In May 2018, my wife and I took Crystal’s two-week cruise to Hawaii aboard the Symphony (voyage OCS180518-16). We take about three cruises a year on Crystal.
I rate this cruise as excellent, that is, an overall “5” on a scale of ... Read More
In May 2018, my wife and I took Crystal’s two-week cruise to Hawaii aboard the Symphony (voyage OCS180518-16). We take about three cruises a year on Crystal.
I rate this cruise as excellent, that is, an overall “5” on a scale of 5.
Crystal’s quality slipped a bit in the last few years. But Crystal is now back up to where it ought to be.
This is one of two ships in Crystal’s tiny ocean fleet. Each carries roughly 900 passengers. The two ships are pretty much a matched set that rotates crew, routes, and entertainment.
My only continuing concern is Symphony’s lower scores in federal heath inspections over the past several years (both U.S. and Canada).
ENTERTAINMENT -- MUSIC:
Credit goes to Crystal’s entertainment veep (Keith Cox) and his choreographers for reinventing the line’s performing arts with a new repertoire. Crystal is once again the front row seat for fans of traditional jazz and Broadway.
Singers, dancers, and jazz band were excellent, with a different floor show every night. In fact, one young torch singer (Janet Dacal) seemed a likely candidate to play the late Julie London if there’s ever a tribute tour of her hits from the fifties.
Speaking of Julie London, I heard the strains of “Cry Me a River” from the ship’s violin-piano duo as I passed through a lonely lounge one night. And the cruise’s Hollywood historian (Jim Jimirro) even had an anecdote from his recent chat with the aged writer of that song. (By the way, Jim has a lecture series about the American songbook at the public library in Beverly Hills -- see “Jim J’s Jukebox” at www.beverlyhills.org.)
In other words, Crystal takes the various niches and nuances of jazz pretty seriously. Every bit as enjoyable as a night spent clubbing in the French Quarter.
Due to the small size of Crystal’s two main ships, all entertainers eat with the guests. No matter how famous on land, the norm on Crystal is their availability to visit with the guests when not performing.
There was also a house dance band that played for hours every night. But not a lot of dancers. Ballroom dance studios organize cruises for their advanced (and affluent) students, and this setting would seem a good match for that market. They’d be getting a live band, a semiprivate dance floor, the good life, and everyday hobnobbing with the dance pros that do the stage shows.
Due to the volcano disaster, this Hawaiian cruise had to cancel its stop at Hilo. The ship gave the volcano a good distance to avoid the fumes (we never saw it). But the potency of its ash was apparent from the metallic orange of the sun as it set through the haze (same as in the smoke from forest fires).
When Hilo opens up again, Crystal could seek out talent from the Merrie Monarch Festival. This is the world championship of authentic Hawaiian hula dancing -- the Wimbledon, Masters, and World Series of that art form. On a prior cruise, we took a cab over to the festival’s office, bought some souvenirs, and got a complimentary tour of the venue (see www.merriemonarch.com). It didn’t hurt that my wife had been a hula dancer on Kauai back in the day.
Crystal has definitely reinvented the experience of its main dining room. For the first time in years, we ate most of our meals there. Simply because we enjoyed it so much -- and we had to see what new entrees they had dreamed up every day.
We much appreciated Crystal’s new walk-in flexibility (open dining) for time, table location, and the number of diners joining us. With little fanfare, you can now bring along your onboard friends, old and new. Or dine in a quiet secluded corner and discreetly share state secrets.
In other words, Crystal’s dining has cracked the code for providing a constant quality to the passenger whose preferences vary from day to day.
As for the menu, there’s a new range of creative worldwide entrees as flavorful and spicy as you want to go. And, without exception, they were all served hot due to new kitchen systems for custom preparation. No more assembly-line institutional feedings.
And Crystal has hired a more diverse crew of waiters than we’ve previously seen in its dining rooms. These enthusiastic waiters always took time to chat with us, some even gave us travel tips for visiting their home countries. Throughout the cruise, waiters Romanio and Kumrah took especially good care of us.
The dining room’s seasoned maitre d’ (Albert Farkas) may be Crystal’s most senior employee, having been there over the life of the company. Definitely a legend and a mentor among that next generation of waiters that he’s devoted to training up right. (He just modestly says, “It’s my profession.”) And he’s quite the repository of lore about restaurants around the globe (like the place where they can open a wine bottle with a sword).
There’s no doubt some interesting backstory as to how the Symphony’s ringmaster of restaurants (Slavko Drobnjak) implemented all of this. The kind of anecdotes that years later end up in places like the Harvard Business Review. But whatever you’re doing, Slavko, keep doing it.
As I sat in the dining room, I finally got to see the legendary “green flash” of the Pacific sunset. Crystal crew members had been telling me about their sightings for some time. On ocean crossings, the ship’s daily newsletter includes an article about the phenomenon. One of Crystal’s captains gives a nature talk about it. And, yup, it’s the thing that a San Diego craft beer is named after.
PORT STOP -- MAUI, HAWAII:
Crystal sometimes pioneers a unique type of shore excursion, instead of just rounding up the usual contractors with their scripted bus herdings.
Years later, we still talk about the extensive backstage tour of the Monte Carlo ballet by a retired ballerina (right down to the shoemaker, costume vault, and grooming of preschoolers who’d made the cut). It was our first cruise on Crystal, and I was the only passenger in our small tour group who had never been a ballet dancer.
For this cruise to Hawaii, Crystal somehow convinced the charming heiress of a Maui mansion (Leona Wilson) to gather up her diverse friends for a half-day of gourmet food and stories about the island. A dozen cruisers were treated to local topics ranging from plantations, to architecture, to education, to botany, to beekeeping, to antiques.
The mansion itself (Lona Ridge) seems sort of a cross between an embassy, a museum, and a monastic retreat center. Though this was modestly billed as an estate and garden tour, Leona (now in her 80s) made us feel more like honored guests at a diplomatic function than a bunch of tourists.
No wonder the press calls Leona the “plantation princess.” If Verdi or Puccini ever wrote a Hawaiian opera, Leona’s bio of life lessons could frame the heroine’s libretto. Right down to her rescue and replanting of discarded plants from the town cemetery.
Lona Ridge is well up a mountainside at the end of the road, and at least an hour’s drive from the tender dock. And it’s a very genuine interaction with a local celebrity (and local character) -- not some rushed walk-through before the bus whisks you off to another of a dozen promised sites.
Seems like a good match for those leisurely private events that Virtuoso Travel often hosts for its onboard customers. Or for those perpetual students in the Road Scholar trips to Hawaii.
Just type in “Lona Ridge Maui Hawaii” if you want to check it out on Google Maps. And see: www.lonaridge.com and https://mauimagazine.net/plantation-princess.
This was one of those unexpected shore excursions that we just keep remembering.
PORT STOP -- HONOLULU, HAWAII:
There are, of course, endless possibilities for a shore excursion at Honolulu. But there a few things worth checking out right by the Pier 11 cruise ship terminal.
Aloha Tower is a restored art deco building that’s colorfully lit up at night. Once Hawaii’s tallest structure, today you can take the elevator to the top floor for a view of the city. No charge, but it closes at 5 pm and you can only visit the top floor.
There’s the Old Spaghetti Factory across the street -- part of the chain around the western U.S. But this one has a distinctive Hawaiian variation: spaghetti with clam and Spam. And next door is a Barnes and Noble with a good selection of books about Hawaii.
The American Institute of Architects has its office just three blocks from the Pier 11 cruise ship terminal. This is the meeting place for the downtown walking tour that the organization offers for just $15 (see www.aiahonolulu.org/?WalkingTours). It’s in the morning of the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. (Crystal and AIA could conceivably partner on this as a little fund raiser for some local charity.)
We stay in ordinary staterooms on Crystal (no opulent party suites for us).
The quality of stateroom housekeeping varied for a few years. But this time, the attention to detail was consistent with luxury cruising in every way. Right down to the daily supply of a special-order soft drink, and getting an ice pack frozen for a sore knee. And a box of chocolates that almost seemed too fancy to eat. Our stateroom attendant (Lois) gets a perfect score for all her efforts to clean up after us.
At least on the Symphony, Crystal has finally transitioned to an Internet service (WiFi, wireless) that is both unlimited and reliable. Given all the smartphones in a constant state of readiness, there must be quite the cell tower somewhere on the ship.
We noticed an interesting side effect from Crystal’s transition to open dining and unlimited Internet. The moment there’s a lull in table talk, cruisers tend to whip out their smartphones. They eventually come up for air as the meal’s next course arrives -- or they notice that everyone at the table has rushed off to the next activity. And we’re talking retirees here, not millennials.
Those who feared the decline of tuxedos may also worry about the dining room’s decay into an Internet cafe. On the other hand, Crystal’s management could understandably remind us that we screamed for more Internet, and they gave us what we asked for.
At the very top of the forward stairwell, you’ll find a room with a couple hundred commemorative plaques. They reflect Symphony’s 20+ years of visits to the world’s ports, both famous and obscure. While some of the plaques are simple pieces of wood, the more elaborate ones feature local art, crafts, and materials.
Access to this area is unrestricted; you might pass through it on your way to the golf driving nets.
It’s an option while exploring the ship’s layout on your first day aboard, particularly if you’re looking for something to do while waiting for your stateroom to become available.
HEALTH AND SAFETY -- CRIME:
Congress requires that a cruise line report any passenger complaints that a major crime has occurred onboard. Every quarter, the counts for these complaints are publicly reported at www.transportation.gov/mission/safety/cruise-line-incident-reports.
Crystal’s onboard safety has never concerned me. Only two complaints of crime on Crystal appear in this data for the past five years, both alleging thefts over $10,000. The reporting website doesn’t identify which Crystal ship was involved.
When it comes to passenger age, much of the Crystal crowd is in God’s waiting room. Guests occasionally die from getting old, but not from assaults, drunken parties, or jumping overboard. You’ll have to cruise elsewhere for those experiences.
However, safety on shore (port stops) is a universal concern for the passengers on any cruise line.
Cruise lines all promise the greatest show on earth, and that includes speakers on what you absolutely must see at a port stop. Far rarer are speakers that tell you what to watch out for.
For this cruise, Crystal brought on the authors (Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent ) of a website that tells you how to avoid the world’s thefts, cons, corruption, and trip-spoiling nastiness. Cruisers all know the horror stories, and this pair’s writing has no doubt saved me from some bad days. (See http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters)
The cruise director himself (Paul McFarland) has a story on this Arno/Vincent website: his wallet was stolen when a herd of urchins jumped him in India. (See http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/mugged-mumbai.) Definitely something to think about, since Paul’s a big, tough-looking guy who could double as Sir Sean Connery. And Paul’s deep broadcast voice sounds like a cop from central casting.
We’d previously picked up some good safety tips from another of Crystal’s officers. After I did a little nosy prying, he disclosed his past life in security at an embassy.
I’ve always found that Crystal’s crew members, from top to bottom, are quite willing to share candid cautions about a location if asked.
HEALTH AND SAFETY -- MEDICAL ISSUES:
The dining room waiters pay meticulous attention to any dietary restrictions, such as allergies worthy of an EpiPen. But be sure to clarify whether you merely need to avoid a particular ingredient, or really have some rarer sensitivity to any microscopic trace that lingers on a food prep surface. They’ll actually assume the latter unless you tell them otherwise.
In fact, this is one of the better places to be if you were to have a serious allergic reaction (none so far for us). Right down the hall is the ship’s doctor (Alae Brand) and her team of nurses, who provided us with excellent emergency care on a prior cruise. They responded a lot quicker than most hospital emergency rooms (that is, immediately) -- and for a fraction of the cost.
HEALTH AND SAFETY -- PASSENGERS WITH DISABILITIES:
Crystal’s customer core continues to be retired “comfortable couples” from the American mainstream. Some have been retired for decades -- now in their eighties and beyond. An everyday part of Crystal is thus wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, canes, and oxygen tanks.
Attentive and respectful assistance from Crystal’s crew has always been the routine for guests with such limitations. And fellow passengers implicitly follow an aviation-like norm that the least maneuverable get the right of way, whether it be in an aisle, hall, elevator, or buffet line.
I have no idea if the ADA applies on the high seas. But accommodation is more than a legality or a courtesy at this point in life. The shadow of the future is lurking as ambulatory retirees surrender their elevator to a wheelchair and walk a few flights with no expectation of a medal.
HEALTH AND SAFETY -- FEDERAL INSPECTION SCORES:
Federal agencies in both the United States and Canada conduct health inspections of cruise ships. The inspection scores are posted on the agencies’ public websites. See www.cdc.gov and www.canada.ca.
Unlike your grades back in school, a passing score is set a bit higher at 86 out of 100. And a score of 100 signals no significant deficiencies, not perfection.
For the past 10 years of U.S. inspections, the Symphony’s lowest scores have occurred in the last four years. Its lowest score of 90 (five points above passing) was its most recent inspection (a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina).
For the past 10 years of Canadian inspections, the Symphony’s lowest scores have occurred in the last four years. Its lowest score of 92 (seven points above passing) was its most recent inspection (a year ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia).
Interestingly, the last U.S. inspection and the last Canadian inspection were only eight days apart.
Travel writers sometimes minimize the significance of federal inspection scores. I don’t. Nor do the Crystal crew members who do the scrubbing.
For the U.S. inspections, cruisers can read the full reports online in all their technical detail (as well as Crystal’s side of the story). For the Canadian inspections, you’d need to email a request to see the report behind a score.
Investigations of onboard illness “outbreaks” are also reported on a federal website. Five years ago, 125 of the Symphony’s passengers came down with norovirus (that short-lived vomiting/diarrhea misery). Inspectors boarded the ship when it docked at Los Angeles and “collected stool specimens from ill passengers and crew for testing” (one nasty job). See www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/surv/gilist.htm.
Regardless of the lower inspection scores last year, I didn’t get sick on this cruise. And I didn’t see anything that I thought might make me sick (beyond gluttony at the dessert bar).
And one night I saw the captain and his safety officer quietly eating behind us in the main dining room. In maritime lore, that’s a classic nonverbal indicator of their confidence that things are shipshape.
Ironically, Crystal’s other ship was recognized for its score of 100 at last year’s annual meeting of the U.S. inspection program. That would be a good list for the Symphony to get on.
PEACE AND QUIET (PRIVACY):
Travel agents should use caution in steering children under age 50 to a cruise on Crystal. There’s one swimming pool, and it’s a tiny one. Only three onboard shops (no mega-ship mall). No climbing walls, water slides, outdoor movie theaters, or midnight buffets.
Nature seems to impose its own curfew, given the lack of observable life on Crystal after midnight. The wheelchairs and scooters are parked by the staterooms. The decks are largely empty and silent until sunrise signals the next available meal.
Crystal has always offered plenty of privacy for those who want it. No activity announcements invade your stateroom. None of that constant gaming to charge something to your key card (Crystal is all-inclusive). No pressure to buy anything. No pressure to do anything. And there are endless quiet nooks and crannies around the ship for reading, chatting, and thinking great travel thoughts.
If Elvis and Sinatra had somehow faded away into quiet cruising retirements, I’m convinced that the Crystal crowd would have respected their onboard privacy with little ado. Read Less