First, let me preface this review by acknowledging that I was a cruise skeptic - and, a first-time cruiser. My travel philosophy has always been simple: I would rather be exploring the streets of Rome than being stuck on a boat playing Bingo.
We began our adventure on August 30 in Venice, Italy. Embarkation was a breeze. Easier than checking into a hotel. From the moment we boarded the Serenity, the much vaunted Crystal service was evident. We were helped with our luggage and encouraged to have lunch in the main dining room, where complimentary champagne was poured, refilled, and refilled again.
Standard cabins on Deck 7, though somewhat small, were well-designed and exceptionally appointed. Bathrooms featured double sinks, a shower with surprisingly good water pressure, and Aveda amenities with Frette bathrobes. Storage space was ample throughout. Clothes hangers were scarce, a situation promptly rectified by Erica, our stewardess, who would prove throughout the duration of the cruise, to be gracious, accommodating, and professional.
From there on, it was all about the Food. In addition to the ports of embarkation and disembarkation - Venice and Rome, respectively, the deciding factor in selecting Crystal (rather than Radisson Seven Seas Voyager) was the food. Specifically, it was the inclusion of a restaurant by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Nobu is one of our favorite restaurants in New York. Ah, the black cod in miso, the sashimi salad, the rock shrimp tempura, the sushi! The idea that we could eat at Nobu, or, rather, "Silk Road," as often as we wanted (actually, as often as we could get in!), was too tantalizing to pass up!
Imagine the added bonus then, much to our surprise, that we also loved the Serenity's other specialty restaurant, Prego. Fortunately, we were blessed to have as our waiter, the inimitable Estephan, who (with a wink here, a nod there) expertly navigated us through the menu. The mushroom soup appetizer, as well as several of the seafood pastas, were superb.
The main dining room, at least at dinner, was a bit of a disappointment. It seemed to be typical, unimaginative cruise fare, though on a higher level. One meal of coq au vin was particularly below par - dry and flavorless. The lobster, however, was succulent (and ample in supply)! Steaks were good, though unexceptional. Still, it hardly mattered because we were walking (waddling?) in foodie heaven, alternating most of our nights between Silk Road and Prego. Decisions, decisions!
Other notable dining venues were Tastes, which featured Wolfgang Puck's renowned Chinois Chinese Chicken Salad (and, better here than at Puck's stateside restaurants); Trident Grill which offered excellent steak sandwiches, burgers and fries, et.al.; the Bistro, a comfortable spot for outstanding specialty coffees - and, a snack or two; High Tea at the Palm Court, with the usual assortment of scones, pastry, and mini-sandwiches; and, of course, the Lido, which provided the ship with its requisite (albeit mostly routine) buffet.
Service throughout the ship continued to impress - understated, helpful, friendly, rarely cloying or condescending. Public spaces were comfortable, tastefully (though not lavishly) designed. No garish colors. No discordant notes. Still, some improvements could be made, particularly on Deck 6. Shopping, which is touted to be akin to Rodeo Drive, is surprisingly limited and most in need of a face-lift. Not only did I not find anything I wanted to buy, I wasn't even compelled to window shop! The casino is rather small (and, too brightly lit!), and the slot machines, operated by Caesars Palace, should be expanded. The Cigar club is a waste, too exclusionary, and should be converted into a space more guests could enjoy. The Disco is far too small and seems an afterthought. Perhaps, afterhours, it should be moved to the Palm Court on Deck 12? Also, lacking throughout the ship's public spaces, is soft, ambient music.
As for shore excursions, for the most part, we decided to venture off on our own. In Palma de Mallorca, Spain, we took the complimentary shuttle bus from the pier into town and walked; in Cannes, we took the train to Monte Carlo; in Florence (and, later in Rome) we hired a private limousine company, ItalyLimousine.It, for the day. I highly recommend the latter - our driver was waiting for us at the pier, sign in hand, the vehicle was comfortable, the tour was highly informative and enjoyable, and the rates were comparatively reasonable.
After one of these excursions, I always found myself (much to my own surprise) anxious to reboard the Crystal Serenity. By the end of our 11-day adventure, I cannot say that I have become a cruise convert. I can, however, say that I have become a Crystal Serenity convert. While I would still rather be exploring the streets of Rome than be stuck on a boat playing Bingo (which, by the way, I begrudgingly did!) - I would rather be having a martini at the Crystal Cove, and then dining at Nobu Matsuhisa's Silk Road than doing just about anything, anywhere.