ABOARD THE CRUISE SHIP SERENITY—I am not usually fond of routine or habit, preferring the unexpected. However, it's 5:30 p.m. and I am waiting for my butler, Sasha, as I do about this time every day.
Sure enough, he raps lightly on my stateroom door, pokes his head in, and with a beaming smile says, "Good afternoon, Ms. Nickell. Shall I bring you your caviar?"
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Such is life aboard Crystal Cruises' Serenity, the magnificent ship that is my floating home for nine days, as we make our way from Barcelona along the southern coast of Spain to Morocco, the Canary Islands and Madeira, off the coast of North Africa, before docking in Lisbon, Portugal.
Now, I know there are two schools of thought about cruises. Some folks shiver at the very word, preferring to be tarred and feathered rather than being forced to have dinner with the same people every night, or being subjected to the (perceived) torture of watching third-rate Broadway musicals and learning how to fold napkins in the shape of a swan. At the other extreme are people like the couple I met on the way to the cruise terminal in Barcelona. They confided that this was their 73rd time aboard a Crystal ship.
"Seventy-three times," I thought to myself. "How is that possible?"
I like to think I'm somewhere in the middle. But after nine days aboard the Serenity, I'm already thinking ahead to my next Crystal adventure. I might not make it to 73 cruises, but 10 seems like a nice round number, or even 20.
There are several reasons why Crystal Cruises has been voted the world's favorite cruise line for the past 17 years by readers of Conde Nast Traveler: the exotic ports of call (from Alaska to Zanzibar); the first-class cuisine, entertainment and enrichment programs; and the "do anything to please" friendliness of the multi-national staff and crew.
Crystal's two ships, the Serenity and the Symphony, are larger than those of its luxury-line competitors, Seabourn and Silversea, but it's not hard to get around. You need not worry that it will take you a week to find the Lido Deck, with its Trident Pool, or the Palm Court, which is set up every day for afternoon tea (complete with musicians), or the Connoisseur Club and Avenue Salon, favorite late-night spots.
For those who want to try their luck, the Crystal Casino is next to the Galaxy Lounge, where lavish performances are staged nearly every night by a group of Broadway- and Las Vegas-caliber entertainers.
Crystal also is known for its cultural enrichment programs. My cruise was the "Iberian Focus," and an on-board instructor taught passengers helpful Spanish phrases, while an expert on the region's Moorish and Arab-influenced architecture lectured on what we could expect to see in each port.
On previous cruises, I have come to learn that some rabid cruisers don't care where the ship is going; they would be equally content in Athens or Antarctica, and a few never bother to get off the ship in port. I am in the opposite camp, thinking that an exciting land itinerary is as important as the cruise. I chose this Crystal cruise because with the exception of Morocco and Madeira, I had never been to any of the places visited. Here are a few of the highlights:
With just a day and a half in this glorious city in Spain's eastern region of Catalonia, I knew I didn't have time to become intimately acquainted, so I narrowed my focus.
I have long been intrigued by the visionary architect Antoni Gaudi, so I headed immediately for his masterpiece, the unfinished Sagrada Familia (Temple of the Holy Family.) Soaring 550 feet, it has been described as an inverted sand castle. There are the traditional features of a cathedral -- stained-glass windows and images of saints, which in true Gaudi style are juxtaposed with carvings of pineapples and serpents -- but it's anything but a traditional cathedral. Whatever else you do in Barcelona, don't miss Gaudi's life's work.
A disappointment (an excursion to Granada and the Alhambra was sold out) turned out to be a blessing.
Malaga, jewel of the Costa del Sol and birthplace of Picasso, was one of my favorite stops on the cruise. With the Castillo Gibralfaro, a castle fortress with dramatic views over the city and coastline; the 16th-century Renaissance cathedral (third-largest in the world after St. Peter's in Vatican City and St. Paul's in London); and the intimate Picasso Museum, in a lovely house in the Old Quarter, Malaga is a city worthy of exploration. I'll get to the Alhambra next time.