Cruise Ship Review: Cruising the Mediterranean on Crystal Serenity
From butlers and champagne to exploring the cobbled streets of Calvi, World of Cruising editor Vicky Mayer experiences the joys of sailing with Crystal Cruises
World of Cruising editor Vicky Mayer is currently living out a cruising dream, sailing around the Mediterranean in six-star luxury on board Crystal Cruises’ ocean liner, Crystal Serenity. So, what do passengers staying on this glorious ship have in store…?
Last Day – Some cruise reflections
Day eight of what has been a fantastic itinerary sees us in Piombino, a typical Italian town, best known best as a starting point for a ferry trip to Elba or Sardinia.
We do neither, happy just to mooch around the medieval centre of the town, stopping off for one last genuine Italian macchiato. It’s not the most must-see destination but today is a busy one anyway because it’s our last day on board magnificent Crystal Serenity and we’ve got a lot of packing to do.
This has been my first experience of sailing on Crystal and my overwhelming memory is how personal the service has been. From our maid delivering fresh milk daily to our cabin for the tea we like to make (yes, we are the Brits on board cliché) to the barman in the Sunset Bar knowing that we like our negronis on the rocks, we have been totally and utterly spoilt.
Yes, they are more flashy ships with cutting edge décor and technology, but what you get on Crystal is 100 % attention to detail and the luxury of travelling on a cruise line confident in its ability to provide six-star service.
On the food front, we’ve been wowed by the signature restaurants on board, Umi Uma and Prego, but tonight we returned to our favourite place, Waterside, the big daddy of eateries for our final meal. Then a last negroni and sing-song in the Avenue Saloon before we headed back to our cabin.
I feel like I’ve been away forever, have had the chance to visit some amazing destinations and met some great fellow travellers on the way too. But best of all, I have been truly crystallised.
Here’s what Vicky got up to before exploring the Piombino…
Unless you’re friends with Philip Green or one of his mates in Monte Carlo who own a private jet, the easiest way to travel to the city is to fly to Nice then take a cab or coach for the 40-minute drive along the coast.
We’re on our way to join Crystal Serenity at the start of a classic voyage around the Med that will take in Cannes, Corsica, Livorno (stopping off point for Florence and Pisa), Piombino and finally Rome. On the bus our French tour guide points out the curving road where Grace Kelly crashed at the wheel of her car, bringing home the bittersweet feeling that lies in Monaco, the second smallest country in the world, and home to many of the richest people on the planet thanks to its attractive tax benefits.
Monte Carlo is scrupulously clean and packed with upmarket designer boutiques and restaurants, but somehow it feels soulless. I’ve been here twice before so I’m far more excited about getting on board Crystal Serenity and getting settled into our Seabreeze Penthouse.
First impressions count and the seamless transfer from our coach to the ship is exemplary, as our cases are whisked away and we are handing a glass of champagne with clear instructions on how to reach our stateroom on the 10th deck. The ship itself was given a makeover in 2018 and is modern yet very elegant and comfortable too. The public areas shine with lots of polished teak and marble and floor to ceiling windows where you can watch the world go by.
Our spacious cabin is decorated in shades of teal and grey and boasts a roomy walk-in closet as well as a large sofa and one of the biggest verandas I’ve ever seen. It feels like stepping into an amazing hotel room in a five-star hotel. The bathroom is equally impressive with plenty of Etro products and a very large shower that you operate just by pressing a button.
So what else could be possibly wanted? A butler of course! And two minutes after arrived, we are greeted by the impeccably dressed Frederick who will be on hand to make the most of our cruise. Poor Frederick – I have a long list of tasks for him – from sorting out our WIFI connection to booking us tables for the week at the best restaurants on board and even finding us a kettle. Before we can say goodbye, he’s out of the cabin and on to it. How lucky are we to have a butler on board! Now I understand why so many Hollywood stars have full-time assistants.
Our safety drill completed, we quickly change for dinner and head out to Churrascaria for a Brazilian feast. If you’re veggie or vegan, you may want to skip this bit. On your table you’re given a card that says yes or no for the meat feast coming your way. After loading up on sides (don’t do what we did, order chips only to get a plate of crisps – this is an American ship after all!), we turned our cards to go and the meat feast began.
Eager waiters came at us with meat hung from long poles. Steak, sausages, lamb chops, chicken, you name it, they served it. And it was all delicious. The South African couple next to us managed to eat twice as much as we did. Maybe we’ll do better next time we go.
Eager to explore more of the ship, we head to the Sunset Bar for a couple of expertly mixed whisky sours and negronis. It’s our first night on board and us and our fellow guests are just settling in. At midnight we pull up anchor and sail towards Cannes. Monte Carlo with her billionaires, royalty and soulless apartments starts to fade to the distance under the moon-lit sky. It’s time to get some sleep so we can be fresh for our next port of call.
Day Two – On the hunt for the perfect Salad Nicoise
Our first port of call is Cannes. Famous of course for the glitzy Cannes Festival that is held every year here in May, it’s a riot of top-end hotels that look like wedding cakes, buzzing helicopters and madams of a certain age carrying miniature dogs in their handbags. I love it. What’s more surprising is how down to earth it is away from the Croissette and the high-end stores.
In the sun-dappled lanes you’ll find fantastic French fashion and plenty of brasseries. Even better, unlike snooty Paris, the French here greet you with a smile and are happy to listen to my terrible schoolgirl French. It’s also where I discovered the perfect salad Nicoise – ripe sun-kissed tomatoes, fresh tuna and anchovies with a perfectly dressed French salad.
Back on board, the foodie stakes get even higher with our first visit to the famed on-board Japanese restaurant Umi Uma. Owned and operated by legendary restaurateur Nobu, it’s a brilliant place to try out his legendary (and expensive) signature dishes including the famed black cod and wagu beef. If you’re a sushi and sashimi fan this is fishy heaven. Our fantastic waitress Sheila urged us to try ‘a bit of everything’ and we did. It’s that good I can see why it’s worth booking the ship for this restaurant alone.
To top off our great day we all headed out on deck at 10pm to watch the end of summer fireworks that glittered in the sky over Cannes. Looking from the sea into the city the view was incredible. Tres excellent in fact.
Day Three – Jumping the coastal train from Calvi and tales of Simon Cowell
I have never been to Corsica so our port stop at Calvi is a must. We need to take a tender to shore but this gives us a picture postcode view of the Citadel in all its glory. Calvi is drop-dead gorgeous with perfect little French cafes and boutiques everywhere. It reminds me of France in the late 70s and 80s and its island status has helped it stay in a lovely sun-drenched time bubble.
It would be easy to spend a day here just wandering through the back lanes but not us. We are on a mission to see more of the island so we head to the train station to hop on a rackety old local train to L’Ille- Rousse, about 40 minutes along the coast. The train is packed with French families who are all on holiday (it is August after all). It’s a beach train so they all jump on and off at their favourite beach. The coastline here is spectacular with lovely rocky inlets, perfect for rock pooling.
We hang on to the end of the line and disembark to a fantastically French resort, complete with boules-playing locals and teens jet skiing. Channelling memories of my family holidays to France in the 70s and 80s, I choose a fromage baguette and frites for lunch. If you want to see more of Corsica this is a great way of getting off the beaten track.
Back on the ship, we have a great dinner at the very popular Waterside before heading off to watch X Factor semi-finalist Ben Mills play a very impressive set, telling the audience how angry Simon Cowell was when he decided to jump on the piano at the last minute and broke it. It’s the first time we’ve been to the Galaxy Lounge and it’s really impressive. I can see us spending a lot of time here.
Day Four – Coffee with the Captain
Big ships are peculiar beasts – shiny and full of possibilities for guests and at the same time home to the hard-working crew who spend months on board behind mysterious unmarked doors. Today, I got the chance to follow Serenity’s Captain Birger J Vorland behind one of those unmarked doors to see a part of the ship where very few passengers ever venture.
In his roomy wood-panelled lounge the charming captain regaled me with tales of life at sea, how passenger safety and enjoyment is always top of his list, which ports have the wow factor (Hong Kong, Barcelona and New York) and why bad weather is so challenging when mooring up.
I’ll be publishing my interview with this veteran captain in a forthcoming issue of World of Cruising so look out for it then. If spending an hour chatting over coffee about all things cruise wasn’t fun enough, I also got to meet the hard-working crew on the Bridge, which is huge. Stepping back into the passenger corridors, I felt like I’d seen a parallel universe – lucky me.
My day got even better when I met up for pre-dinner drinks with the lovely Helen Beck, who is Vice President International Sales & Marketing for Crystal Cruises. Over a couple of fantastic rose and cucumber gins, Helen gave me the low down on all things Crystal – from Serenity and Symphony to their river ships too. My perfect Monday was rounded off with a visit to Serenity’s famed Italian restaurant Prego.
Our meal was a four-course taste sensation – from perfect beef carpaccio served in a glorious theatrical style to the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted. Perfect morsels of beetroot ravioli and signature lasagne followed before we loosened our belts for tender rack of lamb, served Italian style and a classic osso buco. We were treated to some great Italian wines and swapped jokes with our very funny waiter Marco. Room for dessert? What do you think? Tiramisu and a perfect panna cotta of course. You must beg, borrow or steal to get a reservation here. But it’s worth it.
Day Five – From Pisa to Nights in White Satin
Anyone who has cruised knows how easy it is to get addicted to the thrill of the new. New place to eat tonight? New entertainment? New port to discover? You get the picture… Today gave us all that and more.
As part of the backpacker generation of the 90s, I still get a thrill from jumping on local buses and trains to reach my destination. So as we’re docked in Livorno and Pisa is a mere 20 minutes on the local train, we decide to go by public transport to see the iconic tower. This is my third time to gorgeous Pisa but I still love it. You can look at the tower a thousand times in pictures, but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it for real. It really does look as if it will topple over at any time – which of course is part of the appeal.
Yes, there are loads of tourists around and no, you don’t want that tacky Pisa keyring or hat, but if you’re lucky to live in Europe (unlike the masses of American and Japanese tourists on their bucket list trip around the world), book a cheap flight to visit this must-see destination.
Back on board, there’s a frisson of excitement in the air because tonight is ‘white night’, where deck five is decorated in white netting and guests are encouraged to dress in white too. The effect is dramatic – it’s like going to a giant wedding. Soon the better dancers on board are on the dance floor with their other halves twirling around in Strictly style.
My Grandmother Julia was a keen ballroom dancer and I suddenly have a great memory of seeing her and my Grandad on a similar dance floor in Hastings. She would have loved it here, just as much as I do.
Day Six – Perfect Portofino and a blast of Evita
I have a confession to make – I have been to Australia 11 times in my life – but I have never been to Portofino. As the Americans on board with me here on Crystal Serenity would say, you do the math. And arriving at this picture-postcard Italian village I realise what a gem I’d missed out on – until now.
It’s perfect. No, let’s be honest, it’s really perfect. From its gelato-coloured houses that overlook the beautiful harbour where 50s style fishing boats jostle with millionaire’s yachts, to its horseshoe of shops selling oh so casual, but bank-breaking clothes in perfect shades of blue and ochre. Even the dogs here look stylish. Yes, it’s busy but away from the waterfront there are plenty of quieter places to discover.
As the day was overcast, we took the opportunity to hike up towards the castle and onwards towards the lighthouse. It’s a steep walk so you need to take your time but the views alone are worth it and high up, you get to see Portofino in all its natural beauty.
The walk to the lighthouse will take you about half an hour uphill, but your reward is a stop at the Al Faro café where over Italian iced coffees you get a perfect view of the ocean. Like anywhere that’s popular with tourists, it’s always worth going off the beaten track for a more authentic view.
Back home (on board, I should say) that night we score a table at Umi Uma for a second time when the delightful concierge takes pity on us waiting for a stool at the sushi bar and we are rewarded with a table in the main restaurant. Suitably jubilant, we order a feast of sushi and sashimi, with my new special favourite, smoked eel.
Somehow the ship feels more mellow and quieter tonight. That is until we hit the Galaxy Theatre and realise that everyone’s packed in here to see British stage sensation Jacqui Scott sing. And what a show she delivers. From the Beatles’ Hey Jude to Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, she’s as electrifying as her dazzling blue sequinned catsuit.
Day Seven – Sugar Cube houses and the perfect piano man
Having drooled over Portofino yesterday, I didn’t think I could love another Italian seaside village more. How wrong I was.
As soon as we hit the shore in Porto Venere I fell in love again. Overlooking the harbour, the residents of its famous sugar-cube houses throw out their washing to dry in the searing heat whilst visitors hit the shops and restaurants in the tiny back lanes. ‘Would you like to try our home-made pesto?’ asked one shop owner. What a great sales technique! Feeding us cubes of focaccia and her perfect pesto, bursting with flavour, we were hooked. This is the perfect gift for any foodies in your life, or of course, yourself.
Five nearby villages were given UNESCO status in 1997 as the famous Cinque Terre so if you’re visiting this area, don’t miss them. Each boasts fantastic gelato coloured houses that hang on the craggy rocks and look fantastic as you sail into their harbours. We head for one of the smaller villages, Riomaggiore, where I literally go ‘wow’ when I step on to shore. From the harbour a steep hill leads you to the top of the village – it’s the perfect spot to eat lunch and watch the world go by.
This village has a very bohemian feel to it and I’d love to come back in the winter to see it when the crowds have gone home. Back on board everyone’s starting to talk about their future travel plans – many of the Americans are extending their stay to visit Rome for the first time while our fellow Brits will be heading home on Saturday. We all agree that this has been a great trip with an amazing itinerary.
To celebrate our good fortune of being on board Crystal Serenity, we head for Avenue Saloon (think ‘Cheers’ at sea) where we get to sit at the bar, sip on Negronis and constantly shout out requests to the resident piano man Dan Davies.
Fellow cruisers will know that it really takes four or five days until you settle in properly on a ship (unless of course you have sailed on her before) and today I realised that I’d reached ‘settled’ status. Just in time of course for my departure on Saturday. No wonder so many of us can’t wait to sail on our favourite ships again.
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