To dismiss cruising as an activity for the newlywed and nearly dead is to forget that the modern era of travel was jump-started by the construction of elegant steamships in the 19th century. An iceberg, a few outbreaks of Norovirus, several tax scandals, and a disaster off the coast of Tuscany later, the cruise industry has gone and gotten itself a bad reputation. But it is important to remember that there is cruising and there is cruising. The former is probably worth avoiding. The latter should be embraced, especially when the recently refurbished boat leaves the seafaring shores of Dover, England and heads toward a rogue's gallery of aging European ports.
Many of the myriad itineraries of the 'Crystal Serenity' involve stops at Guernsey, Bordeaux, Lisbon, and Cádiz, on its way from England to Barcelona, allowing passengers to mosey out of their extra-spacious quarters, down the gangplanks, and onto antique streets. But there is plenty on the ship as well. Considered by many to be the most luxurious cruiser in the world, the 1,070-passenger ship, which received upgrades to its public spaces and staterooms over the last several years, certainly has more than enough culinary options to keep her guests happy on board. The opulent Crystal Dining Room offers elaborate multicourse one-off menus featuring international cuisine and regionally inspired dishes based on the itinerary. On board restaurant Preg features fine Italian cuisine created under the direction of famed restaurateur Piero Selvaggio and ultrastylish eatery Silk Road serves up superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa's creations. Not looking to dress up? Eat grilled salmon burgers poolside or head to the Ben & Jerry’s stocked Ice Cream Bar. Everything is all-inclusive, including wines and premium-brand spirits.
Impeccable service is a hallmark of Crystal Cruises, and the entire staff, from concierges and butlers to waiters and maids, is trained to greet every guest by name and remember even the most trivial of details. They know how you take your coffee, your favorite wines and spirits, even how you like your pillows fluffed. And they aim to please, not curry higher tips – Crystal's all-inclusive policy includes gratuities. Clearly, the company's investment in training and recruiting has paid off.
Recruitment doesn't end with the staff. Clint Van Zandt, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator and profiler in the Bureau's Behavioral Science or "Silence of the Lambs" Unit, and retired general and former NATO Situation Center Chief Ralf Vargas, are among the onboard guest lecturers. Others include Emmy-winning USC filmmaking instructor Wes Malkin, who offers a crash course in iPad movie making, and National Public Radio historian Dr. Jennie Congleton, who delivers daily port of call introductions that don't dumb down local history.
On the English Channel island of Guernsey, passengers cycle along beaches still dotted with World War II German bunkers. In Bordeaux, they can visit the Romanesque churches and ruins of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage Site, then peddle through vineyards to a winery for lunch. Hopping into jeeps in Lisbon, some opt to drive out of town along the coast to Europe's most westerly point, Cape Roca, Portugal, then ride across a dramatic landscape of Sintra National Park to Sintra town in time to explore its famous fairy-tale palaces and extravagant villas on foot. Guided walking tours of photogenic Cádiz, Western Europe's oldest continuously inhabited town, are a shutterbug's dream and cycling along Barcelona's beaches, terra-formed for the 1992 Summer Olympics, is pure pleasure.
This cruise is not centered around lounge chairs. Sure, passengers gorge themselves. But they consume way more than just food.
More information: With a guest capacity of 1,070 and a crew of 655, the 'Crystal Serenity' has one of the best guest-to-crew ratios in the cruise industry. Onboard amenities include grand lounges, a full-service fitness facility, the Crystal casino, a salon-spa, two pools, Jacuzzi tubs, award-winning cuisine, and entertainment. The most basic staterooms on board go for a little over $4,000 for week-long cruises.