In November 2018, my wife and I took Crystal’s 11-day cruise across the Atlantic aboard the Serenity (voyage OCY181110).
For some time, we’ve taken two to three cruises a year on Crystal.
This is one of two ships in Crystal’s tiny ocean fleet. Each carries around 900 passengers. The two ships are pretty much a matched set that rotates crew, routes, and entertainment.
This type of cruise is for those who enjoy the boat ride itself. It started in Lisbon and ended in Fort Lauderdale.
The only enroute stop was at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, which placed us back in the U.S. It was Sunday, and the onboard border clearance was quick and painless -- took only five minutes from leaving our room to returning.
OVERALL RATING (5 OUT OF 5):
I rate this cruise as excellent (an overall “5” on a scale of 5). My score is based on the high quality of (1) live music in the small venues, (2) food offerings (truly perfect), and (3) service in the food and entertainment areas (still the most attentive service anywhere on land or sea).
However, we’ve never found the Serenity to be perfect “ultra luxury” in every way. We keep coming back year after year because it’s like a comfortable old hotel, where the predictable pleasures outweigh the problems of an aging ship.
In fact, the cruise’s most memorable lecturer was a writer for the old “Cheers” television comedy (Cheri Steinkellner). She gave you the juicy backstory of that neighborhood bar where “the troubles are all the same” and “everyone knows your name.”
If you’re looking for a low-key, relaxing, good old-fashioned voyage across the Atlantic, this is your ship. Luxury measured by what’s not there. No stateroom announcements. No pressure to buy anything or do anything. No gaming to get your keycard for just one more charge (Crystal’s price is all inclusive).
For cruisers who’ve tired of harried herding on the mass-market lines, the absence of certain nuisances on Crystal may be worth an overall “5” in itself.
When it comes to entertainment, what get’s the perfect “5” from me is the live jazz and show tunes performed in the ship’s small venues (the “Great American Songbook” from the 1940s and 50s). Crystal calls this its “supper club” and “cabaret” entertainment. I found these talented performances every bit as enjoyable as a night clubbing in Seattle or New Orleans. But no cover charges, taxi fares, exorbitant parking, or pestering to buy another drink.
Crystal’s musical offerings continued right up to the end, with five shows on the final night of the cruise. The last of these shows ended at 11 pm, just as luggage was due outside the staterooms. Pretty impressive for a cruise with less than 900 passengers.
There are lots of amazing musicians out there who never do albums or arenas. Crystal finds them; some stay for a cruise, others stay for years.
But if live music isn’t your niche, think of the Serenity as your floating senior center. One with lots of pampering (they even have a “valet service” that parks the scooters and wheelchairs to keep the halls clear after bedtime). And the ship’s veteran waiters are saints of the sea when it comes to their patience and respect toward the older crowd that frequents Crystal.
Yup, you’ll find all the day-to-day activities that you’d expect in a well-appointed senior center: bingo, bridge, needlepoint, knitting, shuffleboard, slots, puzzles, trivia, liars club, name-that-tune, karaoke, parlor magic, tribute shows, afternoon tea, and dance hosts for the ladies. (About a fourth of the passengers on this cruise were involved in a bridge tournament.)
Music and comedy shows are focused on the tastes and memories of the “extra generation” of seniors blessed with extended retirements. There was even the screening of a new film about finding late-life romance in a nursing home (yes, including sex). The filmmaker (Neil Leifer) was onboard and understandably pegged the Crystal crowd as a sympathetic test audience.
But I’ll say it again: travel agents should use caution in sending children under age 50 on this ship.
Though Crystal’s current president came over from Disney, absolutely none of the following “advancements” in onboard entertainment are found on this ship (thankfully): water slide; climbing wall; zipline; go-carts; carousel; laser tag; bungee trampoline; bumper cars; surfing simulator; trapeze training; skydiving wind tunnel. After all, this ship is called the Serenity -- a synonym for quiet peacefulness.
There is, however, a golf net, a little swimming pool, and a “shopping mall” of three stores (including one that sells the Chico’s line). While there are no midnight buffets, there is 24-hour room service for those who can’t wait until the next meal at 6 am.
Not surprisingly, the youngest on board are usually the employees. No teen gangs here. And nature seems to impose its own curfew, with the halls largely empty after midnight.
We dined in all of the ship’s venues with the exception of its Italian restaurant (Prego).
When it comes to dining, I give this cruise a perfect “5” simply because I found it perfect in every respect. Taste, variety, presentation, novelty, service, and overall enjoyability were all consistent with luxury cruising.
It’s not just about the food, though. You get to leisurely visit with some of the world’s most interesting people. Table topics go far beyond the common senior focus on kids’ foibles, grandkids’ achievements, and perpetual medical procedures.
While this is indeed God’s waiting room, people here aren’t in a hurry to keep their appointment with Him. In fact, the more they cruise, the less they rush to get to the next onboard activity.
Crystal has definitely reinvented the experience of its main dining room. We much appreciated Crystal’s new walk-in flexibility (open dining) for time, table location, and the number of diners joining us. With little fanfare, you can now bring along your onboard friends, old and new. Or dine in a quiet secluded corner and share secrets.
Gone are those days when disappointed cruisers went up to a hearing room for an audience before the maitre d’. There you lined up and pled your case for the dining dispensation of a better table or feeding time. Never quite seemed consistent with Berlitz’s definition of luxury cruising as “the kind of stylish ships aboard which the word ‘no’ is virtually unheard.”
We stay in ordinary staterooms on Crystal (no opulent party suites for us). Though Crystal had just remodeled this ship’s “penthouse” class of rooms, the only change we found in the standard stateroom was a bigger TV screen.
But we frankly don’t come here for the rooms. We keep returning to this ship because it’s like a comfortable old hotel, where seasoned employees year after year provide the most attentive service anywhere.
And an expected part of a comfortable old hotel (ship) is old rooms with problems that we just get fixed as they arise. This time it was slow drains, faucets without cold water, no clock, no shower curtain, and a stuck sliding door that kept us from using the veranda. All eventually fixed after a little intervention from an officer.
Onboard television was limited to a few generic international channels. Those who live for American reality shows or Monday night football may need to schedule their cruise during the annual rerun doldrums.
On the other hand, the Lido Deck’s sound system was unintelligible, and a channel on our television was a good alternative for hearing the captain’s daily announcement on weather conditions and routing adjustments.
Travel agents should alert customers that, even on a cruise billed as ultra luxury, an aging ship’s staterooms may be in less than perfect condition.
You really don’t come here for the Internet. A few months before our trip, Cruise Critic published its article, “6 Cruise Lines With Great WiFi.” Crystal didn’t make the list.
Those tethered to the rituals of social media may consider it more of a forced silent retreat than a vacation.
Internet connectivity varied greatly throughout the cruise, with regular display of the dreaded message, “Internet access is currently not available” (even when approaching Florida). Passengers grabbed it while they could. And ocean crossings like this one obviously lack port stops where an Internet cafe could come to the rescue.
For some primitive, less-connected retirees like ourselves, a vacation with sporadic Internet is no deal-breaker. And there’s something to be said for the attitude of a past Crystal president that cruisers should “turn off the Internet and just enjoy the moment.” (Virtuoso Life, May-June 2015, p. 99)
However, travel agents should caution their customers that this ship may not be a good fit if they must stay in uninterrupted email contact with a business or relative back home. Nor should passengers count on Internet availability to make enroute arrangements for port stops or post-cruise travel. Or for online bill paying or holiday shopping at the last minute.
The lore of cruising traditionally has the rich & famous dining at the captain’s table. But Crystal has something just as good for the rest of us.
Captain Vorland periodically opens up the ship’s museum and serves as its docent and resident storyteller -- sort of a Norwegian cross between Sully Sullenberger, Garrison Keillor, and your favorite humanities professor. This guy really has been everywhere, man (he even took a break as a Crystal vice president).
The museum, in a restricted area, has a couple hundred commemorative plaques. They reflect the Serenity’s visits to the world’s ports, both famous and obscure. While some of the plaques are simple pieces of wood, the more elaborate ones feature local art, crafts, and materials.
Tell the cruise director or Crystal Society host if you’d like to be included when a group does this. Like the free kitchen tours, backstage tours, magic shows, and guided stargazing, Crystal doesn’t charge for this onboard activity.
I’ve always been impressed by Captain Vorland’s daily explanation of the sea conditions and resulting navigation adjustments. Reminds me of the aviation saying that “a superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill.” Or success is measured by all the potentially bad days that cruisers never know they have been spared.
Captain Vorland may in fact be eligible for the honor of the Explorers Club, given his work in advancing passenger cruising through the Northwest Passage (like another Norwegian who pioneered polar air routes back in the 1950s).
Crystal recorded the many lectures that experts gave during the Serenity’s treks through the Northwest Passage. I’ve watched around 40 of these videos, and the collection should be sent to the Vancouver Maritime Museum (rather than just forgotten, lost, or erased).
FEDERAL INSPECTION SCORES:
Federal agencies in both the United States and Canada conduct health inspections of cruise ships. The inspection scores are posted on the agencies’ public websites. See www.cdc.gov and www.canada.ca.
For the U.S. inspections (CDC), cruisers can read the full reports online in all their technical detail (as well as Crystal’s side of the story). For the Canadian inspections, you’d need to email a request to see the report behind a score.
Unlike your grades back in school, a passing score (both countries) is set a bit higher at 86 out of 100. And a score of 100 means no significant deficiencies, not perfection.
The Serenity’s most recent U.S. inspection occurred in December 2018 (about three weeks after the end of our cruise). Score was 95. The inspection report listed 43 violations around the ship, none of which would deter me from booking the ship again. (Gluttony at that Churrascaria dessert bar was a health risk for me, though.)
A few months passed before CDC published the results of this inspection. Perhaps due to the famous shutdown of some federal agencies for about a month.
The Serenity’s most recent Canadian inspection was in June 2017. Score was 99.
However, even well-inspected luxury liners can face that noro nastiness (vomiting, diarrhea). There’s a limit to what cruise lines and governments can do to protect passengers from their own health habits.
While we were crossing the ocean, Crystal’s other ship (the Symphony) had a norovirus outbreak on the Amazon. No secret, though. It was publicly reported on CDC’s home page, in Cruise Critic’s passenger chat room, and in USA Today.
The Symphony’s doctor made daily reports to CDC, sought CDC’s assistance, and was able to contain the illness (less than 5 percent of the passengers reported symptoms).
While passengers in a Cruise Critic chat room are not a statistical sampling, their online thread on the Symphony didn’t signal any cruise-spoiling panic. They made passing references to onboard norovirus in the midst of much more vigorous exchanges over the ethics of petting sloths and the merits of selling the Chico’s brand in the ship’s clothing store (true story).
Per these stats and chats, it’s not inevitable that most people on board will get sick if there’s a norovirus outbreak (defined by CDC as 3% of passengers).
A clinic that specializes in travel medicine can give you a thorough briefing on how to handle this contingency, including what remedies to take along. Here are two lists of doctors with this type of practice: (1) the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org) and (2) the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene (www.astmh.org).
Measles has made quite the comeback across the U.S., and is highly contagious. CDC presumes that travelers born in the U.S. before 1957 have childhood immunity. If you were born later and have had the shots, you may want to take along proof in case there’s a quarantine in your travels. (See www.cdc.gov/measles/travelers.html)
Crystal’s customer core is retired “comfortable couples” from the American mainstream. Some have been retired for decades -- now in their eighties and beyond.
Crystal continues to preserve traditions from a prior era of travel. There are still formal nights (“black tie optional” and some tuxedos), daily afternoon tea, a dress code after 6 pm, and an ornate hideaway for smoking cigars.
We continue to feel safe from onboard crime. Guests occasionally die from getting old, but not from assaults, drunken parties, or jumping overboard. You’ll have to cruise elsewhere for those experiences.
But Crystal is not an isolation ward, and travel agents may need to prepare some customers to expect subtle changes in the ship’s atmosphere.
For instance, the music. The Russian string quartet has been replaced by a solo performer with an electronic violin. Crystal has invested heavily in computerized neon costumes for performers to dance in the dark. The young jazz crooner that faithfully replicates the 1940s may wear his hair in a modern man bun. (But just be glad that yet another generation is striving to perpetuate the old favorites from before it was born.)
The crew members who give you super service may sport a few tattoos. (We’re talking pretty young ladies here, not muscled male deckhands.) And you’ll see cruisers who whip out their smartphones whenever there’s a lull in table talk. (We’re talking seniors here, not millennials.)
And you might even see a dog on board these days. Folks on this cruise reported dog sightings at the buffet line, ice cream bar, clothing store, Lido Deck dining, Japanese restaurant, and ledge around the hot tub.
The tiny hound that I saw didn’t make a sound, didn’t bother anyone, and was even wearing a dress at one point. And the affection from crew members suggested that they might be missing their pets back home. Or perhaps their parents just raised them to be kind to animals (and seniors).
Social media polarizes this sort of thing in a rhetoric of rights. But it’s not really a legal matter until a foreign ship (here the Serenity) departing from a foreign port (here Lisbon) finally reaches an American port (here the Virgin Islands). (49 CFR 39.5(b)) Until we reached the Virgin Islands, it was just a customer relations call as to which species Crystal wished to accommodate in the price of a ticket.
Regardless of a dog’s purpose, the practical problems for “pet parents” make it unlikely that cruises will ever really go to the dogs (become truly “pet friendly”). There are issues like dog-sitting during port stops, local health regs, security screenings, and distinctive nasties from nature. Things like fleas with plague, cute little snakes, and big birds that really do eat small mammals.
Nature is indifferent to the rhetoric of rights. In the event of a canine unthinkable, it can be a long wait until the next port stop with a veterinarian. And I have no idea whether Crystal’s onboard physician would agree to treat a suffering non-human.
If you insist on bringing Fido or Fifi, a competitor’s megaship will be more likely than tiny Crystal to include a vacationing veterinarian among its passengers.
Of course, you never know what travel entrepreneurs will develop for an unmet need. While we were docked in the Virgin Islands, the humane society was having a dog-washing fundraiser at the yacht marina. Proceeds of $10 a dog went to “fly homeless pets to stateside rescues and better lives.”