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Cruise 5331 was an Atlantic crossing (Lisbon to Miami), with only two brief stops along the way (Tenerife and Key West). My wife and I took this cruise for its long string of sea days, not the port stops. We’ve taken the Crystal Serenity (1,000 passengers) over a dozen times in the past several years. We treat it as a comfortable boutique hotel where everyone knows your name. It’s consistently a nice getaway that lacks all that herding, hustling, and hollering for which cruises are stereotyped. Nevertheless, there are some real limits on what the Serenity offers all of us who don’t stay up there in those elite penthouses. Travel agents who want to book repeaters should use caution to avoid an expectation gap. Regardless of the fancy ads, this aging ship doesn’t meet the assumptions for unabashed “ultra luxury.” There are simply too many little “no’s” and missing touches for that. Overall, I rate this cruise as a “3” (on a scale of 5) when judged against Crystal’s asserted standards of “all exclusive” and “ultra luxury.” But there are definitely some pockets of real luxury on the Serenity, including some crew members who consistently offer a luxury level of service. Among the latter are the cruise director and the famous Lido waiters -- true masters of making you feel welcome. So we enjoy what’s there, and overlook what’s not. And we keep coming back. For customers that insist on absolute pampered perfection, travel agents should carefully brief them on the market’s offerings and realities. DINING: The quality of food on the Serenity was quite variable during this cruise. For my taste buds, the following hodgepodge was delicious and memorable: monkfish (a rare treat where we live); fishermen’s platter (perfectly breaded); salzburger nockerl (custom dessert from our Austrian head waiter); homemade corned beef hash (a breakfast treat); Ovaltine (a childhood memory); all that super-creamy ice cream (including arcane flavors like lychee and green tea). As in the past, the Lido Cafe’s steaks, hamburgers, and chimichurri beef were consistently delicious. And my wife had a good filet in the dining room. But the rest of the ship’s beef cuts lacked flavor at best, and were hard to eat at worst. (I actually pushed two servings aside.) One of the Serenity’s pasta offerings (spaghetti with meat sauce) was quite tasty. With that one exception, the ship’s pasta was disappointing. One serving lacked flavor and arrived lukewarm. Another serving arrived so cold that I reported it to the head waiter for replacement. The Serenity is a good choice if you like the treasure hunt of sampling the world’s cuisine. It may not be a good fit for those who passively expect meals of predictable perfection (that is, eaters with little tolerance for uncertainty and experimentation). On the other hand, the head waiters on the Serenity are outstanding and, with a day’s notice, will arrange just about any food you want (as close as we come to having a personal chef). And this option for customized, off-menu items is indeed a luxury. Last spring, Crystal’s president expressed her understandable need for “making sure every berth is full every sailing” (Wall Street Journal, 4-23-15). That apparently means marketing to more than us empty-nesters, as well as steps like deformalizing the dining room a bit for those who wear the “$400 jeans” (as she expressed it in an onboard video of a March 7 passenger briefing). The apparel debate has now been addressed in a 350-word “Dress Codes for Your Cruise,” which was distributed at the start of the voyage. After dissecting the document and looking at the diners’ attire, I concluded that the dreaded jeans are now permissible anywhere and anytime except the two formal nights. Once again, the key is for travel agents to openly cover this issue with their shoppers. If customers prefer more or less formality, they can vote with their checkbooks. But it’s not just about the ups and downs of the food (or even the tuxes). We much enjoy our table talk with some of the world’s most interesting people. All those people who do things we’ll never do ourselves. And those dining conversations are the real luxury for us. In fact, we often remember those chats in more detail than what we ate at a given feeding. MUSIC & LECTURES: This was a repositioning cruise with less than 1,000 passengers. But it was definitely the land of luxury for musicians and music lovers. The little ship was saturated with three bands, two pianists, nightly music shows, a Mozart tea, and a Russian string quartet. Three lecturers did a memorable series of 11 presentations about the “American Songbook.” And the Serenity provided free wireless access to 300+ videos of its past lectures. However, the ship’s online portal needs to label these videos by topic, rather than just by the name of the lecturer. STATEROOM & PUBLIC SPACES: Cruising need not mean crowding. Though a small ship, Serenity was somehow built with “endless” nooks and crannies in which one can limit contact with other humans to the desired degree. On this cruise, as before, we found the Serenity’s basic veranda stateroom to be adequate and comfortable. The housekeeper was thorough, attentive, pleasant, and dependable. However, the ship’s voicemail system was broken for most of the cruise. This frustrated messages from passengers and crew. Crystal’s daily newsletter acknowledged the problem on December 16, 20, and 21. But the failure to provide this basic service is not consistent with luxury cruising. The broken voicemail reminded us of our cruise last year, when the Serenity’s connection to the Internet was broken across much of the Pacific. Again, this is an aging little ship with limitations that travel agents should alert their customers to expect. PRE-CRUISE & POST-CRUISE: We’ve given up on using taxicabs due to various incidents over the years. A problem with a cab driver can be a real spoiler at the beginning of a trip. Thus, in Lisbon, we reserved a private driver to meet us at the airport. In setting the pickup time, be sure to make a pessimistic allowance for baggage claim and the passport line. Before the cruise, we built in a “cushion day” at the Sheraton Lisboa hotel. Great place to park for the day of waiting, but be sure to read your bill before paying. The Sheraton felt free to tack on an unrequested donation to a charity. They took it off when I spotted it. We used a private driver again for the ride down to the Serenity. At the end of the cruise (Miami), we rode Crystal’s bus from the ship to the airport. If Crystal offers a transfer bus, it’s a good deal and we take it. HEALTH & SAFETY: There’s a lot to like about the Serenity, but one concern is hard for customers to assess because it’s hard to see. At the start of this cruise, the Serenity’s daily newsletter asserted that “Crystal Cruises consistently receives the highest scores from the United States Public Health service after inspections of our culinary operations.” Crystal is referring to the inspections that cruise ships get from a federal health agency (Center for Disease Control) based in Fort Lauderdale. These inspections can occur when the ship docks at a U.S. port (the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program). CDC considers inspection scores from 86 to 100 to be in the passing range. I checked CDC’s website for the last inspection before our cruise. CDC gave the Serenity a score of 88 in its May 2015 inspection. This score is 3 points above CDC’s “not satisfactory” threshold of 85. CDC issued a 15-page report that detailed 62 deficiencies. Per CDC’s website (visited 12-29-15), the agency has conducted 230 inspections of cruise ships during 2015. Serenity’s score of 88 was among the 16 lowest scores, that is, in the bottom 7%. These inspection reports are publicly available (in all their technical tedium) at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp. Travel agents can read for themselves and discuss any item of concern with their doctors that deal with travel health. Part of the “value added” by a travel agent can be a realistic assessment of the risks of an itinerary. Another option, which I’ve found quite helpful, is a pre-cruise consultation with a national chain of travel medicine clinics (see www.passporthealthusa.com). CDC hopefully did a re-inspection when this cruise ended in Miami. And the Serenity hopefully got a better score (which will ultimately be reported on CDC’s website). Crystal continues to boast that it caters to the “top 2% of the world’s wealthiest.” (See the marketing interviews on Fox News (12-14-15) www.youtube.com/watch?v=1--zYYGJukQ, and on CNBC (4-23-15) http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000373868 ) But an inspection score in the lowest 7% is not consistent with luxury cruising.

Crystal Serenity -- Lisbon to Miami (Dec.11 to 22, 2015)

Crystal Serenity Cruise Review by cruise-otter

34 people found this helpful
Trip Details
Cruise 5331 was an Atlantic crossing (Lisbon to Miami), with only two brief stops along the way (Tenerife and Key West). My wife and I took this cruise for its long string of sea days, not the port stops.

We’ve taken the Crystal Serenity (1,000 passengers) over a dozen times in the past several years. We treat it as a comfortable boutique hotel where everyone knows your name. It’s consistently a nice getaway that lacks all that herding, hustling, and hollering for which cruises are stereotyped.

Nevertheless, there are some real limits on what the Serenity offers all of us who don’t stay up there in those elite penthouses. Travel agents who want to book repeaters should use caution to avoid an expectation gap.

Regardless of the fancy ads, this aging ship doesn’t meet the assumptions for unabashed “ultra luxury.” There are simply too many little “no’s” and missing touches for that. Overall, I rate this cruise as a “3” (on a scale of 5) when judged against Crystal’s asserted standards of “all exclusive” and “ultra luxury.”

But there are definitely some pockets of real luxury on the Serenity, including some crew members who consistently offer a luxury level of service. Among the latter are the cruise director and the famous Lido waiters -- true masters of making you feel welcome.

So we enjoy what’s there, and overlook what’s not. And we keep coming back.

For customers that insist on absolute pampered perfection, travel agents should carefully brief them on the market’s offerings and realities.

DINING:

The quality of food on the Serenity was quite variable during this cruise.

For my taste buds, the following hodgepodge was delicious and memorable: monkfish (a rare treat where we live); fishermen’s platter (perfectly breaded); salzburger nockerl (custom dessert from our Austrian head waiter); homemade corned beef hash (a breakfast treat); Ovaltine (a childhood memory); all that super-creamy ice cream (including arcane flavors like lychee and green tea).

As in the past, the Lido Cafe’s steaks, hamburgers, and chimichurri beef were consistently delicious. And my wife had a good filet in the dining room. But the rest of the ship’s beef cuts lacked flavor at best, and were hard to eat at worst. (I actually pushed two servings aside.)

One of the Serenity’s pasta offerings (spaghetti with meat sauce) was quite tasty. With that one exception, the ship’s pasta was disappointing. One serving lacked flavor and arrived lukewarm. Another serving arrived so cold that I reported it to the head waiter for replacement.

The Serenity is a good choice if you like the treasure hunt of sampling the world’s cuisine. It may not be a good fit for those who passively expect meals of predictable perfection (that is, eaters with little tolerance for uncertainty and experimentation).

On the other hand, the head waiters on the Serenity are outstanding and, with a day’s notice, will arrange just about any food you want (as close as we come to having a personal chef). And this option for customized, off-menu items is indeed a luxury.

Last spring, Crystal’s president expressed her understandable need for “making sure every berth is full every sailing” (Wall Street Journal, 4-23-15). That apparently means marketing to more than us empty-nesters, as well as steps like deformalizing the dining room a bit for those who wear the “$400 jeans” (as she expressed it in an onboard video of a March 7 passenger briefing).

The apparel debate has now been addressed in a 350-word “Dress Codes for Your Cruise,” which was distributed at the start of the voyage. After dissecting the document and looking at the diners’ attire, I concluded that the dreaded jeans are now permissible anywhere and anytime except the two formal nights.

Once again, the key is for travel agents to openly cover this issue with their shoppers. If customers prefer more or less formality, they can vote with their checkbooks.

But it’s not just about the ups and downs of the food (or even the tuxes). We much enjoy our table talk with some of the world’s most interesting people. All those people who do things we’ll never do ourselves. And those dining conversations are the real luxury for us. In fact, we often remember those chats in more detail than what we ate at a given feeding.

MUSIC & LECTURES:

This was a repositioning cruise with less than 1,000 passengers. But it was definitely the land of luxury for musicians and music lovers. The little ship was saturated with three bands, two pianists, nightly music shows, a Mozart tea, and a Russian string quartet.

Three lecturers did a memorable series of 11 presentations about the “American Songbook.” And the Serenity provided free wireless access to 300+ videos of its past lectures. However, the ship’s online portal needs to label these videos by topic, rather than just by the name of the lecturer.

STATEROOM & PUBLIC SPACES:

Cruising need not mean crowding. Though a small ship, Serenity was somehow built with “endless” nooks and crannies in which one can limit contact with other humans to the desired degree.

On this cruise, as before, we found the Serenity’s basic veranda stateroom to be adequate and comfortable. The housekeeper was thorough, attentive, pleasant, and dependable.

However, the ship’s voicemail system was broken for most of the cruise. This frustrated messages from passengers and crew. Crystal’s daily newsletter acknowledged the problem on December 16, 20, and 21. But the failure to provide this basic service is not consistent with luxury cruising.

The broken voicemail reminded us of our cruise last year, when the Serenity’s connection to the Internet was broken across much of the Pacific.

Again, this is an aging little ship with limitations that travel agents should alert their customers to expect.

PRE-CRUISE & POST-CRUISE:

We’ve given up on using taxicabs due to various incidents over the years. A problem with a cab driver can be a real spoiler at the beginning of a trip.

Thus, in Lisbon, we reserved a private driver to meet us at the airport. In setting the pickup time, be sure to make a pessimistic allowance for baggage claim and the passport line.

Before the cruise, we built in a “cushion day” at the Sheraton Lisboa hotel. Great place to park for the day of waiting, but be sure to read your bill before paying. The Sheraton felt free to tack on an unrequested donation to a charity. They took it off when I spotted it.

We used a private driver again for the ride down to the Serenity.

At the end of the cruise (Miami), we rode Crystal’s bus from the ship to the airport. If Crystal offers a transfer bus, it’s a good deal and we take it.

HEALTH & SAFETY:

There’s a lot to like about the Serenity, but one concern is hard for customers to assess because it’s hard to see.

At the start of this cruise, the Serenity’s daily newsletter asserted that “Crystal Cruises consistently receives the highest scores from the United States Public Health service after inspections of our culinary operations.”

Crystal is referring to the inspections that cruise ships get from a federal health agency (Center for Disease Control) based in Fort Lauderdale. These inspections can occur when the ship docks at a U.S. port (the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program). CDC considers inspection scores from 86 to 100 to be in the passing range.

I checked CDC’s website for the last inspection before our cruise. CDC gave the Serenity a score of 88 in its May 2015 inspection. This score is 3 points above CDC’s “not satisfactory” threshold of 85. CDC issued a 15-page report that detailed 62 deficiencies.

Per CDC’s website (visited 12-29-15), the agency has conducted 230 inspections of cruise ships during 2015. Serenity’s score of 88 was among the 16 lowest scores, that is, in the bottom 7%.

These inspection reports are publicly available (in all their technical tedium) at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp. Travel agents can read for themselves and discuss any item of concern with their doctors that deal with travel health.

Part of the “value added” by a travel agent can be a realistic assessment of the risks of an itinerary. Another option, which I’ve found quite helpful, is a pre-cruise consultation with a national chain of travel medicine clinics (see www.passporthealthusa.com).

CDC hopefully did a re-inspection when this cruise ended in Miami. And the Serenity hopefully got a better score (which will ultimately be reported on CDC’s website).

Crystal continues to boast that it caters to the “top 2% of the world’s wealthiest.” (See the marketing interviews on Fox News (12-14-15) www.youtube.com/watch?v=1--zYYGJukQ, and on CNBC (4-23-15) http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000373868 )

But an inspection score in the lowest 7% is not consistent with luxury cruising.
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