Lisbon is a beautiful city at any time of the year, but on this occasion it was looking just that little bit more glossy. $17M worth to be more precise, because Lisbon was the kick off point for the Crystal Serenity Atlantic Islands Cruise, the maiden cruise following her “extreme makeover”; the climax to 13 days of hard labour for a team of over 1,100 contractors and crew working 24 hours a day.
Now in anyone’s book spending that kind of money on a makeover should guarantee you a Hollywood sheen at the very least, so to find out if all the hype and hoopla was really worth all the effort, I took a close up view on her first cruise out around the Atlantic from Lisbon to Barcelona.
Crystal has been operating what is termed in cruising parlance as “all inclusive” for over a year now, which means your meals, drinks (including premium spirits and wines) and staff gratuities are all included regardless of what class of accommodation you have. This is great news if, like me, you hanker for Japanese fare as the welcoming embrace of an exclusive Nobu restaurant awaits aboard; a treasure trove of fish, vegetarian and sushi dishes almost on tap.
Having said that, the biggest focus of the makeover was an almost total redesign of Serenity’s Lido Deck transforming it into a vast casual indoor/outdoor dining arena where you’re spoilt for choice amongst the dining options vying for your custom.
I was looking forward to fully exploring the delights of the Lido Deck, but as the thought enter my head I was whisked away by a chirpy Crystal greeter eager to escort me to the sanctuary of my waiting stateroom.
The recent makeover included a redesign of Serenity’s four top butler serviced Crystal Penthouse Suites, all 1,300 feet of them; complete with floor to ceiling windows, custom handmade Italian mosaic tiling and Swarovski crystal lighting. I on the other hand, had to make do with a standard penthouse stateroom which had undergone its own refit a year or so earlier so not too shabby in the least. My own veranda, dining and lounge area, elegant furnishings, Jacuzzi bath, large comfy sofa, Italian bed linen and a fully stocked mini bar. The addition of butler Richard to attend to my every need was a welcome diversion; his insistence on visiting me every afternoon with a trolley laden with goodies to graze on was a routine I could get very used to.
As the ship left port with Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World ringing around my ears en-route to our first stop at Madeira, I took a stroll around the decks of what has been heralded in many quarters as the “the world’s best luxury cruise liner.”
And I could see why some might say that.
Serenity is nearly 40% bigger than her sister ship Symphony, yet carries only 15% more passengers. With just over a 1,000 passengers and a crew of 630 you won’t be short of service, and in amongst the decks are the kind of facilities a 5 star hotel would be envious of. A cinema, theatre and casino are pretty much de-rigueur these days, but the huge gym, spa, library, computer university and creative learning classes staffed by experts, teaching everything from Reiki to business technology, were very impressive. There was even a class for learning piano skills with a Yamaha keyboard built into each desk.
Midships, the huge atrium is a stunning open space over two decks; a string quartet was gently playing amidst elegantly dressed passengers mingling at the open bar. The clinking of Riedel wine glasses and stylish Wedgewood bone tea china. Elegance and style are a good words, that was the feel I was getting from Serenity.
Up on the infamous Lido Deck, the pool area was equally impressive in a different way, a very generous space flanked by two Jacuzzis and surrounded by the kind of soft comfortable loungers you just want to kick back and get lost in. Up here of course was where most of the money had been spent, that new smell you get of fresh teak decking became stronger as I explored the new sections.
A chef’s herb garden was the first thing I discovered, a vertical wall full of them which are added to wherever the ship travels. In fact there is lush greenery everywhere; living walls of plants and live olive trees under-planted with lavender. The retractable glass roof creating a indoor/outdoor airy courtyard as and when needed. Floor to ceiling windows offer stunning views on both sides and plenty of two-seater tables to enjoy them from. There are three new food emporiums here The Lido Cafe a Californian style buffet with a live open kitchen and bakery, Tastes another open kitchen offering top class street food from around the world overseen by chef Azmin Ghahreman from Laguna Beach restaurant Sapphire, and the Trident Grill if you are in the mood for some laid back comfort food in easy chairs.
Downstairs again, I found the aforementioned Nobu, a bit of a coup for Crystal, as the Japanese master chef is highly demanding about his food preparations and consequently very selective with the people he partners with. Nearby is the Italian inspired Prego authentic old country dishes designed by Piero Selvaggio from US restaurant group Valentino. Both these speciality restaurants are open to all `passengers although in most cases you need to reserve tables on busy nights. Of course there was always the wood panelled welcoming arms of the main Crystal Dining Room as a reliable stand by!
Madeira came and went, an eight hour pause to have nose around Funchal and then it was on to Tenerife and Santa Cruz the old capital. With Morocco and Spain to come there was much to look forward to.
By now I had immersed myself fully into cruise life, and I have to admit the draw of all inclusive is very appealing. The thrill of ordering literally anything at a bar or indulging in multiple Nobu main courses soon passes and I found myself settling down to eating and drinking like a normal human being. I enjoyed the Broadway style shows, the highly talented magicians from LA’s Magic castle, the nightly cabaret and generally making ship board friends whenever I wanted to.
So was the $17 million well spent? It is welcome fresh thinking from Crystal in the highly competitive luxury sector and has set a bar that will be very tough to beat.
My musings were interrupted by Butler Richard arriving with yet another array of canapés and dips. I took a deep breath and dove in.
I want this cruise, how do I get it?
Crystal Serenity all inclusive cruises start from £1,200 although there are special offers available.