Background: I am one of the last people you would expect to find on a Crystal ship. Most of the qualities for which Crystal is renowned mean little to me. The stage shows are great but I could easily live without them. I'm not fond of formality, and choose Best Western and Holiday Inn over the Ritz and Four Seasons, and my nature runs towards frugal. I booked my first Crystal Cruise in 1996 when a good opportunity presented itself, expecting a once in a lifetime experience. I was mistaken, at least in a literal sense. While anyone can consider themselves fortunate to sail a Crystal ship once in their lifetime, I quickly decided that the experience would be repeated many times. My second Crystal experience took another 6 years, but since that time I have never walked off a Crystal ship without a future booking in my hand. Why do I keep coming back when I am nominally such a poor fit for the line? Primarily, because Crystal does EVERYTHING extremely well, and a bit more specifically because every customer is treated as the most important person in the world.
Ship info: The Crystal Symphony was built in 1995, and has been updated regularly since then, most recently in 2009. It is moderately large, and extremely spacious for the passenger capacity. My voyage was completely sold out, and the only brief hint of crowding came during a major storm when the activities were concentrated in the midship rooms. The open decks are especially spacious, and there is a wide, wrap-around Promenade Deck.
Staterooms: With the exception of the penthouses on deck 10, the rooms are essentially the same. There are only 8 categories, 3 for penthouse, regular and deluxe verandas, depending on the deck, and 3 categories of penthouse cabins. The rooms are well equipped, especially the baths, with a full tub in even the lowest category rooms. There is ample storage space.
Dining: Up to now, dinner in the main dining room has always been served in 2 seatings, usually 6 or 6:30 and 8:30, but Crystal has just announced plans for an option of a flexible dining time beginning in 2011. In addition to the Crystal Dining Room, there are 2 specialty restaurants, Silk Road with Japanese cuisine and Prego with Italian cuisine. These restaurants require reservations but have no surcharge other than a suggested gratuity. The Lido Cafe does not typically open for dinner but will once or twice per cruise. The Lido Cafe serves breakfast and lunch, starting with coffee and pastries around 5AM. There are special theme buffets in the lido, typically about every 3 days. While nominally a buffet, the lido is staffed by several incredible stewards who greeted me by name by day 3, learned my preferences, and generally provide very personal service. A grill midships on the lido serves a late breakfast plus burgers and sandwiches with a few extras. The selection of side dishes is limited, but it is just steps from the Lido Cafe, so these extras are readily available. The Crystal Dining serves a traditional breakfast and lunch with open seating, with one grand gala luncheon buffet sometime during the cruise. The Bistro a deck above the dining room serves pastries and other snacks. Dining as such pretty well closes after dinner, but each room has a refrigerator and is stocked with beverages and fruit, routinely restocked by the Stewardess on her regular visits. Light snacks are served in the lounges in the evening, and there is excellent 24-hour room service..
Activities and entertainment: Activities are geared to a mature demographic and a wide variety are offered. Many cruises have a theme, as did this one with a "Movie and Theater" theme with 3 presenters focusing on the topic. The Crystal Visions Enhancement is very strong, usually with at least 3 presenters, and always providing opportunities for ample feedback from the audience.
The spa and fitness staff is very strong, including 2 innovative programs for walkers. The walkvest program uses vests with removable weights (up to about 16 pounds) to improve the strength benefits of walking. A new program uses trekking poles to get more muscles involved in the walking process. There is a log sheet on the Promenade deck where passengers can record their progress and receive shirts and certificates at the end of their cruise celebrating their progress. One slight disadvantage of the ship's design is that the Promenade doors are frequently subject to wind turbulence and often closed, but the aft doors are almost always available.
Other regular enhancement activities include computer classes, music and Berlitz language classes, and excellent dance instructors.
There are daily activities including bingo, team trivia, concerts, and movies in the Hollywood Theater. There are 4 significant routine venues for activities, the Palm Court (Deck 11), and the Galaxy Lounge, Hollywood Theater, and Starlite Club on deck 6). It is routine to see simultaneous activities in 3 of these venues, and not unusual to have them in all 4.
In the evening there are several venues featuring several varieties of musical entertainment, and a daily presentation in the Galaxy Theater. The excellent Crystal Ensemble of Singers and Dancers presents about 5 or 6 shows per voyage, with other headline entertainers brought on board for the remaining nights of the cruise.
Children: There is a children's program with 2 facilities set aside for programs, one for younger children and another for teenagers, but most of the cruises I have been on do not attract a large number of children.
Disembarkation: Disembarkation was smooth and easy. At least on our cruise, we were allowed to continue using our rooms until we actually left the ship.
Summary: Crystal provides a stunningly superior product in every respect. You will frequently pay a significant premium to be on Crystal, but that is not necessarily the case. If money is an object you really need to look at your own situation for each cruise individually, and you will find some excellent cruises that are surprisingly affordable. While the fares are not "all inclusive" more is included than on many other lines, such as soft drinks, and specialty restaurants. Most current Crystal fares include air fare, and there is an "As You Wish" credit, usually $500 or $1000 per person, which offsets many of the things that are extra. The single supplement is typically 25-30 percent, making it very friendly for solos both in price and services. Many of the things that are extra are also priced reasonably. For example, on my next cruise I will be using Crystal's hotel program in Athens, at about a 15 percent surcharge over booking the hotel which includes Airport-hotel-ship transfers, while I have seen other cruise lines charge at least double the hotel's price. In summary you may pay extra with Crystal, but you always get a lot extra.