ARE OCEANIA MARINA & CRYSTAL SYMPHONY UNLIKELY COMPARISON?
My husband and I love cruising. We have been fortunate to have cruised with Carnival, Princess, Celebrity, Azamara, Royal Caribbean, HAL, Paul Gauguin.
And in 2012, we added Regent Seven Seas Voyageur in April, Crystal Symphony in October (with Hurricane Sandy), and Oceania Marina in November.
Even though this review contains comparison of Oceania Marina to Crystal Symphony, the review emphasis will be more on Oceania Marina. (reviews on RSSC and Crystal Symphony have been posted.)
Before embarking on these cruises, I read CC reviews. I wanted to get a sense of what each line meant to their fans, why they are fans of their cruise line. I am amazed fans for both lines are equally passionate, and extremely loyal.
Maybe it is not 'proper' to compare these 2 cruise lines; they are not of the same class? Oceania is categorized as a premium line, edging up to luxury, where Crystal is a all-inclusive luxury line. Since we cruised these 2 lines almost back to back, and these 2 lines have been much anticipated, we felt we naturally compared the 2.
To travelers like us, we view luxury and premium in terms of value for our dollar.
It is in this line of thinking that we rule out Regent Seven Seas as a comparison, and focus on Crystal Symphony and Oceania Marina instead.
For our money, we would choose between Oceania and Crystal. And the reasons are the following:
We placed food first and foremost, ultra important part of cruising. And our expectations were high for both lines. For us, quality, taste, "local" ingredients, are valued more than the "ambience" of the dining environment. I confess we have choosy and demanding tastebuds, very spoiled in the food department. Both Crystal and Oceania rate high in our book.
Due to the ship size, Marina offers 4 specialty restaurants, at no extra charges: Red Ginger, Polo Grill, Chez Jacques, and Toscana. Crystal Symphony has 2.
We were pleasantly surprised Oceania Marina placed high importance on food, and it delivered: Oceania Marina's ingredients, taste, and presentation were topnotch. Crystal cruise has solid and consistent reputation for superb food quality. Red Ginger and Silk Road each has its own distinct character and signature dishes. We love both. That is why we dined in Red Ginger 4 times throughout our 18-day journey.
And each time, we ended up ordering the same dishes, which is unusual for me. We often like variety. I think because the 4 visits were spread out during the 18 days, we were able to enjoy the signature "melt-in-your-mouth" miso seabass without getting bored.
The other specialty restaurants were wonderful dining experiences. The entrees were rich, (as in calories). It is unfair for me to dislike any because each specialty dining is to be different. And the joy of cruising and be on Marina is enjoy each one for its distinctive difference.
The Waves Grill and Terrace cafe are equally wonderful places, for lunch, or dinner a la carte. Variety to choose from. Marina's famous grilled lobster delight many guests.
Now coming to dining room. Dining room is a beautiful grand place for elegant meals. We put on our best behaviour in this room! However, after 2 nights dinner in the dining room, my husband and I preferred Terrace Cafe.
Terrace Cafe is a great meeting place and a great dining restaurant. Atmosphere is casual, and self-serve. Most of the time, food was plentiful, and prepared quickly. The grill lamb chop was one of my favorite: Perfect portion size, Delicious and grilled right and fast for me! Fresh crab legs, rolled-right-there sushi, hot entrees, theme foods spoiled us guests continuously.
I broke many of my own rules about eating on this cruise. I was afraid I developed new 'just-one-more' eating habit. Our body and tastebuds were in withdrawal mode when we were back to our normal life and diet!
The following is not to complain, but to explain what didn't work for us:
The Main Dining Room. Dinner (any meal in the Main Dining Room) dragged on too long for our liking and digestive process. We like to have our dinner within 2 hours, preferably under 1.5 hour. Not an easy task on MDR; we tried 4 times and consistently slow. Each entree seemed an elaborate Broadway production, with long and uncomfortable pauses in between.
The pauses and gaps between the entrees were consistent in dinner, lunch as well as breakfast. I can understand if the crew was co-ordinating among 8 guests on the table. But when there are just the 2 or 4 of us, this waiting became unbearably long.
In addition, the food quality suffered. Maybe the entree had to sit and wait for the rest to catch up? The crew took a long time to get or change anything. Breakfast in the dining room is definitely not recommended if you have early disembarkation time!
Dinner on Crystal Symphony's main dining room was quite different. It was fixed dining time, at the same table. We thoroughly enjoyed the same table mates, the same waiter, every night. The food, the pace, the tempo, the quality were fabulous.
In this regard, I prefer fixed time dining, more consistent food and service. The draw back of fixed time dining is time and table mates. With this itinerary (more sea days), the time was not an issue. And our table mates turned out more times than not to be very pleasant and interesting company!
Tea time is a wonderful experience. Both Oceania Marina, and Crystal Symphony orchestrated one spectacular afternoon TEA during our voyage. The elaborate tea event is very different from the normal. Both were Dramatic; Both were Feast for sight, taste, sounds, and touch. And judging from the crowds, and I mean crowds, both were very well-received. In my opinion, they are highly recommended. Both worthy of your time. Do get there early for a spot, for there will be literally not even a standing room.
As I am writing this review, I am surprised how SERVICE has become no. 2 on my list! I sincerely hope it is not because of age per se! Let's just say, as we "mature", we understand ourselves more. I like to think that service is what helps us get comfortable being us.
Yet, service, similar to food, is a matter of opinion, and is largely based on one's past experience and raised expectation level. Coming off Crystal, one cannot help but expect excellent service! As explained in our Crystal review, the encounter with Hurricane heightened our awareness of Crystal's service. We were very impressed how they all worked together to make us guests as comfortable and safe as possible.
Even though the voyage on Oceania Marina was less dramatic than hurricane Sandy provided, the service was no less impressive. Generally, we found throughout the voyage, Oceania staff go out of his or her way to accommodate the guest's request.
An example: Our luggage was delivered to us, with a broken handle. Our room steward simply took the luggage, no discussion or debate whether the handle was broken to begin with (it wasn't.) or who was to blame (the local luggage handlers? Or Oceania Marina crew?) He took the luggage and returned to us a few days later, with a new handle.
It is the personalized touches that stay with us.
Michael, a server at Red Ginger, became a familiar face to us. His smiles and positive attitude stay with us, as with other staff onboard. He made us comfortable when we ordered Lobster Pai Thai without the lobster!
The servers behind the counters in Terrace Cafe delight us by their enthusiasm, regardless what they were serving. And those serving deserts ever so gently suggest we try just a small piece of everything.
On Marina, after 18 days, I do feel like it is one big family! From guests to servers, to concierge to officers, to the captain, we feel like a family on this special journey together. It may be because out of 1200 guests onboard, just over 800 are from North America.
One area I did not enjoy was making dining reservations in the specialty restaurants on Marina. I have heard many disgruntle regarding this process. The online reservation, prior to sailing did not work as well as it was intended. By the time we were allowed to make reservations online, not many time slots were available. And because we upgraded to Concierge Class just a week before sailing, we were not able to take advantage of the advance reservations.
On the first day onboard, many passengers like us, lined up to make reservations. We all tried to get in those specialty restaurants earlier in the journey rather than the last 4 days to disembarkation.
After lining up all the way to the front, I was told I was in the wrong line up. The lineups, to my surprised were separated, according to cabin class, into 4 lines, at different locations.
After that first day, after the rush, the reservation process was much more pleasant. They did try to accommodate our additional requests. It is understandable they want to make sure every guest has an opportunity to reserve at least once in each restaurant. I think that is fair. (of course passengers in the special grand suites have their own process, privileges, also understandably.)
As we journey on, we find the crew became more relaxed, and we were able to enjoy more of their personality and appreciate their dedication and service.
Service is a personal experience and appreciation. My husband thought the service on Marina is comparable to Symphony. I prefer Crystal Symphony. Crystal service was a notch more customized to me.
ITINERARY & SHIP ACTIVITIES
This was our first transatlantic cruising. We always view this type of itinerary too laid back for us. We like to see as many interesting and new places as possible. And this itinerary included ports we have never been: (Cartegena, Gibraltar, Lanzarote, Canary Island, Santa Cruz of Tenerife, Cape Verde, Salvador, Buzios, and Rio), plus 9 sea days. Yeah, 9 sea days! What do you do on a stretch of sea days?
Surprisingly we loved it. I myself was surprised how the sea days were not idle, in fact they were activities-packed! Interesting educational lectures (really enjoyed Kathleen Wulf's presentations on sea explorers), packed photography classes by David Smith of Vancouver, BC (I learned EV and functions I never knew my camera has!); craft classes by Anna Smith; bridge classes; etc. filled most of my days. And these are FREE, no charge. There were other "enrichment" lectures, promoting services on board, one can attend with no obligation to purchase. And of course there were those fee-based activities such as wine tasting, casino, BINGO, etc...
There were also special events such as the Ceremony of crossing the Equator, and the huge Country Fair. The participating guests were laughing, along with the crew, engaging in fun activities, celebration, and good time. Marina Oceania's creativity and organizational acumen deserve our applause.
My husband and I completely changed our view on transatlantic cruising.
Keeping physically active and fit is always a challenge with bounty of gourmet foods. My husband and I and many others find plenty of tracks on upper decks to power walk, to run, or practice yoga. The swimming pool was open and ready for the guests to take advantage of.
The indoor yoga classes every morning was always full or over capacity. With limited mats and floor space available, over capacity was not comfortable. Some guests did not know they had to sign up before the class. I was told the process was to sign up every day for the next class. I found out that not everyone has to go through that process. I am not sure why some of us need to do that, and some don't. My recommendation is, ask and sign up on the day of embarkation, if you are interested.
Were the classes worth it? The quality was superior than those on bigger ships but do not expect the instructor as a yoga or Pilate expert. I think the classes were worth the time, during those sea days when we are likely to be most temptated.
SHIP AMENITIES AND STATEROOMS
CONCIERGE CLASS--IS IT WORTH IT TO US?
We took the upsell and upgraded to Concierge A3. Our cabin was 9059. We wanted to find out if Concierge class was worth the extra cost. For this itinerary, and for my husband and I, it was not. Let me share why:
Even though our suite location was very convenient, right off the stairs and elevators, and in between Deck 5 hub and deck 12+, our cabin size is the same as any balcony staterooms. On Starboard side, this suite did not get much sun, on this itinerary. We did not use the balcony as much as we normally do. I suggest Port side cabins for similar itinerary, if you like sun and heat.
The chilled bottle of champagne upon arrival was nice. We don't drink champagne. You can give it away, which we did.
The Concierge lounge is a cozy room, staffed to serve non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. We can read many different daily newspapers and current, trendy lifestyle magazines. The oversized sofas and chairs are plush and irresistibly comfy. That may explain why they are often occupied. When there are more than 4 people in the room, it feels crowded to me. With the big screen TV in the center of the room always on, guests discussing politics, (US presidential election looming) and the Concierge assisting guests at the corner, in this tight quarter spending time in this lounge seemed to lose its appeal for us.
One main benefit of Concierge class is a Concierge, dedicated to assist with guest requests. I guess we could have used her service more often. Of the 18 days, we used her service once. One of the services she could have helped was making reservations for us in the specialty restaurants. We managed to do that without the Concierge.
Concierge class did not help me secure a spot in the popular yoga classes without signing up, before 8am the day before the class. The staff at the Spa reception seemed very reluctant in signing me up for yoga classes. I stopped going after 3 classes. I practiced on my own, on the upper deck.
To us, we found we don't use the extra services enough to justify the cost. I am not enthralled with class differentiation outside our staterooms.
Should there be segregation in the common areas of the ship?
This brings me to a debate I read on CC. One CC (who cruise in penthouse suites only) opposes the "segregation" of classes in common areas on the ship. The viewpoint was that: once we are outside our staterooms, be it penthouse, or inside cabin, we can enjoying the same facilities the ship offers. There are special privileges for those penthouse guests, such as anytime reservations in those specialty restaurants, but once outside their suites, we commoners enjoy the same space as the penthouse guests. That makes sense to me.
The opposite view point is that if guests on Penthouse suite pays more, it is reasonable to receive more privileges and space. This may work on those mass market cruiseline, and on those gigantic ships. Cruiselines such as Crystal, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Silversea, have their own distinctive travelers. They are different. With the limited space these ships offer, it is difficult to allocate more space out of the common areas to a further segregated group.
Also, one of priceless joy of our travelling is meeting and appreciating people of different cultures, backgrounds, different beliefs, and yes, different economic classes. To further segregate fellow passengers to different physical locations due to their cabin class tarnish that joy and diminish the harmony we try to emulate. We enjoyed the company of passengers who had inside cabins, as well as those who had grand penthouse suites.
I understand the cruise line's effort to increase "value" for guests and thus revenue for the cruiseline. It is a huge and competitive business. Oceania has created a unique fan base, and if the people we encountered on this cruise are representative, I am not sure class segregation is the way to go. Hey, what do I know? I just love cruising, places and people.
Interestingly enough, we had an Ocean-view cabin on Crystal. We enjoyed our journey as much as the Concierge balcony in Marina.
SPA and FITNESS
One of the area exclusive to the Concierge class and above is the spa deck. I admit the comfortable lounge chairs, towels, cold beverages delivered to the chairs were nice touches.
However, any space, exclusive or not, it is the people in the space determine the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the space. 2 ladies decided to use the hot tub, chatted away in high-pitched voices, though not deliberately, shattered the serenity of the space. Both my husband and I left after 10 minutes. We went to the pool deck instead.
The spa enrichment presentations were a soft sell. (Thank goodness they did not present "How to Lose Weight by EATING!") They intertwined helpful information with self-promotions. And I think they worked. Many guests signed up for spa services after the presentation.
What I like both Crystal and Oceania is that the "selling" was subtle. The fashion show, illustrating the wear as well as the jewelry, was entertaining as well as a subtle promotion.
I think we will see more of that on cruise ships.
Crystal or Oceania?
Both have fantastic food quality, taste, and presentation. Ship activities, enrichment lecturers, educational classes were stimulating on both. Service standard is high. If I have to choose, I prefer Crystal service, whereas my husband thought Oceania was excellent.
If you like to socialize, Oceania is it. We find it extremely easy striking up conversations with fellow guests. We had the largest CC get together I have ever been to. This leads to sharing tours, meals, and making long time friends...
If you refer more quiet times, occasional conversation with others, Crystal will be perfect. Mind you, we encountered lovely travelers on both. We enjoy meeting people.
Oceania cruise fares are attractive. The included airfares appeal to us Canadians. And when you can get gratuities included, the final total is very attractive. Watch out for the alcohol add ons...(easy to get carried away if used to Crystal's all inclusive.)
Crystal, if you take their air offer, there is really nothing else you need to do. Crystal takes care of everything: from airport pick up to the port, and port transportation, etc... or in my case, change of arrangements due to Hurricane Sandy. We need not worry. Crystal took care of everything. Even though I am not a drinker, the All-Inclusive has its appeal.
If it was your first time with Oceania, I would try the bigger and newer Riviera or Marina. They offer more amenities than Regatta and Nautica. Oceania has many interesting itinerary to choose from, and many without sea days. If you like active itinerary, Oceania is preferable.
Crystal has more sea days because their guests enjoy services onboard. I agree. If I want to be pampered and not worry a thing after I get onboard, I would choose Crystal.
I think it comes down to this: if you have the time and means, try both. And I recommend try at least 10-day voyages. Anything less I feel will not be sufficient time to experience what both cruise ships have to offer.
I wish you pleasant voyage which ever cruise line you try. Try Both!