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Cruise Ship Information

Crystal Serenity is a cruise ship, owned by the cruise line, Crystal Cruises. Crystal Serenity was built in 2003 in STX Europe in St. Nazaire. She operates together with her older fleetmate, Crystal Symphony, offering around the world voyages.

Atmosphere on board

There's a reason Crystal is consistently voted a fan favorite among luxury cruise devotees. Yes, 535-stateroom Serenity is now more glamorous than ever, having emerged from a dramatic $52 million makeover as a part of a $120 million fleet transformation that began in May 2011. Those who long for the black-tie elegance of yesteryear's cruises will find it nightly amid the charmed laughter and clinking glasses in Serenity's dining rooms and lounges.

But there's a whole cult of Crystal-only cruisers, as faithful to the brand as travelers who hop to every Four Seasons, and they don't just love it for its beautiful aesthetics. In short, it's the culture of friendly, spot-on, perpetually delightful service.

Launched in 2003, Crystal Serenity is the youngest of Crystal's ships; near-sibling Crystal Symphony launched five years later. Most significant about the vessel itself is that Crystal Serenity has benefited from more than a decade of evolution with the cruise line. The ship, carrying 1,080 passengers -- the largest in the luxury segment -- is significantly bigger than its predecessors, and yet, it carries an expanded capacity of just 150 cruisers. Responding to demand, Crystal Serenity offers twice as many penthouse cabins as Symphony. There are two paddle tennis courts instead of one, as tried-and-true Crystal devotees are fiercely competitive in this arena. At heart, it's a modern ship that incorporates plenty of classic elements, and cabins, public rooms and outer decks all feel spacious.

In 2011, the ship received a $25 million refit. New lighting, carpeting and furnishings, along with a complete redesign of cabins, keep the ship feeling contemporary, fresh and incredibly well maintained. But that was just the first phase in a dramatic $52 million makeover. Its final phase, a $17 million redesign of public areas, had just completed as we came aboard in 2014. It included a redesign of its now-airy Santa Barbara-inspired Lido Deck (think living walls, outside sofas and a global-inspired casual dining deck), as well as the ultra-luxe redesign of its penthouses and 1,345-square-foot Crystal Penthouses, which positions it squarely at the top end of the world's best cruise ships.

Other hallmarks of Crystal Cruises -- the Creative Learning Institutes, which include language classes, digital filmmaking courses and knowledgeable professors that lecture along the way -- are as tremendous an added value as ever. Itineraries are all inclusive, with complimentary wine and spirits, and prepaid gratuities. There are little -- but important -- perks along the way, too, like same-day pressing and convenient self-serve launderettes on the two penthouse floors.

We noticed that there were a lot of passengers celebrating milestone occasions, and for them -- or just those with plenty of money to celebrate -- Crystal offers a myriad of opportunities to create a once-in-a-lifetime sailing. On our voyage, Crystal unveiled two posh Crystal Adventures for an overnight in Monaco during the Grand Prix. Crystal had its own VIP grandstand seats in the heart of the action, plus catered lunch and, later, VIP tables at Amber Lounge with free-flowing Dom Perignon at Formula 1's exclusive after party. The experience started at $1,000 per person.

For newcomers, the onboard atmosphere can often feel a bit country clubby. Most passengers are of retirement age, and many have met one another before. (In many cases, they sailed together on previous trips.) We, in our early 40's with a 5-year-old daughter along, were easily among the youngest aboard.

Crystal is attempting some minor experiments to broaden its appeal; it offers some seven-night itineraries, more dining options than before and even razzle-dazzle late evenings in the Pulse disco. Taking a page from its smaller, ultra-luxury competitors, the line is nearly all-inclusive, with drinks, tips and even airfare included in the fares. (There are fees for shore excursions and alternative restaurant reservations beyond the first one.) But, it speaks to the line's strength that it's not interested in rocking the boat to draw passengers at any cost. It's a safe bet that, unlike other lines that try too hard too quickly, Crystal won't lose its identity.

Family with Kids/Teens

While Crystal makes little attempt to market itself as the "upscale family" cruise line, it does attract families with children, particularly those traveling as three generations during the summer and holidays. Even though the children's facilities are relatively small and basic, Crystal is one of the few luxury lines to offer any dedicated space for children at all. However, youth staff are not usually onboard, except during sailings when there will be a significant number of children, such as during the summer or holidays.

Baby-sitting services can always be arranged, however, for $10 per hour for one child. There are two playrooms, with Fantasia hosting those in the overly broad 3- to 12-year-old age group and Waves, for teens (13 to 17). There are Sony PlayStations, X-Box 360s and an arcade, and when youth staff are onboard, there are a few specific activity offerings (particularly for the younger set). Still, this ship is better for families who want to entertain their own children, rather than lose them for the trip.

Past Passenger Programs

Crystal Serenity makes a splashy impression on entry. The Crystal Cove area in the atrium is marked most significantly by a sweeping staircase from the retail area above and a transparent (crystal) baby grand. (As often as not, it seemed, someone was playing it -- sometimes even particularly talented passengers.) This was one of our favorite spots for people-watching onboard, as passengers moved through on their way to the dining room or, a deck or two above, to browse the shops or hit The Bistro.

The generously sized Creative Learning Institute is a highlight onboard. Located along an elegantly wide corridor, there are several classrooms -- even one dedicated entirely to Yamaha piano instruction (featuring keyboards on every tabletop).

The ship's cyber center is called Computers@Sea, and it benefits from Serenity's slightly larger size. This two-part room includes a classroom with Internet-connected Apple computers and a regular cyber center layout. Note, though, that if you set up a shipboard email account in the Internet center, Crystal will charge per megabyte uploaded, rather than per minute, and that can be costly. Otherwise, typical Internet access (including Wi-Fi around the ship) is available in packages that start from $50 for 120 minutes, or you can pay as you go for 74 cents per minute. Also, there are data ports in cabins (and laptops you can borrow for a daily fee). A technology concierge is also onboard to assist you with gadgets, including iPads, Kindles and smartphones. All members of the line's Crystal Society past-passenger loyalty program will receive free Internet (up to 60 minutes free per day).

Editor's Note: Crystal has made several significant steps to dramatically increase the speed of the Internet on its ships. Don't expect broadband, but it is among the fastest Internet connections we've ever seen on any ship. And they even throw in a nice touch: 20 free minutes on the last day of your cruise so you can check in for your flight.

Aft of the Computer Center is a spacious bridge lounge. It's another example of the space Crystal Serenity has. Whereas other lines have removed or downsized similar nonrevenue-generating spaces, Crystal has dedicated an entire room to card-playing. (Bridge instructors usually sail on each cruise, as well.)

On the opposite side of the ship is an excellent onboard library, which stocks CDs and DVDs for free loan and, of course, books, in a number of different languages to suit its international clientele.

The handful of shops that rims the upper deck of the three-deck atrium was jazzed up during the recent refit. Beyond the usual boutique selling logowear, there's an excellent women's and men's fashion shop and the jaw-dropping, golf ball-sized jewels of Hubert jewelry in Facets boutique.

There are three self-service laundries; no joke, they're the best we've seen at sea, with plenty of room, ironing boards, magazines and even a TV. When a line invests this much money in its laundry rooms, you know they're serious about being attentive to every detail. These facilities are complimentary for those who have ponied up for penthouse rooms.

Fitness And Spa

The ship has two pools. The Seahorse is the main one, with a bandstand and two whirlpools. The Neptune, which lies under a sliding-glass roof, is ostensibly the "bad weather" pool. The Trident Grill and Tastes, two alternative dining options located in that area, have pretty much taken over the space with tables and chairs, and it's just not conducive to swimming while people are eating. The roof was never opened, even when the weather was fine.

During the 2011 refit, new "resort style" deck furniture was added in conversational groupings to the pool deck, with attractive results. The area is colorful and cheery without being flashy, and the long couches and oversized circular "pod beds" are perfect for either one or two people to stretch out comfortably in the sun.

Walkers will rejoice when they set foot on one of the best Promenade Decks at sea. Wide, without deck chairs to block the way, it completely circles the ship and harkens back to traditional liners. A deck below, near the stern, are golf driving nets and a putting green. There are also two Ping-Pong tables, thoughtfully enclosed by a large net that prevents the problem of chasing after errant balls. Due to the secluded location of these games, the ship can keep them open 24 hours a day without worrying about noise complaints. Shuffleboard is located a few decks above. Due to popular demand for paddle tennis, Serenity has two full-size courts located at the top of the ship.

The Taylormade Golf Clinic with a PGA teaching pro is in full swing (ahem) most days. Decent yoga and Pilates classes are offered, too. But the best secret place we found for a relaxing view and a read was the relaxation room at Crystal Spa on the 13th deck, aft. After spending our departure from Venice with the best view out floor-to-ceiling windows from an elliptical machine in the fitness center, we drank a quiet cup of tea from the relaxation room -- completely alone.

Unlike some other spas we've tried at sea, the spa aboard Serenity was a serene, relaxing (no product hard-sells) experience. It offers a complete range of spa services, such as hot stone massages, facials and scrubs, while the salon has manicures, pedicures, blowouts and hairstyling, as well as barber services for men. Appointments go fast, particularly for formal night, so book early. When we went to book a treatment, the therapist suggested an evening appointment for our lime and salt scrub and massage. This was truly the most luxurious part of the trip, getting a massage next to a floor-to-ceiling window as darkness set in.

The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse passengers while they exercise. Fitness classes are offered daily, and two new initiatives include Nordic Walking with walking poles and "Walkvests," weighted water vests designed to intensify your workout.

Food & Dining

The Crystal Dining Room serves as the backbone of the ship's restaurant operations. Elegantly wood-paneled and with a minimum of flash and fuss to take your attention away from the experience itself, the restaurant is open-seating at breakfast and lunch. (We appreciated, time and time again, the sensitivity of maitre d's in not forcing shared encounters.) At night, for most passengers, it's tradition all the way, with seatings at 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Crystal has always been known for the friendly formality of its dining rooms (passengers definitely do dress for dinner) and the well-curated offerings in its other venues, but along with the new design come a few other notable improvements. For several years, the traditional company has offered cruisers the option of "Perfect Choice" seating, which allows cruisers to reserve times and tables in the dining room pre-cruise. Think of it more like a restaurant reservation; you tell the maitre d' when you plan to dine that evening and with whom, and he'll have a table arranged for you.

Crystal has gotten creative in the kitchen, too; its new menu, based on molecular gastronomy, debuted on our sailing. (You can mix and match with its "Classic" menu items, so not everything you eat feels experimental.) We tried some real winners from the "Modern Cuisine" menu, such as oysters topped with cucumber foam and a nearly-fluorescent tomato tartar with beetroot and a quail egg. Then we balanced out the meal with classics like a perfectly executed black angus sirloin steak with bearnaise and a saucy fricassee di pollo al cacciatore (braised free-range chicken cacciatore with creamy mascarpone polenta).

The Lido Cafe buffet is as lavish as ever, with an endless array of options at every meal. Crispy-creamy French toast became our morning go-to, and made-to-order pastas, a terrific cheese selection, vast salad bar and different global-themed cuisines at each meal kept things interesting. The cafe's new design replaces long buffet counters with food islands; there are also more tables for two.

The newly revamped Trident Grill, also on the Lido, has been transformed with sofa-style seating and an open-style kitchen and cocktail bar. Sit out in the atrium, with its calming "living walls," and you'll understand the freshening up that the entire ship has undergone.

Our favorite dining, particularly with a child in tow, was at Tastes, on the Lido Deck. In the evening, the casual California vibe (after all, it is affiliated with Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach) went global. You can -- and we did -- order as many tapas-sized dishes from the selection of about 15 for your table as you'd like, and they're all winners. Our favorites were a creamy Alsatian tarte with bacon-leek jam, Gruyere and bechamel; exotic saffron marinated lamb kebabs with dry mint-lemon yogurt; and an incredibly crispy and tender chimichurri steak with sweet potato fries that were crunchy with herbed sea salt. The only minor downside: The menu doesn't change, so if you become addicted to Tastes, you're limited to the same options each night.

Also on the Lido, Scoops ice cream bar serves up Ben and Jerry's ice cream, as well as frozen yogurt with tons of toppings, making it an afternoon must-visit.

The European-style coffee bar, The Bistro, midship on the sixth floor, sets up an incredible selection of tiny dessert bites, incredible cheeses and a chocolate fountain at 8 p.m. each night. From there, we could hear the sounds of the Galaxy Orchestra playing just below us on the fifth floor in the Crystal Cove. It's one of the best discoveries on the ship, serves perpetually from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and is always good for a quiet getaway, even on sea days. 

As far as getting the reservations you want in the specialty dining rooms, you may make one reservation prior to sailing, but there's also a rush on embarkation day to secure desirable reservations for special occasions. The first alternative dining experience at each venue is included in the cruise fare for each passenger, but Silk Road (and the Sushi Bar within it), as well as Prego, add a well-worth-it $30 supplement to each plate for additional visits.

Try both. Prego, the charming Italian restaurant in partnership with Piero Selvaggio's Valentino, serves perfectly executed Valentino classics like his classic Black Angus beef carpaccio and an al dente, hand-rolled cannelloni dish with spinach and ricotta. Prego may look a tiny bit kitschy with overly dramatic Italian cityscape paintings on the walls, but the atmosphere and northern Italian fare are hard to beat. Quiet and with a good mix of small and large tables, it seats only 70.

As Nobu Matsuhisa devotees, we were eager to see how the Nobu-trained chefs at Silk Road and the Sushi Bar stacked up. We weren't disappointed and ate at both the sushi bar and the tables. Classics like his yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and tuna tataki with ponzu sauce were executed just like they are at his restaurants, and the chefs pulled out the stops with a crispy soft-shell crab roll, as well as shrimp they'd just picked up in port -- not on the menu -- that they grilled for us. Order from either menu at the bar or the tables, and don't miss the lobster spring roll on the Silk Road menu, filled with sizable lobster chunks and served with tangy Maui onion-tomato salsa.

For well-heeled passengers who want a night to remember, Crystal offers the Vintage Room. For $2,100 (and up, depending on the wine you select), you can reserve the room for yourself and 13 of your closest friends. So what do you get for a meal that costs as much as many cruises? The fee entitles you to a private dinner with a custom-designed menu (if you want) with an emphasis on fine wine education and pairing. Separately, occasional food and wine theme cruises will also feature Michelin- starred chefs, and for $1,000 per person, you can have dinners prepared by the chef in the Vintage Room.

As if all these options aren't enough, Crystal serves up one of the best afternoon teas at sea. Held in the serene and spacious Palm Court, tea is done properly, with live musicians playing softly in the background and white-gloved waiters offering a variety of teas and an extensive selection of sandwiches, scones and tasty treats. There are also popular themed afternoon teas, such as the famous Mozart Tea. Waiters dress in period costumes with velvets and brocades, a classical quartet plays some of the famous composer's pieces, and an especially large selection of Austrian desserts is on offer.

No matter which cabin type you book, you can dine in your stateroom off the main dining room menu for dinner, or choose from the extensive 24-hour room service menu. Those in the ship's many penthouses have the privilege of ordering off the popular Prego and Silk Road menus, too.

Entertainment

Crystal is famous for its theme cruises, like Pacific crossings that explore maritime history; golf-themed cruises that have you teeing off at renowned courses and taught by PGA pros; and emerging artists cruises on which up-and-coming musicians, vocalists and dancers perform. Ours was a "Gladiators & Empires" cruise through the Mediterranean, with engaging lecturers who spoke about everything from life in Rome for the gladiators (and everyone on down) and the frescoes and mosaics in Pompeii and Herculaneum to the French Riviera as playground for the rich and famous.

Aside from the enrichment program and athletic classes, daytime activities are fairly low-key. They may include a movie shown in the theater, a dance lesson taught by the gentlemen hosts, lessons by the golf instructor on the putting green (which were well-attended on our cruise) and a sometimes raucous trivia competition. Otherwise, passengers are content to spend days at sea enjoying the public rooms, the extensive open decks or the many lectures offered throughout the day.

Another area in which Crystal Serenity excels is live music. You don't have to be an old fogey to appreciate classical music at teatime, a classical quartet in the atrium, torch songs at cocktail hour in the Palm Court, Broadway show tunes in the Avenue Saloon before and after dinner and fabulously fun karaoke in the intense Pulse Disco.

One noteworthy improvement is the Sunset Bar at the forward end of the Palm Court. It offers gorgeous views over the bow (hence the name) and is rarely crowded. It became a favorite watering hole as we sailed out of port. Dancing (with gentleman hosts) is popular and takes place there nightly.

The Crystal Casino, on the way to the Galaxy Lounge, offers a comprehensive range of table games and slots; it's no longer operated by Caesar's Palace.

The Galaxy Lounge is the ship's main show lounge, used for Broadway-style production shows and headline entertainers, including singers and comedians. While larger and more elaborate than the cabaret acts found on smaller luxury ships, the shows are far simpler than what you'll find on larger mega-ships. Still, they seem to please Serenity's passengers, who appreciate the option of seeing a show most evenings but who don't need the full glitz and glamor of more extensive productions.

Serenity also extends the Crystal tradition of its Hollywood Theater, which, on our trip, showed both classic and second-run films. Popcorn is served, but get there early. The screenings are great for cloudy afternoons at sea.

For shoreside pursuits, Crystal offers a fairly noteworthy range of options. In addition to the expected selection of tours focusing on city highlights and culture, the ship has several unusual and exciting options that cater to the line's well-heeled passengers. If an $8,900 tour driving a Ferrari isn't quite exciting enough for you, perhaps flying a MIG fighter jet in Russia is? More active offerings are also starting to be included, and the line has added complimentary "Voluntourism" excursions to all sailings. Examples include assisting with meal preparation for abused, ill or abandoned children in Nafplion; aiding injured sea turtles at a sea turtle research center in Athens; and helping to maintain the gardens with the elderly inhabitants of the 660-year-old Domus Christi shelter in Dubrovnik.

A word of caution though: Even Crystal's standard shore excursions are notably expensive, with full-day excursions often costing $350 or more.

Fellow Passengers

Crystal passengers are generally an empty-nester crowd, especially on unusual itineraries like World Cruises, where longer itineraries attract those who clearly have the time (read: retirement) to take the longer sailings. In fact, we overheard solicitous staff greeting repeat passengers or those who had been living aboard even while the staff had been on hiatus. On our sailing, our daughter was one of only three children aboard (though the kids of a visiting professor and the child of a performer rotated in and out).

In the Mediterranean, you can expect about half of the passengers to be American. The rest are mostly English-speaking passengers from the U.K., Australia and South America. Crystal's management tells us that plenty of passengers also come from Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and Spain.

Our recommendation

In the end the fundamental statistics of maximum number of passengers and the crew-to-passenger ratio allowed Seabourn to edge out Crystal in terms of overall cruise experience. This aspect was most prominent with respect to service. The crew on Serenity tried very hard, almost too hard, to please while their Odyssey counterparts provided slightly superior service in a very unobtrusive way. The Serenity’s crew was simply overstretched viz. the number of passengers aboard and it showed. Given the utility and consistency of these vital cruise statistics, I was sorry to learn that Seabourn is selling its three smaller ships to Windstar in 2014 and 2015, presaging a replacement fleet at least the size of their remaining fleet and perhaps larger?

I was actually surprised that I chose Seabourn over Crystal given the latter’s better cuisine, wine, and more numerous dining venues, but I did. The key variable was the drop in quality of food and service that took place when venues, in particular the Crystal Dining Room, reached capacity; the kitchen got backed up and the front of the house had to scramble. Even though food is and always will be a key discriminator for MagoGuide, if you get two cruise lines that are close in this key area, you look to other aspects of their ships for tie breakers.

A major tiebreaker between Seabourn and Crystal is cabin size and layout. I realize that travelers and cruisers are not really in the same marketing space, but even if you really do only sleep in your cabin (and most passengers spend more time in their staterooms than, say, nine hours every twenty-four) you are still spending a significant amount of time there on a cruise. The bottom line is that the space in our stateroom felt cramped and sub-optimized. The latter problem continued in the larger foot print venues that we toured during the Funchal open house, and this was in staterooms that had been prepared specifically to entice future bookings.