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Absolute Serenity on Crystal Cruises

Enrich your mind, revive your spirit and renew your body on Crystal Cruises' newest ship, the Crystal Serenity

Crystal cruises Some vacations leave you invigorated. Some leave you relaxed. A few leave you ready for more. A cruise on the Crystal Serenity does it all. This is a beautiful ship with lots to do -- or not -- depending only on you.

The Crystal Serenity is the newest and largest of Crystal Cruises' fleet. Able to accommodate up to 1,080 passengers, this six-star ship is spacious but not overwhelming. In fact, the Crystal Serenity has the intimate feeling of a much smaller ship. Attribute this to the friendliest and most accommodating crew at sea, well-designed public areas and high-quality activities and entertainment.

On a 12-day cruise from Athens to Venice, my husband, teenage son and I sampled much of what the Crystal Serenity offered, but not all. There simply was not enough time. Entertainment comes in many forms. There is the popular casino, a theater where stage productions are offered nightly, a movie theater showing recent releases, plus musicians and musical groups rotating performances among the ship's lounges, bars and dance floors.

Daylight brings an entirely different menu of possibilities, from poolside lounging to unique personal enrichment courses. Through Crystal Cruises' Creative Learning Institute, passengers tackle subjects as varied as language instruction from the Berlitz School, tai chi taught by masters from the Tai Chi Cultural Center, design from the Parsons School of Design, piano lessons from Yamaha Music instructors, wine appreciation from the Society of Wine Educators, mystery writing and even digital greeting card design.

The Learning Institute, introduced simultaneously with the Crystal Serenity's launch in July 2003 and now available on all Crystal cruise ships, offers progressive levels of instruction in an amazing range of subjects. Though specific courses and teachers vary from cruise to cruise, instruction is generally offered in five areas: arts and entertainment, business and technology, lifestyle, wellness and wine and food.

Depending on the region in which the ship is sailing, Crystal cruise passengers might be offered language immersion in Italian, French, German, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Norwegian or Japanese from a teacher with the well-known Berlitz School, a leader in language instruction since 1876. On this Crystal cruise, Spanish and Italian classes were held in The Studio, Crystal Serenity's dedicated classroom. Let me assure you: This is not the same old school experience.

Learning Spanish has long been one of my goals, so when I discovered that a class would be offered on board my Crystal cruise, I knew the time had come. Nervous apprehension swept over me as I approached the classroom for the first session and spotted a single, U-shaped line of chairs. There was no back row for hiding. Then I heard a cheerful "Hola!" as the teacher greeted me with a wave. Somehow, I managed to echo the greeting, and class began.

The first session of this crash course flew by. Using English for the last time in class, the instructor explained that language immersion meant we would speak only Spanish during our lesson. Fortunately, the teacher conveyed the meaning of unfamiliar words by using pantomime and sketching pictures. His antics soon drew responses from even the shyest novice.

By the final class, confidence ran high. We tested our skills at greetings, making polite inquiries of one another's families and the all-important shopping situations. I left class filled with enthusiasm, committed to continuing my language immersion back home.

In addition to the Crystal Serenity's studio space for enrichment activities, the ship's finest amenities are programmed with courses and activities. Crystal Cruises' Internet center doubles as the Computer University@Sea, where instructors cover computer and Internet basics as well as more advanced options such as digital photo finishing and creating a personal Web page.

Students gathered at the golf driving nets and putting green to meet with a pro from golf club manufacturer Callaway for sessions on putting, chipping, golf basics and playing in adverse conditions. Not a golfer myself, I was curious about how effective golf instruction could be without a golf course or grass. One competitive golfer who participated said she had been skeptical, too, but had learned a great deal and was eager to try the pro's suggested technique for getting out of bunkers.

A doctor from the esteemed Cleveland Clinic, rated No. 4 in U.S. News and World Reports' annual ranking of America's best hospitals, conducted a series of wellness workshops, including an introductory session on meditation techniques. While I was learning to invoke a state of deep relaxation, my husband found relaxation at the spa.

This spa rivals any land-based spa in style, design, function and quality. It's worth a visit simply to sit in the waiting area, also known as the tranquility room. Seated in a sleek, low-slung black chair, you look over a bed of smooth, white rocks resting below angled windows. Through the glass, the ship's white wake curls across the blue sea. At hand, a clear glass bowl of oranges rests on a high black podium. The color contrast is intensified by the simplicity of the setting. And that is merely the pleasure of waiting for a massage!

Adjacent to the spa is a well-equipped, light and bright fitness center with three areas: a studio space for yoga, Pilates, aerobics and other group classes; a weight training section with free weights and resistance machines; and a cardiovascular area with a row of treadmills and elliptical trainers, each with its own television. The fitness center is well maintained and supervised, with a staff member usually available for assistance.

While I paid my dues at the fitness center, my son rotated between the paddle tennis court one deck above the pool and table tennis several decks down. If I couldn't find him at those locations, I knew I could count on seeing him at the next meal.

No one intentionally skips food on a Crystal cruise. The preparation, menu variety and ambiance of the various dining venues are among the best at sea. In the elegant dining room, passengers are assigned to tables. This lovely tradition gives diners an opportunity to get to know the finely trained wait staff, and vice versa. It is common for waiters to remember and anticipate passengers' drink orders and special requests.

The Crystal Serenity has two specialty restaurants where reservations are required. Prego offers a warm and lively spot for northern Italian fare. The Silk Road serves innovative Asian cuisine created by renowned Japanese master chef Nobu Matsuhisa. The Silk Road also has a sushi bar, where seating is on a first-come basis.

For casual dining, Crystal Cruises features buffets in the Lido Cafe and a poolside grill. On days at sea, Crystal Cruises creates lavish theme buffets on deck (weather permitting) for lunch, and occasionally, dinner under the stars.

Public areas like The Bistro, where light repasts are available during the between-meal hours, or the Avenue Saloon with its central bar and lively piano action each night, are perfect examples of spaces that contribute an intimate, warm and friendly feeling to the Crystal Serenity.

The Palm Court, one of my favorite venues, has multiple personalities - sometimes quiet and serene, and lively with scheduled activities at other times. This top-deck lounge at the ship's bow offers a virtually private retreat most mornings for coffee with a grand view. But this is also where afternoon teas are held, the captain's galas unfold and dancing spins into the wee hours on several nights.

Decor throughout this Crystal cruiseship is an elegant blend of soft, contemporary style with flourishes of fantasy and abstract art that evoke smiles. The staterooms are spacious, and 85 percent have a private veranda. All rooms are equipped with data ports for laptops, television, DVD player and refrigerator stocked with complimentary bottled water and soft drinks.

The designers of the Crystal Serenity must have experienced a "why didn't we do this sooner" moment when they placed the lifeboats outside the theater, rather than outside the windows of staterooms, restaurants and lounges. Not a single stateroom comes with the caveat "partially obstructed view."

But that's the way it is aboard the Crystal Serenity. Everything is as good as it possibly can be, from the design of the ship to the helpful deckhand who remembers me from a cruise I took two years ago, calling me by name and bringing a glass of water with lemon as soon as I sit down by the pool. To view Crystal Serenity's deck plan, click here.

Crystal Cruises high standards in service follow passengers ashore on tours booked through the cruise line. Choosing half-day tours in most ports gave us an opportunity to learn about an area from experienced and well-versed guides while still leaving plenty of time for us to explore independently.

This Crystal cruise left Athens and spent a day at sea before arriving in Greece's second-largest city, Thessaloniki, on the mainland's northeastern shore. Landmarks abound in this city overlooking the Aegean, including the Arch of Balerius and the White Tower. History buffs can take an excursion to Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

We chose a tour that took us into the countryside, and within an hour the city was far behind. Our destination was Mount Holomondas for a back-country hike and a chance to enjoy the cool mountain air. One of the high points was an encounter with an enthusiastic couple that we met on the trail. They showed us enormous, freshly picked mushrooms and invited the entire group to join them for mushroom soup. We were too short of time for the soup, but this example of true Greek generosity and hospitality was the finest souvenir possible.

Sailing from Thessaloniki across the Aegean Sea, we docked at the most western of Turkey's major ports, Izmir. The city, Turkey's third largest, is a major commercial export center for agricultural products and locally made carpets.

Arriving on a Sunday morning had its advantages. The streets were empty, and quiet reigned over the tightly packed old town market where on a weekday, buyers and sellers jostle for space and haggle over prices. Izmir is both modern and ancient. Ataturk Caddesi, the wide boulevard next to the bay, is lovingly referred to as the necklace street where luxury hotels, cafes and shops sparkle like jewels. Parks and green spaces offer gathering places in newer areas of the city.

But just minutes away are the ruins of the ancient market, the Roman Agora. Around the corner is the Archaeological Museum, with a fine collection of antiquities, and the Ethnographical Museum, giving a peek at Turkish culture and folklore, including photos of the sport of camel wrestling. If a trip up the world's oldest elevator, built in the 19th century, doesn't take your breath away, the view from the clifftop looking down on the bay and sun-splashed city will.

All of the Mediterranean is washed with bountiful sunshine, but our next port call, the island of Rhodes, is the island of the sun. According to Greek mythology, Apollo, the God of the Sun, chose it as his own island, naming it for Poseidon's daughter, Rhoda. Swimmers, scuba divers, snorkelers and sun worshippers choose the sparkling beaches on the eastern side. Windsurfers pick the western beaches, where winds sometimes whip the surf and carry riders at seemingly perilous speeds. Beyond the beaches, however, the treasures of medieval Rhodes captivate visitors.

The Crystal Serenity docked within walking distance of Rhodes' walled Old Town, which owes its architectural style to the 200-year reign of the Knights of St. John. Along the main street, arched doorways are emblazoned with crests and emblems representing the eight nationalities of the Knights. This is the Street of Knights, and it ends at the Palace of the Grand Master, built by the knights in the 14th century. The palace was beautifully restored in 1939 during the Italian occupation so Mussolini would have a nice place to stay. Narrow, cobbled lanes that branch off the Street of Knights are lined with shops selling leather goods, jewelry, locally crafted pottery, embroidered linens and lace.

From Rhodes, we sailed to Santorini, which is perhaps the most photographed of the Greek islands. When approached from the sea, the island appears to have a gentle cap of snow atop its dark, rocky face. In reality, the view is of whitewashed houses and buildings perched along the clifftop, 1,000 feet above the sea. Santorini is comprised of five islands circling a wide and deep crater, formed 3,500 years ago when the center of this volcanic island erupted. Many villages dating from this time were preserved in ash and are now being excavated. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera houses artifacts, wall paintings and everyday household items from 1500 B.C. that reveal the advanced civilization of the Minoan village of Akrotiri.

Cruise ships anchor offshore in Santorini, and passengers take tenders to the dock. From there, there are three ways to reach the village atop the hill: climb 600-plus steep steps, take a cable car or ride a donkey. Once there, a stroll through Fira Town, Santorini's capital, reveals a charming maze of cobbled streets with small shops and inviting cafes with outdoor terraces where you can enjoy contemporary Greek life.

Leaving the Greek Isles, we sailed to Sicily's Taormina, where the fresh, salty smell of the sea mingles with a faint floral fragrance. The colors of the natural landscape - vivid pink, red and yellow flowers and strong blues of the sky and sea - are reflected in merchants' wares along Corso Umberto. If you hear church bells toll, look for a wedding party proudly parading down the street. This beautiful resort location is a favorite spot for romance and celebrations. When the sun gets too high and the air too warm, the shops close, but restaurants get busy. Find a bayside terrace cafe to enjoy a leisurely lunch. There, with Sicily's active volcano, Mount Etna, visible in the distance and the deep blue of Naxos Bay below the town, sample local specialties and savor the glorious summer life in full swing in Taormina.

Each of the ports we visited presented dual pleasures: the opportunity to explore ancient cultures and revel in the lush scenery of modern times. This was true again in Dubrovnik. With a lengthy coastline on the Adriatic Sea opposite Italy's east coast, Croatia boasts beautiful seaside towns and villages. Chief among them is Dubrovnik, long a favorite summer destination of Europeans and fast becoming trendy among Americans as well. Dubrovnik was shelled during the war in the Balkans, which ended in 1995, but all signs of the war's destruction have been repaired and covered up. Except for a vivid pictorial exhibition in the Maritime Museum, we found no references or visual evidence of the damage sustained by the city 10 years earlier.

Dubrovnik's medieval town, Stari Grad, is a walled enclave with marble streets and massive stone buildings. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Completed in the 13th century, the high walls are intact and the promenade at the top is open to the public. A self-guided audio tour is highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind a few hundred stairs. It's best to tackle the tour early in the day in the summer, before the brilliant sunlight pushes temperatures north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We started our tour after lunch and by the end of our walk, after looking down from the walls to the clear waters and coves below, we knew exactly which beach we wanted to visit to cool off.

Our Crystal cruise ended, too soon, in Venice, where 36 hours in port was only enough to whet our appetites for the city's palazzos, piazzas and palaces. We wandered narrow alleys and crisscrossed stone bridges, absorbing the sights of the ornate baroque architecture, lively waterways and festive plazas.

As I overheard bits of conversation and shouts rising from the canals, the lyrical richness of the language caught my ear, and I made a decision: On my next trip aboard Crystal, I would take Italian classes. Ciao!

By Karen Northridge