OnboardCrystal's biggest challenge is in, ironically, the main feature that differentiates it from smaller-ship luxury lines like Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises: With bigger ships carrying more passengers, how does it successfully offer exemplary service, outstanding cuisine and freedom of choice on such a large scale?
Usually, it manages. Beyond the company's innovative programming and ship features, it has one of the industry's highest passenger-to-staff and passenger-to-space ratios, and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the most loyal repeat passenger bases afloat. There's a huge positive to Crystal's biggest-ships-in-luxury-class status as well; there are simply far more options, in terms of entertainment, socializing, casinos, spa and fitness facilities, activities and enrichment opportunities, than there are on its smaller luxury brethren.
Perhaps the biggest dilemma that has faced Crystal Cruises in the past is the fact that, of all the luxury lines, it's the only one to have two set dinner seatings in the main dining room -- a mainstay of mass-market lines that doesn't necessarily appeal to the eat-when-we-want vagaries of the upper-end cruiser. This was addressed in 2011 with the introduction of the more flexible Perfect Choice Dining in the main dining rooms, where open seating dining will become available by reservation (called, not surprisingly, Open Dining By Reservation). In addition, Crystal has long offered alternatives to its main dining room; its Italian and Japanese restaurants onboard both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity are outstanding, but are generally in huge demand, so make reservations as early as possible. The latest effort -- and it's a wonderful alternative -- is to introduce ultra-casual pool deck dining at The Trident Grill on designated nights during each voyage.
All dining can be pre-booked on an online system, the Priority Check-in and Planning Center, which displays a full, personalized itinerary for each passenger, including everything from restaurant reservations to spa bookings, shore excursions and even tuxedo rental.
The company has been an innovator in the onboard experience -- Crystal was one of the first cruise lines (a decade ago) to embrace the concept of boutique restaurants, and it enthusiastically incorporated cyber cafes on its ships well before others (and offered how-to classes to encourage its passengers' computer skills). This innovation is being taken a step further with the introduction of big-screen iMac workstations that can run Apple's own operating system or Windows, giving passengers a choice. Classes in Computer University @ Sea (Crystal's technology training for passengers) include a seminar on social media.
Crystal was also the first luxury line to make a significant commitment to attracting families, by upgrading children's onboard facilities and activities. And yet, it faithfully maintains cornerstone cruise traditions: elegant afternoon tea, paddle tennis, casinos, activities like bingo and napkin folding, and assigned main restaurant dining for those who want it. (Despite the introduction of Perfect Choice Dining, Crystal executives confirm that there is no intention whatsoever of doing away with the traditional dinner seatings.)
Cabin-wise, accommodations on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity -- particularly in the upper ranges -- are plush and comfortable. However, lower-level categories can feel cramped for a luxury ship at this price tag.
Longer, more exotic cruises attract a 55-plus crowd, but Crystal, developing a reputation as the multi-generational family cruise line of choice for well-heeled travelers, appeals to a more diverse group of passengers for Alaska and, occasionally, Caribbean, itineraries.
Clothing onboard is dressy, particularly on formal nights (good time to break out those sequins). Even on other nights, passengers tend to wear cocktail attire (women) and suits (men). During the day, elegant casual permeates.
In 2012, Crystal joined the ranks of other luxury lines by going the nearly all-inclusive route. Fares now include beverages and gratuities. Starting in Fall 2014, all members of the line's Crystal Society past passenger loyalty program will receive free Internet (up to 60 minutes free per day).
About Crystal CruisesCrystal Cruises offers an intriguing, hybrid-style cruise experience. With two ships, the smallest of which carries 922 passengers, the upscale line has carved out a niche that offers the amenities and activities associated with larger vessels, as well as top-notch dining and service that are part of a luxury experience.
Crystal is owned by NYK Line of Japan and is based in Los Angeles. The line was founded in 1990 with Crystal Harmony as its first ship. Crystal Symphony soon followed. Crystal Serenity debuted in 2003, and Crystal Harmony departed from the fleet two years later.
Beyond its well-deserved reputation for dining, service and big-ship options, Crystal Cruises is particularly known for signature features that include onboard sushi bars, huge wine cellars, paddle tennis, expansive Computer University @ Sea labs and one of the best enrichment programs in cruising. And while its children's facilities can't hold a candle to big-ship lines like Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, Crystal offers the best program for children in the luxury market.
Crystal is also engaged in several activities in the sphere of social responsibility. A buying policy has been introduced whereby all seafood will come from sustainable and fair trade sources. Every itinerary in 2011 included a free excursion on which passengers can participate in a local volunteering effort -- for example, helping in a school or working on a neighborhood cleanup in an underprivileged area. Donations will be made towards the preservation of fragile or historic sites visited on shore excursions. The line is also working on an ambitious plan to develop its own onboard water bottling plants, with a view to ending wastage of plastic mineral water bottles.
And in 2012, Crystal caught up with the rest of the luxury cruise industry by making its fares more inclusive. Fares now cover beverages (including fine wines and premium spirits, plus all non-alcoholic beverages such as bottled water, soda, juices and specialty coffee drinks); gratuities for housekeeping, dining and bar staff; and dining in the ships' specialty restaurants and sushi bars.
Crystal Cruises FleetThe Crystal Cruises fleet is comprised of two ships. The 51,044-ton, 922-passenger Crystal Symphony was launched in 1995. Roughly a third larger, the 68,000-ton, 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity debuted in 2003. While luxury operators like Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises have both launched new ships in the last year, Crystal remains quiet on the new-building front. The line has, however, committed significant funds to refurbishment of both ships; Crystal Symphony had a $15 million makeover in June 2012 and Crystal Serenity had a $20-plus million refit in May 2011.
Fellow PassengersAs previously noted, the longer and more exotic the cruise, the older the clientele (typically the 55-plus crowd). Well-heeled travellers have also jumped at the opportunity to bring their children and grandchildren onboard Crystal's family friendly ships, and multi-generational groups are common. On shorter (weeklong) trips -- mostly Alaska, less commonly Caribbean, itineraries -- the cruise line appeals to a more diverse group of passengers.
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