The Return of Crystal Cruises

July 18, 2022  |  Share:

8 February 2022 marks a date in history, if not of infamy, then at least of great sadness and anguish in the cruise world.

It was on this day that the unthinkable happened in the case of one of our great luxury cruise lines. Crystal Cruises was declared bankrupt and out of the cruise business, an exemplar of travel style that would travel no more.

Or so we thought. To all intents and purposes, it seemed that our ongoing pandemic had finally caught up with an element of the cruise industry that had sailed serenely for 32 years, a victim of worldwide events that saw its Hong Kong-based parent company in unnavigable financial waters.

A cruise line that had begun in a rather ill-starred fashion – the original ship Crystal Harmony had to curtail its maiden voyage in 1990 due to a small engine room fire – had come to a totally inglorious conclusion, despite its well-earned reputation for distinguished and quality-conscious cruising.

The final ignominy heaped on this icon of high style was the two ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, being “arrested” in Freeport in the Bahamas in January over unpaid fuel bills. And there, they languished for more than four melancholy months.

To make matters worse, the sub-brands of Crystal Yacht Cruises, Crystal Expedition Cruises (with the recently-launched Crystal Endeavor) and Crystal River Cruises were all left in limbo, victims of the huge uncertainty that now swirled around parent company Genting.

With much still in doubt, Crystal’s ocean-going sisters were eventually put up for auction in the Bahamas on June 14, and both went to the same (secretive) bidder for a total of $128 million, well above their joint appraised value of $57.5 million.

That figure certainly raised some eyebrows in the cruise world, especially as the only hint of their new owners, according to the Bahamas Tribune, was that the successful bidder was based in London.

But, with the pair officially under new proprietary ownership, they were free to leave Freeport for the first time since January and put out to sea together on June 15. Where they were headed remained part of the mystery, and the guessing games began.

Had they gone to one of the existing six-star lines like Silversea, Seabourn or Regent Seven Seas, cruise observers asked. Perhaps one of the mainstream companies, such as Carnival or NCL, had swooped in, they surmised. Or some new player, ready to make an impact on the cruise world.

As it turned out, the answer was a bit of all three.

A week after the two ships were put to sea, a statement was issued by the Monaco-based Heritage Group declaring that they were the mystery company behind the acquisition, and not only had they bought both vessels but the Crystal Cruises brand name as well.

Even better, the man behind Heritage Group was none other than Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, one of the most distinctive and distinguished executives in the cruise business, and the plans for re-launching the Crystal Cruises brand included multi-million dollar refurbishments for both ships, with a view to returning them to their sea-going pomp in 2023.

As if to underline the premier nature of the line’s return, the relaunch will be a joint venture with the A&K Travel Group, owners of Abercrombie & Kent in America, one of the most quality-conscious travel companies on the planet.

It is a combination guaranteed to not only return Crystal to their previous maritime pinnacle but push them even further into the six-star realm that Manfredi knows so well.

At this point, astute readers will raise their eyebrows and utter words to the effect of, “Well, I never!” And they will be correct. Because, of course, Manfredi was the original driving force behind Silversea Cruises in 1994, thereby creating a new era in luxury small-ship cruising that quickly grew into a completely novel frontier in the market.

His energy, understanding and drive for ocean-going perfection were instrumental in putting Silversea at the forefront of this modern age of deluxe voyaging, so much so that Royal Caribbean eventually swooped in with a $254 million buyout of the line.

That was in 2018, and Manfredi had been looking for a way back into the cruise business ever since. True, he hadn’t stood still, creating the Heritage Group almost immediately and following up in February 2019 with a strategic partnership with Geoffrey Kent, the chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, to jointly acquire 100 per cent of the A&K Group of Companies.

And it is the A&K Travel Group that has become the de facto owner of Crystal Cruises, under the vastly experienced tutelage of Manfredi and Geoffrey.

The combination of luxury cruise savvy and bespoke deluxe travel is, therefore, about the best thing that could have happened to Crystal in the circumstances. The line has gone from the doghouse to the penthouse in one swift transaction.

No wonder Manfredi was cock-a-hoop at the June 22 announcement of the purchase. He said, “I am thrilled to start this new chapter and to be back in an industry that has always had, and always will have, a special place in my heart. When the opportunity arose to acquire Crystal Cruises, I did not think about it twice.”

His words were echoed by Kent, who added, “The idea of combining the unparalleled onboard service that Crystal Cruises is known for, with the extraordinary tailor-made experiences Abercrombie & Kent has been successfully providing for our guests for the past 60 years fills me with excitement, enthusiasm and pride.”

Another former Silversea connection will also be involved, as the new operation will report directly to Cristina Levis, A&K Travel Group’s chief executive and the former managing director of Silversea Expeditions, the discovery-voyaging arm of the company that was created in 2008.

Levis insisted, “My return to luxury cruising after five years brings back so many emotions. It is an immense privilege to serve these two incredible brands that, in the past decades, have disrupted the travel industry numerous times. Manfredi, Geoffrey and I look forward to welcoming past Crystal and Abercrombie & Kent guests onboard, as well as those seeking rewarding luxury experiences.”

As if to complete a proven quartet of cruising excellence, Manfredi also revealed that they would partner with V Ships Leisure of Monaco for all onboard operations once the company resumes sailing. V Ships were the original operators of Silversea, hence there is a vast amount of luxury cruise know-how being brought to bear on the big Crystal Cruises reboot.

Fans of the line will probably be delighted to see how Crystal 2.0 is shaping up, albeit there may also be a hint of caution or even scepticism at the news. The rather sad and perfunctory demise of the original version last January may still be fresh in passengers’ minds, and it’s probably going to take some serious proof-of-pudding work to convince the wary.

But there is no doubt in our minds that both Crystal’s image and future couldn’t be in better hands, and we can’t wait for 2023 to see how Manfredi and Co top their Silversea achievements.

What is YOUR take on the Crystal Cruises news? Are you excited to see them return in 2023? Let us know your thoughts below.

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