Crystal Serenity’s luxury cruise offered dancing and glamour from Venice to Istanbul.
Crisped out in tails and pin-striped trousers, our butler Samir opened the door to our penthouse suite on the 10th deck of the Crystal Serenity, and stood aside.
The white tufted floor-to-ceiling headboard, “bubble” table lamps, wall paper and sumptuous silk, velvet and leather textiles look very Hollywood glam, reminiscent of Palm Springs in its heyday when megastars began colonizing it as an exclusive retreat.
For 12 days we were going to play it our way on one of America‘s most luxurious cruise lines.
We, on the other hand, were traversing some 3,400 miles from Venice to Istanbul calling at ports just emerging from out of the shadows of the old Soviet Union, and others taking tentative steps to shape their ancient cliff-hanging monasteries and mosques into seductive packages for sophisticated cultural tourists.
Luxury becomes good value
With dining at the onboard Nobu Matsuhisa Silk Road (which can cost $600 a person in the land-based Beijing restaurant) included at no cost, free lectures by luminaries like novelist Mary Higgins Clark, staterooms that start at about $15,000 for a 12-day cruise like ours, plus special pricing and social perks for solo travelers, luxury the Crystal way would make even your accountant smile.
Next year the inducements get even more inviting, thanks to the rollout of its “all-inclusive” pricing. You won’t have to fork out those heavy-duty tips for hardworking housekeeping, bar and dining staff — they’re included. So are a selection of “fine” wines and ‘premium” spirits.
If you’re traveling solo and want to luxuriate in your own private stateroom, the single supplement can range from 25 percent to 200 percent, depending on room category, which says Crystal, is among the lowest in the luxury cruise market
You’ll still have to flash your plastic for those private high-end wine pairings that break the bank at $2,100 per person, but hey, the food is free.
Solo doesn’t mean solitary
For every aspiring Ginger Rogers there’s Crystal’s Fred Astaire. Called ambassador hosts, these 75 volunteer dancing partners ensure that solo sailors aren’t wallflowers. “We are the only luxury line that guarantees their presence on every cruise, and that gives us a competitive edge,” says Mimi Weisand, vice president of public relations.
Depending on the type and length of cruise, at least 5 to 15 percent of passengers are single, affluent older women mad about ballroom dancing. For them the availability of skilled dancing partners is often the decisive booking factor.
“Most are repeat customers who know the men personally and have favorites,” says ambassador host program coordinator Sheila Hoffman. “When they’re choosing their cruises, they contact me first to see who the hosts are. That’s when they make up their minds.”
So popular is the program that Hoffman can’t hire hosts fast enough. Last year, she sent recruitment flyers to every dance studio in the U.S. and Canada, but got zero referrals, probably because “they didn’t think their clientele met our standards.”
Being on your toes — literally and figuratively — seven hours a day takes talent, tenacity and tact. Hosts have to be physically fit, good conversationalists and socially adept. They also host tables at dinner, escort shore excursions and participate in dance classes and games. In exchange, they get free cabins (generally shared), drinks and dry-cleaning allowance, and comp airfare under certain conditions.
“Occasionally, a dance is scheduled at the Cove, where the floor is marble and the music mostly jive,” says ambassador host Len Tan, 71. “The marble floor is hard on our feet, ankles, knees, and hips, especially when you have one jive after another.”
Although Hoffman says the program is responsible for half a dozen marriages; ambassadors can’t play favorites. And they must be single. “While a wife may initially say she doesn’t care if her husband goes on a cruise without her, Crystal provides a very romantic background which has caused problems before,” Hoffman said.
Pay it forward
For Crystal, that changed in January 2011 with the introduction of its “You Care, We Care” voluntourism excursions which involve hands-on experiences on every sailing. Free for both guests and crew, the experiences last a few hours to half a day, and immerse participants in everything from urban farming lessons in Colombia to Maori traditions in New Zealand. So far 350 guests and crew have lent a helping hand.
Touching lives they enrich their own.
“We had an interpreter with us and a social worker, but because the children were so emotionally damaged we weren’t supposed to really speak with them, just smile and say “hi.’ But when we arrived, they had baked a cake for us, and seemed really glad we’d come. Being there showed them that others care.”
Charting new waters
In Trabzon, Turkey, we found ourselves clinging to the side of a mountain hoping to get a shot of the Sumela Monastery (Virgin Mary Monastery) built in the 4th century on steep rock cliffs 850 feet above the valley floor.
Expanded and refurbished through the 19th century, it fell under Russian occupation until 1923. Today, the elaborate structure, founded by two priests, seems like an architectural expression of “Closer My God to Thee.”
Since Trabzon was a maiden port of call for Crystal, the latest in about a dozen added since 2010, tourism in this lively city on Turkey’s historic Silk Road is still in embryonic stages. Ten minutes from the monastery, we stopped for lunch at Cosandere Dinlenme Tesisleri, a charming hotel/ restaurant serving authentic Black Sea cuisine. On a picnic table sandwiched between two of the restaurant’s original hotel rooms, we sampled a delicious lentil soup, traditional appetizers like dolmades, and fell in love with their gorgeous cheese type fondue.
Be better at bargaining
The last thing we expected to learn on a luxury cruise was the art of bargaining. Thanks to advice from Chris Hopkins, shopping director, you’ll probably be able to bring home a treasure from your next cruise at a jaw-dropping discount.
Assess the environment. Negotiate a better price in outdoor, non air-conditioned markets and stores that have electricity and a calculator.
Open with “I really like this item, but not the price”; then wait.
Expect 30 to 40 percent off the tag price on carpets in Turkey and Greece; 40 to 50 percent on jewelry. “Generic” jewelry made on the premises could result in a deeper discount of 60 to 70 percent.