years in the game. Others, like, my beauty therapist, find it hard to sleep without the ocean’s rocking motion.
The passengers are just as intriguing. We met a man who should have been in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and a couple who had lost everything – including their family farm – in Zimbabwe, from which they fled the violence supported by Mugabe and started afresh in Perth. See? You never know who you might end up sitting next to.
What do you do on the sea days? There’s a team of people dedicated to injecting laughter into your trip, with daily schedules filled with almost everything you could imagine – and some things you wouldn’t. There are educational seminars through to Hollywood movie screenings; bocce (on the ship’s 2000-square-metre real lawn) and ping pong and volleyball tournaments; hot glass demonstrations and trivia competitions.
Evenings are easy. ‘Celebrity Showtime’ is a live stage performance, before and after dinner. Just remember, if they’re dancing, whenever they jump off that set piece or get lifted into the air on strings, the ground upon which they land is moving.
The English dancer I briefly spoke to is a member of the on-board cast. He had queued with 600 others to audition for the privilege. “I spent half a day simply waiting for a chance to be part of the cast,” he said. Fortunately, he was then chosen to join the 30 that went on to round two and, clearly, won that coveted six-month contract – which he’ll see out as long as he keeps his weight within 2kg (above or below) of what he is signed in at. The performers are able to use the gym facilities and, like the captain, might be found there twice a day.
Despite all this, at the end of the day, how much fun you have falls on you. My suggestion? Do the ABBA trivia night. Do the karaoke. And don’t you dare miss the silent disco.
A key part of cruising is relaxing. This could be as simple as time out on the balcony or sprawling on a lounger, poolside, in the heated solarium (keeping the Kiwi climate at bay).
The spa on Celebrity Solstice runs independently, with therapists picked by the Canyon Ranch brand to join the cruise life. South African Shalini Govender has run her own business and worked for a royal family in Dubai, over her 19 years in the beauty industry. She now joins those living on deck two and works 7.30am-8pm on sea days and 8am-9pm for port days – and loves it.
My time at the spa was incredible. My active vitamin infusion saw low frequency sound waves used to send vitamin A and C more deeply into the skin via a sonophoresis probe (which glides overtop of the skin). Then, I was hooked up to an Ionzyme machine via a range of wires so that the ions in my mask could be charged (I saw flashing lights) and, once again, the vitamins activated to penetrate the skin more easily. It was like something out of science fiction, but, I did emerge with glowing skin that was considerably brighter than it was prior. (I’m hooked!)
On our trip, I missed two whales, the seals and the dolphins, but I did not miss a moment of the Fiordland National Park’s staggeringly beautiful sounds.
Thanks to the educated patter of ‘Ranger John’ over the loud speaker, we were all encouraged to get out and experience this day journey through Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sounds with all senses. Dusky was first, and somehow, in autumn, we struck clear blue skies and bright shining sun. You cannot tire of the scenery here. Crisp air, gentle waves, blue sky and staggered land shapes that each reach into the sea with shades a painters brush would love. Such a juxtaposition to the staggeringly large ship we cruised in on.
Doubtful is a step up in size alone. It seems hard to imagine, but you still feel dwarfed by the mountains covered with dense vegetation. It’s unparalleled natural beauty, and we were right in the amongst it.
Silken threads of water cascade off sheer faces of what is the Mother Bear of these sounds. Again, we are a monster coming in to prowl, yet, find ourselves the minnow. Captain Tasos spins the 360 degrees boat, slowly (over eight minutes), giving us time to appreciate what New Zealand’s biggest national park has to offer.
Cruising is a completely different way to see a country – even on your own. It’s a peculiar parallel universe, where the crew provide anything you need, with a smile, as you watch significant landmarks pass by.
You can’t wait to get your feet back on terra firma, yet, soon long to be back in the cruise bubble.
As you watch a man whose being impersonating Buddy Holly for 28 years rock it out or await your martini as the bar tenders flair, you feel a million miles away from anywhere. The rock of the ocean becomes no more than an undercurrent – and something to laugh about as you list to the left mid-move on the dancefloor.
My favourite part remained opening the windows to a stunning new destination every day. For that I felt very spoilt. Or, being anchored at a port such as Akaroa, where your view perpetually changes as the boat gradually turns throughout the day.
I wasn’t sea sick. I eventually managed to navigate my way around the ship without getting lost and I met a wide range of interesting folk. If my ship came in again, I think I’d have to go another round.