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When Genting Hong Kong acquired Crystal Cruises in 2015, chairman and CEO Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay turned over his personal yacht to be the first vessel in the company’s expedition yacht product. In doing so, he created a ship — the 62-passenger Crystal Esprit — that is unique in today’s luxury cruise industry, and one that will almost certainly remain unique forever.
Esprit, which received a full and generous renovation, carries a little more than half the passenger capacity of a traditional European river vessel. It is not a ship that would be built nowadays, when the economies of scale dictate that even luxury expedition vessels should carry 100 to 200 passengers. With a crew-to-guest ratio of 1.5:1 (or 2:1 if it is not full), Esprit’s size allows staff to provide passengers with extraordinary individual attention.
And “individual attention” doesn’t seem to do justice when describing the high level of personalization onboard Esprit. Food is designed on the spot, with elaborate menus created for guests with special dietary limitations; possessions are returned to passengers who leave them in public spaces; and the staff is intimately familiar with clients’ drink preferences.
When you leave your room for breakfast, it is made up perfectly by the time you return. (And the staff has time to provide unprecedented personal touches; seeing that I had placed a couple of tissues on my nightstand, a crewmember placed a tissue box there for the next time I came in.)
Without experiencing Esprit firsthand, it can be hard to grasp what a profound difference it makes to have just 62 passengers onboard. Looking around the ship’s dining room at dinner, I counted about 20 tables of various sizes; I have had parties with as many guests as were sailing on Esprit.
The flexibility in dining is also unparalleled. The three main venues are the indoor-outdoor Patio Cafe for breakfast and lunch; Sunset Grill; and the Yacht Club dining room, where dinner is served nightly and guests can watch the creation of culinary miracles by the staff in the open kitchen.
But guests can mix and match, too — for example, they can order burgers, grilled salmon and inventive sandwiches with addictive fries from Sunset Grill while dining in Patio Cafe and enjoying its cold appetizers, extensive salad choices and outstanding fresh pasta. (Insider tip: Patio Cafe has possibly the best risotto in the world.)
Sunset Grill, serves daily from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., but dining possibilities are nearly infinite with its room service offerings (Patio Cafe and Yacht Club also deliver). And for passengers with dietary restrictions, the culinary staff on my cruise didn’t just accommodate special requests; they catered to them with instant multicourse menus that left other guests asking for tastes.
With the ship’s small size, the idea of lines onboard Esprit is ludicrous. There is always plenty of seating in the lounge for entertainment or pre-dinner drinks, and shore excursion groups can saunter off the ship easily. The aquatic toys — which include kayaks and paddleboards — were booked ahead, but I noticed that “ahead” sometimes meant just a few hours before they were used.
Similarly, the yoga and Pilates classes, the massage appointments in the one-room spa and all other services were worked out in a completely relaxed way, with no need to plan far ahead or jockey for a particular time. One of the most popular ship features is the submarine that takes two passengers and a pilot on 30-minute dives, but it is important to note that there are regions where Crystal cannot deploy the sub; if it is a big factor in client choice, check ahead.
While Crystal’s upcoming luxury expedition yachts — starting with the debut of Crystal Endeavor in 2018 — will have more features and alternatives, accommodate up to 200 people and have polar ice ratings, Esprit stands alone as a true glorified private yacht.
And it’s likely to remain the sole contender.