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It may have just two ships, but what it lacks in fleet numbers Crystal Cruises makes up for in luxurious appointments, fantastic inclusions and all-round excellence. Words: Caroline Gladstone

Crystal Cruises doesn’t fit easily into any mould: it’s not a big-ship company with huge vessels sporting bells and whistles, nor is it a boutique line. It’s not a multi-ship fleet but despite this, its two cruise vessels do a fine job of exploring most of the globe each year.

Crystal belongs to that rare breed of cruise lines that consistently score five stars in the revered ‘bible’ of the industry, the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships.

It has achieved this despite its ‘mid-size’ status (the line’s two ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, are 51,044 and 68,870 tons respectively) and despite the fact that both vessels offer two seatings at dinner. Crystal Cruises has garnered its accolades by providing excellent service, fine cuisine, lots of luxurious touches and plenty of space for its pampered guests.

I’ve sailed with Crystal three times, on three different ships (including Crystal Harmony, which has since been transferred to parent line NYK Cruises and renamed Asuka II). Each time, I’ve enjoyed attentive service, fabulous food, an array of interesting activities and spacious, luxurious surroundings. I met fellow travellers who were taking their third and fourth world cruises and were fiercely loyal to the brand, declaring they would never travel on any other line.

Crystal has a 47 per cent repeat guest factor, deemed one of the highest in the business, and an equally impressive ‘passenger space ratio’ of 52. This spaciousness is determined by measuring the ship’s tonnage against its total passenger capacity, and is evident in the extra-wide wraparound promenade deck and the huge selection of public rooms.

When Crystal Cruises launched its first ship in 1990, it heralded a new style of cruising, introducing boutique fine-dining restaurants at no extra charge.

Today this concept has been further refined, with both Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony offering the excellent Japanese restaurant Silk Road, its dishes designed by leading chef Nobu Matsuhisa; and Prego, a stylish Italian eatery with dishes created by acclaimed restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, owner of exclusive American restaurant chain Valentino.

These alternative venues, along with the outdoor Trident deck dining area, offer passengers plenty of freedom for dining out in the evening.

The cruise line has embraced the current trend, however, and recently introduced ‘Open Dining by Reservation’, where guests may book a table in the main Crystal Dining Room any time between 6.15 and 9.15pm. Traditionalists, however, can still reserve a table at the time-honoured ‘Classic’ early or late seatings.

Also new is the Priority Check-in and Planning Centre (PCPC), an online service that allows guests to make dinner reservations, book shore excursions, classes and spa treatments, and even hire tuxedos online and print out a cruise’s day-to-day schedules before they board.

This capacity to move with the times while maintaining the highest standards of service and style is one of the many reasons Crystal Cruises ranks so highly with guests.

Another is its long list of quality onboard activities, such as Berlitz language classes and Yamaha keyboard lessons, both of which were introduced following a survey in which guests nominated what they’d like to learn while they are cruising.

These classes and others, such as art and cookery workshops, PGA golf instruction, lessons in dance, various computer skills and digital imaging, are complimentary, as is Crystal’s program of onboard enrichment lectures. These feature speakers from the upper echelons of business, politics, diplomacy and the military.

A further reason for Crystal’s dedicated following is its wide range of special deals the line offers year-round on many of its itineraries.

While a Crystal executive recently quipped that the company preferred the word “deals” to “discounting”, it’s safe to say that Crystal Cruises offers some of the best bargains in the upscale-cruise-line fraternity.

The cruise line periodically features special offers such as two-for-one fares for a part of its annual cruise calendar, and special promotional fares to highlight particular cruises, such as the two-for-one fare offered last year to celebrate the line’s 20th anniversary.

Another enticement is the ‘All-Inclusive. As You Wish’ onboard credit that gives every guest a minimum of US$500 to spend on cruises ranging from seven to 14 days, and US$1,000 to spend on segments of the World Cruise and selected sailings. Guests who take the full world cruise (usually around 100 days) receive a hefty US$5,000 each in onboard credit.

But the biggest ‘deal’ by far is Crystal’s recent announcement that it will include all premium wines and spirits and offer an open bar throughout the ship, as well as gratuities, on all cruises, starting from the ships’ first transatlantic crossings for 2012, in March (Crystal Symphony) and May (Crystal Serenity).

These all-inclusive fares will pitch Crystal Cruises against boutique five-star cruise lines Silversea, Seabourn and SeaDream Yacht Club, all of which have offered all-drinks on board policies for many years, and against four-star-plus line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which also has a similar policy.

Crystal Cruises is a relatively young line: it was founded in 1988 by gigantic Japanese container-shipping line Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), headquartered in LA, and launched its first ship, Crystal Harmony, in 1990.

Though it hasn’t built a vessel since 2003, Crystal Cruises recently spent well over US$50 million renovating both its cruise ships. The line last refurbished Crystal Symphony in late 2009 and gave Crystal Serenity a bow-to-stern revamp in Germany in May 2011.

Renovations include an updated Seahorse pool area with a much larger jacuzzi, new deck cabanas and oversized lounging sofas, and the removal of a second pool, the Neptune, to make way for a sophisticated outdoor dining area with a retractable overhead dome.

Other enhancements include new soft furnishings and carpets in staterooms, redesigned penthouse accommodation, new shops and a complete facelift for the Lido Café area.

The Apropos boutique was redesigned into three shopping spaces and a new area is dedicated to Christian Dior cosmetics. The Dior shop is exclusive to Crystal and is the largest of its kind at sea.

The new look has been described by the man in charge of the makeover, Toronto-based interior designer Keith Rushbrook, as “modern, classic elegance. We wanted Fifth Avenue – crème de la crème New York–inspired living and retail spaces.”

Crystal will continue to add new destinations and shore excursions to its itineraries and this year made a return to Alaska after a six-year break and added more theme cruises.

It has also devised programs whereby passengers give something back to the local communities they visit through a complimentary shore excursions volunteer program known as ‘You Care, We Care’.

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