There's a reason Crystal is consistently voted a fan favorite among luxury cruise devotees. Yes, 535-stateroom Serenity is now more glamorous than ever, having emerged from a dramatic $52 million makeover as a part of a $120 million fleet transformation that began in May 2011. Those who long for the black-tie elegance of yesteryear's cruises will find it nightly amid the charmed laughter and clinking glasses in Serenity's dining rooms and lounges.
But there's a whole cult of Crystal-only cruisers, as faithful to the brand as travelers who hop to every Four Seasons, and they don't just love it for its beautiful aesthetics. In short, it's the culture of friendly, spot-on, perpetually delightful service.
Launched in 2003, Crystal Serenity is the youngest of Crystal's ships; near-sibling Crystal Symphony launched five years later. Most significant about the vessel itself is that Crystal Serenity has benefited from more than a decade of evolution with 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 cruisers. Responding to demand, Crystal Serenity offers twice as many penthouse cabins as Symphony. 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.
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. But that was just the first phase in a dramatic $52 million makeover. Its final phase, a $17 million redesign of public areas, had just completed as we came aboard in 2014. It included a redesign of its now-airy Santa Barbara-inspired Lido Deck (think living walls, outside sofas and a global-inspired casual dining deck), as well as the ultra-luxe redesign of its penthouses and 1,345-square-foot Crystal Penthouses, which positions it squarely at the top end of the world's best cruise ships.
Other hallmarks of Crystal Cruises -- the Creative Learning Institutes, which include language classes, digital filmmaking courses and knowledgeable professors that lecture along the way -- are as tremendous an added value as ever. Itineraries are all inclusive, with complimentary wine and spirits, and prepaid gratuities. There are little -- but important -- perks along the way, too, like same-day pressing and convenient self-serve launderettes on the two penthouse floors.
We noticed that there were a lot of passengers celebrating milestone occasions, and for them -- or just those with plenty of money to celebrate -- Crystal offers a myriad of opportunities to create a once-in-a-lifetime sailing. On our voyage, Crystal unveiled two posh Crystal Adventures for an overnight in Monaco during the Grand Prix. Crystal had its own VIP grandstand seats in the heart of the action, plus catered lunch and, later, VIP tables at Amber Lounge with free-flowing Dom Perignon at Formula 1's exclusive after party. The experience started at $1,000 per person.
For newcomers, the onboard atmosphere can often feel a bit country clubby. Most passengers are of retirement age, and many have met one another before. (In many cases, they sailed together on previous trips.) We, in our early 40's with a 5-year-old daughter along, were easily among the youngest aboard.
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 is nearly all-inclusive, with drinks, tips and even airfare included in the fares. (There are fees for shore excursions and alternative restaurant reservations beyond the first one.) But, it speaks to the line's strength that it's 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 quickly, Crystal won't lose its identity.
Crystal passengers are generally an empty-nester crowd, especially on unusual itineraries like World Cruises, where longer itineraries attract those who clearly have the time (read: retirement) to take the longer sailings. In fact, we overheard solicitous staff greeting repeat passengers or those who had been living aboard even while the staff had been on hiatus. On our sailing, our daughter was one of only three children aboard (though the kids of a visiting professor and the child of a performer rotated in and out).
In the Mediterranean, you can expect about half of the passengers to be American. The rest are mostly English-speaking passengers from the U.K., Australia and South America. Crystal's management tells us that plenty of passengers also come from Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and Spain.
Crystal has 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, tuxedos and even formal white coats on formal nights, there are fewer formal and informal nights now. Dress is generally elegant resort casual.
While suggested tipping guidelines had been published for years by Crystal -- $5 per day for cabin stewards and waiters, $3 per day for assistant waiters, $5 per day for assistant butlers, and so on -- Crystal has recently rolled gratuities into the overall charge, which makes for far less confusion. Crystal's inclusive cruising policy includes gratuities for housekeeping (penthouse butler and attendant, stateroom attendant), and bar and dining staff (including specialty restaurants and in-room dining staff). Naturally, you can leave a little something for over-the-top exemplary service, and Crystal Spa & Salon services automatically add 18 percent.