In 2003, I boarded a large cruise ship on a sailing of the Western Caribbean. I call this itinerary a training wheel cruise for would-be travelers because they offer a good first insight into what the experience is all about. Since then I’ve been on many other cruises in nearly every corner of the world, averaging at least one or two a year. It’s not how I always decide to travel, but it is a style I enjoy and over the years I have fine-tuned what it is I like and don’t like about certain companies, ships and itineraries. There still remain though a number of cruise styles and destinations I haven’t tried yet, including one that would seem to be a perfect match for me – luxury cruising. I’ve sailed on a number of premium cruise lines, but the true luxury experience had eluded me, until recently. Crystal Cruises and I had been trying to find an opportunity to work together for a number of years, but in 2018 the stars aligned and I just recently finished my first sailing experience with them. I had very high expectations, but almost immediately I realized those would be met and far exceeded in short order. From start to finish, my sailing experience with Crystal Cruises was extraordinary, and today I want to break it down and show what the luxury cruise experience is really like and what sets Crystal Cruises apart.
Crystal Cruises and All-Inclusive Luxury
Although I do enjoy cruising, some aspects of the industry have always annoyed me, including the feeling that I’m being asked for money at every turn. That’s one of the many reasons why I was so curious about Crystal Cruises, which promises an all-inclusive experience. Frankly, it seemed to good to be true and even boarding the ship I was a little skeptical. But, after a week sailing with them along the Mexican Riviera, I learned that not only is the experience all-inclusive, it’s superior than any other cruise line with whom I’ve sailed. For every guest, amenities such as fine wines, champagnes, specialty coffees, dining (including specialty restaurants), Wi-Fi, gratuities and more are always included. That still astounds me and made the journey so much more pleasant than others I’ve experienced. It’s nice not to feel like a number or a walking ATM for once; allowed to just enjoy the experience and forget about everything else. That’s always been at the heart of the Crystal experience though, since they were founded in 1990 and continues through to 2019.
Ship and Onboard Life
Crystal Cruises includes their Ocean collection as well as yachts and river cruises. I sailed on one of their ocean vessels, the Crystal Serenity, from Puerto Vallarta to Los Angeles along the languid waters of the Mexican Riviera. I was also very lucky as I was one of the first to experience the newly updated Crystal Serenity, which just wrapped up her most expansive dry dock overhaul ever. During that refurbishment, new interior design elements were added, certain staterooms reconfigured and new restaurants created. As a guest, the result was nothing short of amazing and I’m so happy I was able to sail the newly reimagined ship so soon after her dry dock. By cruise standards, the Crystal Serenity is small, about half the size of the typical mass-market mega-ships, but on the large side for luxury ships.
The first thing I do onboard any new ship is to explore all of the public spaces, and one thing that I noticed onboard the Serenity was just how many of them there are. The ship can accommodate up to 980 passengers, which is very modest and means that nothing onboard feels cramped or crowded. The space far exceeds the guest complement, ensuring a cruise that feels bespoke and personal.
Cabins and Culinary Highlights
These are the two categories that won me over in every way. As soon as I walked into my stateroom, I knew that the experience would be different from any other cruise line. There are no inside staterooms onboard the Crystal Serenity, and nearly all rooms have a verandah. They’re also larger and certainly more sumptuously appointed than other cruise staterooms I’ve experienced, which made all the difference. All staterooms enjoy 24-hour complimentary in-stateroom dining, refrigerators with complimentary water and soft drinks, large beds, Egyptian cotton sheets and so much more. I was in a Seabreeze Penthouse and onboard the Crystal Serenity there are additional benefits for Penthouse guests that weren’t only nice, they completely transformed my trip. The size of the room is what impressed me the most. It’s the largest I’ve enjoyed at sea with plenty of room to relax and decompress during the day. The room also features a walk-in closet – a first for me at sea. That one design element freed up a lot of room and made my time onboard feel more like a lavish hotel than a cruise ship. I don’t normally talk about bathrooms, but I have to mention the one onboard the Serenity. It is the largest I’ve enjoyed at sea and included a full-size shower with what is the best shower head I’ve ever experienced, anywhere. Seriously, I loved it so much I want to install one in my house. Everything in the room just worked and by the end of the week I honestly didn’t want to leave.
I mentioned Penthouse benefits, and there are a number. The most important one being butler service. I’ve never had a butler at sea, but within a day I had become very accustomed to the idea. He was also one of the nicest people I ever met and no request was ignored. I probably didn’t take advantage of his services as much as I should have, but it was great having him there helping me make dining reservations, figure out port activities or just arriving every afternoon with our daily snacks and drinks service. No detail escaped his notice, and the way in which he personalized the sailing for us made all the difference. A small example: he very quickly noticed that I have an affinity for Diet Coke and throughout the voyage the fridge was well stocked with my favorite beverage. It’s not a major detail, but this was one of many ways in which I was made to feel special, not just a number as on some other cruise lines. In addition to the butler service, Penthouse guests also enjoy complimentary beer and wine in their stateroom refrigerators, welcome champagne, free clothes pressing and more. The services were so good that I know it will be very hard for me to experience anything other than these incredible amenities the next time I set sail.
The culinary side of the journey is one that Crystal takes great pride in, and with good reason. I’m a very picky eater and sometimes that doesn’t mesh well with fine dining. I was slightly nervous about the food aspect before the trip, but throughout the week I was impressed with the options that even someone like me could enjoy. Throughout the day there are a number of different dining options, as on any cruise ship. The main dining room, Waterside, is open for all three meals and features rotating menus that include both Michelin-inspired dishes as well as more comforting classics that are better suited to my own palate. In the mornings, I preferred the buffet breakfast setup though of the Marketplace, which features everything and anything you could possibly want in the first meal of the day. Interestingly enough, that same space transforms in the evenings to become the Churrascaria, a Brazilian-style grill. If you’ve eaten at Fogo de Chao or any other Brazilian grill, it’s the same experience and was one of the culinary highlights of my trip. I enjoyed it so much that I ate dinner there twice. During the afternoon hours, many options are available whether you want a quick bite, something more organized or, my favorite, a made to order burger in the Trident Grill. Another feature that impressed me was the onboard coffee shop, the Bistro. Throughout the day guests can enjoy snacks and specialty coffees in this relaxed spot, all included of course.
Just as on any cruise ship though, dinners are what Crystal Cruises I think are probably most proud of, and appropriately so. I’ve already mentioned the main dining room, but there are also a number of specialty restaurants that feature Italian cuisine, sushi and Chinese-inspired creations. The options are good and certainly delicious. My only criticism of the cruise though has to do with the evening meal options. I feel that they need to have one more space available for people who want a casual or quick bite for dinner, instead of the traditional sit-down experience. I realize that room service is always available, but I don’t usually want to eat dinner in my room. Instead, it would’ve been nice to have a small buffet somewhere at night but, as far as criticisms go, it’s a very minor one.
Destinations and Experiences
Any trip, especially a cruise, is ultimately about the destinations and Crystal Cruises fully embraces the spirit of the travel experience. I joined the Crystal Serenity in Puerto Vallarta and our itinerary included: Mazatlan, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas and San Diego, with a sea-day along the way. Most of these stops were new to me, and I was excited to finally see Baja California and to learn more about the Pacific side of Mexico. Prior to the trip, I had organized a couple of Crystal Adventures Shore Excursions and had purposefully also left a couple of days in port open. Booking the shore excursions before the trip couldn’t have been easier using the online booking portal. There were no hidden fees and the bill wasn’t due until the end of the cruise itself. One thing to also note, in ports where possible and the walk to town is longer than normal, Crystal Cruises provides complimentary shuttle service for guests, which is an absolute rarity in the cruise experience. The booked excursions were fun and added a lot to my own personal enjoyment of the destinations. As with everything onboard the Crystal Serenity, they were extremely well organized and helped me make the most out of the travel experience. In La Paz, I opted for a daytrip out to the artsy town of Todos Santos. This town has been on the rise lately as more and more tourists learn about it, and immediately I too fell in love with the community. The brightly colored colonial buildings, kind people and great food are all a winning combination. In Cabo San Lucas I did something a little different, opting for a Camel Safari along the beach. Baja California is very much a desert terrain, and the camels that are rescued and brought here are well suited to the landscapes. It was a fun day out as I explored a part of Mexico totally new to me. On the days when I planned to do my own thing, the experience was just as easy. Walking off the ship and heading into town, I had plenty of time to explore on my own and to see the cities in my own way. Ultimately, that’s what I want whenever I travel, to learn, to experience and to enjoy myself.
If anything, I wish my cruise had been slightly longer so that I could enjoy my time onboard the Crystal Serenity, but the sea-day gave me a great chance to enjoy all of the amenities onboard. Whether it was lounging by the pool, playing tennis, getting help with my swing from the onboard golf pro, enjoying incredible evening entertainment or a relaxing massage in the spacious spa, I made great use of everything onboard and had a great time in the process.
This is the Way to Cruise
Honestly, it’s rare when I’m not ready for a trip to end. While I deeply love to travel, I also love being home and by the end of most trips I’m ready to be back in my bed and to see my dogs. That honestly wasn’t the case this time. No, instead I didn’t want to leave the Crystal Serenity, I didn’t want the voyage to end and I certainly wasn’t ready to go home. While entirely subjective of course, it tells me something about this cruise in particular – that it’s totally unique. Over the years, Crystal Ocean Cruises has fine-tuned their product to what must be one of the most luxurious and enjoyable cruising experiences in the world. That’s not easy, especially with new ships being added all the time by other cruise lines. The reason why I think it works so well isn’t thanks to some over-the-top attraction onboard; it’s what is at the heart of any luxury travel experience – service. Luxury travel is not defined solely by soft goods like robes and bedding. No, instead staff and crew are the ones who define the luxury travel experience and onboard the Crystal Serenity I found a group of people who all excel in creating incredible experiences for their guests. In so doing, they allowed me to better enjoy those other amenities that also contribute to a great luxury travel experience from the quality of the cuisine to the comfort of the staterooms and beyond. All of these qualities work in perfect coordination and it’s that symbiosis that, for me at least, made me regretting that the cruise had come to an end.
I’ve sailed on a number of different vessels from expeditionary ships in Antarctica, to large megaships in the Caribbean and even on river cruises on three different continents. So it’s with a fair amount of experience that I can say my trip with Crystal Cruises was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed. The concept just works and not once did I feel out of place or uncomfortable. Quite the contrary, my own personal travel style meshes incredibly well with Crystal and I know that this won’t be my last adventure with them as I explore even more divergent regions around the globe.