We recently completed our first Crystal cruise (Vancouver to LA), after having cruised many times on NCL, HAL, and most recently, Regent. We wanted to try Crystal because of the new all-inclusive policy, and because we had heard such good things about them. Also, the itinerary was good for us, because we have to maintain internet connectivity while on vacation for our jobs, and we could use our MiFi card while in these ports (rather than having to pay the expensive internet fees onboard). In many ways, Crystal really wowed us; in others, not so much.
Embarkation: After dropping off our bags and going through security, we had about a 20 minute wait in the port terminal. We were then called to the gangway, where a crewmember met us to escort us. We first had to stop for the mandatory Welcome Aboard photo, after which we were escorted onto the ship and into a lounge where we did a very quick and very easy check-in. We were extremely surprised to find that there were no officers at the entrance and no glass of welcome aboard champagne to greet us. It was a bit impersonal, truthfully. We found out that there was a very large group of travel agents onboard (over 100, including their children who were with them), being given tours by the ships staff, so that might have been the reason for no greeting. Apparently having these large tours whenever a ship is in port is a common Crystal practice, one that Im not too fond of, as it did seem as if the TAs were being given much more attention than the passengers. We had to find our way to the dining room, as there was no one to direct us, and we really felt like fish out of water, especially since this was our first time on a Crystal ship and we could have used a bit more guidance.
Ship: The Symphony is absolutely beautiful. She is so well maintained that it is hard to believe that she is 18 years old. There are numerous lounges with different decors and themes, a very large library and computer center, a large coffee cafe, and the Palm Court, which is Crystals version of the Observation Lounge (which was very elegant and opulent, but just a bit too formal for us). The pool area is divided into two areas: the open pool deck, and a separate deck that has a retractable roof covering it, where both the pool grill and bar are located. The retractable roof was a nice touch, especially on this cruise, where the weather was often cool. The deck furniture is far superior to that of any ship weve ever been on. There were comfortable couches, loungers and chairs with big cushions and lots of pillows, as well as plenty of tables with umbrellas, and a very interesting living wall which was covered with various live plants. The pool deck became our favorite place on the ship and where we spent most of our time.
Cabin: And here we come to why the public areas on the ship are so important. Crystals standard balcony cabins are very small (202 square feet, not including the balcony). These cabins do have a lot of drawer and cubby space, but the layout just isnt very functional. The closet is next to the bed, with double sliding doors, and this is really inconvenient, as only one person can get anything out of the closet at a time, and only one side of the closet can be opened at any given time. Only one person can sit on the tiny sofa and then the table has to be pushed up against the desk so that the second person has no choice but to sit on the bed. The fridge is also very small (you could not put an ice bucket into it) and does not cool (it just takes the heat off). The mattress was the hardest one weve ever tried to sleep on, and we had to have our stewardess add a foam egg crate topper onto it just so we could use it.
I understand that a lot of people dont care about cabin size because they never use their cabin except for showering and sleeping. We are not that type of people. We like to relax in our cabin in the mornings while eating breakfast, and relax in our cabin in the evenings while enjoying a cocktail before going to dinner, and for that, we need a well laid out, decently sized suite which we definitely did not have on the Symphony.
Those pre-dinner cocktails proved problematic. Crystals all-inclusive policy regarding liquor in the cabin is not really all-inclusive. There is a very limited list of allowed liquors, and you are limited to one bottle of liquor and one bottle of wine. If you finish one of the bottles, you can request another. Unfortunately, the list of allowed liquors and wines is not very extensive (for example, Pinot Noir is not on the list), and if your liquor of choice is not on the list, you must either grab a drink from the bar and take it to your cabin to drink while getting ready for dinner, or you can do like I did, and ask the bartender to put a couple of shots into a glass, and carry that to the cabin for mixing yourself.
Unfortunately, for us the mixers were an issue as well. We had pre-ordered diet ginger ale with Crystal, and been assured that we would have it. However, once onboard, our stewardess informed us that it was unavailable, and we would have to choose something else. We found out later in the cruise that other people were getting diet ginger ale in their penthouse, so we asked Reception about it. We did get two cans delivered to our cabin that day, and then two more a few days later, but that was all we ever got. It was certainly not a deal-breaker or even a huge issue; we just didnt understand why we were told the soda was not available when it actually was, and why we were not allowed more of it.
The only other issue that I noted regarding the cabin and its amenities actually involves the cabin stewardess. She was a very sweet, very hard working young lady, and the cabin was immaculate. However, the last night of the cruise, we discovered that she had gone through all the drawers in our cabin, and had pulled everything out of them. We had done most of our packing already and our suitcases were sitting out in the cabin, so perhaps she thought we were finished and she didnt want us forgetting any of the stuff in the drawers. But I was a bit shocked to come back from dinner to find my pajamas laid out on the bed, and all the rest of our stuff lying around in the cabin. I dont know if that is common practice on Crystal, but I can certainly say I have never seen it anywhere before.
Food: My husband loved the food and thought it was the best hes ever had on a cruise. However, generally the food was a bit too rich for me, and didnt have much imagination. The usual dinner offerings were a lamb dish, a veal dish, a fish dish, a pasta dish, and a steak dish, all prepared differently each night, but without much creativity. I tended to fill up on appetizers, soup and salad, because the main dishes didnt usually appeal to me, but they would allow us to choose more than one item in each category, so we made it work. The portion sizes were also very small, which we appreciated, given the richness of the food. It was nice having the smaller portions so we did not feel as if we were overeating.
We spent a lot of our time up at the pool bar and grill. The grill offered breakfast and things like hamburgers and pizza up until 6:00pm. However, there was no outdoor buffet with salads and other items if we did not want something from the grill. We could walk to the back of the ship and eat at the Lido buffet, but many times we were at the pool or hot tub, and didnt want to have to get covered up, put shoes on, etc, to go to a buffet. Also, the Lido closed after lunch and never re-opened for dinner, so we were limited to either the main dining room, one of the alternative restaurants, or room service after the grill closed at 6:00pm.
As for how dinner is handled, Crystal offers two options: regular fixed seating, or something called Dining by Reservation, where you can choose when you want to eat, but you must reserve it months in advance. Since we didnt want to eat as early as 6:15 or as late as 8:30, we opted for Dining by Reservation and made our reservations for 7:00 or 7:30. Unfortunately, Crystal plans any special evening events (such as the Meet and Mingle or Captains Welcome) at 7:45, to deconflict with the fixed seating times. So those of us with those 7:00 7:30 reservations found ourselves having to change our reservations at the last minute in order to attend those events and thus ended up eating at 9:00 on those nights instead. I understand how Crystal is trying to emulate the true Open Seating concept as much as possible while still keeping their client base who likes the fixed seating happy, but this just did not work well for us.
The specialty restaurants consisted of an Italian restaurant (Prego) and a Japanese restaurant (Nobu). Both were superb. They were intimate and comfortable without being crowded (unlike Prime 7 on the Navigator), and the food was amazing. Just my opinion, of course.
Service: This is the one area in which Crystal absolutely shines. I never had a waiter, waitress, or bar attendant who wasnt friendly and helpful, or who acted as if they didnt want to be there or that we were a burden on them. The bar attendants all rapidly learned our names and what we drank. The matre d learned who we were on the first night of the cruise, and we never had to provide our name after that in order to get seated. The dining room staff never complained or acted put out if we asked for something special or different. In fact, we could special order meals with the Head Waiter for the next night, as long as we gave them enough notice (we had lobster and a filet the last night of the cruise). When someone on Crystal said, My pleasure it felt like they really meant it.
We did have a major Norovirus outbreak during the cruise (15% of the passengers and almost 4% of the crew), and the staff did a wonderful job of handling it with minimal impact to the passengers. In fact, most of us had no idea how severe the outbreak was until we disembarked and read the CDC report. If someone got sick, they and their cabin mate were quarantined for at least 24 hours; however, Crystal did reimburse them for the pro-rated cruise fare for the time they were confined to their cabin. I thought that was a classy way to handle a bad situation.
Entertainment: This is another area that is very subjective. The showroom on the Symphony is only one level, so it is impossible to present any sort of acrobatic or multi-level productions there. The shows onboard consisted of a couple who did ballroom dancing (which is a BIG deal with Crystal regulars), and some singing and dancing productions. We personally found the shows boring, but many onboard raved about them (obviously they were not in the row of the people falling asleep next to us during one of the shows!). In the Palm Court every evening, they have ambassador hosts who are there just to dance with ladies who want to perfect their ballroom dancing techniques or just enjoy dancing with someone who really knows how. I honestly felt like I was watching an episode of Dancing with the Stars sometimes both the hosts and the guests were just amazing, but it kept those of us who just like to sway a bit to the music from ever getting on the dance floor. I guess if we wanted to dance we could have gone to Luxe, the disco, but it is a smoking venue, so we avoided it. We found ourselves gravitating to the Avenue Saloon most evenings after dinner, because it had a piano player who would engage the audience in the later hours, so that we could sing along and just be a bit formal. All the lounges had some sort of entertainment, whether it was a piano player or a jazz band or a singer of some sort, so at least there was a good choice of entertainment if the shows were not appealing.
Crystal prides itself on its enrichment program. There are various lectures and demonstrations ranging from how Californias troubles are leaching out into America as a whole, to how to improve your golf score. We did not participate in any of the programs because none of them were really interesting to us, but many of the other passengers seemed to love that aspect of the cruise.
Smoking: Although Crystal allows smoking in their cabins and several public areas (a policy which is changing early next year to be more restrictive), we never had an issue with it while onboard, mostly because we avoided any lounges or area that allowed smoking.
Gym: The gym is well maintained and has a good variety and number of machines and weights. However, the aerobics area is in the same room as the cardio equipment, so whenever a class is held, it is in the same room as the machines and weights, which is a bit awkward. I like to work out to exercise videos on my iPad, but found it uncomfortable to try to do so in the aerobics area, because the music was always turned up so loudly in the gym whenever there was no class being held, and because the aerobics area is right next to an exit door to the spa, so I felt like I was on display whenever trying to do my videos.
Spa: We did not use the spa, so cannot comment on it. We did do a tour after embarking, and the spa appeared fairly small, but adequate. Unfortunately, we just wanted to see the spa, not to get the hard sell technique, which is exactly what we ended up with. Knowing that we probably would not be using the spa because the cruise was so port intensive, that hour we spent hearing about all the great things the masseuse could do for us was just a waste of time.
Casino: The casino was large and had a lot of slot machines, plus a craps table, several card tables, and a roulette wheel, which I enjoyed (it is really hard to find roulette wheels anymore). The croupiers were all very friendly and helpful. Most of them were from Nevada, so it was fun to talk to them, since we also live in Nevada. I really enjoyed the casino on the Symphony, and I dont usually gamble while cruising.
Excursions: Although the cruise was very port intensive, we only took one excursion, both because we were familiar with most of the ports, and because not many of the offered excursions appealed to us, especially given the price. Our excursion to Mount St. Helens was very well done and the included lunch was the best weve ever had on any excursion. The tour was probably the highlight of our cruise.
Dress Code: Crystal has relaxed its dress code so that what used to be mandatory formal nights are now called Black Tie Optional. On that night, and on the slightly less formal Elegant Casual night, most men were in dark suits and women were in nice dresses or pantsuits/separates. The rest of the nights were what we are used to on Regent, Resort Casual. However, even on those more casual nights, many men were in jackets and women were elegantly dressed. We did notice that many people got into their evening attire well before 6:00pm, even as early as 3:00 or so, to attend the afternoon tea in the Palm Court. I actually felt uncomfortable going into the Palm Court in my walking pants and sweater on the afternoon of the Mozart Tea (where the servers all dress up in period attire and Mozarts music is playing in the background), because so many people were all gussied up and I was not.
We did have to have our bags packed and in the hallway by 11:00pm that last night of the cruise. We flew home the next day, and did not want to wear our resort casual clothes for flying, so we ended up having to make it a fairly early evening that last night in order to get everything but our travel clothes packed up by the designated time.
Disembarkation: This was Crystals last chance to wow us, and they sure did, but not in a good way. They have a no-announcement policy on disembarkation, so everyone just shows up at the Starlite Lounge at their designated time, to get off the ship. We were independent travelers, and so could get off at our leisure. Because we had a late flight out, we wanted to stay onboard as long as possible, and according to the Disembarkation Instructions, the latest time off was 9:30am. At 9:05am, there was an announcement that, All remaining passengers are to disembark immediately. It was a good thing that we were already ready to go, I guess. We made our way to the gangway, found absolutely no one there to say Goodbye, or Safe travels, or Hope to see you again onboard someday. We just went straight to the door, handed our key cards to the crewmember there, and left. I almost expected to hear him say, Dont let the door hit you on the way out as we walked away.
To be fair, the CDC had sent inspectors to board the ship in LA, to see how they had handled the Norovirus outbreak, so perhaps all the officers and crew were tied up with them. But I still think that just one or two people could have been stationed at the gangway to at least offer a Thank you for cruising with us. It was just a really sorry way to end what we had wanted to be a wonderful cruise.
General Thoughts and Impressions: The service was outstanding, the ship was beautiful and comfortable, and the food was excellent. Still, though, for us there was just something missing. Perhaps it is because the itinerary was so port intensive that we did not have much time onboard the ship, so we never really got to know our fellow passengers that well (we have often counted meeting new people and spending time with them as the high points of our cruises). Perhaps it is because the Norovirus outbreak changed the vibe of the cruise. Perhaps it is because we really never could relax in our cabin like we often like to do, because it was just too small for the two of us. To be fair, several long-time Crystal cruisers who I spoke with told me that there was just something off about this particular cruise. No one could pinpoint it, but we could tell these Crystal fans were a bit disappointed with this cruise. So perhaps had we been on a different cruise with Crystal, we might have felt differently.
We would certainly consider cruising on Crystal again, if the itinerary, length of cruise, and price (taking into account internet costs) was right for us.