Crystal Symphony is fresh from a renovation, and is the pinnacle of high-class cruising, writes Teresa Ooi.
Alas, there is no David.
Instead there is Raja, a bright-eyed butler from Madras. Resplendent in his evening attire, Raja immediately makes me feel welcome as he shows me to Seabreeze Penthouse 9099, which is to be my home for the next seven days.
I am on board the newly refurbished Crystal Symphony as she sails on the 114-day world cruise from Capetown to Fort Lauderdale. I join her from Fiji to the Cook Islands as she embarks on the Polynesian Palette sector.
Three years ago, I was onboard the Symphony in China and David, the butler from Chile, faithfully served me. I was hoping he would be onboard again.
I meet Shirlee and Bill Rubin from Florida who are celebrating their 74th wedding anniversary on board the ship. Both are in their nineties and bright as buttons.
“We are both absolutely dumbfounded as most of our family of friends have gone but we are still here – guess we just have the luck.
“Cruising is a form of assisted living for us without the responsibility. We have the means to pay for it and it is really not much more expensive than living in a nursing home, except that we get to meet and talk to so many different people on board the cruise,’’ says Shirlee.
The secret to their long and loving marriage? Give up bridge.
“We used to play bridge together but Bill is so serious about the game. So I gave him the ultimatum – bridge or the marriage. We chose the marriage,” says Shirlee.
Australians Mark and Yvonne Driscoll, who are on a 16-night cruise from Auckland to Tahiti, are also seasoned Crystal cruisers because they enjoy holidaying with like-minded people.
“We have lots of laughs and drinks. We are interested in swapping stories and ideas with people we meet on the cruise and they are just as interested in hearing our stories. The food is superb and you will never go hungry on a Crystal ship,” Mark says.
They like the Symphony, which is looking refreshed after a multi-million dollar facelift. The main dining room was revamped as the Waterside Restaurant with open seating instead of the previous, more formal two seat configuration. The line has also added a new Brazilian Steakhouse called Churrascaria on deck 11 and a Chinese restaurant, Silk, on the same deck. Famous Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant on deck 6 has been renamed Umi Uma, but the seven-seater sushi bar is still there, popular as ever.
Throughout the ship, there are contemporary chandeliers and paintings, giving the ship a sleeker, more stylish look. In addition, the line has added 40 new Seabreeze penthouse suites on deck 9, and all guests are entitled to free unlimited WiFi.
Here’s our verdict on Crystal Symphony’s makeover.
My Seabreeze penthouse with a verandah, decorated in a soothing palette of beige, white and silver, is spacious and elegant. The comfortable white and grey sofa has geometric patterned and dusky-pink pillows. The drinks cabinet in light wood has subtle touches of gold. There is a Julius Meinl coffee machine with matching branded cups and saucers. The white and grey marble bathroom has double washbasins, a shower room big enough to fit two people, ample supplies of Etro bath products and fluffy Egyptian cotton towels. The powerful Hansgrohe shower is absolutely heavenly. And a bottle of Charles Heidsieck champagne in a silver ice bucket is waiting to be opened. If I wanted, Raja would unpack my bag and get my clothes pressed, and as a penthouse guest, I am entitled to all the specialty restaurants on board at no extra cost. Crystal is an all-inclusive cruise with free-flowing wines and French champagne, so you only have to pay for shore excursions, spa treatments and drycleaning.
Bigger penthouse suites with a separate lounge room, two flat screen televisions and a built-in washer-dryer are also available.
Feeling peckish, we try Silk for lunch as a nod to Crystal’s Asian owners, Genting. The dim sum selection is tasty, as is the wonton noodle soup, but the Hainanese chicken rice did not live up to expectations.
However, dinner at Silk is a lovely experience. The kung pao chicken with cashew nuts, stir-fried beef and pork belly dishes are delicious, but the winning dish is the delicate Chilean sea bass, cooked beautifully in a special sauce.
The new Brazilian restaurant Churrascaria is a fun South American experience. You start by concocting your own salad and the waiter brings over a selection of grilled meat including beef, lamb, chicken, pork, sausages and king prawns served on large skewers for you to choose from.
Lunch at the main dining room, Waterside on deck 5, is light and unfussy, and Prego, the signature Italian restaurant on deck 6, over-delivers on all fronts. The fine Italian cuisine of carpaccio, ravioli, gnocchi, grilled sea bass and duck breast is well executed, and waiters served them with aplomb.
If you fancy a light dinner, make sure you are promptly seated at the sushi bar when the Japanese restaurant, Umi Uma opens its doors at 6 pm. Seats are limited to seven and there are no reservations. Head sushi chef, Tamba Toshiaki, is still working there, leading his team behind the sushi bar as he did three years ago. The way they prepare the signature tuna or salmon sashimi and softcrab sushi is an art form, and it is a pleasure to watch.
Dinner at Umi Uma is always such a pleasure. The stir-fried vegetables with lobster, wagyu beef and sashimi dishes are beautifully cooked and the standout dish is the black cod in special sauce. To finish, the ginger-infused crème brûlée simply melts in your mouth.
Crystal has upped her selection of after-dinner entertainment with a range of song and dance performers. The charismatic Australian pianist Kym Purling, who used to accompany singer Natalie Cole, plays a medley of tunes from Oklahoma numbers to Elton John, and there’s a smooth Latin dance show starring Balazs, Richard, Zsuzsanna and Luca. The four also double as dance teachers, giving tango and salsa lessons to willing guests on sea days.
Those wanting a more intimate drinking hole should head to the Avenue Saloon on deck six to listen to pianist and crooner Richard Ceasar from South Africa. Richard is so popular with female guests that they often join him belting out their favourite tunes in a rowdy impromptu karaoke session.
“Shake your booty, girls,” Richard says. And the girls do.
On other nights the ship puts on a high-tech light and dance show called Imagine, a clever, high-octane performance which has guests spellbound.
Australian singers Penny Shaw and Fiona Cooper Smyth put on quite a tongue-in-cheek performance as DivaLicious. Their antics are delightful and their voices absolutely melodious. Film buffs will enjoy the daily afternoon or evening movie at the ship’s Hollywood Theatre with free popcorn. For female guests who want a quick twirl on the dance floor and can’t find a cha-cha partner, Crystal’s light-footed Ambassador Hosts will willingly take you for a spin.
I was recommended the Elemis aroma stone therapy massage and my South Korean masseuse who trained in Sydney was excellent. Her powerful hands worked wonders on my back and I felt refreshed and invigorated after a 50-minute massage. I also had a pedicure by a Croatian nail specialist. It’s best to book your treatments as early as possible, especially on sea days as appointments are quickly snapped up.
Bar and lounges
You are never short of a suitable watering hole onboard the Symphony. My favourite is the cosy Avenue Saloon where Richard Ceasar tickles the ivory keys. One of the best spots to sip a drink before dinner is at the Palm Court with its stupendous views but if you fancy dancing after dinner then head for the revamped Starlite Club on deck 6. Other drinking spots include the Connoisseur Club, the Crystal Cove in the main lobby on deck 5 or the casual Silk Bar on deck 11.
I played a game of paddle tennis on deck 12 against two experienced Canadians. The friendly match tested all our abilities and guile – thank goodness I didn’t let the side down and we drew one all. There are also table-tennis on deck 8, fitness classes in the gymnasium, dance lessons on sea days, afternoon jogs or brisk walks on the promenade deck, bridge, mahjong, pilates, golf clinics, zumba classes, needlepoint and knitting get-togethers and watercolour painting classes.
Cruise Line: Crystal Cruises Star Rating: 5* Passenger capacity: 848 Total crew: 566 Entered service: 1995 Tonnage: 51,044 Facilities: Six restaurants, six bars, Crystal Life Spa and beauty salon, galaxy lounge, paddle tennis, fitness centre, library, Hollywood theatre, shuffleboard courts, ice-cream bar, putting green. Bookings: A 10-night Alaskan cruise Vancouver roundtrip departs on 10 August 2019 at US$5,715 per person for a deluxe stateroom with verandah. Visit crystalcruises.com
HIGHS: An elegant ship with friendly white-gloved service. Specialty restaurants like Nobu Matsuhisa’s Umi Uma and Prego offer fine cuisine served with utmost flair, free-flowing champagne and beverages in an all-inclusive price. Indispensable butler service in penthouses
LOWS: The opening hours of the library should be extended.
BEST SUITED TO: Well-heeled cruisers who have a taste for fine dining, adventure and having a good time drinking, dancing and singing.