The one-of-a-kind Crystal Esprit yacht was launched as part of the line’s brand expansion into every aspect of luxury travel, which included private jets (Crystal Luxury Air), river cruises, new ocean ships/products and more.
The yacht, which debuted in December 2015 was formerly a private vessel built in 1991 and owned by Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, the Malaysian billionaire who acquired the cruise line earlier in the year.
After an extensive renovation and retrofit, the Crystal Esprit emerged as a 31-cabin ship that could carry a maximum of 62 passengers, with a 90+ crew—a service ratio that truly makes the Esprit a private yacht experience. When I sailed a week-long itinerary (Athens to Dubrovnik) around the Greek islands aboard the Esprit, I learned how thoroughly luxurious and unique this particular yacht experience is.
My cabin was spacious and well laid out, with a generous seating area, a desk and a spectacularly comfortable bed, with soft down pillows, just the way I like them. A giant TV is loaded with movies, as well as the usual at-sea kind of television programming. There’s also a TV screen in the bathroom, which has double sinks, lots of storage underneath and a shower that can easily accommodate two. Since the yacht is “new,” I found such features as a personal iPad for programming my cruise, a Soundbar to play my music, a Krups coffee maker and lots of outlets for charging all my electronics at the same time.
The extraordinary level of service quickly became obvious, with my needs either anticipated or immediately fulfilled—and within 24 hours, it seemed as if every member of the service crew knew my name. Butler service took care of so much, including making sure the mini-fridge was well stocked with the soft drinks I liked, shining my shoes and pressing (complimentary) my travel-wrinkled clothes. And though the yacht offers laundry service (at a price), there’s also a self-service laundry on every deck for people like me, who don’t like to pay for laundry while traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary.
As for dining, I saw almost at once that this, like so much on the Esprit, would be mean an exceptional experience. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style, with crew members serving the dishes and the beverages. In addition to an extensive selection of salads, cheeses, pastries, finger foods and daily specials (always choices for vegetarians), there was a station where the chef prepared hot dishes—eggs, pastas, etc.—a la minute. At lunch time, The Grill on Sunset Deck 5 served burgers with fries (some of the best I’ve had anywhere), salads and other light fare. Beer, wine and soft drinks were available at lunch.
Dinner was always a feast for gourmands, as the chef had a lavish hand with such luxury ingredients as Waygu beef and fresh truffles—and the sommelier invariably presented a choice of fine wine (also complimentary). The dining room has an open kitchen, providing some Food Network-style entertainment while the chefs worked.
As the Esprit has excellent coffee machines, I was able to have a latte or mocha macchiato with any meal or any time of the day or night.
At my first lunch, it became obvious that no guest on this luxury trip was going to suffer any culinary deprivation due to dietary restrictions. I was traveling with a friend who, in addition to being a vegan, had other restrictions which on some other cruises left her with few choices beyond (un-dressed) salads and steamed vegetables. The maître d’ immediately sought her out, listened to the list of ingredients that she could not eat—and promised that at her first dinner, he would provide a menu created just for her, one that would mirror the menu choices enjoyed by other guests. During the following days, that promise was kept, with delicious dishes that were thoughtfully prepared and beautifully presented.
Prior to each dinner service, the Esprit hosted a cocktail hour get-together—generally with musical entertainment–in the bar area. Given the small number of passengers—we were sailing with only 40+–these events created opportunities to get to know everyone who was sharing the trip. Similarly, after dinner, musicians performed in the bar area. Occasionally, a recent movie would be shown on the Sunset Deck 5, where there are comfortable lounges and a small splash pool.
I noticed that we had onboard a couple of multi-generational groups that included several young people. In the days that followed, I also noted that the older passengers were quite active, joining tours and excursions that included considerable physical activity. This turned out to be the demographic that Crystal was looking for on the Esprit: physically fit seniors and younger people who would be attracted to active explorations and tours. (As the yacht has no elevators, this alone means that passengers must at least be able to climb several flights of stairs daily.)
Our first port was Navplion. Here and throughout the week, two complimentary tours were offered, along with several “Adventures” at extra cost. Reflecting the ship’s desired demographic, the tours included such active options as mountain biking, 4X4 explorations and deep sea diving. The complimentary tours in Navplion were a walking tour and a voluntourism experience called “The Smile of a Child,” where passengers could assist with day care or meal preparation for abused, ill or abandoned children being cared for in communal homes.
I chose to explore on my own—and to do my traveling on one of the little trains you can find at so many cruise destinations. The narration was in Greek and English, which was very helpful, as there was very little English signage in the town. (However, English is widely spoken in shops and restaurants.)
One of my “finds” was a monument carved into a massive rock called the Bavarian Lion, which was commissioned by Ludwig of Bavaria in memory of the Bavarian soldiers who died during a typhoid epidemic while they served Otto, the first king of Greece.
Later I treated myself to an excellent facial in the yacht’s spa. Though the spa consists of a single room, it is bright and welcoming and the esthetician provides both facial and body services using high-end Elemis products.
In Hydra, a few hardy souls chose the complimentary tour that included a trip to the beach, but as the water temperatures were said to be around 60 degree, I chose the “Hydra by Foot” experience, which began with some walking, uphill on narrow and winding cobbled streets, followed by an exploration on donkeys.
These animals act as taxis, delivery vehicles for the mini-supermarkets and for just about everything else that needs to be transported throughout the island. Our donkey caravan stopped at the Monastery of St. Constantine, which offered excellent views of the harbor, then continued to the Koundouriotis Mansion, a fine example of the island’s traditional 18th and 19th century architecture. More walking followed as we returned to the port, for a visit to the Church of the Dormitian.
A highlight of my cruise was the day in Itea, which gave me the opportunity to visit the Archeological Museum of Delphi, one of the world’s most important museums, reflecting as it does, the essence of Hellenic culture. It is a modern structure and the exhibits are both accessible and easily understood, with descriptions in a number of languages.
Among the many spectacular exhibits is The Charioteer, a bronze statue from the classic period that may be among the most famous statues in Greece. The detail, down to the folds of the fabric and the anatomical perfection, had me (and other visitors) staring at and enthusiastically photographing its perfection.
The brightness of gold also attracts visitors and I was no exception, so I dutifully photographed the fragments of shiny metal recovered from various statues, including those of Apollo and Athena.
Since no visit to a museum would be complete without at least one legend from Greek mythology, at Delphi we had the story of two impressive statues. These were of Kleobis and Biton, the sons of Cydippe, a priestess of Hera. The boys and their mother planned to travel from Argos to Heraion to attend the celebration of the Argive Hera. As the oxen that were supposed to pull her cart to the celebration had not appeared, Cydippe’s sons pulled the cart themselves, a distance of about five miles. Cydippe was so touched by her boys’ devotion to her and her goddess that she prayed to Hera to give Kleobis and Biton, the best gift a god could give to a mortal. The goddess granted the prayer, and that night, after the sacrifices and feasting were over, and the two young men lay down for a rest inside the temple of Hera, they died peacefully—and so gained immortality and respect for their devotion to their mother.
Following the museum visit, our group traveled to the village of Arachova, whose quaint houses are built up the northern slopes of Mount Parnassos—and which is known today as the “Jewel of Parnassos.” Not only is Arachova pretty to look it, the area has a history that dates back to 2000 BC, when Homer mentioned, in the Iliad, that two famous generals of the Trjojan war came from Anemoria and Kiparissos, which were situated around the present town. After still more photographs and some window-shopping in the village’s inviting shops, it was back to the ship—and the thought that it was going to be difficult to adjust to a life without the expectation of a gourmet meal every evening.
Lights of the Rio–Antirrio Bridge
Later that evening, when the Esprit was en route to Parga, we traveled under the Rio–Antirrio Bridge, one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type. It crosses the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula to Antirrio on mainland Greece by road. Fully lit, the bridge made for a dramatic sight against the dark sky.
A trip to Greece without an olive oil experience would be like a trip without a wine tasting in France. So my day in Parga was all about olive oil, the liquid gold of Greece. Although the Esprit could easily have docked, the harbor here is protected, as had been the case in Hydra, so were transported to shore by tender. Our tour group hiked uphill to the Paragaea old factory and museum, where we were shown the implements and machinery (powered by horses) used in making olive oil back in the 1920s.
We learned about the grades of olive oil, specifically that cold-pressed Extra Virgin is the very best. The industry in Greece is carefully regulated by the government, and the pure olive oil must be labeled as to acid content, the lower the better. The best Extra Virgin must have an acid content of .08 or lower, and I filed that information away for future reference. (When I returned home, however, I found that the U.S. doesn’t require labeling as to acid content, so I would have to continue guessing about which oil to purchase.) Actually tasting some truly delicious (and loaded with anti-oxidants) Extra Virgin oils inspired me to buy a couple of tins, one flavored with lemon, which would make the base of a sumptuous salad dressing.
The cooking demonstration followed, and we saw home-made phyllo dough rolled out (which some of us then used to make cheese pies), gorgeous ripe tomatoes stuffed and an omelet-like patty being fried. And then we ate, and ate, an authentic Greek lunch of everything we’d seen cooked plus a robust lamb dish with potatoes. Sweet grapes, olives and lemon slices were dessert.
When we returned to the Esprit, some hardy souls decided to take out kayaks from the yacht’s marina, this being the first day that complimentary water sports were offered. Though the outside temperature was mild, the water was frigid, so again, only the hardiest of passengers hit the water.
I chose instead to play with the iPad in my cabin, which was loaded with information, not only about the Esprit, but also about all the available services (like shoe-shining, luggage packing/unpacking, room service, etc.), the entertainment offered on my big screen TV—and the entire week’s menus, from breakfast through dinner.
During the cocktail hour and before we sailed away, a duo of local Greek musicians came onboard to entertain giving us a selection of classics that triggered memories—and discussions—of the movie, Zorba the Greek, and of the legendary Melina Mercouri.
Shortly after we arrived in Corfu, the MSC Musica docked alongside the Esprit. What a startling contrast, especially when thousands of passengers began disembarking!
There are a number of ways to explore Corfu Town, including the horse-drawn carriage, but given the legions of MSC passengers that would be roaming the town, I was glad I’d chosen the “Views of Corfu” tour, which would take me out of the city, starting with a 30-minute drive up to Paleokastritsa, for a visit to one of the island’s most famous sites, the Monastery of the Virgin Mary.
The current complex dates back to the 18th century, though it is believed that there had been a much older edifice. Only seven monks live in the monastery, in quiet contemplation and learning. Though the site, especially the lush garden (where geraniums grow almost to tree height) is especially tranquil, our guide let us know that by August, at the height of the tourist season, the place would be overrun with visitors.
Upon entering the church, our group was invited to make small contributions and to light candles, either in memory of loved ones who have passed on, or in hopes of having a prayer answered. I complied, for the serenity of the small church seemed to invite a thoughtful moment or two.
Later, our coach took us to Lakones, located at the foot of Mount Pantokrator, where the views of the sea and villages below are simply dazzling.
During our drive, our guide treated us stories about Ulysses, his travails after the Trojan War, as he tried to return home and his hostile encounters with a Cyclops and the monster’s father, Poseidon, god of the sea. One part of the story ended with Poseidon turning the boat used by Ulysses’s sailors into stone. At the appropriate moment, our guide pointed out a rock, which, if you used your imagination, somewhat resembled a boat—and that, she said, is supposed to be the petrified vessel. I dutifully photographed the rock, for Greece is a land of many colorful legends, and I liked, at least for the moment, to believe them all.
Sadly, on the last day of cruise, when the Esprit docked in Kotor, Montenegro, the weather was miserable, dank and cold, a steady rain falling, with overhanging clouds and the threat of thunderstorms. I wasn’t brave enough to try the tour options: the off-road adventure from the town to the peaks of Lovcen Mountain or the hike along the fortified old city walls.
Armed with an umbrella and wearing full rain gear, I ventured a brief stroll to visit the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, which had been consecrated in the 12th century and later reconstructed after several earthquakes. After the cathedrals’ frontage had been destroyed in 1667, the baroque bell towers were added, though the left one remains unfinished. The cathedral’s interior is a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture that houses the city’s greatest treasure: the gilded silver bas-relief altar screen. As is often the case in many Catholic houses of worship, the cathedral also treasures the body parts of saints, including the head of the martyred Saint Tryphon, the protector saint of the town of Kotor.
Attempting to lighten the mood of that somber visit, I indulged in some half-hearted window shopping, finding an abundance of counterfeit goods—Burberry, Chanel, etc.—some fairly convincing, but mostly not. Better, I thought, to skip the fakes and return home with the real stuff, my treasury of memories and photographs.
Bottom Line: As there is no other vessel like the Esprit, the trip was a unique experience, one that felt very much like cruising in a friend’s very luxurious private yacht. My single disappointment with the cruise was that I was not able to experience the Esprit’s $2 million three-person submarine, the C-Explorer. I had read about the sub and the 20- to 30-minute Finding Nemo experience of diving into and exploring the sea without cumbersome equipment—and without getting wet. Though the cost was $599, I suspected many passengers would be more than willing to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime dive. I learned, alas, that at the time of my cruise, Crystal did not have local permission to use the C-Explorer in Greece, though the sub would dive in Croatia—after I left the Esprit—and some other destinations.
The size of the Esprit, the atmosphere of a fine boutique hotel at sea, makes it perfect for charter—for upscale family reunions or corporate events. The yacht sails alternating week-long itineraries in the West Indies in November.