Crystal is famous for its theme cruises, like Pacific crossings that explore maritime history; golf-themed cruises that have you teeing off at renowned courses and taught by PGA pros; and emerging artists cruises on which up-and-coming musicians, vocalists and dancers perform. Ours was a "Gladiators & Empires" cruise through the Mediterranean, with engaging lecturers who spoke about everything from life in Rome for the gladiators (and everyone on down) and the frescoes and mosaics in Pompeii and Herculaneum to the French Riviera as playground for the rich and famous.
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 well-attended on our cruise) and a sometimes raucous trivia competition. Otherwise, passengers are content to spend days at sea enjoying the public rooms, the extensive open decks or the many lectures offered 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 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 takes place 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 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 glamor 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 shoreside pursuits, Crystal offers a fairly noteworthy range of options. In addition to the expected selection of tours focusing on city highlights and culture, the ship has several unusual and exciting options that cater to the line's well-heeled passengers. If an $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, 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; 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.
A word of caution though: Even Crystal's standard shore excursions are notably expensive, with full-day excursions often costing $350 or more.
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 sweeping staircase from the retail area above and a transparent (crystal) 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 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 (featuring keyboards on every tabletop).
The ship's cyber center is called Computers@Sea, and it benefits from Serenity's slightly larger size. This two-part room includes a classroom with Internet-connected Apple computers and a regular cyber center layout. Note, though, that if you set up a shipboard email 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 in packages that start from $50 for 120 minutes, or you can pay as you go for 74 cents per minute. Also, there are data ports in cabins (and laptops you can borrow for a daily fee). A technology concierge is also onboard to assist you with gadgets, including iPads, Kindles and smartphones. 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 for your flight.
Aft of the Computer Center is a spacious bridge lounge. It's 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 CDs and DVDs for free loan and, of course, books, in a number of different languages to suit its international clientele.
The handful of shops that rims the upper deck of the three-deck atrium was jazzed up during the recent refit. Beyond the usual boutique selling logowear, there's an excellent women's and men's fashion shop and the jaw-dropping, golf ball-sized jewels of Hubert jewelry in Facets boutique.
There are three self-service laundries; no joke, they're 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're serious about being attentive to every detail. These facilities are complimentary for those who have ponied up for penthouse rooms.
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. 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" are 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, near the stern, are golf driving nets and a putting green. 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 Taylormade Golf Clinic with a PGA teaching pro is in full swing (ahem) most days. Decent yoga and Pilates classes are offered, too. But the best secret place we found for a relaxing view and a read was the relaxation room at Crystal Spa on the 13th deck, aft. After spending our departure from Venice with the best view out floor-to-ceiling windows from an elliptical machine in the fitness center, we drank a quiet cup of tea from the relaxation room -- completely alone.
Unlike some other spas we've tried at sea, the spa aboard Serenity was a serene, relaxing (no product hard-sells) experience. It offers a complete range of spa services, such as hot stone massages, facials and scrubs, while the salon has manicures, pedicures, blowouts and hairstyling, as well as barber services for men. Appointments go fast, particularly for formal night, so book early. When we went to book a treatment, the therapist suggested an evening appointment for our lime and salt scrub and massage. This was truly the most luxurious part of the trip, getting a massage next to a floor-to-ceiling window as darkness set in.
The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse passengers while they exercise. 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.