Thursday, November 26, 2015

Crystal Serenity - Lisbon to Monaco: Crystal As a "Move Up" & "Move Over" Luxury Option - Part II

When considering any cruise line, here Crystal Cruises, as an alternative to your present favorite...or simply the one(s) you have tried, there is much to consider.  What is the ship like?  What are the qualities of the amenities, venues and tours?  How is the cuisine?  What about service?  And, of course, does the style of the cruise work with yours...or what you think yours is.

In search of answers to those questions, our second day on the Crystal Serenity was a great opportunity as it was a sea day spent sailing from Lisbon, Portugal to the island of Madeira.  This gave me an opportunity to begin my careful look at the Crystal Serenity, how Crystal delivers its product and to observe who it is exactly that sails on Crystal.

After a very unusual for me sleep in (the bed is quite comfortable) with our suite balcony door open just enough to allow the sea air and sounds to compliment the very gentle rocking of the ship, it was time to check out the service and the ship.

Our butler brought us a lovely breakfast, cooked to order, served on our balcony – which has very comfortable all-weather wicker furniture with thick cushions – with actually very good coffee (as opposed to the disappointing coffee elsewhere on the ship) and excellent freshly squeezed orange juice.  The pastries were not memorable…not that I needed to eat them!  On subsequent breakfasts the poached and fried eggs were excellent and the granola and oatmeal top notch.  The buckwheat blueberry pancakes were quite good as was the smoked salmon (though curiously served with onion and capers, but without tomato.)
Crystal Serenity has beautiful and comfortable veranda furnishings
making your in-suite breakfast even more enjoyable
 My first truly critical impression:  You would never know the actual age of the Crystal Serenity, as the ship is immaculately maintained, though its interior style is more akin to the finer old school New York hotels and its exterior that of the grand Palm Beach hotel al fresco areas.  What made this more remarkable to me was the fact that I rarely saw staff cleaning, polishing or vacuuming in public areas during the day or evenings.  Crystal must make a serious effort to perform these tasks when guests are asleep.

Actually there is one area where the ship does show its age:  The in-suite entertainment system. While Crystal has fantastic news programming (CNN, Fox News, BBC, SkyNews) its movie offerings are frustratingly vintage 2000 with a different movie on a couple of movie channels supplemented by DVDs you must retrieve from the Library...when its open.  Crystal does offer some better entertainment on your iPad, but when lying in bed or sitting in your suite that doesn't really cut it.  (Another niggle:  In the Penthouse you really can't sit on the sofa and watch television as the screen is partially blocked by its cabinet.)

Crystal really shines with its enrichment programs.  On each of the three sea days there was a full schedule ranging from lectures by Richard Roth, a long time CNN reporter, and a former US brigadier general.  They were especially interesting in light of the Paris attacks that took place just as this cruise started.  Other enrichment options range from how to make movies with your iPad to bridge instruction, dance lessons, knitting classes and more. 

It would be great if this pool on the bow of the Crystal Serenity
was available to guests.
Crystal Cruises reserves this for its crew, but they say the almost never use it.
(Maybe I'm being a bit selfish!)
For the more active, Crystal Cruises offers paddle tennis, two golf driving nets and a putting green (with lessons if you would like them), ping pong tables as well as a nice size pool and a true promenade to run or walk around the entirety of the ship.  And that is just on the ship!

Crystal Serenity's Deck 6 Aft has a putting green,
two golf driving cages and two ping pong tables.
Before talking more about the ship, this Crystal cruise also included some ports worth talking about.  And while these were not the most exciting ports, if you looked there were some interesting and fun things to do…and Crystal had a number of excursions in each that catered to a range from extremely active (scuba diving, serious bike riding and long runs) to those most sedentary could enjoy.  Crystal again excels in making sure guests know what they are signing up for two ways:  The descriptions (written and on the television) are very clear about activity levels and why (number of steps, length of walks, limited sitting areas, etc.) and with an excellent lecturer on the upcoming ports.

But you know me and ship’s tours are a rarity.  Our independent ventures brought out one weakness:  Crystal’s shuttles into and from town.  They are spread out over 30 minute periods, regardless of demand, so if you don’t time yourself well, you will be sitting on a bus for a long time (or, alternatively, frustratingly wasting time doing something else as you wait.)  Fifteen to 20 minute shuttles would be far more appropriate.  (In Monaco there was no shuttle so if you had any mobility issues you were relegated to a tour or ordering a taxi as the ship may dock at the harbor, but it is a good distance and steeply uphill to the areas you want to visit.)

Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
In Madeira there was only one thing I wanted to do:  A Madeira wine tasting.  But it was Sunday morning and the only place that would be open was still closed.  So we took a stroll after finding out the local market was also closed, and took a gondola ride to the top of one of the hills surrounding the city of Funchal. 

A Hazy View of the harbor in Funchal, Maderia, Portugal
But that wasn’t the reason for taking the gondola; it was for the ride down…by toboggan!  Is sliding down the steep road in a wicker basket with rails with only two guys guiding it with ropes…and their feet…touristic.  Yes, but ya gotta do it!

Ancient wicker toboggans waiting to slide you down
the steep roads of Funchal! 

One of the benefits of cruising in November is that there
were almost no lines, so the toboggoneers were waiting for us
rather than us waiting for them.
Note: It will cost you only 15 Euros for two to get up the hill, but 50 Euros to get down (30 Euros for the toboggan that stops about half way down and 20 Euros for the taxi to go the rest of the way down and into town).

It was then on to Blandy’s which, fortunately was open because there was a tour…and we made in just in time.  Crystal did offer a few wine tours (this is a Food & Wine Cruise), but they were more of a hint of what I wanted.  As I will discuss in another article, onboard the Crystal Serenity Food & Wine events were truly WOW experiences.

Once the staff at Blandy's understood I wanted a true Madeira wine tasting and not the one euro stuff offered to the tours, the fun began.  Trust me on this:  Most Madeira wine is good for little more than cooking (if that), but the good stuff is really good stuff!

Not all Madeira wine is heated and shaken; a process that assists
in preserving this usually not so delicious fortified wine

This is the Good Stuff
And this is the Really Good Stuff!
Then it was time for lunch at a little spot in the marina with a view of the ship.  It was, of course, local fare with limpets (similar to clams with only one shell), 

grilled sardines 

and a local vicious looking fish, scabbard (it is long and a sword's scabbard), which is actually a very light fish with banana (strange, but it works).

Back on board the Crystal Serenity, it was time to relax before enjoying what I believe is the best alternative restaurant at sea:  Nobu’s Silk Road.  

It was outstanding; both beautiful in presentation and in taste.
Trust me:  Order the Black Cod with Miso!

Crystal allows you to dine in each of its two alternative restaurants once for no charge and then at an additional charge of $30 per person for each night thereafter. If you are in a Penthouse or higher you can order from either to be served in your suite at no additional charge.  

Crystal Serenity's Penthouse affords you the ability to
dine on Nobu in your suite!
Not bad, huh?

My impression so far is that Crystal Cruises has lots of strengths and options that other luxury and premium lines do not offer.  Yes, there are a few things I, so far, see as worthy of improvement, but as you will read in my following articles, Crystal Cruises is measuring up well as a "move over" and a "move up" alternative.

Our Crystal Cruises’ experience continues…

Interested in booking a Crystal Cruise? Please give me a call:

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