(4:30 p.m. EDT) -- It’s hard not to feel the emotion in talking to the crew onboard Crystal Serenity, which launched last week with a sailing from Vienna to Marseilles. After all, it’s been a long road to get here.
Crystal Cruises was one of the pre-eminent luxury cruise brands in the world, with a loyal passenger following and perhaps even more loyal employees, when things quickly took a bad turn in 2022. The cruise line, along with its parent company Genting Hong Kong, collapsed when revenue crashed – in large part because of the pandemic.
But out of bankruptcy, Crystal found a second life, after Abercrombie & Kent Travel Group, in conjunction with Heritage purchased the line’s two oceangoing vessels, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony.
(Heritage is a holdings company led by Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, who is no stranger to luxury cruising: Lefebvre d’Ovidio is the former owner of Silversea and a longtime figure in the cruise industry.)
Now, what’s old is new again. Crystal has brought back familiar names and familiar faces, including 80% of the crew, many who are seeing guests for the first time in 18 months. The new Crystal dusted off the ship and showed off its program with a shakedown cruise – an inaugural sailing that doesn’t include paying passengers and is meant to help work out kinks in features and service, provide a cushion for work to be completed and offer a safe testing ground for trying out new spaces and concepts.
Cruise Critic was invited onboard Crystal Serenity for this shakedown cruise. Here’s why Crystal still offers something for loyal and new guests alike.
Being onboard Crystal Serenity is somewhat reminiscent of the feeling we got when cruising returned after a long shutdown because of the pandemic. We missed cruising, and cruising missed us. On Crystal Serenity, as it did on many of those first ships back, it starts with the crew, who are genuinely excited to be back onboard.
Walking through the Crystal Plaza the first day, we heard greetings like “Welcome back,” and “It’s so good to see you again.”
Indeed, it was good to see some familiar faces again. I sailed on Crystal Serenity in July 2019, and the first people I saw this time around were waiters I fondly remembered from my first Crystal cruise.
As our butler, Jean, opened our welcome bottle of Champagne, he told us we were his first guests since he and his crewmates had to leave early last year. (All Crystal suites come with butler service.) We heard similar stories from our waiter at lunch in Tastes during our first day. Crew told us they didn’t want to work for other companies and knew they just had to be patient for the brand to come back. Others worked for similar luxury brands but jumped at the chance to return to Crystal.
Even on a shakedown cruise, the service was excellent and intuitive, feeling like a surprisingly well-oiled machine considering the layoff. For many of the crew, it is probably akin to riding a bike: They have done it so well for so long, the pause didn’t affect performance.
Hotel director Scott Peterson, who joined Crystal in 2002, told us the company reached out to every crewmember in good standing with the line first to offer them a chance to return, and he expects the number of returners to rise because some workers are still under contract with other lines.
“Our crew want to come back here because it’s home,” he said.
Guests, too, want to return “home.” Crystal Serenity's first revenue sailing, which starts July 31, will sail with 475 people. Of those, 400 have sailed Crystal before (all at least five times), with at least one cruiser who has logged 114 trips. When passengers board, Peterson says there will be tears, as they will receive a “hero's welcome.”
When A&K Travel acquired Crystal, it spent some time refurbishing Serenity and fleetmate Crystal Symphony (set to debut later this summer). Both ships previously were extensively refurbished between 2017 and 2018, and both were well-maintained along the way.
A major initiative this time around: Upgrade the cabin offerings. On Crystal Serenity, a big part of that was reducing the number of cabins so as to increase their space. As such, the capacity dropped from 1,040 to 740. With 655 crewmembers onboard, the ship has an impressive 1.13 passenger-to-crew ratio. Even more notable, the ship features a best-in-industry passenger space ratio of 1-to-93.1 square feet. Essentially, that means every guest onboard has 93.1 square feet of space to call their own. (Compare that with some of the larger-capacity big cruise ships, where that number can drop as low as 1-to-34. Find out what cruise ship size fits you.)
We loved the upgrades the cabins received. We stayed in one of the newly renovated Sapphire Veranda Suites on our sailing, which was fresh and modern. Of note were the outstanding bathrooms, featuring large showers with multiple spray options, and gorgeous neutral granite countertops with deep sink basins. Modern light fixtures, cabinets and drawers were added throughout, as were outlets and USB (mini and traditional) ports. None of the staterooms on decks 10 and 11 was renovated, though these had been part of the 2018 changes. (The largest, the four Crystal Penthouse Suites found on Deck 11, remain impeccable.)
You can see a difference when comparing the older cabins with the new, as the non-renovated versions are missing the ports and outlets, and some still feature bathtubs. Décor is lovely but feels slightly dated by comparison, with dark wood and brown marble vs. the light-and-bright look of the new staterooms.
Another spot where Crystal heavily invested is the Aurora spa complex. Located on Deck 13, the completely renovated spa is inviting from the moment you step into it. The space is bright white and offers natural lighting and incredible views. It feels very much like a spa you might visit on land. To the right is a salon, where guests can get hair, nail and grooming treatments.
Leaving the main spa area, you’ll find 14 private rooms offering a range of treatments. Most notably, Crystal Serenity offers several options we haven’t seen on other ships, including IV treatments designed to help combat things like bloat and fatigue, as well as light stimulation therapy. Light stimulation therapy can be combined with acupuncture or performed on its own; it’s designed to help treat skin conditions like acne or wrinkles. We had a spectacular traditional Swedish massage on our cruise, and if we had more time, we would have tried out some of the new offerings, which were intriguing.
The spa also offers a sauna and a steamroom – one each in the men’s and women’s changing rooms. There’s also a relaxation room where passengers can wait for their appointments. This is the one spot we wished received more attention during the renovation. In comparison with relaxation areas we’ve seen on other cruise ships, this one felt fairly basic, lacking amenities like a water station. It lacks the wow-factor the salon/spa reception area has.
It’s rare that a new ownership team takes on a product without wanting to put its fingerprints all over it, but that is not the case with Crystal Serenity, something we’re certain Crystal fans will appreciate.
“[Lefebvre d’Ovidio] understands the value of what Crystal brought,” Peterson said, adding the aim of the new ownership was to enhance the brand, not “destroy” it. “He wanted to renew everything with the same people and the same concept … just to revive the Crystal spirit and Crystal product.”
To achieve that, the renovation left most of the public spaces, including the ship’s bars and lounges, buffet restaurant and main restaurant unchanged. It also left intact the beautiful teak deck pool deck and teak panorama deck (on Deck 7), though both spots were refinished and now look and smell new. The pool has the same footprint, but it was completely relined, and work was done to refresh the area around it, which looks inviting and new.
More substantial changes were made in two of the ship’s restaurants: Umi Uma and Osteria d’Ovidio. The new ownership managed to maintain a relationship with chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the award-winning chef whose Japanese restaurants on land are a draw to foodies worldwide. Crystal had a long-time partnership with Nobu; his Umi Uma is a favorite among guests. On Serenity, it’s back, offering the same decadent menu passengers have come to expect, including his exquisite miso-glazed black cod.
Osteria replaces Italian restaurant Prego. The new concept is a tribute to Northern Italian cuisine. It was designed by president and CEO Cristina Levis and named to honor Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio. Both restaurants were completely redesigned and modernized.
When A&K Travel acquired Crystal Serenity, it ripped out the casino and replaced it with the vaguely titled Lounge. The choice could make sense, as Crystal ships spend a lot of time in ports, and cruise ships are not allowed to operate casinos while they are in port. Further, they require a large number of crew to operate, even casinos as small as the one on Serenity. Casino crewmembers might better be deployed elsewhere.
We’re just not quite sure what The Lounge is. In fairness, Crystal doesn’t really either.
“It’s an area that you won’t figure out until you bring people onboard,” Peterson told us. “The guest will tell you what they like and what they don’t like.”
He added that the team will gather everyone’s feedback, positive and negative, to help figure out how they can improve on the space.
As it stands, The Lounge is a beautiful open space featuring lots of seating at tables and chairs, with a couple of TVs. It doesn’t have a nearby bar or space for entertainment; it wasn’t used much on our sailing. It’s unclear how it will develop, but we’re excited to see where it goes.
In fact, that’s a bit how we feel about Crystal in general. The new ownership has big plans for the company. On July 29, it announced that it would build four new ships for its fleet, comprising two expedition ships and two more classic ocean ships.
“We have ambitious growth plans for Crystal and are proud of what we have accomplished with the relaunch of Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony in just under a year following the purchase of the brand,” Levis said, speaking to journalists on Crystal Serenity. “We are now thrilled to formally announce that we will be growing our fleet and continue to offer the most exceptional cruising experiences in the industry.”