Celebrity Cruises’ sleek premium ships are a hit with American travellers; now its smallest, Celebrity Century, is set to spend summer in the Antipodes. Words: Caroline Gladstone.

It has a stellar name that projects a glamorous image and a rapidly expanding fleet of large, stylish ships. This year, Celebrity Cruises launched the third of its new generation of mega-liners: the Solstice-class ship. It will launch two more near-identical ships in 2011 and 2012.

But for all the noise surrounding these classy, 122,000-ton vessels with their croquet Lawn Clubs and array of gourmet restaurants, Celebrity Cruises is still relatively unknown to Australian travellers.

That is all set to change following an announcement in July that the line, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, will return to Australian waters in 2011.

Celebrity’s smallest ship – the 71,545-ton, 1,814-passenger Celebrity Century – will arrive in Australia in late November to start a new season that should put the cruise line on the local map.

Along with her South Pacific and New Zealand itineraries, she will embark on a 36-night circumnavigation of Australia, taking the Celebrity experience to capital cities and regional centres including Broome, Geraldton, Albany, Bunbury and Cairns. A raft of early-booking specials has already hit the Australian market, and a wave of promotion is guaranteed to build momentum before the ship arrives on our shores.

But who is Celebrity Cruises? And how does it differ from other lines in the crowded field of worldwide cruising?

Celebrity was founded by Greek shipping line Chandris in 1989 to provide an upmarket cruise experience for American passengers. It launched its first ship, 27-year-old SS Meridian (formerly Galileo Galilei), on a series of Caribbean and Bermuda itineraries in 1990, and followed up smartly with the launch of two new ships, Horizon and Zenith.

Cruise historians will remember Chandris as a major player of the 1960s and ’70s, operating a fleet of ocean liners between Greece and Australia. The X in Celebrity’s logo and on its ships’ funnels denotes the Greek letter chi, which also featured on Chandris vessels.

The new line quickly embarked upon a new building program and launched three mid-size Century-class vessels, Century, Galaxy and Mercury, over three successive years from 1995.

In 1997, Chandris sold the line to cashed-up Royal Caribbean International (RCI), where it has operated as a separate entity ever since.

Royal Caribbean initiated another building boom, adding four Millennium-class vessels in three years from 2000 to 2002, and transferred a couple of the older ships to sister lines in the RCI family.

In 2008, Celebrity upped the ante again, launching the even-larger Solstice-class vessels. First off the blocks was Celebrity Solstice herself, which is followed by four ships scheduled to debut between 2008 and 2012 in what has become a massive US$S3.7 billion investment.

The line has announced itself as a major player, and a player with a major difference. While today’s big American-style cruise ships court the mass market, Celebrity has held steadfastly to its ‘premium’ cruise-line tag, and has been rated consistently at four-stars-plus by industry ‘bible’ the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships.

Indeed, Berlitz author Douglas Ward, a man revered in the cruise world, applauds Celebrity for having the “best food and the most elegant ships and spas” of any of Berlitz’s ‘Big 7 Cruise Lines’ (Carnival Cruises, Celebrity, Costa Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean).

Some industry experts say Celebrity’s latest Solstice-class ships and its new program of onboard enhancements, dubbed ‘Designed for You’, are clear indications that Celebrity sees itself as a competitor to luxury operator Crystal Cruises – albeit without the big price tag.

Ward also commends Celebrity’s excellent fare structure, noting in his guidebook that “food and service are extremely good, at a price that represents outstanding value for money”.

My own experience of the line during a 14-night New Zealand sailing aboard Celebrity Millennium in early 2009 was very positive. The food was fantastic, particularly the healthy dishes served in the AquaSpa restaurant. The entertainment was slick and up to the minute, the best I’ve experienced in 20 years of cruise reviewing.

Australians will also warm to the upbeat onboard atmosphere and the line’s ‘no announcements policy’, a wonderful initiative and a boon for anyone who wants their cruise to be as relaxing as possible.

Celebrity Century, the Australia-bound ship, will serve the line’s hallmark cuisine, with menus devised by renowned chef Jacques Van Staden. Restaurants on board include a two-storey-high grand dining room, a sushi bar, the northern Italian-style Cova Café di Milano and new, 60-seat speciality restaurant Murano, which attracts a surcharge of AU$33.

An AU$60-plus million refurbishment in 2006 included the addition of 314 new balcony staterooms, 14 new Sky suites and 174 new Concierge-class staterooms. These come with a host of ‘privileges’, from early embarkation and disembarkation to priority check-in, an expanded room-service menu, evening hors d’oeuvres, freshly cut flowers and a welcome bottle of wine on embarkation, a pillow menu, new LCD televisions and other thoughtful touches.

Cruise fares will start at AU$1,857 per person, twin share for a 12-night New Zealand cruise and AU$5,324 per person, twin share for the 36-night Circumnavigation of Australia (which can be taken as two 18-night segments).

The line’s four Millennium-class ships are currently undergoing a program of upgrades which will see them ‘Solsticised’, to use the Celebrity vernacular, to incorporate some popular features of Celebrity’s Solstice ships, such as AquaClass staterooms and Tuscan Grille steakhouses.

By 2012, Celebrity Cruises will emerge as a 10-ship premium cruise line.

Celebrity Cruises’ fleet

SHIP:            CLASS OF VESSEL:            Date launched:

Century            Century            1995 (refurbished 2006)

Mercury            Century            1997 (retiring Feb 2011)

Millennium            Millennium            2000 ($11 million [US$10 million] refit, 2009)

Infinity             Millennium            2001

Summit            Millennium            2001

Constellation            Millennium            2002 (Solstice-class features added in 2009)

Solstice            Solstice            2008

Equinox            Solstice            2009

Eclipse            Solstice            2010

Silhouette            Solstice            2011

Unnamed            Solstice            2012

Xpedition            Xpedition            2001/2004 (based in Galápagos Islands)