A week-long journey with Crystal Cruises® reveals a playful Pacific coastline and America’s unique ports of call.
BY ERIN LENTZ
“La Bufadora!” Oscar exclaims, pulling the door open to his private van. “Vámonos!”
WE’RE IN ENSENADA, MEXICO, STROLLING THE PORT TOWN’S MAIN DRAG ON A SUNNY JANUARY AFTERNOON. A FRIEND AND I HAVE DEPARTED OUR FLOATING HEADQUARTERS, and Crystal Serenity®, a beautiful, recently refurbished ship, is visible in the harbor and draws onlookers and cameras. It’s day three of our “Coastal California Getaway” itinerary, which traverses the California coast and dips into Mexico. By now, we’ve perfected our sea legs and settled into the rhythm of ocean cruising—a mode of travel somewhat new to both of us. We, too, snap pics of Crystal Serenity® as Oscar, our guide, pulls onto a two-lane highway. The ship’s teak decks and suite patios are peppered with guests admiring Ensenada’s rugged coastline.
As we bump along the autopista and watch Ensenada’s city center fade into the rear-view mirror, Oscar, in broken English, shares a photo of our destination. Ensenada’s famous blow hole, La Bufadora, lies roughly 20 miles from the city center. As we snake up a scenic drive that hugs the Punta Banda Peninsula in Baja, he points to various roadside vendors: a peanut farmer here, a BMW factory there, los ninos playing soccer during school recess.
We quickly gain elevation and watch the Pacific kiss the cliffs. Given the swells over the last two days, each time the ocean crashes into the rocky coastline, it erupts in dramatic spray. We drop into a tiny little fishing town and walk a short pedestrian-only street lined with souvenir shops, ceviche stands, and oceanside bodegas. At the end of the road, we finally reach our anticipated destination. At first I’m not sure what all the fuss is. Yes, it’s a pretty view, but why are so many people here? And then the ocean flexes its muscle, sending a huge wave against the shore, and—poof!—the blow hole sends a massive plume of water skyward, teasing onlookers with its power and beauty.
We watch for nearly 30 minutes, and my friend, an aspiring photographer, leaves with digital eye candy to share with family and friends back home. It’s time for lunch, so we say adios to La Bufadora and Oscar. Today’s second on-shore mission? To find Manzanilla, a tucked-away restaurant in Ensenada’s warehouse district and hailed by foodies as a culinary must.
It doesn’t disappoint. We laze over a three-course affair that includes a fresh mahi ceviche so divine that we order a second. Angel, the bartender, pairs our seafood with artful cocktails, ferrying two Celery Margaritas topped with corn ash salt across the bar. This decadent meal becomes a trip highlight, and it’s during this very lunch that we discuss Crystal’s ultimate appeal: When journeying by ocean, each day is greeted with a different view, and surprising new discoveries like Manzanilla are all but guaranteed.
While experiencing Crystal’s “Coastal California Getaway,” I’ll quickly realize you don’t have to cross oceans to feel perfectly removed.
Cruise Control > The New Crystal Serenity®
After docked for nearly four weeks in Bremerhaven, Germany, Crystal Serenity® re-emerged last November after an extensive refurbishment. Similar to the lauded changes aboard the Crystal Symphony®, it features new, butler-serviced Seabreeze Penthouse and Suite accommodations. “Guests appreciate that the suites are as modern and comfortable as they are elegant and luxurious—a delicate but important balance,” says Hotel Director Scott Peterson. “Many guests have commented on the spa-like bathrooms and convenient amenities.” Though our suites are indeed decadent, we’re most impressed by our personal butler, José, who anticipates our arrival with bites and bubbles. His genuine enthusiasm for cruising is infectious and he becomes a favorite aspect of our journey.
While dining on fresh-from-the-sea yellowtail jalapeno at the Nobu Matsuhisa-helmed Umi Uma during our first night aboard, we quickly discover Crystal Serenity®’s other buzz-worthy improvement: open-seating dining. We have memorable meals at nearly every onboard restaurant, including the Italian-influenced Prego, yet Umi Uma tempts us back to its stylish sushi bar three times. “The dining experiences on board are second to none and are consistently among our guests’ favorite elements of their onboard experience,” Peterson adds. “Guests love coming back and seeing so many familiar faces and being greeted like a member of the family. Travelers aboard Crystal ships are immediately welcomed ‘home,’ whether it’s their first sailing or their hundredth.”
What’s more, Crystal Serenity® now features a redesigned lounge and entertainment venues, including the Stardust Club and Palm Court; a production called “Crystal on Broadway, The Show;” and new interactive technological amenities. And the Crystal Spa & Salon is reason enough to take a week-long cruise. Whether booking cutting-edge medi-spa treatments or a classic massage, spa-ing while at sea is divine.
5 Qs with Nobu Matsuhisa
Step inside Umi Uma Restaurant, the decorated chef’s only sea-going outpost.
What destinations have you traveled to that have inspired your cuisine?
By traveling around the world, I experience many new ingredients and cooking styles. I usually go to the local market looking for some new ingredients. The most inspiring time for me is when I come across new ingredients and I think about new dishes.
How does Umi Uma best showcase the signature Nobu culinary experience?
You should eat the food you want to eat in the moment, so tell our chefs what you have a taste for.
In crafting the Crystal onboard dining concept, what was your vision?
Good food and service are needed on both land and sea. I focus on how to make each guest happy and relaxed when they are dining on the ship.
How would you describe food as the ultimate connector when traveling?
Balanced food is very important, and also has to be fun and enjoyable every time you eat at your destination.
What is your current dream trip?
I would love to go to a peaceful place with warm weather, where I’m totally relaxed.
Travel with Impact > Voluntourism
“Crystal has the most comprehensive enrichment and entertainment offerings in the luxury segment of the cruise industry,” says Peterson. As such, we experience first-hand how Crystal is a trailblazer in voluntourism. During our port stay in San Francisco, we opt for a shore excursion to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Alongside fellow cruisers and local San Franciscans, we spend an afternoon bagging rice for families and elderly in need. The outing not only spotlights the award-winning Crystal Cares Voluntourism program, but further connects us to the San Francisco community.
“Volunteers are operationally necessary for the Food Bank,” explains San Francisco-Marin Food Bank Community Engagement Manager Cody Jang. “Over 38,000 people volunteer each year in the warehouse, helping to prep food for distribution to our neighbors. This means gleaning large bins of produce or dry goods, checking for quality, and assembling into useful sizes for our partners. This volunteer force packs over one million pounds of food a month, all in service of our 48 million pounds of food distributed last year. The work of volunteers is critical to helping the Food Bank maintain the ratio of 60 percent of distribution being fresh produce.”
During our volunteer shift, we work swiftly to Eighties rock and collectively box 735 pounds of rice in just a few hours. We trade cruise stories with fellow guests and afterward Jang gives us a full tour of the facility. He explains it opened in 1997 and is lined wall-to-wall with food supplies, and that the aforementioned 60 percent of fresh produce is sourced directly from farms. The food bank depends on daily volunteers, delivers six days a week, and every single dollar donated translates to $5 of food. And with one in four of the bank’s neighbors at risk for hunger, it serves 144,000 people every week. We depart the bank feeling like we’ve contributed to something larger than ourselves while vacationing, and it leaves a lasting impression. Colorado-based Crystal guest Terry Hardie explains, “I enjoy volunteering with a number of non-profits in Colorado, and I liked the fact that volunteer opportunities were offered instead of just shore excursions.”
Ports, Please > The Call of California
Though it’s easy to lounge each day aboard the ship, highlights of each stop reveal an itinerary chock-full of adventure.
Not to Miss: Just a short walk from where Crystal Serenity® docks, San Francisco’s bustling Ferry Building Marketplace is a one-stop shop for source-to-fork restaurants, unique home décor, and regional wine. Try the local favorite Slanted Door for authentic Vietnamese fare or the famous Hog Island Oyster Bar for raw oysters and views of San Francisco Bay.
Oenophile: Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is a top-draw for wine aficionados. Visit Paradise Springs Winery for a flight of notable reds (the 2015 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir is a standout) and then walk across the street to Riverbench Winery and sample outstanding single-vineyard sparkling wines. Alternatively, Crystal offers the Solvang and Santa Ynez wine tasting shore excursion, during which you can blend your own signature wine.
Seascape: La Jolla. The Crystal Serenity® docks in downtown San Diego—which means top attractions like the San Diego Zoo and USS Midway Museum are easily accessible. If wanting to explore a bit further, take a short drive to La Jolla and go sea kayaking along its famous coves, stroll the pedestrian-friendly walkway along La Jolla Beach, and then shop local boutiques on Girard Avenue.
Point of View: Airport in the Sky. Our cruise ended with an exclamation point when waking up to views of Catalina Island. Visit the famous Catalina Island Casino (William Wrigley Jr. commissioned its construction in 1929 to mark the 10-year anniversary of his purchase of the island), or opt for a 4X4 adventure in tricked-out ATVs to the Airport in the Sky, where you’re rewarded with an unforgettable bird’s-eye view of the island and LA’s skyline.
Crystal Cruises celebrates itineraries anchored in local culture and experiences. Enter OFFER M19059 on our website to discover more.