Crystal Symphony Cruise Review by Timbuktu123: Crystal Symphony from Beijing to Los Angeles
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Crystal Symphony from Beijing to Los Angeles
What follows is a frank review, after all this is Cruise CRITIC and my comments are not here to beat-up on anything, but I hope it will be taken as an incentive for all mentioned to improve. This is meant to be CONSTRUCTIVE criticism not ranting. I'll break it down into both the good and the bad and name a winner in each category since I'd want to read a review like this if I was deciding on this cruise or comparing Crystal with Regent. One caveat, while my observations on Crystal are up to date, we haven't sailed on Regent for two years so please keep in mind some of my comparisons may no longer hold true with Regent since I’m afraid the cruise industry in general is increasingly losing some if its niceties.
Pre-Cruise (booking, planning, information gathering)
I made our booking through our travel agent and booked and paid well in advance to take advantage of every discount offered. My biggest gripe is having to always go through my travel agent every time I More had a question. For example, I was trying to compare airline prices and decide whether we should go on our own our book through Crystal and get the advantage of them handling us, at least until Beijing. Normally this process takes a few hours, or I can find the information I want online. In this case every time my travel agent asked about a certain flight, it took two to three days. Apparently there’s just one person doing this at Crystal, and I guess he/she is overwhelmed.
In the end we finally did go to Beijing with Crystal primarily because we could get the flight covered under the Crystal insurance plan, but it took about six weeks to come to that decision and seemed really convoluted. Compared with Regent, it was awful since, at least my travel agent could have a live conversation with the flights person and just get all the information at once.
Crystal’s website and their online booking system (PCPC) work pretty well. It’s similar to Regent, but doesn’t force you to pay up front for tours to keep your tour reservation (like Regent). One glitch with Crystal, is that in the midst of sorting out our plane reservations with Crystal, I was locked out of the system, and upon calling Crystal they said I couldn’t use it until I had paid. Of course I had paid in full since I had already made most of the tour and dining reservations. I was pretty put off by this rubber stamp answer and I didn’t think that was the kind of attitude that Crystal should have with a fully paid customer who hasn’t even sailed yet. Another caveat is that the information on the website often is not checked very well, or has information that doesn’t get updated, so I really had to constantly double-check if things were right. For example, on this cruise, Tianjin, China was our departure port, but on our personal cruise calendar, it said we were in Tianjin also when we arrived in Kobe, Japan. Obviously this must have been a cut and paste mistake, but if the user isn’t completely familiar with the port names you could ask a driver in Kobe to pick you up at the port of Tianjin. I actually did this; fortunately our driver said it was a bit out of the way, coming from Kyoto, Japan…
Pre-cruise land tour and embarkation
The first segment of our cruise included a three day land tour in Beijing before we boarded the ship. We stayed at the China World Hotel which was perfectly comfortable, and all three days were great. Since we had booked a Penthouse (PH) we were on the concierge floor. This gave us the option of dining in a smaller dining room rather than join the five hundred or so other Crystal guests in one of the ballrooms. I will hand it to the ground operator, managing this amount of guests at a high level of luxury and still maintaining a sense of personal attention is quite an achievement. Our Chinese guide made us feel like a much smaller group and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Bravo Crystal, well done! Embarkation was fairly smooth, and if there was any irritation, it was due to the immigration authorities processing hundreds of cruisers. However that’s really nit-picking and certainly not any fault of Crystal’s.
Compared to Regent, the last pre-cruise land tour was when Regent had their Discovery collection. We did a three day tour with only one other couple to Victoria Falls, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. At first the tour was in jeopardy of being cancelled since there were only two couples, however Regent, instead of cancelling the tour, offered us the option to make up the difference in price, which we both did so we really had more of a private tour. Regent subcontracted the three days to Abercrombie & Kent, and we were lucky enough to have the head of South African tours host us so needless to say, it was superb. To be fair, comparing Crystal and Regent here is really apples and oranges, so I will call it a draw with both cruise lines doing an excellent job.
Due to our not wanting to downgrade our living arrangements onboard compared to Regent, we opted to go for a Penthouse (PH) cabin. Although expensive, if you’re going to splurge on one thing with Crystal, you won’t be disappointed. Our Crystal Penthouse mimicked our standard Regent cabin with a verandah in every way except that it was a bit bigger and squarer and we had a Jacuzzi tub. This also made our verandah a bit bigger. Furnishings were excellent with plenty of storage. We had thought that for our three segments and having to bring a fair amount of winter and hiking gear, that the walk-in closet would still be too tight - not at all. We still had hangers left over and since we had lots of drawers both inside the closet and in the room, we had plenty of space for everything. Crystal’s standard cabins are smaller than Regent’s and we heard many times that they were OK for single passengers, two people were a bit too cozy. While we initially got the cabin for the walk-in closet and tub, it turned out we loved the cabin so much it was really our favorite place to stay on the ship – as opposed to public spaces. Not that the public spaces are bad – they’re great too; we were just in love with our cabin. If you can afford it – spring for the Penthouse deck you won’t be sorry.
Since Regent’s cabins (especially on Voyager and Navigator) are pretty standard with tub and shower, walk-in closet and DVD player (Crystal only gives DVD players to Penthouses!), the worry about cabins is not there, except perhaps for location on the ship. Because Regent gives you this as a standard basic cabin the win goes to them since the cost is substantially lower. But I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to Crystal to spoil myself in a Penthouse!
The décor of the public spaces felt very much like there’s an Asian theme, with more colors and busier designs. Of course all this is a matter of taste. The winners in my book were Penthouse cabins (in off white colors with crown molding and wood furniture), the Avenue Saloon and Cigar bar (that was the prettiest mimicking a men’s club look – too bad about the smoky smell). The trident grill deck with the retractable roof was a great semi-outdoor option. The high wing-back chairs on the forward most lounge, the Palm Court are great. Although they’re often occupied its really nice to sit there and just watch the sea go by. The pool is actually big enough to swim in. It’s bigger and squarer than Regent’s. There’s a separate large Jacuzzi which can easily sit eight too.
The losers in my book are the Crystal Plaza which just pales in comparison to Regent’s full height of the ship’s atrium and glass elevators. It reminds me too much of a hotel lobby and that I’m at a convention. The Galaxy Lounge which is the main theater, feels a bit head room challenged, fortunately the entertainers did make you forget that. The elevators are totally utilitarian, and the only reason I bring it up is because Regent’s glass ones really make an impression.
Regent’s public spaces seem nicer, only because they have a lot more wood paneling and having the rotating art on the walls helps keep things interesting. The Mariner’s indoor promenade is lovely to stroll by on a sea day, and the Voyager’s top observation deck is still my favorite. Crystal Symphony would blow the Navigator’s public spaces out of the water, but so would Regent’s Voyager and Mariner.
Shipboard activities (sea days, lectures, entertainment)
Being a slightly bigger ship with a max of 1000 passengers vs. Regents 700 max, gives Crystal a few more options in terms of entertainment. First off, Crystal has usually more simultaneous activities. Lectures can be in one area, while something else happens in the theater and since there’s a dedicated movie theater, it can show movies without tying up the main theater. Crystal does an excellent job utilizing their on-board TV. All lectures are taped so that you don’t feel like you have to book your time to watch it live or have to choose between a lecture or sleeping in. There’s a morning show which actually is quite informative and summarizes the activities, gives you the local weather and shows a preview of the movie of the day. There’s a destination channel which shows movies and documentaries associated with the upcoming port of call (great way to get into the mood of a particular place). The satellite TV is very international and not overly skewed towards U.S. media. It does change depending on where the ship is, but while we were in Asia we saw BBC World, and English language versions of Japan TV, and Korea TV. Again that’s great to supplant your visit to these foreign lands. There’s the usual CNN and Fox news if you want it and a couple of channels dedicated to movies or old sitcoms (it was fun to watch M*A*S*H near Korea). One slight gripe is that Crystal only has regular TV versus Regent’s Video On Demand, or DVR feature. This is a bit of a pain, especially since we use DVR’s at home all the time, since if you want to catch the entirety of a TV movie, you’ve got to make sure you’re there at the right time. However Crystal’s programming clearly wins over Regents – but who’s on a cruise to watch TV anyway?
The quality of lectures is always variable, and I don’t think it’s entirely fare to judge the two contenders head to head, however I will say, Regent seems to better tailor their lecturers to the ports we are visiting. There was also a better coordination between the Tour desk, and lecturers so that before you reached a port, you had at least one lecturer who taught you about the country and culture, and perhaps another who spoke about the history and finally the tour desk making a presentation on tours. Crystal, was weak in this regard. The emphasis of the destination lecturer was more to brief us on what was fun to do, like restaurants or entertainment. I was surprised since Crystal emphasizes their learning aspect so much. I’m glad I did my homework before the cruise so fortunately I was pretty well briefed on our ports. I’d hate to think of someone who didn’t bother with the research since they probably had little idea of the context of the sights they saw while touring. I did find almost every lecturer generally interesting, and there were really no un-polished presenters as I have witnessed on Regent.
Crystal’s main theater is a single deck height theater which has everything from Broadway style shows to musicians to game shows. Regent has all this but it does have a double height (two decks) theater. Personally the two deck theater just makes the shows look more spectacular, and in Regent’s case they can do their acrobatic “Cirque” show, which is fantastic. However once the initial impression of Crystal’s theater is over, the quality of the shows was excellent. I can only assume that if one day Crystal builds a new ship with a double-height theater, the whole experience will be that much better.
A unique addition to Crystal is its “Magic Castle at Sea”. I’m a big fan of magic acts, and remember with pleasure some of the magicians I saw on Regent who performed in the theater. By contrast, Crystal’s Magic Castle, happens in the tiny Luxe nightclub which is decorated a bit like a carnival show tent. The acts are close-up magic and are more like parlor tricks. Personally, I prefer the grand spectacle and when magic is accompanied by lights, music and a big stage. To me these shows were a bit weak and I almost feel that I was watching a street side “Monty” game. One of the three magicians we had (there was a different one for each segment) did make an effort and she did impromptu tricks around the ship which was actually better, since it was off the cuff, and relaxed. Having it in Luxe felt like it was kind of hidden away in a broom closet. I can’t say the Magic Castle at sea is a deciding factor in choosing Crystal over anyone else.
Movies in the Hollywood theater were generally excellent. The movies were quite recent and there even were a few foreign language films which were all great. The equipment in the theatre is excellent and only diminished by the viewing of standard definition source material. Hopefully this wasn’t an oversight and simply a licensing issue with the content providers. After all, how silly to spend all the money on high definition equipment and not have high definition programming.
There is one thing that’s really strange on Crystal. The library is very good with books, DVD’s, and four Blu-ray discs to borrow, but only at set hours. Regent’s library is open all the time, which is great if you happen to wake up early or be up in the middle of the night. Several times I wanted to go to the library and it just wasn’t open – kind of a pain. The DVD situation is great if you’re lucky enough to have a Penthouse or smart enough to plug you own DVD player or laptop into the TV. I was shocked that regular staterooms don’t have DVD players – seems really cheap for a five star cruise line. Regent equips every cabin with a DVD player. The most amusing is that you have to spring for the ultimate suite on board, the fantastic Crystal Suite which is more like your own apartment on a yacht, and they throw in a Blu-Ray player! LOL. The joke is that they only have four Blu-ray discs in the library and although you can certainly play DVD’s in the Blu-ray player – it just seems really silly, don’t you think?
Another thing that was very different from Regent is the participation in games. Both Crystal and Regent have typical games like Liar’s Club and Trivia. But Regent seems to draw you in more. Perhaps it’s scheduling and the staff joining in with the games. Crystal scheduled Team Trivia at noon, but Regent has it with tea in the afternoon (which is usually after people get back from shore anyway), which seems to be better to get people to maybe go for tea, but then get drawn into the game. Also Regent’s officers and management actively participate in Liar’s Club and other games which add a lot of fun and humanizes them. Crystal’s officers were doing their jobs admirably but nothing more. The only time we ever saw the Captain or any other officers, was at a set formal time. On Regent they’d pop up at meals, around the pool and felt just felt part of our floating world. I will say that the professionalism of Crystal’s crew was top notch and we got to and from all our ports and through some bad weather with perfect scheduling, and safety.
Lastly I’ll touch upon “Learning at Sea”. Crystal promotes this greatly and I will excuse myself from most of this since I really didn’t participate. My wife and I had high hopes to do this, but you only have so much time and other things took priority. One downside is the elimination of Yamaha keyboard classes which we had always thought we’d take since no other cruise line offers this. It seems to have been replaced by iMovie classes and the Magic Castle at Sea. I’m a former CIO, so the computer classes are really not of interest to me and I’ve been making movies since Super 8 was around, but the keyboard classes would have been fun. Language classes are only in Spanish, which I really didn’t think was appropriate for Asia and Russia. What would have been more interesting are quick traveller’s language classes in port related languages, or perhaps a primer on Chinese characters, or Korean. I cannot comment on the CU@sea, except that it looked popular, and I have to assume the majority of the passengers find it helpful. My wife did participate in the Arts and Crafts program as she did on Regent, and I did sample one Golf class which actually did give me a few tips I want to try at home. I didn’t go to the others mainly due to the inclement weather and conflicts with other activities.
I hadn’t mentioned this before but the primary reason for our trying Crystal Cruises after being exclusive Regent customers for so long was simply that Regent eliminated their World Cruises (we used to take segments) and their itineraries became repetitive and boring. We sailed from Beijing, to Japan, Russia and along the northern Pacific ring of fire through Alaska and down the west coast of North America to Los Angeles. This was always one of my “bucket list” things to do and I would still love to do the entire circumnavigation of the Pacific (perhaps like Cook’s journey) before I kick the bucket. It would have been nice to see more of Japan, like Hokkaido or the Kuril Islands but fortunately because we had almost three days in Kobe, Japan we did our own tour around Kyoto between segments. That was exceptional.
The only negative I have to say about this itinerary was that it was a bit early in the season to be visiting a lot of these ports. The good news is that we saw these ports, especially Alaska, without thousands of other tourists. It was a bit like a pre-show or behind the scenes tours. We were ready for the cold weather, and amazingly I did manage to sneak a swim in the pool in San Francisco – of all places! Not having an active pool deck probably changed the impression we had overall of the cruise, since we now realize that it serves a bit like a town center where you can hang out, and eventually everyone passes through including the Captain. A plus Crystal has over Regent in this cold weather cruise is the trident deck which has a retractable glass roof. This was very pleasant in the temperate climates. We still got some sun without the cold wind.
Our Captains did an excellent job getting us to all our ports with no mishaps.
I booked the majority of our tours on Crystal’s PCPC (online booking system). This worked quite well and I could preview most tours well ahead of time to research and choose. The choice was good, and some sounded very good, even though they were pricey. We ended up booking an overnight tour to Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai. This was a $1,300 per person tour but it was really worth it. We were thrilled with the Aman Resort that we stayed at, and I was very impressed that Crystal offered this as an option.
Crystal also offered a helicopter ride around the volcanoes in Petropavlovsk for a hefty $1,700 per person. I signed up for this thinking, well I might as well do something memorable in a place I might never visit again – and there was a good chance we might not even get there since last year’s cruise had to skip it due to weather. Anyway I took the plunge and only found out by chance that my tour and my wife’s completely different tour had been cancelled. I only found this out by calling the tour desk to ask about the missing tickets and after some digging, the explanation was that since I had been the only one to sign up, they cancelled it. I couldn’t believe I had found out this way. Its one thing to have advance notice that the tour is cancelled, and perhaps get help in make alternative arrangements, but quite another to just stumble on it and then really have no recourse. On top of that, since they cancelled both our tours we were at the back of the line to get booked on the remaining options – even though I had booked the original tours months ago. I asked why had they not even offered to turn this into a private tour, like Regent had done for us in Zambia? I was just quoted regulations. I was dumbfounded, and felt like abandoned. We eventually arranged a private tour to some hot springs, but it was just so badly handled, I cannot help but characterize the whole experience as a tremendous stain on Crystal’s reputation. We had heard for years that Crystal had no knowledge of the word “No” and mimicked the Japanese manner of always trying to accommodate and make their passengers happy. So this was a total shock, even now that I’m back home after a couple of weeks. I’ve certainly had some ups and downs with Regent’s Tour desk, however my expectations are not quite as high since their tours are included and not as interesting or ambitious. Kudos would have gone to Crystal for that had they been able to fully deliver and I still encourage them to offer the expensive tours as an option. I’m afraid the level of experience at the tour desk is probably getting weaker on all cruise lines, but it was very difficult to come to this realization after having such high hopes for Crystal. Ok, that’s enough whining. Generally our tours were fine, and I actually prefer Crystal’s way of doing the tours as not included since I can easily opt out and do things on my own. Regent doesn’t do much better, but at least they have the courtesy to tell me in advance when a tour is cancelled.
Simply said, the food on board Crystal Symphony was the best I’ve had on sea and as good as anything I’ve had on land. I’m a simple picky eater, and normally food is just fuel to me. I’m hungry, satisfy the appetite and I’m ready to move on. However on a cruise, I mellow out a bit and pay more attention, especially to things I like. My wife usually says I never have anything nice to say about food except that its “OK”, so I was sure to highlight the fact that on Crystal I said “Great” and “Fantastic”. That’s a lot coming from me. Although we had to insist a bit with the sommelier, my wife managed to get a good Bordeaux as her preferred wine, as opposed to the nightly offerings. Almost everything I picked over 42 nights was excellent, and I gained 17 pounds to prove it! The things that were not excellent were still OK. The specialty restaurants were also excellent and a nice change of venue on a long cruise. The Wagyu Beef in Silk Road was probably the best beef dish I’ve had. The Beef Wellington in the main dining room was perfect (Chef Ramsey from Hell’s Kitchen would have been proud!).
The service was excellent overall, and really the only downside is that there isn’t open seating. This has been reported many times, but coming from Regent with open seating to a set seating is a hard adjustment. We chose to dine by reservation, which is Crystal’s workaround, but you feel a bit sequestered into a designated area in the dining room. This never changes so it can get a bit wearing on a long cruise. We only interacted a bit with passengers seated at a neighboring table, but it’s not the same as having the flexibility one night to join a large table for more interaction, and then choosing to dine alone on another night. I realize this is probably a logistical issue with 1000 passengers, but it’s still a negative in my mind.
The Trident grill served the best French fries ever. I wish I knew their secret to consistently producing perfectly seasoned, not greasy or undercooked fries. The pizza was also very good. The ice cream bar was a winner with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but after 43 nights it would have been nice to see the flavor choice change a bit.
We had a special feature on this cruise that we’d never had before, which was a butler. Out butler “Greg” was everything you would expect and more. He really made a great effort getting to know us, and if there was anyone who we will always remember with this adventure it is him. I mentioned before that Crystal’s officers and management seem very detached from the passenger life, having Gregg as a butler made up for a lot of that. He leaped at the challenges I gave him for my in-room dining special orders and had a wealth of knowledge of the ship.
We ended up in San Pedro, CA and our disembarkation was fine, although very sad as it is on all our cruises. Crystal does seem to do what it can to provide happy smiling people to help and guide you through the disembarkation. With Regent we kind of felt dumped on the pier having to rely on our own resources as soon as we were off the gangplank. Crystal reps were everywhere all the way out to the limos and buses. Aside from airlifting us in our wonderful Penthouse cabin to our home doorstep, Crystal could not have done more to ease our transition.
I hate to even make this call because I’m happy to say I now like both Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. They each have enough going for them that I would sail again on either one as long as the itinerary is good. One thing Crystal seems to have is much more of an international mix of passengers. Being an American, while I don’t mind my fellow countrymen, I like to meet non-Americans when I travel. We had Japanese, Chinese, Australians, South Africans, and Canadians. This really added to the whole ambiance. Regent is heavily skewed towards Americans, and I feel sorry for non-Americans on board since they have to conform to American entertainment and being in the minority. I’m not American bashing, I just feel that as travelers on a ship in international waters we should embrace that we’re all world citizens and get out of our nationalistic modes.
If I imagined myself at the head of Crystal or Regent, wondering who really wins this comparison, I’d probably be looking at the dollars. While we may have cruised more on Regent over the years, Crystal did beat out all the other competition to convince us to spend the most we’ve ever spent on a cruise, and they did it by giving us the combination of a pleasing itinerary, excellent accommodations, a mid-size ship that doesn’t get boring on a long voyage, and I did book two future cruises while on board. So if the bottom line is to get the client and make money, Crystal won.
The one thing I would say in Regent’s favor is that they would probably win us back if they’d get their itineraries back to the way they were when they did Discovery cruises and get rid of the back and forth itineraries which kills it for multi-segmenters like us. Not that Crystal is bad, but Regent would kill them since they include air and tours and we get free internet all for a lower price than Crystal. So the overall winner is really both. I’m now happy that I now have to excellent cruise lines to choose from.
If you think this is long, wait until I sail on some of the other cruise lines like Silver Sea and Seabourne Less
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