On Crystal Cruises attention to detail, luxury are crystal clear

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I admit to being a cruise skeptic. I pictured the shipboard clientele to be a horde of elderly Mr. Burnses, the daily activities to be shuffling through endless buffet lines, and the shore excursions to be of the never-budge-from-the-luxury-motorcoach variety.

I was wrong.

Sailing the Mediterranean on separate luxury liners last fall, David Bear and I decided this was a perfect opportunity to pit the best against the best.

Even a cynic like me would find it tough to top this spacious, gleaming 1,070-passenger ship. Crystal Cruises, voted as the No. 1 cruise ship in the world in each of the past 10 years, claims it delivers "six-star service." After a 12-day voyage on its Serenity from Barcelona to Lisbon, I'd give it seven.

As another passenger put it, the difference between Crystal's idea of service and other lines is simple: on Crystal, you don't have to ask. Needs -- even whims -- are anticipated. A last-minute round of golf on a volcanic island? Easy. A broken door latch on the mini-bar? Repaired before I could mention it to the steward. It's all done with an easy American can-do attitude, rather than formal bows and clicked heels.

Crystal's dominance in the luxury cruise world may not have been the reason for its premiere berth as we boarded in Barcelona. But being tied up just steps from the city's famous Las Ramblas, a shady pedestrian walkway through the ancient city, let passengers use the liner as our downtown hotel for the first two days of the cruise. After another stop in Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast, we'd head past Gibraltar to Casablanca, returning to Europe for stops in the volcanic Canary Islands and the Madeiras before docking in Lisbon.

On Serenity's first day at sea, I noted some luxurious touches that made it easy to lounge all day on my private balcony (an amenity offered on all 108 of the ship's penthouses) a featherweight mohair Afghan and a pair of powerful Bushnell binoculars to train on the shipping lanes. Later I discovered its vast public spaces, including a 360-degree promenade deck, lavish spa, and full-sized cinemas and nightclubs.

While cruise food usually evokes images of quantity, rather than quality, Crystal's dining service went for the perfect plate, with ingenious selections (including vegetarian and healthy fare) and all-American flexibility. When our tablemate Alice made an off-the-menu request for a traditional Sabbath dinner, the chef served a tender roasted chicken, fresh-baked challah and matzo ball soup that passed kosher muster. The waiters won my heart with scrupulous attention to my food allergy.

A spirited ballroom dancer, Alice also proved that the ship's activities staff knew how to change steps quickly. When she and other ladies worried about the ratio of male dancing partners to female guests, the ship flew in two more "ambassador hosts" overnight.

Other onboard activities exceeded the "something for everyone" cliche. I learned a lot at Crystal's Creative Learning Institute in a comprehensive digital photography series. Gamblers flocked to the casino. The spa, tennis courts and swimming pools were underused, not overcrowded.

Although the official language of the ship was English, multilingual staff and communications were the norm. There were dozens of easily accessible excursions to famous destinations (including the Alhambra and Seville), but Crystal has shifted some of its shore excursions into the active adventure category. In the Canaries the options included scuba diving and jet-skiing.

Although the line differs from others in its alcohol policy -- shipboard wines and spirits aren't free -- the basic penthouse rate ($850 on a per-day basis) included all meals and generous shipboard credits applied to excursions or onboard activities.

Christine H. O'Toole: chris@christinehotoole.com

The writer traveled as a guest of the cruise lines.


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