Celebrity Soltice cruise:A slice of heaven afloatKERRY VAN DER JAGT
I'm not afraid of heights, but the grotto is dark and the drop is long - long enough that I've dared my husband to jump first. Sharp rocks dig into my feet, while overhead sunlight filters through a gap in the limestone, illuminating the emerald-green waters below. With Van Halen's lyrics - "Go ahead and jump. Jump!" - in my head, I leap like a lemming into the abyss.
Reaching this subterranean pool, deep inside Lue Jajinyi caves beneath the jungle of Lifou Island, has been like falling down Alice's rabbit hole.
After paying a local man $5 to enter private land, we followed a path through an Indiana Jones landscape of ferns and strangler figs; then, clutching a thick rope, we slithered, slipped and slid to the bottom of the cave, its gaping interior as grand as any cathedral. Floating in the semi-darkness, with only one other couple for company, it's difficult to believe we've just come ashore from a 2850-passenger cruise ship.
Five days earlier I boarded the 16-storey luxury super-liner Celebrity Solstice in Sydney with trepidation, friends' comments such as "Enjoy the shuffleboard" and "Don't forget your bingo pens" ringing in my ears.
By nature I tend to avoid crowds, dislike group activities and prefer hiking boots to high heels. But I was curious. Could I tailor a cruise to suit my personality? Could I find adventures as well as solitude, remain fit and eat well, and return feeling relaxed and rejuvenated? I had eight days, sailing to Noumea, Isle of Pines and Lifou Island, to find out.
My first requirement was fresh air and sunshine, something Celebrity Solstice does well, with private balconies on 85 per cent of its cabins. On top of this, the Solstice has a 2000-square-metre patch of freshly manicured lawn (yes, the real photosynthesising deal) on its uppermost deck. Sunset picnics, barefoot strolls and the smell of freshly mown lawn were simple pleasures I had not expected. Nor had I expected to find a forest-sized live ficus tree suspended in the middle of the ship's atrium.
Launched in 2008, Celebrity Solstice, which is part of the premium Celebrity fleet run by Royal Caribbean cruises, brings a modern style of luxury cruising to Australia.
Not only is the fitout sleek and sophisticated, it's also smart, with the installation of 216 solar panels - enough to power the guest elevators or 7000 energy-efficient LED lights. Additionally, the hull design and coating make the ship more fluid-dynamic, which means less fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
The Solstice has another ace - the 130 top-floor AquaClass rooms, a category of stateroom that focuses on health-related extras. AquaClass is like an exclusive club for those in need of some serious time out, without the price tag of suites or penthouses.
The advantages of AquaClass become clear at check-in, where a priority line sees us gliding through formalities and sipping on complimentary bubbles before anyone can say, "Hey, get to the back of the queue".
As befitting its premium billing, the Solstice's design is cool and contemporary, and, after a few excited laps, easy to navigate. The atmosphere is calm, almost Zen-like, based on the four elements of nature - earth, water, light and air. Artworks, dancing fountains and water features add to the mood.
Inside my stateroom the cabin is spacious, the decor classy and the queen-sized bed so comfortable I want to smuggle it home.
Cabins in this class are limited to two occupants, so the corridors are quiet and the lifts less crowded. Showers are set with five body-soothing jets, and there are Bulgari toiletries. Other AquaClass features include a spa concierge for arranging treatments, a pillow menu, bottled water and carafes of unsweetened ice tea, an upgraded room-service menu, and video programs on wellness themes.
A feature of AquaClass cabins is their proximity to the two-storey SpaClub, with its pampering treatments, salon services and fitness centre. As I discover, no one turns an eye if you pad from your room to the spa, dressed only in your white robe and slippers. Operated by Canyon Ranch, the spa offers everything from acupuncture and aromatherapy to sea-salt body scrubs and seaweed wraps (all at additional cost).
AquaClass guests also have unlimited access to the Persian Garden - an aromatherapy room with heated mosaic lounge chairs - and exclusive dining in Blu, the fresh and modern Mediterranean-style restaurant, for breakfast or dinner. This "clean cuisine" ranges from smoked rainbow trout with grapefruit, to tender steak served with truffle vinaigrette.
It's not all health food. There's a choice of indulgent desserts and a broad selection of wines. Even with 10 restaurants to choose from, including three specialty restaurants (additional cost), we dine at Blu on six out of the eight evenings. While a nightly newsletter outlines a range of activities, we are selective with our choices, allowing our "sea days" to settle into a comfortable routine: morning stretch class, a leisurely breakfast at Blu or AquaSpa Cafe, a swim in the adults-only Solarium Pool, and a walk around the jogging track. One day I follow Captain Taramas as he leads an army of pink T-shirt-clad passengers raising funds for Breast Cancer.
On others I attend talks on wellness or enjoy a massage, while my husband signs up for whisky or wine appreciation classes. Evenings are spent enjoying artisanal cocktails in Molecular Bar, or attending a show.
A well-travelled friend, and veteran of more than 20 cruises, had told me every ship has a secret place. A whispered word to the cruise director and I discover mine on the Solstice Deck, a little-known hideaway on deck 16, which can only be accessed from level 14.
A series of onboard Chinese whispers leads to more discoveries: sea turtles on Amedee Lighthouse Island, snorkelling around sacred rocks at Kanumera Bay on the Isle of Pines, and finally Lue Jajinyi caves on Lifou Island.
Perhaps my biggest discovery is that it I like cruising, particularly on a ship such as Celebrity Solstice in the AquaClass category.
The writer travelled as a a guest of Celebrity Cruises.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON SHORE
Discover puffin nesting sites on Amedee Island, Noumea during a guided one-hour nature walk. Visit as part of a full-day shore excursion.
See sea snakes and turtles on a glass-bottom boat ride in the marine reserve around Amedee Island, Noumea. Visit as part of a full-day shore excursion.
Snorkel, swim or kayak around the base of La Rocher, a sacred rock in Kanumera Bay on the Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. Easy walk from tender landing.
Kayak the calm waters of the Dumbea River, just a 20-minute drive from downtown Noumea. Finish off with a swim. Three-hour tour from Noumea.
Snorkel and swim on Easo Beach on Lifou Island, the largest of the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia. The southern side is quieter with more chance of seeing sea turtles and an easy walk from tender landing.
CRUISING THERE Fares start from A$1949 (NZ$2143) a person for an AquaClass stateroom and A$1399 for a standard balcony stateroom onboard Celebrity Solstice's eight-night South Pacific sailing departing Sydney on March 14, 2015. A "classic" drinks package, including coffee and teas, soft drink, beer, wine by the glass, cocktails and spirits starts from A$55.86 a person a night. See celebritycruises.com.
DINING THERE There are three speciality dining options on board. The Tuscan Grille is an upscale Italian steakhouse, Silk Harvest serves a mix of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese dishes and Murano serves contemporary French cuisine. These should be booked early. Cover charges apply.
MORE INFORMATION celebritycruises.com.au.