As a longtime Crystal cruiser (12 years and counting) and long curious to visit the much-talked about, but little-seen, Middle East, it took me mere minutes to decide to book Crystal Symphony's 2 week Dubai-Athens voyage. Boasting such exotic destinations as Oman and Jordan, taking this voyage on one of my favorite ships seemed like a no-brainer. For those interested in reading about this, my 22nd cruise, I will divide the critique up into sections.
THE SHIP: Entering service in 1995, Crystal Symphony is practically considered a "veteran" in this age of mega-ships. She was renovated in 2006. Symphony looks great. You can tell she's not a young woman anymore, but well-done cosmetic surgery has helped her to conceal her age. Changes made to the ship in 2006 are both positive and negative. The staterooms have been vastly improved, given the look of a high-end boutique hotel. Even the much-maligned glass sink in the bathroom and armless reading chair didn't bother me. I found them to be fanciful elements. The former Stars Disco has been converted into Luxe, a trendy nightclub with a Miami feel, which was sorely underused on our voyage. Also, the mid-ships Starlite Room had major changes. Once an enclosed lounge, the room is now open to the rest of the ship with a central bar (with a beautifully-done blue lit icy centerpiece). The openness of this room is great for attracting a crowd for dancing or shows. However, the talking and cackling of people passing in the hallway is annoying if there is a lecture going on. The ship's alternative Italian restaurant, Prego, is as phenomenal - if not better - than before. The food (especially the mushroom soup and crab salad) were consistently mouth-watering 5-star fare. As for Silk Road, the ship's alternative Asian venue, food was good, the decor high-end and hip, but the space is small and too loud if at capacity. Overall, Crystal Symphony is still as elegant as ever - one of the grand ladies of the seas.
SERVICE: Crystal has long won accolades for its seamless, friendly European service staff. The staff is one of the main reasons I've returned to Crystal time and again. This time, all seemed off. Our Senior Waiter in the Crystal Dining Room, Dusko, was fantastic! However, he along with the other servers and Maitre 'Ds were overwhelming - even suffocating. They would constantly circle our table and would constantly try to engage us in conversation. More times than not, I wasn't even able to finish a conversation with my family before they would interrupt to ask us how dinner was, how our day was, what we were doing that night, what we were doing the next day. Don't get me wrong - we have always had a great relationship with our servers, getting to know them, trading jokes. But this time the experience was intrusive to the point we wanted to avoid the dining room alltogether. The only problem was, Prego servers were exactly the same. We were exhausted by the time dinners ended. Also, on a negative note, the front desk staff and many bar staff were - for the first time ever - aloof and unmotivated. Every other aspect of the service staff onboard was fantastic, however. Especially, the stewardesses and the Lido staff. One night when most of the ship returned from a 12-hour excursion in Egypt, we were greeted by the stewardesses from each floor lined up and gathered on the staircase landings to give us a warm welcome back! Each floor I went to, there were at least 15 stewardesses smiling and welcoming us back. It was lovely. The Lido staff would call us by our name, even from the first day. What was weird was that we had never given them our names or room number. Their attention to detail was incredible and very memorable.
DUBAI: We embarked in Dubai, UAE. Dubai was a bit of a disappointment. It is one oversized construction project at the moment. Much of what they claim to have to offer is still under construction. It is very much a city of "what will be", not "what is". Having said that, if you look in the right places (Dubai Creek, Jumeiriah Beach) much beauty can be found. We had an overnight in Dubai onboard ship, but one day would have been plenty. Don't miss the Burl al Arab (the 7-star hotel) or the views of the Burj Dubai (soon-to-be world's tallest building).
SALALAH, OMAN: Oman embodies what I had always thought the Middle East would look like - busy soups, dry desert scapes, wandering camels. But what really grabbed my attention was the amazing coastline with its soaring cliffs and piercing blue water. There is not a lot to see in Salalah, but it most definitely deserves a visit.
SAFAGA, EGYPT: Safaga is the gateway to Luxor and Valley of the Kings, which is a good 3-4 hour drive away. However, the long day is completely worth it. At Luxor, you can see B.C. ruins on the banks of the Nile River. At Valley of the Kings, you can tour the former tombs of pharaohs, including the one of King Tut. What's impressive about touring the cavernous crypts are the detailed hyroglyphics and beautiful paintings on the walls. There is absolutely NOTHING in Safaga (other than landmines off the road and trash), so you will definitely need to venture out and do the Luxor tour.
AQABA, JORDAN: Aqaba, right at the point where Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia meet, is Jordan's only port. It is a lovely town, very reminiscent of various Mediterranean ports of call (Kusadasi for one). It is a walkable town and the cruise ship terminal is right in the middle of everything. We did a nice tour out into the desert (Wadi Rum), but the main point of interest here is the Rose City of Petra - about 2 hours away from Aqaba. Those who went to Petra felt that it was a life-changing visit. This brief call really piqued my interest to explore this beautiful country further.
SUEZ CANAL: A transit of the Suez Canal is certainly not the same as a Panama Canal transit, as there are no locks or other mesmerizing activity. The beauty of this transit is the serenity of basically sailing through the desert. Seeing miles of sand dunes from the balcony of our room, interspersed with occasional towns and resorts, was a feast for the eyes. It is a quiet, relaxing and most memorable experience.
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: Alexandria is a large city (5 million people) in its own right. But any visit here, requires the all day excursion to Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. Seeing the Pyramids, followed by a visit to the spectacular Cairo Museum, is one of life's most precious experiences. Words or photos cannot express the sheer emotion of seeing the Pyramids and Sphinx in person. As we wandered, the Islamic calls to prayer were blasted all over the city. It was beautifully chilling. What a day!
We ended the cruise in Piraeus/Athens, Greece, but I had to fly back home for work. Unfortunately, I had no time to tour Athens (I did visit Athens back in 1999, though).
OVERALL: In conclusion, this was a great cruise, with an exotic itinerary. The Middle East is a culture shock, but the people could not have been friendlier. It was all I had hoped it would be - from the chaotic markets, to the stunning sounds of prayer music throughout the cities, to the spectacular sights and smells. The Crystal Symphony is still a wonderful ship, but after this trip, I am beginning to wonder if Crystal is not dropping a few notches, hovering near becoming a mainstream line. It's not at the level of Princess or Celebrity yet....but maybe close. In the future, I think I will make Regent more my cruise line of choice. It is a high-end, yet casual environment, with rooms that blow Crystal's out-of-the-water. Gone from Crystal (at least our sailing) are the white glove wearing stewards on embarkation day, along with champagne-on-ice in the rooms. I'm still partial to Crystal, but they need to fine-tune some of their offerings - end the cheesy raffles for lip balm during Bingo, stop the art auction madness, tone down the pushy salespeople in the shops - if they want to return to their former glory.