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All too soon...

Cruise Review: First time on Symphony (May 26)

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Each additional Crystal cruise is like adding a year to a good marriage. Even with the bumps along the way, it deepens the relationship and pleasure of the experience.


We just returned from our “Wine and Romance” cruise (#5214, 11 days, Barcelona to London) which was about 2/3 full. It was our fourth on Crystal in three years, having previously cruised only on the Harmony on North American itineraries. As expected, we had such a wonderful time that we plan to continue to make Crystal our primary vacation destination, with four more Crystal cruises booked between now and the end of 2006.


The only significant negative aspects were ones that would not be pertinent to someone deciding whether or not to try Crystal, but will be noted here, and discussed at greater length in other threads. The biggest problem was with the STEX program administration. In spite of following the rules, and submitting forms months in advance, the STEX office seems to have lost two of our three sponsorships. In brief, we spent many days of our vacation dealing with meetings, messages, email and correspondence to get the matter resolved, which occurred on the last day, after much frustration. The problem seems to be with the LA office, although the onboard cruise sales consultant could have handled the matter much better, instead of treating someone making three onboard bookings as an ongoing headache. Much soothing and healing were provided by Megan, the delightful CS Hostess, who heard our story, and made us feel assured that the matter would be addressed.


The other problem was a pushy spa employee who aggressively and unpleasantly pushed further products and treatments (“you’re going to have to do SOMETHING more about your muscle tension”), in addition to performing a more expensive service than ordered, then grudgingly charging the price for the ordered service. My massage was acceptable, but had no relation to the tense areas I asked for special treatment while being given that nosy medical-style interview before beginning. My wife asked me to promise to talk her out of it if she ever is tempted to take any treatment at the spa, ever again.


Since this was our first on Symphony after three on the Harmony, comparisons are in order. At first, being on a new ship without staff who knew us felt like being a kid visiting your aunt’s house, when “Mom’s” is more comfortable. But in a day or two, that was quickly dispelled, as we dismissed the notion that Harmony might have a warmer “personality” due to the fine service from the Symphony staff. I noted especially that the deck stewards and bar servers exceeded my expectations from the similar areas of the Harmony, with the average on Symphony being comparable to our old favorites on Harmony.


Example: Even though I do not recall having been a regular customer of his, bespectacled Palm Court bar steward Jonathon Joanino learned my unusual and difficult-to-pronounce last name (not my pseudonym here), and greeted me by name each time. The evening after I splurged on a special cognac at the late show, Jonathon greeted me at the Captain’s farewell party with: “would you like a cognac, Mr. X_____?” Like a generous host, and truly acting with hospitality on behalf of the captain, he was encouraging me to enjoy another $15 drink, on the house. I ordered something else, but took more pleasure in what I received, knowing that it was my host’s “pleasure” that I enjoy an indulgence.


Overall, I prefer the design and layout of the Symphony over the Harmony in virtually every respect. The cabin décor was more pleasing, the storage (especially bookshelves) seemed better, and the second sink and associated shelves were a very useful benefit. As always, that bed is wonderful, and hard to leave some mornings. The rocking of the ship, with those fine linens makes for a very restful vacation.


The location and layout of the specialty restaurants is vastly superior, feeling like fine restaurants, and not a breakfast buffet room. The public spaces flowed better, and were more intuitive. The mid-ship location of the Starlight Lounge is wonderful, especially with the three entrances providing better feelings of connectivity, and a more gracious way to peek in and pop out of an event. It is a more gracious venue for the Captain’s parties than the Harmony’s Palm Court, and would seem to provide better facilities for dance lessons. I prefer the smaller Palm Court, as I think the old one was too large and empty feeling in almost all circumstances (except a Panama Canal transit). The larger main lobby is much nicer, especially for the Grand Gala Buffet, which is no longer the crush it was on the Harmony. The only thing I miss from the Harmony is the open forward deck on 11 that lets you oversee the Captain on sailaways, but the change to allow more room elsewhere is worth it. Overall verdict on the Symphony: “just like the Harmony, except better!”


Our vacation began with 5 great days in Barcelona, with the only trouble being that our luggage arrived 2 days after we did. We were getting pretty ripe, but we were glad that we were able to board with all of our luggage. The under-construction Gaudi church La Sagrada Familia was an astounding, monumental highlight, even to one who has seen most of the cathedrals and monuments of Europe. Not to be missed, especially the elevator to the top.


Mrs. J. wanted as much Barcelona as she could get, so we compromised on a 3PM boarding for a 6PM sailaway. Say, does anyone else get that excited and slightly anxious feeling in the taxi on the way to the pier, with that almost worried feeling that YOUR ship might not be there, until you get the thrill of seeing it for yourself?


Others were permitted to board at noon, but we still had time for all our reservations, and a nice snack and self orientation tour. Our earnest and charming stewardess Wilma was in only her third week on the job, still getting used to the ship’s motion, and did a great job. She forgot a few things, but we never had to ask her twice for anything. I think we probably knew a little more about the room than she did. The first day newsletter needed to be asked for, but she never forgot fresh ice after the first day. When I noted that there had been a towel and robe sash hanging on the back of the bath door on our arrival, she was mortified and apologetic, which told me how seriously she takes her responsibilities.


Our trip was a reunion of five of us from a Harmony dining table three years ago. From three different families, we became such friends that we simply had to travel again together (and have also booked another get-together for next year.)


The five of us had our first dinner at Prego, just after the 8:15 lifeboat drill. We felt pretty smug, finishing out pre-dinner cocktails at 8:14, and reaching our staterooms as the alarm sounded (I like the placement of the life vests under the sofa cushion, so that there is more closet shelf space.) Dinner followed, and we were met by the justly-notable, and dashing Remi, who told me that he would no longer be trading off with Leo, but would soon be the full-time dining room Maitre D’. Prego meet all our expectations as the foremost dining option on board. We later booked a table for the final night of the cruise. For every subsequent encounter, Remi greeted me by name and treated me like an old favorite customer.


At noon the first day, nearly a dozen cruise critic folks gathered in the Palm Court to put faces to names (my apologies for having to duck away early for an unexpected but necessary service club meeting, and for Mrs. J. who dropped by but was not feeling her best after a Barcelona bug). A great crowd.


The Dining Room met all expectations, and seemed perhaps even just a hair above Harmony in little aspects that are hard to pin down. Our Headwaiter Celso, Waiter Jasper, and Assistant Waiter Peter did a fine job, with Celso living up to the difficult comparison with the inestimable Paolo. We occasionally found that food started arriving later than desired (often 30 minutes after we were seated, for the first course to begin serving.) One evening, we specially requested speed so we could make the show, and it went fine. The next night, our entrees were so late that they arrived just as the lights went out for the baked Alaska parade. Not good. But the special ordered foie gras was outstanding the first several nights, then less good (not seared to crispness, and a less desirable cut) on subsequent nights, so we stopped ordering. The special guest chef dinner on this food and wine cruise was OUTSTANDING, at the highest caliber of big city fine dining. (The chef is the one associated with Lespinasse in Manhattan).


Our Jade Garden dinner was a disappointment in several respects. We were all seated within five minutes of our 8:30 reservation, but the food didn’t start arriving until after 9:15. Our table ordered most everything on the menu, and I found that some things were fine, some not. For appetizers, the baby ribs and lobster spring roll were great, the Peking duck and Tempura were fine. The soup was ordinary, like any Thai restaurant, and the pot stickers and other dim sum were leathery, dry, and not hot, as if they had sat out for a half hour, with fillings that were fine but uninspiring. For entrees, the lamb chops were properly cooked, but with a sauce that was dull and wrong. The scallops were the best option, but nothing wonderful. The lobster was a poorer quality than the tails served in the dining room, and the peanut sauce was dull. Maybe the sea bass would have been nice. (Can anyone tell that I prefer Asian food with complex and sometimes spicy flavors?)


Other meals were as expected, with breakfast enhanced by a tip from Marco, our Prego waiter, who advised that upon request, they will serve fresh-squeezed pink grapefruit juice, carrot juice, and one or two tropical options that are not out with the other pitchers. The miso (a favorite morning-after refresher) was not as good on Harmony, where is was served piping hot, and with seaweed as a condiment option. But everything else was as it should be. One morning we ordered breakfast in room (a first for us) and the order arrived on time, accurately, and at proper temperature. The service personnel were outstanding as always, rushing for a forgotten spoon, bringing a just-popped bagel, and such.


The most memorable lunches were as usual the theme buffets, with the Mediterranean buffet being a nice alternative to the Mexican/Latin buffet. We skipped the Grand Gala Buffet, and had a Grand Gala Burger instead. (Beautiful, but not our favorite overall.) I enjoyed a wonderful Osso bucco on the Lido lunch buffet on one port day, and we did not visit the Dining Room other than at dinner.


I found the cheery and attentive service at the Trident Pool made it a daytime draw. Whether or not we had a few fries, or a scoop of ice cream, the waiters always were attentive and friendly, even though we rarely ordered anything to generate gratuities for them. It is rare to see people anywhere who seem to enjoy their work so genuinely.


I share billyjeff’s concern about the dress code. On formal nights, we saw a blue blazer with khaki slacks and a loud tie, and ladies with nice but non-formal dresses and pants suits. I would really hate to see this standard slip, and we expected higher, not lower standards compared to Alaska and the Caribbean.


There were more children on board than usual, but still very few, with a few each of toddlers, kids, and teens. Behavior was largely fine.


I used the computer lab for the first time. The $15 charge for 30 minutes was quite tolerable, even though my usage was caused by STEX and travel agent communication problems. The computer I was on had an old version of Acrobat, so I was unable to read PDF files (my office fax mode), but I didn’t have anything critical, so I didn’t seek technical assistance. Overall, even though the cost is 10 times the highest I have found on shore, it is still a handy way to keep in touch twice a week. Now that I have done it once, I will surely become a regular.


Our vacation began with 5 great days in Barcelona, with the only trouble being that our luggage arrived 2 days after we did. We were getting pretty ripe, but we were glad that we were able to board with all of our luggage. The under-construction Gaudi church La Sagrada Familia was an astounding, monumental highlight, even to one who has seen most of the cathedrals and monuments of Europe. Not to be missed, especially the elevator to the top. The underground Roman ruins at the city museum were fascinating. We never once ate in a restaurant, preferring tapas bars for every meal, knowing that plenty of formal dining awaited us.


Glassy seas took us to Cannes, from which we took a short and inexpensive train ride on our own to Nice, which was nice;). The Museum of Contemporary Art was third rate, but an authentic sidewalk lunch in the old quarter was delightful.


Our next port was Gibraltar, inexplicably scheduled for “bank holiday”, when all but some tourist shops were closed. On-and-off drizzles dampened the day, but one could still see the African coast. The rock, monkeys, and strolling up to the big guns made the day memorable, in spite of the poorly-signed rock area. It’s a “don’t miss”, but not more than a day. Because the ship transited the straits to the pier on the Atlantic side before dawn, we were grateful to Captain Okland for retracing the transit on our departure, so that we could have a view of the south and east faces.


Next day, Cadiz. This is a personal favorite small European city of mine, after spending 5 days there a few years back. No tourist junk, incredible history, a compact walkable size through quaint streets, a fascinating cathedral unlike any other, friendly people, and a great shopping promenade and many authentic restaurants near the pier. One of the all-time great cruise-ship stops. So why did the “Departures” summary disparage the city so brutally? To sell $200 bus rides to Seville? This was a crime and a shame. Our friends who spent 2 hours each way on the Seville bus complained about the 2 hour lunch they were chained to, while precious time to see that great city elapsed.


We hired a driver to take us sherry tasting in Jerez, and to a notable seafood restaurant on the river in Sanlucar de Barremeda, and had a great day. I wish Crystal offered more culinary excursions, especially on a food and wine theme cruise.


Next day, Lisbon. A third consecutive port day was more than I like, and we had a great tour sponsored by our Virtuoso agent. A brilliant guide showed us several monuments, the monastery, and whisked us off to Sintra, a gorgeous hill town. We then had a fine seafood lunch at the coast at a famous restaurant, and cruised through coast towns on our return, ending with a good bus tour of Lisbon sites and traffic. (Portugal clearly is no longer a poor country.) Mrs. J assumed she would hate a bus tour, but ended up having a great time, and I did not have to keep my promise never to ask her to join a tour bus again (one bad experience on another cruise line several years ago had colored her expectations.)


A much-needed sea day took us to Le Verdon, the coastal port associated with Bordeaux, where we overnighted. We took our own car tour to a chateaux for tasting, an wonderful rustic lunch, and small towns and châteaux sites. We bumped into billyjeff at the first winery; he had suggested the tour company to me. $450 for four people to ride in a taxi the size of a Honda Accord for 8 hours seemed steep, but we had a great day.


The ship cruised up river to Bordeaux while we toured, and we enjoyed the delight of watching from the pier as it rounded the bend, did a 180 pirouette, and docked. Many left ship that evening for a walk, but we stayed on board. Next day, I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of not burning shoe leather, and staying on board for a quiet day, overlooking the beautiful city. I hear it is a great city, but it will be there next time. I prefer to maximize the pleasure of the vacation, and not to worry about missing another site.


The sailaway from Bordeaux was among the most memorable ever. Crowds of locals were gathered at the pier, restaurants cranked up their music for us as we passed, and all waved us away, with a touching and old-fashioned sentiment that I really assumed was long dead. I am sure there were a few misty eyes on board. Captain Okland gave extra prolonged toots on the horn for our farewell, and the other moored French ship reciprocated. It is important to note that the French do not hate us, as widespread reports would otherwise seem to indicate. In our several city visits, we experienced not a single anti-American sneer, and one friend even received an enthusiastic handshake urging us to tell other Americans that they are grateful for our liberation of France in WWII, along with the instructions to spread this word to all others of us. This was not the only time we realized that there are many people throughout the world who passionately love America, and the freedom we represent.


Our cruise upriver was gorgeous, with the late seating enjoying a sunset between green riverbanks. The seas on the Bay of Biscay gave us some rolling motion, but were calmer than expected for that location. The white cliffs of Dover were visible, but shrouded in rain and clouds, as we docked and boarded buses to Heathrow.


Our friends were delivered too late for their noon flight, and inexplicably, they were assigned a later bus that we were for our 2:30 flight. The lesson is to verify that your disembarkation assignment, and to fix it if needed. We should have been on a bus an hour later (Heathrow is really a crappy airport, like a bad bus station with a Gucci boutique), and our friends should have been an hour earlier. Another travel tip: Be sure your first US airport layover is at least two hours. Travelocity allowed us only 80 minutes, which is NOT enough to deal with minor flight delays, disembarkation, customs, luggage collection, customs, luggage re-checking, transfer to another terminal, security clearance, and reaching the gate. We had to bypass every line we found in order to make the flight in a miracle of airport sprinting. Two hours is an absolute minimum.


While this review has more than a few gripes, they are small, and the vacation was wonderful in virtually every way. We look forward to our next four booked Crystal cruises, and wouldn’t dream of trying another cruise line.

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Nice detailed review, RJ - as I would expect from you! By the way, you mentioned something on our last trip which prompted me to get a souvenir for you in Alaska. Did I hear you say you collected those stamped pennies from various locations or were you pulling my leg? If you do, I have one from the Alaska Sea Life Center to send you. :)I look forward to enjoying the Symphony next summer. Serenity first though!

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Did I hear you say you collected those stamped pennies from various locations or were you pulling my leg? If you do, I have one from the Alaska Sea Life Center to send you.


Awesome! I have all that I could find from the Alaska ports we have visited, but not that one!

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This one was from Seward, which isn't on the normal Crystal Alaska itinerary. I'll drop you an email to get your mailing address.

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Robert, thanks for the wonderful, informative review. I agree with what you said about the staff at the Trident grill. The guys that worked there remembered me from my previous cruise. They had worked in the Lido last summer. They could not have been nicer or more attentive. It sounds like you and Mrs. J. had a terrific time. regards, Nancy

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Hey Robert, I agree with you about that company that runs the Spa I have ran across the same problem not only on my Harmony cruise but other cruise lines what a way of ruining a good massage they need to think about changing companies in March I was on RSSC and they are ran by a different company I had 5 treatments and no one tried to sell me anything It made it so much more enjoyable.


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Regarding the spa, I also find it inappropriate to have the bill include a gratuity line, while the gal sits there in the room with you in your robe, until you sign it and return it to her. The bill should be presented, with instructions to leave it at the desk.

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Robert, as you know we were on the same cruise as you and I totally agree with your comments on the spa.


My facial was just OK but the hard sell of products at the end and the manner in which the bill was presented in the treatment room has made me resolve that I will never use the Crystal Spa again.


By mistake I actually added a gratuity of 22% but there was no word of thanks from the therapist at all. She was obviously absolutely furious that I didn't buy the products she lined up on the counter for me!


I had the same type of facial on our cruise on Seabourn in April and with a no tipping policy and no hard sell of products at the end it was an altogether more relaxing experience.


By the way, great detailed cruise review and photos!




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