Slumping into post-cruise blues is a feeling I am sure many cruisers can associate with. After spending twelve days sailing through the Mediterranean to Southampton ensconced within the plush and luxurious environment of the Crystal Serenity, I found the shock of back to everyday life was more jarring than usual. I had joined the ship with high expectations, as Crystal Cruises has won more awards than any other cruise line or land-based travel brand, and through my days on board I discovered why. They provided me with an enchanting experience – free from any form of anti-climax. Although it did make stepping off the ship and back into the real world worse than normal!
I want to share some of my observations and the things that stood out for me about Crystal, along with some of the challenges I think their experience faces.
Bigger than expected
Crystal Cruises operates in the ultra-luxury segment of the cruising industry that includes lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas. Charging premium fares, they all promise “six-star service” – implying they go beyond what travellers should expect when staying in a five-star hotel or sailing with a luxury cruise line.
In addition to superior service, one of the ways that these lines tend to distinguish themselves from other cruise categories is by having smaller ships. This enables more personal and personalised service and attention to each guest. Crystal is the exception. Crystal Serenity holds 1,070 guests and carries 655 crew, and her sister ship the Symphony 922 guests and 566 crew. As the Crystal Serenity came into view in the port of Civitavecchia near Rome where I joined the ship, I noted that it was not dwarfed by the Costa, P&O Cruises and MSC Cruises ships docked there.
As I got off the transfer bus at the ship my heart sunk at the long line to clear the passport, health questionnaire and security screening before boarding the ship. It was more reminiscent of regular cruise lines and not of the smaller ultra-luxury segment. I feared the larger size versus their competition would dampen the overall luxurious experience.
However, once past that hiccup on shore, I discovered a different world on board. The check-in on the ship was brisk, thanks to the long bank of crew handling the task. From there on I experienced space, small groups of people in all venues and a feeling of calm and quiet throughout. Just as I would expect at a premium hotel. Even the excursions have groups of less than 25 people and so there was plenty of room on the coaches and even time for the guide to spend with each guest answering questions and discussing the destination.
I had read that Crystal has extraordinarily high levels of crew retention. Most of the crew I spoke to confirmed this. While I am sure there must be those with limited service, the person with the lowest service I came across on my cruise was five years, and most had between ten and twenty years with the company. Loyalty seemed true for the guests too.
Although the Cruise Director announced in the welcome show that there were a lot of first-time cruisers, I did not meet many of them. Most people I spoke to had done multiple trips and were fiercely loyal. In one of the hallways I came across a series of boards full of engraved plaques celebrating passengers with 100, 200 and even 300 cruises with Crystal. Not nights on board, but individual cruises. Crystal’s first ship had her maiden voyage in 1990, and so unlike lines with decades of service, this is impressive. A handful of guests even live on the ship almost year round.
It is clear the line engenders loyalty from their guests. While the Crystal Society Frequent Traveller Program builds rewards for almost every cruise sailed, I do not think this is the driver as these are relatively modest additional perks. There is something in the mix of accommodation, on-board amenities, entertainment, service and food that is driving this. I came to suspect it is not even the itineraries, as passengers seemed more driven by travelling with the line than on the destinations themselves. This is something many of the senior crew I spoke to confirmed seemed likely.
There were some common themes about my fellow passengers:
- They were well-travelled and travel often. Everyone I spoke to had already visited significant areas of the world, usually multiple times.
- The majority seemed to be retired professionals with the time and money to be able to do this. There were younger guests too, but they also came from a professional background, which seems likely as Crystal charges premium fares.
- Most travellers were couples, although I did meet a lot of solo travellers of both sexes. Many used to travel with their partners on the line, and have continued to do so since having been widowed.
- While primarily American, there were sizeable contingents from Asia and Australia along with a smattering of United Kingdom and German travellers.
Overall I was surrounded by sophisticated and experienced travellers who liked to eat well, dress smartly for dinner and enjoy cerebral entertainment like Broadway shows, lectures on destinations, history, current affairs and politics and learning new skills. I found more fellow passengers seated around the pool clothed and reading than splashing around in the swimming pool most days.
I liked it. It was a calming adult experience. Quite different from many lines I have travelled with in the last few years which focus on boisterous activities and theme parties.
Child tolerant than family focused
There are families that travel with the line but Crystal, in my view, is not really geared to catering extensively for children. There are children club activities available in the morning, afternoon and evenings. Those families I spoke to admitted that their children tend to enjoy entertaining themselves and embrace a more adult experience than the frenetic offerings of water slides, rock climbing walls and similar attractions. They were happy to do activities like playing music in “The Studio” (a room with electronic keyboards), sports, going to the technology classes and the cultural excursions.
I suspect most travellers on board would prefer not to be surrounded by families and children – and they (more than the line) are less tolerant of them.
Crystal provides a comfortable, familiar world and experience for passengers from English-speaking countries. This, I assume, accounts both for why it attracts this mix of guests and why they follow this approach. The communication, food, entertainment and ambiance is one that makes a comfortable experience for travellers from English-speaking regions. It does not take them out of their comfort zone, and provides a warm cocooned way to explore the world. Much as if a land-based traveller was exploring the world in the comfort of a chain from their home country.
While the safety video was shown in multiple languages, the TV channels were American and British shows and there was not a lot of evidence of catering for non-English speaking guests.
Luxury hotel decor
My favourite hotel chain is the Four Seasons. I love the way that they manage to create soothing and stylish decor that is rich on detail, plush, comfortable and successfully combines tradition and contemporary elements. If they decided to create a cruise line they would be frustrated to discover Crystal had out “Four Seasoned” them.
I loved the decor of the ship. It unashamedly aims to be a luxurious hotel and not a ship. It does not draw on traditional maritime lines and motifs which lines like Cunard and Holland America do, nor does it use the bright and brash Las Vegas feel that is popular with most other lines. Crystal leans on contemporary styling and subtle colour palettes to create sophisticated bedrooms, lounges, dining rooms and bars that exude class.
When I first explored the ship I felt it was almost underwhelming, but I started to appreciate the quality of the fabrics, the lines of the fixtures and the beauty of the artworks and I realised that there is much more substance to it. One of the highlights being the cabin I was staying it, a Penthouse with Verandah. The furniture was comfortable and the bed magnificent. Soft sheets with a cotton texture I have never experienced and a pillow that was dreamlike to lay on!
There are five main classes of staterooms, or should they be called bedroom types in line with the hotel feel? There are the large Crystal Penthouses, Penthouse suites, Penthouses with verandah, Deluxe staterooms with verandah and Deluxe staterooms with large windows. The rooms are a fair size, comparable to those of their main competitors.
Luxury touches and style of service
Throughout the ship I keep stumbling across signs and elements that add to the overall luxury experience. Even the public restrooms were pleasant places to visit with tasteful decor, colours and lighting. There were Elemis toiletries, individual cloth towels to dry your hands and even a tissue dispenser at the door to open it with. The Lido self-service restaurant had smartly set tables, comfortable designer chairs and staggered white food stations with high-quality food in modern bowls and dishes. Around the pool were wicker chairs and loungers laid out with fresh covers and towels. The Bistro served a range of coffees and teas with delicate cakes, sandwiches and fruit throughout the day. The staterooms had Aveda toiletries, fresh bowls of fruit, iPod players and DVD machines. There was also a pillow concierge service offering a section of types including goose down, hypo-allergenic and isotonic foam-filled for neck or lumbar support.
Service is polite, efficient and pro-active. The hotel and catering crew are European trained and follow the style of quiet and responsive service and not being excessively overly friendly and chatty. I like this approach as feels more refined and classic. Maybe that comes from my English background, where premium hotels with long traditions follow this approach.
Although there are over 45 nationalities serving on the ship, I felt that most of the passenger-facing crew were from European countries, especially Eastern Europe, than I am used to on other lines. The Captain is European but the Senior Officers I met were international from countries like the United States, South Africa, United Kingdom, South Africa and other European countries.
Crystal has embraced the approach of other ultra-luxury lines and now all food, entertainment, drinks and gratuities are included in the fare. This means that your cruise card only has to come out to enter your room, to leave and return to the ship or make a purchase (shops, casino or medical centre).
Having travelled extensively on luxury and mass-market brands this transforms the experience and ambience. I am more used to constantly getting my card out to pay for every small item including soda, coffee, drink and ice cream. The business model on those lines is different and affects the total cruise experience. Their fares are set to attract travellers onto the ship and revenue generation on board is critical to the profitability of the line. There is a constant flow of promotions and offers from every department designed to make sure guests are using their cards to charge items. CruiseMarketWatch.com, who track cruising statistics, report that the average cruiser spends half their fare again whilst on those ships. On Crystal you do not feel you are being sold to at all. You are made aware that departments like the spa and shops are focusing on different activities or brands each day – but there is no hard promotion or announcements.
I was especially delighted to see there were no tables set up around the atrium outside the shops hosting promotions of cut-priced goods of unknown or minor brands. There was no inch-of-gold stalls and endless themed sales. Shopping is much more Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive than tacky bazaar. The shops are large, classy and stocked with expensive premium goods and include Apropos (clothes and accessories), Captain’s Choice (Crystal branded goods), Crystal Collection (watches) and Facets (jewellery). I despair at how other cruise lines clutter the ship with constant barrages to get passengers to part with cash. The shops on Crystal are in line with the refined nature of the experience, and the needs of the type of guest it attracts. It added to the overall feeling of class and of being in an up-market venue.
Although there is a photographic shop, this is also lower key. Most cruise lines aggressively push the purchase of images and will insist on taking photographs every time you board and leave the ship, on excursions, at events and during meals on formal nights. On Crystal posing in front of a billboard of the ship when first boarding is a side option and you have to seek it out. You can book sessions to have a portfolio of images taken but there is no heavy sell.
Follows a traditional model of cruising
Crystal provides a largely classic approach to cruising. Although not as formal and rigid as the long-established British-heritage lines like Cunard and P&O Cruises, they have dress codes (resort casual, smart casual and formal), set dining times, afternoon tea, ballroom dancing to a live band and entertainment that focuses on more sedentary activities (like enrichment lectures and learning workshops).
They do not seem to be looking at pushing the boundaries or looking to reinvent the cruise experience but rather focus on trying to deliver it in a superior way.
Innovation accentuating traditional cruising activities
I came across lots of innovative initiatives both before the trip and once on board. The headline grabbing innovations in cruising tend to be about big features from land being brought onto ships like Broadway / Las Vegas shows, ice rinks, water shows and major recording stars to host concerts. Crystal has taken a more subtle approach and focus their efforts underpinning and evolving traditional cruising activities and features. They seem to be focusing on adopting modern technology and partnerships with established brands to evolve, improve and differentiate the existing offer and not bring glitzy showy changes on board.
- Responding to the growth in tablets they have introduced “Complimentary Digital Entertainment” which is the ability to stream movies and lectures on demand and via the PressReader App to use newspapers, excursion booklet and the daily program and give instant guest feedback. If travellers do not have their own they can hire them.
- Use of modern fitness products to improve the popular traditional walking activities using the Debbie Rocker Walk Vest and nordic walking sticks.
- They also have a partnerships with Magic Castle in Los Angeles to host magic shows for intimate audiences during every cruise, Yamaha to give music classes and USC for film making workshops.
Food is important in cruising and for Crystal it is a special focus. This is another area they have tried to focus innovation on. Initially they partnered with established culinary luminaries like Nobu Matsuhisa to create Silk Road (Asian dining and sushi) and Valentino Restaurant to create Prego (Italian) but more recently they have driven their own initiatives.
They rolled out Tastes, which promises a Global Street Food Court and was developed in conjunction with Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach California. It provides dishes from around the world. In the main dining room they introduced new menus to bring both Modern Cuisine, dishes using new cooking techniques and equipment, along with a Classic Menu with traditional dishes.
Crystal have introduced connoisseur and artisan beers from places like the United Kingdom and Holland to the bars, run daily afternoon tea with a featured Mozart Afternoon Tea during each cruise and have the Trident Grill where they freshly prepare hamburgers and similar food.
Entertainment is intelligent focused
As I discussed before, guests travelling seem comfortable with entertainment and activities with an educational and learning bias. This is the heavy focus of the program on Crystal. The Crystal Visions Enrichment Program hosts talks by guest speakers covering current affairs, destinations and politics. These usually take place on sea days.
The Crystal Cruises Creative Learning Institute focuses on providing a series around arts, business, technology, lifestyle and wellness. Some of the specific activities include bridge, knitting, dance lessons, Art at Sea classes, Univeristy@Sea digital workshops, Yamaha Passport to Music lessons and USC Digital Film-making classes.Fitness is covered by a large gym, exercise classes and walking exercises with Nordic hiking equipment and Walk on Water events using weighted walk vests. In addition to traditional excursions they also offer the “You Care. We Care” “voluntourism” program where guests can go on activities to help local communities instead of just sightseeing.
The production shows, while entertaining, are fairly typical to other cruise lines with proven song and dance show approaches focused around themes like musicals, Elton John showcase and popular hits from past decades. The guest performers follow a standard cruise approach of singers with West End or Broadway backgrounds, comedians and the like.
Communication and then some more
I have never come across as much information provided by any cruise line I have travelled on as Crystal provided! Before the cruise there were vast quantities of tips, advice and guidance supplied on their website and in the pre-cruise booklet. Once on the ship, the daily “Reflections” program was a multiple-page document with detailed content on every aspect of the on-board services and facilities. It included regular profiles of the senior crew and backgrounds to the partnerships like those for the restaurants and designer brands stocked in the shops.
There are a number of channels on the television covering crew information, excursions, future cruises and the lectures given during the cruise. On the first night, the Cruise Director hosted a welcome show where he went into detail on many aspects of the ship and entertainment options. Destination guides and maps are provided for each port.
Opportunities and challenges
One of the things that worked less well for me, versus many other lines, was the reliability, speed and bandwidth of the internet. I am a prolific user of social media apps, email and browsing and found this worked less well for me. I often relied on data roaming in ports to do some of the tasks like uploading images onto Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and to download larger attachments in email. As I was travelling in Europe and have a United Kingdom phone there are limits on the cost laid down by EU regulations which made it competitive versus internet time on board.
On many other lines I have used Skype and FaceTime successfully and downloaded Apps and my digital London Times newspaper via the App, but this was not possible on Crystal. You even had to pre-load or find land-based internet to download the PressReader App to use the digital entertainment services provided for free on your tablet.
Hopefully this is something that can and will evolve to meet the changing nature of the connected traveller. Solving the challenge of the limitations of satellite-based internet is something the cruise industry needs to figure out to satisfy the new generation of travellers who expect fast, low-cost constant connections. On my trip I was not paying to use the internet but would have found it more challenging if I was as all ship internet is costly. Crystal is no exception.
Coping and attracting the next generation of cruisers
With such a loyal audience of travellers who clearly like the current offer and approach, I believe Crystal will have to weave a fine line in evolving and adapting the product to satisfy the future cruisers – while not alienating their current core. The future is in travellers who are likely to be younger, families and will expect more contemporary entertainment, ambience and facilities. The shift in the menu and dining has been made in this direction and the modern cuisine and options like Tastes I thought were outstanding. However, the more established and older Crystal passengers I spoke to seemed less excited by the modernity and unusual aspects in this arena. They preferred to stick to the “Classic Menu” that was also offered.
My time on board Crystal Serenity was fantastic. The food was excellent, the service refined, the decor stylish and I loved being surrounded by an adult group of fellow travellers who were experienced, interesting and full of life stories and adventures. I will be back!
Declaration: I travelled as a guest of Crystal Cruises (http://www.crystalcruises.com) on the Crystal Serenity. For my videos, photographs and audio content about the cruise and line visit tipsfortravellers.com/crystal