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CRUISE VIEWS

It's prime time for Crystal Serenity

August 17, 2003|Harry Basch | Special to The Times

I have been on all kinds of inaugural cruises. Some were seamless, such as those of the Seabourn Pride and the Crystal Symphony. Some were disasters, like the Mardi Gras, which went aground its first day out. But the inaugural of Crystal Cruises' Serenity was a first: It was free -- for all 760 passengers.

That wasn't part of the plan from the beginning, so how did this come about? On June 30, Crystal took possession of the Serenity from the shipyard in Chantiers de l'Atlantique, France, where the vessel was built. The crew had eight days to get it shipshape for passengers. Supplies, such as silverware, glasses, linens, ashtrays and do-not-disturb signs, had to be loaded, sorted, unpacked and distributed. Every member of the crew and staff joined in the Herculean effort, carrying boxes aboard, unpacking them, then stowing the contents.

Long before this point, Crystal executives knew the ship would not be perfectly ready for its inaugural sailing July 7 from Southampton, England. Crystal, a line known for its classic, elegant cruises, considered canceling the sailing, then decided to refund the cruise fare and allow passengers to take the two-week cruise free.

Although there were minor glitches that affected us passengers -- missing do-not-disturb cards, Jacuzzi tubs in the penthouses that didn't work and ashtrays that weren't found till three days after departure -- most major problems were out of sight and mind of the passengers, at least.

An exception was in the Galaxy Lounge, where the complicated sound and light equipment could not be set up in time for the performances. Scrambling, Crystal booked several headline acts to pinch-hit: comedian Alan King, singer Dionne Warwick and composer Marvin Hamlisch filled in along with two production shows, "Forever Plaid" and "Curtain Call."

Other on-board programs were intact: The expanded Creative Learning Institute held classes in piano, Spanish, drawing and art, and dance. There were lectures on wealth management, bridge, gaming and health. There were golf programs and clinics and fitness classes, including tai chi.

Besides the shows in the Galaxy Lounge, entertainment includes music for dancing in the Palm Court and the Stardust Lounge, and piano melodies in the Crystal Cove. For late-night revelers, the action is in the Avenue Saloon. Cigar smokers have a special venue called the Connoisseur Club, with deep leather sofas and armchairs.

Crystal has enlarged the fitness area on the Serenity and augmented it with the Crystal Salon, featuring wraps, massages and facials.

Two large netted paddle tennis courts that can double as basketball courts are on Deck 13. On Deck 6, aft, are two table tennis netted areas, two golf driving cages and a putting green.

The 68,000-ton Serenity carries 1,080 passengers; its sister ships, Harmony and Symphony, weighing 50,000 tons, carry 940 passengers. If you've sailed on the others, you'll feel at home on the Serenity. Familiar rooms -- the Palm Court, the Avenue Saloon, the Crystal Cove and the Bistro -- have been enlarged and redesigned. New venues include Pulse, a brightly colored disco, the Studio for learning activities and Tastes, an alternative restaurant for casual evening dining.

Despite the difficulties below deck, Crystal, known for its lavish buffets, managed themed spreads in the air-conditioned Trident Pool area. (The Crystal Pool, the main swimming area, has a lap pool and two large whirlpools surrounded by lots of lounges.)

Besides the Crystal Dining Room (where there are two seatings), alternative dining areas include Prego, an Italian dining room, and a sushi bar connected to Silk Road, an Asian restaurant crafted by Los Angeles chef Nobu Matsuhisa that serves eclectic delicacies of seafood and steak. Both restaurants require reservations and carry a $6 surcharge. An innovation is the Vintage Room, which can be booked by four to 14 people for a special dinner based on select wine menus. Prices range from $50 to $400 per person, depending on the wines chosen. The room can be booked before sailing.

Serenity's cabins have been enlarged, and 85% of them have verandas. The 100 penthouse suites and Crystal penthouses, from 403 to 1,345 square feet, have Jacuzzi tubs, flat-screen TVs, CD and DVD players (discs are free from the library) and butler service. Regular staterooms are 226 square feet and have tubs, TVs, DVD players and large closets with safes. Daily brochure rates are $532 to $1,629 per person, double occupancy. Advance booking discounts are available.

On Nov. 6, the ship moves to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for two Caribbean cruises, then goes through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles for a Mexican cruise. On Jan. 19 it will set out on a 106-day around-the-world cruise, ending in New York.

For information, contact a travel agent or call Crystal Cruises; (800) 820-6663, www.crystalcruises.com.

Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice a month.

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