Just back from our fourth cruise on Crystal (three on the Symphony, one on the old Harmony). This time it was to the Baltics. Quick review:
WEAR AND TEAR: Concerns about wear-and-tear are beyond overblown. Sure, the railings could use a fresh coat of lacquer but that’s an issue with EVERY ship. (Ah, the salt air!) And, frankly, we were in the stateroom and on the veranda so infrequently that it didn’t matter. And even if we were it wouldn’t matter. The Symphony is just a great ship. Maintenance is ongoing. We’re early risers and you have to see what goes on overnight to fully appreciate the maintenance.
CREW: Key to us is the quality and engagement of the crew, whether it’s Ricki, Derek or Lester on the Lido deck, always looking to help us start our day off with a “good morning” by name, or Prego head waiter Piotr, who in his day job co-running the Lido does a remarkably impressive job keeping the staff motivated in the mornings with respect, encouragement and a pat on the back. (I’m a sucker for well-run businesses and any services-oriented company looking for insight into how things should be run should pay Piotr a visit. He really just works there, but takes pride in what he does.)
FOOD: The food in the main dining room, of course, was excellent and our head water, Vlada, went out of his way to make sure that my low-sodium diet could be adhered to. (Ask for the roasted vegetable soup: It’s not on the menu, it’s really good and it has no salt.) Prego was exceptional, of course, as was the Silk Road.
TOURS: Crystal’s secret weapon is its exclusive-access excursions. We experienced this in Beijing, on a prior cruise, where Crystal does what most cruise lines and private tours can’t or don’t: It gets you into the Great Hall of the People for a private dinner and show. We thought THAT was one of those great once-in-a-lifetimers until we did the Moscow excursion by train from St. Petersburg.
This isn’t cheap, but it’s worth every cent and definitely worth stealing a day from St. Petersburg.
Here’s why: They get you into the Grand Kremlin Palace. No other cruise does this, and the only other way to do it is with a private tour -- and then access can be iffy, expensive and very limited. This is one of those “words can’t express” experiences. There are palaces, and then there are PALACES. This is the later, and in a league of its own. This tour, with an extraordinary senior-level guide, involves hours of walking and is topped with a really good meal in one of Moscow’s great restaurants. The four-hour train ride each way results in a long day that starts at 5:30 and gets you back to the ship at about midnight. (Nice touch by Crystal to have two plates of sandwiches waiting for us in our room with a “Welcome back from Moscow” note.) Unlike St. Petersburg, which was overwhelmed with crowds that even our private “early access” tours couldn’t help avoid, our Moscow group was 53 people; normally it’s about twice that amount. Our tours of the palace were split into two groups. We were the ONLY groups in the palace at the time. Why does Crystal get this access? They have to pay up front for the tour AND renting private coaches on the train. This means taking the risk that fewer guests than expected will book, which means they could wind up eating the cost of any unsold seats on the train. Could you see any cruise lines owned by quarterly-earnings conscious public companies doing that? I don’t think so!
STATEROOMS: Sure, they’re small but they’re so well designed. We actually think we cram in more with ease in Crystal’s staterooms than we did on a cruise several years ago on the Regent Voyager, which has considerably larger standard rooms that include a walk-in closet. The extra floor space on Regent was nice, but we would take a smaller room on Crystal over a larger room on Regent. My one quibble with Crystal is mattress quality: Too hard for my taste; less so for my wife; but we have them wrapped with extra quilts and/or egg crates to blunt the blow. (Hat-tip to Keith for recommending bringing a power strip. This is the first time we did and it made sense. There is only one outlet in the room. Remember, these ships were designed pre-the days we all carried multiple devices.)
INTERNET SERVICE: No surprise to anybody, it was horrible though Crystal warned in big bold letters upon sign on and in the computer lounge it would be throughout the Baltic.
All in all, another great Crystal experience. Originally, we had booked too late to get a veranda room on this cruise, so opted for a somewhat similar itinerary on the Seabourn Quest. When a veranda room opened on Crystal we cancelled Seabourn, without hesitation, for the Symphony for four reasons: After veering once to Regent, we didn’t want to take another chance on another line (it is, after all, expensive); we wanted a sea day (Seabourn didn’t offer one in its Baltic itinerary); Crystal went to Berlin (well worth the day, especially the drive back in a German bus, with an American flag in the front window and the USA vs. Germany soccer match playing on the bus radio in German -- surreal!); and Crystal’s inclusion of the Grand Kremlin Palace -- something Seabourn did not offer. Expectations exceeded on all fronts.