In a first for the luxury cruise line, Crystal Cruises' two top-rated ships, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, recently met in Sydney, where passengers from both ships converged at a gala White Night at Sydney Town Hall. Unusually, passengers could swap ships in Sydney for the return voyages – Serenity is on the way to Rome via Asia and the Middle East, and Symphony is heading for Miami via the South Pacific and South America.
Crystal's president and CEO, Tom Wolber, was in town for the occasion and I caught up with him at Crystal's Sydney office. It has been a busy time for the expanding cruise line and Wolber offered a succinct overview of where Crystal is at today.
River cruising is a new departure for Crystal and Wolber says that in two years the company has established a gold standard in the industry. "What makes Crystal different is the generosity of space in both public venues and suites, our understated luxury, and very high levels of service," he says. Crystal's fourth and fifth river ships are launching this year in Europe; newbuilds Crystal Ravel and Debussy join identical 106-passenger sisters Mahler and Bach, which set sail last year, and the redesigned 160-passenger Crystal Mozart, which launched in 2016.
The ships cruise the Rhine, Main and Danube; next year the Moselle will be added to select itineraries. Passengers are a 50-50 mix of regular Crystal guests and cruisers who are new to the line and Wolber says the shorter itineraries and active shore excursions are attracting a younger market.
Shore excursions on Crystal's river and ocean cruises are extensive and imaginative. On a river cruise, for example, you can go horse-riding, kayaking, trekking, hiking and biking; a classic luxury touch is purpose-built "business-class coaches" and group tours are kept to a maximum of 15 people.
Crystal Endeavor is the first polar-class ship for Crystal and will join boutique adventure vessel Crystal Esprit in the yacht division in 2020. While it looks similar to the upcoming Scenic Eclipse, Wolber points out that Endeavor is larger in gross tonnage, length and suite size, while still accommodating a maximum of 200 passengers in polar regions.
The first Diamond-class ocean ship is scheduled to launch in 2022 and as with successors to Crystal Endeavor, there are options for more. Since Wolber took the helm, the designs have been reworked and the original "residences" have been shelved. Now the ship will accommodate a maximum of 800 passengers, which Wolber believes is the optimum for delivering "true luxury service".
In 2020, Crystal Serenity, which will be comprehensively refurbished this October, will make the line's 25th world cruise; highlights include extended segments in Australia and New Zealand. See crystalcruises.com
THE PORT Lisbon, Portugal
WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Fred.Olsen, Disney, HAL, Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, NCL, Oceania, P&O UK, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea, Star Clippers, Viking, Voyages to Antiquity, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT Portugal's capital is set on seven hills at the mouth of the River Tagus. It exudes character, culture and colour – literally, with many beautiful tiled facades – while retaining an old-world, lived-in atmosphere. There are plenty of historic treasures to explore but its tradition of fado, haunting folk music, is what sets Lisbon apart.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Ships dock at Alcantara, about three kilometres from the city centre, and Santa Apolonia and Jardim do Tabaco, both about a kilometre from the city's main attractions. It's easy to explore Lisbon independently, either on foot or using public transport; the vintage tram No. 28 is a popular tourist attraction and runs through picturesque neighbourhoods such as Baixa, Miradouro Portas do Sol, Alfama, Graca and Martim Moniz. Tuk-tuk tours are also a fun way to see the sights. Head to the Bairro Alto district, known for its maze of bars, to find some of the best fado houses in Lisbon. It's worth booking day trips to Sintra to see the National Palace, Moors castle and Pena Palace, or Cascais, a former fishing port and now a bustling beach resort.
MUST SEE Sao Jorge, the Moorish castle overlooking the historic centre; Terreiro do Paco, the largest square in Lisbon; and the World Heritage sites of Jeronimos Monastery and the Tower of Belem.
MUST EAT Seafood, particularly fresh sardines; bacalhau (dried, salted cod) prepared in many ways – try bacalhau a braz, scrambled eggs with olives and fried potatoes; popular snack bifana, slices of pork marinated in white wine and garlic, then fried and served in a roll; arroz de marisco, similar to Spanish paella; and of course, pasteis de Nata, the famous Portuguese custard tarts.
NEED TO KNOW Pack good walking shoes for hilly streets, steep stairways and cobbled plazas.
Cunard's liner Queen Mary 2 is the world's fastest cruise ship; its normal cruising speed is between 24 and 26 knots (44-48km/h) but it can reach speeds of up to 30 knots (56km/h).
Ballet and opera at sea
Silversea has launched a new collection of ballet and opera-themed sailings for 2018 and 2019. A selection of voyages will showcase classic ballet performances by soloists from such renowned companies as the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia and opera singers from Italy's famed La Scala Theatre Academy. As well as seeing spectacular onboard shows, guests can attend lectures and Q&A sessions with the artists and meet them at a glamorous cocktail party. Silver Muse is hosting ballet cruises in August 2018 (Venice to Monte Carlo) and March 2019 (Singapore to Hong Kong). Opera cruises will be held on Silver Muse in September 2018 (Venice to Athens), Silver Spirit in April 2019 (Barcelona to Rome) and Silver Shadow in October 2019 (eastern Mediterranean). See silversea.com
Come to the cabaret
Azamara Journey, which departs Sydney next week for London on the line's first World Journey, is introducing a new entertainment program featuring cabaret style performances, short opera vignettes and theatre shows. New York City's premier cabaret club Feinstein's/54 Below is bringing its talent to Azamara's 54 Below at Sea – expect over-the-top performances from cabaret stars, comedians and instrumentalists in an intimate supper-club style venue. Azamara has also partnered with City Theatre and Magic City Opera for a series of short plays and opera performances – all shows will also be staged on Azamara Quest and Azamara Pursuit, when the latter debuts in August. Azamara will continue to offer live local entertainment, movie nights, White Night parties and all-time guest favourite ABBA Night in the Living Room. See azamaraclubcruises.com