Cruising in the Crystal Serenity – Other Cruise News – Azamara Club Cruises Going All-Inclusive – The Ocean Liner Society Chooses MS Hamburg

by Kevin Griffin

On Wednesday last, The Cruise Examiner boarded the Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity at Lisbon for an 11-night cruise to Madeira, the Canary Islands, Morocco and Spain. Here is his first report on the new all-inclusive Crystal Cruises. Meanwhile, Azamara Club Cruises has become the latest to join the all-incluisve cruise lines, leaving Oceania as the odd man out. Elsewhere, the Ocean Liner Society has chosen Plantours’ MS Hamburg for its 2013 annual group cruise.


Cruising in the Crystal Serenity

On Wednesday, November 28, at 1:30 pm, The Cruise Examiner boarded the Crystal Serenity at Lisbon for an 11-night cruise to Madeira, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Agadir, Cadiz, Valencia and Barcelona.

Crystal Serenity

Crystal Serenity

While there are many ports on this cruise, we will concentrate instead on the ship and the Crystal experience.

So what does one get with the Crystal Serenity?

The answer is a large and very comfortable ship of 68,870 tons, built in the same shipyard as the Normandie, France and Queen Mary 2, and carrying a maximum of 1,070 passengers. With a passenger space ratio above 60 tons per guest this is the one of the highest in the industry. And on our voyage, with just 730 passengers, there was space to spare.

If one has cruised with Crystal before, it just changed to all-inclusive a little over six months ago, so the first impression one gets is rather interesting. Rather than the bartenders and sommeliers trying to sell you expensive wines so they can maximize their tips, they now open with an introduction of the wines that are included in the inclusive package. I expected the hard sell again so when our first sommelier finished listing the choice of wines, I thought he was listing the ones that made money for the line, and asked him for the list of inclusive wines.

It takes a little while to get used to the fact that the crew is no onger trying to maximise on board revenue – but once one gets used to that, it is much more relaxing and one is not on guard all the time against such typical cruise line activity as trying to raise your spend well above the ticket price. It is all in the fare unless one wants a particular premium wine. Internet apart of course – to get the price down to 20 cents a minute one has to buy $300 worth.

The entertainment venues include the main show lounge forward and the Palm Court Bar up top forward, with a view over the bows; the piano bar, the Avenue Saloon aft, and another piano bar that also features a string quartet in the atrium. The choice of spirits is international, but the wines take a heavy slant towards American – with wines from California and the State of Washington available in all the bars.

The European inclusive wines, a Cotes du Rhone, a Languedoc and a Chablis from France plus a Pinot Grigio from Italy, offer an excellent selection but are only available in the dining room. One suspects this is because the American wines are from Crystal’s own “C” collection and there may be an element of cost control here, but if one prefers European wines, it is an odd policy when Crystal is trying to expand to a wider international audience, and to be honest, it is disappointing.

If you play around with the bartenders they may be able to bring a bottle of a European wine to their bar but to be honest, they should not be expected to do that.

The music, at least on our cruise in the Avenue Saloon, showed a marked tilt towards American middle of the road – so if you like Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Ritchie, with a little Andrew Lloyd Webber thrown in, the this is the bar for you. Think of a song like “Sweet Caroline.”

But don’t be looking for contemporary American artists such as the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac, because you are unlikely to hear them unless you can get them by request. The addition of the string quartet from eastern Europe does broaden the choice a bit. To add to the musical background, a tape of “What a Wonderful Life” by Louis Armstrong is played every time a Crystal ship leaves port, but one does not generally hear any Duke Ellington, in fact I heard no blues, jazz or rock, which is a pity.

Possibly in the shows but one shouldn’t have to go to a show to hear a particular kind of music.

The best part of the cruise was the service to our stateroom and the fact that we were upgraded to a 403 sq ft veranda – just as a guide the typical 1970s cabin measured 120 sq ft and Carnival later upped this to 180 sq ft, but there are still plenty of 150 sq ft staterooms, even on relatively modern ships. Our extra large balcony was heaven. There was enough room for two deeply cushioned chairs and stools that could be put together to form a proper chaise lounge instead of perching at a table as is often the case.

There is also a table to that the two chairs can be used for on veranda dining. It was great when not going ashore, or on days at sea, to be able to relax all day in the privacy of one stateroom and have food brought if we didn’t want to go to a dining venue. The penthouses also have the advantage of a butler, who will do pressing for you, make reservations at the alternative restaurants and arrange a goodly supply of free wine for you room, not to mention canapes every afternoon.

As to the food, the jury is still out on this one as the cruise is not yet half over, so The Cruise Examiner will report its final verdict next Monday. But for venues there are plenty. As well as the main dining room, there are two alternative restaurants – Prego for Continental dishes and the famous Silk Road by Nobu, with its own sushi bar, for Asian cuisine. The latter is because, although based in California, Crystal Cruises is owned by Japan’s NYK Line. In fact, the original Crystal ship, Crystal Harmony, now sails as the Asuka for NYK Cruises in the Japanese market.

On our voyage there were also quite a few groups of Japanese cruisers, as well as Chinese-Americans. There is also the pool area midships on deck 12, which has now become a served restaurant area called Tastes. This area is very popular and there can be times even with just 730 passengers on board, when it is not possible to get a seat. This is partially because Crystal only open the buffet-style Lido Cafe for lunch from noon till 1:30 pm. On deck 6, there is also a small self-serve area and bar called The Bistro, and there is very good room service at no extra cost.


Azamara Club Cruises Going All-Inclusive

Although Azamara Club Cruises has included wine with meals for two or three years now, it has taken the final step by announcing that with effect from March 27 on Azamara Quest and May 15 on Azamara Journey, the line is becoming an all-inclusive product.

Azamara Quest (ex R Seven, Delphin Renaissance, Blue Moon) departs drydock, Cadiz, Spain November 16 2012, courtesy Azamara Club Cruises

Azamara Quest (ex R Seven, Delphin Renaissance, Blue Moon) departs drydock, Cadiz, Spain November 16 2012, courtesy Azamara Club Cruises

“With the addition of select spirits, wines, beers, and a special evening event, the Azamara Club Cruises experience has received phenomenal feedback,” said Sonia Limbrick, Azamara’s business development manager in the UK and Ireland.
“This is an exciting evolution for Azamara Club Cruises, and we are confident that it will continue to boost our appeal to international travellers looking for a true destination experience.”

As with other all-inclusive lines, certain optional extras, including premium drinks, spa services, internet packages, shore excursions and onboard gifts, will remain outside the all-inclusive package. Unlike the others, Regent Seven Seas includes shore excursions. With Crystal Cruises having followed Seabourn, SeaDream, Regent and Silversea into offering an all-inclusive product this spring, that leaves only Regent’s sister line Oceania Cruises among the upper premium and ultra-luxury lines still charging for drinks.

And often, the prices they charge for these drinks come in for criticism. Nevertheless, going against the flow, Oceania chose today to announce that it was incraesing the price of its drinks packages. Wine with meals will rise to $34.95 per person per day and open bar to $54.95 per person per day, gratuities included. By comparison, drinks packages on other lines can vary from €13 (Plantours) to $49-$50 (Celebrity and Oceania) per person per day, or $62 for premium brands, with gratuities additional.

On the Continent, Pullmantur Cruises and Croiseres de France are among the very few mass-market lines offering an all-inclusive product. Eventually, however, we expect to see more such offerings, chiefly because the actual costs to the lines of offering complimentary wines and spirits is very low when they are purchased at tax-free prices that are only a fraction of the retail price, the vast majority of which is usually tax.

Inevitably, though, as the lines lose their substantial mark-ups on wines and spirits, they will have to make up their margins elsewhere, or in the average ticket price.

The Ocean Liner Society Chooses MS Hamburg

In 2010, the UK-based Ocean Liner Society chose Croisières de France and its 37,301-ton Bleu de France (delivered 1982 as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ last Europa) for its annual group cruise. This cruise proved such a success that in 2012 it returned to Croisières de France in its 46,811-ton Horizon. In 2013, however, the Society returns to another former Hapag-Lloyd ship, this time the 15,067-ton MS Hamburg, which between 1997 and 2012 operated as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Columbus.

Plantours’ Vistamar currently Orient Queen II

Plantours’ Vistamar currently Orient Queen II

The 2013 cruise will feature a North Sea itinerary, departing Hamburg on Monday, 27th May for a five-day four-night cruise to Sylt, Borkum and Helgoland, and a transit of the Kiel Canal before arriving at Kiel on Friday morning, 30th May.

For more than two decades between 1991 and 2012, Plantours + Partner operated the 7,478-ton Vistamar, which had been rebuilt in 1989 from the Spanish ferry Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

The MS Hamburg, which has replaced the Vistamar, carries 400 passengers compared to the 299 in the earlier ship – twice the tonnage but only one-third more passengers, for a respectable passenger space ratio of almost 38 tons per passenger, compared to 25 on Vistamar.

MS Hamburg - Plantours + Partner - Von Ulrich-photography at

MS Hamburg - Plantours + Partner - Von Ulrich-photography at

The MS Hamburg was built by Mathias-Thiesen Werft (MTW) at Wismar, Germany, in 1997 as the Columbus, a ship whose design originated from a desire by Hapag-Lloyd to re-introduce cruising into the Great Lakes of North America. Indeed in her fifteen-year career with Hapag-Lloyd, the Columbus completed eleven seasons in the Great Lakes. She also undertook a world cruise every winter.

After Hapag-Lloyd acquired the Columbus 2 to replace Columbus Bremen-based Plantours took over the latter ship, renaming her MS Hamburg at a ceremony in the old Hanseatic port of Hamburg in June 2012.

Plantours is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Venice-based Ligabue Group, which was founded  in 1919 by Anaceleto Ligabue, who began supplying food to the Società Veneziana di Navigazione a Vapore, a company whose fleet was absorbed into Italia and Lloyd Triestino in the 1930s.

Aegean Odyssey

Today Ligabue is active in shipboard catering and river cruising, with a total of fourteen managed vessels, and also supplies catering services on  board the cruise ships Aegean Odyssey and FTI Berlin.

Members of the general public can qualify to travel on this cruise by joining the Ocean Liner Society. Membership is £20 in the UK, £23 in Europe and £25 in the rest of the world.
As well as the opportunity of joining OLS group cruises, this includes a subscription to their 48-page quarterly journal, Sea Lines. Further details can be found at

(Kevin Griffin is managing director of specialist cruise agency The Cruise People Ltd in London, England. For further information concerning cruises mentioned in this article readers can visit his blog)

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