After spending 12 days on the Crystal Symphony I am convinced that Crystal is clearly the cruise line for wealthy alcoholics. The all inclusive fare included everything at most bars with the exception the most expensive wine or brandy on the market...but what most folks call the "good stuff" all arrived with a smile and no bill.
Our first night on the ship we were in the Avenue Saloon listening to a top notch pianist and singer. The place was crowded and a nice man originally from London looked at my wife and announced, "I'm pissed!"
I told my wife that he wasn't mad or upset, but he was merely drunk. In talking with him he had just downed five rather full snifters of brandy. This was just the start of an interesting vacation.
ARRIVAL: Our Southwest Flight to LaGuardia Airport was on time. We met a young man at the baggage counsel who was from Fulton, Missouri and was going to spend his summer with his uncle in Manhattan while he worked in the financial district as a college intern. It was his first time to New York so we offered to give him a lift with our car service.
We called Arecibo Car Service (855-428-0222 or 718-783-6465) and a black car picked us up in about seven minutes. The trip in congested Sunday traffic (due to a bridge closure for construction) to the kid's uncle's apartment and then to the Manhattan Pier was just $55. The next day my wife used Arecibo to get back to the ship from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the longest we have ever had to wait for a black car...10 minutes. The fare was $15.
Embarkation: This was the easiest embarkation we have ever had. We showed our computer tickets at the gangway and were ushered onto the ship where a table of five of the ship's crew took our photos and gave us room keycards. THERE WAS NO WAITING. Early on I was really liking Crystal.
While embarkation was on June 1 they ship didn't actually set sail until 6pm on June 2. While Crystal may be considered one of the more expensive cruise ships around, a non-balcony stateroom was cheaper than any Manhattan hotel room and we were right in Manhattan.
STATEROOM: The only way we were going to be able to go on a Crystal Cruise was to do so in a non-balcony stateroom on the Promenade Deck (deck 7). When the brochure arrived in the mail with the non-balcony stateroom at $3,200 for a 12-day cruise, my wife had me call immediately. Instead of reaching employees of Crystal, I learned that the two-ship cruise line has private travel agents take calls and do bookings. I got David Butterfield of All Cruise Travel in San Jose. He said there were still a few cabins available. I told him I needed to call our house/dog sitter before I could book. Our dog sitter was available and I called David back within an hour. In that time all the cabins were reserved and we were waitlisted. After about a month we were guaranteed stateroom at the low price.
We found the stateroom on Deck 7 to be larger than the three balcony staterooms on Cunard cruises we took in 2013. The bathroom was also much bigger and easy to get around. It was amazing how there was always hot water, regardless of the time of day or peak demand period. I'm not talking "warm" water, but "hot" water.
The only complaints about the stateroom was that the furniture and desk chair were so low it was difficult to get up and the lack of electrical outlets. We asked for a multi outlet extension plug or cord. Our room stewardess could not provide it. Instead an electrician showed up with both.
The room's window was slightly above the Promenade Deck so we would only see walker's heads and they could not easily look into the room. A lifeboat was above the window, but we had a clear view straight out of the window.
The TV/DVD player and CD player in our lower-priced stateroom was far superior to what we had on the three Cunard cruises in 2013.
While this was advertised as an "all-inclusive" cruise our stateroom laundry service was not free. Use of the washing machines and dryers on each deck was free...but if you wanted to send your laundry out it cost. However thanks to our travel agent David Butterfield who had given us $600 in on ship credits which more than paid for our laundry.
FOOD: Main Dining Room: The food ranged from excellent to very good with more "excellent" meals than those in the "very good" category.
Unlike Cunard waiters last October who refused to go off the menu for diner requests, our Hungarian waiter Zoltan seemed to relish getting us items not on the menu. Plus he did so with a wonderful sense of humor. Everyone at our table commented that they have never had a better waiter on a cruise ship than Zoltan.
The only place where the Symphony got a low mark in the food was one night when they claimed they were serving "Clam Chowder with Saffron." Like all cruise lines where we were doing New England or West Coast cruises, the advertised clam chowder was not clam chowder or even close to Clam Chowder. In this case it was a yellow puree that while tasty didn't resemble or taste like Clam Chowder.
The Lido buffet restaurant was excellent. Although when they had a specialty day, like "Chinese" there were not a lot of other options. That said, I had the best tasting Orange Chicken I have ever experienced anywhere in the Lido buffet line.
Unlike Holland America or Celebrity where often the deserts looked better than they tasted, on Crystal the deserts tasted just as good as they looked.
The Afternoon grill on Deck 11 was great. Cooks Gabriel and Reye not only did a good job on the menu items, they also would make you anything they had ingredients for. Frankly the hamburgers were good, but maybe not as good as the ones I had on the Celebrity Century. But the grilled hot dogs were great. Where the staff really shined was making things not on the menu. You wanted a BLT or a BLT wrap...it wasn't on the menu, but it was brought to your table. You wanted a hot ham and cheese wrap...it was not on the menu, but it was done to perfection and cut into four pieces for sharing.
There was no waiting in line at the Grill like on most ships. You place your order and one of the waiters would find your table.
ICE CREAM: The ship featured Vermont's Benjamin and Jerald's finest. Besides Ben and Jerry's they also had low fat frozen yogurt at the ice cream bar on Deck 11. However the ice cream stand was only open from 11:30am to 6pm.
SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS; We were too late to make a reservation at the Asian or Italian specialty restaurants, however everyone we spoke with gave them high marks. These were free also for two visits on the cruise and then there were charges.
SNACKS: One bar on Deck 5 offered a cold table of food throughout the day from breakfast through 6pm. It included fresh fruit, pastries, cheeses and other treats.
EXTRAS: The appetizers served with the early evening entertainment on Deck 11 and late night in venues on Deck 5 were also outstanding.
TEA TIME: Here is the thing about Tea Time on the Symphony...not only did they serve finger sandwiches, scones and tea...if you wanted anything else from the bar area it was yours for the asking. On Cunard there was a line (queue for our British friends) just to get into the tea room. Not so on Crystal. There were almost no lines for anything. If you had to find a complaint it might have been the service was too attentive at times.
The food was so good you had to pace yourself. I normally skipped breakfast and had lunch and the late dinner.
ENTERTAINMENT: Movies: For the most part the movies were first run with only an occasional classic: like Tootsie, In fact when we returned home I had to remove a couple of movies from my Netflix list that I saw on the ship.
PIANO BAR: The piano entertainer is featured in the Avenue Saloon. For this cruise it was Jeff Deutsch. He was outstanding. I would pay a cover to go see Jeff perform. He had an amazing memory of the American Songbook. He would perform the Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart and Jerome Kern songs with the long versions written for Broadway and the movies. Jeff is from Chicago and used to do jingle singing on well known national TV and radio commercials. He also used to work on jingles with Bonnie Herman who was the female vocalist for the great jazz singing group, The Singers Unlimited. Listening to Jeff and talking to him on the ship was a treat. I'd have to rate him with Jimmy Maddox on HAL as one of the best cruise ship piano bar entertainers I have seen.
The ship did cancel their string quartet going with a single pianist on Deck 4 for late afternoon and evening music. Joe Fos performs on the keyboard and is very good. Like Deutsch, I never saw Fos show up with any sheet music...a huge number of songs were all in his head.
THE MAIN STAGE: The youngsters doing the singing and dancing in the main theater were the usual that you see on most cruise lines.
FLY-IN GUESTS: This area I found Crystal to be like other cruise lines. The Fly-In entertainers ranged from average to very good.
SPEAKER SERIES: I thought Cunard had a very good Speaker Series guest list. Crystal is as good with interesting speakers who were polished having done their presentations for a number of years.
SPECIAL GUEST ENTERTAINMENT...THE VERY GOOD AND THE VERY ANNOYING: The cruise was billed as a "Jazz Cruise" and featured Jazzdagen. Fortunately the group included Yve Evans out of Palm Springs, a gifted pianist and signer. She would also raise her voice to a comical pitch occasionally during performances and inject comedy bits. She was great and a favorite with the passengers.
Also appearing was Nicki Parrott, who was simply an outstanding and amazing jazz vocalist and bass player. She ranks near the top of living female jazz singers I have seen in the last five years. Unfortunately the leader of Jazzdagen didn't let her perform in a trio or quartet setting with just one exception when she did a 45-minute midday set.
The annoying: Besides a very good drummer, Danny Coots, from Nashville there was a pianist who brought along his four-string banjo, the leader of the group was with a saxophone, a clarinet and one of those awful little soprano saxophones, plus a clarinetist from Finland. Nicki Parrott was forced to play the bass with these guys night after night as they played ragtime and Dixieland music at about 120 decibels. It was somewhat entertaining for two or three nights and then began to be simply annoying changing to irritating by the end of the cruise.
It was a shame that the cruise was advertised as a "Jazz Cruise" and the most talented performers were not allowed to play any jazz.
AT SEA ACTIVITIES:
Watercolor: My wife is an artist and can be rather critical of cruise ship instructors. But she had only nice things to say about the two English woman putting on the watercolor classes.
Knitting and Needlepoint: Talking to people, including my wife who went to the needlepoint classes, I heard not one complaint...which is high praise for a cruise ship sailing out of New York.
Trivia: This was the most civilized trivia I have ever played on a cruise ship. On Holland America the teams would get nasty and often be unfairly rude to the staffer giving the quiz. I happened to win an overall trivia contest on a Celebrity ship and noticed after I got the prizes some folks stopped being pleasant. Cunard was more civilized but the quizzes were geared toward people from the Unite Kingdom.
However all the other cruise lines had trivia contests three and four times a day. Crystal had just one game at noon time on sea days only. The prizes were only a few dollars of credit at the casino, in a clothing store or at the photo shop. It helped eliminate the crazy competitiveness.
BINGO was not part of the all inclusive part of the cruise. You had to buy your cards. The staffers calling the games were actually some the worst I ever heard. While not being a bingo player, a friend of mine and I would go to the Bingo games on the Queen Elizabeth just to watch "Laura" of the cruise director's staff work the crowd.
Outside activities: I have to confess there was cool temperatures and high winds often as we crossed the North Atlantic and I did not spend much time outside. However the outside areas were always well staffed and there was never a shortage of very nice large towels.
Library: While the library did not come close to matching the one on the Queen Mary, it was one of the nicest I have seen. The really nice thing about the library were the hours. It was open for several hours in the morning, longer in the afternoon and then again in the evening until 11pm. Also it had a wide assortment of DVDs to check out.
Port of Calls: New York, NY: I Love New York in June, how about you? I love a Gershwin Tune, how about you? Well my wife loves New York having spent some time working there and attending some classes in Manhattan. Me on the other hand...I'm not too crazy with big cities and traffic when I'm on vacation. We checked in on the ship at about 5:15. I went and took a nap. After dinner we walked around the ship. It was nice to be in New York for parts of two days. On Monday my wife was ready to go. She spent time shopping and at the Metropolitan Art Museum. She walked in the morning and used our favorite car service in afternoon.
This was the first time I have been on a ship leaving New York Harbor where there was room for the views. We were able to sit in the forward lounge on Deck 11 and see everything without a pushing crowd to fight. Another problem on some cruise lines that depart from New York is there are too many "New Yorkers" on board. This time there were New Yorkers but they were some wonderful people who were fun to be around. The most obnoxious people were actually from somewhere over 1,000 miles from New York.
Newport, Rhode Island: This was our third time in Newport. The most recent time was last October on a New England-Canada cruise on the Queen Mary out of New York. We did what we usually do...rent a car and get as far away from tourists as possible. We have seen the mansions and after doing St. Petersburg last summer spending time in Russian palaces, we had no desire to see the puny Newport palaces again. Last fall we went north out of town. This year we went south. The recent college grad at Enterprise Rent-a-Car suggested we take the southern coastal road and be sure to stop at Monahan's Clam Shack. It was great advice. The drive was fun and Monahan's had some great Clam Chowder, clam strips and Lobster Rolls, which were done the Rhode Island and Connecticut way, served hot with butter, instead of cold with mayo like you get in Maine. There were no tourists, but plenty of construction people and other locals. We ate at a picnic table with a retired cop who lived in the area.
BOSTON: Another big city with some of the worst traffic in America. I slept in and my wife used mass transit to get to the Kennedy Museum. She was somewhat disappointed with the overt political correctness at the museum. She spent six dollars on transportation. Definitely cheaper than a ship's tour.
Bar Harbor: We have been to Bar Harbor a number of times. Last fall we rented a car and went north. On this adventure we wanted to confirm something. There was a restaurant review in the NY Times raving about Cappy's, an inexpensive seafood and chowder house in Camden, Maine. We drove west and then south for about 80 miles, with half of the trip having waterfront views. Once we got to Camden Cappy's was easy to find and the New York Times was correct. Not only was the chowder great...the onion rings were worth the drive alone.
On the way back we took our time in the rain and even stopped at a L.L. Bean outlet store. The free drive by Enterprise Rent-a-Car to and from their airport office was a fun sightseeing trip by itself.
We are never far from Bar Harbor as my wife the artist, has a large painting of the Bar Harbor town square hanging in our living room.
We used a tender at both Newport and Bar Harbor. More Kudos for Crystal. This was the first time I found leg room and was not packed like sardines on a cruise ship tender. It was the first time in memory where the tender rides were pleasant and passenger were not squeezed onto uncomfortable seats.
Halifax, Nova Scotia: I have always wanted to drive to Digby, NS which claims to be the Scallop Capital of North America. I know American chefs who claim Digby scallops are the best. I don't even like scallops, but I have always wanted to see the place but we have never had enough time from Halifax. This trip was no exception. This time we again rented a car and used the back roads. We were happy that Enterprise had run out of cars and rented us a large SUV, because the roads we took were in awful condition, apparently unrepaired from a difficult winter. In a low to the ground sedan our fillings would have been knocked loose.
We discovered the wooden Walton Lighthouse, that is maintained by volunteers. The volunteers were doing a better job than most government park services. The grounds, parking lot and restrooms were spotless. Tourists were on the honor system for buying hardback books about the area and the donation box was unattended in the lighthouse.
Fracking was a big political issue as we saw signs along rural highways with working class homes scattered along the way all against fracking.
We made it to Windsor. A lady at the gas station told us we needed to try Lisa's Cafe. She was right. It was not as good as Cappy's but still it was pretty good with a fine bowl of Fish Chowder. It was the last chowder we would see on our vacation, regardless what the ship's menu claimed a few nights later.
St. John's Newfoundland: This was perhaps the stop I was most looking forward to. Since we would be there on Sunday and for only six hours, I was going to have to take a cab to the airport for a rent a car, because no one picks you up on a Sunday in St. John's. Then I was going to drive through the pretty town full of Victorian Homes and head south down the coast road to the "City of Fairyland"...I kid you not. I was there once before and loved the place. There is a restaurant that is a favorite with locals just north of Fairyland. That was to be our last stop for chowder on the vacation. But none of this happened.
The Symphony's captain announced after we left Halifax that due to heavy fog conditions and a large amount of icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland, they were cancelling the stop in St. John's. I can understand that a cruise line with only two ships, doesn't want one to meet an iceberg at the start of the summer season. However, I have the feeling the service and rations on a lifeboat would have exceeded all expectations.
Reykjavik, Iceland: Like the beginning the end consisted of two days on ship in port. Iceland is so beautiful you don't know what way to go. We were there 10 days before the summer solstice and sunset was around midnight and sunrise was at 3am, but it never really got dark.
Due to the Iceland's banking collapse in 2009 the economy is still hurting. Everything is very expensive. Private tours and rent-a-cars were going for $300 for about four hours in 2010. It has gotten pricier. A 40-minute cab ride to the airport costs $168.
Once again Crystal made life easier. They had free shuttle bus service from the ship into the downtown area of Reykjavik. The city and the people are just as charming as on our other three visits to Iceland. At the art museum the credit card machine was being repaired so we got in free.
TIPS: I mentioned the on-board credit my travel agent provided at the beginning of this review. I brought cash to tip the staff, but the service was so good I wanted to tip more than the amount of cash on hand. I was able to combine the remainder of my on-board credit and credit card on file to leave appropriate tips for all the excellent service. Since there were no bar bills where I could leave cash tips, I took to leave one and five dollar bills under glasses that would be cleared by the servers.
Departure: Getting off the ship was as easy as getting on. We simply walked off with no crowds or anxious people. The cab driver was excellent with very good English skills (as most people in Iceland have) and informative.
Anytime we go to Europe whether it be London, Amsterdam or other major airports we always fly Icelandair. We take Southwest to an American Airport that is served by Icelandair. Not only are the flight crews great, it is the only airline in the world that we can afford to fly first class on.
Our only complaint about this vacation was we will be taking fewer cruises in the future so we can save up for another Crystal Cruise. I have to admit we were spoiled and we liked it.