Thursday, April 21, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part VI

We arrived back in Seattle and were forced to engage in a rather curious Immigration experience: The entire ship had to offload and remain off the ship until every passenger had cleared Immigration…and there were no Customs formalities, leaving me to wonder what will great us in Los Angeles when we disembark. I have never experienced this procedure and it baffles me, but…

Since we were off the ship early, we took a walk back to Pike Place Market before the crowds descended and it was, as always, enjoyable. The family enjoyed the fish flying and my daughter later reflected that the Pike Place Chinese Restaurant is her favorite Chinese Restaurant ever. We were back to the terminal by 10:00 a.m. for our tour of the Boeing Factory and immediately boarded the bus. I won’t bore you with the tour, which I had taken on a VIP basis previously, but I do highly recommend it. I think it is great to better understand what it is you are flying in…just like I think it is better you know more about what you are cruising on!

Back on board the Crystal Symphony my daughter and I hit the hot tub, kept at a perfect 104 degrees, and she wandered off to the pool, kept at a perfect 85 degrees. No drinks are allowed in the hot tub and, as such, I miss my champagne. It is not, however, a big issue; just a comment that some may be interested in. There are very few people that are using the hot tub and less using the pool. In fact, the pool deck is pretty much all but abandoned except for a few lounges or sofas and two walkers; exercisers; not elderly…and I do feel a need to clarify this point as the demographic truly is elderly. In fact, if you were to eliminate the people that took this cruise because it was highly discounted I am confident the demographic would push even higher. And on this point, I find it surprising. Crystal Cruises tries very hard to provide an excellent, and luxury, experience to all age groups, and I am a bit baffled why it doesn’t have more success.

Jumping a bit out of chronological order, my children are – when onboard – frustrated and disappointed. There are very nice, friendly and engaging, counselors (some of the nicest I have ever met), the room service is wonderful, the video library diverse and robust, Xbox and Playstation available, a heated pool, dedicated children and teen spaces. Seriously, what more could you ask for? How about “children”! There are supposedly 30 children on board, but I haven’t counted more than eight…and they are of diverse ages. Even if there are 30 children, this week is Spring Break for many, Holy Week for others and, to be sure, an easy week for children to be pulled out of school for a few days so there should be far more.

This, of course, puts me – as a travel agent – in a really difficult position. I know Crystal Cruises provides everything that children would want and need…things that, for example, Seabourn and Silversea probably never will…so on paper Crystal is a great luxury option for families. Heck, Crystal Cruises even has promotions for one child free in each cabin (not that I can imagine three people functioning in the standard cabins), multi-generational promotions, etc. I am told that during the summer there can be 60 to 200 children onboard, but cruises lines cannot live by 6-8 week booking periods…and that cannot be Crystal’s intention. I am going to work on this…because Crystal Cruises should be an excellent family option for more than a few weeks a year.

Even for the middle-aged cruiser (at 53 I am hoping, despite my children demanding that I am “old”, that I middle-aged) I am finding a few, but limited, numbers of people my age. To be sure I have met and enjoyed chatting with some extremely nice people, including an extended family from the Dominican Republic, and a South African family, but the vast majority of the guests are from North America and are older. Again, I need to figure out why people are paying for suites on Celebrity or Princess when they could/should be cruising on Crystal Cruises. OK, back to the ship.

Because of the timing of the Immigration inspection and the Boeing tour, we only had a light breakfast and it was after 2:00 p.m. when my family returned to the ship. (I had business in Seattle, so I did not get back until about 4:00 p.m.) The Trident Grill fills our need with nicely prepared burgers, steak sandwiches, soup of the day, chili, excellent sweet potato or regular fries (nicely presented in miniature fry baskets) and such. I do really like this mid-ship space and only wish the weather was warmer so that the magradome could open and the fresh air make this space even better.

After my “scheduled” hot tub soaking and a bit of writing/emails, it is time for another fantastic dinner. I start with six large, plump, and definitely fresh oysters, followed by a huge portion of domestic (responsible!), but still quite good, caviar with the trimmings and, appropriately, a mother of pearl spoon – so the metal of normal silverware doesn’t off the taste of the fish eggs, and then an excellent marinated quail. (I did try a small, and excellent, slice of the Chateaubriand…but purely for research purposes.) My wife ordered the Butter Poached Lobster with a citron sauce and it was excellent.

I do have a criticism however. I wanted to have a Riesling with my dinner as a nice, dry, one can really accentuate the flavors of seafood…and I will be hosting a river cruise through the Rhine and Mosel in April and need to learn a bit more, so cruises are a great opportunity to do so. Not only was the wine far higher on the sugary sweet scale than could even marginally be appropriate, it was the most expensive Riesling offered by Crystal. Life is not perfect…and this should be my biggest complaint…but it was a bit miss by the sommelier!

The next morning we arrive in Astoria, Oregon. After our breakfast in the Trident Grill we head out to wonder the town before our Voluntourism tour in the afternoon. We are met by some of the friendliest people working so incredibly hard to make sure our time in Astoria is the best possible. And those folks were not only present at the ship, but throughout the town. I mean I am talking about the nicest, friendliest, people I think I have ever met in a cruise port…ever.

But then there is the town. The economy has obviously hit this town hard with vacant shops, for sale or lease signs everywhere and, unfortunately, not much to offer. I am confident that if I spend the day in town I would have found a hidden gem. I did see a small restaurant offering razor clams (a favorite of mine), but we just didn’t have the time. There is a Maritime Museum that I did want to visit, but was outvoted. I did hear excellent reviews of it, so if Astoria is in your places you should visit this museum.

In the afternoon our family of four headed off in a school bus to Fort Stephens State Park along with 15 other guests to clean the beach. It was a brisk 38 degrees and the winds seemed like they were blowing at a constant 30 miles per hour, but the sun was shining and doing something good for a community in definite need of assistance made it quite enjoyable. The ironic thing is that the beach – to our New Jersey family – seemed incredibly clean. But after walking a mile or so into the wind we collected probably 25 pounds of garbage and the entire group probably collected about 75 pounds in total. We did take time to photograph the Graveyard of the Pacific’s bounty of driftwood on a blackish sand beach before heading back to the school bus and then our ship. After that I made some small purchases – more as a show of our appreciation of the town’s efforts than a real desire to purchase anything – and it was back onboard for the sailaway in the hot tub.

Dinner will be a separate article…because it was that good!