By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; Updated By Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic Contributor(5.0)
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 Fellow Passengers
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 Serenity Dress Code
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 Serenity Gratuity
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.