The Line in a Nutshell
Stylish and upbeat, Crystal provides top-shelf service and cuisine on ships large enough to have lots of outdoor deck space, generous fitness facilities, tons of activities, multiple restaurants, and more than half a dozen bars and entertainment venues. Sails to: Caribbean, Panama Canal, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, Canada/New England (plus Europe [Baltic and Mediterranean], Africa, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, South Pacific, South America, transatlantic, the Middle East, and a world cruise -- in short, just about anywhere you can cruise).
Crystal has the only truly upscale large ships in the industry. Carrying 922 to 1,070 passengers, they aren't huge, but they're big enough to offer much more than their high-end peers. You won't feel hemmed in and you likely won't be twiddling your thumbs from lack of stimulation. Service is excellent and the line's Asian cuisine is tops. Unlike Seabourn's small ships, which tend to be more calm and staid, Crystal's sociable California ethic and large passenger capacity tend to keep things mingled, chatty, and more active. No question, these vessels have a vitality and energy that the smaller Seabourn, Regent, SeaDream, and Silversea ships definitely do not.
Like other high-end lines, Crystal draws a lot of repeaters. On most cruises, more than 50% hail from affluent regions of California, and many are Crystal fans who have sailed with the line numerous times. There's commonly a small contingent of guests (about 15% of the mix) from the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, Europe, South America, and other places. Most are well-heeled couples ages 55 and over. A good number step up to Crystal from lines such as Princess and Holland America.
Many Crystal guests place great emphasis on the social scene before, during, and after mealtimes, and many enjoy dressing up (sometimes way up) for dinner. Although the scene is way less formal than in the line's early days, you'll see no shortage of diamonds and gold Rolexes, and it's obvious that women on board have devoted much care and attention to their wardrobes and accessories. The onboard jewelry and clothing boutiques also do a brisk business, and a guest forking over $50,000 for a diamond-encrusted watch isn't uncommon. On formal nights -- two or three of which occur during every 10- or 12-day cruise -- most men wear tuxes and many women wear floor-length gowns, although your classic black cocktail dress is just fine. As on all ships, dress codes are much more relaxed during the day.
Though not a kid-centric line compared to the mainstream lines, of the high-end ships, Crystal is the most accommodating for families with kids. Each ship has a dedicated playroom called Fantasia, a teen club, and supervised activities are held for kids ages 3 and up when demand warrants it. During holidays and the summer months of July and August, 100 or so kids on board is not that unusual. Junior activities directors are on board during these cruises to organize dedicated programming for children.
Established in 1990, Crystal Cruises has gained recognition for its unique and award-winning place in the high-stakes, super-upscale cruise market. Its ships are the largest true luxury vessels in the category, and while not quite as generous as some other lines in the stateroom department (rooms are smaller than those on Regent, Silversea, and Seabourn) and the freebies department (Crystal doesn't include complimentary champagne, liquor, and wine in the rates, though cruise fares tend to be less expensive than the other lines that do), they provide a truly refined cruise for discerning guests who appreciate really good service and top-notch cuisine. No doubt about it, Crystal is one of our favorite lines.
The line is the North American division of Japan's largest container shipping enterprise, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK). Despite these origins, a guest aboard Crystal could conceivably spend an entire week at sea and not even be aware that the ship is Japanese-owned-and-funded. More than anything else, Crystal is international, with a strong emphasis on European service. The Japanese exposure is subtler, and you'll feel it pretty much only in the excellent Asian cuisine and tasty sake served in the alternative Japanese restaurants and at the Asian-themed buffets. A Japanese activities director is on board to attend to the handful of Japanese passengers you'll see on many cruises.
Service by the team of ultraprofessional, gracious, European waiters is excellent. In the main dining room -- and to a somewhat lesser degree in the alternative restaurants -- table settings are lavish and include heavy leaded crystal, Frette linens, and Villeroy & Boch as well as Wedgwood china. Even in the Lido restaurant, waiters are at hand to serve your salad from the buffet line, prepare your coffee, and then carry your tray to wherever you want to sit.
Traditional -- Dinner is served in two seatings in the main dining room; at lunch and breakfast, there is open seating. Cuisine selections include dishes such as coq au vin (braised chicken in burgundy-wine sauce with glazed onions and mushrooms over a bed of linguine); Black Angus beef tenderloin with burgundy-wine gravy; oven-baked quail with porcini-mushroom-and-bread stuffing; and seared sea scallops served with a light lobster beurre blanc over a bed of risotto. Simple items are always available as well. At lunch and dinner, there's a light, low-cholesterol selection such as grilled fresh halibut served with steamed vegetables and herbed potatoes, as well as an entree salad -- for example, a mixed salad with grilled herb-marinated chicken breast, lamb, or filet mignon. Vegetarian selections, such as spinach and ricotta cannelloni or a brochette of Mediterranean vegetables, are also featured, as are kosher foods and low-carb choices. Sugar-free, gluten-free, and low-fat options are now part of all menus, too, even at buffets. Virtually any special diet can be accommodated.
In a kind of homage to the California wine industry, Crystal has one of the most sophisticated inventories of California wines on the high seas, as well as a reserve list of more than two dozen rare wines and an extensive selection of French wines. In 2004, the line also created its own proprietary label called C Wines: six chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons (smooth and yummy to the palette), and merlots made in limited production with grapes from the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Arroyo Seco, and the Santa Lucia Highlands. All are available on board by the glass or the bottle.
Specialty -- The line's Asian dining spots are the best at sea. Master chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, known for his restaurants in New York, Miami, L.A., London, Paris, and other cities, partnered with Crystal to create menus for both ships' Pan-Asian restaurant Silk Road and the Sushi Bar. Dishes feature Nobu's eclectic blend of Japanese cuisine with Peruvian and European influences. In the Sushi Bar, sample the salmon tartare with sevruga caviar or the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño; in Silk Road, choices include lobster with truffle yuzu sauce and chicken with teriyaki balsamic. While Nobu himself makes occasional appearances, chef Toshiaki Tamba, personally trained by Nobu, oversees the restaurants. The Sushi Bar is a great spot for appetizers before a full meal elsewhere on the ship.
Aboard both ships, famed restaurateur Piero Selvaggio showcases the cuisine of his award-winning Santa Monica and Las Vegas Valentino restaurants at the Italian Valentino at Prego. The best dishes we sampled on a recent Symphony cruise were the king crabmeat salad with fresh pear and aged balsamic, and the linguine with lobster tail, zucchini, and spicy tomato sauce. The recent refurbishment aboard Symphony did away with the Venetian "barber" poles in favor of a calmer cream and burgundy decor. The only sour note: On a recent cruise we could hear someone jogging on the track on the deck above during dinner.
Reservations are required for each of the specialty restaurants, which are complimentary aside from a suggested $7 gratuity. It's an amazing price for such great dining experiences.
Casual -- Excellent themed luncheon buffets -- Asian, Mediterranean, Western barbecue, or South American/Cuban, for instance -- are generously spread out at lunchtime by the pool, and an extraspecial gala buffet is put on once per cruise in the lobby/atrium. No expense or effort is spared to produce elaborate food fests, with heaps of jumbo shrimp, sushi, Greek salads, shish kabobs, beef satay, stir-fry dishes, gourmet cheeses, and more.
While you can have breakfast in the Lido Café, the Bistro Café serves a late continental breakfast from 9:30 to 11:30am and is open between 11:30am and 6pm for complimentary grazing at the buffet-style spread of cheeses, cold cuts, fruit, cookies, and pastries; on a recent cruise, our coauthor Heidi had an absolutely delicious Portuguese custard here and she still talks about it. Nonalcoholic specialty drinks, such as hazelnut latte and fruit shakes, are complimentary here. The Bistro tends to be a real social hub and people-watching spot.
For something casual poolside, the Trident Grill serves lunches daily between 11:30am and 6pm for those who'd like something simple and easy (beef, chicken, and salmon burgers; wraps and tuna melts; pizza, hot dogs, and fries; fruit; and a special of the day). You can place your order at the counter and either have a seat at the adjacent tables or head back to your deck chair and let a waiter bring your lunch. You don't even have to change out of your bathing suit. The grill also operates several evenings per cruise between 6 and 9pm, providing an open-air ambience with table service, with dishes such as grilled shrimp, Cobb salad, and gourmet pizza.
Snacks & Extras -- For afternoon tea -- with live music, of course -- it's the ultrachic Palm Court, forward on one of the uppermost decks. A sprawling space with floor-to-ceiling windows and pale-blue-and-white furniture in leather and rattan, the area has a light, ethereal ambience. Pre-dinner and midnight hot and cold canapés in the lounges include delicious foie gras, caviar, and marinated salmon.
There is, of course, 24-hour room service, as well as free unlimited nonalcoholic drinks everywhere aboard, from cappuccino to soda and bottled water.
The hallmark of a high-end cruise such as Crystal is its service, so the line's staff is better trained and more attentive than those aboard most other cruise lines. Dining room and restaurant staffs hail from Italy, Portugal, and other European countries, and have trained in the grand restaurants of Europe and North America; the stewardess who tidies your stateroom is likely to be from Scandinavia, Hungary, or elsewhere in the E.U. Everyone, from the dining/bar staff to those at the information and concierge desks in the lobby, is endlessly good natured and very helpful. Guests in Penthouse Suites are treated to the services of male butlers. As far as tipping goes, most passengers charge gratuities to their onboard accounts, though you can pay in cash if you wish.
All guests get complimentary unlimited nonalcoholic drinks everywhere aboard, from cappuccino to soda and bottled water.
In addition to laundry and dry-cleaning services, complimentary self-serve laundry rooms are available.
Crystal has an interesting selection of activities, most of which are part of the ships' Creative Learning Institute. The extensive program features an array of expert speakers, plus alliances with well-known organizations, schools, and brands -- Yamaha for music classes, Berlitz for language classes, the Cleveland Clinic for health topics, and the Tai Chi Cultural Center, to name a few -- to provide an even greater authority to the classes. You can count on several enrichment lectures throughout each cruise, such as a historian presenting a slide show and speaking about the Panama Canal and how it was built, a former ambassador or two speaking about regional politics, or a scientist talking about conservation. Most speakers are not celebrities, but well-known personalities do occasionally show up. Guests have included political commentators James Carville and Mary Matalin, songwriter Neil Sedaka, business consultant Ken Blanchard, former press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, medical expert Dr. Art Ulene, biographer Chris Ogden, publisher Steve Forbes, chef Andre Soltner, TV personality Monty Hall, journalist Jane Bryant Quinn, and singer Clint Holmes.
In addition to each cruise's guest lecturers, some of Crystal's sailings have Experiences of Discovery, themed programs with activities built around them. More than a dozen annual Wine & Food Festival cruises feature a respected wine expert who conducts at least two complimentary tastings, plus guest chefs conducting cooking demonstrations for guests and then presenting the results of those lessons at dinner. There are also music-themed cruises from time to time, featuring big bands, ballroom dancing, jazz singers, and film and theater presentations. Other cruises have experts conducting seminars on finance issues, language, and art appreciation, the latter with speakers from the famous auction house Sotheby's. Mind, Body & Spirit cruises focus on health and wellness, while golf cruises allow guests to play at some of the world's most exclusive courses.
Guest teachers give swing, tango, and jive dance lessons on some cruises. Group lessons are complimentary, and private lessons can sometimes be arranged with the instructors for about $50 per hour per couple. Other activities include bridge and paddle-tennis competitions; game-show-style contests; trivia games; midafternoon dance music with the resident dance trio or quartet; interesting arts and crafts such as glass etching; and even guest fashion shows. Commonly, a golf expert sails on board, too, conducting complimentary group golf lessons by the driving nets several times per cruise (again, private lessons can be arranged; prices start at $50 per hr.). A variety of free aerobics classes are held in the fitness center, along with Pilates and yoga (private personal trainers are available for a fee).
The line's Computer University @ Sea gives some free courses on all cruises, with topics such as basic computing, understanding the Internet, website design, and creating spreadsheets using Excel. Private lessons are also available for $50 an hour. Internet centers, which have the best support staffs of any cruise liner we've been on, have about 30 workstations apiece, featuring Dell PCs; however, you must buy Internet time in 2-hour $50 installments -- not convenient if you just need a few minutes to send e-mail toward the end of the cruise. There are now Wi-Fi hot spots for those who want to work on their own laptops, along with onboard cellphone service via a satellite link, at prices in the same range as your provider's regular roaming charges.
With all this activity, on past sailings we've always run out of days before actually getting to do everything.
Onboard entertainment is well produced. Shows in the horseshoe-shaped, rather plain Galaxy Lounge include everything from classical concertos by accomplished pianists to comedy to tired Broadway-style medleys, ventriloquists, and magic acts. The bright spot on a recent cruise was definitely the a cappella group that roamed the ship. A young, talented, and handsome foursome performed both impromptu and scheduled concerts in the atrium and other entertainment lounges, and also ran a few of the karaoke nights. A cappella singers are typically featured on longer cruises of 10-plus nights. From time to time, there's a celebrity entertainer aboard, such as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Maureen McGovern, Tommy Tune, or Marvin Hamlisch.
After dinner each night, a second large, attractive lounge is the venue for ballroom-style dancing to a live band, with a clutch of gentleman hosts aboard each sailing to provide dance (and dinner) partners for single ladies. Both ships have spacious casinos and rooms for dancing, in either Serenity's dedicated nightclub or Symphony's Starlight lounge. A pianist in the dark, paneled, and romantic Avenue Saloon -- our favorite room on board -- plays standards, show tunes, and pop hits before and after dinner. On both ships, you can also enjoy cigars (from Monte Cristo to Davidoff) in the Connoisseur Club, recent-release movies several times a day in the theater (where lectures and religious services are also held), and a varied and full menu of movies on the in-cabin TVs.
Crystal is a sophisticated cruise line that focuses its attention on adults but, more than any other line in the luxury end of the market, it also does its part to cater to the little people. Each ship has a bright children's playroom, primarily used during holiday and summer cruises (mostly in Europe or Alaska), when some 100 kids may be aboard. Both ships also have another room with PlayStations, computers, and arcade machines for older kids and teens, with counselors on hand to supervise activities such as scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, karaoke, and games that take place during several hours in both the morning and afternoon, for three age groups between 3 and 17. There are kiddie books and videos in the library for guests to take back to their staterooms, and a children's menu in the main dining room, as well as kid favorites at the poolside Trident Grill.
For children as young as 6 months, in-cabin babysitting can be arranged privately through the concierge at an hourly rate of $10 for one child, $15 for two kids, and $20 for three kids. Cribs, highchairs, and booster seats are available. As for food, if you notify the line ahead of time, it'll special order jars of baby food at no charge, or the chef will puree organic food for your baby. Note that children ages 11 and under pay 50% of the lowest adult fare when accompanied by two full-fare guests.
The minimum age for sailing is 6 months.