This Luxury Cruise Line Is Back After Bankruptcy—Here’s How Sailing It Compares to Before
What do you get when one of the world’s most respected tour operators buys a beloved cruise brand and brings it back to life? Seven years after first sailing with Crystal Cruises, one writer decided to find out.
When global tour operator A&K Travel Group bought the Crystal Cruises brand and its two original ocean liners out of pandemic bankruptcy last year, it promised to continue delivering—and improving on—everything that had made the line a favorite of luxury cruisers for 30 years.
It was a tall order to fill, given Crystal’s long-standing reputation for impeccable service, narrow staff-to-guest ratios, and arguably unrivaled guest loyalty. But as one of those original Crystal fans, I can say with confidence that after a preview sailing on the revamped Crystal Symphony in August, the marriage of two of travel’s most renowned brands is off to a promising start.
When I embarked in Dubrovnik, it was hard to believe I was boarding a 30-year-old ship, or to even recognize the interior of this shiny, modern vessel as the same one that had converted me from cruise averse to cruise lover seven years earlier on a two-week sailing in the Greek isles.
Gone was much, but not all, of the more traditional wooden cruise ship decor that I recalled dominating the cabins and public areas, replaced almost entirely across the board with Italian marble, glass, and fabrics with a much more contemporary flair.
The biggest change was in the number of cabins. The company didn’t just renovate the vessel, it took much of the ship down to the steel to knock out walls and combine cabins into larger suites, reducing by nearly a quarter the number of staterooms while maintaining the ship’s already expansive public spaces, which include eight dining venues, a spa and fitness center, pickleball court, multiple lounges, a library, theater, nightclub, a putting green and driving range nets on the top deck for practicing your golf game.
Today, the Symphony holds just over 600 passengers, down from nearly 850. And there is a wide variety of cabins, both in layout and decor, to choose from.
I stayed in one of 85 Sapphire Veranda suites, with modern blue and earth tone decor that included an art display of blue glass discs above the couch. The living area also had a small table with two chairs, a desk area, small coffee table, a sitting chair near the couch, and a walk-in closet. The rest of the suite (in what would have previously been a second cabin) was all bedroom and bathroom, which included a long, marble double vanity, plenty of shelves and storage, and a shower so large that one fellow traveler commented it was big enough to host a party.
At guests’ request, A&K CEO Cristina Levis said, some of the cabins have retained their more traditional wooden decor. And then, of course, there are the penthouse and junior penthouse suites, with furnishings and amenities that rival those of the world’s finest hotels.
While the ship overall has a sleek, updated feel throughout, it didn’t take long to start recognizing some of my favorite spots, including the glass-walled Palm Lounge at the front of the ship, the upper deck pool, and little hideaways like the Avenue Saloon and Connoisseur Club cigar bar. What also hasn’t changed is that intimate, hyper-service-focused Crystal feel.
About 45 minutes after getting settled into my suite, I stopped by the front desk to inquire about the Wi-Fi.
“Hello Jeri, how can I help?” asked the attendant, whose only previous interaction with me had been to check me in.
The next day, as my butler delivered, just shy of 7:05 a.m., the breakfast I had ordered for delivery between 7 a.m. and 7:15 a.m., I said to him, “Great, thanks. Just on time.”
“Actually, Jeri,” he said, “I’m a few minutes late. I apologize.”
That is exactly the kind of intimate, luxury service that Crystal fans came to love—and expect. But it’s also the kind of service that has been harder and harder to find after so much pandemic employee turnover across the hospitality world globally. But with 80 percent of the ship’s former, and very loyal, crew back under the employ of new owner A&K, that Crystal service model, and nearly 1–to–1 guest-to-passenger ratio, was on full display.
Indeed, aside from a few cosmetic issues such as exterior touch-up painting that were still being finalized, it was hard to find any sign that our recent preview sailing from Dubrovnik to Athens was what the industry calls a “shakedown” cruise, a first-time sailing where things can often go awry as some of the initial kinks are still being worked out.
Now, A&K is focused on both expanding and evolving the Crystal brand, tapping into the company’s global network of luxury tour specialists to develop a larger roster of itineraries, excursions, and pre- and post-sailing land options that go beyond the traditional offerings.
During the relaunch in July of Symphony’s sister ship, Serenity, the company announced plans to build four more ocean vessels, two about the same size as the Symphony, and two expedition vessels that will carry about 220 passengers. Over breakfast during the Symphony preview cruise, Levis told me the company is also working on a deal to add river boats on the Peruvian Amazon and Colombia’s Magdalena River, which will see its first-ever passenger cruises when AmaWaterways launches two 60-passengers ships there next year.
Just weeks into the relaunch of the Serenity and Symphony, many of the excursion options remain very much a work in progress, Levis said, as the two companies work together to leverage their collective strengths. But we did get to sample one of the ways that Crystal is tapping into A&K’s expertise and its focus on small group journeys to go beyond the status quo when it comes to excursions and pre- and post-sailing options.
On the morning before setting sail in Dubrovnik, while many were doing the traditional tour of the old town, a local A&K tour guide took a small group of us on “A Taste of Croatia” excursion to a family estate near the village of Orasac, home to a nearly 300-year-old, horse-powered olive oil mill. After watching a demonstration of this traditional pressing method, we sampled the local oil, along with local wines, hams, and cheeses. From there we headed to Mali Ston, on the coast just outside the walled city of Ston, where we boarded a small boat that took us just offshore to an oyster and mussel farm to sample the shellfish as they were being plucked straight from the sea. Those stops proved to be just appetizers, as we settled in for an outdoor seaside lunch at the Bota Sari oyster and sushi restaurant.
The next two days were spent mostly at sea, enjoying the ship and its fine dining, including Umi Uma, the only Nobu restaurant at sea, and Osteria D’Ovidio, an Italian specialty restaurant named after company owner Manfredi Lefebvre D’Ovidio. The food, wine pairings ,and service were outstanding at all the venues I tried—from the salt-baked sea chard with tarragon sauce and Swiss chard to the Asian noodles and salad I sampled at the sprawling Marketplace with indoor and outdoor seating at the back of the ship.
Seven years after that first Crystal sailing changed my view of cruising, I admittedly still tend to shun ships with a capacity of more than a few hundred. But the newly revamped Symphony once again proved that a larger ocean ship can feel just as intimate—or even more so—than a small ship when you’re on the right vessel.
Just don’t call it luxury.
“The word luxury has been used and abused for so long that every [company now] says that about themselves,” Levis said. “And it’s different for all of us. So, we decided to call ourselves ‘exceptional,’ because we are an exception. Because we are different.”