Notes about cruising 5: Crystal

Why is Crystal Cruises our favorite cruise line–and why are we willing to pay the high prices? (For the price of a modest cabin on Crystal, you can probably get a suite on Carnival or NCL or Royal Caribbean.)

One reason is that Crystal, like several other luxury cruise lines, is destination-oriented. They don’t go back and forth, back and forth on endless 7-night Caribbean cruises. Indeed, other than their 12-night Alaska round-trips from San Francisco (which end this year after a wonderful decade) and some European 12-night cruise series, they don’t have particularly repetitive cruises. For that matter, even with Alaska, each cruise is a little different–enough so that the cruise atlas includes a map for each cruise.

We’re generally destination-oriented cruisers. We’re not shoppers; the most popular Caribbean destinations don’t interest us much (we’ve seen some of them, and there are some we’d like to visit eventually, but…); while we enjoy cruising, we’re mostly “cruising to see the world.” That’s where lines like Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas, WindStar, and some others that we haven’t yet tried come in.

For example, this year, Crystal’s trio of ships (which becomes a duo at the end of the year, sadly) has visited or will visit 168 ports in 79 countries. Every year, Crystal visits new destinations–for example, this year the line makes its maiden calls at Porto Venere (Italy), Seno Eyre Fjord (Chile), Alesund (Norway), Belfast, Oban (Scotland), Monemvasia and Samos (both Greece), Nesebur (Bulgaria), Progreso, Loreto, Santa Rosalita, and La Paz (all Mexico), Turks & Caicos, and Roatan Island. That’s in one year, for three ships.

Crystal also finds or designs first-rate and varied shore excursions, and makes sure the guides and equipment are the best available. Typically, they won’t fill a tour bus more than 2/3 full, and we’ve been on an Alaska wildlife-watching catamaran designed for 150 people with 35 Crystal passengers: Crystal chartered the catamaran, and certainly wasn’t going to cancel the excursion for low turnout.

They also do everything right on board. The cabins are well-designed (although the Crystal Harmony’s bathrooms are small), with loads of nice touches. The public spaces are varied and superb: Even with a full load of 940 passengers, we frequently feel like we’re the only ones on board because there are so many different places people congregate. The ships have true promenade decks: 12′ wide teak decking all the way around the ship (unusual for recently-built ships), and with no deck chairs to block walkers. (There are plenty of deck chairs, but up on the Lido deck where the pools are, and back in various aft open spaces on several decks.)

The food–ah, the food. Crystal is regularly rated as having the best food (and the best service) in the cruise industry, even beating out much more expensive lines. They produce varied menus, they invite you to mix-and-match vegetables, starches, and entrees in your main plate (some lines can’t handle those changes), and they let you know that they’ll prepare almost anything you want (within reason) on 24-hours notice. They also have specialty restaurants considered first-rate, a pool grill that serves great burgers (regular, turkey, veggie) and the like all afternoon, free ship-made ice cream, yogurt, and cookies all afternoon (also by one of the pools), a Lido buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch (and casual poolside dining some evenings), and an extensive room service menu…

About the service: Crystal’s people aren’t obsequious, in your face, or anything like that. They just do a great job. It’s clear that Crystal treats its crews well (the dedicated crew pool and lounging area has the best views on the ship; crews are two to a cabin; the line goes out of its way to encourage married and other couples…) and it shows: You feel as though you’re part of a very large and happy family. The crew:passenger ratio is also very high, as you’d expect on a luxury line: about 1.6:1 (passengers to crew) if the ship’s full.

Crystal pretty consistently rates highest of large-ship cruise lines, but “large ship” is tricky. Yes, these are big ships–but they’re extremely spacious. The smallest ship, the soon-to-depart Crystal Harmony, is 49,000 GRT (gross register tons, a measure of space, not weight: a GRT is “100 cubic feet of enclosed revenue-earning space” according to the Unofficial Guide to Cruises, holding a maximum of 940 passengers. By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Nordic Empress is almost the same size (48,563 GRT)–but it holds 1602 passengers. (The newest and largest Crystal ship, the Crystal Serenity, holds 1,080 passengers–but it’s also 68,000 GRT, so there’s a lot more space per passenger than on the Crystal Harmony or Crystal Symphony.)

We don’t ever feel crowded or herded on Crystal. We also don’t ever feel that they’re trying to nickel-and-dime us or shill for more money. Crystal treats passengers as adults: Other than one captain’s announcement at 9 a.m. each morning, there are no loudspeaker announcements under normal circumstances. There’s an extensive ship’s newspaper with a full schedule, there are lots of clocks on board, and they assume that adults can be where they need to be when they need to be there. (Similarly, for shore excursions, where one slightly-larger and much-cheaper line we tried had what we believe to be a standard ritual: Go one place, get little colored tags put on your shirts, go wait somewhere else, then line up again to go to your excursions–Crystal, whenever they’re docking, says “Meet your group on the pier by this time,” and that’s it.

As for nickel-and-diming, three years ago Crystal dropped all charges for nonalcoholic beverages; when you’re going ashore, there are usually big trays of bottled water so you’ll remember to take one or more with you–at no charge. The Bistro, a wonderful on-board space with a wine bar, teas and specialty coffees (with or without liquor), and light food most of the day, doesn’t charge for specialty coffees unless you add booze. Yes, you do pay for booze–but Crystal’s wine list is first-rate (and they now have their own vintages, “C” wines, produced for them by an experienced California winery) and fairly priced.

Let’s see: What else to mention. Yes, they have evening shows–magnificent ones. They have first-rate lecturers. The libraries are large and well-stocked. There are lots of things to do, and no pressure to do any of them. Each ship has a Caesar’s Palace at Sea–the casino staff all come from the Caesar’s/Harrah’s group of casinos. (But the free drinks come from the hotel staff, so if you ask for a glass of Chardonnay, you’ll get restaurant-quality Chardonnay, not warm white “chablis”) The rooms all have sitting areas, and most have verandas.

They treat repeat passengers well. In addition to the special Crystal Society gathering on each cruise, you get a special repeat-passenger discount on most cruises, shipboard credits that grow as you cruise more, and on each five-cruise milestone some special discount (e.g., our next milestone will be a guaranteed two-category upgrade). And they have loyal passengers–because they do a great job.

Not well-suited for boozehounds and partiers; Crystal draws a somewhat older and generally well-educated crowd, and tends to be reasonably sedate at night. They do have children’s areas and put counselors on board whenever there are a given number of kids, but they’re certainly not Disney Cruises. They have extensive computer labs (and free training).

Mostly, they treat you well; they feed you very well (quality, not quantity, although you certainly will never go hungry!); they go interesting places and offer lots of interesting things to see; they educate you on board if that’s what you want (and leave you alone if that’s what you want); and they seem to have every detail down pat.

Downsides (for some people): Crystal is expensive (but one of the two most reasonably-priced luxury lines). They do have traditional two-seating/assigned-table dinners (and we’ve always enjoyed our dinner companions). They do expect you to dress formally on formal evenings.

Oh, and if you hate all big business, they’re owned by NYK, Japan’s largest (and maybe the world’s largest) freight shipping company. But if you hate big business, there are very few cruise lines you can try–particularly when 12 lines are owned by Carnival.

We’ve gone through the Panama Canal on Crystal. We’ve seen New Zealand and Australia; Venice and surrounding areas; the coast of Scotland and the fjords of Norway; and Alaska, more than once. We hope to see even more of the world on Crystal (as always, “as time, money and health permit”).

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