Since there has not been a current review of the Symphony since her Fall of 2009 dry dock, I felt that an update was called for. My background includes over forty cruises in the past ten years, including a World Cruise on the Serenity in 2008. I had last sailed on Symphony in 2006. Since that time, Crystal has upgraded this ship significantly during two major dry docks, investing nearly $50M in improvements and renovations. The result is a new and improved vessel that belies her fifteen year age. Every cabin has been reworked with the appearance and amenities of a boutique hotel, featuring stylish new furnishings and modern baths with granite counters and glass vessel sinks. Most every public area has been updated, with special attention to the Lido and pool areas. The Lido is now more a sit-down eatery than buffet, with separate work stations for a wide variety of cuisine. No lines and no trays result in a more upscale look, similar to that of many brand new ships. Outside at the pool, the look is more resort than ship-like in appearance and function. New plastic wicker furnishings have replaced outdated webbed chairs and colorful cushions in orange and teal lend a very contemporary look. This is not your Father's cruise ship; Symphony looks as modern and chic as any ship at sea.
During my World Cruise in 2008, Crystal announced a new Grand Americas Voyage doing a complete circumnavigation of South America and Antarctica, sailing from Miami roundtrip. As I enjoy longer sailings and hate to fly, this was an ideal itinerary and I signed up immediately. My two previous Symphony cruises had taken me up both coasts of South America, but I had yet to visit Antarctica, the Amazon or round the Horn. This trip was a 62 day journey visiting 25 ports of call, including such favorites of mine as Rio, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso and Lima. One could book the entire journey, or a segment or two, much like a mini World Cruise. The Miami to Manaus segment was popular due to promotional pricing. From Manaus to BA was lightly booked, with only 300 guests. The BA to Valparaiso sailing, a Holiday Cruise, was popular with families, despite the premium pricing. The final leg from Valparaiso to Miami was oversold, again due to aggressive pricing and the presence of two groups; Roberta's Bridge Group and Jazzdagin. Neither group caused any disruption of the usual Crystal pleasures, and, in fact, the Jazz music was well liked by most all of the passengers. Throughout the voyage, service never varied due to passenger load. As always, everything onboard was top notch.
Living in Fort Lauderdale gives me easy access to the two largest passenger ports on earth. As of this year, FTL has taken over as number one with the arrival of Oasis, but even prior to that, Crystal was squeezed out to Miami by the large number of megaships home porting here. On November 22nd, my Partner drove me to the Port of Miami for embarkation. This was a breeze, taking less than twenty minutes, after which he came on as my guest for lunch and then assisted me in unpacking and settling into my cabin. Sailing solo, I had booked an E Category cabin, #7035, on the Promenade Deck. At 200 square feet, there was plenty of room for me and all my belongings for this two month journey. My Stewardess, Marija, came by promptly to introduce herself and learn about my dining arrangements and special requests. By 2PM all was attended to in the cabin and we took a tour about the ship. While the layout was familiar, every aspect of Symphony looked fresh and new, other than the Main Dining Room and Theater. This is my favorite size of ship, being large enough to have all of the big-ship amenities, but small enough to be intimate and easy to get around. The dEcor is, at once, classic with lots of wood and polished brass, as well as modern and up to date due to loving care and the recent renovations.
Dining on either Crystal ship is always something that I look forward to. I am an early riser and head up to the Lido for freshly squeezed juice and coffee around 6AM before heading to the Computer Lab to check E-mails and write my popular reports that I send back home. If you are interested in more details of my trip, you can find them posted on the Boards under 9227C Grand Americas: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1087761 . There, I posted over ten pages covering food, dining, service, hospitality and ports of call during our journey. Suffice to say, the Crystal Experience onboard the Symphony was excellent, as always. Breakfast and lunch in the Lido have achieved new heights with more freshly cooked choices and unmatched service from the Lidoboys. Dinners in the MDR are always special with a wide variety of offerings and menus that seldom repeated, even over a sixty two day cruise. Prego, Silk Road and the Sushi Bar are as outstanding as always, giving a pleasant break from the traditional continental fare served elsewhere. What really sets Crystal apart from any other cruise line is consistency. Meal after meal, crewmember after crewmember, and the desire to fulfill your every wish with outstanding service make Crystal the World's Best. We were particularly fortunate to have Captain Ralf Zander in command as we navigated Antarctica. To summarize briefly, this was an amazing journey on a wonderful ship with the finest crew and officers one could possibly hope for. The ship absolutely sparkles and the service is beyond compare. The itinerary was ideal, other than our stop in Manaus, and we were blessed with perfect weather. Our trip up the Amazon was marred by low river levels; the rainy season had not yet started and the air was foul with acrid smoke from the ongoing slashing and burning of the rainforest. Manaus itself is worth a visit, but not for the three days and two nights we spent there. Our time in Rio was a teasingly short day visit. Buenos Aires remains one of the World's great cities, but has become more commercial and homogenous than my previous visit there. Antarctica was everything and more than I had hoped. If you have never been, put it high on your list! We were amazed by the scenery, the thousands of icebergs and, of course, the Penguins. Rounding the Horn and transiting the Drake Passage were surprisingly calm, more resembling a lake than the treacherous place it is known as. The Chilean Fjords were not as spectacular as I expected, but the rest of our ports were impressive and much improved since my last visits to South America. All said, this was another trip of a lifetime for me and a journey well worth taking. Antarctica was the definitive highlight, surpassing any experience of my World Cruise.