My first meeting with David the butler is unforgettable. Impeccably dressed in a morning suit, pin-striped trousers with slicked-back hair, he takes my right hand, kisses it and kicks his left foot in the air.
Of course, I am bowled over.
If this is what the next nine days is going to be like on board Crystal Symphony, life on the high seas on the Connoisseur’s China voyage from Beijing to Hong Kong is going to be a ball.
And indeed it is.
For more than two decades, Crystal Cruises has been perfecting its onboard experience with a level of service other cruise lines talk about in hushed tones. Crystal, as it is very fond of telling anyone who’ll listen, is the most awarded line in the industry. Its unrivalled reputation as the epitome of luxury travel has seen it crowned the best mid-size cruise line in Conde Nast Traveler magazine Readers’ Choice Awards for 21 years in a row. It has also been Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Cruise Line for 20 consecutive years.
Considering that the likes of Seabourn, Silversea and SeaDream are no slouches when it comes to food and service, that’s pretty impressive.
Indeed, Crystal’s legendary luxury is so well-know among travel writers that getting on board for a familiarisation cruise is considered a career highpoint that many never achieve.
So I feel privileged that David even takes the time to say hello.
Crystal’s two-ship line has recently been taken over by Genting Hong Kong, a leisure company that also owns Star Cruises and is a major shareholder in Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises).
Their first act once the contract ink had dried was to promise nothing would change, except that they would be building another ship so luxurious it would set a new benchmark.
When the ship docks at Shanghai for three days, Genting chairman Tan Sri KT Lim is among the 100 new guests to come on board.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, looming large before us in Tianjin International Port Terminal, about a three-hour drive from Beijing is the Crystal Symphony, a sleek, handsome ship snuggling up to the wharf while David is no doubt polishing the silverware.
A mid-sized ship carrying a maximum of 940 passengers, its corridors are wide, staterooms generously appointed and penthouses are modern with queen-sized beds, a pillow menu and plush furnishings.
I am in Penthouse 1016 which, at 37 square metres, is large enough to fit a sitting area with sofa and table, and a roomy walk-in wardrobe with plenty of drawers and storage space.
The champagne is on tap, fine wine, premium spirits, soft drinks and bottled water in the fridge. It’s all included, naturally.
A plate of strawberries dipped in dark chocolate is a welcome sight. Best of all, the bathroom has a Jacuzzi bathtub, two marble wash basins and a shower room equipped with a powerful Grohe shower. Generous amounts of larger-than-usual sized bottles of Aveda toiletries are topped up daily.
For me, the mark of a good five-star ship is the quality of its towels and Crystal’s Egyptian cotton wraps are so luxuriously fluffy and spotlessly white and the thick bathrobe so comfortably snug that I am completely won over.
All penthouses have a verandah that really does accommodate a table and two chairs. Great for sitting out on while David unpacks my bags, presses my clothes and shines my shoes.
Every evening, when the sun sets, a selection of canapés and champagne arrives in my cabin. There is always a box of chocolates on the table, replenished daily.
The most expensive suites are on the highest floor, Deck 10 with a total of 65 penthouse suites. There are five butlers serving the penthouses, and they also share responsibility for looking after the ship’s captain, Mark Symonds, and three senior officers.
David tends to my every whim and I hardly notice he is shared. Indeed, you are hardly allowed to raise a finger. I am not able to order room service, for instance, David must do that for me.
After an Elemis facial at the ship’s Crystal Spa – a 50-minute massage combining microdermabrasion and oxygen by a bright, friendly and competent South African beautician, I feel so relaxed that I just can’t face putting on my glad rags for dinner. So I call David.
He immediately suggests a Japanese bento box and a side serve of sushi and sashimi from Silk Road, a speciality Japanese restaurant by renowned Nobu Matsuhisa.
In minutes, David shimmers in, raises the level of my lounge table, dresses it in a crisp, white tablecloth and serves the meal with a glass of champagne.
Every morsel is a delight. I am beginning to understand why some consider a butler one of life’s essentials and why service really defines the level of a luxury cruise line.
As you would expect aboard a ship of this class, the food is consistently good. The Crystal Dining Room is tastefully refined with a choice of modern cuisine. Dishes include seared Ahi tuna with cress salad for starters and pan-seared baby halibut or pink-roasted, milk-fed veal rib-eye steak for mains.
For those wanting more traditional fare, there’s the Crystal classic menu with crab bisque or shrimp cocktail with horseradish sauce for appetiser and grilled Black Angus sirloin steak or pan-fried Tasmanian salmon fillet for mains.
The specialty restaurants are Silk Road, which includes a small Sushi Bar serving Alaskan crab and sashimi concoctions by executive chef Toshiaki Tamba, and Prego, with its fine Italian fare.
There’s nothing like good Italian food and polished Italian waiters who flirt with lady passengers. It’s all part of making you feel special at Prego. Its signature antipasti dish is Black Angus carpaccio with a mustard sauce and Caravaglio capers. The warm lobster poached in sage butter served on a bean, zucchini and tomato salad was divine. For secondi, there’s always lasagne, potato gnocchi, hand-made beetroot-ricotta ravioli or risotto with bay scallops, Amalfi lemons and mascarpone cheese. The Lavender roasted duck breast for my main course was served with balsamic cherries, chestnut and poached radish. Fantastico!
Prego’s signature dessert is “Affogato” – espresso-flavoured lady fingers layered with light mascarpone cheese and mascarpone ice cream. Absolutely wicked.
Every night, Silk Road and its six-seater sushi bar is packed. Starters range from grilled Australian wagyu beef from Greg Norman’s ranch in Queensland to Nobu-style sashimi salad. Mains include stir-fried lobster with asparagus, shitake mushrooms and snap peas finished with truffle-yuzu sauce, and black cod marinated with Saikyo miso served with peach and young ginger.
Silk Road’s atmosphere is electric, there’s such a buzz when the food is presented. Nobu’s dishes often look too good to eat, but trust me, they taste even better than they look.
And so we set off aboard this decadent palace of temptation, cruising down China’s coast from Tianjin toward our first port of call, Yantai.
It is early April and that can mean inclement weather. A combination of 40 knot winds, fog and three-metre swells made things a little bumpy, forcing Captain Symonds to revise our schedule and cancel the Yantai stop, and power on to Shanghai.
This means an additional day at sea, but there is plenty to occupy guests – morning yoga sessions, learning how to make digital films at Crystal’s Computer University at Sea, destination lectures by art historian Verla Brown, a golf clinic, salsa lessons, or simply watching a movie at the Hollywood Theatre with popcorn and soda.
There are 20 Australian passengers on this voyage, including seasoned cruisers Shirley and Kim McGrath from Sydney. This is their sixth Crystal cruise. “We bring our work with us,” Shirley tells me. “I have done at least 100 cruises – if there’s a coastline, I’ve probably been there.’’
It’s the first Crystal cruise for a Sydney foursome, retired businessman David Goodrick and wife Kerry and long-time friends Ken and Wendy Phelps. “The staff are exceptional. We’ve had superior service that rates among the best we’ve experienced,” says David. “The waiters always remember your name. We don’t mind the price since it is all-inclusive. The ship’s furnishings and fittings are also classy.’’
There are also 192 African American passengers on board the ship who have brought their own DJ. They all loved to dance and every other night hold a themed dance after dinner, with music from the sixties, seventies and eighties. For their grand finale, they all dress in white for an all-white dance party.
For those who don’t travel with a dance partner, one of the attractions of Crystal Symphony is its four ambassador hosts, available to partner women travelling alone or whose husbands would rather sit this one out.
There is always lots to do after dinner with a variety of live shows including an Elton John cover concert and dance performances held nightly at the Galaxy Lounge. The stand-out performance is the exclusive iLuminate: Imagine show, combining technology, song and dance. And yes, there is karaoke at Luxe night club on Deck 6.
Like all five-star ships, Crystal has a smart-casual dress code for evening, but when the captain holds his welcome reception at the Starlite Club, everyone dresses for the formal occasion, the women in glittering cocktail dresses and long gowns.
Perhaps they have been pressed by David, who does just about everything else for his coterie of passengers.
Originally from Chile, David speaks four languages – Spanish, English, Portuguese and Hungarian – and has worked for Crystal for 11 years.
“I am very, very happy working at Crystal – it is one of the few luxury ships that employ husband-and-wife teams. My job is not boring – everyday is different.’’
And does he expect a tip from his penthouse guests?
“It’s an all-inclusive cruise – if they tip me at the end of the journey, I am happy, but I am not expecting it.”
Of course, I leave him a tip.
Our nine-day cruise travelled from Beijing to Shanghai and on to Hong Kong.
Cruising on the Huangpu River to dock in front of the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower was a real highpoint (no pun intended).
The Huangpu River is so busy, cargo-laden ships, small pleasure craft and seriously expensive yachts constantly crossed the waterway. Like the city, the river never sleeps.
We docked at Shanghai International Cruise Terminal, just a 15-minute coach ride from the Bund, where most of the action is in this great global city
With a population of 24 million, Shanghai is always teeming. I took the five-hour escorted tour to visit old and new Shanghai, reasonably priced at $59 per person.
We visited The Bund, the financial hub fronting the Huangpu River and the Jade Buddha Temple – it was jam packed with visitors, both local and foreign. After a chaotic time spent queuing to visit the sitting and reclining Jade Buddha, we were told no photographs were allowed. Not a pleasant experience. We then visited the Yu Yuan Gardens which date back to the Ming Dynasty.
I took a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tour of Shanghai and hopped off at the French Concession known as Xintiandi, a popular tourist haunt full of eateries, boutique shops, bars and restored historical buildings. A good place to browse and pick up the odd souvenir although China prices are steeper than tax-free Hong Kong.
When Crystal Symphony arrived in Kowloon, Hong Kong’s port, it was time for me to bid farewell to David and the ship, but I decide to add on a two-day stopover.
I stayed at the Landmark Oriental Hotel, smack in the middle of Central – ultra-hip, ultra-modern and super-cool.
Rooms are certainly cutting edge, and there is a circular Jacuzzi bath in the middle of my suite.
The hotel also boasts one of Asia’s best spa and wellness complexes, spread over two floors where I bumped into the famous Hong Kong heart-throb actor Tony Leung, a regular patron.
The body massage by Nepalese masseuse was so relaxing that I curled up in bed, watched TV and promptly fell asleep.
In contrast the older, sister hotel, The Mandarin Oriental, overlooks the harbour and has a more classic charm.
With a chaise strategically placed in the corner of the picture window, it was tempting to contemplate the harbour while sipping fragrant jasmine tea. But vibrant Hong Kong is not a place to laze around.
So I took an eclectic tour of the city with guide Vivian Wong.
We visited the hip PMQ (Police Married Quarters) that has been transformed into a hub of small boutiques selling art and home furnishings; we dined at Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen & Bar.
Head chef Gilles Bosquet said its casual concept appeals to local palette and recommended the traditional shepherd’s pie of braised lamb, onions and carrots, chopped kale, red cabbage, shaved fennel, pumpkin and sunflower seeds with white balsamic dressing and sticky toffee pudding with Muscovado caramel and clotted cream.
It was a very British culinary experience – and a reminder that such hearty fare, well prepared, can taste delicious.
You can’t leave Hong Kong without having wonton noodles at Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, Central. Served in tiny bowls with four wontons and al dente egg noodles, they are the best I’ve eaten.
By now, the Crystal Symphony would be two days out to sea. I wondered what David would make of my culinary bliss eating noodles at a hole-in-the-wall, no-frills restaurant.
Cruise Line: Crystal Cruises
Vessel: Crystal Symphony
Maximum Passenger Capacity: 920
Total Crew: 570
Passenger Decks: 10
Entered Service: 1995
Facilities: Wide walking and jogging promenade, fitness centre, crystal spa, two swimming pools, library, golf nets, movie theatre, eight restaurants and eateries, bridge room, computer centre, butler service for penthouse suites.
Bookings: See crystalcruises.com or phone 1800 251 174 (Australia) or 0800 446 376 (New Zealand).
Highs: Lots of elegant open space so there’s no sense of overcrowding, attentive service, consistently fine food and well priced on-shore excursions.
Lows: Be prepared for rough weather in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea, on-shore guides in Xiamen could be better trained; they were university students. Guides in Shanghai should use initiative to change order of itinerary if there is overcrowding at popular tourist attractions such as the Jade Temple.
Best Suited to: Well-heeled and worldly travellers who like to be spoiled and meet other international passengers; solo women who love to have a twirl on the dance floor.