Serenity and Surprises

Seville's Spanish Pavilion appeared as a palace in the "Star Wars" series.
Seville's Spanish Pavilion appeared as a palace in the "Star Wars" series. (AMY LAUGHINGHOUSE)

It's easy to embrace Europe on Crystal Serenity's 10-day luxury cruise of seven unmissable ports of call.

Posted: March 10, 2014

ABOARD THE CRYSTAL SERENITY - I'm sitting beside a pool in the Bay of Biscay, sipping a gin and tonic as a Thai band plays a vigorous rendition of Van Halen's "Jump." A life-sized Barbie in a black-fringed thong bikini has just lowered herself into the water, no doubt inducing heart palpitations and several cases of whiplash among the men relaxing on the Lido Deck around me.

That might seem to be sufficient excitement for one afternoon, but all eyes are directed upward when a crimson helicopter appears overhead, dangling two black-clad men from cables. For a moment, I wonder whether our ship, Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity, is being commandeered by airborne pirates. But no, these two ninjas are deposited aboard the bridge to navigate our vessel up the Gironde to Bordeaux.

If anyone feared that our days at sea might be, well, a bit too serene, we've just discovered that shipboard life is full of the unexpected. Perhaps they should consider rechristening the boat the Crystal Surprise.

My decision to come aboard Crystal's 10-day, all-inclusive "European Embrace" voyage was largely influenced by the ports of call, which read like a "best of" list of European cities. Beginning in Dover, England, we first sailed to Guernsey, a sunny little island best known as the setting for the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, about the German occupation during World War II, and we still have Bordeaux, Lisbon, Cadiz and Seville, and Barcelona on the horizon.

I was also seduced by the promise of luxury. This year, Crystal Cruises, which encompasses the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity and the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony, was voted the "World's Best Large-Ship Cruise Line" for an unprecedented 18th consecutive year in the Travel + Leisure readers' survey. Guest loyalty is so high that many folks have cruised 50, 100, even more than 200 times with the company.

"The staff doesn't know how to say no, no matter what you want," says Steve Bluestein, a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who, like me, is on his third Crystal cruise. "Every request ends with them responding, 'It's a pleasure.' "

I seriously consider putting my butler to the test by asking him to deliver a dolphin to my Jacuzzi bathtub. Yes, that's right. I said, "my butler."

Being "butled" is a perk available to everyone staying in the Serenity's 109 penthouses. Your man will pack and unpack your bags upon request, make reservations in the ship's two specialty restaurants (Nobu's Silk Road and the Italian Prego), set up shore excursions, salon, and spa appointments, offer nightly nibbles (I'm referring to food here, people), and even arrange a private cocktail party in your quarters. Basically, it's the full Downton Abbey experience, minus the soap-opera intrigue.

The top accommodations consist of four 1,345-square-foot Crystal Penthouses. (These underwent a two-week refurbishment in November as part of a $17 million redesign, which also included the Lido Deck.)

It's tempting to simply remain aboard the ship, with something going on nearly every hour of the day. There are ballroom dancing, art and computer classes, movies, Broadway-style shows, live music, a disco, and guest lecturers. My favorite is former FBI criminal profiler Clint Van Zandt. Without him, I'd never have known that the best way to remove your fingerprints is to soak them in a mixture of pineapple and papaya juice. (One day this information may come in handy.)

But who can say no to Bordeaux? Arriving on our third evening, my companions and I wander the cobblestone streets of the chic left bank with guide Christine Birem, who points out the city's most prominent landmarks, like a lion-shaped weather vane atop the Grosse Cloche (the Big Bell).

"When his head is turned towards the river, he will drink and the weather is fine," Birem explains. "When he turns his tail towards the river, he pees in it, and it will rain." Alrighty then.

The town is full of cafes, like the shabby-chic L'Apollo on Place Fernand LaFargue, where university students sip their coffee and cocktails outdoors with insouciance, having noted the lion's good humor.

"Bordeaux is a friendly town," Birem notes. "It's not in a hurry."

With fine French wine flowing, it's hard not to relax and enjoy the scenery, especially in gratuitously lovely St. Emilion, which we visit the next day. Cascading down a steep slope, it's like a vision by M.C. Escher rendered in golden stone, with its famous vineyards sprawled out beneath a blue sky beyond.

The city that comes as the biggest surprise is Lisbon. I had no expectations, but surveying the sunlit hillside city from Serenity's deck on the morning of our arrival, I'm in love before I even get off the boat.

Rua de Augusta, a broad, tessellated boulevard, is the main shopping street. Shouldering through throngs of ladies laden with bags, on your left you'll find the Elevador de Santa Justa, which transports passengers to the streets above. I take a more circuitous route (which is to say, I get lost), wandering the Alfama neighborhood, where laundry lines hang like bunting overhead and women chat to each other from their windows. The prize is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, where I roam the romantic ruins of the castle walls for hours, taking in panoramic views of the city below.

Each new port seems determined to outdo the last, and Seville is no exception. It's a two-hour bus ride from Cadiz, where we dock, but it's worth logging the extra miles. I could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the maze of the former Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz, where the fictional Don Juan was "born." (It's probably no coincidence that the narrowest alleyway, Renosa, is nicknamed "the kissing street.")

But you can't come to Seville without visiting the eye-popping Real Alcazar, a royal palace where almost every surface is covered in intricately patterned tiles, and the Spanish Pavilion. The pavilion, with a dazzling columned arcade embracing a massive courtyard, served as an otherworldly palace in the Star Wars series and as Sacha Baron Cohen's not-so-humble abode in The Dictator.

Saving perhaps the best for last, our final port is Barcelona, a city that redefines the notion of "surreally" beautiful, thanks to the fanciful architecture of Antoni Gaudi. His masterpieces include La Sagrada Familia, an unfinished cathedral that resembles a dripping sand castle, the mosaic-encrusted Parc Guell, La Pedrera, and Casa Batllo, with "bones" and Mardi Gras-like masks adorning its facade.

After you've got your Gaudi on, take a stroll along La Rambla, which buzzes with tourists, vendors hawking flowers and souvenirs, and some of the world's most outrageously clad street performers. I cap my visit with a pint at El Bosc de les Fades near the Museu de Cera (wax museum). With its mysterious grottos and drunken Ent trees, it's like Timothy Leary's version of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Back aboard the ship, I kick back with a cold cocktail and drink one last toast to sweet Serenity.

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