Friday, May 6, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - "Reflections"

Having taken some time to digest my luxury cruise experience on the Crystal Symphony I have come to some, I hope, interesting conclusions that may assist you in deciding if Crystal Cruises is right for your cruise vacation.

Crystal Cruises provides a luxury experience in many ways. 

- Regardless of the style of service, the service is excellent and over my cruise I found very few service flaws and none that were worth noting.  I initially found the, "Hello!  My name is John.  And what is your name?" disconcerting, but once I got it was part of the experience I was fine with it.  By Day 2 it was finished and I must have been greeted by name about 90% of the time.  Nothing was ever an issue or a problem.  I never did have much of a connection with my stewardess, but she was very efficient.

- The cuisine, other than the Lido, is excellent in quality, diversity and presentation.  I found the main restaurant to be excellent in ambiance, service and cuisine.  Silk Road was the highest quality cuisine experience I have had in a cruise ship's restaurant, thought it cannot for ambiance or style be considered an extraordinary dining experience.  (I did rate the food a 12 on a 10 point scale!).  Prego is an excellent Italian restaurant and very comfortable with fine cuisine.  And, of course, one cannot leave out the Vintage Dinner which was simply phenomenal.  It may be why I found the Lido to be such a let down, as a "standard" buffet just seems so out of place with so many other superlative venues.

 - Enrichment is the best I have encountered.  I know there are those that truly enjoy the Terry Breen type of enrichment and, to be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed her on my Regent Seven Seas cruise in Alaska, but...and it is a big "but"...the sophistication of Crystal Cruise's enrichment lecturers and the provocative discussions they had were exceptional.  Add to that courses for Photoshop, piano, Rosetta Stone for languages, bridge (serious bridge), etc., there is just not a cruise line that can compare.

 - As for the ship itself, its maintenance was superlative.  Everywhere I looked things were clean and well maintained; I mean everywhere.  And, to me, it does not feel like a large ship.  In fact, I was shocked at how comfortable the ship is.  I might feel different if I had a cabin that was far forward, as the stateroom hallways are long and very straight giving a real felling of distance, but otherwise it is very manageable.

So, what's not to love?  The standard staterooms at 202 square feet.  They are undeniably small for a luxury cruise and their layout has some shortcomings.  But, in their defense, they have most everything you would want from refrigerators that hold full bottles of wine to two hairdryers (bathroom mounted and at the vanity desk) to a proper sized table that raises and lowers.  A couple of quirks:  The reading lights are strange and get in your way if you want to sit up in bed; and, the entertainment system needs updating so that you can see the day's menus, check your account and have more robust movie choices.  The bathrooms are excellently designed and function well, but are small.

One thing that this cruise got me thinking about more than I normally do is:  How important is the size of the cabin if everything else is so good?  That is simply a personal question, but I would suggest you really think about what is important to you rather than simply concluding the space is the thing that matters most without going through the exercise.  This particular cruise was perfect for me and my family.  It gave us a really unique and interesting itinerary of the Pacific Coast (encompassing old and new) with a perfect schedule as far as the children's school vacation went, with easy and affordable flights.  And, to be sure, while the cabins were a bit small, it was not like we suffered.  Seriously, the beds were comfortable and other than when getting ready for dinner we had no real issues.

You may recall I recently wrote an article:  Budget Cruise Pitching Luxury discussing the concept of the "ship within a ship", where you get fairly nice to luxurious accommodations...but, alas, are stuck suffering with the crowds and the ordeals and lesser qualities found on mass market cruise ships.  Crystal Cruises, in their non-suite staterooms, is in a away the opposite.  It is a bit of an overstatement as its standard staterooms are superior to the standard staterooms on most cruise ships.  In essence the question is not "Am I willing to compromise most everything about my cruise so that I have nicer accommodations", but "Am I willing to compromise my accommodations as to size only, so that I have a nicer cruise experience regarding everything else?".

This leads me to the next question I discussed with myself (and, yes, I did answer myself back!):  Who does Crystal Cruises best compete with?  While it may seem obvious that it would be a Crystal Cruises vs. Seabourn vs. Silversea vs. Regent Seven Seas, I believe it is Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Azamara Club cruise lines that Crystal Cruises more properly competes with.

Why?  Because regardless of how good the cruise product is, when you start talking to luxury cruisers about compromises, the discussion pretty much will shut down.  So the fact that Crystal Cruises provides a superior cruise experience as compared to Regent Seven Seas or even possibly Silversea, it may well be pretty irrelevant.  One must also consider that those folks most likely would look to book a Penthouse or better, so the entire exercise is somewhat irrelevant.  (Of course the issue of ship size would need to be addressed.)

With Crystal Cruises staterooms being larger than Oceania's and Azamara Club's standard stateroom and being as plush (if slightly smaller) than it Penthouse suites...or even most of Celebrity and Holland America's suites...I think the overall cruise experience needs to be considered.  To be sure, this is not to say that the Crystal Cruise experience is necessarily superior as it depends on what it is you are looking for (i.e. enrichment, bridge, non-Italian or Steakhouse alternative dining, etc....or that consistent higher level of service), but I believe Crystal Cruises has been overlooked as a good option.

One thing that makes Crystal Cruises a bit easier to consider and price is its new all-inclusive pricing commencing in March 2012.  The effect of this change I am excited to see, but as I wrote, the fact that I was "forced" to choose my wines at dinner actually made my pairings better so paying ala carte is not necessarily a bad thing.

Upon "reflection" I believe Crystal Cruises is a fine luxury cruise experience where the emphasis is placed a little differently than on the other luxury cruise lines.  Knowing and understanding this should, hopefully, make Crystal an option you look forward to considering.