Crystal Symphony exterior

(2:58 p.m. EDT) -- While rivals Regent, Silversea and Seabourn have all launched new ships in the last few years, Crystal Cruises has opted instead for a multimillion dollar upgrade of its two big ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity; the luxury line's next newbuild isn't due until 2022.

The 22-year-old Symphony was first up, in dry dock this October, emerging with a string of new suites and most significantly, a whole new structure to dining onboard. We made a whistle-stop tour of the ship on its first cruise after the refit. Here are our first impressions.

Subtle Changes

Don't expect a dramatic new look. Although a lot of money has clearly been spent on the new suites and some exciting changes to the dining arrangements, many areas are unchanged; they didn't need fixing. The pool, spa, theater, most of the cabins, reception and lounges are pretty much as they were before. There's some smart new furniture in the Starlite Club (the spacious lounge used for dance classes, lectures and cookery demos), in tones of dark blue, silver and teal, with new gunmetal gray wallpaper. The tiny nightclub, Luxe, has now become a VIP gambling room, with tables and a wide assortment of whiskeys on the bar -- a nod to the ship's growing Asian market. Crystal has redone the carpeting in cabin corridors and other areas. But that's about it in terms of decor until you get up to Deck 9, for the new suites, and Deck 11, for the new restaurants.

New Suites, Fewer Passengers

First, the cabins. Two new categories have been created, both on Deck 9. A series of lower-category verandah staterooms have been replaced with 28 new Penthouses, featuring brand-new decor and classed as Seabreeze Penthouses with Verandahs. In addition, 24 further cabins have been merged to create 12 new Seabreeze Penthouse Suites with Verandahs. The new accommodations have the same square footage as existing Penthouses and Penthouse Suites on board (367 and 491 square feet respectively). Seabreeze Penthouses are connected by a shared entryway recessed from the hall, which is useful for families occupying neighboring cabins.

What's new is the decor in these suites, an appealing palette of neutrals with splashes of color in burnt orange cushions and texture in the padded grey leather headboards. Edges are curved and surfaces are smooth marble. The lower category comprises one spacious room with verandah, like Symphony's other Penthouse cabins, while the Seabreeze Penthouse Suites have two separate rooms, a bedroom with a big marble bathroom and walk-in closet and a living area. The suites have Jacuzzi baths, while the Penthouses have no bath but instead, new walk-in showers with body jets.

The conversion of staterooms into the new penthouse accommodations effectively reduces the ship's guest capacity from 922 to 848. The new suites are unquestionably beautiful, but the cabins untouched by this refurb still look good, too. In previous refits, Crystal had the foresight to dress the rest of the ship in tasteful neutrals, so now the older cabins don't look dated.


Goodbye to Traditional Dining

Crystal was the last of the luxury lines to ditch a fixed, two-sitting dining system, loved by some regulars, dismissed as dated by newcomers. Love it or hate it, it's gone now. The main Waterside Restaurant, formerly the Crystal Dining Room, is now open seating and new venues and concepts have sprung up to spread passengers around the ship at mealtimes.

The Waterside offers open seating breakfast, lunch and now, dinner. More tables for two and four have been added, and in the evenings you can turn up any time between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Solo travelers will still be hosted or introduced to other singles if they wish, and officers will still host tables.

Silk Road and The Sushi Bar, formerly the specialty dining venue by famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa, is now Umi Uma, which is the Japanese word for a seahorse -- as featured in the Crystal logo. Nothing has really changed in the restaurant's appearance or menu, and Nobu is still very much in control. We're told that new specials will be added to the dinner options. The system remains the same; reservations for Umi Uma and Prego, the specialty Italian venue, will be complimentary for Penthouse guests, while all other passengers will enjoy one complimentary evening of specialty dining and will pay for further nights.

The casual Lido Cafe on Deck 11 has been renamed The Marketplace by day, with a section becoming the Churrascaria by night, which is open seating from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. with no supplementary charge. The Marketplace, essentially the ship's casual buffet, will continue to serve breakfast and lunch, as it did in its incarnation as The Lido.

The new venue is exciting; the Churrascaria is more than just meat on skewers. It's a wide-ranging celebration of South American and Latin food, with a Caipirinha as a welcome cocktail and a decent assortment of tapas like stuffed mini bell peppers and prosciutto with melon. There are plenty of salads and a daily ceviche before you get to the part with meats presented by "gauchos" on sword-like skewers and a whole range of alternatives, like parmesan chicken, garlic shrimp and herb marinated baby lamb chops. A vegetarian could happily accompany a carnivorous partner here, provided they could forego the skewer part of the evening and focus on the main course salads and tapas.

Chinese Comfort Food

The really big change is the introduction of Silk (don't be confused with Silk Road, the old name for the Nobu restaurant -- this is something completely new). Still on Deck 11, the Trident Grill, the ship's acclaimed poolside grill, and the Scoops ice cream bar are squished into a smaller space, while the new Silk occupies what was previously the seating area extending beyond the Trident Grill. Half is given over to dining and half to a new bar, which was still under construction when we visited. The decor is gorgeous: shocking pink cushions against black chairs and tables, with an avant garde installation of gold, black and white plates stretching along one wall. The living walls that were in situ before continue to add splashes of vibrant green.

Silk is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- reservations required), at no charge. The idea is to offer Chinese comfort food, with family-style plates for sharing, including dumplings, spring rolls, pot stickers, soups, noodles, stir fries and other Asian favorites. Dinner is a slightly more formal affair with a set menu including crispy duck salad, lobster and scallop in a wok, Chilean sea bass with honey and stir-fried beef. Vegetarians need to notify the restaurant in advance if they're coming, as no veggie dishes are listed on the menu, which was the only disappointment.

Faster Wi-Fi

Crystal has upgraded its satellite communications so all passengers will now receive unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi at significantly better speeds than before. Additionally, a new passenger portal -- Crystal Connect -- will be featured on the landing page of onboard Internet connections, offering easy access to menus for each restaurant, the daily program, port maps, shore excursion information and international newspapers. To this end, the whole ship is now dotted with ultra-thin TV screens, found outside each restaurant showing what's for dinner and in public areas allowing passengers to check their onboard bills, make reservations and order room service.

Silk interior

The Verdict

You really wouldn't know that Crystal Symphony was launched as far back as 1995; Crystal has done an excellent job in keeping the decor fresh through a series of refits, and the ship continues to give its newer rivals a real run for their money. The biggest impact of this latest effort has been to revolutionize dining onboard. Yes, it means that you lose the old system of assigned seating and making friends with your tablemates. On the other hand, the ship now offers much more freedom and choice -- exactly the way luxury cruising is heading.

--By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributor