Crystal, a cruise line that went under during the pandemic, sails again

Twinkies, Toys R Us, and Gymboree all have the distinction of being beloved consumer brands that were euthanized by their parent companies, only to be resurrected under new ownership to the delight of bereaved fans.

A cruise line being added to the list of brand favorites resurrected after a pandemic is nothing short of a maritime miracle. However, when the stunning Crystal Serenity arrived in Lisbon last week after completing a 12-night maiden voyage in the Mediterranean, so did industry darling Crystal Cruises (

The 1 1/2 years spent lamenting their loss must have been difficult for its ardent and wealthy fans, similar to being without one’s favorite cellophane-wrapped snack cake or pair of children’s retailers. The suffering could be felt all the way down in South America. A senior-aged woman from California felt the need to tell a travel writer several months ago, off the coast of French Guiana on another ultra-luxury cruise line, that she and her BFF were only sailing with Silversea “because our favorite, Crystal, is gone.”

If Mark Twain sailed on luxury liners instead of riverboats, he’d say the news of Crystal’s death is exaggerated. A company with a long history of lux travel is administering the CPR that resurrected the adored symmetrical crowned seahorse logo. Abercrombie & Kent’s parent company, A&K Travel Group, purchased two original Crystal ships: Serenity and Symphony. After recently returning from a “shakedown” cruise, this Crystal fan can confidently state that if the preview sail is representative of what cruise life will be like under the new ownership, Crystal is in good, well-manicured hands.

In many ways, the cruise line is better than ever — and that’s saying a lot for a brand that has delivered on its promise of “delivering the exceptional” for three decades. What was great before is still great, thanks to the crew’s genuine hospitality and the OMG-worthy miso-marinated black cod at Umi Uma. And what was previously lacking by Crystal standards — entertainment is top of mind — is now exceptional.

One area where Crystal’s new stewardship is spending big bucks is on two different production shows per night. Evening programming of this caliber is unheard of on ultra-luxury ships.

A&K went down to the steel to renovate the orphaned Serenity and Symphony, which were launched in 2002 and 1995, respectively, within a year of purchasing them. Whereas other companies might be tempted to increase density for higher revenue per square foot — as Windstar did when it cut the hull of Star Breeze to seamlessly insert a 50-cabin section, and Cunard did when it sliced the back of its Queen Victoria to add 43 new staterooms — A&K has actually reduced passenger capacity with both acquired vessels by, among other things, enlarging suites by combining adjoining cabins. As a result, Serenity now has a maximum capacity of 740, down from 980 pre-sale. Its bones are actually designed for 1,080 passengers; the ship’s first successful liposuction was performed in 2017 during a refit. The older Symphony, which will resume service in September, now has a capacity of 606 passengers, down from 848.

Because of all of this shape shifting, Crystal now has one of the best guest-to-space ratios in the industry. Returning guests to Serenity will notice the wide, open spaces in the two-deck Atrium, a lovely spot for lounging, libating, and listening to live music. The rebuilds have resulted in redesigned stateroom categories ranging from the 1,265-square-foot Crystal Penthouse Suite with custom stone foyer floor master bath to the oddly named 215-square-foot Double Guest Room with a veranda or ocean view but no nasty single supplement that punishes solo travelers.

The Sapphire Verandah Suite is the best option for accommodations, accounting for 151 of the 377 staterooms on Serenity. It’s a shame they’re called a standard suite because they’re only 537 square feet. The balcony adds another 107 square feet to the floor plan.

Serenity’s godmother, Dame Julie Andrews, whose portrait still hangs proudly on Deck 5, has been reincarnated as Crystal. With panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, large skylights, and sweeping unpretentious elegance that makes an afternoon tea and nighttime dancing on the hardwood even more special, Crystal’s signature Palm Court six levels higher out-panaches rival observation lounges.

Serenity’s main entertainment venues are the 500-seat Galaxy Lounge and the smaller Stardust Club. The larger stage is home to production shows that rework old material with some of the best singers and dancers in the business. “Rent,” “West Side Story,” and the lesser-known, but refreshing, Renaissance-set musical comedy “Something Rotten!” are intertwined in “Crystal on Broadway.” Did we just hear a “F-word” and a “S-word”? Are you on a cruise ship? Crystal is, indeed, that cool.

Another thing that’s cool and definitely not rotten is the addition of Broadway and London’s West End star James Fox to the casts of Serenity and Symphony. The versatile and personable performer does Billy Joel proud, a natural program inclusion given Fox’s role in the Piano Man’s jukebox musical “Moving Out.” On another night, he will perform “My Influences,” which will include personal favorites from a variety of artists and will be accompanied by a solid seven-piece band.

Unlike the competition, Crystal offers nonstop entertainment throughout the day and night. Aside from the main venues, there’s the Avenue Saloon piano bar, the atrium-set Crystal Cove with rotating international musicians, a movie theater, poolside and inside dance parties, and standup comedians who will yuck it up in Crystal’s first dedicated comedy club on Symphony. The Crystal White Dress Party, which is held on every cruise, is always a hit.

More entertainment can be found on the top deck, where you can play paddle tennis, pickleball, golf practice, and ping-pong. Swimming, hot tubbing, dancing, and exercising are also available, as is a 3,000-square-foot fitness center. Children and teenagers have their own areas, as do smokers; at the lordly Connoisseur Club, American cigar aficionados will appreciate being able to legally light up real Cubans, with or without a fine cognac.

Because gambling isn’t in the cards for the new owners, neither Crystal ship has a casino. You can, however, lose your shirt while getting a massage at the Aurora spa. Body, mind, and soul rejuvenation are all just a phone call away.

Aurora can help with bloating and fatigue, as well as skin-correcting light simulation therapy, in addition to the standard treatments. Aside from its name — Aurora is the goddess of dawn — light also plays a role in the spa’s décor; materials used in the common areas are designed to reflect and refract natural sunlight with shimmering splendor. One flaw: there is no refreshment in the waiting room. A spa without detox water is analogous to a cruise ship lacking an Italian specialty restaurant.

Excellent segue, because Crystal has it as well. Osteria d’Ovidio, which replaces Prego from the previous generation, serves Northern Italian cuisine. While nothing beats the previous concept’s osso buco or signature cream of mushroom soup, the tortello pasta filled with braised beef, figs, and gorgonzola cheese, washed down with a tasty peach bellini, shows promise.

Umi Uma, Crystal’s other specialty restaurant, continues the company’s relationship with celebrity chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, a master at fusing traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients. Yellowtail sashimi jalapeo and the aforementioned black cod marinated in Saikyo miso, a richer, sweeter glaze than its saltier cousins, are standouts on the menu. Also nice is that everyone on the ship gets to dine at the two specialty restaurants for free at least once a cruise — a nice treat when an order of that amazing cod costs $50 at land-based Nobu locations in Newport Beach, Malibu, West Hollywood, and around the world.

The ship’s other restaurants, ranging from a casual grill and buffet to a sit-down tapas kitchen and main dining room, are on par with Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Silversea. The split pea burger is a standout among the revamped non-specialty fare on Crystal, and this is coming from an omnivore.

Crystal is clearly not cutting corners as it returns to service under A&K’s stewardship, whether it is as minor as a new vegetarian dish in the buffet or as major as a ship rebuild. In fact, the only visible sign of the new owners’ downsizing is the name. “Crystal Cruises” has been reduced to “Crystal,” but good luck convincing the majority of those who are currently booked to change their ways. According to Cristina Levis, CEO of A&K Travel Group, 8 out of 10 passengers who have signed on to sail with Crystal through 2024 are returning passengers.

Eighty percent of Crystal employees who were laid off were rehired by the new owners. Seeing familiar faces goes a long way with Crystal cruisers, especially when they spend an estimated $18,000 per booking. That figure should rise now that Crystal is part of the Abercrombie & Kent portfolio, a global travel network known for curating experiential travel. Shore excursions and other land-based cruise extensions on voyages to Alaska, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Canada/New England, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as through the Panama Canal, should improve significantly.

An eight-night itinerary from San Diego to Vancouver departs on June 24 (fares start at $3,600 per person), and a six-night itinerary from Los Angeles to Vancouver departs on Aug. 21 ($2,700 and up per guest). Both routes stop in San Francisco and Astoria, Oregon. Do you want to go on another Crystal cruise? On February 3, a pair of world cruise itineraries of 125 or 141 nights, with the latter including a Panama Canal segment, depart from San Diego.

Looking beyond next year, the 2025 itineraries are being released, and Crystal revealed during the shakedown that four more ships will join the fleet by 2029. The first two, a classic ocean liner with a capacity of approximately 650 passengers and an ice-class expedition vessel with a capacity of approximately 220 guests, could begin construction as soon as June. This brings A&K’s Crystal collection to six elegant ships.

Not bad for a cruise line that had a burial at sea less than two years ago.

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