As cruise companies court Millennial travellers with hipster catnip, industry grande dame Crystal has spent millions revamping its ships and doubling down on its luxury heritage. Olivia Palamountain hops on board the Crystal Serenity for her first taste of life at sea.
Somewhere outside Venice, the top deck of the Crystal Serenity is buzzing. DJ Viviano, fresh from a stint in Ibiza, is smashing out bangers to a pulsating crowd while a saxophonist harmonises effortlessly to the beat. The pool, strewn with glowing neon orbs, shimmers like an aquamarine under the inky sky, illuminating staff proffering champagne and caviar and a sea of delighted faces. Whatever my preconceptions were of cruising, this blows them out of the water.Yes, cruising is traditionally reserved for a more genteel generation. But Boomers and their elders know stuff. They’ve survived entire careers without ever WFH, can navigate from a to b without Google Maps (and still avoid the traffic) and the majority raised us on a hangover. Legends; us Millennials have a lot to learn from them. So, why then, when they’ve been banging on about cruising, why haven’t we listened?
It’s no secret that cruise companies have been on a mission to shift perceptions of the sector for forever (or at least the last 20 years, as confirmed by this 2003 article from The Guardian). However, finally, it appears to be working.According to data from Cruising.org, there is more interest than ever before among Millennials and Gen-X travellers to take their first cruise with 73 per cent of those who have never cruised indicating they will consider a cruise vacation.
With the “new-to-cruise” traveller (four million of them, in fact) key to meeting the increase in global cruise capacity projected from 2023 to 2025, cruise lines are dreaming up innovative ways to seduce their target market.
Most of them such as Virgin Voyages and U by Uniworld, are luring us with Millennial catnip – think onboard tattoo parlours, vinyl record stores, and in-suite DJ set-ups, private hot tubs and silent discos.
Others are teaming up with celebrities, pioneering immersive, theatrical programming and hosting themed cruises – EDM on sea, anyone?
Crystal, meanwhile, has eschewed sticky fads and has doubled down on its luxury heritage. Relaunched this year under the new guardianship of A&K Travel Group as Crystal – Exceptional at Sea, the brand has poured millions into makeovers of its two beloved sister ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity in a bid to win over a new sector without alienating its loyal and adoring fanbase (rumour has it one guest left an US$100k tip). It will add four more ships by 2029. But is all-out grandeur enough to seduce a new-to-cruise Millennial aboard the Serenity, on a journey from Venice to Athens?
Money talks, wealth whispers, as they say, and Serenity’s refurbed no expense spared décor is refined rather than flashy, and the ship retains a heritage glamour. I’ll take this over pastiche hipster accents any day.Staterooms have been enlarged for 2023 and updated in expensive shades of oat and cream, giving de rigeur five-star hotel vibes. There’s a sofa but no separate living area (these are reserved for the Aquamarine suites and penthouse), and a roomy verandah for drinking in the deep blue beyond.Sumptuous touches such as Italian marble bathrooms, superlative cotton linens and Ortigia amenities add another layer of luxe – as does a butler service. Right on cue, the door bell rings.
My butler, Alina, is poised to take my preference for two complimentary litres of premium spirits of my choice for the minbar, a hint of the excess to come.It’s a luxury to be looked after (with an industry leading staff to guest ratio of almost 1:1, this theme continues throughout), but the only thing I really need is my silks pressed. This is something Alina says will take days to happen, if at all – not ideal if you have a particular outfit in mind or want some spontaneity in your wardrobe.
I’m also not sold on the butler get-up: the baggy black tie and tailcoat combo feels aspirational. That said, there are no complaints when a dainty selection of canapés appears, as if by magic, in my cabin each afternoon.
Forget sardines, Serenity is spacious. The revamp has upped the ante on style, while reducing capacity to 740 from 1,040. There’s masses of freedom to roam or find a quiet spot, and getting accustomed with the layout is like a treasure hunt, with fresh delight around every corner.I adore the Art Deco atmosphere in Palm Court, with its airy sky lights, floor-to-ceiling windows and 270-degree forward view, and the calm of the wood-panelled library. You can even shop for vintage Chanel and Prada at duty free prices in the boutique – how fab is that?For active days, tee up your golf-game with a qualified PGA pro or check out the two full-sized paddle tennis and pickle ball courts and the massive fitness centre. If you can’t find the motivation to workout solo, try a yoga, pilates or spinning class or just soak up the rays on the epic sundeck, where staff flit around efficiently, serving ice cold drinks and classic poolside bites.This epic space connects the aft and forward of the ship, which is where to find the bulk of the ship’s nine restaurants, six bars and multiple entertainment spaces.
We visited a charming family farmstead outside Dubrovnik for a painless introduction to traditional olive oil production methods, followed by a splendid homemade breakfast of ham, bread, cheeses and jam, washed down with a glass of wine. Next up, a boutique oyster farm and tasting followed by an alfresco lunch of local specialities at a divine waterside tavern, under the shade of a grapevine dripping in ripe fruit.
The contrast of land and sea offerings keeps both elements of the cruise experience seamless and fresh (I couldn’t wait to get back on to the Serenity after a day out), you get to see so much more than on a “regular” holiday and all you have to do is turn up: bliss.
With a former Soho House brand manager now part of the team, Crystal guests can look forward to ever more imaginative programming. I’d like to see some arts experiences, terrarium-making or a pottery studio? Maybe it’s the hypnotic lull of being at sea but Serenity casts a spell. I was fully prepared to cringe at life on the water, but it’s just so seductive. Charging through the ocean and docking at new destinations every few days has a timeless allure and even after a week of full throttle on-ship merriment, I still haven’t seen or done it all.
What about the other people? While Crystal’s fanbase is evolving, most of its clientele are aged 65+, but so what? Anyone who can’t get down with an older generation is missing out. My fellow passengers are an elegant, exuberant bunch that are pumped to share the joys of cruising with a newbie. First up and last to bed, they’re full of joie de vivre and put me to shame on the dance floor. I told you, we’ve got a lot to learn.
Travel’s biggest un-secret has been sailing under my radar for way too long, but whether I’m late to the party or – at nudging 40 years years old – bang on time, I’ve finally arrived. New to cruise? Not anymore.