Embarkation - We booked our own flights to San Jose, Costa Rica and purchased cruise line transfers to Caldera, a two hour drive. We got off to a shaky start as our connection on US Air was delayed due to fog in the Charlotte Airport. We arrived at the gate for our international flight 15 minutes before departure, too close for comfort! We would have missed the first 4 days of the cruise if we had not made this flight! Next time we go a day ahead like we normally do, or a least have a few backup flights. All was well when we were greeted in the San Jose Airport by a Crystal representative. After a 2 hour bus ride, embarkation was a breeze and we were in our Cabin in short order.
Ship - The Crystal Symphony is compact and very passenger friendly compared to the newer mega-ships. It has a crew of 545 and a passenger capacity of 922. There are basically three decks where all of the activities are held: Deck 5 - Dining, Deck 6 - Nightlife and Deck 11 - Pool and Buffet. Of special note is the Bistro, a better than Starbucks coffee shop on Deck 6. Specialty coffees and teas are included, so a quick stop for a Cappuccino was a regular event. We also liked the Avenue Saloon for cocktails before dinner. One evening an enjoyable Dixieland jazz concert was held in the lobby on Deck 5. There is a true Promenade deck where walking exercisers meet daily and others just take a stroll. Deck 12 has a spa, salon and fitness center. We did not take advantage of these facilities on this cruise. Each floor with cabins has a complimentary guest laundry tat sees a lot of use.
We were in a Category A verandah cabin on Deck 9. It included all of the standard amenities even though it was a little smaller than similar cabins on newer ships. The bathroom was well appointed and even included a small tub/shower and a double sink. Storage was plentiful as all of our suitcases fit under the bed. The bed was very comfortable and this was enhanced by a pillow menu! We spent a lot of time on our verandah which had a nice sized table and two chairs. Room service is available 24 hours a day and we ordered light meals on several occasions and ate watching the beautiful scenery. Sodas and water were complimentary. TV channels were varied and the quality was good. We particularly liked a daily comedy special hosted by Paul the Cruise Director.
The crew made you feel very comfortable. Simple requests were met with a courteous "My pleasure". The buffet servers would remember you from previous visits and ask if you wanted your regular. Officers were visible and readily available. A special "Meet and Greet" was held for Cruise Critic members and attended by several key staff members. Hor deurves and cocktails were served.
Food - This is where Crystal excels. Of our numerous cruises the food is far superior to anything else we have had on other lines. We requested a late seating table for two in the main dining room and our request was promptly granted by Remi, the Maitre'd. Special requests such as caviar and foie gras were no problem for our wait staff. Crystal has not deviated from fixed seating in the main Dining Room which is no problem with us. There are two specialty restaurants, Silk Road (Japanese) and Prego (Italian), that add a little more intimate atmosphere to the dining experience. We ate in Silk Road two nights and Prego one night. An additional charge is recommended for tipping the wait staff and it is well worth it. Silk Road serves Waygu beef which is a real treat along with all of the Nobu Matsuhisa inspired specialties. Prego's mushroom soup is legendary among seasoned cruise foodies. The menu is based on Piero Selvaggio's revered Valentino's. One thing that we like is the mid-day luncheon Gala Buffet. No more staying up until Midnight to take food pictures. For another special event, period costumes are worn by the staff and an ensemble plays chamber music for the elegant Mozart Tea. In the space of 11 days, we had 3 formal nights, 2 informal nights and 6 casual nights. Oh! Did I mention that the Trident Grill and Lido Buffet are also excellent?
Entertainment - We do not normally attend a lot of shows but managed to go to more than normal as the entertainment was really good. What we did do was attend several enrichment lectures held on sea days. One presenter we particularly enjoyed was Dr Robert Freedman, who was an expert on the Middle East and Russia. Additional lectures were held on memory improvement, destinations and current trends.
Ports - The highlight of the cruise was the Panama Canal passage. It was very well narrated and having a verandah cabin made it a pleasure. It was not our first time through the canal and I don't know when it will lose its fascination. We also ported in Aruba, St Lucia, Antiqua and Tortola. One plus is that we did not have to tender in any of the ports.
Disembarkation - Everything went fine although exiting the ship was the usual madhouse. I suppose people aren't in the best of humor when they are faced with returning from "Certainly, it will be my pleasure!" to "Do you want fries with that?". Even though the ship was not cleared until 9:30 AM we managed to make an 11:05 AM flight from MIA by using a limo. In retrospect I don't know why we were in a rush to get home!