I've always despised it when someone says they gave "110 per cent". No, you didn't. You gave, at best, 100 per cent. That's it. That's the maximum possible. So when I was offered the chance to experience "six-star ocean cruising" from Auckland to Hobart on the refurbished Crystal Serenity (just a small part of its world cruise), I did an inward eye-roll even as I seized the opportunity with both hands. Because it doesn't get any better than five stars, surely? The Oxford Dictionary defines five-star as "the highest class or quality". So Crystal Serenity can't possibly offer a six-star experience … can it?
In a nutshell: oh, yes it can.
It turns out six-star cruising denotes luxury travel at the highest level, with an all-inclusive fare that covers dining, beverages, gratuities, enrichment programmes and more — and Crystal ranks at the top of the six-star cruise lines, judging by independent websites. It prides itself on offering one of the best staff-to-guest ratios and per-guest space ratios, and is the world's most awarded cruise line.
The Crystal experience begins the moment my buddy Lauren and I board our impressive-looking ship, glasses of champagne gratefully accepted. We toast our good fortune and gaze around the impressive atrium: spacious and modern but with a timeless charm. Late last year, Crystal Serenity underwent an extensive refurbishment and everything about the ship radiates quality. But we've heard the true essence of Crystal lies with its crew: professionals chosen for their expertise and winning personalities, and for whom nothing is too much trouble. That's confirmed pretty much immediately.
Nicolas greets us and guides us through the check-in process and escorts us to our stateroom. He's not a porter but, as he explains, staff from all areas of the ship lend a hand when passengers come on board. They're from all corners of the globe — 45 countries are represented aboard Serenity.
Nico is an ace bartender and very good at small talk. Before he leaves us, we've learned this charmer is from Argentina and he's learned our favourite cocktails, which he promises to have waiting for us when we visit his bar. But will he remember our similar names, and who likes which drink? "Of course!" Nico replies, and little do we know that this is the Crystal catchcry. Of course. Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for Crystal guests.
The Crystal Serenity staterooms are luxurious but we've being extra-spoiled with a Seabreeze Penthouse: more than 37sq m of sumptuousness. There's a spa-like bathroom (the shower alone seems bigger than my en suite at home) with toiletries from Italian fashion house Etro; a walk-in wardrobe with slippers and robes; a fully stocked fridge with wine and mixers (a simple phone call will summon the spirits, apparently); and a spacious veranda. The new decor showcases gemstone-coloured velvets, natural materials and brushed brass with marble, and the beds have lush feather toppers, Egyptian cotton sheets and goosedown pillows; they'll prove to be the most comfortable beds we've ever slept in. The couch feels comfortable enough to sleep on too, and with a flat-screen TV as well as complimentary Wi-Fi, we feel right at home immediately.
As our luggage arrives, so does Jose. Did I mention our penthouse also comes with a butler? Jose is from the Dominican Republic. He's tall, handsome and bearing a bottle of champagne on ice. For us? "Of course!". He offers to unpack our cases, press our garments and shine our shoes, bring any food or drinks we might desire, and make spa reservations for us.
Jose promises to bring canapes every afternoon as he restocks our fruit and chocolate supplies, before melting away and leaving us to enjoy our drinks as we look back towards Auckland. We somehow suspect we won't be missing our hometown over the next six days.
Which brings me to my only pre-cruise concern. Once our voyage gets under way, it'll be three full days before we're on land again. What will we do for all that time? Can we really keep boredom at bay? Of course.
For a start, there are recreational pursuits. Each day, we can feast on a smorgasbord of activities: waltz into dance classes, bend over backwards at yoga, tune into keyboard lessons, or make a bid to learn bridge in the dedicated lounge.
Feeling crafty? Attend a knitting class or a silk dyeing session. Want to exercise your brain? Take up the trivia quiz challenge, learn how to make a movie with your phone or tablet, or attend a lecture: the Crystal Cruises' enrichment programme features thought leaders and world-class experts (these are also recorded and can be accessed via stateroom TV).
And for those who don't want to pile on the kilos, there's a large, well-equipped gym, a walking track, paddle tennis courts and a golf clinic.
If all that is too much effort, there's plenty of passive recreation on offer. Catch a new-release movie on the big screen at the Hollywood Theatre, or choose from the hundreds available on the in-suite entertainment system; head to the library and borrow a board game or a book or relax in one of the many lounge areas around the ship (it takes us two days to discover a sunny aft deck just metres from our suite where we can loll on daybeds without sharing our space with another soul).
The Serenity atrium, where we boarded the ship, is popular with its stunning stained-glass ceiling, soothing fountain and adjoining Lobby Bar with a baby grand piano, serving sophisticated drinks and entertainment.
Even though there are 800 passengers on board (the ship has a capacity of 980), at no time does any area feel crowded.
If retail therapy is your (designer) bag, then being in the middle of the ocean doesn't need to be a hindrance. Duty-free boutiques on board are an ideal chance to pick up a new Tag Heuer watch, perhaps, or a Swarovski crystal-embellished kaftan to float about in.
Perhaps a lucky streak at the casino could boost the budget?
And what cruise ship would be complete without the swimming pool? The Seahorse Pool is a particularly stunning example with an array of loungers, daybeds and couches, and two attached spa pools for when the mercury drops.
At times a live band plays, at others DJ Emotion spins some tunes.
The pool becomes our favourite haunt, especially once we meet Benjamin. He's a pool attendant from the Philippines who memorises our names immediately, offers champagne in the very next breath, and then does the rounds every afternoon with the cocktail of the day (or whatever else we might fancy), as well as water and snacks. He has a smile that could brighten the dullest day.
The pool is the perfect place to people-watch, as fellow passengers cross the Lido deck to drink at the Sunset Bar or indulge in Palm Court's high tea.
Cruise director Gary tells us that the longer the cruise, the older the guests because they're more likely to have the time and the money to indulge themselves — and as the Serenity is on a trip around the world, it's understandable that Lauren and I are in the younger age bracket, although there are a few children and teens on board (they are catered for with their own recreation areas). Gary tells us of fellow passenger Olga — she's done more than 300 cruises (14-16 days long), and I can't help but envy her lifestyle. I wonder if she'd like to adopt a 51-year old daughter?
But all of these pastimes are just a prelude to the real recreation on board — eating and drinking.
In a change of policy from many cruise lines, open seating is available aboard Crystal ships in most dining venues, allowing guests to dine at their leisure for breakfast, lunch and dinner at a restaurant of their choice.
Waterside is the largest and opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner (offering a modern and classic menu for the latter).
Some spaces do double duty. After serving breakfast and lunch, Marketplace transforms into Brazilian steakhouse Churrascaria for dinner, and is a meatlover's dream. Flip your sign from red to green when you want to be loaded up with goodies carved from giant skewers by Crystal's "gauchos", flip it back to red when your stomach surrenders.
As promised, the cinnamon-grilled pineapple to finish really aided digestion.
We loved Silk Kitchen's Asian menu for lunch, as well as the more relaxed Trident Grill and adjacent Scoops Ice Cream Bar. The French-inspired Bistro is a great spot for grabbing a snack and is open most of the day — one morning, Lauren and I are slightly embarrassed to find ourselves enjoying a second breakfast, because the coffee smelled so good as we passed by on the way back from breakfast number one.
But it's the Michelin-level specialty restaurants that get the most attention. I have a delightful dining experience at famed master chef Nobu Matsuhisa's Japanese-Peruvian Umi Uma (although Lauren is not terribly keen on seafood, so her experience is somewhat more limited), but it's Northern Italian-inspired Prego that is the standout.
It's fair to say my meal here (Prego's signature cream soup of Italian mushrooms, served in an oregano bread cup, followed by slow-roasted pumpkin ravioli and finished off with an affogato dessert) is the best dinner I've had in years — possibly ever.
To enable each passenger to experience the specialty dining venues, you're generally restricted to one reservation per cruise and further bookings are subject to availability and a nominal fee.
It's worth noting that penthouse passengers can order room service at any time from the speciality restaurants. The dishes arrive course by course.
But we love the decor and service at Prego so much we go back a second time — and though my brain is telling me to sample something else from the menu I order the same meal I enjoyed the first time.
And once again: delizioso!
After dark, there's plenty to see, do and listen to. On the first night, our new friend John drags us into Pulse nightclub where DJ Emotion is spinning the discs. We are the only people here, but it's fun trying some dance moves and belting out karaoke classics without a huge audience. John may be 80-something but he knows how to show two Kiwi girls a good time.
Our favourite night spot by far though is Avenue Saloon, where Dan (a Sydneysider who's lived in LA for the best part of a decade) is our piano man as we sip espresso martinis and call out requests.
"Of course!" comes back the by-now predictable reply. Dan's rendition of the Phantom's Music of the Night is a voyage highlight, and he chats to us about how much he enjoys the cruise ship life; his wife and daughter join him for part of the trip.
Perhaps the most memorable evening is not spent on board however, but at our first port of call: Sydney. Although I've been there many times, I've never arrived by ship, and the view as we anchor slightly out of the city is astounding, the harbour bridge and opera house visible from our veranda.
Naturally, our arrival is also toasted with delicious cocktails that staff deliver to the many vantage points where passengers have assembled.
After a day of sightseeing and shopping ashore, we decide to visit Serenity's salon before heading back to the city for our booked excursion (such trips one of the few things that are additional to the Crystal fare).
Stylist Rachel hails from the UK and though very much younger than her clients, says working on a cruise line is a great way to see the world.
The faultless service begins with a glass of champagne.
And so it is with chic up-dos and fancy frocks that we head back to shore on our tender just as thunderclouds threaten to unleash their fury.
We make it to the Sydney Opera House in time to watch the city light up, then head inside for more theatrics. I've never seen a show here before, so to experience a wonderful production of Puccini's La Boheme in such a stunning location is a treat, doubly so for Lauren as it's her first opera experience.
After days of stunning weather, the voyage from Sydney to Tasmania comes as a bit of a shock as the winds rise, rain falls and waves swell dramatically. It's the first proper test of our sea legs, but a after preventative anti-nausea pill we are able to plot out a day filled with culinary delights and blockbuster movies — just perfect when outside pursuits are not an option.
When we berth the following day in the beautiful harbour city of Hobart, it is with genuine (and extreme) reluctance that Lauren and I leave Crystal Serenity, treasuring special memories and, in my case at least, carrying a couple of extra kilos. I'm reminded of what Lee from Florida, on his 27th cruise, told me earlier in the trip: "We keep coming back to Crystal. Why? Because we're treated well. Of all the cruise lines, Crystal has the best service. Hands down, number one."
After only a week of experiencing this famed service, we have become alarmingly accustomed to it and it's a shock to have to queue (and pay for) our lunch at Hobart airport.
Would I travel in six-star luxury on Crystal Serenity again? Of course. You bet. 110 per cent.