Over the years, expedition cruising has evolved, with more companies entering the fray all the time. For cruisers, that means choice. One of the most-welcome trends we've seen over the past few years is the emergence of luxury expedition cruising: a voyage combining elements of true adventure exploration with a luxury onboard experience.
The newest luxury expedition ship on the seas, Crystal Cruises' Crystal Endeavor, launched in summer 2021, sailing an inaugural season in Iceland. Now, it has charted a course for the Bahamas and Caribbean for a one-off voyage before heading to Antarctica, where it will sail a season in the Southern Hemisphere, showcasing the region's glaciers, penguins, seals, whales and more.
Crystal Cruises invited Cruise Critic on its special nine-night Bahamas and Caribbean voyage to get a taste of what the line's newest 200-passenger ship has to offer.
Here's what cruisers can look forward to on Crystal Endeavor.
Boarding Crystal Endeavor, I didn't get that "expedition ship vibe" right away. It simply felt like a luxury ship, thanks in large part to its exceptional space-to-passenger ratio.
What's a space-to-passenger ratio? It's a measure of tonnage divided by passengers onboard. The higher the number, the more space there is available per person. Crystal Endeavor is 20,200 gross tons, holding 200 passengers at max capacity, making that ratio 101 when the ship is full -- and most big ships have space ratios in the 30's or 40's. That is a lot of space, and it's further amplified by the fact that our sailing is joined by fewer than 50 guests. Passengers feel like they have the run of the ship; we've gone hours at a time without seeing another guest.
After some exploring, we discovered expedition features everywhere, with large outdoor spaces for scenic viewing, a library and lounge overflowing with books about explorers and the remote destinations they visited, and a clever Solarium that holds the ship's only pool in a multilevel space filled with floor-to-ceiling windows -- heck, even the ceiling is glass. In fact, this has quickly become our favorite space, as it's the only casual dining spot onboard, a small, crew-served buffet for breakfast and lunch.
Cabins, too, are smartly appointed. They're all suites, complete with balconies and butler service.
We're staying in a Deluxe Suite, which, at 304 square feet, feels spacious. It has plenty of room for storage. The shower is one of the best we've experienced onboard a ship, a roomy capsule with a full bench for sitting or leg shaving and an Axor rainfall shower head plus a handheld shower paddle with changeable settings, including rotating massage functionality. The bathroom features heated floors, which we anticipate will be appreciated on those cold-weather sailings.
No Crystal ship would be complete without standards like Asian stalwart Umi Uma and Italian restaurant Prego. They're here on Endeavor, along with Waterside, the ship's main dining room; the Marketplace in the Solarium, a crew-served (a least during the pandemic) buffet option; the Bistro Cafe, a casual grab-and-go choice for quick bites and snacks; and 24/7 in-room dining service.
Having this kind of choice on an expedition ship is rare, and we're feeling a bit spoiled by it. One big bonus: On Crystal Endeavor, you can eat in specialty options Umi Uma and Prego as often as you'd like, without paying a second-night surcharge. (This is different than Crystal's traditional ocean-going vessels because Endeavor sails with so few passengers and offers long voyages.)
We're big fans of Umi Uma, and our dinner there this week was incredible, from the signature starters like eggplant or salmon tartare to the shared sashimi platter and the udon noodle soup. But we didn't have the stomach space to try any of the sushi rolls or the restaurant's famous Waygu beef filet, so we have plans to return.
Prego was as much a production as a meal, with our waiters serving as hosts through a meal that included Black Angus beef carpaccio that required multiple table-side steps (fresh lemon squeezes, olive oil and balsamic drizzles, parmesan shavings and grindings of cracked-black pepper) before we could dig in. Pasta was excellent, and sauces were house made and delicious.
But it's not just the specialty restaurants that shine; we've loved every meal in Waterside and the Solarium, which offers a mix of buffet options and a la minute items like a pasta of the day and satisfying burgers.
With so few passengers onboard our sailing, it feels like we're dining in our own private spaces, with four or more servers catering to our every need. In fact, one night in Waterside, we were the first -- and only -- diners for a full hour, and our waiter, Prince Jose, treated us like kings. (I expect he would even if he had other tables at the time, but the one-on-one service was special.)
At its heart, Crystal Endeavor is an expedition ship, and adventure clearly went into the design. For starters, the ship features two mudrooms, well-thought-out spaces designed for both holding equipment and moving passengers efficiently on and off the ship, via one of the 18 Zodiac rafts onboard. Each person is assigned a locker (so you don't have to share with your cabin mate), where they can store their PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) -- these are required when you're on the Zodiacs.
Next to the lockers, you store your boots on a pegged boot dryer, provided by Crystal for use when you're ashore. The mudroom includes lots of benches so you can easily dress and undress, plus spaces for hanging things like bags or wind-jackets. It's a comfortable space that makes the whole process (and trust us, getting ready to head out ashore in Antarctica is a process) much easier than trying to take this all on in your suite.
In cabins, we love the small, vented drying lockers specifically made for storing dirty gear, like parkas in Antarctica, away from your other clothing. These cabinets serve the secondary purpose of keeping potential smells contained. (Yes, your jacket will pick up a certain ... um ... odor after spending time, day after day, hanging out with penguins and seals.)
The ship also offers spaces particularly created for expedition, including a small meeting room on Deck 9 for chatting with expedition guides, as well as a meeting room (the Flight Lounge) just off the helicopter pad where passengers will meet and be instructed about their helicopter excursions. One of those random-but-cool items we geeked out over: Waterside restaurant offers small porthole windows at the back of the restaurant so passengers can look at the ship's onboard submersible when it's not being used.
The ship's clamshell-shaped Marina at the aft folds down to create an additional viewing platform that sits at water level. It also has built-in gangways on either side of the ship that can drop down in ports with piers but otherwise serve as cantilevered viewing platforms.
Overall, Crystal Endeavor offers an abundance of viewing spaces, both indoors and outdoors. We saw heating elements in some outdoor spaces, which were unnecessary on our sailing but will be a blessing in cold environments.
Of course, it's not all about the hardware; expedition guides are a major part of every adventure cruise, and on Crystal Endeavor, the team of guides is led by Steve Moir, a naturalist and expedition guide with more than 20 years of experience. On our sailing, he's joined by a host of folks, including marine biologists, ornithologists, naturalists and more. We've had a few sea day lectures so far, which have been solid, but the real payoff is the one-on-one time you get with the guides in Zodiacs and ashore. This gives guests an opportunity to ask tons of questions and really understand the locations they're visiting.
Two of the biggest selling points for Crystal Endeavor when it was announced were a submersible, for exploring below the water's surface, and two helicopters, meant for soaring high above. The helicopters haven't made it aboard yet, and the submarine is here but is not available for passenger use just yet. In fact, the helicopters won't be ready for the ship's first Antarctica season. The bright side: Antarctica is spectacular even without them, and no doubt guests will enjoy exploring the White Continent no matter what. And, we're told the submersible will be taking guests to new depths in Antarctica.
Additionally, while we really enjoyed the kayaking, Zodiac tours and snorkeling on our trip, the time in-between has been a little sedate. Some guests we spoke with were looking for a little "something more", be it entertainment, more lectures, trivia or the like. This likely will be less of an issue in Antarctica, when days are filled with tours and lectures, and guests regularly will head to bed early because the exhaustion factor of that schedule is real. On sea days, the ship has offered a couple of lectures and a trivia session, but ultimately, there is a lot of down time. Entertainment is evolving, Keith Cox, the company's vice president of entertainment, said, noting the real emphasis will be on expedition, especially in Antarctica. We've been told Antarctica voyages will feature a resident artist, who will offer sessions on creating artwork of the abundant wildlife and awe-inspiring scenery.
The ship's marina is another piece that's still a work in progress. It has been open two days so far, but we haven't yet seen anyone take advantage, in part, we suspect, because it hasn't really been announced and it's a bit of a trick to locate. So far, we've only seen it used as a water-level sundeck, with lounge chairs and some tables for casual gathering (though it could use some shade here in the Bahamas). Bar service is offered (as is a stocked fridge of soft drinks). We spoke with one expedition guide who said its function still is being determined, but the hope is that in warm, calm waters, people could take a dip from the platform. There's also the potential for it to be used to launch kayaks or standup paddleboards.
Our sailing to the Bahamas and Caribbean sets the stage as the ship prepares to head to Antarctica, which will be a true test of its expedition mettle. The climate is challenging, with a trip through the notoriously stormy Drake Passage to boot. But the payoff is why Antarctica is a dream destination for many, and Crystal Endeavor is built to deliver the wow in style.
Crystal Endeavor's Antarctica season starts with a November 18 sailing and finishes in mid-February. (Worth noting: Crystal is offering a private charter flight for passengers from Miami to cruise-departure port Ushuaia and back, a fairly rare option for a trip to Antarctica where most flights have forced overnight stays in Buenos Aires.)
From there, Endeavor heads to Africa for a short season before sailing a handful of sailings along Spain and the U.K. The ship then will call on the Arctic for the summer, cruising the world's most remote places with more than just a splash of luxury.
Updated October 29, 2021