It's 1 a.m., and an enthusiastic -- if not altogether talented -- would-be American Idolist is wailing her way through Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Fellow night-clubbers, armed with Cosmopolitans, and glasses of cabernet sauvignon and Veuve Clicquot, are cheering her on while dancing, cuddling on the art-nouveau-meets-21st-century banquettes or perching atop Philippe Stark barstools. It's another karaoke night at LUXE, and again, for the third time in a week, we've broken "curfew" and stayed up way, way, way past our bedtimes.
You'd think we were party animals on a three-night cruise to nowhere.
Once one of cruising's more sedate vessels (and, by all means, you can still enjoy the peace and quiet), Crystal Symphony underwent three major refurbishments, one in 2006, turning what was effectively an elegant dowager into a sophisticated socialite, and a second in 2009 that added some really stylish and, in some areas, ambitious boutique hotel-like touches. The third refurbishment, in 2012, completed the five year plan to redesign every room onboard the ship. Combined, the five-year-long project cost a whopping $65 million and was the most significant ship redo in Crystal's history.
In 2006, a lot of work was done in the public areas and cabins. The refurbishment added LUXE, the pocket-sized nightclub tucked into a corner between the atrium and the casino. Looking at how busy it is nowadays, you wonder how the ship ever did without it. Sleek and colorful -- almost raucously so -- this 10 p.m.-until-late venue would feel right at home on South Beach.
The casino was remodeled, as was the Bistro cafe, the all-new atrium shops and the aforementioned LUXE. Cabins got facelifts, too: The decor now feels more boutique-hotel than luxury-cruise-ship, featuring beds with leather headboards and bathrooms with now-trendy bowl sinks.
Also completely redesigned was the Starlite Club; walls were removed and new, almost Starbucks-like clusters of wonderfully cozy armchairs were arranged around a brand-new circular bar (one of the best people-watching spots onboard).
In 2009, the Lido Cafe was completely remodeled; Prego, the Italian specialty restaurant, received a total overhaul; and dramatic changes were made to the Lido Deck, adding a 20-person Jacuzzi but removing an entire pool to create a rather beautiful lounging area. The Penthouses, the ship's premier suites, were all refitted.
2012's refurbishment saw the redesign of several of the ship's public spaces, including Avenue Saloon, which relocated the piano to make more room for brass-tack couches, embossed-leaf barstools and tufted booths. Seating was also changed in the panoramic-view Palm Court, and the dance floor was enlarged.
The ship's two theaters also underwent significant updates. In addition to new furniture and decor, a new stage extension expands the performance space in the Galaxy Lounge by 30 percent. And both the Galaxy Lounge and Hollywood Theatre received technological upgrades to lighting, sound and projectors.
New following the refurbishment is a tender embarkation foyer with comfortable seating and five-foot-tall travel photographs from around the world.
What Crystal understands better than any other luxury cruise line is how to add more contemporary elements without changing its essential ambience. Plus, despite all this expenditure, the line's priority remains stalwartly planted in creating a sense of community among those onboard -- whether it's passengers, crew or both.
And, despite all this expenditure, the line's priority remains stalwartly planted in creating a sense of community among those onboard -- whether it's passengers, crew or both.
Crystal Plaza is Crystal Symphony's central, two-story atrium. Its focal feature is a lovely waterfall, though the heart of the atrium is the Crystal Cove lounge, a spot that's ideally placed for people-watching and pre-dinner cocktails. The ship's shops, recently redesigned, ring around the atrium's second level; they're visually stunning, but I have to admit that, in order to achieve the minimalist look, less merchandise is on display -- and there wasn't much to buy.
The library, just off the Atrium, offers a reasonable selection of books (and, to its credit, quite a few new releases); there are also games, DVD's and CD's. Thumbs-up to its staff for creating a special shelf for guidebooks, whose destinations are featured on current itineraries. Passengers can't check them out and must read them in the library, but the good news is that whenever you need to check a guide, you have access to it.
The Bridge Lounge, which was part of the recent refurbishment, is another great place to hang out. New convertible game tables and armchairs have been added. The space also can double as presentation locale with a new podium, credenza and A-V system.
The Internet center offers a dozen computer terminals with Internet access, and its onsite staffers answer questions and provide assistance. As well, for those who bring their own laptops aboard, wireless connections are available throughout the ship (and worked extremely well in cabins). Large-screen iMacs are being introduced and will provide those taking the Computer University @ Sea classes with a chance to learn about Apple's operating system, as well as Windows. (The iMacs run both.) The per-minute charge for Internet connection is relatively high at 74 cents, but reasonable packages are available: two hours ($50), 10 hours ($200) and 25 hours ($300).
Editor's Note: GSM phones worked pretty consistently while onboard, even when at sea, but be wary of high charges for roaming when calls are routed through the ship's satellite.
Crystal Symphony has three self-serve laundry facilities. There's no charge to use them, and soap and dryer sheets are provided.
Crystal Symphony was considered a revolutionary ship when it was built in the mid-1990's because it had absolutely no inside cabins. Standard outsides (well, Crystal calls them "deluxe") measure 202 square feet -- reasonably roomy -- and are the same size as, and similarly outfitted to, balcony cabins, which measure 246 square feet. (The extra 44 square feet goes to the verandah.) Regardless of designation, all cabins on Crystal Symphony have been refurbished and are decorated in sleek, boutique-hotel style; color schemes vary per floor. On one deck, all cabins are green/blue; on another, the scheme is maroon/yellow.
All cabins feature queen beds (with funky, leather headboards) that convert to two twins. There is a seating area; the armchairs that graced this space previously have all been replaced with cream leather sofas; apparently, there were a lot of complaints about a lack of seating for two.
Each cabin has a flat-screen television, DVD player (DVD's are free to borrow from the library) and fridge with complimentary soft drinks and bottled water. There's a safe and plenty of storage space; bathrobes to borrow hang in the closets. One nice touch on our tropics cruise: Robes made of terrycloth, as well as those made from a lighter cotton, were available.
Bathrooms each feature two sinks (in the trendy "bowl" style) and a full-powered hairdryer. All have bathtub-shower combos. Toiletries in each cabin are from Aveda.
Balconies are each outfitted with two mesh chairs and a small table.
Crystal Symphony's penthouse-level suites come in three sizes, 367 square feet (Penthouse with Verandah), 491 square feet (Penthouse Suite with Verandah) and 982 square feet (Crystal Penthouse with Verandah), and are comfortable and elegant. All have verandahs that are outfitted with adjustable plastic chairs (cushions provided) and small tables.
All 63 Penthouses have had complete refits and boast new, soft furnishings. The accent is on neutrals: new taupe, ivory and sand color schemes and lots of stone on the counter tops and bedside tables. Bathrooms have been done in tones of white and are slightly clinical, and there are new headboards and bedding.
The two top suites, the 982-square-foot Crystal Penthouses, have had a complete makeover -- everything from structure to soft furnishings. A corner of the balcony has been enclosed to create a new dining area, which allows the table to be tucked out of the main part of the room into a space now surrounded by glass on three sides. The bathrooms are so beautiful you'll just want to move in; the tubs are by Philippe Starck and have uninterrupted ocean views (and, more prosaically, flat-screen TV's recessed into the walls), while the granite sink is backed by shimmery glass mosaic tiles.
All Penthouses have butlers who bring afternoon canapes, make restaurant and spa reservations, replace beverages and serve room-service meals. There are also walk-in closets. Another extra: Suite-holders are provided with complimentary bottles of wine, plus a choice of liquor (one full-sized bottle per person). Mini-fridges are continually stocked with beer and soda. If you're a room-service fan, definitely book one of these cabins, as butlers can serve course-by-course meals. You can order from the main dining room, Silk Road and Valentino at Prego during operating hours. (On our last trip, we created a delicious Silk Road-Prego combo, ordering Miso Black Cod and chocolate souffle from the former and lasagna and mushroom soup in a bread bowl from the latter. Delicious!)
One of the best aspects of Crystal's itineraries is that each is padded with a solid number of sea days. And while one can find many opportunities to simply relax, kick back and work on his or her tan, days onboard are also filled with enrichment activities -- from notable guest lecturers to the line's Creative Learning Institute offerings.
Through that program, unique to Crystal, passengers can participate in classes on the arts, wellness and history. There are also courses in computer-related skills, piano-playing, golf and language instruction. Crystal features occasional wine and food festivals, too.
I've long been a big fan of the enormous effort that Crystal makes to enrich and entertain its passengers. But on this cruise, I was disappointed that the program seemed stuck in a rut. Our port lecturer, billed as a journalist-expert, presented dry, outdated lectures on the places we visited. The wine tastings were banal. The French class, hosted in conjunction with Berlitz, was absurdly low-tech -- our instructor pointed to pictures in a book to teach us words.
With all the resources -- and commitment -- that Crystal brings to its enrichment activities, it sorely needs to bring the program up-to-date.
Beyond the above, there's Team Trivia, Scrabble, Mah-Jongg, movies in the cinema, bingo, dance classes, an art auction, arts and crafts and napkin-folding.
Evenings are, at least in the early stages, a bit more low-key. The Starlite enjoyed a post-refurbishment rush for pre-dinner cocktails; a band plays on the stage, and there's a dance floor. Gentleman hosts are available to dance with single women (or those whose husbands won't venture onto the floor).
The casino is tucked between Luxe, the ship's nightclub, and the Galaxy Lounge (perfectly placed to capture the crowd as it moves from each evening's theatrical performance to its "after hours" nightclub).
In the Avenue Saloon, a pianist plays Broadway tunes and sentimental favorites. The Connoisseur's Club (for the cigar-smoking crowd) is a charming hideaway, located next door. The Palm Court is the ship's airy observation lounge -- a great place to be at sailaway.
Itineraries mix and mingle styles of post-dinner entertainment; sometimes it's low-key, and during other times, big production shows are offered. The latter are featured in Galaxy, the ship's primary theater.
And don't miss a visit to LUXE. It doesn't even open until 10 p.m.! A D.J. spins dance favorites, and karaoke is a staple.
Crystal's recommendations are as follows: $5 each for stewardess and waiter, $3 for junior waiters and $5 for penthouse deck butlers. That's on a per-day, per-person, basis. One note: Many Crystal passengers book through travel agents, who actually purchase gratuity packages for their customers as a way of saying thanks for their business.
However, gratuities and beverages will be included in all Crystal cruise fares beginning with Crystal Symphony's March 19, 2012, transatlantic sailing. From that date forward, passengers do not need to tip, but may do so for exceptional service.
While kids' facilities are relatively limited, the Fantasia playroom and Waves teen center just underwent significant updating. The area's divided layout has been reconfigured to create more privacy for teens, but more of a welcoming, homey feel for younger children. Different sections are available for group activities and crafts, story time, relaxation, videogaming and TV/movie screenings.
While there were children onboard, I'd recommend that families consider Crystal Serenity, which places more emphasis on facilities and programs for youngsters.
Fellow passengers are very well-traveled. Many -- more than the industry average -- were repeat Crystal passengers. Demographically, passengers were primarily in their 50's, though there was a smattering of three-generation family groups traveling together.
During the daytime, country club casual proliferates. At night, folks tend to dress up (except for "informal" evenings, when the resortwear code continues). Our 10-night trip had three formal nights -- men wore tuxedos and suits, while women wore long gowns and elegant pants outfits.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The "big event," sports-wise, on Crystal Symphony revolves around the ship's paddle-tennis court. It is always (or so it seemed) busy! The promenade on Deck 7 wraps fully around the ship and attracts walkers and runners. Most move at a slower-than-jogging pace.
Crystal offers an interesting fitness program for walkers. Called Walking on Water, it basically consists of cotton vests with pockets for weights that add resistance. The vests are loaned out on a complimentary basis, and the workout definitely requires a comfortable bit of extra exertion. (Try the vests while walking stairs if you are really feeling energetic.) Plus, since October 2009, Crystal has offered Nordic Walking through a partnership with LEKI USA. Passengers can enjoy complimentary use of walking poles onboard.
The pool deck is one of the areas that was changed most during the recent refit. One pool, the Neptune, and its adjacent Jacuzzi, have been taken away (see Dining, above) to create extensive outdoor seating around the Trident Bar & Grill. The area surrounding the main Crystal pool (a proper lap pool, incidentally) has also received a makeover. The two small whirlpools have gone, and a huge, 20-person Jacuzzi has been installed, great for socializing on cool-weather cruises. On our Baltic sailing, there wasn't too much action at the pool, but the ambience (if not the weather) was pleasant. On the other hand, during a tropical trip along the Mexican Riviera, the pool scene was electric.
New deck furniture creates a plush, contemporary look. Featured are white loungers and circular double sunbeds in white rattan with splashes of burnt orange and turquoise in the cushions that add a bright, summery touch.
The spa and beauty salon on Crystal Symphony are two of the nicest at sea. Each facility is decorated with an Asian theme. The cost for a basic Swedish massage is a bit pricier than average at $132 for 50 minutes, but the treatments we tried (this massage, an 80-minute salt and lime ginger scrub and a shiatsu massage) were excellent -- and there was no heavy selling of products, which you find in Steiner-run spas on some cruise ships. Facials start at $79 for a New York Lunchtime Peel Facial (20 minutes). Acupuncture treatments are a relatively new addition to spa services. We loved the locker room, featuring multi-head showers, a sauna and Aveda toiletries -- not to mention (and this falls in the "nice touch" category) a mini-fridge, stocked with complimentary carbonated and noncarbonated water.
The fitness facility has a full line of equipment that's nicely grouped in stations. There are plenty of treadmills and stationary bicycles (each equipped with a flat-screen television); on sea days, there were signup sheets to prevent congestion.
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