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Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice-Class ships set a new benchmark for mid-range cruising. Brian Johnston boards Celebrity Silhouette to see whether it retains the premium edge.

I take an immediate fancy to Celebrity Silhouette when I spot the ship docked in Amsterdam. For a larger ship, it has a sleek presence and trim lines. A hubbub of excitement animates the boarding queue, and jaunty live music rises through the ship’s atrium to welcome passengers. A glass lift wafts me upwards towards my cabin, past a tree seemingly suspended in midair that seems to promise an experience out of the ordinary.

Celebrity Cruises certainly wants this 2,886-passenger ship to be special. Though similar to the company’s other Solstice-class ships (Eclipse, Equinox and Reflection) it has been further refined. Launched in 2011, it shows few signs of wear and feels up-to-the-minute, with a thoughtful layout and understated but sophisticated decor and artworks that never resort to the garish. This is a stylish, beautiful ship throughout its public areas. In particular, many of its bars and lounges have considerable flair. Black banquettes meet yellow armchairs in sexy Café al Bacio; the Martini Bar’s glittering ice-topped counter matches walls lined in rippling green glass.

The ship is graced with many impressive spaces. I like the wicker armchairs of the Sunset Bar – perched over ship’s wake and wide ocean – at sunset, and the relaxed comfort of The Library, buried mid-ship but splattered with sunlight from high glass ceilings. Canyon Ranch Spa Club is the match of any land-based wellness retreat, and the ship’s pool is cornered by four inviting hot tubs. The Solarium indoor pool, encased in glass, provides subtropical warmth even on my Baltic cruise, and is always serene. Even the enormous fitness centre impresses with fabulous ocean views.

To me, the ship’s stylish interiors and its impressive service levels place it firmly towards the top of the premium cruise sector, just a notch below the luxury of certain smaller ships. This sector is hotly contested these days as companies such as MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean International add refinements that nudge them towards the premium category. The traditional and family-oriented might go for Princess Cruises, but Celebrity takes a bolder, more contemporary approach with trendy couples in mind. There are few children on this particular Baltic cruise, and it would be fair to say that ship doesn’t match other large vessels in child entertainment. I find a wide range of ages and nationalities (particularly Americans, Europeans and Asians) on board.

Norwegian Cruise Line, too, has been renovating ships with what it calls ‘The Norwegian Edge’ – new levels of design, new upmarket dining venues and restyled cabins. However, this is ad hoc, not applied ship-wide, let alone fleet wide. For the moment, Celebrity’s Solstice-Class ships sit comfortably ahead, though they ought to keep a wary eye on the competition. It might especially consider its added-cost dining, as Norwegian bids for the mid-range dining crown with notable changes to on-board restaurants.

Celebrity Silhouette has 11 cabin categories, topping out at two gigantic Penthouse Suites that come with their own piano, bar and butler. It has a good number of wheelchair-accessible cabins and interconnecting cabins, as well as four family suites. Passengers in adults-only AquaClass suites have privileged access to the ship’s spa suite and relaxation room and their own restaurant, Blu, whose menus emphasise lighter, healthier fare.

Celebrity’s regular cabins are notable for their decent size. They have good sitting areas and most feature balconies large enough for a table and two chairs. My cabin (number 1219) is a Concierge-class stateroom different mainly in its higher-level location and added perks, such as priority boarding, champagne and fruit on arrival, evening canapés and concierge services. The cabin is roomy, pleasant and functional, though lacks the wow factor so evident in many public areas. Still, it has a sofa, ample desk space, good bed linens and an interactive TV useful for checking restaurant and shore-excursion bookings. Although the ensuite has no bath and is mostly moulded plastic, the shower is spacious and – hallelujah – there are ample towel racks and storage spaces.

While cabins are squarely mid-range but for size, service from my seemingly tireless attendant Nazareth – who has a smile like a lighthouse beam – is outstanding. A high staff-to-passenger ratio provides attentive and seldom less than enthusiastic service that some luxury ships could learn from. In the main restaurant, evening waiter Batiz never lets his busyness spill over into rush, and always has a friendly word. Sommelier Dejan is equally pleasant and, unlike many ship ‘sommeliers’, has a genuine knowledge of wines.

Main dining restaurant Grand Cuveé is hung with chic modern chandeliers and backed by a tower of wine bottles. The organisation required to feed so many so regularly is mindboggling. Impressive, then, that Grand Cuveé delivers consistently high-quality meals that move from appetiser through soups and salads to mains and desserts. (There’s no forgetting the scrumptious blueberry pavlova with macaron and coconut-lemongrass sorbet). There’s a good range of low-calorie, vegetarian and sugar-free choices and the ‘always available’ menu, while offering the usual steaks and chicken, also has more adventurous options such as lobster bisque and escargots.

The ship’s buffet venue is Oceanview Café, poised behind vast windows at the front of deck 14 for light-flooded, scenic sailing. Piped music is one of few annoyances in this expansive, informal restaurant. Ample choice ranges from an always-fresh salad bar to roasts and made-to-order pastas and pizza, plus great cakes. I’m also impressed with regional specialties offered daily, changing with location. In Stockholm, they include gravlax salmon, sjomansbiff (sailor’s beef), meatballs in cream sauce, and wild boar stew. In all, this is one of the best buffet venues afloat.

I have lunch at Oceanview Café and dinner at Grand Cuveé most days, which provides a very satisfying overall dining experience, occasionally leavened by forays to smaller dining venues such as Mast Bar for burgers, or Spa Café for chicken salads. Speciality restaurants are more hit-and-miss. Tuscan’s Grille’s disappointing gnocchi appears to be reheated rather than freshly cooked, although the filet mignon is excellent. Qsine features iPad menus and innovative food presentation and provides an entertaining evening, but the quirky shared Mediterranean and Middle Eastern plates don’t achieve the quality and taste you’d expect of specialty dining.

Murano, featured on several other Celebrity ships, hits the bullseye. It’s attractively presented with crisp tablecloths and shimmering glassware, candles and fresh flowers, and has great service and an intimate, exclusive feel. My opening mushroom risotto is outstanding, and lobster is flambéed at the table and served with bisque and Cognac cream. The Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert is a masterclass in what soufflés ought to be. It rises to the occasion as nearly everything does on Celebrity Silhouette, a ship that makes me want to return for more.

• The writer was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.

The verdict

High: Celebrity Silhouette is well laid out, and its upmarket, sophisticated decor matches – and sometimes surpasses – that of smaller luxury vessels.

Low: Some specialty dining venues, for the additional cost, just didn’t surpass the excellent and inclusive main restaurant’s fare in quality.

Best suited to: Younger, somewhat trendier couples with a desire for attentive service, a luxury look and a larger ship’s varied amenities.

FACT FILE

CRUISE LINE: Celebrity Cruises

VESSEL: Celebrity Silhouette

Star Rating: 4

PASSENGER CAPACITY: 2,886

TOTAL CREW: 1,210

PASSENGER DECKS: 14

ENTERED SERVICE: 2011

TONNAGE: 122,210

FACILITIES: A variety of restaurants, cafes, bars and lounges, Canyon Ranch SpaClub, three pools, six hot tubs, 900-seat Celebrity Theater, casino, library.

BOOKINGS: Celebrity Silhouette will sail the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale from November to April 2018. Seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise from $2,308 person twin share (inside cabin). celebritycruises.com.au