Crystal has carved out for itself a superior niche in the enrichment arena. Its dynamic Creative Learning Institute features a range of subjects -- foreign language courses, art workshops, computer skills classes, and cooking, music and dance exhibitions. Through its Visions program, the line arranges for experts and celebrities to speak on topics like political science, current affairs, food and wine, astronomy, and art and antiques. Several theme cruises offer in-depth looks at topics that include golf, big band music, football, politics and even emerging artists.
Not every topic is available on every sailing, but you can check Crystal's Web site and match a favorite subject with a sailing that fits your schedule.
Aside from the enrichment program and athletic classes, daytime activities are fairly low-key. They may include a movie shown in the theater, a dance lesson taught by the gentlemen hosts, lessons by the golf instructor on the putting green (which were very well-attended on my cruise) or a paddle tennis competition. Otherwise, passengers are content to spend their cherished days at sea enjoying the public rooms, the extensive open decks or the many lectures on offer throughout the day.
Another area in which Crystal Serenity excels is live music. You don't have to be an old fogey to appreciate classical music at teatime, a classical quartet in the atrium, torch songs at cocktail hour in the Palm Court, Broadway show tunes in the Avenue Saloon before and after dinner and fabulously fun karaoke in the intense Pulse Disco.
One noteworthy improvement over Crystal Symphony is the Sunset Bar at the forward end of the Palm Court. It offers gorgeous views over the bow (hence the name) and is rarely crowded. It became a favorite watering hole as we sailed out of port. Dancing (with gentleman hosts) is popular and offered there nightly.
The Crystal Casino, on the way to the Galaxy Lounge, offers a comprehensive range of table games and slots; it's no longer operated, by the way, by Caesar's Palace.
The Galaxy Lounge is the ship's main show lounge, used for Broadway-style production shows and headline entertainers, including singers and comedians. While larger and more elaborate than the cabaret acts found on smaller luxury ships, the shows are far simpler than what you'll find on larger mega-ships. Still, they seem to please Serenity's passengers, who appreciate the option of seeing a show most evenings but who don't need the full glitz and glamour of more extensive productions. Serenity also extends the Crystal tradition of its Hollywood Theater, which, on our trip, showed both classic and second-run films. Popcorn is served, but get there early. The screenings are great for cloudy afternoons at sea.
For the most part, this ship attracts passengers who retire relatively early, but the Pulse Disco was a pretty reliable place to meet up with other night owls. So was the Avenue Saloon many nights, which is big enough to accommodate a crowd, yet small enough to feel clubby and comfortably full. After dinner, a pianist belted out popular tunes that had some singing along, others dancing and everyone having a good time. This kind of buzz and energy in the room is often hard to duplicate on the smaller luxury lines with their quieter nightlife.
For shoreside pursuits, Crystal offers a fairly noteworthy range of options. In addition to the expected selection of tours focusing on city highlights and culture, they have several unusual and exciting options that cater to the line's well-heeled passengers. If the already mentioned $8,900 tour driving a Ferrari isn't quite exciting enough for you, perhaps flying a MIG fighter jet in Russia is? More active offerings are also starting to be included -- I enjoyed a beautiful seven-mile hike along the Amalfi coast -- and the line has added complimentary "Voluntourism" excursions to all sailings. Examples include assisting with meal preparation for abused, ill or abandoned children in Nafplion, Greece; aiding injured sea turtles at a sea turtle research center in Athens; and helping to maintain the gardens with the elderly inhabitants of the 660-year-old Domus Christi shelter in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
A word of caution though: Even Crystal's standard shore excursions are notably expensive, with full-day excursions often costing $350 or more. For example, on my cruise, a simple coach transfer from Livorno to Florence cost $132 -- twice what Cunard Line was charging. Crystal's rationale is that they don't fill up the bus and include bottled water, but we still view it as overcharging.
Crystal Serenity Public Rooms
Crystal Serenity makes a splashy impression on entry. The Crystal Cove area in the atrium is marked most significantly by a lovely waterfall sculpture and a baby grand. (As often as not, it seemed, someone was playing it -- sometimes even particularly talented passengers!) This was one of our favorite spots for people-watching onboard, as passengers moved through on their way to the dining room or, a deck or two above, to browse the newly redesigned shops or hit The Bistro.
The generously sized Creative Learning Institute is a highlight onboard. Located along an elegantly wide corridor, there are several classrooms, even one dedicated entirely to Yamaha piano instruction (and featuring keyboards on every tabletop). The ship's cyber center is called Computers@Sea and benefits from Serenity's slightly larger size. This two-part room features a classroom with Internet-connected Apple computers and a regular cyber center layout. (The most helpful staff there even opened all the computers, classroom too, when our cruise was unexpectedly extended for two days -- and usage was free!) Note, though, that if you set up a shipboard e-mail account in the Internet center, Crystal will charge per megabyte uploaded rather than per minute, and that can be costly. Otherwise, typical Internet access (including Wi-Fi around the ship) is available starting at package prices of $50 for 120 minutes, or pay as you go options for 74 cents per minute. Also, there are data ports in cabins (and laptops for loan for a daily fee). A technology concierge is also onboard to assist you with gadgets, including iPads, Kindles and smart phones. 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).
Editor's Note: Crystal has made several significant steps to dramatically increase the speed of the Internet on its ships. Don't expect broadband, but it is among the fastest Internet connections we've ever seen on any ship. And they even throw in a nice touch -- 20 free minutes on the last day of your cruise so you can check in to your flight.
Aft of the Computer Center is a spacious Bridge lounge. Here, again, is another example of the space Crystal Serenity has. Whereas other lines have removed or downsized similar nonrevenue-generating spaces, Crystal has dedicated an entire room to card-playing. (Bridge instructors usually sail on each cruise, as well.)
On the opposite side of the ship is an excellent onboard library, which stocks CD's and DVD's for free loan -- and, of course, books.
The handful of shops that rim the upper deck of the three-deck atrium were jazzed up during the recent refit. They now are even more successful at luring you in to spend money. Beyond the usual boutique selling logowear, there's an excellent women's and men's fashion shop; when I found I'd forgotten my long black formal-night skirt, I had no trouble finding the perfect replacement there. Merchandise changes each day, so there's always a new reason to visit. Look for mini-sales; you can really find some good deals. And the staffers there were so attentive that shopping onboard felt more like a spree at Saks than on a cruise ship.
There are three complimentary self-service laundries -- and no joke, they are the best we've seen at sea, with plenty of room, ironing boards, magazines and even a TV. When a line invests this much money in its laundry rooms, you know they are serious about being attentive to every detail.
Crystal Serenity Spa & Fitness
The ship has two pools. The Seahorse is the main one, with a bandstand and two whirlpools. The Neptune, which lies under a sliding-glass roof, is ostensibly the "bad weather" pool, but oddly enough, we never saw anyone swim there. The Trident Grill and Tastes, two alternative dining options located in that area, have pretty much taken over the space with tables and chairs, and it's just not conducive to swimming while people are eating. The roof was never opened, even when the weather was fine.
During the 2011 refit, new "resort style" deck furniture was added in conversational groupings to the pool deck, with attractive results. The area is colorful and cheery without being flashy, and the long couches and oversized circular "pod beds" were perfect for either one or two people to stretch out comfortably in the sun.
Walkers will rejoice when they set foot on one of the best Promenade Decks at sea. Wide, without deck chairs to block the way, it completely circles the ship and harkens back to traditional liners. A deck below, on the very stern, are the golf driving nets and a putting green. (Every cruise features an onboard pro who gives demos and lessons.) There are also two Ping-Pong tables, thoughtfully enclosed by a large net that prevents the problem of chasing after errant balls. Due to the secluded location of these games, the ship can keep them open 24 hours a day without worrying about noise complaints. Shuffleboard is located a few decks above. Due to popular demand for paddle tennis, Serenity has two full-size courts located at the top of the ship.
The Crystal Spa and Salon is a lovely facility, hewing to a Zen theme that really worked. It was a pleasant and peaceful place to be, and our treatments, which ranged from a fantastic salt and ginger scrub to a couples massage, were outstanding. Though this spa, like so many onboard cruise ships, is operated by Steiner, famous for the post-treatment product pitch, not once did anyone try to sell me anything.
The salon offers the full gamut of services: haircuts, styling, pedicures and manicures. Staffers there were exceptional. When I had a last-minute hair emergency (is there any other kind?), they took me in hand, fixed the problem and charged me far less than they could have. I appreciated that.
The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse while exercising. Fitness classes are offered daily, and two new initiatives include Nordic Walking with walking poles and "Walkvests," weighted water vests designed to intensify your workout.