It’s one of the great quandaries of cruising. You’ve spent months saving up, working hard, dreaming of a week’s relaxation, sitting on a balcony with a favourite book and a drink, with the sea stretching to the horizon.
On the other hand, you have a ship packed with beautiful bars, restaurants, theatres and other entertaining diversions, as well as a new port – if not new country – to visit every day, with a dazzling array of shore excursions to historic sites and breath-taking scenery.
I’ve never been as torn as to how to spend my time as I was on a Crystal Cruises voyage from Venice to Monte Carlo. Our penthouse room was so large and accommodating I could happily live in it. To my wife Mandy’s delight, the walk-in wardrobe was like a separate room. The immaculate bathroom had a Jacuzzi as well as a shower. She and I had separate dressing tables (normally, after a day or two, a shared one begins to be populated with my laptop, chargers, books and other detritus).
The balcony was so spacious we almost had to shout to each other from the padded sunloungers. And we had so much storage – cupboards, drawers and shelves – that not only was everything wonderfully organised but we had vast spaces left unused, which I don’t think has ever happened to us.
Best of all, there was Jaison. Jaison was our butler. I’ve lived 55 years without a butler but now I don’t know quite how. He appeared to be on wheels, he glided so silently and effortlessly across the room, bringing breakfast, snacks and, on one occasion, dinner then – just when you thought you were getting peckish again – he would appear with a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries, a selection of fruit, or a spread of cheese and crackers.
I’m sure he would have done much more besides – polished my shoes, packed or unpacked our clothes or made restaurant reservations – which we didn’t require him to do. One thing he did was provide us with a huge bottle of rum and keep us topped up on wine.
So I could happily have spent the time pouring myself a Bacardi and Coke, picking up the book I’d chosen for the voyage, sitting on the balcony and reading until the noise of the waves and almost imperceptible movement of the ship lulled me into a deep sleep, after which I could have jumped in our Jacuzzi, scattered gadgets over my dressing table and reminded Jaison it was at least two hours since we last ate.
But here’s the thing. Our ship, Crystal Serenity, is too good to ignore. With its 13 decks, this 68,000-ton vessel has been consistently voted the best cruise ship in the world by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler. It has one of the highest space-per-guest ratios at sea, so even at a full capacity of 1,000 passengers they soon disappear (maybe, like us, to read a book on their balcony) leaving lifts frequently empty and bars often pleasingly quiet. The crew-to-passengers ratio is high too, with 635 eager staff ready to serve.
Though 12 years old, Serenity – and its sister ship Symphony – look and feel brand new after a $140million (£90million) makeover.
Traditionalists will love the 360-degree wraparound promenade deck, the lack of announcements, the refined entertainment and the elegance of the china, crystal and table linens.
The main dining room, though thronged nightly with hundreds of guests, operates like an intimate restaurant, with knowledgeable waiters and sommeliers seeming to have all the time in the world to discuss the food and wine on offer. A Caesar salad can be lovingly prepared from scratch at your table.
Breaking away, you can enjoy Italian at Prego, the cuisine of Nobu Matsuhisa at Silk Road and the Sushi Bar, snacks at the Bistro, burgers and hot dogs at the Trident Grill, ice cream at Scoops, a variety of global dishes at Tastes – or be overwhelmed with even more choice at the Lido Cafe buffet.
There are dozens of ways to spend your day, from films to talks to fitness classes. The ship has its own golf, dance and knitting instructors. I did a five-hour course learning to create and edit videos on iMovie.
And at the end of the day you can chill in a piano lounge, see a band in the Sunset Bar, watch shows in the theatre or dance until midnight and beyond at the Pulse night club.
Oh, and then there’s the voyage… 1,600 miles from beautiful Venice to classy Monte Carlo, taking in Kotor in Montenegro, Naples, Civitavecchia for Rome and Livorno for Florence. An overnight in Venice gives time to barely scratch the surface of this magnificent city but we took a boat tour around the lagoon to see many of its sights the best possible way – from the water.
In Kotor we chose a walking tour round the medieval town, though the zig-zag walk to the fortresses high above us looked intriguingly challenging. Maybe next time.
After a relaxing sea day, we enjoyed the highlight of the shore excursions for us – a seven-hour trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum with a very experienced and informative guide who fascinated us with history, legend and imagination.
Over the following couple of days we had the opportunity to see Rome and Florence, both places we have visited before and which require quite a journey and hours of strolling to fully appreciate. So you know what we did? We played truant and stayed on board ship, which we seemed to have almost to ourselves.
There was time for a leisurely massage in the spa, the chance to visit some corners (and restaurants) we hadn’t yet explored but, most of all, the opportunity to relax and really enjoy our room and balcony. What’s the point of a holiday if you wear yourself out?
So we poured another glass of wine and adjusted our sunlounger ready for another day of sunshine in late October. Now, where’s Jaison gone?
Crystal Cruises has marked its 25th anniversary this year by announcing ambitious plans for more ships, a yacht, river trips and even a plane. If it maintains this high standard of luxury, space and personal service, it’s bound to be on to a winner.
Crystal Serenity will be based in Alaska next year. A seven-night cruise from Monte Carlo to Venice on Crystal Symphony on April 10, 2016, costs from £2,401 a person. Price includes return scheduled flights, overseas transfers and seven nights in a deluxe stateroom with picture window with all meals and soft drinks, most alcoholic beverages, port taxes and gratuities. Call Crystal Cruises on 020 7399 7601 or visit http://www.crystalcruises.co.uk