This was the third cruise for me and the Missus on Crystal. We were on the Harmony (still our favorite) and the Serenity. First time on the Symphony.
The Symphony is on the far side of 15 years now. Here and there, you can see the wear and tear on the ship after years of steady cruising. But it's still one of the best of the small liners - and we like 'em small. An older ship develops certain idiosyncrasies that come with age. The level of service that comes with this particular cruise line made up for that, mostly.
Check-in was unusual, at least for me. I've been so used to checking in at the pier, and the Symphony's was held in the Starlight Room. The lines were less than orderly but check-in was quick.
Los Angeles was gray and dreary, with rain in the remote forecast. We grinned and beared it as we stood under one of the fan blowers that blew cold air on us on the Promenade Deck during boat drills. Getting underway from San Pedro, the PA malfunctioned and we never did hear the scratchy recording of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" that is usually mandatory upon every Crystal sailaway. Minor points.
The cabin was small, but the AC / heater worked perfectly. The resin basins in the lavatory looked odd, but took up very little space and mostly kept the water in the basin.
Ambient noise was a problem in our cabin. When our neighbors weren't running the television loudly in the morning, we heard the Symphony's orchestra running rehearsals in the Galaxy Lounge that was almost directly below us. We needn't have shown up *at* the evening shows; we could *hear* them perfectly fine from where we were sleeping...
Another issue: vibration. Okay, so it is nice to have a bed with "magic fingers" - due to vibration that was transferred either from the hull or the engine room. But too much magic fingers can be too much of a good thing. It could be difficult to sleep at times between L.A. and Puerto Vallarta, and back north to L.A. on the way home.
One thing that was not a problem was the food. Whether you were in the dining room or the specialty restaurants or the Lido, the quality was quite good. We had a very lively table at late seating. Our Waiter and Senior Waiter were top-notch.
This was a Wine & Food specialty cruise, as evidenced by the appearance of Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy. One of the evening meals in the dining room contained examples of his work. I like the food in his restaurants in Honolulu; in a dining room venue where the meals are served en masse, the flavor of the dishes lost a little something.
Our favorite meal: Late Riser's breakfast in the Trident Grill. The service by the wait staff was very personal, considering that they are not eligible for gratuities unless you specified it prior to the end of the cruise. While the menu was shorter, there wasn't as much noise or frenzy as there was in the Lido next door.
We tried both of the specialty restaurants. Prego was warm and inviting. The food was excellent and I would recommend a repeat visit. Silk Road's food was really good but the service was rather perfunctory and cold. Perhaps an off night for the staff?
One surprising evening dining venue: on one evening, the Lido was opened for casual dining. The menu featured bits and pieces of the evening's Dining Room selections and the food was great. The service, for a non-fee, non-gratuity restaurant, was again outstanding.
My only food gripe is the lack of a casual dining alternative at night, other than room service or the occasional opening of the Lido for casual dining. Practically all the other food options, other than the Dining Room and specialty restaurants, close at 6:00 p.m.
We finally escaped the cloudy skies on the second day at sea. Nice to walk around the ship in warm-weather clothes. Crystal likes to name its cruises with flowery terms. Ours was "Sun-Kissed Shores." We received plenty of sun in Puerto Vallarta, along with more of the warmth we craved. Having been there many times, our shore adventure was across the street to the upscale portside shopping mall - and then next door to Wal-Mart...
While in port, we were joined by a Carnival ship and the Disney Wonder. I marveled at the progress of marine architecture in comparing the Carnival vessel, which dated back to the early 90s or so and looks her age, and the Wonder which is cruise ship state-of-the-art.
Topolobampo: This was to have been the jumping-off point for the Copper Canyon tour. Because Crystal couldn't fill an entire special train for the tour, it was cancelled prior to the cruise. This was explained to me in not-so-apologetic terms by the Shore Excursions staff - probably the only members of the staff I had any real complaints about.
We did take the shuttle into Los Mochis and walk around the city's palm-filled public gardens. It's a big park, shady and quiet, in the heart of a fast-growing town. At the pier, the locals set up a stage with dancers and a band, and a small collection of shops. But hardly any of the passengers stopped for any period of time to watch the show. I really felt sorry for the people who had set this up. Topolobampo doesn't get many calls from cruise ships. A less-upscale cruise line would have yielded more-curious passengers.
Loreto: My favorite Sea of Cortez town. It is an easy walk from the tender pier to the heart of the city and the old mission. The tourist shops were fun, but the Missus and me enjoyed strolling around the parts of town that the locals frequent. I'd love to spend a week just hanging around this city, because it isn't yet as commercial as the other Mexican Riviera ports.
The weather in the Sea of Cortez, by this time, was less favorable than what we received in Puerto Vallarta - mostly partly cloudy, and it remained that way until we headed back into the grayness of the return cruise to L.A.
There was certainly no lack of activities while at sea. The cruise lecture series featured, among other speakers, former U.S. diplomat "Tex" Harris, who talked about America's relationship, past and present and future, with Mexico, and Lou Zamperini, the former Olympian-turned-POW who is the subject of the best-selling book "Unbroken". I occupied myself with an excellent series of golf clinics, conducted by former LPGA pro Shannon Kneisler.
The Missus and I attended a Cruise Critic Mix & Meet aboard the Symphony, certainly one of the nicest M&M gatherings we have attended. Kudos to the organizer (Haikou) for putting this together. Lots of great food and drink, and visits by the Captain and officers.
We were disappointed in the Palm Court. On the Serenity and the old Harmony, it was a special space amidships. On the Symphony, it is located where the lounge above the bridge is located on most ships. It looked cluttered, and somewhat claustrophobic.
Disembarkation: we woke up to cold, hazy weather in San Pedro. There was a Princess ship in the main terminal, and the Queen Victoria in the second terminal. We were relegated to the "shed" that masquerades as a cruise terminal at the end of the pier. While Crystal has a "no announcements" policy at disembarkation, that did not guarantee an orderly departure from the ship. The lines were fairly long - lots of yellow-tag passengers headed to their cars parked at the terminal - and rather disorganized. But that didn't take away from what turned out to be an excellent cruise.
Another town we've pretty much done, to death. But there was an unusually-shaped building near the port that I was curious about, and I managed to talk the Missus into tendering ashore with me. The new structure is a cultural and performing arts building that wouldn't look out of place in most North American cities. Finally, a touch of culture to compete with Cabo Wabo and Diamonds International!
The last time I'd been to La Paz, there was hardly anything between the pier at Pichelingue and old La Paz. Now there are hotels, condo developments and a Gary Player-designed golf course. Very nicely done, but also very isolated from the city.
Despite it being a Sunday, downtown La Paz was holiday hustle and bustle. The street fair, with a blocks-long stretch of shopping booths, was full of people. A very real city, with real people. The guy on board who said La Paz was a "nothing" town could not have been farther from the truth.
We had booked (and been waitlisted for) a shore excursion tour to the artisan colony of Todos Santos. The tour was inexplicably cancelled. The explanation from the Shore Excursion staffer was that, since we were calling at La Paz on a Sunday, nothing in Todos Santos would be open. I disagree with her statement. Given the state of tourism in western Mexico, which is lousy at the moment, the galleries and shops in Todos Santos would have been happy to throw open their doors for a busload of cruise passengers, even on Sunday.
We've pretty much done PV to death, and did no shore excursions - other than the obligatory visit to the Wal-Mart across the street from the pier.