So, was Crystal great?

The big question about our trip:  Is Crystal all it’s cracked up to be? The answer: Well, sorta. My previous sailing experience has been on Celebrity, which I really liked, and Cunard, which has set a standard for luxury cruising for 100 years.  But this was to be the Bandlers twelfth Crystal cruise, my friend Don loves the line, even Susan Rowley spent a month on the Crystal Harmony once and is still talking about it.  So I was expecting  a combination of the French Laundry, La Costa spa  and the Ritz-Carlton.  I”m not sure heaven itself could live up to the Crystal hype.

The Ship

Modern cruise ships are floating resorts, with swimming pools, spas, gyms, theaters, tennis and basketball courts, golf driving cages, bars, sundecks, game rooms, shopping malls and casinos, kept pristine and shining by legions of dedicated crewmembers.   You’re going to love either cruise line.  Crystal carries about 1000 passengers, Celebrity as many as 3000 on their newest ships.  Bigger ship = more amenities, at the cost of crowds and lines.  The larger ships also have a greater range of staterooms, from tiny, windowless inside cabins to expansive suites.  Crystal has no interior cabins; their passenger list is considerably more homogeneous in terms of economics.

Food

Dining room

The food on Crystal is very good–just like on the other cruise ships.  I enjoyed being able to order caviar every night. The cheese cart is fabulous. But the reality is that there is a limit to what you can do when you are trying to serve 500 people at once.  The food is good, but it’s no better than Celebrity and perhaps not as good as Cunard.  That isn’t a complaint–it would be a very lucky man who had Crystal quality food every day of his life. I call this a draw.

Buffet

The Lido deck on Crystal is incredible!!.  Excellent food from the buffet or two specialty food facilities.  Service as good as the dining room.  You can eat indoors or out, it’s just a pleasure. On Celebrity, we called this area “the trough”. In far too many ways, it reminded me of the college food service cafeteria.  Carol Scott refused to eat there, ever. A clear win for Crystal.

Room Service

Sorry, Crystal, but your room service menu is just too bloody small.  Celebrity offers considerably more choices, more hours of the day. Winner: Celebrity

Entertainment

Crystal is justly famous for its speaker program.  Every sea day brings 3 lectures, from leaders in the fields of history, science or current events.  Our cruise featured Howard Fineman, a senior writer for Newsweek and a frequent guest on MSNBC.  The lectures are topical and fascinating, offering insights that are often unavailable to us mere mortals.  Celebrity offers lectures, but without the superstar speakers.

Both lines offer daily bridge while at sea, as well as a host of other programs from dance lessons to computer classes and handicraft workshops.  There are libraries on all ships, with books, CDs and movies. In the evening, size matters.  Celebrity ships are much larger, holding 2ooo or even 3000 passengers.  They can afford better entertainment, with larger casts, bigger bands, bigger stages, more production values. I guess this is a draw:  Crystal wins the day, Celebrity wins the night.

Shore Excursions

When a cruise ship drops you in a foreign port like Captain Kirk beaming down, you need some help figuring out what to see and how to see it–and the cruise line is right there for you.  For a fairly steep price, they offer tours of everything you might ever want to see or do.   Crystal even offered an excursion to the Lamborghini factory near Venice, with the **chance** that you would get a ride in one.  That little jaunt was $1800 per person.

Because they have so many more passengers, from a wider economic spectrum,  You can also manage trips in the greatest spots in Malaysia, including trips from phuket to phi phi in any transportation system you choose. Celebrity offers more excursions, often at more reasonable price points.  The downside is that there are just too darned many people, too many buses.

Service

Going on a cruise means being waited on hand and foot all the time. Every single member of the ships staff is specifically directed to do anything possible to make you life perfect: even the janitors and engineers are willing and able to help. Crystal ships have fewer guests and a stronger ratio of passengers/crew.  I’ve already mentioned the wonderful experiences on the Lido deck/buffet. In general, I would give the nod to Crystal, but there is one big exception: the butler.  You don’t get a butler on Crystal, at least not in our price range.  You get a cabin stewardess, who is a very nice young woman from Thailand or Laos or the Phillipines who tries very hard to take good care of you, and does a darned nice job.  On Celebrity, you get a trained butler.  The difference is night and day.  Your butler makes things happen by magic, and somehow manages to read your mind and know what you want before you do. If you are a person who enjoys hanging out in your stateroom, having a butler makes the trip a dream.  If you’re on the go all the time, you may not notice the difference.  Since Gail and I are slugabeds on a cruise, I’m giving the nod to Celebrity on service.

Staterooms

Our stateroom on Crystal Serenity was 269 sq. ft., including the verandah. (Yes, that’s how they spell it. With an ‘h’ on the end.  Looks weird to me.) Our stateroom on Celebrity Infinity was 308 sq. ft., including the veranda. (Spelled the more normal way.} That 39 square feet make a huge difference, between being cramped for two weeks and feeling expansive.  I don’t understand the concept of going on an expensive vacation and feeling like I’m living in a broom closet. Celebrity wins the category.

Price

Crystal is expensive.  About 50% higher than Celebrity, for a markedly smaller room.  Even the “Royal Suite” on Celebrity, at almost 800 square feet, is cheaper than the basic staterooms we had on Crystal.  Yes, Celebrity dings you for little things like Cokes at the buffet–but it takes a ton of $2 sodas to make up a $4000 difference in the fare.  On the other hand, getting met at the airport in Venice and taking a bus to the ship cost us $100 each with Crystal, so they’re not above overcharging for things that should be included.  Bottom line: as far as I’m concerned Crystal is grossly overpriced.

In sum

We had a wonderful trip, I’m certainly glad we went.  Crystal Serenity is a beautiful ship, staffed by people dedicated to making your cruise pleasant every step of the way.

I just don’t think it’s worth the price, possibly because Gail and I just aren’t interested in the 3 lectures a day and taking endless laps around the deck.  We are on vacation to vacate, to kick back and nap and read and see a few ports, and we would much rather do that from a large and comfortable suite with a butler at our beck and call and save a couple of thousand dollars in the process.  Your mileage may vary.

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