Cruise like a boss in the luxury of a bygone age on the Crystal Symphony

Fresh from a prolonged and very expensive refit, this ocean liner shines with luxury

04 March 2018 - 00:00 By paul ash

WHAT IS CRYSTAL?
A luxury cruise line founded as Crystal Cruises in the US in 1988. The line started out with one ship, the Crystal Harmony, and from the outset sought to position itself as a luxury cruise line. The line is highly regarded for its excellent service, which is in part due to a high ratio of staff to passengers.
Renamed Crystal Ltd, the line is owned by Genting Hong Kong, who have embarked on additions to the ocean-going cruise brand with river, luxury yacht and "air cruises".
WHAT ABOUT ITS SHIPS?The line operates two ocean-going vessels - the 50,000-ton Crystal Symphony and the 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity, along with a fleet of four luxury river ships and the 3,000ton, 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, a magnificent luxury yacht that would not look out of place in a tech billionaire's toybox.
The Symphony is fresh from a prolonged and very expensive refit - the sea is a harsh mistress - with new suites and penthouses being added to an already luxurious ship. The Serenity is heading to the yards in October for its own multimillion-dollar transformation that, among other things, will reduce its capacity from 1,070 to 980 guests. On a 68,000-ton ship, that translates into a lot of usable space per passenger.
WHERE DO THEY SAIL?
Serenity and Symphony follow the sun with voyages to the great cities of the Baltic, the Caribbean and the West Indies and the Mediterranean's classic harbours. There are voyages to Hawaii, Alaska, the Middle East and Antarctica. Both the big ships embark on regular world cruises and other long ocean voyages, such as the 16-day cruise across the Pacific's vast, heaving blue from Valparaiso in Chile to Papeete, and a 21-day crossing of the Indian Ocean from Perth to Cape Town.
There are week-long round-trip voyages in the Caribbean, Baltic and the Med, and many shorter itineraries in just about every destination the line sails to. The river ships sail on Europe's beautiful and sinuous waterways - the Rhine, the Moselle and the Danube, among others.In a word, beautiful. Where many cruise ships feel like an oceangoing version of Las Vegas, with slightly tacky finishes and interiors that bellow nouveau riche, the Symphony looks and feels like a luxury hotel - or perhaps the kind of ship that was once built for the Transatlantic trade.
The suites and staterooms, where Egyptian cotton linen is a basic right, are roomy - no poxy, airless cabins here - as are the bathrooms.
Most cabins have outside verandas, which I feel is an essential offering on any ship. In an age where more and more cruise ships are almost completely enclosed, making their passengers little better than self-loading cargo, the Crystal Symphony has a promenade deck like the ocean liners of yesterday.
A promenade deck is the mark of civilisation. It's where you stroll around the ship, taking in the bracing air - and meeting your fellow passengers and perhaps catching up with the scuttlebutt. (For there is always gossip worth hearing on a long sea voyage.)It was a turnaround day with new passengers arriving and others departing, so only Palm Court, the main restaurant, was open (there are a couple of speciality restaurants offering sushi and Italian, as well as the wood-panelled Vintage Room, which accommodates just 12 guests around a table decked with crystal and heavyweight silver and where you get to sample the ship's vast wine list).The food is billed as modern and international, which covers vast ground. Lunch was an excellent buffet, served by smartly turned-out crew, who in this case were from the Balkans. Table seating is open, which means no reservations and you will get to eat with different people during the voyage. The new arrangement, which Crystal rolled out last year, has attracted much flak on cruise blogs from loyal guests who hate disruptions to their routine. It will be interesting to see how Crystal fixes this.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You are now in the world of boutique cruising. Ships with the amenities and guest-to-passenger ratio of the Crystal Symphony do not come cheap. Our host said guests can expect to pay around $300 (R3,500) per day. That's less than a top-end hotel room in New York and only $50 a night more than the Airbnb apartment I just stayed in in San Francisco. It is, however, significantly pricier than what you would pay for a three-day voyage in the Caribbean on one of the floating cities.

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