The chronicles of a cruising dame

The Crystal Serenity, my home on the ocean for the next 12 days. (Photographs: Penny Haw.)

On Saturday 1 October 2011, I arrived in Venice to board the Crystal Serenity for a 12 day cruise of the Mediterranean. I am posting the most recent notes first so, if you haven’t read the earlier posts, scroll down first and then scroll up to follow the story chronologically.

Christopher Columbus points towards the west (which he thought was the east) and towards the Crystal Serenity, docked at briefly at Barcelona before heading off back into the ocean, without me.

Thursday 13 October. Barcelona, Spain. Awoke this morning to find the Crystal Serenity docked in Barcelona. It’s a bittersweet thing: I am excited by the opportunity to explore Barcelona for the first time, but sad because today I disembark and, after a day in the city, begin my journey back to Cape Town with Air France (dreaming of the day there’s a Crystal Air). The disembarkation process is like everything on the cruise; orchestrated with calm precision. Nothing is left to chance and no one is left unattended or dissatisfied. As I stepped on land and glanced sadly back at the ship, my bags await me alongside the bus that takes me into the city. With eight hours to explore Barcelona before heading to the airport, my luggage is safely stored at a hotel in the centre of town. So, Barcelona awaits. But that is subject for another post. This is the final entry of The Chronicles Of A Cruising Dame. A full report of my cruise will follow in forthcoming months. You can read How Was The Trip? – FAQ About My Trip On The Crystal Serenity (also filed under Travel Tales on this blog) for more information in the interim. Thank you for following my voyage.

Tuesday 11 October. Monte Carlo, Monaco. A few South African flags flutter in the breeze on the streets of Monte Carlo. They’re remnants of the nuptials of Charlene Wittstock (of Benoni) and Prince Albert Grimaldi of Monaco, which were celebrated in the tiny monarchy in July.

The new princess could, if she was so inclined (and didn’t throw too much “like a girl”), toss pebbles from Palais du Prince onto the Crystal Serenity, which is docked in Porto de Monaco below her home on Monaco-Ville (The Rock). We’re here for two nights and today – having yesterday explored nearby Antibes and the enchanting medieval hilltop village of St Paul de Venace (home and last resting place of artist Marc Chagall) – I walked around the two and a half kilometre stretch of the Mediterranean coastline that Charlene can now call home. (I don’t know if she does (call Monaco home). A Monegasque (that’s what you call a citizen of Monaco) said to me today, “Ah. You’re a South African? I hope you are happier to be here than our princess appears to be.”)

Regardless of whether Charlene is living her fairytale, there’s no doubt Monaco is a magical and moneyed place. Large luxury yachts surround the Crystal Serenity and big, shiny black cars with tinted windows move back and forth along Quai Antoine, delivering members of the Louis Vuitton set to their places of pleasure on the Riviera.

Lamborghinis, Porsches, Aston Martins, Jaguars and Rolls Royces glide up and down Rue Grimaldi, pulling up in front of shops like Cartier, Prada and Mont Blanc. Business, it seems, is booming. A local tells me that property is at a premium. The recession, she says, didn’t touch this little corner of paradise. High-rise buildings are under construction, owned primarily by J.D Pastor en Fils, “the wealthiest family in Monaco, richer than the prince,” she tells me.

And, where the souvenir shops are not offering mementos of the recent Grimaldi wedding, they’re selling items that celebrate the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. In that vein, here’s something worth revving your engine about; the Crystal Serenity will be in Monte Carlo for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in 2013. Better seats to watch the race you’re unlikely to find – unless, of course, Charlene invites you to share her royal box.

Sunday 9 October. Livorno, Italy. After a busy day in Rome yesterday, I decide to take it easy today. I might, I think to myself as I wake up, even find time to get to the spa for a spot of pampering. Then, at breakfast on the Lido, I meet Lee Wachtsetter. Her business card reads, “Mama Lee – Dancing, Cruising, Enjoying Life”.

Mama Lee; cruising, dancing, enjoying life and living on the Crystal Serenity.

Her children and grandchildren live in Florida. Mama Lee lives on board the Crystal Serenity. She’s been on 283 cruises since 1962 and settled on this ship in 2008 “because of the dance programme”. Mama Lee spends much of her days doing tapestry. She creates fabulously intricate purses, bags, pillowcases and so on. And she spends at least three hours a day ballroom dancing, which is her first love. Mama Lee is 83 years old.

“My husband and I loved to cruise. Before he died in 1997, he told me not to stop cruising and so I didn’t. He did not like to dance so, for the past 15 years, dancing has become a great part of my life. When I cannot dance, I will probably stop cruising,” she tells me.

Mama Lee takes lessons and dances with “dance hosts” on the ship and occasionally with the ship’s dance instructor, Curtis. Four dance hosts join each cruise. It’s their job to dance with women who are either cruising without partners or whose partners do not like to dance.

Hosts, who are not paid by cruise operators but cruise for free, are governed by strict protocol, says Mama Lee. They are not permitted to dance too frequently with the same women. Liaisons beyond the dance floor are frowned upon.

“The code of behaviour is strict and, on a ship like this, it’s maintained in every instance,” she assures me. “That’s why women like me who love to dance, cruise. It is fun and it is safe. I choose to live on the Crystal Serenity because I can indulge my passion for dance – and because of the crew. Crystal says its passengers are like family and they really mean it.”

Tonight I’ll watch Mama Lee dance in the Palm Court. Who knows, perhaps she’ll inspire me to dance into my 80s too. (Note to my husband: Dance lessons required.)

Thursday 6 October. Taormina, Sicily. There’s no port large enough to accommodate cruise liners like the Crystal Serenity at Taormina, Sicily so – with Europe’s highest volcano, Mount Etna as our backdrop – we anchor off Giardini Naxos and are ferried onshore on tenders (neat water taxis). A 20-minute bus ride takes us up a winding road to the town, during which I meet Hans and Beth from Vancouver, Canada. They tell me they’re so hooked on Crystal, this is their 26th cruise with the group. (They’re not alone in their enthusiasm; I’ve met a number of “serial” Crystal cruisers and one woman has lived aboard the ship for three years.)

The view of Taormina from the Crystal Serenity.

Teatro Greco, which dates back to 300 BC.

Historians estimate that Taormina was founded in about 358 BC. It’s a colourful little town perched high on the mountainside. Its main attraction is the Teatro Greco, which was built by the Greeks I 300 BC and remodelled during the Greek era. It is one of Sicily’s most famous monuments.

Piazza IX Aprile on the Corso Umberto in Taormina.

Wednesday 5 October. At sea on route to Taormina, Sicily. Like many captains of large leisure vessels these days, Captain Glenn Edvardsen is Norwegian. He’s been with Crystal for more than 20 years, having worked on all three of the operator’s ships. He works on a three months on, three months off rotation. One of the highlights of today is a tour of the bridge of the Crystal Serenity with Captain Glenn.

Captain Glenn Edvardsen of the Crystal Serenity.

Remarkably, there are only three members of crew on the large bridge at any given time calmly piloting the 51 000 ton, 238 metre long and 30 metre wide ship through the ocean and into port. The equipment is highly sophisticated but the officers move serenely between numerous large steering units in the spacious area on Deck 11 Forward. (Of course, my visit takes place as we cruise the open sea. Perhaps things are a little busier in other circumstances.)

Edvardsen heads a crew of 655 people from 55 different countries. His greatest challenge, he says, is to ensure that communication is effectively filtered across all cultures and departments.

“It’s not always easy because people of different cultures and backgrounds have different priorities and values,” he explains. “For example, we have a very strict policy of absolutely no littering. Some people would never consider tossing even the tiniest object overboard while for others the rule seems extreme. Our training and communication programme is fundamental to the success of the ship.”

And his greatest pleasure?

“I love to see how people enjoy cruising on the Serenity and how happy the crew is. I have to remind myself every so often what a wonderful job I have. I mean, who could wish for a better workplace and a more pleasant mandate than to make people happy?”

Tuesday 4 October. Dubrovnik, Croatia. My home village near Cape Town in South Africa, Hout Bay and Dubrovnik have two things in common; they’re seaside towns and they have woody names. “Hout” means wood in Dutch/Afrikaans and “Dub” is Slav for a type of wood that once covered the Srđ Mountain above Dubrovnik.

In every other way, Dubrovnik and Hout Bay are worlds apart, as I discovered today as I circumnavigated the wall that surrounds the ancient Croation city, and also ambled up and down its streets. I don’t have the time now to go into greater detail in this regard – it’s almost champagne hour on the Crystal Serenity. Instead, I’ll post a few pictures I took in Dubrovnik today.

Tuesday 4 October. Alongside the Dalmatian coast. After a day at sea yesterday – during which I attended a master class by 79 year old French chef Andre Soltner, a lecture on Dubrovnik by British author Peter Smith, a welcoming party hosted by Captain Glenn Edvardsen (he’s been with Crystal for more than 20 years and he only looks about 35 years old now) and a “Broadway Show” last night, and managed to fit in three fine meals and innumerable snacks – today will be spent on land, exploring Dubrovnik.

Here is the view of the Dalmatian coastline from my balcony when I awoke just before 07h00 this morning.


2 October 2011. Venice. My thoughts after the first night on the Crystal Serenity.

Everyone has his or her own barometers against which to measure luxury. I have two primary gauges, neither of which (until now, anyway) involve butlers. (This might change subsequent to my introduction to Sasa (pronounced Sacha), “my” butler on the Crystal Serenity. He’s funny and charming but, after extensive negotiations, I’ve accepted I cannot afford to offer him full-time employment. (He’s better paid than most South African journalists!))

Butlers notwithstanding, for the time-being, my barometers are showers and pillows. Because I have an enormous, wild bushel on my head (which I’m occasionally able to successfully pass off as hair), I appreciate a showerhead that delivers ample water with velocity. If I am to wash and rinse my unruly locks properly, I need a shower with voomah.

What’s more, because of my propensity for claustrophobia (hey, I grew up on a farm in Africa), I like a spacious shower and preferably one with at least two glass sides. I need to be able to move about with ease and I don’t want to feel confined.

My other luxury indicator is also all in my head. I look for the perfect pillow, which is not too hard, not too soft, not too large and not too big. I want a pillow that gently cushions my head as if it was a fragile crystal goblet. I want a pillow that’s encased in natural linen, which bears no smell that my nose deems foreign – even if it’s scented.

As I’ll describe in later posts, the attention to detail on the Crystal Serenity is meticulous. Cuisine, activities, service, entertainment and the facilities are impressive.

But, crucially for me, the shower on the Crystal Serenity showers just like a good shower should and the pillows cushion just as, in my dreams, I knew they would.

Things are looking good!

1 October 2011. Venice. As the bus drives over the Ponte del Tronchetto into Venice from Marco Polo Airport, super cruise liner city rises out of the water before us. Some of the gigantic cruise liners du jour, including the Voyager of the Seas, MSC Musica, Costa Favolosa, Silver Wind, Carnival Magic and Crystal Serenity are docked in the ancient city.

The disparity between Venice – the ancient “Queen of the Adriatic” and “City of Canals”, with its leaning towers, intricate bridges and labyrinthine network of narrow waterways – and the enormous white ships that glide past St Mark’s Basilica, magnificently engineered and equipped to delight even the most discerning 21st Century pleasure seeker, is marked.

Three of the many cruise liners docked in Venice (Crystal Serenity on the left) when I arrived to experience life on a luxury cruiser liner.

Tall, white and glistening, the ships tower confidently over the ageing city with its intricate brickwork, delicate mosaic facades, curving bridges and cobbled squares. But, while some worry about the impact that the massive vessels have on the already fragile city as they steam down Giudecca Canal to dock at Venice’s main passenger terminal, most are conscious of the fact that they and the thousands of tourists they bring help fuel the city’s tourism.

Indeed, money is no issue to most who travel on the Crystal Serenity and her owner, Crystal Cruises responds accordingly. With a guest capacity of 1 070 and 655 members of crew on board to serve them (that’s a guest to crew ratio of 1,65:1) and more space per guest than most other luxury ships, it’s among the most luxurious liners on the ocean. What’s more, the vessel recently underwent a US$25-million renovation to modernise her look and improve her amenities.

View of Venice from the Crystal Serenity.

The result, at first glance, is a sparkling affair.

But, glistening fittings and polished service (more on that later) notwithstanding, the bottle of Veuve Clicquot in a bucket of ice is the first thing that catches my eye as I enter my penthouse suite. Minutes later, Sasa, “my” butler from Slovenia, appears to pour me a glass and to show me which button to press whenever I require him. After a long, grimly flight from Cape Town, that’s enough to put a shine on my face.

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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20 Responses to The chronicles of a cruising dame

  1. Laurence says:

    Hi Penny,

    Seems like another world! The view of Venice from the ship is amazing. Looking forward to your next
    posting!

  2. Hi Penny, it surely sounds like Luxury, glad you enjoying your trip.

    • pennyhaw says:

      Hi Captain George, it is Luxury indeed – with a capital “L”. So much to see, do and take in. Dinner at Silk Road tonight. What more could a person wish for?

  3. Gillian says:

    Hi Penny, I’m sending a link to your blog to my mum, it’s the kind of trip she’s been wanting to do for ages but doesn’t want to go by herself … I need to start saving I think! Sounds fabulous, am looking forward to your next post.

  4. Joe Glasgow says:

    Great account of your travels aboard the Serenity.
    As an Ambassador Host for Crystal Cruise Lines, I appreciate all that you have expressed about the awesome service and comprehensive programs in the entertainment, dinning, and shore excursions that are offered.
    A “Mark of Excellence” is a constant effort by Crystal Cruise lines…..None better….

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