First look: Crystal Endeavor, the stylish new expedition cruise ship from luxury line Crystal Cruises
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan is sailing on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Endeavor as a guest of the line. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by Crystal.
Call it one of the biggest stories in luxury cruising in years.
The recent unveiling of Crystal Endeavor — the new luxury expedition ship from Crystal Cruises — marks a major turning point for the line, which many industry watchers consider the ultimate luxury cruise brand.
The 200-passenger vessel is Miami-based Crystal’s first entrant into the market for expedition cruises — the increasingly-in-demand type of cruises that involve travel to remote, hard-to-reach places on small, hardy ships.
As I’m seeing this week in an exclusive first look at the vessel, it’s like nothing the line has operated before.
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Until now, Crystal has been known for traditional luxury cruise ships that include two ocean-going vessels that carry 980 and 848 passengers, respectively, and five small river ships based in Europe. The line also until recently operated a single, 62-passenger yacht.
But Crystal Endeavor is something different. It’s a true expedition ship — a vessel specifically designed to take travelers to the most off-the-beaten-path parts of the world, including the ultimate playgrounds for small expedition ships: Antarctica and the Arctic.
Crystal Endeavor is a luxurious vessel, for sure (more on that in a moment). But as is typical for expedition ships, it’s also a tough vessel, with a big, reinforced bow that will let it bump through ice in polar regions and extra tanks for fuel and food. It has its own landing craft on board to bring people ashore in remote locations, and it sails with a large and seasoned “expedition team” that includes a geologist, an ornithologist, a mammologist and a photography expert.
In short, it’s a luxury ship built for off-the-beaten-path adventure as much as for traditional pampering. And that’s right in the sweet spot of what luxury travelers are craving these days.
Here, a closer look at what sets Crystal Endeavor apart from the rest of the Crystal fleet, and what you can expect if you book a voyage on the vessel:
It’s small and intimate
Among luxury cruise operators, Crystal has long been known for vessels that are relatively large. At 68,870 gross tons and 51,044 gross tons, respectively, the line’s two main ocean ships (Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony) are among the biggest luxury ships in the market, and they’re filled with an unusually broad array of onboard venues including multiple restaurants, bars and showrooms.
Crystal Endeavor, by contrast, is much smaller — and offers fewer venues (though maybe not as few as you might think). At just 20,200 gross tons, it’s less than a third the size of the Crystal Serenity, and it holds barely a fifth as many passengers (200 versus 980).
The size difference can be wonderful or not depending on your preferences. Many Crystal regulars like the liveliness of the line’s bigger vessels, where the large array of venues means that there always seems to be something going on, from dance classes to comedy shows. They also like the broad array of options when it comes to things like dining (Crystal Serenity boasts 10 different dining concepts, some sharing the same spaces) and even room types.
But there’s an intimacy to Crystal Endeavor that you won’t find on the bigger vessels, which is its own type of luxury.
On the ship’s current sailing, there are just 53 passengers on board, which gives it the air of a private yacht. But even when completely full with 200 passengers, it’s not a ship where you’ll ever feel like you’re cruising with a lot of people.
But it still offers a lot
As noted above, you won’t find the diverse array of restaurants and lounges on Crystal Endeavor that you’ll find on the line’s bigger luxury ships.
But for a ship of its size, it offers an impressively wide array of public spaces spread over several interior and exterior decks.
Perhaps most notably, Crystal Endeavor has a large number of elegant and high-end restaurants given its size.
Filling up a good portion of an entire deck of the vessel (specifically, Deck 4) are the ship’s main restaurant, Waterside, and two “specialty” restaurants that will be familiar to Crystal fans: the Italian cuisine-serving Prego and Japanese cuisine-serving Umi Uma & Sushi Bar. All three of these eateries feature superb interior design, sophisticated menus and graceful service that, even just a few weeks into the ship’s operation, is impeccable.
In addition, on one or more nights on every sailing, Prego morphs into the Vintage Room, an intimate private dining experience with insanely elaborate, seven-course meals. Each course of the meal is paired with a distinct wine, which the ship’s sommelier explains in detail before serving. It’s one of those foodie extravaganzas that goes on for hours and is a rare treat.
Adding to this mix of restaurants are two casual eateries: Marketplace and the Bistro.
The former, which can seat up to 100 passengers at a time, is within a glass-enclosed, multiuse space at the back of the ship called the Solarium that also features a small indoor pool and hot tub. Open for breakfast and lunch, it serves up a diverse range of dishes from made-to-order omelets at breakfast to burgers, pasta and grilled fish at lunchtime.
The latter space, with 61 seats, is essentially a cafe, but with light bites available throughout the day from a buffet area in the corner (for now, due to COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions, there is no self-service in this area; items are handed out by crew members).
One note on the previously mentioned Solarium: As a venue for a quick and casual lunch while the ship is underway, it’s spectacular. With glass walls that soar two decks high on three sides of the vessel, it offers stunning views of whatever the ship is near while you dine. As a pool space, alas, it doesn’t work quite as well, as the pool is oddly plopped down right in the midst of the tables where passengers dine.
Assuming you come for a dip during the Solarium’s opening hours for breakfast or lunch (which is a good chunk of the day), you might feel a bit like a fish in a fishbowl — you’ll be on display.
Other major public areas on Crystal Endeavor include the top-of-the-ship Palm Court, an observation lounge and bar and the centrally located Crystal Cove lounge. Located just steps away from the ship’s main restaurant area, on Deck 4, the latter has a bar, stage and dance floor, and is the place for daytime lectures, pre-dinner happy hours (it splits this duty with the Palm Court) and evening performances from several musical groups that sail with the ship.
Just behind the Crystal Cove lounge is a small casino — something that is notable for an expedition ship. In fact, it’s the first casino ever on an expedition vessel. It’s not a huge casino, with just a handful of tables for games and a few banks of slots. But if playing a few hands of blackjack or rolling the dice on roulette is a must for you even when venturing to such off-the-beaten-path places as Antarctica, this is the ship for you.
In addition, Crystal Endeavor is home to a cigar bar called the Connoisseur Club (stocked with fine Cuban cigars, whiskeys and ports available for an extra charge); a small spa and full-service salon; a fitness room; and a small retail area that offers stunning (and very high-end) jewelry.
It’s built for adventure
As noted above, Crystal Endeavor is an expedition ship. That is, it’s built extra tough to go to some of the most faraway parts of the world.
As is typical for ships of this type, it has a strengthened hull that will allow it to bump through ice in polar regions (for those keeping track, it has a none-too-shabby “PC6” polar class rating), and it carries Zodiac boats for exploring in remote areas. It also sails with kayaks on board and specialized kayaking guides for paddling adventures. There’s a mudroom with cubbies where passengers can keep their life jackets and boots during polar adventures.
But perhaps most importantly for a ship meant for adventures in scenic and wildlife-filled places, this is a ship with lots of indoor and outdoor observation areas.
Among the most notable of these is the aforementioned observation lounge, the Palm Court. Located at the very front of the ship, it features floor-to-ceiling window walls on three sides that offer stunning views (there’s also a view straight up through a glass-enclosed portion of the ceiling above the room’s small dance floor — you may not be able to dance with the stars here, but you can, quite literally, dance under the stars).
Better yet, doors on each side of the observation lounge lead to a forward-facing outdoor viewing area, and there are more outdoor viewing areas along the sides of the ship on the same deck as well as one deck up.
Crystal Endeavor also offers an almost hidden, close-to-the-waterline outdoor observation area at its very tip that may be one of the ship’s great secrets. It took us a few days to find it. But once we did, we were smitten. Home to its own hot tub as well as lounge chairs and other seating, it is the perfect vantage point to view the passing scenery.
This abundance of observation areas may seem like a small thing, but for a vessel designed to spend half its year in polar regions, where glimpsing soaring glaciers, icebergs and wildlife such as polar bears and penguins is at the heart of the experience, it really is one of the most important things.
Unfortunately, not every expedition ship built for such adventures recently has been designed with so much viewing space.
It’s got the toys
Amazingly, I’ve gotten more than 1,000 words into this piece without mentioning what some may consider the biggest wow of Crystal Endeavor: It has its very own helicopters as well as a submarine for use in over-the-top touring experiences.
Or, to be more precise, it will have helicopters and a submarine. As of the time of this story’s posting, they hadn’t been loaded onto the vessel yet. But they’re coming.
I have mixed feelings about the trend of high-end cruise companies putting helicopters onto expedition ships (Crystal isn’t the only company to do this; luxury line Scenic Cruises unveiled an expedition ship in 2019, Scenic Eclipse, that also had helicopters, as well as a submarine).
The problem with putting helicopters on expedition ships is that the space needed for a helicopter landing pad and related hangars eats up a huge amount of deck-top space. That leaves less room for deck-top features such as outdoor pools, lounge areas, restaurants and bars.
It’s a trade-off and one that I personally wouldn’t make if I was in charge of building the perfect expedition ship.
But there surely are some Crystal customers who will be lining up to check off “soaring over the Arctic ice cap by helicopter” from their bucket list — even if it comes with a sky-high cost (the Crystal website currently notes a per-ride fee of $899 – £650 – per person). Crystal knows its market.
I’m more excited about the remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) that can be controlled from a Star Trek-like command chair in the top-of-the-ship Expedition Lounge. The captain of Crystal Endeavor, Thomas Larsen, seemed almost giddy as he showed off the chair to me this week, noting that it could be used to take the ROV down to explore shipwrecks and other unusual underwater sites as Crystal Endeavor hovered above.
Passengers will be able to watch a live video feed from the ROV on a large screen in the Expedition Lounge or even from their cabin televisions.
Among other cool toys, the ship has a super-fancy, remote-controlled gimbal camera at its top that can offer real-time views of passing scenery or wildlife at a magnification of up to 90 times. It can be used, for instance, to zoom in on a distant polar bear on an ice flow, with a live feed of the sighting being projected onto screens in the ship’s Palm Court lounge or on cabin televisions.
Note that, in a luxury touch, Crystal also stocks top-of-the-line Muck Boot brand waterproof boots on board for passengers to use during landings and also gives out new, high-end parkas to each passenger on expedition sailings that are theirs to keep at the end of trips.
It’s got incredible rooms
See my story on how my Crystal Endeavor cabin blew me away, which I posted soon after getting on board.
The initial itineraries Crystal Endeavor is operating aren’t inexpensive. In fact, they’re among the most expensive cruises currently on offer by any line in the world. Ten-night voyages around Iceland such as the one I’m on start at $16,999 per person (£12,270) — roughly $1,700 per day (£1,270). Some of the ship’s more unusual sailings in far-off polar regions are even more. A very rare, 28-night voyage across the Russian Arctic that the vessel will operate in 2023 starts at $62,099 per person (£45,000) — more than $2,200 (£1,588) per day!
Still, as is typical for cruise lines at the high end, Crystal is including a lot in its base price. In addition to a room on board and all meals, which (as noted above) are at a very high-end level, the fares include all but the most premium drinks, including a wide choice of fine wines and spirits; shipboard Wi-Fi; gratuities; and — perhaps most notably — guided shore tours in every port where the ship visits and guided expedition landings by Zodiac in more remote locations.
Indeed, a notable part of what you’ll be paying for on a Crystal Endeavor sailing is access to an incredibly large and knowledgeable team of guides who will lead you around destinations like Antarctica.
These guides will include topic experts such as geologists, ornithologists and biologists who will lecture on board as well as lead guided outings. On some sailings, there will be more than 20 such guides and experts on board.
It offers the ultimate in service
Anybody who has sailed with Crystal before knows that the biggest allure of a Crystal cruise has nothing to do with the “hardware,” as people in the industry like to call the physical properties of a vessel. What always has set Crystal apart from nearly every other cruise line in the world (and justified its high prices) is the extraordinary service that you will receive on board its ships.
On this front, Crystal Endeavor is just what you would expect from the line.
A few minutes ago, as I was sitting in a corner of the Palm Court writing this, the room’s bar manager, Ana, arrived with a cappuccino, which she quietly placed on the table in front of me while I was typing away.
I hadn’t ordered the cappuccino. But, indeed, I was ready for one, which somehow, intuitively, she knew. She clearly had taken note over the past few days that I liked to slowly sip on a coffee as I wrote in a corner of this room, and she must have taken note that my coffee orders on board are invariably cappuccinos, not Americanos or lattes.
It was a perfect example of the amazing, anticipate-your-every-need service that is a hallmark of Crystal and that is already on display on Crystal Endeavor.
Normally, when a ship first starts up operations, there are lots of little (and sometimes big) kinks in the way it operates to work out. But just a few weeks into Crystal Endeavor’s operations, the service level already is about as flawless as can be.
As I sit down at the Waterside restaurant for dinner, the wait staff (a special nod to Prince Jose and Chiara) remember that I like my water sparkling, not still. The sommeliers, Rado and Ljudmila, remember that I will drink red wine even with dishes that call for white, and they’re ready with a recommendation. In the Crystal Cove lounge afterward, the staff knows that I like my whiskey neat.
These crew members stop by regularly to check on me, but they aren’t intrusive. But if I am alone and appear not too lost in thought, they will stop by for just the right amount of friendly banter. It’s something intuitive and rare and wonderful to see.
Notably, Crystal Endeavor is designed to sail with 209 crew members — more than one crew member for each passenger on board. It’s an extraordinary crew-to-passenger ratio for a ship this size and one reason the vessel may be hard to beat when it comes to luxury in the expedition cruise space.
TPG’s Gene Sloan is reporting live this week from Crystal Endeavor as it sails on one of its first voyages, a circumnavigation of Iceland. You can find all of his dispatches on his author’s page.
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