For Crystal, operator of luxury cruising’s largest pair of ships, carrying between 900 — 1,000 passengers apiece, the acquisition of the much smaller 62-passenger yacht Esprit certainly captured a lot of attention.
Crystal Esprit began its maiden season in the remote Seychelles, located off the coast of Africa, in December. The ship repositions to the Adriatic coast for spring, summer and fall voyages before heading back to the Seychelles, known as a haven for in-the-know honeymooners and luxury lovers, next winter.
One of the only things that Esprit’s two primary itineraries have in common is that the ship serves as a very comfortable floating hotel for port-intensive voyages. The line’s Seychelles trip is focused on nature, wildlife, and recreation while the Adriatic voyage from Venice to Dubrovnik offers adventure as well as a solid cultural/history foundation.
What we wanted to know before we boarded is this: Is Crystal able to successfully translate its top-notch cuisine, service, and enrichment to a much more limited-in-size yacht? We boarded Crystal Esprit for a seven-night journey around the Seychelles to find out.
On numerous cruises on Crystal’s Serenity and Symphony, we’ve noted the quality of its crew — well-trained to anticipate requests, always calling you by name, with a warm, caring manner – as a hallmark of the Crystal experience. If possible, service is even better on Esprit. That’s to be expected on a ship of just 62 travelers, but Crystal sourced many of its crew from its existing ships so there was the added nice surprise of a familiar face for line veterans. Regardless, even those new-to-Crystal felt like part of the family in no time.
The Exotic Seychelles
Dubbed the "tropical Galapagos" and made famous by honeymooners such as Prince William and Kate Middleton and Salma Hayek and her billionaire French husband, the unspoiled Seychelles is located well off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean. The archipelago consists of 115 islands and harbors endemic flora, fauna, marine life, and birds in natural environments. This is a place for aficionados of white sand beaches that vary in ambience based on topography, whether its mountains, rock boulders or craggy cliffs. It’s not a place for sophisticated, urban pursuits (though in Victoria, its main city on Mahe, the biggest and most populated island, there are museums, a food market and even a zip line attraction). Our days were spent, most often, hiking around nature preserves, riding bikes to the beach, spotting tortoises and turtles, bird-spotting and all manner of watersports, from swimming to paddle boarding . If that’s your idea of vacation heaven, this is the destination for you.
The Esprit experience emphasizes touring to coves and islands that are so off-the-grid, larger vessels can’t go. And yet there was no skimping with onboard facilities. The ship had plenty of public spaces for lounging, like the Cove, Esprit’s de facto living room — a quiet lounge where you could read a book by day and socialize with fellow passengers before and after dinner. We were in port so often that there was little use of the top-deck sundeck but it’s absolutely lovely, featuring plush-covered loungers, cozy basket-style chairs and loveseats, and even a flat screen over the plunge pool for movies under the stars. It’s remarkable to consider that the ship had four dining options, from the elegant multi-course Yacht Club, the indoor-outdoor Patio Café, the Grill, for burgers and salads, and 24-hour room service.
By no means a youngster, Esprit has been in service for more than a quarter of a century and yet — thanks to a major refurbishment program late last year, — it’s a beautiful vessel with few signs of age. In particular, cabins on the all-suite ship are fresh, contemporary, roomy and very comfortable. Bathrooms are absolutely beautiful with spacious showers, dual sinks and even televisions tucked into mirrors. Note: There have been some systems-related kinks, particularly centered around air-conditioning, that forced some cancellations. These will be addressed at a wet dock before the ship starts its Adriatic season.
A recent introduction, Esprit’s watersports team was a quartet of young professionals who were hired for their expertise about the area as well as their yachting experience. From chatting at cocktail hour about the Seychelles — some had lived on the islands we visited, others were steeped in knowledge of marine life — to coordinating watersports (and even more importantly helping us all board Zodiacs every time we went into port — they didn’t lose anyone!), these staffers were integral to the experience.
On our Seychelles voyage, which revolved around visits to unspoiled islands, the ship’s marina — open just about every day — was a magnet. That’s not only because most of our ship-to-shore transfers occurred on Zodiacs (some featuring wet landings), but because all the fabulous toys were housed there. Particularly popular were the ship’s Jet Skis, paddleboards, snorkel gear, and kayaks. Passengers looked forward to the daily lowering of a water sports platform so they could swim, dive and lounge out in the Indian Ocean; it tucked up at night. Another hugely popular feature on Esprit was cruising’s first sub, which offered rides at depths of over 60 feet to the bottom of the Indian Ocean (at $599 a pop).
Our cruise attracted an international, well-traveled and un-stuffy crowd, hailing from South Africa, Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Asia, the U.S., Germany, Canada and even the Ukraine.
Hits and Misses
In what felt like a very new effort (later I was told our cruise was the first attempt) at providing enrichment about the Seychelles, members of the watersports team were asked to present a daily briefing on where we’d been and where we were going. They were clearly up to the task — and when we did attend we found the sessions illuminating — but the sessions were poorly scheduled and even more poorly attended. Definitely see this as a work in progress.
Small ship compromises
Originally launched with a casino and small treatment room that served as the ship’s spa, Crystal is eliminating the casino – and expanding the spa into that space. As such, the limited-but-terrific treatment menu, which include facials and massage, will be expanded to offer additional salon services.
If the Seychelles is special because of its remoteness, it’s also one of the more difficult places to get to — for just about everyone. Most passengers traveled via the Middle East’s Dubai or Abu Dhabi (Crystal offered two night pre-cruise stays at hotels in either city to help break the journey). North Americans and Australians have the longest journeys, with 20-some hours, minimum, in flight. Even most of the Brits onboard had 10-hour connecting flights. The lesson we learned is to extend the seven-night cruise (and two nights pre-cruise) into a longer trip, with perhaps a few extra nights in the Seychelles. Note: When the ship repositions to Europe’s Adriatic, the distance won’t be so onerous.
The Seychelles itinerary, in particular, is not a good choice for people with mobility issues. There’s no elevator onboard, staircases are rather steep, and aside from calls at Mahe, the main island, where we docked, the ship anchors, which required Zodiac rides from ship to port and which occasionally resulted in wet landings.
Because of the Seychelles’ remote location and islands’ limited services, we occasionally ran out of provisions. Oranges for the fresh-squeezed OJ were an early casualty and pinot noir was a later one. The chef couldn’t simply run out and pick up supplies beyond the usual weekly re-stocking. This won’t apply to cruises in the Adriatic, however, where there’s much more flexibility in shopping.
Run out of essentials while you’re onboard? There’s no shop stocked with necessities onboard Esprit, though in the "nice touch" category, every bathroom was supplied with mosquito repellant and sun screen. You can pick up items in Mahe, the main island, but you’ll pay more. Better yet: We found that the pre-cruise stay in Dubai, which is the shopping hub in the Persian Gulf, was a great place to pick up anything we’d left behind.
Crystal Espirt Cruises