Travel Market Report recently spent a week onboard Celestyal Cruises' Celestyal Crystal on a one-week "Idyllic Aegean" cruise around Greece. The port intensive sailing visited seven stops, including one stop in Turkey, and one surprise bonus stop when high winds delayed our arrival into Mykonos.
For advisors who have never sailed with Celestyal, here are a few things to know before recommending the line to clients.
1. Destination Focus/Port Intensive
Probably the most important thing to know about Celestyal is that the focus is always on the destination, not its ships.
Few itineraries include a sea day. On week-long sailings, port calls are typically long, with most starting at 7:30 or 8 in the morning and ending at 7 or 8 in the evening. At marquis ports, like Santorini and Mykonos, port calls often last until late into the night. On sailings that visit Egypt and Israel, itineraries might include full overnights, as well.
On seven-day sailings you'll likely visit six ports; on shorter sailings, you might still visit five or six ports, hitting more than one port a day.
To keep the focus tight, the line only sails to a limited number of countries, visiting ports primarily in the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus), with select itineraries also stopping in Egypt, Israel, and Montenegro. In Greece, Celestyal itineraries visit 15 cities or islands. In Turkey, the line visits up to five cities depending on the itinerary.
Because the focus is on the destination, there isn't much to do on the ships during the day. Only days with late arrivals (or the rare sea day) feature morning activities. Most onboard events start in the mid to late afternoon and include such options as trivia, arts and crafts, language lessons, and dance classes.
The line's ships are small – less than 2,000 people each – and have no bells or whistles to keep people onboard. But again, that's the point, and why cruisers choose the line, because they're in Greece or the Holy Lands, to see the destinations, not to hang out on the ship.
"I like that Celestyal's ships are a little bit smaller, with longer times in ports" said Suzanne Upton, owner of Travel with Suzanne, who led a group of 40 clients on the seven-day cruise.
You don't choose Celestyal for its ships, you choose it for the itineraries, she added.
"We're going to see the archeology, we're going to see the beaches, we're going to see the landscape, we're going for the food, we're going for the culture and Celestyal 100% delivers on all of that."
(A note on the fleet: As of the writing of this article, the line's two-ship fleet comprises Celestyal Olympia and Celestyal Crystal, built in 1981 and 1980, respectively. In September, Celestyal Journey, built in 1994, will replace Celestyal Crystal.)
2. Mediterranean Flavor
As part of the line's destination focus, the onboard experience emphasizes a Mediterranean vibe, from the colors in the public spaces and staterooms to live Greek music every day to a Mediterranean-inspired dining room menu.
On the aforementioned Idyllic Aegean sailing, the house band, El Greco, headlined every sailaway party and played twice every evening. Dining room menus always featured a "Greek favorite" as an entrée, and baklava for dessert. The always-include house beer is Greek (Mythos) and Greek wines are plentiful. A Mediterranean-style Blue Zone dish, curated by celebrity chef Diane Kochilas, is also always on the menu.
In the only specialty restaurant onboard Celestyal Crystal (which is leaving the fleet in September), the six-course menu is Mediterranean through and through from the first course's Cretan octopus to the sixth course's selection of Greek cheeses.
3. International Crowd
English is the official language onboard Celestyal ships, but it might not be the predominant language. Cruisers come from all over the globe and your clients will hear lots of Spanish, French, Turkish, and Greek, among many other languages.
(We love the fact that Celestyal has dinner menus available in almost every language spoken. If you've got Spanish- or French-speaking clients, you can arrange for them to receive menus – and daily programs – in their own language.)
English speakers come from North America, as well as the U.K. and Australia.
TV channels are also in a variety of languages, with only two English-language channels on offer.
For cruisers who enjoy meeting people from other places, a Celestyal cruise is a great opportunity to mix and mingle.
On the flip side, cruisers who prefer being among people who are like themselves, a Celestyal cruise can feel overwhelming, especially on sailings where English speakers might be in the minority. Not everyone around the world follows the same rules of etiquette, and patience is often required. This is especially true during the safety drill when instructions are recited in several languages, leaving everyone standing around for longer. Introductions to shows also take longer, with information repeated in four or five languages before the show gets started.
4. Somewhat Inclusive
Celestyal Cruises offers one of the best values in the Mediterranean, with base cruise fares including port fees and gratuities, house alcoholic drinks and soft drinks at meals, and an $80 shore excursion credit.
Alternatively, you clients can choose to "enhance" their fare, which ups the shore excursion credit to $160, and expands the beverage inclusions to premium hot and cold coffees, cocktails and mocktails (up to €7 each), sodas and juices at restaurants and bars, wine (red, white, rose, and sparkling up to €6 each), and spirits (vodka, rum, gin, whiskey up to €6 each).
The enhanced are also includes a 25% discount on the specialty restaurant and one hour of Wi-Fi access.
Regardless of which fare your clients choose, almost all of the dining onboard is included, with four dishes offered each night at dinner for an upcharge. These include beef tenderloin (€29.95), surf and turf (€49.95), ribeye (€95.95), and wagyu steak (€49.95).
There's also one specialty dining option – a six-course Mediterranean tasting menu – which costs around €60 per person.
One surprising extra is ice cream, which is available throughout the day at a small station by the swimming pool and costs €2.30 for the first scoop and €1.95 for each additional scoop.
(Dining options – and what is and is not included – might change when Celestyal Journey joins the fleet in September 2023. The ship has six restaurants and the line might decide to charge extra for some of these.)
5. Not for Luxury Cruisers
Celestyal Cruises is a value brand. That's not to say the experience isn't good or that service is lacking. But it's not a white glove, fine wine and dining, luxury brand.
The line's two-ship fleet is old. Celestyal Olympia was built in 1981 and the line's newest ship, Celestyal Journey, which joins the fleet in September 2023, was built in 1994.
Again, that is not to see the ships aren't well taken care of; they are. In some aspects, the age of the ships is beneficial to clients – standard cabins are larger than what you often find on newer ships, and there's more open deck space.
With the addition of Celestyal Journey, the line will finally have a larger number of balcony cabins, as well as more suites for cruisers who prefer larger accommodations. The higher suite categories even come with butler service.
Crew work hard and are friendly, the dining room staff will often pass special requests onto the chef, and bartenders are quick to learn your name and favorite drink. But clients that prefer high-touch service, luxe accoutrements, and Michelin-style cuisine will not find that on Celestyal.
Nor will they find exclusive land-side touring options. Celestyal doesn't offer private concerts at Ephesus or before-the-museum-opens private tours.
For those clients the luxury lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises remain a better choice in the Eastern Mediterranean.
But don't discount Celestyal for all of your higher worth clients. As Upton pointed out to Travel Market Report, she had clients among her group who spent upwards of $30,000 to fly Delta One who were perfectly satisfied with their junior suite Celestyal Cruises experience.
6. Not for Small Children
Because Celestyal Cruises is so destination focused, and cruisers choose the line to be able to spend time ashore exploring the destinations, there is not a lot of focus onboard activities, including activities for kids. None of the line's ships have kid's clubs. There is no babysitting, no evening pajama parties, and no kids' only dinners so mom and dad can have a meal alone.
On the Idyllic Aegean sailing, there were kids' activities (sometimes with cookies or ice cream) for 3 to 12 year olds from 4 to 6 most evenings, and there was a teens-only disco most nights at 10:30. And that was it.
Families that want to spend all their time together and have kids that can occupy themselves while onboard are a perfect fit for Celestyal. Those that want someone else to occupy their kids or need attractions like a splash pool or a waterslide are not.
7. Trusted by Tour Groups
Celestyal Cruises might not be as well known among travel advisors as other cruise brands, but tour operators that advisors often use are familiar with the line.
On the Idyllic Aegean sailing mentioned above, there were both Gate 1 and Insight Vacations groups onboard. While the presence of such groups won't affect your clients, you can be reassured that these companies trust Celestyal with their clients.
8. Considering Preparing Experienced Cruisers
Advisors putting past cruise clients on Celestyal Cruises might want to prepare them ahead of time, particularly if they've been on a cruise in the past two years.
Stepping onto a Celestyal ship is a little like taking a step backwards in time. Safety drills are still done in person – lifejacket around your neck, standing in rows (men at the back, women up front) while the cruise director reads from a script over the PA system. Onboard Internet is slow, priced per hour and expensive. There's only one main option for entertainment at night (one somewhat hokey show performed twice each night).
Another thing worth mentioning to past cruisers is the prevalence of other languages, which translates into a long safety drill (all instructions are read in three to four languages), longer intros to shows, and longer overhead PA announcements.
As mentioned earlier, different nationalities have different etiquette rules, with some nationalities not as good about waiting on lines or waiting their turn.
Additionally, though Celestyal, as a brand, has been around since 2014, there may be times crew seem to struggle with how to run things efficiently. On the Idyllic Aegean sailing Travel Market Report was on, shore ex staff didn't bother to let people know when excursions were cancelled. The shore ex brochure didn't list departure times or how long tours were (making it hard, for example, to know when a good time to book a spa appointment was). An onboard expense statement that the cruise director said everyone would get half way through the sailing never appeared.
Pack your patience, and be proactive if you're confused are two good bits of advice to give clients.
"We're in Europe. We're on island time. You're not always going to know all the details. You may have to go ask a question at shore ex," Upton told us she mentioned to her clients ahead of time.