PANAMA SPLENDOR - MIAMI TO LOS ANGELES CRYSTAL SYMPHONY FEBRUARY 2007
I recently returned from my fifth cruise on Crystal Symphony, a 14-day trip from Miami to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal. I had been through the canal once before, but wanted to do it again, after having read David McCullough's definitive book on the canal: Path Between The Seas - The Creation of the Panama Canal. Another factor was the number of sea days, which I enjoy more than port calls.
The original itinerary included port calls at Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Caldera, Costa Rica; Acapulco; and Cabo San Lucas. However, in late January Crystal informed us that Cozumel was being replaced by Cartagena, Colombia. This reportedly was because of U.S. Government reinterpretation of the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which sets rules for foreign-flagged ships sailing between U.S. ports. Some passengers were disappointed to have their Cozumel plans disrupted, but personally I didn't mind the change, never having visited Colombia.
As is my usual practice when I make my own air arrangements, I flew Miami the day before embarkation. Although departure from Burlington, Vermont (where I had left my dog with my son) was delayed a little, I still made my connection at Washington Dulles with no problem and arrived in Miami in the early evening. I prefer to stay at the Holiday Inn on Biscayne Blvd, opposite the port, but it had been fully booked months in advance (learned that this was related to that weekend's start of the huge Miami boat show), so stayed at the Best Western on the 79th Street Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach. One mistake: never thought a downtown budget hotel would have airport shuttle service, so spent $21 (up from $15 last year) unnecessarily on the Super Shuttle.
I had again obtained a visitor's pass for my sister, so on embarkation day she met me at the hotel for lunch and then we headed for the port. Unfortunately, our timing wasn't very good, as several thousand people were trying to get to a 2 o'clock Miami Heat pro basketball game near the port entrance. So, it took us about an hour to drive the short distance from 79th Street to the port - no harm done other than the frustration of sitting in traffic. Check-in and embarkation were the usual painless Crystal operation, so we were on board in plenty of time for afternoon tea.
THE "NEW" CRYSTAL SYMPHONY
This was my first cruise since the multi-million dollar re-fit of the Symphony in late 2006; I was anxious to see the changes for myself, having read a lot of the posts on this subject on the Cruise Critic boards. My impressions:
- New carpet throughout the ship: very attractive. I like the use of different colors in the hallways of different decks.
- Starlite Club: removal of the wall on the starboard side of the room and replacement of the old bar with an inviting circular one really open up the room and make it very inviting. The stage and dance floor area are unchanged, which is welcome considering how several other cruise lines keep reducing dance floor space.
- Luxe Nightclub: not my cup of tea, and not many people in there in the early evening; I understand it has become a popular late night room for younger passengers. It is a much more practical venue for Karaoke than the Avenue Saloon. It has created a problem with noise levels in the Deck 7 staterooms directly above and I've heard that in the future they may use these cabins for staff and entertainers. Space taken from casino to create Luxe doesn't appear to be missed.
- Cabins: New headboards and bedside lamps are very attractive, although the LED reading lamps in the headboard don't seem very practical. The new flat-screen TVs provide excellent picture, but have one shortcoming: input jacks are all on the back of the monitor, making it nearly impossible to plug in a digital camera cable to review pictures. TV reception of CNN, Fox News, etc, ranged from excellent much of the time to non existent in some areas off the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Changes in cabin furnishings make little sense. replacement of the love seats with high-back chairs provides little additional floor space life jackets, formerly stored under the love seat cushions, now take up closet space.
An even worse decision is the replacement of the former light-weight desk/dressing table chairs with heavy, curved back chairs which cannot be pushed under the desk when not in use. And, they have to be wrestled aside to open the center desk drawer.
There have been a lot of comments on the surface-mounted glass "salad bowl" lavatory basins. I'm sure they look great in interior decorating publications, but they are not very practical. Also, they don't appear to have overflows, so it's probably only a matter of time until somebody floods a cabin and those below. In my opinion, a lot of money was spent unnecessarily in the bathrooms.
LIFE ON BOARD
Although this was only my fifth Crystal cruise, I immediately started running into both crew and fellow passengers I have met before. Maitre d' Victor assigned me to the captain's table, a first for me, although I have been at officers' tables previously with both Crystal and Cunard. I think that the fact that I am usually one of the few solo male passengers works in my favor in getting good table assignments. Table 60 was a table for 10, 11 on nights Captain Giske joined us, but we moved around each night, so soon got to know each other. An interesting group of couples and singles. I had cruised with two of the solo ladies on at least one previous cruise.
As usual, I joined a team for the sea-day trivia contests. We were a good team but were getting frustrated at finishing second (twice after tie breaks). We finally pulled out a win the last day!
I also attended the dance class on most sea days. Big group every class! The dance team of Alex and Felicity is new to Crystal, with both the Longs and Paul & Cheryl having moved on. They performed at several shows, including the first and last nights, and are terrific performers. They spent some class time each day on "progressive" dances, i.e. continually changing partners. I would have preferred to have the time devoted to basic dance steps, but that's a personal preference, as others seemed to enjoy the progressive dances.
Theme of the cruise was Wine and Food, and we had two guest chefs, four theme lecturers, and two wine lecturers on board. I found the several food lectures I attended interesting, but most of the dishes demonstrated were more complicated than I would ever bother with, as I live alone. I also attended a number of lectures by special interest lecturers and destination lecturer Larry Rudner.
There have been two changes in the production shows since my last cruise. The old Pirates opening night production has been replaced by selections from Applause Applause and Grand Hotel, a welcome change as the Pirates theme was getting a bit old. The other change was the addition of a new production show, The Envelope Please, featuring Academy Award music. I enjoyed it, although my favorite remains Curtain Call which I've seen at least four times.
One interesting development was the loss of first one and then a second male singer-dancer. This meant that both the above mentioned shows had to be completely re-blocked practically overnight. Anybody familiar with musicals will understand what this involves. They even drafted one member of the Full Sail quartet for a singing role. The net results were that only somebody who counted the number of male and female chorus members would have noticed anything different.
Full Sail is an excellent acapella quartet who performed a number of time throughout the cruise, and they were well received. Nice guys, too.
Comic Ventriloquist Mark Merchant was a lot of fun, with some cutting edge humor that seemed to have been updated daily based on the morning news on CNN. I also enjoyed the other headline performers: Harpist Shirley Dominguez; pianist Bernart Walz; Violinist Ian Cooper; and vocalist Dorothy Bishop.
In previous reviews I have commented on the talents of Galaxy Orchestra pianist Stacey Benn, who can plan anything from classical to jazz. So, I was pleased to see that Stacey has moved up to Bandmaster and does a great job both playing the piano and leading the band.
My favorite entertainer for this cruise was Jeff Deutch who played nightly in the Avenue Saloon. I hadn't cruised with Jeff before, but I think he is the best I have experienced. He has an amazing repertoire, all completely memorized, and it wasn't very often a request stumped him. About eight of us seemed to be the ones closing the Avenue most nights, and Jeff was willing to keep playing into the wee hours as long as people were making requests and having fun. The Avenue remains my favorite room on Symphony. It's even more fun when various entertainers and ships officers stop by in late evening - Mark, Stacey, Victor, shirley and Dorothy among others on this cruise.
Besides the two dance teams who've left Crystal over the last year or so, two other staff members familiar to Symphony regulars are leaving Crystal. Crystal Society Hostess Megan Mavor has just left to move to Norway and Cruise Consultant Billy Hare submitted his resignation the day I boarded.
Remi was scheduled to replace Victor as maitre d' at the end of the cruise, with Victor moving to Serenity after some leave.
I won't go into detailed port descriptions here, as there is lots of on-line and written information on all of them, as well as their being familiar to most regular cruisers. Some personal comments and observations:
- Grand Cayman: very crowded with seven ships in port, including the mega ships Star Princess and Disney Magic. When I removed the price label from a mug I bought for my housekeeper found that it was "Made in China
- Cartagena: As this was my first visit to this fascinating city and time was short, took the ship's boat and bus tour, which included a visit to one of the city's historic fortresses and a walking tour of the old city. Also, of course, a shopping opportunity. I am not a gem expert, but quality and pricing of emeralds appeared to be a lot better than on the Caribbean islands. They should be, with Colombia being the world's principal emerald producer.
- Panama Canal. Particularly interesting for me as a retired civil engineer. Excellent on-board commentator for the entire passage. Heard a few complaints about how hot it was. Would did they expect, close to the equator in dry season?
- Caldera: having done the long, hot excursion to San Jose on a previous visit, I opted for the half-day excursion to a large nearby commercial orchid farm, where they took us through the entire process from propagation of plants to packing and shipping of cut flowers to North America and Europe. We each received a small orchid bouquet which lasted very nicely in an improvised vase (Perrier bottle) for the rest of the cruise.
- Acapulco. We were scheduled to dock, but learned the previous afternoon that we would be anchoring, as another ship had some major hull damage and couldn't leave the pier. However, we were able to dock in a different berth, as the NCL ship scheduled for it wasn't arriving until afternoon.
The damaged ship was the Regal Princess, which had been supposed to depart on a cruise to Puerto Rico two or three days earlier. Passengers for that cruise whom several of us talked to were having a great time sitting on the ship with free liquor and shore excursions while Princess was figuring out how to get 1,500 people back to where they had come from. Ship was scheduled to go into dry-dock (in Panama, I heard) as soon as they got all the passengers off. Official Princess story was that she "touched bottom" at the previous port. Must have been quite a "touch" to do enough damage to require dry dock repairs and cancellation of two, if not three, cruises.
I didn't take any excursions (been there - done that) just walked up into the old city for a while. Again, a loud complaints about how hot it was. Unlike the canal, it really was hot in the city.
- Cabo San Lucas: a short call, as the ship really had to push to arrive in LA Sunday morning. I took a bus tour to get an overview of Cabo, not having been to Baja California before. Tour included a stop at a glass blowing factory, which I could have done without, a drive to the old city of San Jose del Cabo, with some shopping time, and visit to Cacti Mundo gardens, the largest display of cacti I've ever seen. Construction everywhere along the coast!
Back at the tender pier, loud complaints from one passenger that short stay didn't allow time for both touring and shopping, and why did we have to be in such a hurry to get to LA early in the morning. Obviously clueless about what it takes to turn a ship around for a new cruise the same day! Also, do people not read the materials Crystal provides? The schedule for the Cabo and other port calls was published at least a year ago!
A good percentage of the passengers were from California, whom we east coasters envied a bit, as they would be almost home when we got to LA.
The ship was pushed to maximum speed for the long leg back to LA, with all five engines at full power, and fighting both a headwind and opposing current. This is the only time there was any noticeable vibration. Despite these efforts, we arrived in LA about 1-1/2 hours behind schedule, but disembarkation was handled quickly, without the usual requirement that all baggage be ashore before anybody could disembark, so the Crystal transfers got us to the airport in plenty of time, theoretically, to check in for flights.
I say theoretically because as soon as I got to LAX I started regretting that I hadn't stayed on the ship for the next cruise, as getting back to Vermont was to be a bit of an adventure. Virtually nothing was flying east because of storms - I was supposed to go through Washington, but it was completely closed, and nothing available to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. Helpful United agent got me on the standby list for an afternoon flight to Chicago and then standby on to Burlington Monday morning. Learned something interesting: my 100,000+ United miles moves me to the top of the standby list, and I got on both flights with no problem. So, I got to Burlington about 12 hours later than planned - I was lucky - talked to people who had been at O'Hare for three days trying to get out.
Learned later that even some San Francisco passengers had delays because aircraft and/or crews were stuck somewhere.
Got home to NH to find a foot of snow from the Valentine's Day storm, and we had another 10 to 12" a few days later, so it still looks like winter here, regardless of what the calendar says.
All in all, another great Crystal cruise with a lot of nice people. I'm looking forward to my only other scheduled 2007 Crystal cruise, the November Lisbon-to-Miami big band crossing on the Serenity. This will be my first Serenity experience, so I'm looking forward to it. Several people I met on this cruise are also booked on the November crossing. I'm also anxiously awaiting Crystal's announcement of 2008 cruise themes so I can start planning for next year.
Comments will be welcome either on the Crystal's Cruise Critic message boards or by e-mail.