The strength of Crystal Serenity (1,000 passengers) lies in its sea days and onboard entertainment, rather than its limited offerings onshore. My wife and I took this “Classic Atlantic Crossing” to maximize those sea days. Cruise V5308 ... Read More
The strength of Crystal Serenity (1,000 passengers) lies in its sea days and onboard entertainment, rather than its limited offerings onshore. My wife and I took this “Classic Atlantic Crossing” to maximize those sea days. Cruise V5308 (Miami to Lisbon in May 2015) stopped enroute at Bermuda and the Azores.
There’s a lot to like about the Serenity, and Crystal’s performance was acceptable in most respects. I’d hold up a paddle with an “8” (out of 10) for this cruise. Like much in life, we savor what’s there and overlook what’s not.
Crystal definitely markets a club that people want to join. In an onboard video, Crystal’s president boasts a waiting list of 700 for one of Serenity’s cruises in 2016.
And, in an April interview with CNBC, Crystal’s president described her target market as follows: “Our top two percent of the world’s wealthiest are who our guests are. Many of them have numerous homes around the world. They have private yachts. Yet they still choose to cruise on Crystal for the luxury brand experience that we can give them. . . They’re not price sensitive. They have everything, and they want really wonderful experiences.” (See http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000373868 )
One reviewer last fall, while pleased with the product, noted that “Crystal's marketing hype is over the top, so we came in with very high expectations.” In contrast, online chat threads sometimes voice a missing “wow” between what was experienced and what was promised by Crystal’s ads and advocates.
But the myth of pampered perfection (that lore of “six” or “seven” stars) is simply not a realistic expectation for this gracefully-aging little ship. We think of Serenity as a well-kept boutique hotel where everyone knows your name, rather than a floating palace of perfection. Our approach is to enjoy what’s there, things both large and small.
For music lovers and musicians, Crystal's entertainment manager (Christopher Escamilla) pulled out all the stops on this one. Virtuoso performers paid authentic tribute to Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Patsy Cline, Carlos Santana, and Wolfgang Mozart. Lecturers on the business of Hollywood and Broadway included actors, talent agents, film historians, a choreographer, a makeup artist, and a celebrity photographer.
And then there were daily sets from the pianists, dance band, and incredibly-versatile Russian string quartet. All supplemented every few days with dance productions and musical comedians backed up by Serenity’s jazz band.
We take Crystal to visit places we’d otherwise never see. Christopher’s entertainment program -- right down to his fun theme decor for the venues -- was woven together as a two-week backstory for the mysterious world of films, stage, and music. The “wow” was definitely there for us, and this is the kind of program that we just seem to keep talking about after we get home.
As part of this, the little ship was saturated with live music and the insider stories behind it. And, like traveling with the circus, the Crystal norm was for the performers to walk, talk, and dine among us like any other passenger. It was probably heaven on earth for amateur musicians, who sure had their chance to hang out with the masters. And such low-key, everyday access is also typical of Serenity cruises with themes like jazz or ballroom dance (big band).
Even the ship's two captains kept us entertained. Serenity's former captain (Glenn Edvardsen) circulated as the cruise’s honorary host and delighted passengers with memories of his career on the high seas (including my inquiry about rogue waves). Serenity's current captain (Birger Vorland) concluded his daily passenger briefings with a few minutes of the science behind the navigation. I always look forward to the day's episode, and at my request he included the story of the rare "green flash" at sunset that I keep hoping to see. (He assures us that it really does exist.)
I much appreciated the free wireless access to 300+ videos of past enrichment lectures on the Serenity (from the prior day to several years back). Past destination lectures can be quite helpful for researching future travel. And there’s no more unresolved wondering about that lecture you were too busy to attend in person. But Crystal’s online portal needs to label these videos by topic, rather than just by the name of the lecturer.
The formal dining room (Deck 5) will go beyond the published dinner menu if you alert your head waiter the night before. Some possibilities for such off-menu orders are family style meat entrees, group salads made tableside, favorite desserts, lobsters, steaks, and custom juice squeezes.
The highlight of our formal dining was the special Bavarian cuisine that head waiter Franz arranged at the request of our table (Salzburger nockerl, wiener roast braten, Linzer torte). Franz is from Austria and entertained us with the local story of these dishes, which inspired me to study up further at http://germanfood.about.com. Franz is one of the reasons that we keep coming back to Crystal, and online postings by others indeed note his famous desserts.
We also found such personalized attention to dining details in the ship’s other venues. If you hate the herded feedings for which the cruise industry is stereotyped, then Serenity is your antidote.
For instance, maitre d’ Antonio patiently taught my wife how to use chopsticks in the Japanese restaurant (Deck 6). Though we eventually had a breakthrough on this, the learning curve initially required a little cleanup of a bean or two that hit the floor.
Up at the Trident Bar (Deck 12), waiter Bryan introduced me to his drink of choice (“red ice tea”) from his thirsty youth as a pro soccer player. Lloyd found a jar of Ovaltine for me, a drink from my own childhood. Bartenders Musa and Jonathan remembered my wife’s personal recipe for an adult beverage.
This personal attention in Serenity’s dining gives us the lasting memories, long after we’ve forgotten what was on the day’s menu.
THE POSSIBILITY OF PRIVACY:
Cruisers sometimes lament that they can never get away from people on the smaller ships. They thought they were purchasing a cruise -- not a cult -- and they feel like less would be more.
But cruising need not mean crowding. Serenity was somehow built with “endless” nooks and crannies in which one can limit contact with other humans to the desired degree.
In the formal dining room, breakfast and the late (8:30 pm) dinner seating are the lower density (and more leisurely) times to eat. (If you want to switch to late on a special night, just ask the maitre d’.) In the Italian restaurant (Prego), reserve one of the few back tables. In the Japanese restaurant (Silk Road), reserve inner tables 15 to 18 unless you want “family style” talk with your neighbors. In the evening, Tastes Cafe functions like outdoor sidewalk dining (plenty of space up there).
Of course, you can always order room service and eat on your verandah if you really want to get away from it all.
On the other hand, you may have more privacy than you want if you’re addicted to continuous social media. Though Crystal’s president boasts of serving “Silicon Valley billionaires” (CNBC), Serenity’s Internet access isn’t part of the avowed six (or seven) star luxury. Real power users (we’re not) may consider the ship to be an Internet isolation ward.
But we found Serenity’s Internet access to be acceptable for our purposes this time around. With a little patience, we were always able to get the basics: email, commercial websites, updates of virus protection. My daily tests with speedtest.net indicated fluctuating speeds in the general range of 2 to 4 Mbps.
In an onboard video, Crystal’s president explains the efforts on her watch to improve Internet access. But, with some frustration, she also reminds passengers that they “are on vacation” and may need to wait until they get can get better access onshore. This is consistent with the periodic reminders in onboard bulletins that Crystal’s maritime access simply won’t be just like home.
We really don’t come here for the Internet. But the level of access may be more critical to other types of users: (1) the non-retired whose travel is conditioned on predictable “telework;” (2) caregivers whose travel is conditioned on a lifeline to dependents back home (that ailing child or parent); (3) the generation that lives for social media exchanges. I’ll have to leave it to other reviewers to compare the access available on other ships.
PORT STOP: BERMUDA (May 2015)
We took this Atlantic crossing for the sea days, and there were two stops along the way: Bermuda and the Azores. We only went ashore at Bermuda.
On Crystal’s website, the headline for this cruise advertised that “[a]n overnight stay in Bermuda, famous for its pink sand beaches and kelly green golf courses, highlights a luxuriously peaceful Atlantic crossing.”
Nevertheless, Bermuda was sort of a problem port for Serenity. While Bermuda has several cruise ship docks, Serenity instead anchored quite a ways out in the Great Sound. A local ferry boat (capacity 750) was then used for the ride to shore, rather than the ship’s own tenders (much smaller). While tenders would have run continuously, the ferry only ran every two hours.
In this scenario, be prepared to be patient with the ride to shore (basically a 90-minute project). Though the ride itself is about 45 minutes, the bottlenecks of herding 500+ riders at once can effectively double your time to get ashore. And, given the demographics of the Crystal crowd, our mobility inevitably ranges from senior marathoners to canes and walkers.
Of course, we’d rather endure the 90-minute ferrying project than the grounding suffered by the NCL Norwegian Dawn after it left Bermuda’s dock last month. Though I’m not convinced that there’s a Bermuda Triangle, another NCL ship ran aground at Bermuda back in 2006.
Crystal rounds up the usual contractors for the shore excursions at its port stops. But we seldom book them unless we want the security of the group for a particular location. In Bermuda, we instead bought a two-day “transportation pass” that let us explore the island at our own pace.
Despite all of Bermuda’s mystique as remote, isolated, and subtropical, it’s still only 22 miles long and a mile or two wide. A two-day pass on the public transportation system (buses and small ferries) will take you wherever you want to go. (See www.bermudabuses.bm and www.marineandports.bm ) But they don’t take American Express at the bus terminal, and only coins (not bills) are accepted on the buses if you don’t buy a pass.
At one end of the island is the Dockyard area, which includes the large maritime museum, local crafts (like glass-blowing), a pool of dolphins (you can join them), and a miniature golf course representing 18 famous holes of the U.S., Scotland, and Bermuda (yup, courses like St. Andrews, Augusta, and Gleneagles).
At the other end of the island is the village of St. Georges, a World Heritage Site a lot like colonial Williamsburg. For an overview, take a historical walking tour during the day (free or US $5) or the “haunted history” ghost walk at night (US $30 and can sell out). (See www.stgeorgesfoundation.org; www.hauntedhistorybda.com; www.facebook.com/hauntedhistorybda )
And, in the middle of the island is Hamilton, with its big-city stores, its art museum, and the dock where the ferry landed Serenity’s passengers. Given the heritage of the British Crown, our initial plan was to do the famous afternoon tea at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel. But they won’t do the tea there until remodeling is completed this summer. (Sometimes there are also afternoon teas at the perfume factory in St. Georges and the cafe at the Bermuda Botanical Gardens.)
The island is saturated with 90 old forts, 150 caves, and over 20 little niche museums. These small museums address such diverse topics as oceanography, botany, the U.S. Civil War, lighthouses, Black history, perfume making, and two centuries of ladies’ hats. You can pick a museum, ride the city bus, and take your time chatting with the curator (who may turn out to be a “certified local character”).
This focused, self-paced approach worked better for us than a frantic whirlwind circuit with a large tour group. But if public transportation just isn’t your thing, there are at least three local guides that you might hire to take you directly to the site of your choice. Heidi Cowen is the granddaughter of a lighthouse keeper (email@example.com). Tim Rogers is a historian and naturalist (firstname.lastname@example.org). Robert Chandler is a teacher, naturalist, and author (email@example.com).
A dozen of those 90 old forts function as active historic sites, and they’re scattered along the length of the island. If that’s your topic of interest, narrow down your final picks by studying “Bermuda Forts 1612-1957,” authored by museum director Edward Harris (and available from Amazon).
As independent travelers, we’ve seldom been able to get these kinds of local tips from Crystal’s onboard staff. (This aspect of their “six star” service is apparently limited to signing you up for their contractor’s tours and, of course, for future Crystal cruises.) Nor I have found even high-end travel agents to be much help on this (though they assert access to some nebulous network of insiders around the planet). We usually end up hacking our own trail through the unknown jungles of port stop tourism.
But, for Bermuda, it’s easy enough to make your own picks from several detailed publications at www.gotobermuda.com: (1) the printable map at “Maps & Brochures;” (2) “Historic Town of St. George” booklet at “Maps & Brochures;” (3) “Bermuda East to West” booklet at the long unlinked address of www.gotobermuda.com/uploadedFiles/CommonContent/CommonAssets/East_to_West_sm.pdf. And those ubiquitous hotel tourism booklets (we use ‘em) are online at www.experiencebermuda.com (“Digital Editions”).
The bible on Bermuda is the 360-page Moon guidebook authored by a local. And there’s the exhaustive online encyclopedia of all things Bermuda by another local author (see www.bermuda-online.org ).
Maps beyond the free online one (pub. 2014) include the ITM 1:14,500 (pub. 2005), available from Amazon, and the Horsfield MediaCom 1:20,000 (pub. 2008), available in the bookstores across the street from the Hamilton ferry dock. (See www.bookstore.bm and www.brown.bm/departments/bookmart ) The latter map has the most detailed labeling for streets and history.
And if you really want to max out those suitcases, local history books are also available at the Book Cellar (St. Georges), Robertson’s Drug Store (St. Georges), and the Bermuda Historical Society (Hamilton). John Cox works at the latter’s museum on Tuesdays if you want to meet the prolific author. Read Less