10 November 2021, Virtual
London, UK - November 2021
London, UK - December 2021
Over the last three years, for what is now its traditional Christmas review, we have looked at some form of cruising. Readers will probably be aware that ABTN enjoys this form of holiday effortlessly combining top-class hotel accommodation with the chance to see a variety of destinations. No driving. No trains and no airports. ABTN has had the privilege of taking four cruises this year, of varying lengths, each of a very high quality and each totally different. One was of just three nights, another seven and the other two of 12 days. Swan Hellenic Minerva II, Hebridean Princess, P&O Adonia, and Crystal Serenity.
What was very apparent was the diversity and not just from a cost point of view. In each case the product had real quality but the creations themselves were like chalk and cheese.
Choosing a water-born holiday is not easy and here we are talking about deep water cruising. The British are voting with their feet (or bookings). According to the Passenger Shipping Association getting on for one million people will take a deep water cruise this year at well over £500 on average. For ABTN some of the cruises found a new anchorage each day, whilst for others it was one day at sea and the next in port. With the bigger ships you could dine formally, at fixed times or just when you wanted. Likewise with the dress code. Evening entertainment varied from local entertainers (Hebridean), low-key music and song of a sophisticated nature (for the most part Minerva II but the big ships also offered high brow music), popular entertainment (Adonia) and at the very top some of the most sophisticated and stylish shows ever put on at sea (Serenity).
This Christmas article attempts to outline the diversity and at the same time unravel the differences. Please take a look at the ABTN archives for Hebridean and Adonia . To say you fancy a cruise is easy. Choosing one that fits your specific requirements is where the trouble starts. First of all decide how much you want to spend (bearing in mind the so-called brochure prices are always discounted)!
In 26 May issue ABTN we reported on P&O”s new Adonia, a ship where children are banned and the nursery accommodation is given over to other uses. The package is proving very popular. In the main the four P&O ships operate through the summer months from Southampton and attract a British cliental. The question here is do you wish to fly to your overseas embarkation port or sail from the UK, perhaps taking advantage of coach services from all over the country to the port. Adonia, Oceana, Oriana and Aurora cover the Mediterranean, Spanish Islands and what is termed Northern Europe mostly in 14-day packages. With exception of Adonia there are plenty of children on board during the school holidays. http://www.pocruises.com
Hebridean Princess was a wonderful demonstration of what can be achieved with a tiny ship around the Scottish lochs. Our 27 October report entitled ”In the Footsteps of the Royal Yacht” summed up a jewel of a vessel that also put in an appearance at World Travel Market at Excel in east London. http://www.hebridean.co.uk
Owned by P&O for many years Swan Hellenic with its Discovery Cruises has developed a market for people who like to enjoy high quality cruising and at the same time be educated (hence ”Discovery”). The product features a well planned in-depth itinerary calling at various places noted for their historical or other worthy interest. A major point with Swan is that most of the off-ship programme is included in the price as are gratuities. You know more or less exactly what the holiday is going to cost. The 30,000 ton 700 passenger Minerva II was introduced this year (in fact one of a series of luxury cruise ships built for Renaissance Cruises in 1998 ” a victim of the Gulf War fallout) replacing the much loved original Minerva, 300 passengers and 12,000 tons. It is a fully-fledged cruise liner with no compromises and lots of wood panelling, a true ”Country House at Sea”.
ABTN was privileged to take a three night cruise out of Dover on Minerva II, down to Guernsey overnight, a morning moored offshore and a chance to visit the island itself, Sark or the equally fascinating Herm. Afternoon was spent around the good size pool before arriving at St Malo in the early evening. Once again the ship”s boats were used to take ashore those who fancied an evening in France before the morning tours took place. ABTN visited Mont St Michel am and Dinard in the afternoon, with an excellent buffet lunch on board in-between. Swann Hellenic makes a point that their product is all-inclusive. Long time clients were thoroughly enjoying the new vessel and forward bookings indicate that Swan has got the package just about right. New arrivals (but experienced cruisers) were enthusiastic regarding the ship.. If there is criticism the late evening activities were a little limited and for some reason Swan graded the balcony cabins on whether liquor and tea makers were provided. Two of the three restaurants offered the same menu the difference being whether one dined with jacket and tie, or casual. The Grill is self-explanatory. There is a fine gym and spa, Internet facilities and what is said to be the largest library afloat, certainly from a tourist book point of view.
Most of the accommodation on board is offered with a veranda, the cabins themselves neat and well thought out. The product is to the same standard as the rest of the P&O fleet although there is definitely pride that Swan Hellenic is best. Over a 12 month period the ship takes in the Mediterranean (including a series of cruises around the old Swan Greek island cruising area), Scandinavia and both north and south America. Qantas is the charter flight provider for most changeovers offering an upgrade for those prepared to pay a relatively modest premium. http://www.swanhellenic.com
Which brings us to Crystal Serenity, officially named in July by Dame Julie Andrews. Just six months after its introduction into service the ship has taken first place in the Berlitz cruise ship awards for liners with over one thousand passengers, a remarkable achievement. For the next size down, and for the fourth year running, its smaller sister ship Crystal Symphony wins the ultimate prize.
Back in 1990, when Crystal launched the concept of a one class six star large cruise ship, a new name to a market that was about to take off. The name Crystal did not mean anything then but the backers had real pedigree, NYK, the world”s largest shipping company and Tokyo-based. They chose Los Angeles for the marketing (80% of passengers are American and 50% of these come from California). Europe supplied the hotel operation and Norway the ship”s officers. At 50,000 tons and just 970 passengers Crystal Harmony was large by the then cruise ship standards. NYK had done their homework well. The package has worked and today Crystal has probably taken more awards than any other cruise line, the Crystal experience outstanding and the company guest policy known as ”Crystal Attitude”, a clear demonstration of what service is all about. In 1995 Crystal Symphony followed, essentially as sister ship with a very few minor wrinkles sorted out. Such is the world of international commerce and shipbuilding Symphony was constructed in Finland rather than Japan, where the first ship was built.
Crystal has now taken this highly successful model into the 21st century with the introduction this year of Crystal Serenity, 68,000 tons just 1,080 passengers and an even better crew to guest ratio of 1.70 (and built this time in France). 85% of the staterooms have veranda and regular Crystal cruisers will not get lost. Proving that the original concept was right, Serenity has much the same layout as her two sisters, plus another deck. It is just 30 feet longer than Harmony and the same width (to go through the Panama Canal). Every cabin now has a laptop computer data port and the penthouse suites come complete with wide flat screen TV”s (and naturally enough a butler service ” guests can organise a private dinner party in their suite the kitchens only too pleased to create a special menu). Every cabin has a bathroom. With Serenity, just like its siblings, there is absolutely no rush to find deck space, either out in the sun, or in the shade. There is a more than ample supply of seating. One of the two pools has a retractable roof, the regular swimmers keen to take a dip and relax even when the weather is not so good. Ice cream and soft drinks are on the house.
The ”Crystal Attitude” means that your suitcases are sitting on your bed, which is protected by a plastic covering, when you arrive in your cabin. There is always a waiter on hand when you take an informal meal in the Lido caf” or at a deck buffet, and if you ask any member of the ship”s staff a question, he or she is your first point of contact and will deal with the matter. It is not a question of passing the buck to someone else. 80% of the crew of Serenity ether came or worked on the original two ships and it shows.
British cruisers should note that the cuisine is designed for American tastes. Happily they like Italian food (try the wonderful Prego restaurant) and are keen on Japanese (The Sushi Bar and Silk Road restaurants are outstanding by anyone”s standards ” created by Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa). Complimentary room service, with an excellent variety, is on hand at any time (including an all day breakfast), and during dining hours you can order from the restaurant menu in your cabin. Afternoon tea is a feature of the ship”s Palm Court and once again Crystal offers music from a three piece Philippino group dressed for the occasion. They play Mozart with fine skill during the Viennese tea afternoon, although it could be argued that they look somewhat out of place. The bistro once again proved very popular with its range of snacks and patisseries, a great meeting place and an alternative for lunch. A selection of hot and cold hors d”oeuvres are served in the various bars and lounges every evening before the dinner call and late at night there is always a selection ready for the taking.
The gym and sporting offerings on Serenity are as good as anything at sea, and the beauty saloon, whilst designed for the very rich from New York or LA is friendly (and not too expensive). You can play and learn bridge and the Computer University at Sea not only offers an on-line satellite email and internet facility but also classes on the most widely used software programmes. Once again it proved to be one of the most popular activities of all. New is the Crystal Cruises Creative Learning Institute offering a programme as diverse as wine tasting to skills on Yamaha electric keyboards. Former US Ryder Cup captain Billy Casper, a friend of King Hassan of Morocco, proved an amiable lecture speaker in the Stardust Club and was able to help golfers too.
Americans on the style of product Crystal offer dress smartly but you will not feel out of place in your contemporary English offering. On a typical cruise there will be three formal nights, six smart casual and three informal nights (usually the first and last plus one other). The casino is much bigger than on British ships and the Hollywood Theatre is far more comfortable (and in fact has even more up to date films) than your local multiplex.
It is a very difficult ship to criticise, perhaps the only point of contention that competitors now offer an inclusive ”no tipping service” and often a complimentary wine list. Not so with Crystal. Each ship is stocked with a selection of 150 wines from around the world, in total up to 20,000 bottles covering a wide price range.
Choose your cruise carefully and the ex-UK prices can be very sensible. The normal 12 day package in effect means a fortnight for most people, although Americans coming to Europe tend to add on a few days at the departure point. ABTN cruised from Barcelona through Malaga, Cadiz , Casablanca, Agadir, Las Palmas Santa Cruz to Lisbon, six days at sea and six days of visiting. http://www.crystalcruises.com
To round off this Christmas review we commend for cruise types and prospective cruise types Douglas Ward”s 2004 Berlitz Guide To Ocean Cruising & Cruise Ships. The Guide, now in its 19th year of publication, provides a frank and fair up-to-date account of cruising and rates 256 cruise ships, 12 of them new within the year. Which is where in some ways we started this review. To choose a cruise is very complex. But it is an interesting way of spending some of this holiday period. (688 pages, ”18.99 ISBN 981-246-383-6) http://www.berlitzpublishing.comhttp://www.cruiseinformationservice.co.uk