After 18 months out of service, with a new owner and a US$170m overhaul of its two ships, Crystal Cruises is back. And what a return.
Luxury cruise fans may remember that piled on top of the misery of the pandemic. Crystal’s parent, Genting Hong Kong, went bust in January 2022. Both of its larger ships, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, were seized in the Bahamas. Guests were sent home and all the crew lost their jobs.
The timing was fortuitous for billionaire Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, the former owner of Silversea. The shipping magnate had sold Silversea to Royal Caribbean Group in 2018 and had acquired Abercrombie & Kent Travel Group. But out of the cruise industry, life wasn’t complete. “After I sold Silversea, I wanted another cruise line,” d’Ovidio told me. “I had admired Crystal for a long time.”
A&K Travel Group snapped up the two ships and put both through an extensive refit at the Fincantieri shipyard in Trieste. Serenity was the first to emerge, operating a preview cruise for travel trade and media before welcoming back its eager former guests.
What’s significant about the “new” Crystal Serenity is that its capacity has been reduced from 980 to 740, which gives a tremendous sense of space. Two entire decks were stripped back to the steel and rebuilt with two and sometimes three cabins being merged into one.
I was in one of the 116 new Sapphire Veranda Suites. They are gorgeous, decked out in teal, stone and cream shades with a spacious marble-lined bathroom, a separate living area and a walk-in wardrobe. All cabins have butler service and the endlessly beaming Jijo arrived every afternoon with canapés that he’d hand-picked for me as I don’t eat meat. He served me crudites with dips, a mini Greek mezze, a cheese platter “just in case”.
Jijo is one of the astonishing 80 per cent of crew who have come back to Crystal. “I’ve been with Crystal Cruises for 19 years,” he said. “When they went bust, I got a job with another luxury line. I had just been offered another contract. But as soon as I got the email saying Crystal was relaunching, I told the new employer ‘No, sorry, I’m going back’. This ship is like my home.”
He’s not alone in his passion for Crystal. Some 60 per cent of passengers are repeat bookers. Many of the crew, including captain Birger Vorland, have been with the line for more than 20 years – essentially, since the beginning, when the ship was launched in 2002. Hotel director Scott Peterson told me: “This is a family. I’ve never seen what we have here among the crew. There are going to be a lot of happy tears when our guests walk up that gangway.”
Crystal regulars will quickly see the changes on board. Three restaurants have a completely new look, while others have changed in concept. The Bistro was busy all day with late breakfasters (not surprising, as the Marketplace buffet closed at a rather stingy 9am on one day of the trip). It’s also a popular meeting spot for coffee and gossip. Tastes, a leafy space on the top deck, offers pizza, pasta, salads and noodles – a change from the Genting days, when it focused on Asian comfort food.
What used to be Prego is a new Italian, Osteria d’Ovidio, named after the chairman with an edgier menu focusing on regional Italian cuisine. And the menu was developed with Stefano di Gennaro, a Michelin-starred chef from southern Italy. Crystal has hired a head of nutrition to help get away from the salty, creamy nature of cruise ship food. And the dishes certainly feel less rich; I had a delicious sea bass with a tarragon glaze in here.
One of Crystal Cruises’ great culinary coups has been its association with Chef Nobu Mastuhisa. Umi Uma sushi and Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant is one of the great dining experiences at sea. Every passenger gets to dine here once per cruise at no cost. This is extraordinary value given that the famous Miso Black Cod alone costs AU$65 at Nobu Sydney.
The public spaces
The pool area is new, too, surrounded by sun-warmed teak (no tacky astroturf here), squashy double loungers with cushions in burnt orange and aquamarine adding a splash of colour.
There’s a spacious new spa, Aurora, which is being rolled out in some of A&K Travel Group’s swanky African lodges, too. The two Wimbledon courts remain on the upper deck, offering paddle tennis and pickleball. They have been a feature on Crystal’s ships long before either sport became the leisure activity of hipsters.
Something that I don’t think is working yet is the Lounge, a rather bleak space where the casino used to be. It’s understandable that A&K Travel Group wants to distance itself from Genting, which was in the casino business. And the casino was, we were told, not profitable anyway. But a use needs to be found for this area. Apparently, the line has looked at a show kitchen and a gin distillery, but neither has been possible given the constraints of the space. The high-rollers’ room, too, has changed; it’s a logo-wear shop now.
One problem with ultra-luxury ships is that the nightlife can be unexciting. Crystal has been smart enough to create intimate venues that don’t require a huge crowd. And the party in the Avenue Saloon, a dark and moody piano bar, went on to the small hours, revellers spilling out and heading for the Pulse nightclub across the corridor. Others would nip into the next-door Connoisseur Club, an ultra-luxe cigar lounge. The shows are good, too, from the brief taste we had, not least a foot-stomping Billy Joel tribute by Broadway star James Fox. And for those who prefer more traditional evening entertainment, Crystal’s much-loved dance hosts are being brought back.
And what about the shore excursions?
As for what happens ashore, A&K Travel Group is promising a new era of exciting shore excursions and pre- and post-cruise add-ons. This will tie in with its vast network of destination management companies, lodges, riverboats and safari camps.
These are being rolled out over the next year or so but already, there are enticing offerings on the revamped Crystal Cruises website. A beekeeping tour in St Lucia or a visit to a craft beer producer in St Kitts. In Dubai, there’s hot-air ballooning over the desert or sunrise yoga on a sand dune, and in Mumbai, a cookery class with a local Parsi family, in which guests will learn to prepare a wedding banquet. The “voluntourism” excursions that the old Crystal offered will be revived, too.
Who you’ll meet on board may change from the old days, despite the fact that 60 per cent of passengers are repeaters. A&K Travel Group is aiming at a younger customer now, moneyed empty nesters from 55 to 65. To an extent, families, too; there’s even a kids’ club on board.
The Australian and New Zealand market
The company is planning a big push to expand the Australasian and Asian markets. “Australia was not significant for Crystal Cruises before but it was for A&K,” explains Cristina Levis, chief executive officer of A&K Travel Group. “I really believe now that Australia can become our third market after the USA and the UK, and overtake Europe.” The presence of Crystal Symphony in Australia and New Zealand in late 2023 and early 2024 will no doubt be a massive boost to Crystal’s visibility, too.
The company may well need to tap its 1.2 million database to find new-to-cruise passengers. While we were on board, a massive expansion plan was announced. By 2029, Levis told me, the plan is to have four new ships in service. This will include two classic ocean-going vessels carrying about 650 each. And, two sleek expedition ships, carrying 220 each. Construction on the first expedition ship will start this autumn and the first classic ship next spring. Crystal Cruises is certainly back – and stronger than ever.
What was your favourite meal?
Once the full menu is in operation, I imagine my favourite meal would be in Umi Uma. I don’t eat shellfish but I’ve had the vegetable tempura and the famous miso black cod before and they’re sublime. On this cruise, the forest mushroom cappuccino in Waterside and the aubergine with buffalo mozzarella in the Osteria were my favourites.
What’s a secret tip to know before sailing?
Make the most of your butler. They’ll pack and unpack, make restaurant and spa reservations and bring whatever you want for your minibar. Second tip: if you’re vegetarian or vegan, ask in Waterside for the veggie menu, which is separate from the main menu.
What was your favourite experience?
Sailing away from Venice was really special. Even though the ship was docked in grotty Fusina (now that bigger ships can no longer sail through Venice), the mood was fantastic. A sultry summer night, a cool saxophone player, gin cocktails hand-crafted by the bartender, canapes and a real party buzz made this a departure to remember.
Without doubt, the friendly and intuitive service, throughout the whole crew. Every cabin has butler service, which is a real treat.
There are just a few areas where the ship is showing its age. So don’t go expecting absolutely everything to be shiny and new.
A welcome comeback from a much-loved line with some exciting new innovations to look forward to.