Hi, friend. If you’ve been following me on Instagram lately you that know that Mr. Scout and I have recently returned from a fabulous journey to Venice, Croatia, and Prague, including one-week cruising along the Dalmatian Coast on Crystal’s 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, an indulgent small ship that’s been dubbed a “yacht” because it delivers a yacht-like lifestyle experience — and whose not up for that?
The small ship mostly travels short distances along the Dalmatian Coast (when it’s not in the Seychelles during winter months), departing at sunset and anchoring at port for daytime excursions. With so few passengers and a jaw-dropping passenger to crew ratio, it’s a decadent voyage with no lines or disembarkation groups like bigger ships. It’s a lovely journey, but as you’ll see in my critique, there’s always a little room for improvement! If you’re looking for a sun-kissed, grown-up getaway and the Esprit sounds interesting to you, let’s talk about the Crystal Esprit pros and cons:
Your Cabin: With a crisp, queen-sized bed, large windows, and a spacious bathroom featuring an airy glass shower, double sinks, and what I call a “Trump Hotel-style” TV inside the bathroom mirror, Esprit cabins are modern, chic and comfortable, not ostentatious, which is something a modern, minimalist-loving traveler like me appreciates.
Cabin downside is that there are no balconies which means no sipping cappuccino or martinis in your cozy pjs. The other issue is the air conditioning which can only be adjusted by staff by taking a vent off your ceiling. The Esprit is going into dry dock (or perhaps wet dock) this October, so hopefully that pesky annoyance will be resolved soon.
Your Food and Drinks: If red cabbage soup with gazpacho and grain mustard ice cream sounds like a yummy starter to you, then you’re “a foodie” like me and you’ll wholeheartedly enjoy the meals onboard. Chef Adam told me that he approaches the food service onboard like a restaurant. Unlike his old gig on one of Crystal’s larger ships, there are only 62 disciminating mouths to feed on the Esprit. Chef Adam has forged friendly relationships with local vendors, like a truffle dealer in the food market in Split. The evening meals onboard begin at 7:30 and are definitely a highlight with well-curated menus like your choice of Braised Short Rib, Truffled Mashed Potatoes & Olive Marinate Wagyu Crudo or Cioppino Seafood Stew with a Tomato Saffron Base.
Food downside? Honestly, it’s all incredibly good. A few passengers told me that they’d like even more local specialties, especially some interesting local selections at lunch which mainly features a fresh, seasonal salad bar. I agree. Why not turn up the volume even higher on local, seasonal products across the board? Also, more nibbly bits at the bar. The selection of potato chips and peanuts were okay, but a little bowl of spicy local nuts with my cocktail would be lovely. And another thing: Invite us into the kitchen for a little hands-on cooking class. Better yet, snatch an old granny from Vis and get her onboard to show us a secret Croatian family recipe!
Your Service: With a 1 to 1.5 passenger to crew ratio and staff sourced from Crystal Serenity and Symphony, fab service is one of the highlights. The staff is attentive and warm, not overly formal. We like that. Mr. Scout and I were especially smitten by our butler, Grant, who radiated a genuine kindness. Let me go so far as to say: if I needed a hospice nurse, I’d hire Grant. If I needed a manny, I’d hire grant. If I needed a new friend, I’d hire Grant. Grant. Grant. Grant. He had an inner glow. One night I was stricken with sea sickness while waiting for my lobster entree to arrive at the table and I had to make a mad dash out of the dining room. Grant delivered said lobster to my room shortly after. When I immediately sent the crustacean away, Grant quietly returned and gently placed a tray of chewy ginger candies, ginger ale, and club soda at my bedside. Thank you, Grant.
Service Downside: There were a few weak(ish) links in the dining staff as witnessed by a forgotten espresso, an overlooked cheese fork, a missed glass of Pinot over the week, but most of the waitstaff was on their game. Also, a few guests complained about some miscommunications between the front desk and the water sports team as in: “Can we go swimming off the ship right now?” “No, I’m so sorry you can’t right now.” “Sure, dive in.” But overall, staff was excellent.
More below including excursions that could use an upgrade …
Your Fellow Passengers: Imagine an international floating cocktail party at sea. The sun is setting on the Adriatic and you’re chatting with some interesting, well-traveled characters. Australian horse-breeders. An executive from Disney in LA. Some cheeky Londoners. A businessman from Mexico onboard with his family. You’ll mostly find globetrotting couples in their 40s and 50s, plus a couple of multi-generational family groups. With no elevator onboard, the ship does not cater to elderly passengers and there are no special facilities for young children. During our cruise, there was one ten-year-old traveling with her mother and grandfather and one thirteen year old with her grandparents. No real downside to that from my point of view.
Your Ports and Excursions: Ports on the Croatian itinerary included Venice, Rovinj, Sibenik, Trogir, Vis, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik. Venice and Dubovnik are incredibly beautiful, must-see cities, although in August you need to be prepared for the crushing crowds. Vis was our favorite port, a mysterious little outpost where we biked through town and landed on a quiet little beach. The island of Vis was a closed military base from the 1950s to 1989, so it has escaped major development and its quiet beaches and lovely little towns were what we were expecting from the cruise. Another highlight was trendy Hvar with it’s celebrity-studded yachts anchored in port. Be sure to take the path up to the citadel built on the site of a medieval castle. The views of the town and port below are simply mesmerizing.
In the Downside Category: Most of the passengers we spoke with agreed, the full-day complimentary excursions were too long, especially the first port day in Rovinj where we visited a local farmhouse with an unrelated tour group and ate a dish of communal peka, Croatia’s signature dish of lamb, veal, or fish, with potatoes and vegetables cooked slowly under a metal dome on an open fireplace. A bus ride, a heavy meal of peka, and a visit to the crowded modern town of Pula under grey skies were not highlights, although Pula’s impressive central amphitheater is worth seeing. In the evening, the ancient walls set the scene for rock concerts and ballets. On the second day we visited the glorious waterfalls of Krka National Park, but the park was filled with vacationing families and the trails were packed. After Krka, we were disappointed to sit down for a second family-style lunch at another farm, featuring more peka and grappa. As one fellow passenger put it: “This feels like it’s cut and pasted from a big cruise ship itinerary.”
Entertainment and Enrichment: We spent most of our time onboard atop the beautiful sundeck, sipping cocktails at sunset and soaking up the beautiful scenery. After dinner, some guests gathered in the Cove Bar for piano music and conversation. While the Croatian tour guides that met us on land offered lots of valuable commentary about the sites and history of Croatia, we would have enjoyed hearing more about Croatia’s history from an expert. A night listening to a lecture by a local historian, learning about Croatia’s relationship to Venice, or the Homeland War, or meeting a local chef would have rounded out this indulgent journey. I spoke about this with fellow passengers who agreed: that was missing.
Watersports: The crowning jewel of the Crystal Esprit is its 2-person submarine which is rated to a depth of 50 meters. The submarine can only take passengers below the sea for a limited number of hours each day, which means slots fill up quickly, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate. It’s also worth noting that the Adriatic’s dark waters are not teeming with colorful marine life like the Seychelles, so the submarine experience along the Croatian coast is more about the engineering marvel than the kaleidoscopic sea creatures.
During dinner with the Captain, I learned that maritime law in Croatia is not up to date. Negotiations are underway to get permission for the submarine to dive 300 meters where shipwrecks can be viewed. That would be exciting! For now, the submarine is a shiny gem with somewhat restricted use in these waters.