The Crystal Serenity (1,000 passengers) is a good fit for the independent traveler who hates herding. My wife and I use it often as our platform to (1) meet interesting people, (2) hear virtuoso musicians, (3) find new places worth a return, and (4) access isolated places we’d otherwise never see.
There’s a lot to like about the Serenity, and we got our money’s worth on cruise V5303 (Lima to Auckland in Feb. 2015). Crystal’s performance was acceptable in most respects, and 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. Bloggers cite long wait lists to see who eventually makes the cut to cruise with Crystal.
Online chat threads sometimes voice an “expectation gap” between what was experienced and what was promised by Crystal’s well placed ads and promoters. But the myth of pampered perfection (that lore of five or “six” 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.
In fact, Crystal’s advertising seems to be realistically retooling Crystal’s reputation from a clubhouse for the elite to an ocean of opportunities for writing your own story. And we keep coming back for the latter because we find Crystal a comfortable choice for our type of travel.
Realities of the Route
We did this cruise because we wanted lots of sea days -- and we got ‘em. Billed as “Mysteries of the South Pacific,” it was that legendary tropical route of explorers, authors, artists, and Hollywood. We crossed the Pacific with those unhurried sea days, and the possibility of pit stops at some storied islands (Easter, Pitcairn, Tahiti, Rarotonga).
Though the crossing itself is pretty routine, finding these remote specks of land is only the beginning. Survival in tendering is still where the crew earns their “green jackets” among the masters. For two centuries, nature has commonly frustrated shore visits at the islands along this route. If you’re going for the port stops rather than the journey, other travel alternatives (discussed below) are a better bet.
Reliable access to the Internet disappeared between Easter Island and Tahiti. Studious passengers no doubt thought of those ancient Polynesians who were the space travelers of their day. Theirs was a one-way resettlement in the far unknown with, unlike E.T., no hope to ever phone home.
A Super Bowl Send-Off
For holidays like Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday, it’s always a disputable call as to whether to spend them on a cruise ship or somewhere else (the “no place like home” dilemma). And we live in Phoenix, where the big game was actually played this year.
This cruise embarked out of Lima just before Super Bowl Sunday. But Crystal made it all better with live big-screen coverage, an authentic tailgating buffet, and great sports bar decorating. For the price of two Super Bowl tickets, we got a cruise across the Pacific. Plus a better view, more comfortable seats, and better food than we would have had in the Phoenix stadium.
Dining: Secrets of the Missing Menus
We took this cruise for the sea days, and Crystal’s venues for leisurely (unherded) meals were part of that choice. And it’s not just about the food: meals are where we meet lots of interesting people and trade travel tips.
Online chat threads sometimes express disappointment with Crystal’s dining. Perhaps this flows from the natural tension between one’s personal taste and a passive expectation of pampered perfection. But a more realistic approach would be to view the small ship as several blocks of “neighborhood” dining possibilities. The ship is big enough to support a variety, and small enough to routinely adapt to diner requests. Without investing in a penthouse suite (we don’t), you can come close to having a personal chef if you know the “missing menu” for each venue.
The formal dining room (Deck 5) will go beyond the published dinner menu if you alert your head waiter the night before. In this Crystal cruise, as before, we’ve enjoyed custom (off-menu) orders for lobsters, steaks, group salads, family-style meat dishes, and special desserts.
Like many Americans, we prefer dinner at 6 pm rather than 8:30 pm. This lets us see the first performance of the evening’s entertainment, rather than the later one for the night owls. But this has the side effect of a further choice concerning the shows. The musician’s first performance feels like the traditional full-house auditorium concert. But the second show often ends up as a smaller audience with a less formal “jazz club” atmosphere, with more up close and personal interaction with the virtuoso.
As in the past, our choice for a great-tasting breakfast continues to be the less attended one in the formal dining room. Right from the menu, you can build your own eclectic smorgasbord of personal favorites -- from Japanese cod, to corned beef hash, to Ovaltine, to cooked-to-order waffles, to fresh berries, to muffins as good as the donut shop treats back home. It’s the kind of long, leisurely breakfast that’s perfect for a sea day, or when the masses are off to their shore excursions.
But don’t underestimate the informal dining that’s available for lunch and dinner up on Deck 12. Tastes Cafe has the best service that we’ve experienced at any restaurant on land or sea, thanks to the combined efforts up there of Clark, Rosanno, Bryan, Lloyd, and Luigi. Just like the old Cheers show, where anyone knows your name, drink, and chair of choice. In fact, the attentive service of these particular employees is a main reason that we continue to cruise on Crystal. And we found the most flavorful beef and lamb on the ship up at Tastes.
But don’t order yet; there’s more distinctive dining amidst the nooks and crannies of Deck 12. Scoops ice cream bar has quite the fan base, with that old-fashioned, made-to-order, soda fountain nostalgia. In fact, the line at Scoops is an event in itself as Lucky deftly chats with all -- and you watch what he’s crafting for everybody else (sort of an ice cream piano bar where I’ll often have what she’s having).
Over at the Trident Grill, Andy is the master of multi-tasking and makes our favorite hamburger (yes, anywhere). Like the ice cream bar, this is a bit of American nostalgia. Andy is curator of the comfort food that was cooked to order in small town cafes before the fast food chains took over.
On the other hand, my wife would argue that Jordan at the Bistro (Deck 6) must, from my perspective, be second to the captain as the most essential crew member. Every day, Jordan uses his off-menu skills to simulate the Starbucks drink that starts my day at home.
Star Parties with an Astronaut
Lots of sea days mean an onboard focus, rather than just a ride to the next shore excursion. Serenity’s small size gives it the flexibility to offer spontaneous extras.
The ancients’ celestial navigation surfaced during the “star parties” that a visiting astronaut and Serenity’s resident astronomer periodically convened on darkened Deck 13. The cruise director even brought out his laptop with an app that graphically explained the sky at the ship’s position in real time (sort of a floating planetarium).
With only about a dozen passengers present, the session that I attended was a much more personal star party than those ubiquitous land-based ones (where a long line jockeys for a glancing look through a telescope). For the daily schedule of visible satellites, see www.heavens-above.com, www.calsky.com, and www.aerospace.org.
And though the Pacific no longer defines our universe, one of the astronaut’s lectures cautioned that the most critical navigation puzzle of all still remains on the plotting board. Unless we can learn to intercept asteroids (specks in space), close calls will eventually escalate to a collision that presses the reset button for life on earth. Until I heard his lecture of hopeful solutions, I had just assumed that humans were long-term sitting ducks without recourse (facing the solar system’s version of a rogue wave).
While contemplating the constellations, falling stars, orbiting satellites, and menacing asteroids, I somehow forgot that Crystal is no longer putting chocolates on the pillows.
Crystal often stops at locations with an observatory, and they may wish to try distinctive shore excursions to those facilities. Even during the day, the view, grounds, or historical building can be memorable.
Port Stop: Easter Island (Feb. 2015)
Easter Island is a draw for cruisers because (1) it has hundreds of those UNESCO stone heads (moai) and (2) getting to it is a travel milestone in itself (like the Poles, Everest, and the Northwest Passage). Your t-shirt with a head tells the world that you did it, but may signal that you wanted to log the event more than the experience.
It’s also one of the world’s very studied places. Rabid studiers can read about its lesser known history of high drama that has occurred before and after the heads. Slavery, revolt, escapes, marooning, flying, and a secret US base are all part of the legacy if you know where to look.
On the other hand, Chilean concert pianist Mahani Teave started on Easter Island, which is pretty inspirational given the scarcity of pianos and music teachers in her childhood (see www.mahaniteave.com). And now she’s opened the island’s music school that she never had. Perhaps Crystal could schedule her for some onboard concerts during a future world cruise.
Frankly, the rocky, treeless terrain looks more like the barren Aleutians than tropical Polynesia. While Easter Island still has the heat and humidity of Polynesia, a flight to good old Kauai would be a better bet unless you’re into the heads or the history.
There are thousands of archeological sites on Easter Island. If you’re really here for the heads, the best bet is take the LAN flight (not a cruise) and schedule a guide per the intensity of your interest. For instance, the island’s only foreign diplomat (the British consul) moonlights as a travel book writer and guide service. He has offerings that range from hours to days, depending upon just how much you want to know about this nuance of archeology (see www.easterislandspirit.com).
But we just weren’t into the heads and instead walked into town in search of the novelty stamping of our passports that was reportedly available at the post office. Because it was closed at that hour, we substituted the coveted keepsake of a refrigerator magnet from the island’s three markets (Mercado, Feria, Caleta). It’s a long sweaty walk from the tender, and we’d invest in a cab if we did it again.
Easter Island has been a tough tender for famous seamen over two centuries. For cruise ships on tight schedules, it’s a really iffy stop with one navigation reference cautioning: “The weather is never good for more than a few days at a time at Isla de Pascua [Easter Island]. Ships anchoring off the island should be ready to sail on short notice. . .” (NGA Pub. 125) Whatsinport.com advises that “[r]ough seas often prevent tender boat service and shore visits.”
And Grant McCall’s book notes “the often elderly passengers on cruise ships who are unable to negotiate the tricky dinghy trip to shore” (ouch!). Like the ascents of notorious peaks, sometimes you get that weather window -- and often you don’t. Nature is indifferent to the prestige of a ship or an explorer.
But Serenity was able to tender everyone over and back on this visit, with no injuries worse than a sunburn. It was an E-ride for those that took it, with a dance of deckhands carefully inching each passenger into the bouncing tenders. I’ve never felt so closely protected in my life, and I appreciated those deckhands even more when I read of the recent tendering death on the Queen Elizabeth.
For those who want to seriously study up, see the website for the Easter Island Foundation (islandheritage.org), the Rapa Nui Journal, and the ITM 1:30,000 map of the island available from Amazon.
Port Stop: Pitcairn Island (Feb. 2015)
Fabled Pitcairn Island (pop. about 50) traffics in its lore of Mutiny-on-the-Bounty. Crystal is among the dozen or so cruise lines that occasionally include a “cruise-by” on their itineraries. A few (but not Crystal) actually tender passengers ashore.
However, two recent developments could dramatically change the lack of shore visits. The European Union has invested in a new dock at Pitcairn, with construction in progress visible during our cruise-by. And amidst much National Geographic publicity, the UK has just designated the ocean around Pitcairn as the world’s largest marine sanctuary (sort of a national park under water).
The UK’s need to aggressively service (guard) this new preserve could justify the big shifts in accessibility seen in other remote places -- solutions like fast ferries, amphibious seaplanes, or an off-island airstrip. While this is just speculation on my part, there was indeed Cold War planning for an airfield on a neighboring island that Pitcairners have often visited with their small boats. Though a postage stamp back in 2000 remembered that project, construction never occurred and Pitcairn lacks an airstrip to this day.
So, if you’re confident that you still have decades of travel ahead, one option is to postpone your cruise by Pitcairn for a few years while the invisible hand of the market sorts all this out.
But there was no expectation of a shore excursion for Serenity at this point, with only its captain, cruise director, and doctor actually setting foot on the island. Instead, Pitcairn continued its long trading tradition of bringing a “longboat” of residents out to any passing ship.
The Pitcairners set up their souvenir booths for five hours onboard, gave two slide shows, and sent us on our way with a concert of island songs. My wife and I did our best to support Pitcairn’s economy through our purchase of books, stamps, carvings, DVDs, and a map.
Each onboard trader told us a story about life on Pitcairn that we’ll remember long after our trinkets. We always savor a chat with our travel purchases, and we had more of this interaction at the onboard booths than we often get on the bussed tours at other port stops.
The onboard market was dominated by the island’s miro wood carvings, the ever-popular t-shirts, and the many series of postage stamps that are actually the main export. Before stamp collectors hit the booths, they can review the online catalog at www.stamps.gov.pn.
But don’t overlook this brief access to several hard-to-get publications if you’re scouting a more rigorous return to Pitcairn down the road. The government’s latest Guide to Pitcairn (2013) is a nicely-done book of history, geography, and the current state of modern infrastructure (US $10). David Evans’ self-published “Pitkern Ilan” (rest assured it’s in English) is the detailed guidebook of what to see and do (US $5). And the most detailed map (2013) is expectedly that published by an islander (US $10).
The government’s Guide to Pitcairn reminds us that “the custom of exchanging goods of approximately equal value still continues.” Future cruisers to Pitcairn might barter well with old National Geographics about the island. American thrift stores and used book shops sell them for a dollar or two, while Pitcairners price them for visitors at US $40. You could conceivably trade up to a unique carving for a stack of those old yellow-bordered magazines if your luggage allows.
Hundreds of Serenity passengers lined the rail to wave goodbye to the dwarfed longboat (a bit reminiscent of little Havre-Saint-Pierre, Quebec, where the cars all honked their farewell to Serenity last fall). The ship then circled Pitcairn’s six-mile perimeter for our final photo op.
The lack of a shore visit meant that we missed Bounty artifacts displayed in the museum and scattered around the island. We also missed the botany trail and the elderly community pet, a giant tortoise (“Miss T”) that a sailing ship dropped off 60 years ago.
Miss T the tortoise has free-range run of her own forest, and the honor of a postcard, stamp series, YouTube video, and (of course) dot-pn website. She also has her own Pitcairn law that carries jail time if you’re mean to her, and it requires a report to authorities if she looks sick. All of this effectively makes her a protected species of one, or at least a beloved “emotional support animal.”
More than a brief cruise-by may be in your future if Pitcairn’s everyday life is your version of “priceless,” experiences like fishing, diving, hiking, birding, socializing, and visiting Miss T. This is a “Northern Exposure” sort of place, and the same travel niche that seeks out lighthouse retreats and Alaskan bush hamlets will probably enjoy a stay at Pitcairn. If you really want to spend such quality time on Pitcairn, its tourism agency can connect you with the two-day boat ride (from Mangareva) and lodging for a stay that lasts from a few days to a few months (see www.visitpitcairn.pn). And that lodging traditionally includes all meals and your host’s guiding as an island insider.
On the other hand, if you’re more into the history than the place itself, the Pitcairners and their “Bounty saga” are more easily accessed at Australia’s Norfolk Island. Most Pitcairners resettled there over a century ago and, unlike Pitcairn Island itself, there is air service for tourists. Crystal is scheduled to visit Norfolk Island in 2018.
And the first colony of the mutineers was actually on Tubuai over in Tahiti (also accessible by air). There they started Fort George (with even a moat and drawbridge), but the locals drove them out after two battles (hence the name Bloody Bay). Though a very nasty chapter in the Bounty saga (around 70 islanders killed), it didn’t make the movies. Crystal may wish to add historian Mark Eddowes to its cadre of lecturers to provide the Tahitians’ rest of the story on all of this Bounty business.
In fact, a passenger on our cruise had published a travel guide to 101 places around the world that have Bounty/Pitcairn sites or artifacts (see eptours.com/CD.htm or the e-book at Amazon). And his wife had moderated a conference at the Pitcairn Islands Study Center (California), which may have the largest library on the topic if you really want to study up without leaving the US. (See 2012bpc.com for free download of the lectures.)
Like the Galapagos and Easter Island, Pitcairn is one of those remote spots that’s been studied to death. Its worldwide notoriety began with the Bounty and continues to this day as the Crown and its last Pacific colony grapple over who gets to write the rules. American media from Vanity Fair to the Wall Street Journal have reported upon Pitcairn since the prosecutions of the past decade. (In UK euphemisms, Northern Ireland had “the troubles” and Pitcairn had “the trials.”)
Just last November, the UK issued its latest court decision affirming its international rights to police the Pitcairners (see all 165 pages at www.pitcairn.pn/Laws). An onsite contingent of UK reps continues to watch over a handful of aging couples, one child, and one tortoise.
As an epilogue to this memorable “non-shore excursion,” I tried to visit the island’s distant administrative headquarters when we reached Auckland. On the 17th floor of a downtown skyscraper (151 Queen St.), I found a plain door labeled as the “Pitcairn Island Office.” A note asked that the British consulate be entrusted with any deliveries. Perhaps the face behind that door was at lunch, or perhaps the island simply doesn’t need daily supervision at this level of the Crown’s bureaucracy.
Port Stop: Papeete, Tahiti (Feb. 2015)
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 herd for a particular location.
Instead we directly seek out our own “certified local character,” our label of honor for a guide that’s both quite the entertainer and an expert in a distinctive subject matter. Finding the “character” is dependent upon how much advance research you (or your travel agent) are willing to do. Examples of leads would be historical societies, authors, ghost walks, and foodie tours. It may or may not be a private tour.
Our man in Tahiti was William Leeteg (tahiti-adventure-eagle-tour.com). Email him well in advance and he will circle the whole island (70 miles) with as much of the backstory as you’d like to hear. He does all tours himself in his own air-conditioned van and quotes his price when emailed (he charged us a very reasonable US $50 a person). He’s fluent in English, not surprising since he was schooled in California and Hawaii (and can even connect you with an Elvis imitator in Papeete).
Yup, William is the son of that controversial painter Edgar Leeteg (sometimes promoted as “the American Gauguin”). Edgar’s masterpieces include Christ, Navajo Indians, and Polynesian women (often topless). When James Michener wrote “Rascals in Paradise,” the last chapter was indeed entitled “Leeteg, the Legend.”
William’s regular group tour (4 hours) includes stops at Maraa Grotto (Gauguin swam here), Vaipahi Garden (waterfall), Venus Point (Matavai Bay and lighthouse), the Blow Hole, and Taharaa Lookout (panoramic photo op). However, if you want him to concentrate on his father the artist, or Paul Gauguin, you should book a private tour with him that includes sites related to their lives.
William, like his late father, is his own man and his own boss. As he shows you the landmarks, he offers his personal insights rather than a scripted tourist-tale for mass consumption. And that’s just what we’re looking for in a certified local character.
The US Center for Disease Control cautions travelers to Tahiti about mosquito-borne chikungunya. “There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat chikungunya virus infection.” We used ordinary insect repellent, didn’t get bitten, and developed no symptoms.
Port Stop: Rarotonga, Cook Islands (Feb. 2015)
The stop at Rarotonga didn’t happen for us, consistent with Cruise Critic’s observation that “ships often miss calls here due to rough water conditions.” Serenity spared our stomachs from an extreme tender ride and proceeded on to New Zealand.
For those insistent upon visiting Rarotonga, air travel would seem the best bet given the chronic uncertainty of tendering. Read Less