By MAGGY OEHLBECK
Maggy Oehlbeck boards Crystal Serenity on a voyage from Rome to Marseille ahead of the ship’s next visit to Australia next month
The voice behind a large Aperol spritz sighs: “I could stay here forever.” Crystal Serenity is anchored off Portoferraio, Elba Island, and we are sprawled on vibrant orange day beds on the pool deck, flushed from our climb up to Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini where he spent 300 days during his first exile.
The late afternoon sun reflects in our cocktails, bathing the table in a warm amber glow. This is the first day of a week-long ‘Riviera Reverie’ on board one of the world’s finest cruise ships and we are positively giddy from Elba’s sensory delights.
Our voluntary exile, while sadly not 300 days, is nevertheless a languid and leisurely sojourn along the glorious Italian and French rivieras from Rome to Marseille.
I have barely set foot inside my Penthouse Suite after boarding when a tap on the door reveals a handsome young man who introduces himself as JiJo. “I am your butler,” he says, with a discreet Downton Abbey nod.
A tour of my new home-at-sea ensues, with JiJo pointing out the well-stocked minibar, two TVs (one in my elegant sitting room, the other in the bedroom), my spa-like bathroom with Etro amenities, one-touch lighting system, complimentary unlimited WiFi, and the all-important butler call button for round-the-clock service.
I’ve already noted the fresh orchid, groaning fruit bowl and bottle of Champagne on ice that JiJo informs me comes with every Penthouse Suite, but suddenly spy my just-unpacked clothes hanging rather haphazardly in the walk-in wardrobe.
No matter. JiJo comes to the rescue, politely enquiring if I have any pressing – complimentary, of course. And with a final flourish – “I’ll be back with canapés at 5pm,” he says – my new best friend is gone.
It’s my first taste of the Crystal Experience, the multi-award-winning cruise line’s core principle to offer its guests uncompromising luxury, personal service and attention to detail that runs through the entire fleet.
For 27 years, the ever-expanding Crystal Cruises – which now includes Crystal River Cruises, Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises, Crystal AirCruises and Crystal Luxury Air – has redefined the luxury ‘experience’ across its global journeys, an exacting standard of excellence that flows seamlessly into all new vessels and major refurbishments.
Crystal Serenity (like her sister Crystal Symphony) has recently undergone an extensive redesign, adding 36 new Penthouses and two Penthouse Suites, and reconfiguring its selection of restaurants with a sleek new look and colour palette, and exceptional dining (more on the redesign later).
Not surprisingly, she has morphed from chrysalis to glittering social butterfly and is now ready to spread her wings. Both ocean-going siblings are supremely elegant, meticulously appointed and offer the hospitality, service and comfort of a five-star hotel favoured by a cultured clientele, with 655 highly trained crew serving a full complement of 980 passengers.
Even better, they have no fixed address. Instead, they roam the oceans pursuing carefully researched and highly curated itineraries to dream destinations and deliver memorable shore experiences from each port of call.
The necklace of iconic coastal gems which stud our Italian and French rivieras cruise are no doubt familiar to many, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing them on board Crystal Serenity.
After our wonderful first day on Elba, we arrive in Livorno – the bustling port gateway to all things Fiorentina – enticed by a menu of Crystal Adventures Shore Excursions that reads like a Baedeker guide from Europe’s golden age of the Grand Tour.
I forgo the Renaissance riches of Florence, Siena, Pisa and San Gimignano and opt for a guided walking tour of the walled Medieval city of Lucca. Accompanied by an expert docent, I’m captivated by the city’s architectural masterpieces, musical heritage – as the birthplace of celebrated opera composer Giacomo Puccini – the easy-going nature of the locals and upscale designer boutiques.
Lunch in Tuscany’s impossibly beautiful countryside at a rustic farmhouse on an olive oil estate delights with platters of bruschetta, salumi and homemade pastas accompanied by regional wines.
(Note to self: remember to book dinner at Prego, the ship’s authentic Italian restaurant. The mushroom soup served in individual hollowed-out loaves of bread is legendary.)
The grand finale of our Lucca excursion, however, is an exclusive and privileged visit to Villa Torrigiani, a glorious Baroque folly where we’re invited to wander through its magnificent private gardens and frescoed interiors by a family member.
Both ocean-going siblings are supremely elegant, meticulously appointed and offer the hospitality, service and comfort of a five-star hotel favoured by a cultured clientele, with 655 highly trained crew serving a full complement of 980 passengers.
Cinque Terre, the five fishing villages in the northwestern corner of Liguria, is renowned for its vertiginous cliffs quilted with vineyards and olive trees which cascade to the sea.
No, we are not going to tackle all five, although participants in the full-day adventure can view them at close quarters by small boat and then return by local train. Instead we choose beautiful Manarola only, and accomplish a moderately challenging walk along a section of the coast, marvelling at the gelati-coloured houses festooned with washing and the tenacity of locals tending vineyards and vegetable plots, and mending fishing nets in such difficult terrain.
A highlight for me is tasting the fruit of their labours, especially Sciacchetrà, the superb local dessert wine.
At sunrise the next day, Crystal Serenity slips quietly into Monaco, that ever-glamorous haven of hedonism on the French Riviera, and a scheduled overnight visit allows Crystal guests to play the tables at its famous casino.
Among Crystal Adventures’ daytime offerings are visits to Èze, perched on a pinnacle with panoramic views over the Cote d’Azur, or Cap Ferrat and its breathtaking Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.
Back in Monte Carlo, we enjoy coffee at Hôtel de Paris and watch the beautiful people and extraordinary superyachts assembled for the principality’s major annual boat show.
A little later, we tender back to the ship for our dress-circle seats on Crystal Serenity’s upper deck to watch the British Royal Air Force Red Arrows’ dazzling aerobatic performance. A head massage is in order after all the neck-craning – the perfect time to visit the Zen-calm Crystal Spa & Salon.
Among the more unusual offerings are a warmed bamboo shoot massage and the Quartz Crystal Bed, where warmed crystals mould the body to assist relaxation and minerally charge the skin. There is also a Medi-Spa physician and acupuncturist available for personal consultations.
Other diversions include Crystal’s cultural enrichment programs, engaging guest speakers, computer classes, social bridge, golf and most importantly, plenty of live music and dancing, high-voltage productions and fine instrumentalists.
And finally, to Provence and a blissful day in ritzy St Tropez, ambling through its pretty laneways and lively markets, then back on board to pack and prepare for arrival in Marseille the next morning.
If I catch the second-to-last tender, I will be in time for afternoon tea and my favourite chair – an enormous wingback in the Palm Court – an elegant oasis of calm and serenity. The ship’s name says it all.