TRAVEL: Why Crystal is the only cruise to choose

Disembarking after nine-days onboard the world’s most luxurious liner is a bit like being dumped by your first love. There are plenty more ships in the sea, but bidding adieu to this beauty leaves you feeling bereft – as if no other cruise will ever float your boat again.

Mrs F discovers her Crystal mojo on our penthouse balcony while the ship is docked in Cartagena.
Mrs F discovers her Crystal mojo on our penthouse balcony while the ship is docked in Cartagena.

Back on dry land the sorrow of separation slowly eases and you’ll start to remember only the good times.

At least, my dear Crystal Serenity, we’ll always have those lazy, hazy, laid back days docked in Barcelona, Cartagena, Lisbon and Bordeaux. Time cannot dim your swish six-star poolside snacks; age will not wither your all-inclusive made-to-order buffets, canapés and afternoon tea.

Like Vegas hotels, cruise liners get bolder every year, so ships come bigger than Crystal Serenity. But none are more beautiful. Some sail with 6,000 passengers, but what this 1,100 capacity goddess – recently voted best mid-sized liner for the 20th consecutive year – lacks in length it makes up for in luxury.

When it comes to cruising on the world’s most lavish liner, service – not size – is what really counts.

My wife Jenny and I were amazed to find Crystal Serenity had undergone a stunning £11million makeover since we last stepped aboard three years ago. It was a bit like discovering Miranda Kerr’s had plastic surgery.

So how do you improve on perfection?

Well, there’s now a fresh baked goods kitchen, herb garden, pristine indoor and outdoor dining areas, new penthouse suites and 70 specially air-conditioned hypoallergenic cabins.

The ship’s newly-expanded all-inclusive takes the food and drink experience up yet another notch.

Unlike less rarified rivals, Crystal all-inclusive isn’t  an excuse to compromise on quality. The finest wines, single malts such as Glenlivet and Macallan and lip-smacking cocktails (The Aviator was my pre-dinner tipple of choice) are all included in the price, encouraging guests to try something new every day. I didn’t order a single vodka and tonic all week.

After a two-night pre-cruise stay at the oh-so trendy W Hotel, Mrs F and I boarded in Barcelona, where we were issued with photo ID cards to swipe us on and off the ship and to use for onboard purchases instead of cash.

Around one third of the passengers on our nine-day “Southern Spanish Sun” Barcelona to Dover jaunt were first timers, shattering the myth that sea holidays are just for the “newlywed, well-fed and nearly dead”.

More of us than ever are dipping a toe in the water for the first time with one million Brits now cruising every year. Many choose one of Crystal Cruises two ships – Serenity and its sister Symphony – thanks to offers such as $500 of free onboard credit, two-for-one early-booking deals and free cruises for loyal customers.

The scene of many a lazy, hazy laid back day...
The scene of many a lazy, hazy laid back day…

Guests can follow the ship’s route on a live “bridge cam” television feed broadcast on channel 52.

This handy station also gives the lowdown on the next day’s packed itinerary, which is also listed in the daily Reflections magazine delivered to your room every night.

Noshing your way from Barcelona to Dover requires having every restaurant, bar and buffet locked into your on-board sat-nav from day one. Serenity has five restaurants.

The elegant Crystal Dining Room in the heart of the ship is base camp where most guests eat lunch and supper. The menu changes almost every day to include traditional dishes of the ship’s location. Specialty restaurant Prego, which has just been remodeled as part of the redesign, serves celebrated Italian cuisine by Piero Selvaggio, owner of the Valentino restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

There’s Asian cuisine next door at Silk Road, dished up by chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Here the signature black cod is so fresh and beautifully prepared it’s a wonder all the other fish don’t leap out of the Mediterranean and form an orderly queue at the door.

Less fussy but no less tasty food is served 24/7. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch and afternoon nibbles are found at the country-club style Lido Café which runs a takeaway-style open kitchen. Sweets and treats abound at Scoops ice cream bar, while one is cordially invited to partake in a spot of high tea at 3.30pm every afternoon at the Palm Court restaurant.

At the end of a Crystal Serenity cruise your eyes may no longer be bigger than your stomach.

A Serenity selfie: I bloody sat on those sunglasses the next day.
A Serenity selfie: I bloody sat on those sunglasses the next day.

Shows at sea used to mean second-rate versions of well-known productions, but the entertainment onboard rivals anything the West End offers.

Recent acts to top the onboard bill include America’s Got Talent dancers iLuminate and X Factor finalists The MacDonald Brothers.

Crystal Serenity comes to life before setting sail. Louis Armstrong’s anthem What A Wonderful World is piped out through loudspeakers to signal departure. That’s the cue for passengers to grab a glass of something cold and take a seat by the side of the ship as it inches away from port.

Our nine-day 2,570-mile sojourn took in many of European must-see cities. Shore leave began on day two in the Spanish-Roman port of Cartagena, followed the next day by a brief 12-hour stay in Malaga – which sadly didn’t provide enough time to neck a kebab and goldfish bowl in nearby Torremolinos but did allow for a 30-minute drive down the coast to the village of Mijas to see its Picasso art museum.

Another day another destination, only this one closer to home. The tiny British territory of Gibraltar at the foot of Spain offers a stunning 1,400-high view of the villages of southern Spain and towering tips of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains across the ocean. Its famous brown tailless Barbary Apes run wild on “The Rock”.

The locals believe they will remain British as long as the apes are present, so they are fed every day and sent to the Royal Navy hospital when they are sick.

An overnight glide took us to Lisbon, where a 10-hour stopover allowed time for a tour of the iconic Estoril Formula One racetrack, lunch in the chocolate box fishing village of Cascais and a stroll through the cobbled mosaic alleyways of the millennium-old Alfama district.

Our final destination was Bordeaux, the winemaking capital of the world – famed for producing award-winning red and whites ever since the Romans first planted grapes in its fertile soil. We spent the afternoon in the city’s fascinating Jewish district, focused around the vast Great Synagogue on Causserouge Street.

Other iconic Jewish sites include the nearby cemetery with weather-worn headstones dating back 300 years and the Memorial for Martyrs of the Community, in honour of the city’s 5,000 Jewish victims of Nazis.

After an increasingly choppy 18 hours navigating the Bay of Biscay, the white cliffs of Dover finally loomed on the horizon. It was time to eat for England.

Now, weeks later, those final moments until disembarkation are just a blur of breakfast treats – made-to-order pancakes and omelettes, waffles, pastries, French toast, sausages (three types!) smoked salmon and hot and cold meats (lamb chops and sirloin steak!).

As your wide-circumference plate is collected for the last time the dreadful realisation dawns that tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be rubbish. Crystal Serenity endlessly sails the seven seas.

After we checked out in Dover, it made its way north to Copenhagen, followed by a round-trip tour of the British Isles. Like Facebook-stalking your ex, you can watch the ship’s progress via webcam on Crystal Cruises’ website.

As I write this she’s docked at dusk in the Canary Islands. I can see some lucky blighter lazily leaning out of his penthouse balcony with a flute of something sparkling in his hand, no doubt contemplating the black cod in sweet miso sauce waiting for him at Silk Road later that night.

That used to be me, you know.

Factbox: In 2014, Crystal Cruises has a selection of Mediterranean cruises with prices starting from just £2,260 per person for a seven-night cruise from Rome to Istanbul departing 30th April. Price includes return scheduled flights, overseas transfers and seven nights in a deluxe stateroom with picture window with all meals and soft drinks, selected alcoholic beverages, port taxes and gratuities. Call Crystal Cruises on 020 7399 7601 or visit www.crystalcruises.co.uk

* First published in the Daily Express

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