Julie Peasgood samples six-star luxury on board Crystal Serenity from Athens to Venice
How do you define luxury? Is it being cocooned in a huge dressing gown with a butler serving you tea on a silver tray, with bone china and little silken bags of the finest organic brew? Is it quality Champagne on tap and a Michelin-worthy dining experience? Or is it superlative service where your every need is constantly anticipated and fulfilled?
For me, luxury is all of these, combined with meticulous attention to detail and a feeling of exclusivity. And it can be found on every deck of Crystal Serenity. An aptly-named vessel, Serenity is the quietest, most tranquil ship I have ever experienced: tannoy announcements are kept to an absolute minimum, service is ultra-discreet, the Ink Spots croon softly while you eat your Cornflakes and even the obligatory handwash is soothing. As an extra bonus, the sea seems to be mimicking a millpond.
We board in Athens and our first destination is Monemvasia, a massive rock sitting a quarter of a mile off the coast of the Peloponnese mainland and often referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of Greece’. Accessible by a single causeway that winds into the charming old Castle Town (known locally as Kastro), it is a labyrinth of medieval cobbled alleys set against a backdrop of the bluest Aegean sea.
Eye-catching little shops and tavernas line the main street, with top marks going to the Edodimopolio Honey Shop. Thanks to its zealous and generous owners, Fotini and Paraskevas, this is a retail experience to be savoured (their honey mead and ouzo with walnuts should be available on prescription).
For its size, Monemvasia is blessed with more than its fair share of churches: beautiful 12th century Agia Sofia stands out amongst the ruins of the Upper Town, where breathtaking views reward those more nimble of foot than me. Instead I find myself lingering in the graceful Church of Christ in Chains (Christos Elkomenos), a Byzantine gem down in the town square containing wonderfully ornate chandeliers and a superb icon of the Crucifixition – as a lover of icons it has me spellbound.
Back on board and the magic continues with our sail away, when the unexpected strains of Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World fill the air. Rarely has familiarising myself with a ship been such a pleasurable process, but I am now playing house in my stateroom and don’t want to leave. It’s stylish and sumptuous, yet still manages to be cosy, and the library contains an impressive number of current films to enjoy on DVD (there is a proper cinema too if you prefer the full Pearl & Dean experience).
As most food and drink on board is inclusive, I sit surveying the plump jumbo prawns and half lobster that have just arrived, wondering how on earth I’ll manage dinner if these are just the canapés.
Our next port of call is Katakolon, a busy Greek seaside town overlooking the Ionian Sea, most notable for its accessibility to ancient Olympia and the original Olympic Games stadium. Inspired, I decide to get in shape (I did manage dinner). At 7.30am I meet Fitness Director Claire, who kits me out in a Walkvest, tailor-made for Crystal’s exercise programme. Designed to tone muscles and maximise the health benefits of walking, it’s a lightweight cotton vest with pockets around the waist to hold varying weights, and it does make me work – and walk – harder, as well as improving my posture.
Exercise is taken seriously here, with 12 treadmills, four elliptical trainers and 12 spinning bikes, it’s far from being a token gym. There is an ultra-sophisticated InBody machine, available only on six-star ships and groundbreaking in its analysis of body composition, so bespoke exercise and diet programmes can be created during your stay. And the feng shui designed spa offers healing massages (on an innovative quartz crystal bed) and acupuncture, as well as all the usual facials and grooming treatments.
Cuisine to dine for
But the highlight for me has to be the onboard culinary delights, and with three speciality restaurants as well as six other dining venues, plus comprehensive, 24-hour room service, I’m spoilt for choice. I have to single out Tastes bar and restaurant for serving superbly late breakfasts that not only welcome but seem to actively celebrate late-risers, and the immensely popular Scoops ice cream bar featuring the best of Ben & Jerry’s.
Silk Road restaurant, however, is the gastronomic pinnacle of my cruise and my number one favourite. Crystal Cruises were the first cruise line to partner with celebrity chefs, and its Silk Road and Sushi Bar speciality venues are the only sea-going restaurants in the worldwide empire of famed chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
Nobu blends Japanese cuisine with Peruvian flavours to create exceptional inventive dishes, such as the sublime lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce, and his phenomenal signature dessert – a bento box filled with a fantastic chocolate soufflé cake, shiso syrup and sesame ice cream. Best of all, guests are entitled to a dinner here at no extra charge, and my own meal is one I will never forget.
There are three more destinations still to come on the itinerary – Saranda in Albania, followed by Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia – and I’m already feeling sad about reaching Venice, our final port of call.
Six-star service means my sheets are changed daily if I want – I don’t, as it feels a bit uncomfortable environmentally, but I do love the all-inclusive aspect, which means I don’t have to keep tabs on my bar bill because there isn’t one (my liver and I are no longer on speaking terms).
Our voyage ends with a magical early morning sail into Venice and I’m mesmerised by its beauty. One of my fellow guests remark that this cruise has been like “Claridge’s at sea” and I know why she makes the comparison. With its understated elegance, it’s no surprise that Crystal has been voted ‘World’s Best’ so many times. It gets my vote too – with bells on.
GETTING THERE: Crystal Cruises offers a selection of Med sailings on board Crystal Symphony. Visit crystalcruises.co.uk for more information.
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