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Big cruise ships follow a formula, a list of "must haves" that allow people to recognize that they are in fact cruise ships -- and not, say, ferries, or glorified dinner-cruise vessels. They have to have pools and hot tubs. They have to have theaters. They have to have fancy restaurants to eat in, cabins to sleep in, and bars to clink in. Most these days also need gyms, spas, and shops, making them into miniatures of peoples' lifestyles (or hoped-for lifestyles) at home.

Beyond that, though, ship designers have some room to play around, and on Solstice, Celebrity Cruises' first new vessel in six years, they played big-time, rethinking the accepted paradigm of contemporary cruise ship design. The ship is such a departure in feel that, were it not for America's everlasting culture war (and related PC-speak), Celebrity might have been tempted to name it Celebrity Evolution -- which would have been right on the money.

The Stats

First the basics. At 122,000 gross tons and carrying 2,850 passengers, Solstice is 25 percent larger than the last generation of Celebrity ships, the 91,000-ton, 1,950-passenger Millennium, Infinity, Summit, and Constellation. She has private balconies on 85 percent of her cabins, more restaurants and shopping options than any Celebrity vessel before, and was built by Germany's Meyer Werft shipyard, the company responsible for Celebrity's first two generations of ships, the now-departed Horizon and Zenith and the gorgeous Century, Galaxy, and Mercury.

The Overall Impression: Gorgeousness

Since introducing its very first newbuild in 1990, Celebrity has consistently had the most stylish megaships in the cruise biz, so it's gratifying to be able to say that Solstice is an absolute knockout. On the outside, her form is both massive and sleek, while inside a unifying aesthetic ties the many moods and experiences of her public rooms into a satisfying whole.

The man responsible for Solstice's exterior look is celebrity yacht designer Martin Francis, who in recent years has also collaborated on architectural projects with Sir Norman Foster and I. M. Pei. In choosing Francis, Celebrity was seeking something different than they usual cruise ship. What they wanted instead was a vessel that reflected not yesterday's or even today's ideas of modern, but tomorrow's.

"When we began to think about a new class of ships for Celebrity, we asked, 'What should a cruise ship really be today?'" said Richard D. Fain, Chairman and CEO of Celebrity Cruises' parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. "What is the look that embodies everything Celebrity has come to stand for, but takes it to the next level? What new ideas can we develop that will truly make them ships for this year, next year, and the years to come?"

Tim Magill of 5+ Design, one of Solstice's interior designers, summed up the overall impression of Solstice's exterior lines: "I like to compare her with the recent Cadillacs. As distinguished from, say, Royal Caribbean's ships, which have a flowing feel, Solstice has a sense of massiveness and sharp angles -- like a tuxedo as opposed to a gown." That aesthetic is reflected in the vessel's interiors as well -- for instance, in the unusually high ceilings in many of her public areas, which give a sense of space and flow unusual on most ships.

Overall, Solstice's look is an extension of that employed on Celebrity's older Century- and Millennium-class ships, with their neo-deco lines, minimalist art, and rich, quality textures and surfaces. In the atrium, translucent backlit onyx panels and white drapes recall similar materials used in the Millennium atriums, while the dreamy white interiors of the main Grand Eperney Restaurant and Sky Observation Lounge evoke both the past and the future -- hinting at elements of the Century class while taking a stylistic swipe at both 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1930s Hollywood movies. As world-class restaurant designer Adam Tihany said onboard, the Grand Eperney was designed to provide a "wow" effect: "Everybody wants to be in a Busby Berkeley movie," he said. "Well here's your chance."

Balancing the "wow" is a wealth of subtle details, evident in everything from the ship's art collection -- a world-class assemblage that amplifies the ship's mood with textural, minimalist, and nature-evoking pieces from big names and emerging talents -- to its cabins, which could win awards for innovation all by themselves.

Reimagining the Cruise Ship Cabin

When was the last time you got to your cabin, looked around, and thought, "Huh, why haven't other ships done that before?" It's the same-old same-old syndrome, created by one essential fact: There's only so many different ways to arrange things in rectangular boxes, and that's exactly what most cruise ship cabins are -- pre-made modular units assembled in one place, trucked to the shipyard, and slotted into the new vessel like drawers in a dresser.

To break the mold, Celebrity broke the mold, changing the basic shape of its cabins so that one wall of each bulges slightly, interlocking with the cabin next door in a sort of squared-off yin-yang format. That simple change gives passengers more maneuvering room around the foot of the bed, but was accomplished without also having to also increase the width of the cabin's open area -- sizeable enough as is due to Celebrity decision to make Solstice's cabins about 15% larger than those on its older ships.

To test whether its thinking on cabin amenities was up to par, the line also hired a panel of five baby-boomer women -- a longtime cruiser, a neophyte, a travel agent, a travel writer, and a hotelier -- who consulted with the designers to offer their opinions and suggestions.

"Our goal was to understand cruisers' real needs and interests, so that our new generation stateroom design would be grounded in genuine consumer insights," said Celebrity President and CEO Dan Hanrahan.

The result is cabins with an open and airy feeling, an ergonomic design, and a modern, modular look. Beds have rounded corners, allowing for better flow, and are higher than normal to give more storage space underneath. At the wall, the beds are surrounded by a tall headboard topped with a narrow, completely unobtrusive storage unit perfect for handbags, shopping bags, and other small items. Some couches offer trundle beds for kids and other additional guests, while closet doors slide shut automatically -- which isn't so unusual on land, but is a hard thing to accomplish on a moving ship. Cabin bathrooms and showers are substantially larger and roomier than aboard most other megaships; showers are equipped with a foot rail that makes it easier for women to shave their legs; and there's an ingenious collection of small drawers, nooks, and cabinets for storing toiletries and other necessities. Outside, cabin balconies are large and deep, with plenty of room for two reclining deck chairs and a table.

In addition to the usual range of inside, outside, balcony cabins, and suites, Solstice offers 130 adults-only AquaClass staterooms, where the cabin experience is tied to an overall wellness aesthetic. Grouped together on Penthouse Deck, each AquaClass cabin offers niceties like large balconies, pillow menus, jetted bodywash showers, and special music/sound and aromatherapy options tied to specific vacation goals (relaxation, invigoration, etc.). AquaClass guests also get special perks around the ship, including unlimited access to the spa's Persian Garden aromatherapy steam room and relaxation room; special wellness classes and invitations to VIP events; and the option of dining at a 130-seat specialty restaurant called Blu, available to AquaSpa guests only (plus suite guests based on availability) and boasting menu that's light on calories and fat but heavy on taste.

Meanwhile, Out on Deck

By far the most visibly distinctive feature of Solstice is the Lawn Club, a half-acre of real grass growing fifteen decks above the sea. A first for cruise ships, the area provides a country-club ambience: quiet, refined, and calming.

In the central lawn, passengers can play croquet or putt some golf balls around, either in individual play or during scheduled tournaments, while two courts along the sides of the ship offer space for bocce and other lawn games. Passengers can also picnic on the main lawn, relax at the shaded patio at its aft end (dotted with potted greenery and comfortable lounge chairs and couches), or grab a drink at the bow-facing Sunset Bar, with its views of the ship's wake.

Sounds nice, right? And simple: Plant some grass, invite people in. But growing and maintaining grass aboard a working ship isn't that easy. Bringing the concept to life in fact required months of work by a team of landscape architects, irrigation specialists, green-roof engineers, and turf and soil scientists, all working within strict weight limitations and all the variations of sun, shade, wind, temperature, and passenger use to which the lawn would be put.

At the forward end of the club is another of Solstice's signature features, the Hot Glass Show. Developed by the Corning Museum of Glass (www.cmog.org), in which master artisans explain the art of glass-blowing during surprisingly high-energy performances. Presented in an open-air studio designed specifically for Solstice, the shows give the audience a sort of "glassmaking 101" experience, taking them through the process of creating a piece from start to finish -- from functional items like bowls and vases to sculptural and decorative forms such as conch shells.

Two decks below the Lawn Club, Solstice's pool deck is one of the most serene in the cruise biz, owing to the decision to place the ship's busy buffet restaurant and grill on a separate deck, one level up. That decision automatically changed the pool deck from a busy, multi-purpose space into one whose sole purpose is serene, resort-like relaxation. Surrounding two pools (one for "sports," one for families) and four hot tubs are twelve white, 25-foot, A-frame canopies supporting cantilevered awnings and providing shade for chaise lounges on both the pool deck and the Lido Deck above. A dancing fountains occupies a central position at the aft of the pool area, ringed with deck chairs. Forward of the pools, Solstice's glass-ceilinged Solarium is a peaceful enclave for adults only, with a lap pool, cushioned teak lounge chairs, views all around, and a cafe dedicated to spa cuisine.

Dining & Entertainment Options

Unlike the older Millennium-class ships, which offer only a main restaurant, a reservations-only alternative, and a buffet, Solstice is loaded with dining options, with four specialty restaurants and three light and casual options in addition to the Grand Eperney and the buffet.

  • Tuscan Grille: "What kind of restaurant cannot fail?" asked designer Adam Tihany at an onboard designers' round-table last month. "It's a Tuscan grill, because you have pasta and you have steak and everybody comes." Nuff said.
  • Silk Harvest: Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese selections, complemented by a variety of sakes, Asian-influenced martinis, and cocktails created with ginger root and acai berries.
  • Blu: The ship's AquaClass restaurant serves a healthy menu of savory appetizers (along the lines of roasted beet salad with goat cheese or Mediterranean chopped salad with pita chips and pomegranate vinaigrette) and entrees like blackened ahi tuna, pan-seared filet mignon, and herb-crusted rack of lamb.
  • Murano: A blend of classic and modern Continental cuisine in an elegant, romantic setting.
  • Bistro on Five: A casual, chic restaurant with a menu of specialty crepes, sandwiches, soups, salads, and entrees including quiche, fish and chips, baked ziti, and chicken pot pie.
  • Café al Bacio & Gelateria: An upscale coffeehouse serving specialty coffees, teas, fresh-baked pastries, traditional gelatos and Italian ices, and other desserts.
  • AquaSpa Café: A spa-cuisine option located in the Solarium.

After dinner, Solstice offers a wealth of entertainment and socializing options. Forward on the Entertainment and Promenade decks, the 1,115-guest Solstice Theatre was designed with a rounded stage and a complex system that brings performers closer to the audience -- and allows aerialist entertainers to fly right over their heads. Down the corridor, Celebrity Central is a 200-seat, multi-function venue that presents late-night comedy shows, films, and other shows and events. Across the hall, the Quasar nightclub has a streamlined, space-age look, with clear plastic "bubble chairs" suspended from the ceiling and huge LED screens curving from the walls into ceiling, their lights sybnched with the music's beat. Between these two venues, an Entertainment Court is the venue for vocal quartets and other small-scale entertainment designed to keep passengers' interest as they move between other nightlife options.

Other onboard diversions include the Ensemble Lounge, a combo pre-dinner cocktail lounge and after-dinner jazz club; Cellar Masters, a Napa-inspired space for formal wine tastings and informal sipping; the Martini Bar with its cool color palate and a perpetually frosted bar; and Crush, a tasting room where guests sit around an ice-filled table to sample pairings of vodka and caviar.

The Verdict

Easy one: Solstice gets five big stars. It's not just that she's a beautiful ship in her own right. It's that she manages to simultaneously encapsulate all that was great about Celebrity's existing ships -- both the Millennium-class vessels of 2000-2002 and the Century class of 1995-97 -- and move all those things logically and stylistically into the future.

This is the kind of ship that might finally make naysayers forget that they think all cruise ships are cheesy. And how great would that be?