How does a cruise ship stay on top in the face of stiff competition?
It takes more than a new coat of paint and a change of wardrobe. Following my recent trip on a newly upgraded Crystal Serenity, I’ve been reflecting on why Crystal Cruises has consistently scored so well in polls of cruisers, including an unprecedented 18 years at — or near — the top of Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s Readers’ Choice award for “Best Cruise Line.”
Both of Crystal’s ships regularly get upgrading that’s more than skin deep. Even though it’s Crystal Cruises‘ newest ship, Crystal Serenity went into dry dock and got $25-million worth of upgrading to cabinetry and beds in its staterooms, new decor in public areas and rebuilds of its pool deck and retail areas, with much of the work overseen by Toronto-based II by IV Design Associates.
The effect was immediately apparent in additional sets of drawers and cupboard space in my cabin. A central marble topped island is divided in two by a mirrored screen, so one side serves as a vanity and the other half a desk. And the bed with a tufted headboard features a choice of pillows for “front, side or back sleepers.” Because I’m a restless sleeper, I chose all three.
The refit also included coating the entire hull with a super smooth paint designed to improve fuel efficiency by reducing drag from water and air.
Crystal’s chefs are keeping up with the latest trends in cuisine by diversifying menus. Evening menus included a range of light, low-carb and low cholesterol choices and salad entrees in addition to the inventive cuisine that made the line famous.
“Some offerings you can’t change. Remove the lobster and prime rib and people would complain,” said Josef Lumetsberger, Serenity’s hotel director. “We’re heeding requests for healthier choices by expanding the menu.”
The smaller size of Crystal’s ships is a continuing advantage in an era when most cruise ships are from three to five times larger. Crystal ships carry no more than 1,000 passengers each, and so fresh vegetables and produce can be sourced from local suppliers at each port rather than provisioned long distance.
That’s kept the alternative Prego restaurants on both Serenity and sister ship Crystal Symphony contenders for best Italian restaurant at sea.
Chefs from the Silk Road Japanese restaurant and sushi bar made an early morning visit to the docks in Venice and Sicily to source fresh Mediterranean seafood. Crystal is the only cruise line that celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa–who in partnership with Robert DeNiro has opened restaurants in a dozen countries around the world—would consider to meet the standards of his restaurants ashore. The result is a sushi bar that would gain acclaim even in Japan.
There was a younger crowd on this cruise than I’ve encountered on past Crystal Cruises. They included business owners and managers who can’t afford to be out of touch. But Crystal has upgraded its satellite internet service even since the refit this spring. It meant that I got high speed wi-fi that rivals the speed on land and a large array of television satellite news and feature channels on big-screen televisions in every cabin. In addition, there’s a large Computer University at Sea staffed by a team of techies whose daily classes included one-on-one instruction in web page creation, photo editing and power point.
Crystal remained a holdout in a trend in luxury ships including all drinks and gratuities in the fare, offering instead a shipboard credit that passengers could use at their discretion. But as of the spring of 2012, Crystal is all-in: including all drinks and gratuities. A lot has always been included: things like Berlitz language classes, piano lessons, tai chi and Pilates classes in the spa that other ships continue to charge for.
There were hands-on cooking classes taught by legendary New York chef Andre Soltner and complimentary wine tastings guided by hoteliers from the Napa Valley and guest lectures by political experts, health and wellness authors and historians. I regularly heard fellow passengers commenting that there was too much to choose from.
One thing that has never changed but seemed even more apparent on this cruise is the high level of service. The staff to passenger ratio is among the highest in the industry. And the crew are incredibly committed to the ships. Many have been with Crystal for more than a decade.
While you expect personal attention, they have upped the level with the refit. An example was the final day when we took the bus to the airport for the flight home. Most other cruise lines would unload the bags and wave good bye. But Crystal arranged for porters to take the bags to the check-in gates of each of the guests.
Service like that keeps passengers who can afford to be choosy stay loyal to Crystal year after year.