CRYSTAL SYMPHONY NEW ENGLAND/CANADA CRUISE Sept. 17 - 28, 2005 Richard Shipman
The time had come. After more than 10 cruises on "mainstream" lines such as Royal Caribbean, Princess and Holland America, it was time to move up a notch to Crystal. Not that there was anything wrong with our previous cruises; to the contrary. However, over the years the ships have gotten more crowded, "nickel and diming" has become routine, the service levels have decreased, cruise "traditions" have been going away and, in our opinion, the overall cruise experience has been trending downward . The obvious answer to this condition was to move up into the premium cruise category. My partner Barbara and I had wanted to sail on Crystal ever since we saw the Harmony docked next to our Song of Norway in St. Thomas on our first cruise. Financial realities had gotten in the way, however, and always the question arose: would the extra cost be worth it? Now it was time to find out. We booked Crystal Symphony's "Autumn Colors" (more about that later) cruise to New England and Canada.
With this background in mind, this review will be oriented toward "the step upward." What do you get for the extra money of a premium cruise line? Is it worth it? Are the premium cruise lines without flaw?
The first indication of the Crystal advantage came as we approached the passenger terminal in New York to board the ship. Princess and Carnival had two ships docked next to the Symphony. Gridlock and turmoil surrounded the baggage drop-off area for these ships as teeming masses made their way toward these new-era megaships. Once we cleared this blockage, however, we made our way unimpeded to Symphony's pier, and our taxi was the only vehicle pulling in to drop off bags. The rest of the check-in process was as simple and quick, and we were on the ship sipping complimentary champagne by 12:30.
On previous cruises, I can remember sitting in uncomfortable boarding "lounges" for hours if you arrived much before the official boarding time. Some lines let us board and hang out in one of the lounges until the rooms were ready. Crystal takes it one step further. A baggage check site had been set up off the central atrium where you could leave your carry-on bags to be delivered to your stateroom later or picked up at your convenience. Unhindered by bags, you were then free to enjoy lunch in one of 3 venues or just sip champagne as you explored this classic ship.
THE SHIP AND PASSENGERS
Crystal Symphony was first built in 1995 and had a modernization and upgrade refit in 1999. Although old by today's cruise ship standards, she has been well maintained and has a classic elegance throughout. Exteriorly, she looks like a ship should look: no "spoilers" on the aft end, or bulbous bows as exhibited by our two dock mates, Golden Princess and Carnival Legend. While newer ships have gone for eye-popping glitz and glitter, Crystal Symphony exudes an aura of understated class and quality. If ships were women, Symphony would be Grace Kelly and Carnival would be Jennifer Lopez.
Grace Kelly, were she still alive, would also have felt right at home with the average Crystal passenger on this cruise: older, well traveled and well heeled (we fit into at least one of these categories). Not surprisingly, this was a traditional cruise with much of the elegance and service that has been slashed by cost cutting on other lines. Assigned dinner seating (two seatings), traditional tipping practices (although you could charge tips to your onboard account if you so desired), large dance floors, inclusive onboard pricing, (except for alcoholic beverages), and an emphasis on service (with a few exceptions that will be mentioned later) brought back much of the joy of cruising from the "old days."
The absence of "nickel and diming" was particularly pleasant. Over the years, ships we were on began charging for afternoon ice cream, specialty coffee, alternate dining venues, shuttle buses in ports and even bridge tours in port! No so on Crystal. All soft drinks and non-alcoholic beverages were free, including our favorite Perrier Water. Tired of paying $3.00 for lattes at Starbucks? Drink until you're wired at the Symphony's Bistro Coffee and Tea bar. Tired of the main dining room? Try either the Italian or Asian specialty restaurant at no charge other than the tip. You could build a case that you save money by paying as you go, but this is a much more pleasant way of doing things.
Perhaps the single most noticeable difference between Crystal and the mainstream cruise lines is the space and lack of crowding. There was never a wait or line for anything. The Lido Buffet moved smoothly and there was almost always available seating. Seating was never a problem for any of the shows. On the two occasions when we tendered into port (Newport, RI and Bar Harbor, ME), there were no required tender tickets or boarding time restrictions. When you wanted to go, you went. In Bar Harbor, we shared a tender pier with Golden Princess. On return to the ship, the line for Golden Princess boats snaked into the boarding terminal while the Crystal Symphony passengers simply walked onto their waiting boats.
The rooms on the Symphony were pleasant and roomy, but no better than what we had on RCI's Brilliance of the Seas or HAL's Zuiderdam. We booked a Category E obstructed view stateroom on deck 8 (8072). I spent some time researching the different obstructed view cabins on Deck 7 & 8, and there have been quite a few posts on message boards about this topic, so I made it my mission to do some first hand research while onboard.
The deck plans are quite accurate for deck 8. Rooms 8100, 8101, 8088, 8089, 8076 and 8077 are virtually unobstructed, and the rooms on either side of them have only partial obstructions. These rooms go fast, however, and if you can't get them, there are still better choices among the "lifeboat" view cabins. Cabins 8060 and 8061 look out over the bow of a small boat and are less obstructed than other offerings. Our room 8072, overlooked a portion of the lifeboat where the pilot house is, so there a little more obstruction than elsewhere. The rooms overlooking the 4 aft lifeboats were also less desirable since these are the shore tenders and have two decks, further obstructing the views. Even with the obstructions, however, we could see the sky and horizon and after a day or two, didn't even notice the lifeboat. There was no problem with ship's vibration in this cabin, only the gentle throbbing of the engines to rock you to sleep.
Deck 7 also has some virtually unobstructed view cabins, mostly next to the exits onto the Promenade Deck. The windows are tinted and slightly elevated, so seeing in during the day is not a problem. Other obstructed view cabins give you a view of the sea but not the sky, the opposite of Deck 8. Whichever room you chose, I feel the obstructed view rooms are a great value and don't detract significantly from the cruise experience.
If you are fortunate enough to book a penthouse suite, avoid the rooms at the aft section of the ship, under the Lido Cafe. Our table mates had one of these cabins and complained about table scraping noises early in the mornings as the breakfast service was set up.
THE CRUISE ITSELF
The cruise itself was great. After settling into our room, we met our STEX sponsors, Bill and Jean, along with other CC contacts Gary and Mellissa, for tea in the Palm Court. Although I'm pretty much a black coffee guy, the tea (served in silk tea bags) was excellent and the whole experience very pleasant. The STEX program worked great, and we had a $200 credit posted to our onboard account by the time we returned from tea. Thanks, Bill and Jean!
We sailed from New York Harbor at night with great views of the city and Statue of Liberty, illuminated as only New York City can be. Our first port, Newport, RI, is a beautiful place with magnificent mansions and quaint neighborhoods. We walked the Cliff Walk along the ocean, in front of the mansions, and explored the back streets of the city under brilliant sunshine and bright blue skies. The next two days we spent in Boston, an historic and cosmopolitan city. The ship docked a ways away from downtown, but Crystal ran a shuttle bus (at no charge, of course) right to the heart of the city. We did the Freedom Trail, walked the cobblestone streets of the Back Bay and visited the USS Constitution.
The following day found us in Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park. We had done some research and discovered that the Park Service has a complimentary bus service into the National Park, so we packed a lunch and headed out for a day of hiking on the many trails in the park. Again, we caught a break with the weather, with bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures. Some were disappointed that the autumn colors suggested by the title of cruise were not yet there, but I'd say the warm weather and sun were a good tradeoff. The next day was a welcome rest at sea. What a great lineup of activities Crystal had! This was another area where Crystal really shined. They had great lecturers, computer classes, dance lessons, wine tastings, exercise classes and so much more that there was hardly time for a nap! I would have swapped our second day in Boston for another day at sea, so enjoyable were all the activities.
Halifax, Nova Scotia was our next stop. This is an interesting, picturesque and historic area that really deserves more than one day. We decided to rent a car and visit Peggy's Cove and drive the scenic lighthouse route. I booked a car ahead of time and was really pleased with the rate of $32 (Canadian!). We picked the car up at the Westin Hotel, about a block away from where the ship docks. Unfortunately, the compact car we had reserved was "not available," but we were informed we could have a Dodge Durango at the same rate - as if this were a good deal. I'm no fan of SUVs, even when gas was $1.30 a gallon, but since this was the only vehicle available, we took it. We had a nice drive along the coast and visited Peggy's Cove, home of the famous (and touristy) lighthouse that also serves as a post office. We drove back into town for lunch on the ship, then set out for the fort overlooking the city and the beautiful botanical gardens. It was a full and enjoyable day. Bottom line on the car? It cost more for the gas than the car rental! Even so, it was a lot cheaper than the ship tour, and we saw more, on our own timetable.
From Halifax we sailed for the St. Lawrence Seaway and Quebec, two days away. En route to Quebec we were supposed to sail into the Saguenay River, a scenic waterway likened by some to the fjords of Norway. Unfortunately, bad things can happen to good cruise ships. The Symphony suffered a failure of one of its engines, resulting in a reduced speed capability. Thus we had to bypass the Saguenay River and arrived late into Quebec. The Captain did offer complimentary cocktails for two hours, but this seemed like meager compensation for a major itinerary alteration that was, after all, due to the cruise line, not an act of God.
As it turned out, arriving two hours late in Quebec was no big deal since it was here that we had our only really bad day of weather. When I say really bad, I mean really bad. The rain came down virtually unabated all day long in torrents, driven by tropical storm- type winds that blew the rain horizontally. Crystal lost a lot of room umbrellas that day as they inverted from the wind gusts. We took a cab up to the Chateau Frontenac where we joined every other tourist in Quebec who was searching for something to do indoors. We also went to a history museum next to the Chateau where we learned of the American military defeat at Quebec during the revolutionary war, something I don't remember reading too much about in my history books.
Fortunately, the next day was as beautiful as the previous day was terrible. We took our only ship excursion to view waterfalls and countryside outside the city. The heavy rains from the previous day had turned the waterfalls in raging torrents of water, making for a truly spectacular sight. Unfortunately, the all day tour prevented us from exploring the many interesting sites of old Quebec, but now we have a reason to return to this quaint and unique city. The propulsion system was fixed during our stay in Quebec, and our overnight trip to Montreal was routine. Disembarkation was routine and efficient, as expected. We were cruise-only passengers, and our cab to the airport in Montreal cost about half of the transfer fee the ship was charging.
So, the ship was perfect, and Crystal is without flaws, right? Wrong! Just as I have never been on a horrible cruise, so have I never been on a perfect cruise. This one was no exception, even after stepping up into the premium category of cruise line. The service, for example, was absolutely superb in the lounges, pool decks, Lido buffet and specialty restaurants, but was very average in the main dining room. Our waiter and assistant were competent and hard working, but they always seemed rushed and behind. Dinners stretched out over long periods, and the attentive, personal service we were expecting was simply not there. The service was, in fact, very similar to what we've experienced lately on mainline cruise ships, and a better dining room experience was one of the reasons we wanted to step up. Didn't happen. (The food was clearly a step above, however, and the service in Prego, the specialty restaurant where we ate, was excellent.)
Even worse was the wine service. It was the worse I have ever experienced on any cruise, at any price! The first night, the wine steward left the wine list then never returned to take the order. When she did show up on subsequent nights, we were already into our first course. At one point, she removed a still full bottle of wine when I left the table temporarily, and it took me 10 minutes to get it retrieved. The final insult was an $80 overcharge on my ship account that took me two days to resolve. Either the wine steward was overtasked, undertrained, incompetent or all of the above, but it was certainly not an experience I expected from Crystal. On every other ship I have been on, a wine steward was available at a dedicated station to pre-order wine for the evening, but I never found such a location aboard Symphony.
So what's the bottom line? "moving' on up" to Crystal meant more space, less crowding, better service (except as noted), better food, less "nickel and diming," superb at sea programs, great entertainment, spacious dance floors and a more traditional cruise experience. Is that worth the extra money? Unfortunately, this is a completely subjective decision that I would not dream of attempting to make for anyone else. But you can expect to see me on another Crystal Cruise, hopefully sooner rather than later!