Whenever I get into a cruise discussion with other travel agents I like to ask the question “What is your favorite cruise line?” In the last year I have heard the response “Crystal!” to that question more often than any other cruise line, particularly from long time travel agents. I have sailed on a variety of cruise lines in the past two years (Disney, Princess, Royal Caribbean, NCL, and Carnival) and I always wondered “what makes Crystal special and different from other cruise lines?”
by Tim Larison, CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor (MCC)
In December 2004 I jumped at the chance to find out the answer to this question – my wife Anne and I were given the opportunity to sail on the Crystal Serenity (the newest of the 3 ship Crystal fleet).
We would be on the Serenity for the last 5 nights of a longer 14 night Ft Lauderdale to Los Angeles cruise. Below I will review different aspects of our journey and give you my thoughts on how our Crystal Cruise was different from cruises I have taken in the past.
We arrived in Acapulco around 2:30 pm on our first day. It took us about an hour to get through customs and claim our luggage. The Acapulco airport is very small for servicing a city of 1.8 million people – if you ever have to fly into Acapulco expect some delays. We had arranged transfers in advance and soon we were off to our hotel – the Fairmont Pierre Marquis on the outskirts of Acapulco. Our driver told us that the future growth of Acapulco is in this area. We really liked the Pierre Marquis. The hotel had an excellent ocean front location with a very nice beach. The beach was never very crowded during our visit and the security was good (we saw a policeman monitoring the area). We had stayed on Waikiki beach in Hawaii about a year ago and I remarked to Anne “I like this setup better”. The grounds of the hotel were spread out over a wide area – the rooms were located in small duplexes. We walked through a nice garden area to get from the main building to our room. Our room was spacious (about the size of a large studio apartment) with a private deck. The entrance to the room was in a courtyard shared by 1 other duplex – our only complaint was that this area was noisy when our neighbors arrived late after a night of partying.
We had the dinner buffet (around $15 per person) and the breakfast buffet the following morning (around $12 per person). The dinner buffet was average, while the breakfast buffet was excellent. We enjoyed eating our meals on the restaurant patio that overlooked the ocean. The weather was perfect – between 80 and 90 degrees during our stay.
I remember watching the Acapulco Cliff Divers on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as a child – I thought “I can’t visit Acapulco without seeing the Cliff Divers!” So we arranged through the hotel’s concierge desk transportation and reservations to see the Cliff Divers. The drive was a long one (about 45 minutes) but it was interesting to see the city all decorated for Christmas.
Our driver said Acapulco sits on one of the most scenic bays in the world – we thought the city and the bay looked beautiful as we descended into the metro area from a winding mountain road. The restaurant where we watched the Cliff Divers from (Club La Perla) had very little parking but our driver had prearranged a parking spot – we paid more than a regular taxi ride to see the Cliff Divers and the extra convenience was worth it. Our driver waited for us throughout the show and drove us back to the Pierre Marquis – about a 3 hour adventure in all. The Cliff Diver show itself was anti-climatic. It featured four divers jumping off of a high cliff into 10 to 12 feet of water below. The first diver stood perched on the cliff for what seemed to be several minutes. I looked away for a second then heard a loud splash – I missed the first dive! Oh well – I did see the other three and the dives were impressive, but the whole show only took about 15 minutes. Although the cliff and water area were lighted in the dark of the evening it wasn’t easy for me to see the divers. I’m glad we saw the Cliff Divers to say I had done it, but I wouldn’t make a special trip to see the show again if I visit Acapulco in the future.
Overall we really enjoyed our short stay at the Pierre Marquis – we would stay there again and I will recommend it to clients. The resort also has a free shuttle to the bigger Fairmont Princess Hotel with more amenities to enjoy.
We arrived at the port around 10 am. Joining a cruise in the middle of its itinerary was new for us, and we were surprised how quickly we were on the ship. After some difficulty getting our luggage through the port area (a local man helped us) we soon found ourselves walking up the gang plank into the Crystal Serenity. We checked in at the Guest Services desk on the ship, and we were in our stateroom with our luggage in no time.
We were booked in a outside stateroom on this cruise. Our first pleasant surprise was that we had been upgraded to a balcony stateroom! In all of our cruises Anne and I had never sailed before in a verandah stateroom so this was a real treat for us! The stateroom was good sized with a small balcony (269 square feet total). The main area of the stateroom seemed similar in size to what we had experienced in a deluxe stateroom on the Disney Cruise Line, but the bathroom was the largest one we have had on a cruise. The bathroom features we liked best were the two sinks, plenty of storage space, and a large tub/shower. In addition the bathroom had a second speaker to the stateroom tv with a volume control – so you could listen to a favorite tv program or shipboard announcements on this bathroom speaker without affecting the volume on the tv in the bedroom area.
The stateroom had lots of little “extras” at no additional charge included, such as: A pair of binoculars Complementary bottled water, and soft drinks in the stateroom refrigerator Data port for laptop computer hookup, DVD player (dvd’s could be checked out from the library), Fruit plate that was replenished each day, Robes, Slippers and umbrella. There was plenty of drawer space in the stateroom. The bed was extremely comfortable with king sized pillows.
The ship featured two specialty restaurants and the food was outstanding in each! Silk Road is a Japanese restaurant with a Sushi bar that featured the cuisine of acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa. We ate here on the 2nd night of the cruise, and liked it so much that we also ate here on the last night. The lobster dish I had here was among the best I have had on any cruise line. Anne had the Grilled Wagyu Beef Rib Eye Steak the first night which she rated good, but she liked my lobster dish better so she ordered that the 2nd night. The Rock Shrimp appetizer was delicious, as was a chocolate soufflé for dessert.
Prego is an Italian restaurant. I am Italian and I thought the veal parmigiana I had here was as good if not better than my mother makes! The veal was very tender and just melted in my mouth. Anne had a Red Snapper dish that she rated good but not great. One veteran Crystal Cruiser told us she didn’t think Prego was as good on this ship as the other Crystal ships – I was very pleased with my meal here but would rate Silk Road as the best restaurant on the Serenity. These two specialty restaurants came with a very modest cover charge – $6 per person. We ate at these restaurants three of the five nights on our cruise. Reservations were required and could be made from 10:30 to 11:30 am each morning at the Prego restaurant, or in the early evening. We tried to get into Prego one night and it was booked (so we booked our meal for a night later in the cruise). We had no problem getting the dining times we wanted at Silk Road.
The main dining room food I would rate as good but not outstanding, and very similar in quality to what I have had on other cruise lines. We only ate at the main dining room at our assigned 2nd seating time and table on formal night. That night we were seated at a table for 7 with other travel agents, and it was interesting to share stories of our experiences with the cruise. The other three times we ate in the main dining room (1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner) we were seated at a table for two – we were easily able to get a table for two at the open seating times.
If you have read some of my past cruise reviews you know I like to eat in a ship’s main dining room for breakfast and lunch instead of at the buffet. Not true for Crystal! We thought the buffet was superb. After we tried the buffet for 1 breakfast and 1 lunch we were hooked – and we ate these meals at the buffet for the remainder of the cruise. For breakfast I particularly liked the cooked to order omelet station. At lunch I feasted daily on the small cocktail shrimp as well as a variety of fresh salads and lunch meats. The buffet was not open for dinner (different than other cruise lines I have been on).
On formal night if you did not want to dress in formal attire your only alternative was room service. Speaking of evening dress, I was surprised at how relaxed the dress code was for dinner and for the shows afterwards. Before the cruise I was under the impression that we would be dressed in our finest on most nights. But this cruise had 3 casual nights, 1 informal night, and 1 formal night. On the full 14 night voyage there were only 3 formal nights.
On one of the casual nights Anne and I had reservations for Prego, so we dressed up a bit (not formal) for this special meal. I never thought I’d be overdressed on a Crystal cruise but I was that night! (other diners were in casual attire). The only bit of formality I noticed was that on “informal” night they asked that men wear jackets (ties optional). I almost didn’t wear a jacket that night to Silk Road (I don’t consider the jacket requirement “informal”) but I was glad I did when I saw every other man in the restaurant in a jacket!
The cruise also had a special lunch American Classic buffet around the pool on the last “at sea” day which was excellent – the buffet featured 50 different items from around the USA (such as seafood, barbeque, prime rib, jambalaya, etc). Whatever your tastes it was easy to find something good to eat at this buffet. Food was plentiful around the ship in the morning and afternoon. A coffee shop had pastries and fruit. Every afternoon we visited Scoops Ice Cream Bar for our afternoon treat of hand dipped ice cream (with no extra charge for ice cream like you see on some cruise lines these days).
The Trident Grill offered hamburgers, wraps, and other goodies if you wanted an alternative to the buffet and main dining room for lunch.
The night time entertainment on the ship was a mix of concerts, comedy, and production shows. The main show each night: Friday – Antonio Ramirez Mexican Folkloric Festival, featuring dancers and music Saturday – Gary Guthman, trumpet virtuoso and big band music. A comedy show was also offered this night with Comedian Mike Neun Sunday – Shirley Dominguez, International Harpist Monday – Production show “Curtain Time” featuring singer and dancers performing Broadway hits Tuesday – Goodbye variety show featuring all of the performers above The production show was excellent.
Compared to other cruise lines there were more concerts and less production shows over the length of the cruise. The only nighttime concert we attended was the Harpist Shirley Dominguez. I really liked this show while the harp music put Anne to sleep. One afternoon a piano concert featuring Classical Pianist Veronica McSwiney was performed in one of the show lounges. Anne really liked the pianist while I fell asleep! We saw the performers mingling with the other passengers throughout our voyage. They were just like any other of the passengers and very open to questions and complements about their art. I was behind a woman in one of the stores who wanted to purchase a particular song of Shirley Dominguez on a cd – she asked which of Shirley’s cd’s the song was on. The store clerk said “just a moment, I’ll check” and proceeded to call Shirley’s stateroom to ask. Late night dancing was available most nights in the clubs – a dj with current hits and an orchestra with slow dancing music. We really liked the movie theatre on the ship. The seats were comfortable and a good variety of films were shown, from the classic Citizen Kane to the recently released Manchurian Candidate.
There was a movie offered each night, and one in the afternoon. The movies (other than Citizen Kane) were typically ones that would be appearing in the video stores about now (2 to 3 months old). Anne and I rarely get to go out to movies at home so it gave us a chance to catch up on a few films we had wanted to see, like “King Arthur” and “I Robot”.
The cruise offered a variety of games. Anne and I played “Team Trivia” one afternoon. When we walked by the game room in the afternoon there were often a few passengers playing bridge. Caesars Palace at Sea Casino was open while the ship was at sea and usually was not very crowded (when we visited the casino we would see a handful of slot players and there was never a problem getting a spot at a blackjack table).
This cruise had the most extensive educational program I have seen on any cruise ship. Talks given in the ship’s movie theatre on the “at sea” days included: “How to Make Positive Lifestyle Changes” by Motivational Speaker Barbara Udell “Retinal Disease: Macular Degeneration and Diabetic Retinopathy” by Ophthalmologist Dr David Sholiton “Common Eye Problems” by Dr Sholiton “Smarter Memory Power For Life” by Memory Expert Scott Bornstein “Gifting and the use of Irrevocable Trusts” by Estate Planner Bob Hales “Buying and Selling on the Internet” by computer instructor Alan Marcus. This cruise had a special “Fitness and Finance” theme with many talks related to these two topics. On other Crystal cruises a well known celebrity is often featured giving talks. Actress Julie Andrews is scheduled to be on the Serenity for part of the ship’s 2005 World Cruise. Actress Florence Henderson (“Brady Bunch”) and football coach Don Shula were featured on recent Serenity cruises. We heard the motivational speaker and the Internet talk. I could not bring myself to attend a talk on eye diseases, but I peeked in the theatre and surprisingly this was one of the most well attended sessions of the cruise!
The cruise offered a variety of classes: dance, bridge, Conversational Spanish, cooking, watercolor painting, and Yamaha synthesizer classes. The ship had a computer classroom with more topics offered. I took the “Easy Business Cards” and “Digital Video Editing” computer classes. Next to the computer classroom was an internet café where you could buy internet time ($15 for 30 minutes or $25 for 1 hour). One trick I learned: if you show up early to the classes the computers in the room are hooked to the internet – I was able to check my email quickly at no charge while waiting for my class to begin. All of the above programs and classes were included in the price of the cruise.
The ship’s library was open until 11 pm on most nights – later than other cruise lines I have sailed on – and was well stocked with books, newspapers, books on tape, and DVD’s you could check out.
The Serenity featured a number of recreation options. The best recreation for me was also the simplest – a wide promenade deck that circled the ship. I liked taking early morning walks on this deck. We saw a good number of people participate in an organized walking program on the cruise (called “WALKVEST”). Unlike other promenade decks I have seen, this one had no deck chairs on it giving an even wider area to walk on. The ship had a nice deck chair area at the aft of the ship on three different levels if you wanted to lounge in a deck chair. There were two ping pong tables located outside on one deck. Each table was enclosed with a net. We played several games and we liked this setup. Next to the ping pong was a golf driving range complete with left handed and right handed women’s and men’s club you could use. On the top deck was a paddle tennis court that was a popular spot on the “at sea” days. The main pool area was large and the least crowded of any cruise I have been on. If you wanted to lie by the pool there were plenty of deck chairs available. Anne and I enjoyed a soothing soak in one of the hot tubs by the pool one afternoon. Fitness classes were offered on the cruise, too, including aerobics and yoga.
The Crystal Serenity can sail with approximately 1,000 passengers – on our sailing we had around 600 cruisers. This made for an excellent staff-to-passenger ratio – the most of any cruise ship I have been on. I was impressed overall with the friendliness of the crew and how well they remembered our names (maybe they were trained by that memory expert!). We seemed to run into one crew member named Clark repeatedly in different lounges or in the buffet – he always had a cheery “hello Mr and Mrs Larison” greeting for us. At our first lunch in the main dining room our waiter asked if we had just started the cruise that day – he didn’t remember seeing us before. Crystal strives to make passengers feel like they are part of a big cruise family, and they do a good job of it. The average age of the passengers I would say was in the 60’s – I only saw 5 children on the cruise all week! There was a small game room for the kids. I understand during the summer vacation sailings Crystal has a staff member devoted to the kids. One thing I noticed about the Crystal passengers – they had more brand loyalty than passengers of any other cruise line I have sailed on. We repeatedly talked to people who had been on many Crystal cruises and would sail on no other line. One couple had been on 40 Crystal Cruises, another had been on 80, and yet a third had been on over 100 Crystal cruises! The onboard booking consultant, Nikki, was very friendly and kept busy during the entire sailing booking future cruises. We attended a cocktail party one night for our travel agent group. We met the Captain, Reidulf Maalen, at the party and I asked him what his favorite cruise itinerary was. He spent about 10 minutes with me describing all of his favorite cruise destinations – from the Norway Fjords, the Mediterranean, Chile, and the South Pacific – all places I have yet to cruise to and that Crystal sails to! Later I learned Captain Maalen was a key person in the Crystal history in designing the ships and planning the itineraries – he was fascinating to talk to and got me excited to take cruises to these destinations in the future! Crystal has some very interesting cruise itineraries – they don’t just repeat the standard “Eastern and Western Caribbean” itineraries over and over again like some of the main stream cruise lines.
Ports Of Call
If you are still with me you may be wondering “did this cruise stop anywhere?” We really enjoyed our time onboard so the ports on this cruise were secondary. Nevertheless, we had two enjoyable shore excursions.
At Puerto Vallarta, we took the “Highlights” tour which featured a guided walk around town and a bus ride to a scenic resort area. The tour was interesting with some great views. This was the second time I have been to Puerto Vallarta on a cruise, however, and I found our day at Las Caletas on our first cruise still to be our favorite shore excursion in this area (Las Caletas is a secluded beach area with a variety of water sports available – it once was the home of film director John Huston). Crystal did not offer an excursion to Las Caletas like our earlier Princess cruise.
At Cabo San Lucas we took the “Land’s End Boat Tour and Scenic Drive” excursion. This tour was even better than the one we took at Puerto Vallarta. Cabo is one of my favorite ports to visit due to the spectacular scenery. We took a bus to a picturesque spot for a drink break, and then we took a 40 minute boat tour around the famous Cabo rock formations. On this cruise and on our previous Mexican Riviera cruise we were only in Cabo for a few hours (the ship departed at 1 pm) – someday I would like to stay in this area for a few days.
Our five night cruise came to an end on Wednesday, and we were jolted back to reality with our disembarkation process. Getting off the ship was smooth enough (we went through customs in one of the ship’s lounges). The bus transfers to the airport were not very well organized, however, with 6 busses marked “airport” and no direction as to what bus to get on. We had an earlier flight and we found some people with later flights were able to get onto the “early” bus ahead of us.
The Serenity was one hour late arriving into port which caused some air connection problems for a few passengers – we were fortunate to catch our flight back to Denver on time.
I now can understand why many people say Crystal is their favorite cruise line after the five days of pampering we received. Crystal isn’t for everyone – I would not recommend it for a young couple going on a honeymoon, for example, given the elderly makeup of the passengers.
Crystal is also a “premium” line that will price higher than most other cruise lines. But for senior citizens, for the intellectually curious, and for people looking to sail all over the world to a variety of destinations Crystal is a great choice. Six things I liked best about this cruise: 6. The friendliness of the crew. 5. The entertainment was varied and very good. 4. Walking in the morning on the wide promenade deck, and relaxing in the aft area of the ship on the comfy lounge chairs. 3. The variety of educational programs and movies offered – there was always plenty to do. 2. The food – particularly the offerings in the specialty restaurants – was outstanding 1. We loved our stateroom! Having a balcony for the first time was a real treat, and the little extras included made it even more special.
We would like to cruise on Crystal again – maybe to one of those exotic destinations the Captain was telling me about!