But that's not the whole story. Crystal's Cruise Critic reviews emphasize the superiority of the service provided on Crystal. Our experience has been that service has been excellent on all our cruises; crystal was excellent but not superior. For example, our two best room stewards were on Princess, as was our best team of waiters; our top bartender and bar waiter were on HAL, and our best deck stewards on Crystal, as was the best afternoon tea service. The best informal lunch service was in Celebrity's Aqua cafe. Overall, on service our experience was: Pick 'em!
We have mostly had standard balcony cabins. Our deck 8 cabin on the Crystal Symphony was slightly smaller than comparables on the other lines, and the bathroom quite a bit smaller, though both room and bath were very well laid out and beautifully appointed. Only the Celebrity Infinity's concierge cabin was superior. Princess wastes space with a protrusion in the middle of a bit-larger cabin. Our cabin on HAL's Ryndam was somewhat rundown.
Infinity has a beautiful two-deck library and selection of books, with the smaller top-deck library of the Royal Princess coming in at second place in our esteem. The larger Princess ships have an unmatched number of tucked away spaces where you can sit and read or meditate quietly. Celebrity had the most stunning public dEcor, and the sculpture and hanging art was also mesmerizing. Crystal may well come in last on this rather subjective dimension.
The food in the Crystal Symphony's dining room was superb night after night—nothing like it elsewhere. As an example of attention to detail: every night there was a different pasta dish available. I ordered it as a secondo preceding the entrEe, and each one was amazing—the best I've every eaten. Comparable things could be said about the rest of the menu (my wife says Crystal has the best pastry at sea). Why go to a specialty restaurant then? Well we did, to Silk Road, their Asian spot, and it too was unbelievably good. Despite all this, we missed the Princess steakhouse and the Infinity's S.S. United States. Crystal has quite a few two-person tables in the dining room, important to us, but the late seating is very late, 8:30.
The best bar afloat, in our view, is Crystal's Avenue Saloon. It is an old-time saloon, beautifully paneled and lighted, with fine service, excellent canapEs, perfect Beefeater martini, and a lounge bar pianist who interacts wittily with the patrons and plays and sings well, with moods to fit the ambience. The other ships haven't a single space among them, nor an entertainer, that achieved this overall balance. There is a smoking section in this bar but there was no smoke during the many times we had pre-diner drinks there. I usually allow myself one cigar per cruise, and the Crystal Connoisseur Club's environment and selection of cigars and brandy—and the service—were by far my best experience at sea—two cigars is the Club's rating in my book.
The best wine list we found was on Celebrity. It was more comprehensive, leaned toward French wines, but California was well represented. The cellar master's selections were sensitive to the importance of vintage. You did have to go to the specialty restaurant, the S.S. United States, to get most of them, and the main dining room sommelier was incompetent. On HAL's Ryndam the cellar master had a much smaller selection, but it was excellent and provided us with out best wine experience among these ten voyages, including a pair of properly aged bottles of Caymus cab and a tasting of Chateau Yquem.
Worth mentioning is Crystal's Vintage Room. It's a small, beautiful room that seats twelve, and serves a seven-course meal complete with wine tasting, usually only once a voyage. We found the food to be excellent, of the level of the main dining room. The wine was however a little disappointing, the head sommelier seeming to be more interested in unusual grapes, vineyard locations and other inputs than in the outputs—how they actually taste. Of the eight or nine wines we sampled none stood out, though of course they were all very drinkable! The great thing about this event was the company, a very compatible, witty, and maybe just a touch edgy crew of Americans and Australians. Four hundred and twenty bucks will get you and your partner this experience.
Crystal's passenger profile was distinctive. There were few under fifty, but the over 50's looked to be people who'd taken care of themselves—fit and able to enjoy what the cruise had to offer. The older age of the passengers contributed to the quieter nature of the cruise, as did the absence of the seemingly endless and overly-magnified announcements of the cruise directors on the other ships. On Crystal we were apparently trusted to be able to make our activity choices merely by reading the daily newsletter. Still, the passenger profile combined with the ship's dEcor left a hint of blandness on these cruisers' palates
We really missed the Princess atrium, found also on HAL but not on Celebrity and in a truncated form on Crystal. It formed a central place, rather like a small town's plaza from which all the ship's activity seemed to radiate. Acrobats, bars, piano players—something always was going on. Sadly the list apparently no longer includes classical music if our last Princess trip (on the Grand) is representative—unless you count the accordion as a classical instrument.
Crystal has a great observation lounge, comparable to HAL's Crows nest, though the one on the Osterdam was pretty seedy. This venue, called the Palm Court, was also the home of the daily afternoon tea, a great and unparalleled experience. Crystal's coffee house serves fine food and is much the largest of its kind, though the appointments are rather cafeteria-bland.
Our Crystal cruise was great, but so were all the others. If Crystal's prices were competitive we still would not become Crystal-only cruisers. Should we manage to cruise ten more times, the odds are that we would once again sample the wares of all four of these fine cruise lines.