My third 2023 cruise started off as a March 2022 Barrier Reef cruise booked in March 2020 then unsurprisingly cancelled in July 2021. In this case deciding what to do next was easy: I rebooked on the same cruise a year later. I visited the Barrier Reef on my first visit to Australia in 1986 but not since then.
This was my first Celebrity cruise and my first cruise from Sydney. For the first time I took the XPT daylight train to and from Sydney, spending the nights before and after the cruise in the Great Southern and Holiday Inn, Darling Harbour hotels respectively, both of which I was very happy with. This was the first time I’d overnighted in Sydney since 2011.
Celebrity Eclipse is the third of Celebrity’s Solstice class ships, launched in 2010. Her rated capacity is 2,850 passengers and 1,271 crew. At 121,878 GT she doesn’t make Wikipedia’s top 60! I was booked into stateroom (cabin) 8254, defined as a Deluxe Ocean View Stateroom with Veranda – by my measuring (using a piece of A4 paper as a ruler!), the room was a spacious 225ft2 and the balcony a very generous 95ft2, both much larger than the quoted size for this cabin class.
Internally Eclipse is a beautiful ship. I’d specially commend Celebrity for the clear signage everywhere, far better than on the Grand Princess or Queen Elizabeth.
I was given a late embarkation time which at first disappointed me, but it did mean that from arriving at the terminal to boarding took no more than ten minutes.
On board the crew were without exception excellent. The food was good and on sea days there was a wide range of activities – one, unique to Celebrity (not tried by me), was glassblowing classes. I went to the theatre shows nearly every night – NZ pianist/singer Will Martin was undoubtedly the standout. Several shows included very impressive high wire acrobatics.
One thing that stood out was the passenger mix. Around 1,500 had stayed on board following the preceding cruise around New Zealand and it seemed like the majority were from UK. There were very few solo travellers and most nights for dinner I ended up on a six-seat table with two couples; all good company but it would have been nice not to be the odd one out.
Day 2: Eden
One might have expected our first port call to be Brisbane, but not so perhaps because of wharf availability. Instead, on leaving Sydney we headed south to Eden for our first port day. Most of my time went on visiting the Killer Whale Museum and Mary MacKillop Museum. Two days at sea bound for Queensland followed.
Day 5: Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach was the first of our three Barrier Reef port calls. In each case water depth dictated that the ship had to be anchored a long way off shore with passengers being ferried to shore on tenders. The trip took 30-40 minutes. Here the organisation of the tendering was abysmal; by the time we got to Port Douglas things improved significantly.
I didn’t sign up for any excursions, instead just looking round the town and visiting the seafront market. The huge seawater lagoon was being well used: in these parts no one with any sense goes in the sea during the summer months: marine stingers (box jellyfish) are active and in extreme cases their stings can be fatal.
Day 6: Cairns/Kuranda
The next day we anchored at Yorkey’s Knob, just north of Cairns. After taking the tender to shore I joined a group tour going to Kuranda by bus. After spending the morning in town I made my way to the station for the Kuranda Scenic Railway two-hour trip down to Freshwater. The railway was built in the 1880s and is an extraordinary feat of railway engineering.
Then back on the bus to catch the tender back to the ship.
Day 7: Port Douglas
Port Douglas was our last port of call. As before we anchored in deeper water, tenders providing access to the town.
After looking round the main street I climbed up to the lookout, passing a wedding chapel, formerly the 1914 St Mary’s by the Sea RC church, rebuilt here 1988.
The last tender was timetabled for 5.15p.m. but long before this the heat and humidity had got to me, and I was glad to go back to the ship.
Day 8: Willis Island
Our last ‘stop’ wasn’t a stop, rather a sail-by. Willis Island (450 km/280mi east of Cairns) is home to a weather observation station, population 4. Cruise passengers on ‘journeys to nowhere’ (voyages that depart from an Australian port and return to Australia without making landfall at an overseas port) do not qualify for duty-free purchases. Under a longstanding concession, a ship that making a notional stop in Willis Island waters is treated as having visited an international port, thus allowing cruise passengers to purchase duty free goods.
No Barrier Reef?
You may be wondering as to why I haven’t mentioned visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Special excursions were available for those who wanted to spend a day at the reef. Instead of taking a tender to the shore, those going on the reef tours ($$$) were collected from the ship by large catamarans which took them out to the reef. I’ve pencilled in a winter holiday to these parts for 2025 and if this happens will revisit the reef then.
Day 9: Behind the Scenes tour
Expensive (A$186=~£100) but I enjoyed it. This small group tour took us round parts of the ship that passengers usually don’t see: the galley, stores, laundry, engine control room and bridge. A similar tour on the Queen Elizabeth also took in the theatre backstage, print shop, anchor room and medical centre – that was pre-Covid, so perhaps all or some of these were omitted as a safety measure.
Day 11: Sydney
Up super early to watch our final approach to Sydney. I was one of the last to disembark but this didn’t matter as I wasn’t in a hurry.
As if ten days cruising wasn’t enough, I dropped my case at the hotel and spent the day riding Sydney ferries to Parramatta and Manly!
Then up early next morning to get the XPT back to Melbourne and reality.