In cruising parlances, if Regent Seven Seas, as a cruise line, is at the top of the pyramid, by virtue of its more complete ‘All Inclusive’ tag, it is true to say that on the next level down you may find Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea, all jockeying for position.
Whereas both Silversea and Seabourn have launched new ships in recent years, targeting the luxury expedition market, Crystal remain with their two ocean going ships (‘Symphony’ and ‘Serenity’) and have turned instead towards European river cruising, even going so far as to buy up the ship yards responsible for building their ships. This was as a result of the 2015 takeover of Crystal Cruises by Genting Hong Kong.
Several months later the acquisition of ‘Megastar Taurus’, was turned round into the luxury yacht ‘Crystal Esprit’, by the end of the same year. Almost simultaneously, Crystal announced that it would also build its own planes, originally intended to offer round the world trips and private jet tours. Since then there has been a shift in their marketing policy and Crystal Luxury Air will now charter out the full plane, aimed at private and corporate groups rather than selling individual seats. The NHL will apparently be one of its first charter customers.
As part of its ambitious plans, both ‘Crystal Symphony’ and ‘Crystal Serenity’ are due to enter dry dock for extensive renovations and refits within the next year or so. ‘Symphony’ is due to be renovated in October 2017, so whilst my ship visit was very interesting, it would have been even better to see it post refit!
Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that ‘Crystal Symphony’ was launched in 1995. The 51,044 tonne ship is fresh, light and contemporary, testament to the 3 or more makeovers she has had in that time, continually overhauling and modernising public areas and restaurants, as well as freshening up and improving old favourites like Silk Road, Prego and even the Computer University @ Sea (currently boasting at least 25 computer terminals including those in the adjacent Internet Cafe).
Its 2017 dry dock visit, termed the ‘Evolution of Crystal Luxury’ will drop passenger capacity from 922 to 848 with the replacement of smaller accommodations with 28 new penthouses and 12 new penthouse suites on Seabreeze deck (9). Free wifi will be made available to all passengers (currently 60 minutes per passenger per day is complimentary).
The main dining room will be renamed The Waterside, similar to those eateries on Crystal’s European river cruise ships and feature open seating throughout, with more tables for 2 and 4 people. Silk Road will be renamed Umi Uma (a new Nobu restaurant), Silk (a Chinese street food type venue) is to be created next to The Trident Bar & Grill and The Lido Café will be renamed The Marketplace and transform into a Brazilian churrascaria at night, offering a complimentary welcome Caipirinha. Several public spaces will also be reimagined: on ‘Symphony’ this will include the mid-ship Starlite Club, a hub for evening dancing and cocktails.
We congregated for our ship visit in the stylish and elegant Palm Court – the airy and bright observation lounge, towards the top of the ship and decked out in calming greys, silver and turquoise. There is a central bar and a large dance floor (complete with gentlemen hosts) surrounded by seating. Afternoon tea and evening hors d’oeuvres are served here.
Other bars on board have their own individual style and ambience and include the Crystal Cove in the stunning Atrium on deck 5 (great for pre-dinner drinks as it is near the main restaurant), the Starlite Club (also on deck 5) which whilst basically a show lounge also acts as a lecture venue, hosts the resident Crystal Sextet band and has a bar and disco and the Avenue Saloon – a splendidly restful dark wood paneled room with a mahogany bar and plantation style shutters. Next to it is the Connoisseur Club, which is the only indoor spot allowing cigar smoking. On deck, don’t forget the casual Trident Bar (and Grill), close to the Lido Café.
One of Crystal’s enduring attractions is their enrichment program, which ranges from arts and craft workshops and wine tastings to the incredibly popular making movies on iPads events, in conjunction with the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Itineraries with multiple days at sea, allow plenty of time to immerse yourself in additional offerings from the Creative Learning Institute (languages courtesy of Berlitz), health and wellness through the Cleveland Clinic and even tai chi from the Tai Chi Cultural Centre.
Odyssey Art at Sea offers a series of workshops, each cruise, hosted by art specialists and Crystal Visions is the guest speaker programme. Other less formal pursuits available include the well-stocked library (2000+ books and shelves full of audio books and DVDs), the Hollywood Theatre cinema, screening matinees and evening shows and the Bridge Lounge which doubles as a presentation venue (as well as being the focal point of Crystal themed Bridge Holidays). There is even a well-equipped casino.
‘On deck’ activities are similarly extensive: ‘Crystal Symphony’ has a paddle tennis court, a proper lap pool, a wraparound promenade deck where 3.7 laps equates with a mile and a fitness programme for walkers termed ‘Walking on Water’, where guests wear weighted cotton vests and take a stroll! In true Crystal style (providing the tiniest detail) there is also a golf driving range, complete with an onboard professional golf instructor and the choice of club from three strategically placed half sets.
The Crystal Spa is Asian themed both in terms of décor and treatments. The ambience is created by the staff, rather than the spa itself, which lacks the more modern décor and treatments found on other ships. There is also a fully equipped Fitness Centre as well as complimentary classes in activities like yoga, Pilates, core conditioning, circuit training and aqua aerobics. You will even find occasional pieces of fitness equipment secreted away on the aft decks – so you can have a mini work out whilst sailing along!
Evenings on board Crystal ships are a bit more low-key. In addition to the dining options (see below) and the bars and entertainments already mentioned, there are also productions (typically twice nightly) in the main theatre venue, the 500 seater Galaxy Lounge.
Crystal attracts a large following of returning guests as well as others who are attracted by the confidence of the brand in terms of service, luxury and maintenance of standards (including not tinkering with favourites that don’t need fixing!) to celebrate special occasions. I am sure that the overall cruise experience is such that the major niggle that I noticed is well suppressed: the leading cabins are not particularly spacious for a luxury ship. I saw a B1 grade balcony/verandah stateroom described as ‘deluxe’ but only measuring 202 sq ft + 42 sq ft balcony (cf 194 sq ft + 54 sq ft for a ‘Celebrity Equinox’ balcony cabin).
Oceanview staterooms (there are no inside accommodations) are the same size, with pleasingly large picture windows, but minus the balcony area. 85% of staterooms have balconies/verandahs. The beds were fabulously comfortable, but the loveseat would have been a squash for two people and to my mind the small size bath in the bathroom not only reduces necessary space, but is too short to use as a bath. The double washbasins and Etro toiletries are a nice touch though. ‘Crystal Symphony’ has 3 accessible staterooms, 26 connecting cabins and 100 staterooms with a 3rd berth, useful for family groups (unlike most luxury cruise lines Crystal also offer ‘Surfer Runner’ a kids club for 3-12 year olds and 'Teen Scene' for 13-17 year olds, as well as Crystal’s Kids Sail Free on selected sailings).
There are a small number of ‘Pure’ staterooms with hypoallergenic features. In my opinion, the Penthouse accommodations are more in keeping with the 6* luxury that Crystal profess to offer: coming in 3 sizes, from 367 sq ft up to a whopping 982 sq ft (Crystal Penthouse suite with verandah), they all have a neutral colour palette based on ivory, taupe and sand tones with lots of stone on surfaces.
Each Penthouse has a walk in closet, a separate whirl pool tub and shower, the Penthouse suites have separate living and bedroom space (often with a dining table usefully secreted to not detract from the overall floor area) and all balconies are longer than industry standards, typically the width of 2 standard cabins. All Penthouse suites benefit from Butler service providing afternoon canapes, replenishing mini bars and complimentary course by course served room service. This relates to orders from the main dining room, Silk Road and Prego or a combination of all three!
My stand out areas of the ship were The Atrium/Crystal Plaza, a dazzlingly light and airy space decorated with wood effects, greys, taupe and glass. There is a 2 deck high waterfall, dropping into a small pool, decorated with a golden statue of a dancing couple. The sound of water adds to the tranquillity of this large passenger space, along with a broad selection of seating, surrounding the Reception, Shore Excursions, Future Cruise desk as well as a local Tourist Information station (the first time I have seen this actually on board a cruise ship) and a sweeping stair case leading up to the 3000 sq ft of shops on board ‘Crystal Symphony’, termed ‘Avenue of the Stars’.
Another highlight was the pool deck, featuring the Seahorse pool and large rectangular jacuzzi (reputedly for up to 20 people) with its wide selection of white rattan effect chairs, settees, sun loungers and even double sun loungers highlighted with orange and turquoise cushions. There was plenty of walking space and some loungers considerately placed in the shade. These furniture combinations are carried through into The Trident Gar & Grill area (see below), which successfully replaced the Neptune pool in a previous refit.
There are up to 9 different places to eat on ‘Crystal Symphony’ (including room service) and the signature restaurants are a significant part of Crystal’s 20 year unparalleled success, most notably Silk Road & The Sushi Bar, designed by Nobu Matsuhisa, the renowned sushi chef. Silk Road serves Japanese food fused with European and Peruvian influences, offering both sushi and Nobu style menus, including dishes like the signature black cod with miso, grilled wagyu beef rib-eye steak, vanilla and coconut tapioca soup with green tea ice cream and sweet ginger crème brulee.
On the other hand, The Sushi Bar offers traditional and nouveau varieties all prepared in front of you and including salmon tartar with caviar, white fish sashimi and the classic favourite California sushi rolls. Unsurprisingly, Silk Road is the most popular restaurant on board both Crystal ships. Although all passengers receive one complimentary meal at Silk Road (and Prego) during their cruise, as both only open for dinner, book early and pre cruise for the best choice of dates and time. Additional visits are charged at $30 pp.
Prego is the Italian restaurant on board ‘Crystal Symphony’ (since its launch) and its menus change dependent on the availability of fresh ingredients. It includes dishes like the signature mushroom soup served in a bread cup, lavender-infused duck or striped bass, with exotic Italian desserts including Affogato (a twist on tiramisu) and deconstructed cannolo.
Dinner in other venues on ‘Crystal Symphony’ is similarly a memorable experience in terms of both quality of cuisine and attentiveness of service. The ultimate dining experience is to be found in The Vintage Room, where up to 10 people can enjoy a 7 course evening menu paired with a wine per course for a charge of approx. $200 pp. Alternatively there is a similar 4 course lunch menu, priced at $75 pp. The main restaurant offers French style cuisine in the shape of a ‘modern’ (eg. beef tartar with anchovy emulsion, broiled Chilean sea bass, blackcurrant trifle or sherbet) or a ‘classical’ menu (chicken fricassee, soup and salad, a pasta course and mains like king crab legs, beef Wellington, coq au vin or vegetarian risotto).
As with most cruise lines there is also a range of staple dishes always available, eg. New York strip or broiled salmon as well as lighter dishes (more substantial salads teamed with a smaller meat portion) and attention is also paid to other dietary requirements and children (in the guise of a special Kids menu).
There are more choices for breakfast and lunch: in the main restaurant, breakfast encompasses pastries, continental style breakfast and congee (Chinese rice porridge) through eggs (anyway) to grilled lamb chops and The Japanese (miso soup with grilled salmon and sticky rice). Lunch is equally extensive with appetizers, salads, pasta, sandwiches and hot entrees (always including a burger option).
These choices are mimicked in The Lido (‘Symphony’s’ buffet restaurant, but not open 24 hours) and where in a nice touch and attention to detail, ice buckets for white wine were very much in evidence. The Lido offers 3 timings for breakfast: 5-6.30am (coffee), 6.30-7.00am (early riser’s buffet) and 7.00-10.00am (full buffet breakfast).
More casual dining on deck includes The Trident Bar & Grill on the Lido deck (or under the magrodome roof in inclement weather), open from 10.00-11.00am (late risers’ breakfast) and then 11.30am – 6.00pm for made to order fast food. The burgers, wraps and grilled chicken dishes are particularly popular. For dessert hop over to the Ice Cream Bar (same hours as the Trident Grill), serving up a variety of Ben & Jerry’s flavours as well as sugar free varieties and non-fat frozen yogurts and sorbets. There is also an extensive toppings menu!
Back inside, and to one side of the incredibly spacious Atrium is the Bistro. It is open for 15 hours a day, serving a full range of snacks depending on the time of day: fruit, yogurt and bagels at breakfast, cold cuts and cheese at lunch and dinner and hors d’oeuvres and dessert in the evenings. All washed down with great coffee, a glass of wine or champagne. I think this would be one of my favourite eating/people watching spots on board!
All in all, ‘Crystal Symphony’ is a small ship with a big ship feel and a huge touch of class: sink into the luxurious carpets as you walk about this spacious ship or the ridiculously comfortable furniture throughout, take in the cool sophisticated colours of the décor, enjoy the moderate inclusivity of the drinks, or perhaps even the self-service laundry facilities, all served up with a sublimely attentive, genuinely friendly and graceful service. Cruising on a Crystal ship will be memorable.