Life is suite in a penthouse

We set sail to explore the Italian coast, but felt more than a little at home on board ship

By Richard Burton, March 5, 2009
The view from Sorrento: Crystal Serenity was rarely out of view in the Bay of Naples

The view from Sorrento: Crystal Serenity was rarely out of view in the Bay of Naples

It wasn’t the first time I’d sipped champagne mid-ocean, shaken hands with a captain or made small-talk with a diplomat in a ship’s ballroom. But it was the first time I’d stood there and applauded a complete stranger — just for being rich. Honestly. That’s what I did, mid-Adriatic, one balmy night somewhere off the Italian coast.

The stranger was a Japanese businessman who had just completed — wait for it — more than 250 cruises on the same liner.

The captain, resplendent in white flannels, said a few words, handed a bunch of flowers to the rich guy’s not surprisingly delighted wife, and thanked them both for their custom.

Let’s face it: who wouldn’t want an address like: The Penthouse, Crystal Serenity, Somewhere in the Deep Blue Ocean? As we quaffed our bubbly in honour of their good fortune, I worked out they must have spent something like 3,000 days on board and circumnavigated the globe more than a dozen times.

Back down to earth, or should I say sea level, I had that very address for 10 days in October. The 68,000-ton superliner took me from Venice to Monte Carlo in a style to which even the most seasoned cruiser could easily become accustomed.

In 25 years of cruising, I’ve had suites, staterooms, even a deluxe suite but never an actual penthouse, complete with Jacuzzi, his ‘n hers dressing room with Frette  dressing gowns hanging from the door. Oh, and a widescreen TV which can be watched from the bed, the sofa or — sad as it sounds given the views outside — the balcony.

Then there was the butler, of course. An impeccably mannered chap called Mahir, who brought me hors d’oeurves, kept the fridge stocked, saw to my laundry and even found someone to fix gadgets when they broke down.

All of which meant that moving out on the last day felt like having a home repossessed. If there’d been a radiator, I’d have chained myself to it. 

Still, let’s dwell on the best bits. Eight hundred of us had boarded in Venice as the rains came and left St Mark’s Square under six inches of water.

It was still pouring as we departed a day later and again the day after that as we docked at Dubrovnik. So hard was it in fact that the coach that took us to the town centre didn’t bother stopping and, sensing no enthusiasm for anyone to get off, rode us straight back to the port. But it didn’t matter. Cruising holidays are rarely spoiled by the weather, especially on utopian ships like these. They just move on while you’re watching a show, playing in the casino or lounging in the bar.

And on we did go, at 21 knots, to a sun-drenched Sicily where a coach took us all the way up a winding mountain road through Taomina to Savoca, the tranquil hillside village where Al Pacino got all Mafioso and persuaded a hapless bar owner it would be, er, well worth his while to let him marry his daughter.

Bar Vitelli, the 18th-centry roadside café, was still there, almost unchanged, apart from a vine-covered terrace and one of two photographs of Pacino and Frances Ford Coppola.

A guide took us through the winding streets to the churches used to film the wedding and the coach driver played the Godfather theme.

Then there was Sorrento, where for a few euros, a 30-minute shuttle ride took a few dozen of us up the Tyrrhenian coast to Capri for one of the best day-trips imaginable. Having floated into the Marina Grande, a few more euros bought a funicular ride to the town centre and the Piazza Umberto where the views vied for attention with probably the biggest collection of designer stores outside Milan.

There are few better places to stretch your sea legs than this. In a few hours you can stroll half the island, meandering through narrow stonewalled streets grabbing views from the Monastery Gardens and making your way south to cliff-top squares where you can see the Faraglioni, the huge rocks that jut from the sea off the south-eastern tip.

Back on land and more panoramas. This time from Sorrento’s Foreigner’s Club, a mecca for tourists because of its cheapish fare and views from its wide garden terrace over the bay of Naples, in the middle of which, floating in the blue, rests your ship.

As with all ports, a shuttle service runs you in and out of town. A nice touch is the way Crystal always throw up mini marquees on the harbour and serve drinks while you wait for launches to collect you. 

On board and with a few ports under your belt, you start to relax among the strangers you are now sharing your home with. You chat to someone over dinner, strike up a conversation on a lounger and quickly build up a circle of friends. But more interesting are the ones you only observe.

Such as the guy from the Bronx with the bootlace tie and much younger wife who kept telling everyone to “give him a caaal”; the woman in her sixties who’d do the pre-dinner deck stroll in high heels and a billowing silk scarf; and the couple from Nevada who surrounded me in the spa bath and announced to the whole deck I was “from London, England!”

But they were the novelty. Serenity has one of the highest space-per-guest ratios at sea, so it’s not easy to feel crowded.

The decks are wide, the public spaces large and airy and the there are enough dining areas to give you a break from your allocated table in the restaurant.

The best of these is Silk Road, a sushi place offering signature dishes from the renowned Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. In fact, it only took one taste of the Nobu black cod to convince me this was probably the best sea-going restaurant in all my years afloat.

Rarely was it worth venturing ashore to dine, even on excursions to Florence or Pisa. Without local knowledge or time to seek out the finer restaurants, what awaited on board was invariably comparable and often better.

So I didn’t mind when the waiters eagerly sought reward, even handing a blank bill if you’d not had a drink with the pre-paid meal, just so you’d fill in the service charge.

The breakfast crew were just as eager, seeking you out every morning as you stood at the buffet; “finding” you a table among the many empty ones and insisting on relieving you of your tray and carrying it over. Staff are deferential to a fault: standing aside, flattening themselves against walls as you pass them in the corridor.

In the restaurant, things are more relaxed and you get a real chance to bond with your waiters. And its not unusual to see them ashore as they enjoy what must be the biggest perk of their jobs.

All liners offer a range of bars and general entertainment to suit the most diverse tastes and you tend to quickly find a home-from-home.

For me, they’re not the ones with slot machines or loud music. I settled nicely into the Connoiseur Club, a traditionally styled ante room to the equally stylish Avenue Saloon; the sort of place that would be worthy of fees and a waiting list if it were in Pall Mall.

Italy is an intriguing destination for anyone interested in Jewish history; so strong is its heritage. Joyce and Freud left their mark on the literary quarters of Trieste, the Uffizi and Vatican museums boast impressive illuminated Hebrew manuscripts and Rome has one of the finest Jewish museums anywhere.

In fact, several towns and cities such as Pitigliano and Otranto have such strong heritage, they’ve been known from time to time as Little Jerusalem.

We’d done six ports before we hit Monaco, slipping in at dawn to the millionaire’s playground that is Port Hercule — 24 hours before the real playboy yachts arrived for the Monaco Boat Show.

And arrive they did; roughly one an hour, every hour; some carrying helicopters, others half-naked women, all breezing past our bow and tying up in endless rows of gleaming white.  

It was an overnight stay so the ship becomes a hotel. Stepping off the gangplank on to the harbour wall leaves you a 20-minute stroll from Monaco Palace and the fabulous network of streets around Avenue de la Porte Neuve.

From there it’s about 45 minutes on foot to the other side of town for the Casino and Café de Paris.

The ship provides a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the streetlife, not to mention the stroll back down among the super-yachts.

It was 17 hours before the ribbon was to be cut and the jetties had been sealed off as exhibitors set out their stalls.

It was easy to slip past the cordon and nose around among the marquees and negotiate a few gangplanks until a uniformed official stuck out a hand and demanded my pass.

I didn’t have one, so I took out my penthouse swipe card and waved it under his nose. It clearly wasn’t what he was looking for.

“I’m on Serenity,” I said. He shrugged, bemused but not wanting to risk offending, lest I was important.

“Serenity?” I said, as if I was saying Rainier. “It’s the biggest yacht in the harbour…?”

A pause, then he replied: “Pardon monsieur,” and stepped aside. I strolled on in confidence.

Well, I wasn’t exactly wrong was I?

Travel facts

Richard Burton travelled with Crystal Cruises (; 020 7287 9040). The line has a number of summer cruises aboard Crystal Serenity which feature Jewish itineraries, including a 12-night Lisbon to Venice; 14 days, Venice to Barcelona; 7 or 10-day Venice to Rome; 12-day Barcelona to Venice; and 12-day Venice to Athens. Most include an overnight on board in Venice, with fares from £1,861

Last updated: 2:00pm, September 3 2010