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Crystal Serenity Cruising

Luxury cruise liner, Crystal Serenity, is certainly a ship that is dressed to impress. Nick Constance shares his onboard experience after spending a week cruising through the sunshine of Southern Spain.

The perfect way to start a cruise is to be met by a crisp-shirted representative, not in the airport arrivals hall, but at the baggage carousel. All I need to do is point at my luggage and forget about it until I board the ship and open the door of my cabin.

My ‘cabin’ is a Standard Penthouse (as apposed to Penthouse Suite) but there is nothing standard about it. At 403 square feet (including balcony), each penthouse features a fabulous bathroom (two sinks,) a decadent Jacuzzi bathtub and separate, large shower; a walk-in closet; and a grown-up sofa. But, for me, the pièce de résistance is an iphone speaker/docking system – not big, but certainly clever.

Beyond that, 33 penthouse suites — at 538 square feet (including balcony) — are somewhat larger and, most notably, offer separate bedrooms. Finally, just four Crystal Penthouses, covering a rather grand 1,345 square feet, are bigger than many apartments. Highlights include bigger everything — from balconies and TV, to the separate master bedrooms with king-size beds. Basically, whether it’s a regular cabin, or a Penthouse, there’s certainly more room than you need to swing the proverbial cat. With all this luxury, it’s difficult not to think that ships are now becoming the destination.

Despite the global economic crisis, the cruising industry continues to grow. The number of people choosing a cruise holiday in Europe has more than doubled in the past decade to over 5.7 million; the sector attracted almost a million passengers from outside Europe. As a result it generates employment for more than 326,000. “These impressive figures clearly show the importance of the cruise sector to Europe as a whole,” states Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, CLIA Europe Chairman.

The first thing I notice about life on-board Serenity is the level of service. It actually couldn’t get any slicker, or more polished. With a guest capacity of 1.070 and a crew of 655, this luxurious vessel maintains Crystal’s mark of excellence with one of the best guest-to-crew ratios in the industry. The bottom line is, on this cruise, I find myself saying “No, I’m fine thanks” rather a lot.

All guest quarters are outside berths, and 85 percent have their own verandas. Penthouse suites have recently increased in both size and number and come with that staple found on ships of bygone years – the white-gloved butler.

A complimentary bottle of champagne is waiting for me as I step into the cabin. Moments later Engin knocks on the door and introduces himself with a handshake and a big smile. He then proceeds to punch his mobile phone number into the bedside phone. “If you need anything just press this button and you’ll get straight through to me”. I smile at the thought of this abracadabra level of service. True to his word, whatever I throw at Engin he delivers with aplomb. In fact, he pretty much organises my entire onboard life. I can feel my shoulders unhunching by the hour.

I was actually slightly anxious about joining this cruise, as I’d only been on a small number of cruises and I wondered what I could possibly talk about with someone who’d been on 50, 60, or (in some cases) over 100 cruises.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. When I took a walk around the Seabreeze deck, I was joined by possibly the most sociable person on board – an amazing guy called Roy, who was travelling alone but introduced me to so many people, all of whom were approachable and friendly. Later on, Roy engaged one of the female crew in a game of guessing how old he was. Of course, the girl was being rightly diplomatic by knocking a few years off what she probably thought. “Erm..72?” she ventured. Strike 1”, says Roy. Er…”75” she tried again. We were both stunned when Roy ‘fessed up’ to being a sprightly 89. Must be the sea air.

I have to admit I was certainly guilty of thinking that most of my fellow ‘shipmates’ would be retirees taking that once-in-a-lifetime ‘experience’. Not a bit of it.

On the first night, in the Crystal Dining Room, I felt I had completely ‘lucked out’ with my charming dinner companions on table 53. After all, we are stuck with each other for the week. One night somebody sparked a lively debate about gun control, which was fun.

This friendliness isn’t just between fellow guests, but is also evident amongst the amazingly friendly and attentive crew. I have the impression the crew are a happy bunch and this is borne out by the fact that many of them have been with Crystal for 5, or even 10 years, in some cases.

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Wine, Champagne and gourmet food

The decor in most communal areas is warm, yet contemporary. Some of the more elegant rooms evoke images of Colonial-style grand hotel lounges, whilst the Avenue Saloon is a throwback to the gentlemen’s clubs of yesteryear. There’s also the Connoisseur Club (for cigar and cognac enthusiasts); and the Stardust Club for top class entertainment.

In the main Crystal Dining Room there are tables for two (many positioned adjacent to large windows), four, six or eight. The food is attractively presented and of an extremely high standard. Featuring a fine selection of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, the food is predominantly European, but does venture around the globe.

In-suite/In-room Dining

From breakfast in bed to dinner on your verandah, Crystal offers a complimentary 24-hour service. At sea or in port, breakfast, lunch or dinner is offered in the sumptuous comfort of your own room, served with the same theatre and panache that you find in every restaurant. During dining hours, you are welcome to order the same selections offered in the Crystal Dining Room, served course by course, if you so desire. And if you’re traveling in a Penthouse, you may also enjoy the additional privilege of ordering from our specialty restaurants during dining hours.

The Bistro is a great spot for coffees and pastries and has the feel of a European street cafe. For a more leisurely meal the Lido Cafe has an extensive self-serve buffet area. The Trident Grill, by the poolside also serves a range of steaks, burgers and grilled fish, with a selection of delightful mixed-leaf salads. When the waiter asked if I fancy the Smoked Salmon salad, I make a not-sure-whether-it-will-satisfy- me face. “We can double up on the Salmon”, he ventures. Sold to the guy in blue shorts. Delicious.

A perfect place to round off these informal ‘snackettes’ is Scoops, the poolside ice cream parlour offering 30 different ice creams (including low-carb), 24 homemade sherbets and approximately 20 nonfat yogurts. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Afternoon Tea

One of my favourite ways to spend an hour, or two, is to take Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court lounge. Here, I get to revel in the luscious Viennese flavors and elegant ambiance of a Mozart Tea, as staff dressed in period costumes of velvet, brocade and delicate lace cater to my every whim. Perhaps you’ll prefer the white-tie-and- tails tradition of an English Colonial Tea, or the calm serenity of a Japanese Sencha.

I also receive numerous invites to sample the two specialty restaurants, Prego and Silk Road. Prego is the Cordon Bleu (mainly Italian) restaurant featuring beautifully presented and exquisitely tasty food. Silk Road is the Sushi bar featuring contemporary Asian cuisine created by Japanese master chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Call me an ignoramus, but I normally prefer simple unadulterated food – yet both places entice me to be much more adventurous than I usually am. In keeping with Crystal’s all-inclusive policy there is no extra charge for either of these restaurants.

In fact, this is the appeal of ultra-luxury (all inclusive) cruising. It’s so much more relaxing not to have conversations interrupted, whilst guests sign for every transaction, or request. It may be a little pricier at the front end but, in my opinion, it’s well worth the extra cost.

I shouldn’t have got this far without mentioning Lenchen, my delightful Stewardess. Each time I return to my room it looks as though Mary Poppins has been in – everything is cleaned away and squared up immaculately. It’s that abracadabra service again.

What feels unique to me on this cruise is that almost every interaction with the crew seems absolutely genuine — as if they really do want to please me. Not in an irritating way, but the service feels like the difference between a supermarket checkout and a local corner shop. In fact, so many of the crew are long-term employees that it’s…ahem…Crystal clear that both management and guests appreciate them.

Let’s Dance

One of the more intriguing services on board Serenity is offered by what are known as Dance Ambassadors. The role of these elegant, well-travelled gentlemen is pure and simple – to encourage unaccompanied ladies to dance. It seems many husbands, or partners prefer the twirl of the roulette wheel and this is where Dance Ambassadors step gracefully in.

Crystal has had Dance Ambassador aboard since the launch of its first ship, Crystal Harmony, in 1990. The fact that most rival cruise lines have ceased this rather charming role has led to a number of frequent cruisers decamping to Crystal. On this cruise, there are a handful of eager dancers who, not only dance with Al, John, Marty and Dan every night, but also book private dance lessons with Beverly & Curtis, the professional dance instructors, during the day. Dancing and cruising are happy bedfellows, it seems.

Crystal Cruises is preparing for a $17-million redesign of the award-winning Crystal Serenity this November. Plans are afoot to upgrade the Crystal Penthouses, the line’s coveted premier accommodations. Crystal is also expanding its green concept to the Lido area. Maintenance, cleaning, mechanical and environmental upgrades will also be implemented during the two-week dry dock at the Navantia Shipyard in Cádiz, Spain.

By November, Crystal will have spent $52 million on upgrading Serenity in the past two years and almost $120 million on refitting its fleet in recent years – a rare sign of economic confidence.

On The Stage

I missed the first night in the Galaxy Theatre, so I certainly wasn’t going to miss the farewell-night concert. We are treated to the aforementioned Beverly Durand and Curtis Collins, two International dance stars who captivate us with a brilliant display of passion, athleticism and elegance – tender and brave in equal measure. How they manage all that tossing and twirling, without breaking either a bone or a heel is beyond me.

Next up is, Tony Daro, who has everybody in fits of laughter riffing about airport security – a good subject, it turns out, as many guests are flying home tomorrow. To conclude the evening is Nicola Loud, an English Violin Virtuoso who’s nimble fingers so dazzle the audience it rounds both the evening and the cruise off perfectly.

Before we arrive in Dover I’m having a final drink in the Lido Lounge with Alex, a charming ebay exec’ who lifts his head skywards and says… “That’s the first cloud we’ve seen since Barcelona”. It was, indeed, and that was 8 days, 6 ports and 2,235 nautical miles ago. (2,570 Land miles.)

A week after being back in London I receive an email from Scott, a rather enchanting (female) shipmate from Richmond, Virginia; “Going through my 600 photos,” it says. “My last photo is of a sunrise / sunset. Who knows and who cares”? It just seems fitting”.