Just returned from a near-perfect cruise and journey in all aspects. This was our fifth cruise overall (Seabourn, Azamara, and Celebrity previously); and our second cruise with Crystal. Crystal knows how to do it right! Celebrating the holidays on a 6* ship plus experiencing Antarctica at the same time does not get any better. We were constantly amazed at how incredibly well Crystal provided for nearly 900 passengers + 500 crew, cuisine-wise, entertainment-wise, and service-wise. Exceptional quality and variety! We also like the demographics of fellow passengers: from all over the world and of all ages (we are 61 and 77 respectively). There were nearly 70 well-behaved children, ages
Itinerary: Buenos Aires to Valparaiso
Dec 20/21 - BA - we did on our own; we stayed at Caesar Park Hotel (excellent) and dined at NY Times recommended restaurant Tarquino's in Recoleta (seafood), a short walk from our hotel. Tarquino is for those who are not fans of beef or lamb. It is very stylish and non-traditional, if you are looking for the latest in dining adventures in BA!
We did a Milonga tour in the evening and city tour the next day, both very expertly provided by Cultura Cercana Tours, in addition to airport/port transfers. (Andres and Mirta expertly navigated us through the city maze to Milonga venue; Flavio was our awesome guide for the city tour).
Dec 21 - Embarkation in BA was flawless: well-signed, organized, and efficient, even though we had heard that BA embarkation facilities were not the best.
Dec 22 - Montevideo - we enjoyed our day here, again pre-arranged with Cultura Cercana; we knew that Sunday the shops were closed, but we knew the Sunday market was in full swing (colorful and very local). Crystal had cancelled their Jewish sites shore excursion here well ahead of time via their website due to closed venues), so we advised CC ahead of time we were interested in seeing some Jewish sites. We had a great time with our 22-yr old novice guide, Emiliano, protege of CC's Bruno; he loves history and his city so we really got the most out of it, including a great seafood lunch at the seaside. Later back on the ship, we found most folks had not enjoyed their experience here. With a little pre-planning and research, one can get the best out of any place!
Dec 23 - at sea - marvelous! Love the service and staff onboard! And the cuisine is divine!
Dec 24 Puerto Madryn - this was the only Crystal shore excursion we took, because we were a little worried about making it back in time for departure. We should not have worried. We did the Punta Tombo excursion. The destination and the amount of Magellanic penguins (mixed with guanacos!) you could walk amongst did not disappoint. The drive there and back (2.5 hrs each way) isn't pleasant any way you slice it, but unfortunately the guide on the bus did not have the best command of the English language, so she was very difficult to understand. Had we arranged a private tour through CC, we could have easily asked our guide to repeat and explain better in the more intimate setting of a small vehicle. Next time.... The town of PM is not anything to write home about, but is only a jump off point for the Valdez Peninsula, Punta Tombo and other Patagonia wildlife areas and Welsh towns. Other folks we talked to onboard enjoyed their excursions to Valdez Penn. to see the sea lions etc.
Back onboard, Crystal put on a beautiful Christmas Eve dinner. BTW - The decorations that Crystal had all over the ship were astounding and were all managed/maintained by 'Santa's Elves'. Very smart. And I don't think any cruise line tops the entertainment quality that Crystal does. Their in-house ensemble cast of singers/dancers/entertainers together with guest entertainers provide night-after-night quality and variety. Really impressive.
Dec 25 - Christmas at sea - wonderful with Santa handing out presents to the children; Crystal's signature Christmas brunch with ice sculptures and phenomenal variety of cuisine was a huge WOW.
Dec 26 - Boxing Day - Falkland Islands - this was a highlight for me (not so much for my husband); I love remote, expansive, unique places and interesting geology, fauna, and flora, so I was in heaven. We were lucky to be able to tender into this sometimes inaccessible place (40% of the time ships can not tender in due to weather/seas). We pre-arranged thru Nyree at Estancia Excursions a 4WD tour to Volunteer Point King Penguin colony. VERY bumpy ride to and from over non-existent roads, but amazing scenery, history, local commentary, and loads of King and Magellanic penguins. They should sell "I survived the ride to Volunteer Point" t-shirts! Do not miss this experience if you are waffling. Bring British Pounds with you to pay for the tour, as no ATMs in Stanley and only one bank. We were there on Boxing Day and also one of the days of the Stanley horse races, so again we knew some shops would be closed. But cruise business here is big, so some tour operators were working and a few tourist/handicraft shops and cafes were open. Cold and windy, but not rainy. Bring your warmest clothes!
Dec 27 - Drakes Passage southbound - relatively calm seas so we were very lucky
Dec 28 - arrived at Elephant Island at tip of Antarctic Peninsula; weather mixed but first glimpses of Antarctica were surreal; continued down to King George Island; amazing sunset tonight (11pm or so)
Dec 29 - sunny weather with gorgeous white clouds for perfect photos; King George Island to Esperanza Station and Hope Bay in Antarctic Sound; AMAZING humpback whales and Amelie penguins everywhere with lots of icebergs; photo ops were continual. Hate to go to sleep, as the scenery is epic 24hrs a day (although the sun technically sets btw 12midnight and 2am, it is always light).
Continued to Deception Island - again a gorgeous day with amazing Antarctic backdrop scenery; huge colony of chinstrap penguins at the deceptive Deception Island (so named because it looks like a round solid island from a distance, but is actually hollowed out with a narrow channel inside.)
Dec 30 - to Gerlache Strait and through the very narrow Neumeyer Channel to Anvers Island. Again, picture-perfect weather and amazing scenery. We were lucky to transect this channel, as it was too full of ice the week before. If we were successful in getting through, we would be the first ship of the season to do so. We made it and continued to the U.S. Palmer Station on Anvers Island where we were able to pick up two zodiac loads of researchers and scientists there. They gave a great presentation on board and Crystal thanked them with lunch onboard and boxes of fresh produce and other goodies to take with them. A class-act all the way.
At the end of the day we headed north into Drakes Passage once again. A bit heavier seas this time, but not bad.
Dec 31 - New Years Eve bash onboard - another out-of-the park Crystal celebration - great entertainment, dining, and NYE party. One of our best, land or sea!
Jan 1/2 - Ushuaia - 6pm arrival; clearing from some earlier rain; we disembarked to walk around this fun adventure-seekers town; beautiful backdrop mountain scenery. We were both down with minor sniffles and purposely did not pre-book any excursions here, as we knew the weather could be unkind. The next day, it was pretty overcast and drizzly and as others went off for 'scenic' shore excursions, we chose to take the morning off and then independently went through the wonderful Maritime and Prison museum, well worth a look.
Jan 3 - Punta Arenas - again we did not pre-book any excursions here, again due to iffy weather, and we still had our colds, so we walked the town for several hours, using our guide book and had a wonderful seafood (King crab!) lunch at Sotito's near the port/water. A good way to spend the day if you are not excursioning.
Jan 4 & 5 - at sea in the Chilean Fjords; cold, blustery and cloudy, but still amazing scenery with waterfalls and glaciers down to the sea. Many folks stayed inside behind salt-sprayed windows, but if you braved the outside decks you were rewarded with some interesting color and clouds for photos.
Jan 6 - Puerto Montt - we pre-arranged an excursion here with Cultura Cercana to Petrohue Falls, Osorno volcano, and Puerto Varas. Our guide was the very good Claudio, who with his wife, Ingrid (an English teacher), are the guides here for CC. Claudio was very informative and responsive and whisked us away from port ahead of the excursion coaches and smartly headed directly to Petrohue Falls first. This was a gorgeous site with glacier-green waters. We then headed to Osorno volcano, which was shrouded in low clouds. The drive up was interesting for me from a geologic and flora perspective (beautiful native flowers in bloom), but the whole point of going to the top of the volcano is for the view, which was non-existent. Claudio probably should have had us go back to Puerto Varas first to walk around and have lunch, then go up to the volcano as the day cleared, as it usually does. Still, all in all, it was a pleasant day and we are glad we did it privately.
Jan 7 - at sea along volcano alley; gorgeous weather as we progressed up the coast with one-after-another impressive volcano; again a photographer's dream with interesting cloud formations. And of course we enjoyed a final sun-drenched day by the pool to work on our tans!
Jan 8/9 - disembarktion Valparaiso + Santiago - Valparaiso is a big, non-user-friendly port, but Crystal bussed us from ship to terminal and our luggage was ready there and very organized for quick retrieval. We again arranged transfer and tours through Cultura Cercana. This is the only time CC has let us down, but they quickly redeemed themselves. Leonardo (CC has 3 Leo's there, one of whom is the boss) was our guide for Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, and the Casablanca wine valley en route to Santiago. This Leonardo's English was sub-par, he was a bit late to meet us, and his greeting sign was pretty bad, so we were not pleased. He was not organized in how he toured us through Valp. and it is important when you do this crumbling heritage city that you have a good introduction, otherwise you come away frustrated and disappointed. It was very difficult to get any information out of him, so we didn't.... We did have a good visit at the winery Casa des Bosques and had a great lunch (on our own) there. We continued to Santiago where Leo left us at our hotel (arranged on our own). We stayed at the boutique Le Reve in Providencia, which we like a lot - quiet street amongst some of the best restaurants and cafes and near other upscale areas, such as San Sebastien. We had dinner at the hotel's recommended seafood restaurant a few blocks walk away, Aqui esta Coco. Outstanding cuisine as well as decor. Highly recommend this.
I also contacted Cultura Cercana re our guide Leo, and they immediately remedied the situation by having the owner of their local office take us on a complimentary city tour the next day. Very smart and we had a great time, so we ended our trip on a high note.
All in all, a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime trip. Nothing but the best regards for Crystal. The only exception is that from here out they will be charging a supplement for more than one dining reservation at each of their fine dining venues, Silk Road and Prego. Perhaps they will reconsider after a year and resolve the special dining venue demand differently.
FYI - we used LAN Airlines, business class and were very impressed.
FYI - Our cabin (Deluxe with veranda Cat A) we knew was not on the large size, as cruise ships go, but because Crystal Symphony's public areas are so spacious and inviting, we do not feel cramped in our stateroom. I do recommend the balcony even in cold destinations, because access to fresh air and unobstructed views for photos is important. Also we purposely chose a starboard cabin for this departure which definitely did afford the best immediate views during our right-to-left journey from BA to Valparaiso.
AND one final important note - the onboard destination expert, Ed Larson, and the other enrichment lecturers, as well as our 'ice pilot' were all excellent additions to our experience. It would not have been half as interesting without their involvement!