As Steffan the Welsh tenor belts out Con Te Partiro (Time To Say Goodbye), Crystal Serenity eases out of Venice. There are cheers on the pool deck, anticipation in the air.
Painters are putting finishing touches around the stern, the hardwood planks of the promenade deck are being resealed and buffed, and on the putting green below me, the synthetic turf receives a last vacuuming.
This is a relaunch in every sense of the word. Eighteen months ago, the Crystal company’s Chinese owners went bust. Their ships were impounded in the Bahamas over unpaid bills and U.S. offices shut down.
Many believed that was the end of Crystal, until the bespoke tour operator Abercrombie & Kent pulled its name and ships back from the brink.
I’m on board for Serenity’s first outing since a comprehensive rebuild and in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve never been on a cruise before, being put off by the ‘floating care home’ jibes plus the prospect of being hemmed in with a lot of people I don’t know. But from the moment our Serenity butler Roland welcomes us to our verandah suite with an offer of champagne and canapes, I’m up for a rethink.
Neil Darbyshire is on board for Crystal Serenity’s first outing since its extensive rebuild. The ship has been acquired by bespoke tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, he reveals
Founded in 1988, Crystal has always been at the top end of cruising, aspiring to the tag of ‘ultra-luxury’.
It has also had a remarkably loyal clientele, with 60 per cent of all passengers being returnees. The new owners hope to continue that tradition and build on what they describe as the ‘Crystal family’.
Launched by Julie Andrews in 2003, Serenity has been extensively remodelled and upgraded, with the overall capacity down from 1,040 passengers to 740.
This gives the common areas, lounges and restaurants a feeling of space and queues are non-existent. There’s a lot of competition at the top end of cruising. Our Sapphire verandah suite comes in at about £800 per person per night, with stops in Venice, Dubrovnik, Naples, Livorno and Marseilles.
Launched by Julie Andrews in 2003, Serenity has been extensively remodelled and upgraded, with the overall capacity down from 1,040 passengers to 740
Enchanting: The city of Livorno on the west coast of Tuscany is one of the stops on Neil’s cruise
Even so, many customers take two or three trips a year. One wealthy American — ‘Mama Lee’ Wachtstetter — lived on this ship for a decade, paying about £200,000 a year at current prices.
She wrote a book about the experience entitled: I May Be Homeless, But You Should See My Yacht.
Though my wife Isabel and I have nothing to compare this cruise with, everyone around us seems to be an expert. For Stewart Chiron, from Los Angeles, who styles himself The Cruise Guy in an influential U.S. blog, this is his 312th cruise. It says something that even he’s impressed. It’s not difficult to see why.
The accommodation is bright and subtle, with fine attention to detail. The beds, bathroom, shower and furnishings are all top quality and the verandah itself a perfect place to linger, with a book or a cocktail feeling the gentle roll of the Adriatic.
Of the three restaurants, my favourite is the Waterside, which provides traditional fine dining. There is also the Japanese-Peruvian Umi Uma with a menu ‘curated’ and cooked by Nobu chefs and Osteria d’Ovidio specialising in regional Italian dishes. On top of that there are less formal bistro, cafe and grill options — 11 eateries in total. And if you overdo it, there’s a well-equipped spa and gym to get your waistline back into some sort of shape.
Neil’s Sapphire verandah suite (pictured) comes in at about £800 per person per night
Sitting in the ship’s cosy Palm Court, sipping a Manhattan to the crooning of a pretty decent Sinatra tribute act is especially enjoyable. With its low lights and deco-ish fittings, there are echoes of the cabaret room at New York’s Algonquin Hotel.
Excursions are mixed. The highlight is a grand evening in Naples listening to four fabulous Italian sopranos perform a medley of classical and modern standards in the courtyard of a medieval castle within sight of Mount Vesuvius.
On the coach there, our guide Antonia explains that Napoli (don’t call it Naples!) is without question the best and most colourful region of Italy.
‘We don’t mind the other Italians,’ she says magnanimously. ‘Except the Venetians, who are the enemy. They say we are lazy, don’t pay our taxes and only live for having a good time. We say, what’s wrong with that?’
‘The accommodation is bright and subtle, with fine attention to detail,’ writes Neil
There’s a well-equipped spa (above) and gym to get your waistline back into some sort of shape after dining out in the ship’s 11 eateries, Neil reveals
Slightly less impressive is a desultory trip around old Dubrovnik, with an almost unintelligible guide and an over-long outing to a small Tuscan farm outside Livorno.
Of course, as Andrea, a travel writer from Nashville, puts it: ‘For most people, the ship is the destination.’ It’s interesting how easily even the most ardent class warrior can be seduced by a little luxury.
Think Angela Rayner sipping the bubbly at Glyndebourne or John Prescott’s Dorneywood croquet parties. My wife is a prime example. Isabel is proud of her working-class Mancunian roots and the fact her maternal grandad died while campaigning for Labour in the 1920s.
But give her a butler, a spoonful of caviar and glass of good champagne and it’s amazing how effortlessly she adapts to the good life.
Crystal (crystalcruises.com, 0808 178 3396) offers 12 nights on Serenity from Quebec City to Miami on October 21 from £5,300pp based on two people sharing on an all-inclusive basis, including airport transfers.