We were four hours out of Lisbon at the start of a 10-day voyage to Fort Lauderdale when Crystal Serenity cruise director Gary Hunter greeted passengers in the ship's theater.
''We normally carry 1,080 passengers, but on this cruise we've only got about 500 guests and a staff of 655,'' Hunter said.
``We've finally got you outnumbered.''
Then Hunter grinned. ''I thought about assigning one crew member to every guest,'' he said, ``but I looked out and realized that some of you need two.''
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No problem. As our voyage continued, it seemed that the entire staff was at our beck and call, attesting in part to why Crystal consistently gains accolades as a leading purveyor of luxury at sea -- including designation as the world's best large-ship cruise line by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine for 11 consecutive years (1996-2006).
The Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, the Los Angeles-based line's two-ship fleet, have won awards for best service, best cultural enrichment, best cuisine, best entertainment and best spas while sailing to every continent.
Many passengers return time and again.
What's behind this remarkable success? My self-appointed mission was to soak in as much pampering as possible -- well, somebody's got to do it -- and try to discern why Crystal is No. 1.
A knock on the stateroom door interrupted the unpacking routine.
''Welcome back!'' a tuxedo-clad gentleman said, presenting a bottle of champagne.
''Ural!'' my wife and I shouted in unison upon recognition.
Ural Korkmaz, a native of Turkey, was our butler eight years earlier aboard the Crystal Symphony as we sailed through the Panama Canal. Now, let me pause to say that we're not butler people; I'm more comfortable carrying an ice bucket to the self-service machine at a Comfort Inn. But once or twice each decade, I find myself in a butler's presence. Crystal devotes an entire deck to suites with butler service, and with an unusually light passenger load we'd been upgraded.
I remembered Korkmaz for his smile and dedication, and for the caviar he'd delivered each day prior to dinner on the Panama Canal cruise.
It's like that on Crystal -- from Filipino deck stewards who greet passengers by name to Canadian pianists who never seem to forget a guest's favorite Broadway song.
Josef Lumetsberger, the hotel director who supervises the Serenity's passenger service, suggests that staff continuity is a key to Crystal's high standards.
''We have so many stay with us year after year, and I like to think there are reasons they do,'' Lumetsberger said. ``We arrange special activities for the crew -- late-night music in a passenger lounge, dinner in a restaurant, formal nights. We know they work hard, and we want them to be happy.''
Physician Herb Keyser, who lives in San Antonio, has delivered more than 8,000 babies for a living. In his spare time, he's toiled as a TV actor, a singer and a dancer. He's written books on food, travel and medicine (including Prescription for Disaster: Health Care in America).
But Keyser wasn't aboard the Serenity to discuss any of those topics. Instead, as one of four enrichment lecturers, he dissected the accomplishments and travails of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and other jazz legends.
Keyser is typical of the fascinating personalities who lecture aboard Crystal vessels. The roster last year included Hall of Fame football coach Don Shula, Olympic gold-medal skater Dorothy Hamill, and husband-and-wife Democratic and Republican strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin.
Our November sailing carried a jazz theme, and almost a dozen musicians performed from noon into the wee hours. Other Crystal cruises celebrate film and theater, food and wine, the big-band era and health and fitness. Five 2007 itineraries were offered in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution.
Through partnerships with Berlitz, Yamaha and the PGA, respectively, the line offers free language classes, piano lessons and golf instruction on all cruises.
Land excursions are no less intriguing; passengers can fly a MiG jet over Moscow, test-drive a new Porsche in Leipzig, Germany, or hike nine miles through St. Emilion's vineyards in Bordeaux, France.
But, what about the grub?
FOOD AND FUN
The menu at the Silk Road, Nobuyuki ''Nobu'' Matsuhisa's first floating restaurant, tantalized the taste buds even before I could decide whether to choose lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce, black cod with miso or grilled Wagyu beef.
Silly me, imagining I would get to order.
''Remember me?'' the Silk Road's Filipino maitre d' uttered now-familiar words. ``I was your waiter years ago on the Symphony, and we prepared a special Thai dinner for you. We would like to do the same with Nobu's menu.''
And so the feast began. Soft-shell crab sushi rolls. Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno. Rock-shrimp tempura. Lobster, cod and steak. One sumptuous course after another until we waved a white napkin of surrender three hours later.
The Serenity and Symphony offer Asian and Italian eateries as dinner options to the main restaurant. There is no surcharge, just a small recommended gratuity. Intimate multicourse feasts featuring rare wines can be arranged in a private room. Poolside luncheons include elaborate theme buffets and lighter fare highlighted by Wolfgang Puck's signature Chinois chicken salad.
And it's difficult to determine which is the more elaborate afternoon culinary diversion: Mozart tea, for which waiters dressed in period costumes serve European delicacies, or a festive ''chocoholics'' tea.
Entertainment is top-quality, too. Headliners have included Maureen McGovern and Neil Sedaka.
The ships' spas are designed according to feng shui principles and won top honors in Conde Nast Traveler magazine's 2006 reader poll.
Crystal's large ships allow for more enrichment and entertainment options and more open-deck space. Dining is never rushed. And fares, while hardly reminiscent of Carnival and Royal Caribbean pricing, are low enough that most passengers can afford to purchase booze and wine. Crystal Serenity’s Mediterranean voyages are priced from $2,995 per person, double occupancy, although some promotional fares are lower.