Crystal Symphony

"How fresh was every sight and sound on open main or windy shore! We knew the very world was round, and we might sail for evermore."
THE VOYAGE
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Thus is the quote on the back page of Crystal Cruises 1997 Atlas. But even as I read that for the first time several months ago, I anticipated a splendid trip.

Allow me to get the statistics, history and essentials out of the way first.

Hans and I decided to join the World Ship Society and the Steamship Society of America, Long Island Chapter (of which we are members), on their Crystal Symphony repositioning cruise from San Juan, P.R. to New York. This included stops at Eleuthera Island, Bahamas, Charleston, South Carolina, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and finally, New York City. It was not so much the itinerary we were, at first, interested in but the ship and the opportunity to once again join other Society members who have both the past experiences to share and the present desire to cruise. Because we received an excellent price, we decided to splurge and book a cabin with verandah. I knew the repercusions might well be IĎd be spoiled for a verandah on ANY ship from now on, but Iíll let you know what happened at the end of my review, just to keep you in suspense.

The ship itself, is two years old, having been built in1995 Kvaerner Masa-Yards in Finland, and is the companion ship to the Crystal Harmony, which was built in1990. It is owned and managed by a Japanese company called NYK. There are plans (presently on hold) to build a third ship, the Crystal Melody, before the end of the millennium. The Crystal Symphony weighs in at a bit more, 50,202 grt, than the Crystal Harmony at 48,621 grt. Both ships carry 960 passengers. Our cruise was not at capacity, with only 650 people onboard. The ship was delightfully uncrowded with no waiting for anything. The Crystal Symphony has eight passenger decks in all, three which are exclusively devoted to passenger cabins and one (Crystal Deck Five) which has cabins to the aft of the ship. This is also where the Crystal Dining room is located. We were on Horizon Deck in cabin 8035.

Tuesday, August 26th: We arrived at the pier in San Juan and were very expeditiously processed by the Crystal personnel at the embarkation counter. I noticed as soon as there were three or four couples waiting, another counter would open. This process couldnít be simpler, and went faster than any other embarkation I have experienced. Before we knew it, we were having our first vacation photo snapped, and we were onboard.

The ship is grand! Upon first entering the main lobby, one notices immediately an understated design sense that continues throughout the entire ship, even in the childrenís play room. We came to find that the layout and design of this ship made it extremely easy to find our way around almost immediately. Actually, one self-tour through the ship on the first afternoon, even before we left port, and we had it down pat.

Our cabin was on Deck 8, and we were escorted there by a young Crystal stewardess. I finally had the chance to see my verandah, and I immediately went out and had a seat. Of course, we were still in port and the only thing I could see was the San Juan pier with a few warehouses and a make-shift gym, but I already liked the great feeling of space this added area gave.

Our cabin was designed in light oak and cool shades of pastel green, really very pretty and tranquil. The layout of the cabin allowed for room to walk comfortably around our king-sized bed, and we found ample storage and closet space. The double closet in the cabin also contain appropriate drawers and shoe racks, and when either side of the sliding doors were opened the closet light went on, a small touch that was very handy. There is a plethora of small, almost inconsequential details that other cruise lines have not yet thought of (height-adjustable sofa table also used for room service meals; a light under the full-length entry mirror that also served as a night light; extremely well-constructed cabins with the best insulation I have ever experienced (I hate hearing the guy in the next cabin brushing his teeth every morning, if you know what I mean). We found a phone in the bathroom as well as on the nightstand (complete with voice mail service) and two hair dryers were provided. The vanity-desk area had a phone jack (VERY handy, I must say) and the regular phone also had a disconnectable jack as well, should that need to be used for fax/computer use. There IS a computer onboard for passenger use in the alcove by the library, and an employee we asked indicated that Crystal will be contructing a computer room next to the library in the near future. The true tragedy was that I could not logon to my laptop, as the dial tone and the delay made it impossible to connect.

The bath in our cabin was as complete an assembly of luxuries as I have ever seen. Everything marble and marble tile throughout in blacks, whites, and grays with silver accents. Twin sinks, a tub-shower combo with plenty of room for all I had packed from home . Again, there were small touches and amenities that are usually not standard, even on the more well-appointed ships. We unpacked and went to look around.

I was very pleased to find that the aft areas had shady spots to sit and one deck went completely around the entire ship so an afternoon walk or jog could be done with ease. There was a self-laundry right down the hall from our cabin, should some housewifely muse overcome me. Detergent, bleach, softener all free for the passengers.

Dinner that evening in the Crystal Dining Room was wonderful (mushroom pate, Caesar salads, cold strawberry soup and sea bass, all yummy) and the service by our British waiter Gregory, was flawless, but not stuffy. He was extremely good at what he did and made it seamless from beginning of the meal to the end. But the head maitre dí decided (on his own, without a prior request from either of us) we should have a table next to a window looking out onto the sea and away from a lot of the dining room personnel traffic, but that meant a different waiter, and we came to miss Gregory during the rest of our trip. The staff at our new location tried too hard, and it showed. Every night we answered the same questions five different times in an attempt to reciprocate the small talk the dining room staff must be told to attempt with their passengers. It was very stiff and uncomfortable. Was this an obvious ploy to get as many service people over to a table to (ultimately, perhaps?) garner tips at the end of the cruise? I spoke to several of our traveling companions about this, and they seemed to agree with my assessment. We felt as though we were just going along with a pre-scripted dialogue every night with our waiters, assistant waiters, etc.

Life boat drill the next morning (Wednesday) went well, and the crew explained everything thoroughly and helped anyone new to this ubiquitous event onboard any cruise ship. The crew took it seriously, which I appreciated. That over, our real cruising time could kick in. This was our first day at sea!

A Crystal Enrichment lecturer, Jack Weatherford, who we met briefly while talking with ocean liner historian and writer Bill Miller the day before just after we embarked, gave the most fascinating lectures on the circumstances of the areas we were sailing to from his vantage point as an anthropologist. I have not been so enthralled with a lecture by anyone since my college days. The next day, Bill Miller was to give the first of his three onboard lectures on great ships of the past and those of the present. They were all well attended and as always, Bill was very well-received by his old friends and the new passengers he charmed with his wonderful stories. He didnít stay with our group to New York, instead having to fly home from Philadelphia before our surprise field trip (Iíll tell you more about this later) so he could start school in New Jersey on time.

Later Hans made his appointment for his massage, and I discovered the steam room was out of service for a few days for maintenance. Oh well. Afternoon tea in the Palm Court consisted of not just one or two different teas, but a grand total of 16 teas, including herbals and decafs, complete with the proper tea time accompaniments of scones and fresh cream, jams, finger sandwiches, macaroons, etc. I had the blackcurrant tea and enjoyed a scone with cream. Hans had the green tea and finger sandwiches, all on Wedgwood china and Sheffield silver (the same pattern, incidentally, used by White Star Lines so long ago). Later, on our way back to our cabin for a nap (itís tough eating all that food) we spotted a large quilt hanging in one of the main stairways. I though, "what IS it about quilts and ships that always seem to go together?" and went over to inspect. This was a nine foot square quilt made in 54 "pieces" in the various shades of the same cool pastel green I saw all over the ship, made by various crew, passengers and guests on the 1997 World Cruise. The accompanying plaque indicated that the quilters included 11 countries and 16 United States.

As it was our first full day at sea on this cruise, as is the custom, this would be a formal night and time to meet the captain and his staff at his welcome cocktail party. This was well-attended and very pleasant, but very much like what is done on most cruise ships nowadays. Later that evening, the shipís entertainment was a production of Cole Porter musical numbers. Although we didnít attend, we understand it was entertaining. The next evening, we did stop in to enjoy a comedian, a man who is frequently on National Public Radio named Mike Neun, plus a ventriloquist and a ballroom dance team. Hans and I stopped in one of the smaller, tucked away lounges near the library this evening, and I asked for an after-dinner drink called frambois eau vie, which is something that I cannot find everywhere I ask, as it is a bit obscure. I asked for frambois on the QE2 last year and was surprised that a great, classic ship like her would not have it. The Crystal Symphony did...and served it just the way it should be served, which impressed the hell out of me!

Thursday is Eleuthera and we will be docking at Princessís private cove there, since Crystal does not have facilities on this island. Before we get there, which should be about noon, with tender service beginning at about 1 pm, Bill Miller again gives one of his informative and entertaining lectures on transatlantic liners. In the audience were two gentlemen Bill had just discovered were the film editor and the set designer for "A Night To Remember" about the Titanic. They are here for Billís lectures, and he introduces them to his audience. I must say, I never tire of listening to Bill, and I learn something new every time, too. He is one of the more animated and entertaining storytellers about a subject that is fascinating to me.

Later, on Princess Cay as it is called, we have a wonderful time at the beach. The weather is co-operating and the facilities that Princess Cruises have built for their passengers is far superior to the "private island" facilities NCL has on their own piece of another small Bahama island. In the absence of jet skiis (the ocean was determined to be too rough that afternoon), Hans goes off for a ride on one of those inflated yellow bananas pulled by a motor boat. As I generally don't ride bananas, I stay on shore and take photographs.

Back onboard later: A walk through the casino...like something from Caesarís Palace in Atlantic City...it IS managed and staffed by Caesarís Palace. The specialty shops are arranged in a circle on the top half of the lobby area/atrium and are all centrally located, easy to find and get to. On the Crystal Symphony, every public area, actually every place on this ship, has been carefully planned and well thought-out. The design plan is soft and comfortable, but very ellegant and un-showy...no glitz, no neon, no mirrors overdone, just brass, woods and marble. There was nothing I saw that had not been finished off or maintained or left undone on the chance that no one might see it or notice it. The ship was kept absolutely spotless, too. Hans commented over and over about this as he always had on HAL ships. That motto that HAL used regarding their "spotless fleet" has always been a source of Dutch pride, but the Crystal folks have it down to a science.

Now a note about the food. As I write this, itís been three days into the cruise and Iím reasonably sure I can begin to judge the cuisine. Hans and I love to dine out and have been to some of the best restaurants, so again, I feel qualified to judge. The food has been good, but certainly not outstanding. The entrees were not the best, nor the worst. There was a surprising lack of choice on the menu and I thought this odd, since the ship and the cruise company enjoy such an over-all outstanding rating.

I noticed that sometimes the presentation gets in the way of the goodness and the quality (or the lack thereof) of the food on the Crystal Symphony. As an example of this, Iíd ordered a pecan cheesecake for dessert one night that sounded scrumptious and looked wonderful. It was served on a highly decorated plate of several different sweet sauces swirled in great detail, BUT the taste of the cheesecake was pedestrian. So were the sauces. A very lackluster dessert prettily decorated still was an ordinary thing. Itís like putting an expensive, gilded wooden frame around one of those awful mass-produced reproduction oil paintings. Whatís that expression about "a silk purse out of a sowís ear"? But maybe a discussion of food is not the right place for such an anaolgy.

Small things in the dining room, such as breakfast bacon apparently sitting around for just a bit too long, making it taste too greasey are just some other "food" problems; although not overwhelming, they are enough to comment about because of the reputation this ship owns. As we went throuh the week, I found the food quality to be spotty and unpredictable. The dinner in the Jade Garden restaurant onboard was not outstanding by any stretch of the imagination; however, the themed Oriental buffet the same restaurant staff prepared for lunch ondeck one afternoon was actually very good.

The last night onboard (Monday) Hans and I tried Prego, the Italian alternative restaurant on the Crystal Symphony. Food, presentation and service was better, more polished, than it had been all week in the dining room for dinner.

The staff throughout the ship is truly international. The dining room staff comes from places like Vienna, the U.K., Poland, northern and eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East. The room stewardesses are Eastern European and Scandinavian. The officers are mostly Scandinavian, however.

I was reminded of a movie I DIDNíT see this spring when I saw the Ambassador hosts for the first time last night in the Palm Court. Two gentlemen in their late 50ís chatted with the unescorted ladies, fox trotting and cha-cha-ing merrily into the evening. I watched for a while (ships are great places to people-watch), trying to ascertain if the Ambassador hosts were enjoying THEMselves, as well.

Just about everything onboard this lovely ship is perfect. In fact, as I sat down to write my comments about our cruise, I thought of all the negative things folks on the newsgroup have said in the past about various ships and cruises theyíve taken. I thought about common cruise criticisms. I couldnít think of one thing that anyone could complain about, including Adam ("no iced tea") and Uzoom. One would certainly be hard-pressed to find even a small, but real and continuing problem. My comments regarding the spotty food service and quality are inconsequential, but real.

This trip was a joy in many ways and a lot of fun. The liners group we sailed with was a small one, and the general population onboard the Crystal Symphony was below the average number of persons usually sailing on any given week. We had some delightful times, ranging from SSHSA Long Island Chapter president Tom Cassidyís birthday party Friday night to ocean liner memorabilian Richard Faber modeling sports and cruise wear in the passenger fashion show. We had several coctail parties and got together frequently to discuss upcoming events and talk about our next cruises, either individually or as a group. The one that generates the most interest seems to be the maiden transatlantic voyage of Rotterdam VI from New York to Portugal next spring.

One absolute highlight of the week was our visit to Philadelphia, the first time in port for the ship. Ray Zegarski, of Ray-Jan fame on rtc, e-mailed me with some great news earlier in the week before we left for our cruise. He had been in touch with the Mayorís Office, informing them that a bunch of ocean liner enthusiasts would be onboard the Crystal Symphony on Labor Day in Philly. Ray arranged access to the pier where the SS United States was now located and a group of us, including Ray, his wife Janet and SSHSA Long Island Chapter President Tom Cassidy, made our way over there. We lingered, took photos, told anecdotes, then handed all our cameras over to poor Ray so he could take shot after shot of our group standing under the bow of the United States! After our ad hoc SS United States convention was over, I invited Ray and Janet onboard the Crystal Symphony for a tour and lunch with Hans and me in the dining room. Thatís the least I could do after Rayís gracious gesture, making so many ship nuts happy that day. Thanks again, Ray...that was quite a morning!

One sad note on this trip was finding out when we came back to our cabin after the eveningís entertainment on Saturday that Princess Diana had been killed. It seemed that, in such a wonderful setting, nothing bad should be happening, but indeed it did when we were having fun and werenít paying attention to the rest of the world. The Captain made a brief announcement Sunday morning over the public address system, along with his other morning announcements, and offered his condolences on behalf of Crystal Cruises. At his lecture that morning, Bill Miller also sadly and respectfully mentioned briefly his brush with the Princess when he attended a theatre production in London years ago. All day Sunday, many of us kept turning on CNN for news of the tragedy if we were back in our cabins, even if only for a little while.

Our group had the opportunity to take a private tour of the bridge and although I prefer seeing the mechanical bridge operations onboard the older liners, the Symphony was replete in itís array of electronic equipment. I had to smile at one of the computer monitors displaying a Windows 3.1 program mapping certain aspects of the ship, thinking to myself that Uncle Bill Gates is certainly all over the place these days. Hans also took a tour of the galley one afternoon (food, food, glorious food) and reported that the tour was not merely the walk-through most cruise ships arrange for passengers, but a long question and answer session with the staff.

Disembarkation was also handled in much the same way as other cruise companies do, and it all went smoothly on the last day. I heard from other passengers who embarked earlier in the cruise from other areas of the world that they were happy and pleasantly surprised at the expeditious way Crystal handled their travel and hotel plans, as they were never left to fend for themselves, always having a Crystal rep there to escort them to their hotel for pre- or post- cruise travel plans. There were many repeat cruisers on the ship, some folks having sailed before on both the Harmony and the Symphony.

One thing I did not care for was the volumous passenger survey that was passed out two days before the cruise ended. Now, I never minded completing a passenger questionnaire, and I certainly donít mind giving anyone my opinions. This survey, however, was pages and pages of scan code boxes, the kind used for GREís and SATís. It contained 23 different catagories and another 3 pages for staff, shore excursions, etc. for a grand total of five full pages of questions plus a triple fold-out Ďgeneralí survey for anything they "might have omitted". It was redundant, as well, as it asked some of the same questions over and over again with only a slight variation in wording. I returned this section only, stating that I thought their survey was entirely and utterly too burdensome for folks on a vacation.

I also wrote that if they wanted my impressions, they could logon the Internet and find them reviewed here in this newsgroup.

Now, for my verandah. We had a table and two comfy chairs overlooking some of the calmest and most relaxing waters last week. We had breakfast there several times, and because I automatically awaken every day of my life at 5:30 am, I spent several sunrises out there, too. I there as we came in to Charleston Harbor, and I was there when we arrived home to a foggy New York Harbor. We opened the doors to our verandah and listened to the ocean lap against the side of the ship at night. It was like putting a sea shell up to my ear to listen to the ocean, like when I was seven years old. It was truly wonderful, and I will certainly consider booking a cabin with a verandah on any ship I sail in the future, including the new Rotterdam VI next Spring. It is well worth it and I certainly recommend it.

In all, I certainly enjoyed my cruise. The ship was grand and the small services and accompanyments were worthy of a ship of this class. The one thing that I did find disappointing was the food at times. I wonder, even as I write this, if Iím holding Crystal up to too high a standard, but they appear ready to meet the challenge of being one of the top cruise companies in all other ways, and they do come through in all other areas. If I had to give a grade of "needs improvement" to one area of the entire experience, it would be the food. As I said earlier, not bad, but not good. Only very average most of the time. Thatís too bad, on a ship where everything else is certainly up to snuff and worthy of the reputation itís gained.