This morning over breakfast in the Crystal Dining Room, a waiter I'd never met before was so thrilled -- really, thrilled -- to take my breakfast order and bring me coffee refills that I could have sworn it meant the world to him to make me happy. By the same token, by the time my husband hoisted himself up onto his regular stool at the top-of-the-ship Sunset Bar, the bartender would literally have set a chardonnay, his regular drink, in front of him before he'd even gotten situated.
There was the sweet deck steward who sought me out when dining at the poolside Tastes and knew to bring me a diet Coke without even asking. And let's not forget the crewmember who happened to be polishing elevator buttons but who really wanted to know how we were enjoying the cruise and, by the way, were we staying on for a few days in Barcelona at the end of the voyage?
Service was so consistently out-of-this-world on Crystal Serenity that guilt had precluded us from making many requests of our butler (we were residing in a standard penthouse cabin), to the point where one evening he pleaded with us: "Can I bring you anything? Caviar? Pate?" We opted for a bowl of potato chips.
Having sailed on most of the world's luxury cruise lines (and a three-time veteran on Crystal), I anticipated we'd feel pampered. What felt unique to me on this cruise was that almost every interaction with the folks who work there felt absolutely genuine -- as if they were born to please you at this moment. And, in fact, so many of them were veterans of the line, for years and years and contracts upon contracts, that it's clear Crystal has managed to please them in return.
Sailing with Crystal means escaping to a cosseted and refined life at sea. Consistency is paramount; we never came across one dish that missed its mark, or even an unpleasant crewmember. Standards are so high and so consistently met or exceeded I was never left wondering, "Why couldn't they do that better?"
Ultimately, what came to define our experience on Crystal Serenity was its blend of industry-best service and innovative dining. While the trip may not have revolved exclusively around the fantastic food-related events (such as the Mozart Tea, dinner at the Italian Prego and a continent-encompassing Asian-themed mega-buffet) for everyone, they sure did please us.
Launched in 2003, Crystal Serenity is the youngest of Crystal's ships, after Crystal Harmony, which debuted in 1990 and has since left the fleet, and near-sibling Crystal Symphony, which launched five years later. Most significant about the vessel itself is that Crystal Serenity has benefited from a decade-plus of evolution at the cruise line. The ship, carrying 1,080 passengers -- the largest in the luxury segment -- is significantly bigger than its predecessors, and yet, it carries an expanded capacity of just 150 folks. Responding to demand, Crystal Serenity offers twice as many penthouse cabins as on the fleet's other ships. There are two paddle tennis courts instead of one, as tried-and-true Crystal devotees are fiercely competitive in this arena. At heart, it's a modern ship that incorporates plenty of classic elements, and cabins, public rooms and outer decks all feel spacious.
Better still, in 2011 the ship received a $25 million refit. New lighting, carpeting and furnishings, along with a complete redesign of cabins, keep the ship feeling contemporary, fresh and incredibly well-maintained years after its launch.
Crystal Serenity also maintains its edge with fabulous enrichment programs and events for which the cruise line is known. Chief among them is Crystal's Creative Learning Institute, which features veritable mini-courses in everything from foreign languages to computer skills on each voyage.
For those with money to spare, Crystal offers a myriad of opportunities to create one spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime event after the other. A recent sailing had an $8,900 shore excursion to tour Florence in a Ferrari, a $2,800 excursion to Capri via helicopter and onboard dinners in the Vintage Room starting at $2,100.
Even as Crystal Serenity delights, what puzzles me is why the line somehow remains a closely guarded secret, unknown to a broader passenger base who'd appreciate the combination of big-ship activities and amenities with luxury food and service. No question, once people travel on Crystal, they tend to get hooked. (On the voyage following ours, two-thirds of all passengers had sailed with the line before!) But the onboard atmosphere can often feel, for newcomers, a bit like a cruise line designed for the 50-plus, well-traveled, well-heeled country club contingent, most of whom have retired and have met before. (Indeed, in many cases, they have sailed together on previous trips.) We, in our early 40's were easily among the youngest, though 30- and 40-somethings are not uncommon onboard.
The conundrum? There's really no reason why a younger, sophisticated cruise traveler wouldn't enjoy the Crystal Serenity experience. The line is now trying to tailor its cruises to appeal to a younger demographic, while still keeping its fans happy. Though itineraries tend to be longer than average (which means they could be off-limits to younger travelers who may not have as much vacation time) and onboard activities could be more dynamic, Crystal is making some changes. The line had long hewed to a fixed dining scenario -- two seatings, assigned tablemates -- which turned off travelers who prefer more flexibility. But, beginning in 2011, Crystal began offering flexible dining times. Shore excursions, while pricey, are some of the most interesting we've seen -- if you can afford the high prices. Perhaps many potential passengers still view Crystal as a bit of an unfortunate hybrid -- not small enough to be a true luxury line, but too staid to offer an energetic and dynamic cruise. Happily, neither is true.
Ultimately, Crystal is attempting some minor experiments to broaden its appeal; it offers some seven-night itineraries, more dining options than before and even razzle-dazzle late evenings in the Pulse disco. Taking a page from its smaller, ultra-luxury competitors, the line will soon be all-inclusive, with drinks, tips and even airfare included in the fares. But, it speaks to the line's strength, in a way, that it is not interested in rocking the boat to draw passengers at any cost. It's a safe bet that, unlike other lines that try too hard too fast, Crystal won't lose its identity.
Crystal Serenity makes a splashy impression on entry. The Crystal Cove area in the atrium is marked most significantly by a lovely waterfall sculpture and a baby grand. (As often as not, it seemed, someone was playing it -- sometimes even particularly talented passengers!) This was one of our favorite spots for people-watching onboard, as passengers moved through on their way to the dining room or, a deck or two above, to browse the newly redesigned shops or hit The Bistro.
The generously sized Creative Learning Institute is a highlight onboard. Located along an elegantly wide corridor, there are several classrooms, even one dedicated entirely to Yamaha piano instruction (and featuring keyboards on every tabletop). The ship's cyber center is called Computers@Sea and benefits from Serenity's slightly larger size. This two-part room features a classroom with Internet-connected Apple computers and a regular cyber center layout. (The most helpful staff there even opened all the computers, classroom too, when our cruise was unexpectedly extended for two days -- and usage was free!) Note, though, that if you set up a shipboard e-mail account in the Internet center, Crystal will charge per megabyte uploaded rather than per minute, and that can be costly. Otherwise, typical Internet access (including Wi-Fi around the ship) is available starting at package prices of $50 for 120 minutes, or pay as you go options for 74 cents per minute. Also, there are data ports in cabins (and laptops for loan for a daily fee). A technology concierge is also onboard to assist you with gadgets, including iPads, Kindles and smart phones.
Editor's Note: Crystal has made several significant steps to dramatically increase the speed of the Internet on its ships. Don't expect broadband, but it is among the fastest Internet connections we've ever seen on any ship. And they even throw in a nice touch -- 20 free minutes on the last day of your cruise so you can check in to your flight.
Aft of the Computer Center is a spacious Bridge lounge. Here, again, is another example of the space Crystal Serenity has. Whereas other lines have removed or downsized similar nonrevenue-generating spaces, Crystal has dedicated an entire room to card-playing. (Bridge instructors usually sail on each cruise, as well.)
On the opposite side of the ship is an excellent onboard library, which stocks CD's and DVD's for free loan -- and, of course, books.
The handful of shops that rim the upper deck of the three-deck atrium were jazzed up during the recent refit. They now are even more successful at luring you in to spend money. Beyond the usual boutique selling logowear, there's an excellent women's and men's fashion shop; when I found I'd forgotten my long black formal-night skirt, I had no trouble finding the perfect replacement there. Merchandise changes each day, so there's always a new reason to visit. Look for mini-sales; you can really find some good deals. And the staffers there were so attentive that shopping onboard felt more like a spree at Saks than on a cruise ship.
There are three complimentary self-service laundries -- and no joke, they are the best we've seen at sea, with plenty of room, ironing boards, magazines and even a TV. When a line invests this much money in its laundry rooms, you know they are serious about being attentive to every detail.
A major plus for Crystal Serenity passengers is that the ship has a higher percentage of cabins with balconies than its sister Crystal Symphony. (Eighty-five percent have them, compared to 65 percent for Symphony.) During the 2011 refit, the cabins (all of which are outside) received the bulk of the $25 million in upgrades. All new fittings, furnishings and carpeting give the rooms a chic, almost edgy look, complete with white or black leather tufted headboards and the occasional zebra-patterned furnishing.
Cabin sizes and levels of luxury range across the board. The entry-level staterooms measure 226 square feet. While that's slightly larger than most big-ship cruise lines' comparable accommodations, the cabins can feel pretty squinchy, and I think that's because you expect a bit more on a luxury line. Also, these cabins look out onto the promenade deck, albeit through one-way glass that hides any views from curious passersby during the daytime. Balcony cabins are the same size and layout as the outside accommodations, but with 43-square-foot verandahs.
Where Serenity really makes a leap -- and it's worth the splurge -- is in its three different levels of penthouse cabins and suites. (It has twice as many as Symphony.) Passengers staying there are entitled to butler service, and in my opinion, Crystal has consistently rated the best in terms of butlers. They really make the trip special, whether it's serving course-by-course dinners from either the main dining room or the extremely popular Prego and Nobu specialty restaurants, procuring last-minute reservations or taking your clothes for same-day, complimentary pressing. Every evening around 5 p.m., a fresh offering from the "hors d'oeuvre" menu magically appears, with delectables like caviar, shrimp or simpler options, such as hummus. A box of chocolates will be replaced as quickly as it is consumed. Even as you think "I don't need it," you find yourself looking forward to it each evening.
At 403 square feet (including balcony), each penthouse cabin features a fabulous bathroom with two sinks, a decadent full-size Jacuzzi tub and separate, large shower; a walk-in closet; and a full-size couch. Beyond that, 33 penthouse suites -- at 538 square feet (including balcony) -- are somewhat larger and, most notably, offer separate bedrooms. Finally, just four Crystal Penthouses, at 1,345 square feet, are bigger than many New York apartments. Highlights include bigger everything -- from balconies and audio-visual aids to the separate master bedrooms with king-size beds.
Each cabin bathroom has two sinks and a bathtub, Frette bathrobes, slippers and Aveda bath products. (All penthouse grades feature the Jacuzzi bath mentioned above, plus a separate shower.) Key accoutrements for all cabins, regardless of category, include flat-screen televisions, pillow menus, DVD players and mini-bars. While storage in all levels of penthouse cabins is excellent, the closets and drawers in even the standard cabins are more than ample. We found cabin details thoughtful and well-designed. They include nightlights under the desks in the penthouses that are perfect if your companion is coming in late, or narrow bedside lights that can be angled to avoid shining in your sleeping cabinmate's direction.
My one complaint? During the refit, new bedside tables were secured in place permanently. This is fine if you're sharing a bed with a partner, but if you ask for two twins, there isn't much space for the beds to be separated. Expect six inches or so between the beds. By the time duvets and several luxurious pillows are added on, it is often hard to distinguish where one bed ends and another begins. While we were told that not one complaint had been received about this new design, we find it hard to believe that many passengers traveling with someone other than their partner wouldn't have preferred the more flexible arrangement that is common on every other ship sailing.
There are cabins designed for folks with disabilities in all the major categories, including on the penthouse levels.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The ship has two pools. The Seahorse is the main one, with a bandstand and two whirlpools. The Neptune, which lies under a sliding-glass roof, is ostensibly the "bad weather" pool, but oddly enough, we never saw anyone swim there. The Trident Grill and Tastes, two alternative dining options located in that area, have pretty much taken over the space with tables and chairs, and it's just not conducive to swimming while people are eating. The roof was never opened, even when the weather was fine.
During the 2011 refit, new "resort style" deck furniture was added in conversational groupings to the pool deck, with attractive results. The area is colorful and cheery without being flashy, and the long couches and oversized circular "pod beds" were perfect for either one or two people to stretch out comfortably in the sun.
Walkers will rejoice when they set foot on one of the best Promenade Decks at sea. Wide, without deck chairs to block the way, it completely circles the ship and harkens back to traditional liners. A deck below, on the very stern, are the golf driving nets and a putting green. (Every cruise features an onboard pro who gives demos and lessons.) There are also two Ping-Pong tables, thoughtfully enclosed by a large net that prevents the problem of chasing after errant balls. Due to the secluded location of these games, the ship can keep them open 24 hours a day without worrying about noise complaints. Shuffleboard is located a few decks above. Due to popular demand for paddle tennis, Serenity has two full-size courts located at the top of the ship.
The Crystal Spa and Salon is a lovely facility, hewing to a Zen theme that really worked. It was a pleasant and peaceful place to be, and our treatments, which ranged from a fantastic salt and ginger scrub to a couples massage, were outstanding. Though this spa, like so many onboard cruise ships, is operated by Steiner, famous for the post-treatment product pitch, not once did anyone try to sell me anything.
The salon offers the full gamut of services: haircuts, styling, pedicures and manicures. Staffers there were exceptional. When I had a last-minute hair emergency (is there any other kind?), they took me in hand, fixed the problem and charged me far less than they could have. I appreciated that.
The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse while exercising. Fitness classes are offered daily, and two new initiatives include Nordic Walking with walking poles and "Walkvests," weighted water vests designed to intensify your workout.
Crystal suggests the following tipping guidelines: $5 per day for cabin stewards and waiters, $3 per day for assistant waiters, and $5 per day for butlers (penthouse accommodations) -- all per person. Drinks are automatically assessed a 15 percent service charge. We also found that service was so exceptional in the specialty restaurants that, beyond the service charge, we'd tip additionally. Crystal allows passengers to add tips to onboard accounts (and presents you with vouchers to give to crew), or you can do it the old-fashioned way.
However, gratuities and beverages will be included in all Crystal cruise fares, beginning with Crystal Serenity's May 8, 2012, transatlantic sailing. From that date forward, passengers do not need to tip, even in the alternate restaurants, but may do so for exceptional service.
While Crystal is making little attempt to market itself as the "upscale family" cruise line, it does attract families with children, particularly those traveling as three generations during the summer and holidays. Even though the children's facilities are relatively small and basic, Crystal is one of the few luxury lines to offer any dedicated space for children. However, youth staff are not usually onboard, except during sailings when there will be a significant number of children, such as during the summer or holidays. Baby-sitting services can always be arranged, however, for $10 per hour for one child. There are two playrooms, with Fantasia hosting those in the overly broad 3- to 12-year-old age group and Waves for kids 13 to 17. There are Sony PlayStations, X-Box 360's and an arcade, and when youth staff are onboard, a few specific activity offerings (particularly for the younger set). Still, this ship is better for families who want to entertain their own children, rather than lose them for the trip.
Crystal still attracts an empty-nester crowd, especially on unusual itineraries like Black Sea sailings or world cruises, where most passengers will be retired or nearly there. Still, on summer itineraries and in the Mediterranean, the average age is around 55, with quite a few folks in the under-50 category. Surprisingly, there can be a significant number of children in the summer -- at times, up to 100 under the age of 21!
In the Med, expect 50 percent of the passengers to be American, while for the rest of the year, that percentage will likely climb to 60 percent or more. While the rest are mostly English-speaking passengers from the U.K., Australia and South Africa, a sizeable number comes from Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and Spain. Crystal passengers are undoubtedly comfortably well-off, and the Hotel Manager described their exclusive but friendly family by saying, "All our guests are successful, many with their own businesses, and they like this environment. They have a lot of the same background and can talk about the same things."
Crystal's always been a formal cruise line, and it still is. But, as with many lines, change is in the air. While the more traditional passengers still wear long, elegant gowns on formal nights (and most men don tuxedos), there are fewer formal and informal nights now. On a recent 11-night itinerary, only two nights were formal and one night informal. The rest were country-club casual, when a jacket is not required.
Crystal has carved out for itself a superior niche in the enrichment arena. Its dynamic Creative Learning Institute features a range of subjects -- foreign language courses, art workshops, computer skills classes, and cooking, music and dance exhibitions. Through its Visions program, the line arranges for experts and celebrities to speak on topics like political science, current affairs, food and wine, astronomy, and art and antiques. Several theme cruises offer in-depth looks at topics that include golf, big band music, football, politics and even emerging artists.
Not every topic is available on every sailing, but you can check Crystal's Web site and match a favorite subject with a sailing that fits your schedule.
Aside from the enrichment program and athletic classes, daytime activities are fairly low-key. They may include a movie shown in the theater, a dance lesson taught by the gentlemen hosts, lessons by the golf instructor on the putting green (which were very well-attended on my cruise) or a paddle tennis competition. Otherwise, passengers are content to spend their cherished days at sea enjoying the public rooms, the extensive open decks or the many lectures on offer throughout the day.
Another area in which Crystal Serenity excels is live music. You don't have to be an old fogey to appreciate classical music at teatime, a classical quartet in the atrium, torch songs at cocktail hour in the Palm Court, Broadway show tunes in the Avenue Saloon before and after dinner and fabulously fun karaoke in the intense Pulse Disco.
One noteworthy improvement over Crystal Symphony is the Sunset Bar at the forward end of the Palm Court. It offers gorgeous views over the bow (hence the name) and is rarely crowded. It became a favorite watering hole as we sailed out of port. Dancing (with gentleman hosts) is popular and offered there nightly.
The Crystal Casino, on the way to the Galaxy Lounge, offers a comprehensive range of table games and slots; it's no longer operated, by the way, by Caesar's Palace.
The Galaxy Lounge is the ship's main show lounge, used for Broadway-style production shows and headline entertainers, including singers and comedians. While larger and more elaborate than the cabaret acts found on smaller luxury ships, the shows are far simpler than what you'll find on larger mega-ships. Still, they seem to please Serenity's passengers, who appreciate the option of seeing a show most evenings but who don't need the full glitz and glamour of more extensive productions. Serenity also extends the Crystal tradition of its Hollywood Theater, which, on our trip, showed both classic and second-run films. Popcorn is served, but get there early. The screenings are great for cloudy afternoons at sea.
For the most part, this ship attracts passengers who retire relatively early, but the Pulse Disco was a pretty reliable place to meet up with other night owls. So was the Avenue Saloon many nights, which is big enough to accommodate a crowd, yet small enough to feel clubby and comfortably full. After dinner, a pianist belted out popular tunes that had some singing along, others dancing and everyone having a good time. This kind of buzz and energy in the room is often hard to duplicate on the smaller luxury lines with their quieter nightlife.
For shoreside pursuits, Crystal offers a fairly noteworthy range of options. In addition to the expected selection of tours focusing on city highlights and culture, they have several unusual and exciting options that cater to the line's well-heeled passengers. If the already mentioned $8,900 tour driving a Ferrari isn't quite exciting enough for you, perhaps flying a MIG fighter jet in Russia is? More active offerings are also starting to be included -- I enjoyed a beautiful seven-mile hike along the Amalfi coast -- and the line has added complimentary "Voluntourism" excursions to all sailings. Examples include assisting with meal preparation for abused, ill or abandoned children in Nafplion, Greece; aiding injured sea turtles at a sea turtle research center in Athens; and helping to maintain the gardens with the elderly inhabitants of the 660-year-old Domus Christi shelter in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
A word of caution though: Even Crystal's standard shore excursions are notably expensive, with full-day excursions often costing $350 or more. For example, on my cruise, a simple coach transfer from Livorno to Florence cost $132 -- twice what Cunard Line was charging. Crystal's rationale is that they don't fill up the bus and include bottled water, but we still view it as overcharging.
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