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The Modern Luxury Of Celebrity

Gary Buchanan discovers real culinary style in the big-ship concept of Celebrity Cruises

In the past few years, cruise ship design has veered away from being a triumph of style over substance. Architects have had it with overzealous décor and overly self-conscious interiors, reflecting passengers’ desire for something more approachable, though no less stylish. No ship encapsulates this new ethos better than Celebrity Solstice when she was launched in 2008.

Little short of ground-breaking in design, this 121,878-ton vessel is situated somewhere in a curious dream-world between the fin de siècle golden age of European grand hotels and a lavish haven with Zen-like notions of calm. By the end of this year, there will be five Solstice-class vessels offering a distinctive cruising élan that showcases a contemporary iteration of what Celebrity Cruises calls ‘modern luxury.’

It is often said the sin of luxury is not in the thing itself but in failing to appreciate it. Consequently, I joined a seven-night cruise in the Caribbean last February aboard Celebrity Eclipse to appraise ‘modern luxury’ for myself.

Founded in 1990, Celebrity has a long-held and well-earned reputation for punching above its weight when it comes to cuisine. The Solstice-class ships are no exception. Indeed, they have taken food and service to new heights.

In 2007, Jacques Van Staden took the helm as Vice-President, Culinary Operations and Master Chef, leading to the development of an utterly distinctive onboard dining experience that brings together the hottest culinary trends, top talent and extraordinary surroundings.

This amiable South African honed his skills working under legendary chef Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, before rising to the position of executive chef.

In the dining hot-spot of Las Vegas, he accepted a similar role at the chic London Club, and later collaborated with André Rochat as executive chef and partner of Alizé restaurant at the top of The Palms. Rated as one of the top five in the city, Alizé ultimately earned a prestigious Michelin star.

Most notable amongst Jacques’ accomplishments for Celebrity was the launch of an entirely new paradigm of dining and beverage experiences for the Solstice-class vessels.

He completely re-imagined the 1,400-seat Main Restaurants as well as the evolution of the Signature Restaurants such as the refined exemplar of elegance that is Murano, the recherché oasis of serenity conceptualized in Blu, the rustic attitude tempered with a contemporary edge that epitomises Tuscan Grille, and the ‘uniquely unordinary’ theatrical experience of Qsine.

By a quirk of fate, Jacques was travelling on part of my cruise, so I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with this visionary chef. Over coffee in Café al Bacio he made some bold claims.

He said: “We’ve pushed the envelope to work towards reshaping the culinary experience at sea in order to rival the best resorts in the world. I truly believe we are at the cusp of a breakthrough – shattering all preconceived notions of what the culinary offering on cruise ships can be.” Indeed, Jacques’ rationale throughout the ship is, “if it isn’t broken – fix it.”

The double-height Main Restaurant, which spans the aft section of decks 2 and 3, is described as ‘old Hollywood glamour meets stunning contemporary design.’ The crisp simplicity allows well-attired guests to dress the room – especially on formal nights. Dinner is served in two assigned seatings, while passengers who prefer to keep their own schedule can opt for the more flexible ‘Select Dining.’

Jacques cited this restaurant as the centrepiece of the company’s globally-influenced blend of classic and contemporary cuisine but, again, he wasn’t resting on his laurels. “My goal is to take the menu choices here to a new height – one that will rival the speciality restaurants.

“The menu is an innovative two-in-one solution for pleasing every palate. The left side features 15 classic favourites, including popular Celebrity menu items from the past, while the right side introduces 14 different contemporary, globally-influenced choices every evening. I am also introducing elements of surprise, such as paella served in a caldera pot and curries served in a balti dish.”

When it comes to the Signature Restaurants, Jacques said: “Each has its own story, but they are a result of guests’ requests for variety. Passengers can enjoy a very sophisticated dining experience in a relaxed atmosphere; the quality of ingredients and presentation is the key.”

When pressed to give his take on each alternative eatery aboard Celebrity Eclipse, Jacques began to wax lyrical.

“Tuscan Grille showcases a contemporary take on culinary classics from Italy. In Blu, clean cuisine means you can still have a grilled steak, but it is served with vinaigrette instead of a béarnaise sauce. Murano’s distinction is a sumptuous multi-course menu featuring a blend of classic and modern continental cuisine, many selections of which are prepared tableside, while Qsine is a rollercoaster of palate pleasers selected from an iPad menu, artfully presented in a unique vessel.”

Such pursuit for perfection isn’t limited to the cuisine. The Celebrity wine collection features close to 500 labels from around the world and the company’s goal is to deliver the most compelling wine programme in the industry as part of guests’ dining experience.

After a week sampling all the Signature Restaurants, I can concur with Jacques’ interpretation of ‘modern luxury.’ I had the freedom to dine in restaurants that often surpassed levels of cuisine and service I pay handsomely for on land.

If I were to identify one disappointment, it came in Murano of all places. The menu might read like an extract from Larousse Gastronomique but when my grilled Mediterranean Sea Bass arrived, it was placed on the flambé cart and not presented until my companion’s grilled Dover Sole Veronique was filleted, by which time it was far from hot. Needless to say, Jacques was not pleased when I told him!

My culinary senses might have been excited, but it takes more than impeccable cuisine and fine wine to convince this sceptic.

The company’s dictum boasts that the key principles of ‘modern luxury’ are built around matching and exceeding the aspirations of guests including: a young, innovative fleet; distinctive and exquisitely presented cuisine; personalised service; and a wide range of activities and experiences. So what other facets revealed a latter-day interpretation of the essence of la dolce vita?

With an éclat reminiscent of a stylish resort hotel, the clean and crisp public areas flow into one another with unparalleled continuity, offering a harmony of creativity and artistic modishness.

Textile columns soar skyward from the Grand Lobby, while throughout other public areas sheer fabric drapes create a South Beach vibe. In other places, Californian-style elements predominate, going beyond impressionism into the realms of romance. The à la mode design concept throughout is a fusion of flair and vitality, and there are lots of both.

I certainly enjoyed cocktails in the soigné Michael’s Club and nearby Ensemble Lounge where a jazz trio and string quartet proved a sophisticated accompaniment. The modish Martini Bar with its ice countertop is a focal hub for the trendiest of tipplers; while in Cellar Masters a sommelier served wines by the glass from the cutting-edge ‘Enomatic’ wine dispensing system, ensuring quality is identical to that of a bottle whose cork has been freshly drawn.

First showcased on Celebrity Solstice, the Lawn Club, high above the ocean on deck 15, boasts a massive 22,927sq ft of hardy Agrostis Stolonifera grass. This popular locale features lawn bowling; a 3-hole putting course; Patio on the Lawn where passengers can enjoy picnics; and Sunset Bar – an ideal hideaway for cocktails at any time of day but especially as the sun takes its leave over the western horizon.

The nearby Hot Glass Show offers an open-air demonstration by master glassblowing artisans – or ‘gaffers’ – from the Corning Museum of Glass.

The main entertainment focus is the Equinox Theatre and Celebrity Central on decks 3 and 4 forward. In a move away from slinky, syncopated manoeuvres and finger-snapping rhythms, the revamped entertainment included ‘Eclipse – The Show,’ a theatrical circus built around the clash of day and night, including vocalists, physical comedy and breathtaking group acrobatic and aerial performances.

A highly accomplished a cappella group performed In the Entertainment Court as well as the Grand Foyer, where nightly Big Band music also proved popular.

Another impressive feature is the AquaSpa by Elemis. Spanning two decks, this opulent oasis not only offers a spa with the usual line-up of revitalising and restorative treatments, but also an onboard medi-spa.

Celebrity Cruises were the first line to offer onboard acupuncture, and now the gamut of therapies has been extended to include Botox cosmetic treatments as well as Restylane and Perlane treatments. Indulgent passengers can opt for a 24-carat gold facial treatment, which uses alchemy of medicinal plants, Rose Quartz and a pure 24-carat gold leaf mask.

Opulent accommodation has also redefined Celebrity’s approach to creature comforts. Fully 85 per cent of staterooms have private verandas and come in a variety of grades.

There are two 1,291sq ft Penthouse Suites, eight 590sq ft Royal Suites, twelve 394sq ft Celebrity Suites, no fewer than 44 Sky Suites at 300sq ft and four Family Ocean View Suites which measure a generous 575 sq ft.

Aqua Class, Concierge Class, Sunset Veranda and Deluxe Ocean View categories all measure a respectable 192sq ft and have generous 53sq ft verandas. Ocean View staterooms come in at 176sq ft, while Interior staterooms measure between 183 and 200sq ft. There are 30 wheelchair accessible staterooms across a multitude of grades.

The 130 Aqua Class staterooms on deck 11 all have five-jet Hansgrohe ‘Pharo’ showers, Frette robes, additional toiletries, complimentary bottled water and a carafe of flavour-infused iced tea. Guests in these accommodations have unlimited access to the AquaSpa relaxation room and Persian Garden. They also dine in Blu, where an exclusive continental breakfast is served each morning, while there is also an upgraded room service menu.

Another facet of ‘modern luxury’ comes into its own for passengers occupying suites. Not only can they enjoy a continental breakfast served in the privacy of the Tuscan Grille, there’s open access to the private Concierge Club.

Spending a week in a Celebrity Suite, I was able to watch our arrival and departure from San Juan, St Thomas and St Maarten in consummate comfort as an amiable steward and omnipresent butler catered to my every whim, serving afternoon tea in my private sanctuary, bringing cocktails when I desired and ensuring the fridge was well-stocked with soft drinks.

Luxury means different things to different people. To some it’s all about personal service, to others the clincher is fine dining, while many believe freedom of choice is what constitutes luxury.

As I discovered during my sojourn aboard Celebrity Eclipse, the company has created a new genre of luxury, one which Solstice-class ships are torch-bearers upon the path of progress.

Editor’s note: Jacques Van Staden left Celebrity in April to work on a new venture.

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