The glazed side and rear panels of the lift afforded quite a spectacular view of the Celebrity Solstice’s 15-storey atrium — complete with a suspended tree and the elegant splendour of the ship’s library. However, my reverie and relaxed frame of mind was almost instantly broken when the lift stopped at Level 10 to allow the septuagenarian owner of a mobility scooter to lurch into the cupboard-like space.
As the scooter suddenly rushed forward and its owner seemed to slump over its controls, my mind immediately sped to the seeming fragility of my crystalline cocoon and my fear of heights. The scooter shot forward, I jumped in the air and both the vehicle and owner stopped mere millimetres from the lift’s glazing. I landed next to the scooter’s bumper, and the owner emitted a sound that might well have been mistaken for an apology. Then, with amazing sangfroid, she commented on how lovely the view was as we climbed ever higher. Ah yes, the relaxed, therapeutic world of cruising.
In fact, I can truly say that this was the most exciting moment of my eight day journey from Sydney to French Polynesia and back, and that — apart from the pre-departure dash of 2500 passengers for the bars and buffet — it was virtually the only exception to a supremely relaxing and pampered break from my typically far more manic, day-to-day routine.
Our departure from the lift, elevated some 16 storeys above the sea, afforded spectacular early evening views of Sydney’s shoreline, the Opera House, and the coruscated cliffs that line the harbour’s outer bays. However, once away from this jagged coast, the rhythm of each day became increasingly defined by the gentle tattoo of the sea on the Celebrity Solstice’s hull, the timing of meal sessions — enhanced by the certain knowledge that the ship’s stores were replete with som e 40,000 bottles of fine wine — and our arrival dates for Lifou, the Île des Pins and Noumea.
I was accompanied by three companions determined to explore the dazzling array of drinks on offer, from molecular concoctions to silky pinot noirs and crusty, old vine shiraz. However, I was equally intent on exploring the culinary delights of a truly staggering variety of restaurants specialising in everything from Asian cuisine ‘with a twist’, South Pacific seafood and European fusion, to crepes and hamburgers. Of course, the ubiquitous buffet on Level 14 was also an option for breakfast and family groups, but the majestic Grand Epernay — architecturally symbolic of a champagne bottle — together with the more intimate Murano, Silk Harvest and Tuscan Grille soon competed as favourites at a completely different culinary level.
Indeed, far from being just places to explore a diverse culinary palette and ingest a seemingly limitless range of beverages, each restaurant and bar set out to capture a particular flavour and aesthetic through the measured use of a complex tapestry of art works, furnishings, and culinary tools. Impeccable personalised service simply compounded the ‘specialness’ of each dining experience, while an altogether more relaxed — and relaxing — atmosphere pervaded my regular retreat, Level 15’s Sunset Bar, poised over the stern of the ship.
Otherwise, evening entertainment usually involved a post-prandial amble to the Celebrity Solstice’s magnificently attired theatre, catering for over a thousand guests, with yet another retelling of West Side Story still clearly a favourite for the largely 50s-plus audience, even late in the cruise. However, the ship’s own version of Cirque du Soleil and ‘ensemble’ acts on intervening nights — with Yulia’s fiery violin solos and a Neil Diamond impersonator being real stand-outs — were every bit as impressive. These provided real competition for the ship’s casino and the occasional art auction; not to mention its bars, from the amazing Martini Bar with its ‘hand-crafted’ concoctions to the super smooth Michael’s Club, replete with an evening jazz quartet and smoking jacket ambience. For those taking a slightly more leisurely approach to the post-dinner period, a gentle promenade around the top deck, and even a stroll across its elevated lawn, offered a somewhat more soporific precursor to bed.
As a result, sleep was never going to be an issue; simply a prelude to more indulgences the next day. Fortunately, the ship’s suites afforded the perfect vehicle for a restful night, tastefully attired in conservative-but-modern furnishings combined to create an elegant and slightly nautical-themed ‘home away from home’. The suite’s private balcony also had considerable appeal, although its views of the passing ocean was more welcom e than the spray that occasionally accompanied our blue water cruising.
The Celebrity Solstice’s arrival at Lifou, amid far more placid, turquoise waters, captured much that is so symbolic of the South Pacific: the gently wafting scent of wood smoke from a nearby village, the white church on a rising promontory, and the bays attractively enclosed by a series of small headlands and massed vegetation. Setting Lifou apart was the flat, pancake, profile of the island, a past reef that has been slowly elevated out of the surrounding ocean.
The Île des Pins was to prove even more evocative of the South Pacific idyll, with its towering, ancient pines, the fittingly titled Araucaria columnaris — a relative of the Norfolk Island Pine — stippling the skyline to create a dramatic backdrop to a maze of inshore channels and their multi-hued waters. Contrasting with Lifou, the Île des Pins is underpinned by a series of ancient volcanoes, and I spent much of the afternoon battling waves of heat off loose scoria to reach the crest of successive tuff ridges and an old cone. This only magnified the allure of the island’s coastline, replete with palms, a fringe of dazzling white sand and coral islets. The presence of fellow ‘cruisers’ and tourists could almost be forgiven as I bathed in the heavenly waters of Kanumera Bay, with a casual stroll through lanes encased by arching coral trees and other tropical vegetation providing wonderful respite from the sun and its afternoon heat.
While the local bays and inlets are frequently dotted with ‘kunies’ in their traditional pirogues, Celebrity Cruises laid on rather more modern craft to ply the Île des Pins’ southern bays in the search for green and leatherback turtles. After much racing hither and thither across the shallow waters of the Baie Degu, our high-powered search culminated in a sudden loud splash and the emergence of a flapping testudo gripped firmly in strong arms, while our guide flashed a triumphant smile. The tourists had won, while our poor green turtle seemed almost resigned to the cooking pot. Fortunately, his — or her — capture was restricted to the hard drives of numerous cameras and mobile phones. As we turned back for the Celebrity Solstice, my thoughts were increasingly of yet another tropical paradise and its creatures ‘tam ed’ by humankind.
Noumea epitomises this transition: the outlook from my cabin and balcony cast a rather sombre eye over the port’s copper refinery and piles of raw ore awaiting smelting, while the jungle-clad hills of central New Caledonia seem to have retreated — been beaten back — to form a distant, and in many respects, rather remote backdrop to the city centre. Closer at hand, Noumea’s citified bays retain the rustic charm of a slightly tired colonial outpost, although a penchant for 1960s to 1970s modernist architecture of the rather basic, brutal kind and the liberal use of concrete gives much of Noumea a somewhat utilitarian edge.
An extended lunch in the centre of the Baie des Citrons also reminded us that even though France’s hold over its most remote colonial territories has often been tenuous over recent decades, Noumea retains a certain pride in avoiding the fate of nearby Australia and New Zealand in becoming British colonial ‘possessions’. As a result, much of lunch involved our waitress doing her very best to wrest the French language from my grip by speaking English, or trying to correct my rather rustic rearrangement of French vowels and syntax via repeated reconstruction of my every utterance.
By comparison, the world of the Celebrity Solstice seemed altogether less stressful and reliant on diplomatic skills. Yet, as our small group settled down for a culinary ensemble of finely crafted Chinese dishes amid the rather more welcoming, modern Asian couture of the Silk Harvest restaurant, I could only marvel at the diversity of both the cultural and epicurean environments that travellers are now exposed to, even on relatively short voyages. Vive la difference. At the very least, I felt enticed to return to the Île des Pins for a somewhat longer sojourn.
Indeed, I decided that this is ultimately the real joy of cruising. While life aboard the Celebrity Solstice provides a brief flirtation with cosseted luxury and an almost tangible connection with the lives of the rich and famous, it also exposes the cruising public to snapshots of landscapes, people and places that offer their own invitation — destinations to return to and explore at even greater leisure in the near future. What more could one ask for?
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