This is a review of our cruise on the Byzantine Odyssey cruise on the Crystal Serenity from June 25 - July 7 2010 with time spent pre-cruise in Venice and after disembarking in Athens.
STATS AND STUFF
We're a gay couple from San Francisco, ages 54 & 61. This was our first cruise on Crystal, but our 23rd cruise overall. We've cruised on most of the other cruise lines, but most frequently have enjoyed Cunard and HAL.
Since this was our first Crystal cruise, this review will highlight "the Crystal difference" as well as give some advice for the various ports of call.
The Crystal Serenity (68,870 GMT) was built in 2003 and holds only 1070 passengers (with a crew of 655). The ship is very comfortable, with no interior passenger cabins.
Currently, the main dining room has two traditional seatings, but this is scheduled to change next year, with a more flexible dining concept. There are 2+ alternative restaurants: Prego for Italian food, and Silk Road for Asian items which also includes a sushi bar overseen by Nobu, the celebrity chef. Aside from tips, there is no extra charge for dining in these restaurants. Besides a well-designed buffet, there's a nice area called the Bistro for coffee and pastries as well as areas near the pool for ice cream, burgers and salads and such. Notably, the chefs in the dining room will happily accommodate special requests. Do you want a special dish, not on the menu? Ask the day before, and they'll prepare it if they can.
There are three major public rooms, the single-deck Galaxy Showroom, the Stardust Lounge, for musical performances and dancing, and the Palm Court, the forward lookout bar, with a large dance floor and small stage. Additionally, there's the clubby Avenue Saloon, with dark wood paneling and leather, a disco, cigar lounge and casino.
There are two pools (one with retractable dome) and a gym/spa. Additionally, the ship is equipped with a comfortable theatre, a large computer lab with separate classroom and the Studio, with electronic keyboards for music classes. On the same floor is the Vintage Room, where special dinners with tasting menus are served.
Although the specific assortment of rooms might not be unusual for a ship this size, it's not the case of many competitors in the luxury market, which tend to use smaller more "boutiquey" ships.
A unique feature of this ship is the location of the lifeboats. They're tucked beneath the promenade (outside the casino and theatre) Not only are there no obstructed view cabins - it avoids the common situation of cabins on the deck above the boats, where the views are horizon or lifeboats, but not the sea. Of course, this diminishes the revenue-generating space on the ship, but for passenger comfort, it can't be beat.
On this sailing, the ship was not full. There were 700+ passengers. As might be expected for a 12 night cruise of this type, there were a number in their 60s, 70s and above - but there were probably 50-100 (well-behaved) kids. Perhaps owing to the Japanese ownership of the line, there were a significant number of Asian passengers in the mix as well.
THE CRYSTAL DIFFERENCE
The passenger space and crew ratios are superb, as might be expected. One would expect a high level of service and that is certainly the case. There's another aspect to the warm, committed service that surprised me, and that was the attitude of the crew and staff to the company, itself. Time and again, in conversation, crew members volunteered how happy they were to be working for Crystal - and how well the company takes care of them. This attitude toward their employees clearly manifests itself in the attitude toward their jobs and to the passengers.
Not only are the staff happy and service-oriented, they're extremely talented. Martin, the pianist in the Avenue Saloon, spent many years playing for the English Royal Family on their yacht, Britannia, and at Windsor Castle. The Berlitz Spanish instructor was responsible for all their programs in Central and South America. The list goes on. To a person, their credentials and knowledge are impressive.
Continuing on this theme, I must note the production shows. They were excellent. Unlike shows we've seen on other lines, the entertainment was provided by the entertainers, not the stage or shtick. The company consists of two lead vocalists and an ensemble of eight singers and dancers. Yes, like Broadway, the chorus is multitalented - they sing too. There were a couple of other notable facets to the shows. One show, "My favorite Things" exclusively features the music of Rogers and Hammerstein. R&H Theatricals is notorious for keeping VERY tight control of the catalogue. (Think about it - have you EVER seen a R&H song in a showtune revue?). Finally, check the shoes! The two ladies in LA who create the shows for Crystal must like shoes. Unlike other lines, each of the many costume changes includes its own footwear. (This was pointed out during a backstage tour I attended)
There were many other luxury touches included. Defying the fee-crazy trend of recent years, there is no charge for non-alcoholic beverages or ice cream (happily provided by the ever-available staff). In the well-designed cabins, there are full-size bottles of premium toiletries. The soft drinks, water and fresh fruit was replenished daily at no charge. Going ashore? Be sure to grab a complimentary bottle of water or beach towel inside the gangway. When you return, there's a chest of cold towels to refresh you.
I must mention the seamstress. We noticed that a couple of buttons on our formal wear needed replacing. The solution? Five minutes after a call to the front desk, the ship's seamstress appeared at our cabin. A half hour later, the buttons were attached - no charge.
Last, but certainly NOT least, I've got to mention my cruise critic posting and its aftermath. During the first dinner, things were a bit bumpy. No major problems, but the experience was not what I had been led to expect by the rave reviews and postings on Cruise Critic. (No significant issues at all - the experience would have been totally expected on a mainstream line) Unsure exactly how to calibrate my expectations, I posted a question on Cruise Critic before I decided if I should talk to the appropriate crew members.
Talk about responsible service and going above-and-beyond! Hours later, on the next night, we had new dining room staff, and the maitre d' and dining room manager checked in repeatedly to ask if things were OK. (They were) Also the next day, I received a message from Victor, the Food and Beverage Manager, inviting me to discuss any concerns I might have. I sent him a note to thank him and reply that indeed, everything was wonderful. Later that day, a nice bottle of wine was delivered with a note from him. What had the potential for a small negative experience was quickly turned into an impressive display of proactive customer service and truly exceeding expectations.
Again, I must mention a comment that illustrates how this attitude permeates the Crystal experience. A few nights later, during an amazing 4th of July deck party on our Istanbul overnight, I saw Victor, introduced myself, and complimented the great event put on by the people who work for him. He corrected me, crediting the people who work WITH him.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS
I always recommend doing some research before leaving, in order to maximize the experience and help decide when it makes sense to spend extra for a ships tour or to do it on your own. One of the best starting places is always Cruise Critic (http://www.cruisecritic.com)
We departed from Venice. What can I say? We had heard Venice would be stinky (not true) crowded (not if you just walk a couple of blocks away from San Marco and the other tourists) and expensive (yeah, that one's accurate) -- but we were enchanted by this unique city of islands and canals.
We stayed at the Hotel Al Codega. It's located on a little courtyard about midway between the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge - yet surprisingly, there's only one little bridge to either destination. It was charming, quiet, and reasonably priced.
We took a water taxi from the airport. Following 20+ hours of travel, this was money well spent. Standing up in the back of the luxurious boat as we sped across the lagoon to Venice was a spectacular experience. We didn't blow our money on a gondola ride - and we think this was a better use for those roughly 100 euros. (By the way, we DID ride in a gondola -- the next day we used a tronchetto to cross the Grand Canal for 1 euro)
I mentioned that our hotel was located on a small courtyard. I was glad that I had checked it out using the street-view cams at Venice Connected, or I may have bypassed the little alley to the courtyard entirely. (http://www.veniceconnected.com) This site is a compendium of information and the best source for advance purchase of passes for museums and vaporetti (boats used for public transit)
Venice Tours We took a number of tours - primarily not provided by the ship: Venice Backstreets Tour (http://www.theveniceexperience.com) - we took this walking tour an hour or two after arriving. Mike, the owner of the company took us around spots that most tourists would likely miss. Most importantly, he exposed us to the two key aspects to enjoying Venice. First - go down that little alley. Get lost. Be brave (there's no crime to speak of in the city) - if you think something interesting might be down that little street, go there! Second - take a break and have a spritz. Venetians' favorite cocktail, appropriate any time of day, a spritz, is a refreshing blend of prosecco, soda and Campari (bitter) or Aperol (orange) with a garnish of citrus and olive. All cafes serve them, and you'll get a knowing smile if you order one - especially with Campari.
Another highly-recommended tour is the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge's Palace. This tour is only offered three times a day in English and must be booked in advance. (http://www.venice-museum.com). This tour takes you to the "secret floors" above the public areas of the palace, where the bureaucrats, and spies kept their records and reports - also prison cells and a torture chamber. It was absolutely fascinating.
When you're online, you can also save a lot of time and avoid the LONG lines of tourists by pre-booking an entrance reservation to the don't-miss Basilica San Marco in advance (http://www.venetoinside.com/en/basilica_of_san_marco/)
We usually enjoy taking boat tours of cities. From the rivers of St Petersburg to the canals of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, these tours inevitably give another perspective of the city, while allowing an hour or two to rest our tired feet. We found a tour in Venice. We were disappointed. Besides the cost (30 euro), they don't use specially designed river tourboats like in other cities. In Venice, these tours are done in water taxis - which are designed for many things (low bridge clearance, inside passenger luxury) but not for views from inside or audibility of the guide's comments. All-in-all, better to grab Rick Steve's guide and ride the vaporetto down the Grand Canal.
Finally, on Saturday, we took a very special ship's excursion, called Venetian Artistry. Our first stop was the home of Bevilacqua, where we saw the looms which have been used for hundreds of years - still using the jacquard cards which store the patterns for their historic silk velvets. We then boarded our water taxi to Murano, to visit another historic producer of Venetian art - the Archimede Seguso factory, which is usually closed to the public. It was a spectacular, and very special, afternoon capped with a lunch catered by the top establishment in Venice - all of this was arranged and provided only by Crystal.
Closed on Sunday. We saw the beautiful mosaics and then returned to the ship. Not a highlight.
Took the ships' excursion to the "sea caves" at Paleokastritsa with beach time and local snacks from a view spot. The sea caves were "sea niches" at best, but the boat time was pleasant, the beach was nice, the guide was interesting, the snacks were good - and the Greek beer we purchased was refreshing. The excursion was fine, but doing your own tour at this port would be OK too.
We downloaded a walking tour for this fascinating city. It was very well done. (http://www.discovery-walk.com) A highlight of our visit was the excellent Archeological Museum. It's much more extensive than it originally appears, with many garden areas.
We took a tour which had been offered by our travel agent. We visited the usual two sites: the old palace, now an excellent "underwater archeological museum" and the ruins of the mausoleum. It was a nice port. However, I'm told that the city is known as a major party town and to really experience Bodrum, one must be there in the evening. A number of passengers took an excursion to Ephesus - which is fascinating, but requires a loooong bus trip.
One of the highlights of the trip. We took a ship's excursion to the sacred island of Delos, which is just offshore of Mykonos. This island is uninhabited, but is completely a historic site. Only 20% has been excavated and that much is breathtaking. Our "Greek guidess" was wonderful and provided so much context for the many sights. While we did our trip as a ship excursion, tours are widely available, and the ferry to the island is public.
After the tour,. We wandered the little city of Mykonos, climbing through the little white walkways and shops. We had a delightful lunch of seafood, lamb and more local beer in a little garden oasis. Fortunately, we were the only ship in port that day. There were five ships the day before, and I suspect the tiny town would have been overrun.
We loved Istanbul and look forward to returning. It's a fascinating city with so much to experience that our overnight stay just whetted our appetites - which considering the delicious Turkish food, is literally true.
We arranged for a private tour with a gay tour guide -- specifically for the nightlife tour mentioned below. Although there's much that is exotic about Istanbul, it's quite approachable and a savvy cruiser could easily see the major sites on their own. As an alternative to large ship tours, there are a number of resources for small group and private tours besides the one we selected.
In our two half-day tours, we saw the usual sights: Hagia Sophia (don't miss the views from the second story), Blue Mosque, the Cisterns (very cool!) and the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace Museum. All were breathtaking, don't-miss experiences. However, we also ate a delicious lunch at one of the oldest restaurants in the city (it was more of a cafeteria, really).
In our Istanbul Gay Nightlife tour, we visited six bars starting at 10:00 at night and returned to the ship before 3:00 (We could have stopped at more, but were pooped by the end). Our guide seemingly knew people at all the bars and on the streets. The venues ranged from a small cafe at the start of the evening (where a wedding party, including the bride in full white dress, arrived and started dancing to traditional Turkish music) to "atmospheric" bars up three dodgy flights of stairs, to a beautiful nightclub with a 10 piece band performing Turkish disco dance music - it's surprising how well a house beat matches Turkish music. (http://www.istanbulgay.com)
If you have an overnight stop in Istanbul - do NOT stay on the ship all night. It's a short taxi ride to the Taksim district. This is where seemingly all of Istanbul goes in the evening to walk down the well-lit pedestrian street filled with shops, restaurants and bars.
We spent an extra three days in Athens after disembarking. This was a good choice. First, because it allowed us to see the major sites, secondly, because there was a general strike and some demonstrations on our second day - which allowed us to adjust our schedule to accommodate it.
I wish I could add some advice to the usual suggestions, but I cannot. The Acropolis and Ancient Agora were breathtaking. The Parthenon Museum is exquisitely designed - with space set aside for those Elgin Marbles, should the British Museum ever return them. The National Museum is the other can't miss sight with an incomparable collection and superb signage and explanations to put it all in perspective.
At this point, the usual question is "Will you do it again?"
We most certainly will cruise Crystal again. As forewarned, indeed, we've been spoiled and found much to love about the Crystal experience. However, there's a wide world of cruising options and alternatives, so our future plans won't be exclusively with the line. For instance, our next cruises are likely to be a river cruise in Europe, what I'm calling a "big, dumb Caribbean cruise" on the Oasis/Allure of the seas and quite possibly another North Atlantic crossing - and none of these match the Crystal experience. It took about 25 years to try Crystal for our first time, but it'll be a small fraction of that before we sail on the line again.
Will we revisit the ports? Yes, we will revisit Istanbul. We loved Venice and would enjoy seeing her again, but don't have the "unfulfilled" feeling about revisiting. Athens? Been there, done that.
It was an amazing vacation. We adored the ship and many of the cities we visited. We learned a lot, had some amazing food, and drank a lot of local culture. Life is good!