From January to March every year, the intimate 62-guest Crystal Esprit adopts Victoria as her home port, and sets forth to explore some of the most magical islands in the archipelago. A blissful month prior to lockdown, when the traumas of 2020 were undreamt of, we had the delight of experiencing this very special itinerary as part of my big birthday celebrations.
First of all, the ship itself. Not the prettiest from the outside, but perfection once you step on board, Crystal Esprit is a cruise ship in miniature: the spacious and beautifully decorated accommodation, with excellent bathrooms but no balconies, are a butler-serviced haven. Public areas are fresh and sophisticated, with sparkling glass and extensive sea views. Plenty of deck space gives you time to enjoy the glorious vistas, with a welcoming plunge pool and inviting outdoor grill. A marina at the back is perfect for watersports, and the two-person submarine is launched from here too, or you can board a zodiac which will whisk you ashore to explore.
Beyond outstanding, the food is better than we have experienced on any other ship, ever. At the pass, open to the room, diners can watch the team of chefs put the final touches to each course, which is delivered with a flourish, beautifully presented and prepared with the finest ingredients. Casual breakfast and lunchtime dining, al fresco if you wish, at the Patio Café or Sunset Grill on the top deck, is an alternative delight.
With just 62 guests to care for, the 90 crew are really able to take the time to get to know you, learning your routine before you even realise you have one, and keeping an eye on the flow of your day to be able to surprise you with a treat, or second guess your plans.
The Seychelles itinerary is a little bit different, a combination of wildlife and water babies, beach and birdwatching, with pristine sands and deliciously clear ultramarine waters. For the more active, hiking and watersports are an appealing option - but lazing on a daybed watching the lush emerald mountains, sugar white beaches and extraordinary granite boulders is a unique experience in itself.
Prior to joining the ship, we stayed at one of the pricey hotels on the west coast (the Constance Ephélia). Our sea view suite was comfortable, with a spacious patio where we could watch the world go by. The service was a little bit lackadaisical, and the dining, buffet-style, was well presented but slightly mass-market. We didn't have time to try out one of the speciality restaurants, but at £150 a head for a rather uninspiring menu we didn't feel we'd missed out. A sandwich lunch by the pool for two, with two beers, once we'd added the gratuity, came to just under £100.
Once on board Crystal Esprit we ordered a glass of Champagne on deck, settling to watch the sun set behind the island of Sainte Anne, with a blissful sense of wellbeing and no bill to pay.