Crystal Serenity Cruise Review by NHBob: BIG BAND CROSSING
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BIG BAND CROSSING
"Moonlight Crossing" Transatlantic Big Band Cruise Lisbon to Miami November 9 - November 19, 2007
This was my first cruise on Crystal Serenity, after five on sister ship Crystal Symphony. Understandably, It is tempting to compare the two ships - more about that later.
I chose this cruise primarily because of the big band theme, Crystal's only one in 2007, but also because I enjoy sea days more than hopping from port to port. It was my third cruise with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, one of the few "ghost bands" living up to their name. Unlike several previous years and 2008, the 2007 crossing did not conflict with the American Thanksgiving holiday which I like to spend with my family.
I booked the cruise through my regular travel agent, using an open booking I had made on my previous cruise, and selected a Category C cabin on Deck 7. Unlike Symphony, Serenity doesn't have any lower priced, restricted view cabins, since lifeboats are More stowed at a lower level. There are no inside cabins on either of Crystal's Ships. I normally select an inexpensive cabin, since as a solo traveler about the only time I spend there is sleeping and preparing for the next on-board or shore activity.
About a month before sailing, Crystal notified my travel agent that they were upgrading me to a Category B cabin with verandah on Deck 8. Although you don't get a lot of use out of a veranda on sea days in the Atlantic in November, it was nice to have it when we were in port in the Azores and Bermuda.
PRE-CRUISE AND EMBARKATION
My travel agent has a contract rate with Swiss International Airlines, so I used her air arrangements, rather than Crystal's air-sea program. Even after adding the cost Lisbon taxis and a Miami-Boston flight at the end of the cruise, it was still considerably cheaper than Crystal's air. It had the added advantage of connecting through Zurich, one of the world's few remaining civilized airports, instead of London, Frankfurt, New York, or Washington.
As is my usual practice, I flew to Lisbon a day early, and the overnight Boston-Zurich flight was as comfortable as any economy class transatlantic can be; we arrived in Zurich about 40 minutes early. The connecting flight to Lisbon was a Swiss/TAP Portugal code share and operated more or less on time.
About the only disadvantage of connecting through Zurich is that because Switzerland is not a European Community member, you don't clear EEC passport control until arrival in Lisbon. The international arrivals area at Lisbon airport is not very efficient - poor signage and only two desks handling non EEC passengers, so it took me about an hour to get through. passport control. It turned out not to matter, as baggage was just starting to come in when I got to baggage claim.
There are several conveniently located ATMs just outside customs and plenty of taxis, so I was in my hotel by mid afternoon. Taxi from airport to central Lisbon was less than €15, including add-ons for bags, €0.80 each as I recall.
In the past I have stayed at the Hotel Miraparque, a pleasant boutique style hotel opposite the Eduardo VII park. However, it was fully booked, so I had booked the nearby Best Western Hotel Eduardo VII. Nothing fancy, but a very comfortable bed, all I really wanted at this point, and a good included breakfast the next morning in the pleasant roof-top restaurant. Also, the price was hard to beat - less than $80 total, booked and prepaid through an on-line travel service.
The next morning I went for a leisurely walk through the park and stopped at Crystal's hospitality desk in the Meridian Hotel, where I learned that check-in and embarkation would start at 12:30. Taxi to the port cost about €6.
As usual, at check-in I ran into and chatted with several people I knew from previous cruises, including fellow passengers, a couple of Ambassador Hosts, orchestra leader Buddy Morrow, and trumpeter "Flea" Campbell, so the short wait passed quickly, with check-in actually starting shortly after noon. By 1:30 I was having a pleasant lunch in the Crystal Dining Room.
Since cabins wouldn't be available until a little later, Crystal had set up a temporary baggage check system for hand baggage passengers didn't want to lug around the ship, and my carry-on bag was then delivered directly to the cabin. As far as I can recall, this is a service that neither Cunard nor Holland America provide
A regular Cruise Critic contributor, who had also been on board for the previous cruise, had arranged a Cruise Critic get together in the Palm Court at sail-away time to allow CC members to get to know each other. There was a minor glitch when onboard Guest Services forgot to send out invitations, but most of us found our way there anyway. This actually resulted in a small bonus - Guest Services hosted another CC party later in the cruise.
Much of what follows is familiar to Crystal regulars, but may be of interest to readers considering their first Crystal cruise.
First of all, Crystal is a luxury cruise line, by no means cheap. However, I believe the old clichE "you get what you pay for" certainly applies. Crystal is also more singles friendly than most other lines, with single supplements as low as 25% for standard cabins and plenty of male dance hosts for solo lady guests.
In the not-too-distant past Serenity would have been considered a large ship, but in today's market she is in the medium size category, with a maximum passenger load of ll00 lower berth passengers. Both passenger space ratio (approximately 62 square feet per passenger) and crew/passenger ratio ( 1 crew member per 1.6 passengers) are some of the highest in the industry, considerably higher than even boutique lines like Seabourn and Seadream and large luxury ships like Queen Mary 2. As a result, the ship never feels crowded and service is second to none.
About the only items not included in the cruise fare are alcohol and personal items like spa treatments, hairdressers, laundry and shore excursions. Want a bottle of water to take ashore, or a cappuccino to take with you to a lecture, or a soft drink from a bar? Just ask and you'll receive it immediately!
While not large, the standard cabins are comfortable and attractively furnished. I only have experience with Crystal's standard ocean view cabins and similar veranda cabins on both ships, so can't comment on suites and penthouses.
There is good storage space, both drawers and hanging space, more than I need as a solo passenger and certainly adequate for most couples. Bathrooms are well equipped, including counters with two basins, tub-shower combination, hair dryers, and good cabinet space.
Furnishings include twin beds that can be made up as a queen, a love seat that also provides storage for life jackets, vanity/desk, TV, safe, and well-stocked fridge, free except for alcohol. On the first day your cabin stewardess will ask if you have any special requests for the fridge and what fruits you prefer in your cabin fruit basket.
Public areas throughout the ship, which include the Crystal Dining Room, Stardust dance club, the high-up, forward Palm Court, the Lido, and the Bistro, a favorite spot for a quick coffee, snack or late risers' breakfast. My favorite late-night venue is the Avenue Saloon, where, I must admit, I'm one of the night owl regulars who close the place lots of nights. No need for me to go into details about the public areas - just about anything a reader wants to know can be found on Crystal's website, www.crystalcruises.com.
Gratuities: unlike many other cruise lines, Crystal does not automatically add standard gratuities to on-board accounts. Except for bar drinks, where a 15% gratuity is added, tips are at your discretion, but conveniently can be added to your onboard account by filling out a form a few days before the end of the cruise. This can be done not only for cabin and dining room staff, but anybody else you may wish to reward for good service, from maitre d' to bar staff. For example, as I mentioned, I spend a lot of time in the Avenue Saloon, but for medical reasons I consume little alcohol, so bar staff would receive no gratuities for serving me soft drinks or water - 15% of nothing is nothing! So, I normally designate an amount for Avenue Saloon staff on my gratuities form. Of course, you can also give cash tips if you wish.
As noted later, I ended up at several different tables for dinner, but the front desk assured me that the dining room staff kept them informed of all table changes and dining room gratuities were apportioned accordingly. Also, being a bit suspicious by nature, I had previously wondered if the gratuities charged to my onboard account actually went to the staff; on a previous cruise several staff members assured me that these gratuities were credited to their shipboard accounts almost immediately.
As a first timer on Serenity, it is tempting to compare her with Symphony, but this has been discussed at length on the Cruise Critic message boards so no need to repeat it here. For further ship comparisons, see http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=664521&highlight=Symphony+Serenity
I agree with many or most of the message board posters that the ships are equally excellent; my future cruise plans will continue to be based on schedule, itinerary, and theme, not which ship is operating a particular cruise. However, like most, I do have a few items I prefer on one ship over the other, including:
Serenity: the slightly larger staterooms and their furnishings - love seats instead of Symphony's infamous chairs; the conventional bathroom fixtures; the more spacious Palm Court with its larger dance floor
Symphony: the new openness and lightness of the Starlite, as compared to the rather dark Stardust on Serenity; the more intimate atmosphere of the Avenue (but it does get smoky in there); the main atrium, although I understand Serenity's will be upgraded at next dry docking; layout of the Bistro, although it can't accommodate as many people as Serenity's.
Everything else is equally excellent, including the staff and service.
I had, as usual, requested seating at a large table and the first night found myself at a table for six, with an English gentleman I knew from a previous cruise and four ladies. However, by the second night the ladies had disappeared for various reasons, so I requested that I be moved to a larger table with people who usually had dinner in the dining room. After a couple of false starts, Maitre d' Leo Asmair was able to seat me at a table with an interesting group for the rest of the voyage.
I normally have breakfast and lunch in the Crystal Dining Room, with open seating for these meals. I tend to avoid cafeteria lines on ships - I can do that at home - and I also find it a bit easier to exercise willpower when choosing from a menu than being tempted by a buffet! Usually there aren't many people in the dining room at breakfast, so I ended up having a quiet breakfast alone, but I was often able to be join a large table for lunch and met quite a few new people that way.
There are other breakfast and lunch alternatives, including the Lido, the Bistro, poolside Tastes, and the Trident Grill. Normally there are also several theme buffets on Lido deck. All have been excellent the few times I have tried them on this and previous Crystal cruises.
The two alternative restaurants on Serenity are Prego and Silk Road. I had not frequented the alternative restaurants on previous cruises, since I didn't want to dine there alone and was too lazy to put together a group. However, Crystal has introduced a new feature called "Table for Eight" for singles and couples, at least once on each cruise. I was able to join this table, which actually ended up a table for eleven, for dinner in Prego one night. I wouldn't say that the food is better than in Crystal Dining Room, which would be hard to beat, but the menu does offer quite a few specialty items not found on the dining room menus. I particularly enjoyed the special mushroom soup, served in a bread bowl. Service was impeccable and I'll certainly try this again on future cruises.
I also enjoyed before dinner appetizers at the first-come, first-served sushi bar in Silk Road. I was pleased to learn later that the Symphony's Jade Garden is being converted to a Silk Road with sushi bar.
Unlike many cruise lines, there is no extra charge for the alternative restaurants except a suggested $7 per person gratuity which can be charged to your shipboard account.
One other not-to-be-missed meal experience is the Grand Gala Buffet which seems to be offered on each cruise, although I'm not sure if it is on short, seven-day cruises. An amazing array of food is set up in the Crystal Cove, offering everything from mountains of cold appetizers, a choice of hot entrees and, of course, salads, desserts and cheeses.. It's hard to resist going back several times! Once you have made your choices, you can either carry your plate into the dining room, or there will be a steward waiting to carry it for you.
Afternoon tea is served daily in Palm Court, sometimes with a particular theme. For example, staff dress in period costumes for the Mozart Tea.
And, if you are still hungry after all of these meals, wait staff circulate through the various bars and lounges with finger food all evening. There is no late night buffet, nor is one needed.
ENTERTAINMENT AND PROGRAMS
My main reason for choosing this cruise was the big band theme and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The band is led by Buddy Morrow, now in his 80s, who played with many of the big bands, including the Dorseys, during the big band era. Another big band old timer, "Flea" Campbell was in the trumpet section. "Flea" had led the band on one of my previous cruises when Buddy was ill, and I believe that he and Buddy are the only two current band members who actually played with the Dorseys.
The side men are all first rate musicians, as is the male singer, and it would be hard to tell their sound from that of the original band. They played most nights from 9:30 to midnight and on one occasion also performed in Crystal Cove earlier in the evening. Many of us found the acoustics in the Cove better than in Palm Court, but it does not have enough dance floor or seating space to do this regularly. On the other hand, Palm Court works well for these performances, with a good-size dance floor - larger than on many ships two or three times the size of Serenity.
The excellent Crystal Sextet also played nightly for dancing before and after dinner, either in the Starlite or Palm Court, so dancing opportunities were unlimited. The Sextet had recently moved to Serenity after home leave and a stint on Symphony. Band members are all Filipinos (I don't think I've ever met a non musical Filipino) and girl singer Poauline Toledo is excellent. The sextet plays a wider range of dance music, including Latin, while the Dorsey band concentrates mainly on the foxtrot, swing and occasional waltz which were most common in the big band era.
Unlike some other cruise lines, Crystal provides Ambassador Hosts on every cruise to dance with the many unattached ladies (or ladies whose husbands don't dance). There were six hosts on this cruise instead of the usual four, undoubtedly because of the number of unattached lady dancers the big band theme attracts.
Pianist Joe Foss played in Crystal Cove both at lunch time and the evening cocktail hour. He has an amazing repertoire, all from memory. I once asked him if he had a set program and he told me that he doesn't, just decides what to play next as the mood strikes him A second excellent lounge pianist, Colin Salter, whom I hadn't encountered previously, played nightly in the Avenue Saloon before and after dinner.
There were five different production shows in the Galaxy Lounge. I didn't attend any because I had seen three of them at least once before, and the schedule conflicted with that of the Dorsey band.
I did attend pianist Naki Ataman's "Around The World" program, even though I had seen it before. This is a non stop, one hour audiovisual tour of the world.. I also attended comedian Bruce Smirnoff's performance. I enjoyed it, although I suspect some of his Jewish humor was over the heads of audience members who had not been exposed to it as I was growing up in the New York area.
There was a full schedule of daytime activities, especially on the many sea days, ranging from lectures to a wide variety of educational opportunities. A favorite of mine is big band theme lecturer Loren Schoenberg and I attended all of his talks. Loren is Executive Director of the American Jazz Museum in Harlem, author of the NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz, and has played with his own big band and with such notables as Benny Goodman, Benny Carter and Bobby Short. His knowledge of the jazz and big band world is encyclopedic, and no matter how many times you hear his lectures, there is always something new.
As an added bonus Loren sat in for some sax solos with the Dorsey band on several occasions and also played piano one night in the Avenue in an impromptu trio of himself and the Dorsey band's drummer and bass player.
Other lecturers included destination lecturer Dr. H.J. de Blij, caricaturist Ken Fallin, and former NASA space program photographic consultant Richard Underwood. I didn't attend many of their lectures, but those that I did or caught on the cabin TV rebroadcasts were informative and interesting.
Dance instructor Stacey Huston's classes on sea days were very well attended and she is an excellent instructor. Normally there is a dance team couple on all Crystal cruises, but Stacey was working alone because her partner was not available to join the ship until we reached the USA. She did an impressive job with the large dance classes, assisted only by the Ambassador Hosts. I didn't attend many of the classes because of conflicts with other activities and, frankly, most were a bit basic for me. I did, however, have the the pleasure of dancing with Stacey several times at evening events, as I was one of only two or three unattached men who danced.
One thing that always puzzles me about these cruises that large numbers of passengers participate in the dance classes, but you see very few of them during evening dance sessions.
As usual, I joined a trivia team the first sea day, and also as usual, trivia became quite competitive as the cruise progressed and the number of teams increased. Our team was getting quite frustrated finishing second, several times after tie breakers, but we finally did manage to win one day.
Of course there were lots of other sea day activities, including the Computer University at Sea and bridge, art, keyboard, and Spanish instruction. I can't comment on these, not having participated - maybe I'll try the keyboard instruction next year, which should be challenging, since I had the last of my few piano lessons in 1942.
In summary, the biggest problem with the on-board program is deciding which events to attend.
This was by far the smoothest of my thirteen transatlantic crossings, on ships ranging from Navy transports to large and mid size cruise ships to the QE2. I recall only one afternoon where there was any appreciable motion of the ship, but of course roughness is often in the eye (or stomach) of the beholder. I know that there are a lot of cruisers who disagree with my definition of rough seas: it's only rough if you can't stand up without hanging onto something. At one point I did comment that I have seen the lake near my house rougher.
There were only two ports of call, Ponta Delgada in the Azores and an overnight in Bermuda. All the rest were sea days.
Although I had previously visited Ponta Delgada, I had only walked around the town, so this time I decided to take a low-effort shore excursion, the half day "Ribeira Grande Visit and Fire Lakes Views" tour. First stop was at a pineapple plantation, probably unique because all growing is in green houses, the Azores not being tropical enough for outdoor growing like in Hawaii. The guided tour took us through the whole production process, from propagation to harvest. The remainder of the excursion consisted of a scenic ride through the mountains, with several stops at scenic observation points, ending back at the ship in time for lunch. I didn't spend any time in town because I'm not much of a shopper and, I believe, many shops were closed because it was Sunday.
Our second and final port of call was an overnight in Bermuda. Although the itinerary lists Hamilton as the port, Serenity and most if not all other cruise ships now dock at King's Wharf in the Royal Dockyard. I understand that cruise ships are no longer allowed to dock in Hamilton because of the waterfront redevelopment project.
I had booked the "Railway Trail Bike & Cruise Tour" but unfortunately the tour operators decided to cancel it because of blustery, showery weather. So, I decided to just walk around Hamilton, which I know quite well.
Crystal provided complimentary ferry service into Hamilton, about 30 minutes away, but I opted for the commercial ferry because of its more frequent departures. I believe it only cost $2 or so. I learned a little about the ambitious plans for the redevelopment of the Hamilton waterfront, which will open up the view from Front Street by replacing the current warehouse type structures with green areas, shops and up-scale housing. The plan, a copy of which is available at City Hall, also calls for two piers at opposite ends of the waterfron, where smaller ships will be able to dock. I hope to live to see it finished, but it is a long-term project.
I took the bus back to the Dockyard, a scenic trip along the coast. Bermuda has an excellent public bus system, serving all parts of the islands. I believe they still offer an economical day pass - check with the tourist office at the Hamilton ferry terminal.
There has been a lot of development since I first visited the King's Wharf on QE2 in 1999. A second wharf is under constriction, one of the former dockyard buildings has been developed into a shopping mall, and one of the "Dolphin Encounter" centers is also located there. Other Dockyard facilities include the Maritime Museum, Bermuda Arts Center, and the Crafts Market, all within walking distance of the ship.
Public ferries from the Dockyard also serve several other Bermuda locations, including the town of St. Georges, my favorite spot in Bermuda. I had planned to go over in the afternoon, but showers and blustery winds moved in just as I got back from Hamilton, so instead spent the afternoon exploring the Dockyard a bit and relaxing on board.
We did have one incident of unplanned excitement while docked. A little before midnight, while many of us were still enjoying the Dorsey band in Palm Court, there was a "Code Bravo" PA announcement summoning fire-fighting teams, but no call for emergency procedures for passengers. A little later Captain Nergaard came on the PA to explain that there had been a small fire in a piece of engine room equipment, an economizer, which was quickly contained and extinguished. We all agreed that if the ship had to have a fire, it would be nice to be tied up at a pier instead of at sea.
The next day, since I happened to know what an economizer is (it is essentially a device for recovering and re-using waste exhaust heat) I was glad to have a chance to discuss the incident further with Chief Engineer Keith Patterson, who explained that there is an economizer for each engine and the engine cannot be operated without it. I also learned that a repair crew was scheduled to board in Miami, with necessary parts, and make repairs during the next cruise. A CC regular on the next cruise later posted a message that damage had been less than expected and repairs had been completed quickly.
Although not a threat to passengers, the fire did have one negative effect on many of us, as we learned the next day when the Captain and then the Cruise Director announced that the fire had made one engine inoperable, reducing our speed by a few knots and delaying our Miami arrival by several hours. Crystal's home office would handle any necessary flight rebooking for passengers with air booked through Crystal, and the on-board Concierge desk would assist those of us with independent air arrangements who needed to rebook. Also, ship-to-shore phone and internet service were to be free.
A line formed immediately at the concierge desk and things were a bit disorganized at first - obviously this is not an everyday occurrence. However, before long two lines had been set up, one for the many of us booked on American Airlines, a second for other airlines. One thing that did delay the process a bit was that many only learned while in line that they would need two things for re-booking: their original booking confirmation number or locator code and a credit card to cover re-booking charges that there were sure to be.
After a short delay some chairs were brought into the area for those waiting, and a CC member, the same one who organized the CC get together, set up a numbering system like the deli counter in your super market so we didn't have to stand in line. I thought I'd try to auction off my No. 3, but didn't get any offers.
I was very impressed with the patience and good nature of Chief Concierge Sascha Spei and his staff dealing with both anxious passengers and airline passenger service reps at the other end of the phone line. I think they were on their feet and on the phone to at least 10 hours that day!
Some re-bookings, including my own, requiring only a change to a later flight, were quick, but others took a lot of time. Those involving either international or transcontinental flights and, often, delaying departures until the day after arrival, required a lot more time to resolve. The worst case I saw was two ladies who were at the desk at least 45 minutes, largely because they couldn't make up their minds which of several alternatives to take.
Sascha was able to quickly change my MIA-BOS noon flight to one at 6:00 PM, the only problem being that I would miss the last bus to NH and have to spend a night at one of the Logan Airport hotels.
Obviously, any time you change an advance purchase ticket there is an airline re-booking fee and almost certainly additional fare, a total of about $300 in my case. Crystal announced in the disembarkation issue of "Reflections" that they would reimburse up to $250 for airline fees, although I believe they were under no obligation to do so, as cruise lines always have the right to alter itineraries and schedules.
By the last evening on board, Crystal had revised and updated the disembarkation information and transfer schedules and delivered new color-coded baggage tags to my cabin.
We arrived in Miami per revised schedule. Passport checks for U.S. citizens were carried out on board, in the terminal for non US passport holders. Disembarking went smoothly, delayed only slightly by the time required for US authorities to clear all passengers and crew. Those of us who had booked Crystal transfers and who had evening flights were taken to the Airport Hilton where we were served a nice buffet lunch. There was also plenty of time for me to use the hotel's computer to check in for my flight and also to call my travel agent to book a hotel at Logan for that night.
The AA terminal at the airport was the usual zoo. For those unfamiliar with the Miami airport, be advised that there is no curb-side check in, at least at AA, and airport police do not permit busses to stop long enough to hand luggage to passengers at curbside. Instead, all of the baggage is piled on baggage carts, and it is then a fight to get it back once inside the terminal. In our case, the porters were directed to two incorrect check-in areas before they let us have our baggage and check ourselves in. One of the airport ground staff insisted that even those of us with boarding passes had to check in at one of self-service kiosks, although it should only have been necessary to proceed to the baggage check-in position. It was easier to do it than to argue with them. A Crystal rep was present during this exercise, but airport staff paid no more attention to him than they did to us passengers.
Because everybody was delayed at check-in, there were only short security lines, so once checked in I was in the gate area in plenty of time to pick up a snack for in flight. MIA-BOS flight was a little late due to late arrival of the aircraft but was otherwise uneventful except for a spell of clear air turbulence off the Carolina coast, rough enough for the captain to order the cabin crew to be seated for a while, but not unusual in the winter.
After a night at the hotel, I caught the first morning bus to Concord, NH. Just to make things a bit more interesting, our first significant snowfall started about the time we got into NH, so I had the pleasure of driving the last 30 miles in snow - no problem, just a bit slow - and by mid afternoon I was home, having collected my dog and my accumulated mail, with plenty of time to finish preparing for the arrival of my family the next day for the Thanksgiving weekend.
A few days after getting home I wrote to Crystal submitting not only my airline re-booking fees, but also for my hotel in Boston. I guess it should not have been a surprise when Crystal replied that although they would only reimburse $250, they would be happy to apply my total cost, a little over $400, to a future cruise fare or to onboard account on my next cruise in September 2008. That's Crystal!
Despite the minor glitches, this cruise fully met my expectations with Crystal, and Crystal will continue to be my first choice for cruising. I've already booked two 2008 cruises (Dover-New York back to back with New York to Montreal), and Crystal has whetted my appetite for 2009 with their recent publication of the '09 itineraries.
To conclude, I don't think I can say it any better than Bill Miller of the World Ocean & Cruise Liner Society wrote in a recent article: "Crystal has been, and remains for me, the Rolls Royce of cruising, ocean travel at its best... If there is a seagoing paradise, it just might be on Crystal..."
This review is a lot longer than I planned, but kept thinking of things to add. Comments or questions by e-mail are welcome. Less
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