Monday, August 26, 2013

Crystal Symphony - Patricia Riley's Review: August 22-September 2, 2013 (Lisbon to Dover) - Part I

Guest blogger, and industry legend, Patricia Riley, has just embarked on a cruise on the Crystal Symphony cruising from Lisbon to Dover, which is essentially the reverse itinerary of the Goldring Travel 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride.  She is on the same ship as I was in April 2011 when I cruised the Crystal Symphony in Pacific Northwest with my family.  

Enjoy!

Goldring Travel's review of Crystal Cruises comes from a different perspective than mine as he was traveling with his family in the Pacific Northwest and has interests which are much different, so I gladly jumped to the challenge to provide a review of a Crystal Cruise from a different perspective..  

As I have "been there, done that" finding a cruise that would allow me to experience and review new ports on a Crystal Cruise ship was a bit tricky.  It all came together though with me booking the Crystal Symphony on August 22 for an 11 day cruise from Lisbon to London.  This cruise is aptly named Aquitaine Tapestry as the bulk of the ports are in France.  

It started in Lisbon, with an overnight port call.  After a day at sea on August 24 ports to be visited include Bilbao, Spain; Bordeaux, Lorient, St. Malo and Honfleur in France and Guernsey, Channel Islands in the UK.  The cruise will end in Dover, England.  A perfect itinerary for seasoned cruisers who have done the Med, the Baltic and Western Europe.  The itinerary alone would have made me jump on at the chance to cruise to these ports.  The icing on the cake was that I would get the chance to do it on the Crystal Symphony.  

This is not my first time on the Crystal Symphony though.  I was on her maiden voyage in May, 1995.  While I was only on for three nights from NYC to Bermuda the ship left an impression on me.  I'm not sure what the magic spell was but I definitely was entranced by the experience.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was the first time I had a balcony cabin.  Perhaps it was the fact that in addition to the Main Dining Room there were two alternative restaurants (obligatory now on any luxury line). It may have been the production shows that I saw or the spa experience.  I know the service was part of the attraction also.  Maybe it was all of those things combined.  Whatever it was it had left an extremely positive impression on me.  I was anxious to see if it would be as good as I remembered.  So far it is as I remembered and even better.

So it is with that background that I begin my journey and my review.

When choosing a cruise vacation many decisions have to be made.  Two factors that must be considered and are usually the two most important components of the decision are itinerary and ship.  Many place primary importance on itinerary.  Others do not care where they go as long as they are on their favorite cruise line or a cruise line that they have heard much about and want to sail on.

Both facets have their challenges, especially for the more experienced cruiser.  Having a knowledgeable travel consultant help you through the process is invaluable.  If you favor itinerary over ship are you seeking new ports to visit?  Do you want less ports but more time in those ports.  Do you want a port every day (sort of like a marathon) or do you want to break it up with days at sea?  Many cruisers who have been cruising for 10, 20 or 30 plus years have the "been there, done that syndrome" (like me) and that presents yet another challenge

For those that make their decision based on the cruise line, it's a little bit easier.  This is especially true in the luxury category.  In that category the choice is among Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal. You may notice I did not include Sea Dream Yacht Club.  As Eric has just reviewed Sea Dream I think that the product, while all inclusive and to the highest standard is in a different category based on his review.  Eric has also reviewed Silversea recently.  We all know how Eric feels about Seabourn, which is the same as I do.  I worked for Seabourn for 14 years and had the pleasure to visit most of the ports that the 6 ships of Seabourn call on.


Embarkation began at Noon.  Upon embarking the ship there is a definite WOW factor.  The lobby soars two stories and is elegantly appointed.  A spiral staircase links the two decks.  



Crystal Symphony's Lobby
This area of the ship is where you will find the concierge, the shore excursion desk and reception.  It is large and appropriately staffed so as to eliminate long lines,  A pianist plays a baby grand in the Crystal Cove which is the name of the intimate lobby bar on the upper level of the lobby area. 


Crystal Symphony's Lobby Bar
I I arrived at 1:30pm and was told my room, Category A - 9006, would not be ready until 3:00.  There were no lines at check in which was handled in the main lobby.  Guests can choose to wait for their room to be ready in The Bistro, which is basically a cafe that serves light fare through out the day, or any of the other lounges. Food was available at The Bistro and in the Lido Cafe.


I rarely use a concierge.  Unfortunately I had to put them to the test as my luggage did not arrive on the flight it was to have been on.  Patrick and Hayley who are the Crystal Symphony concierges deserve mention by name as they both went above and beyond the call of duty to reunite me with my luggage.  I did have to go 24 hours without a change of clothes.  Crystal came through with a fully stocked amenity kit and an offer of pajamas.  Though I had these in my hand carry luggage the offer was much appreciated.

What is unique about Crystal Cruises is that their concierges on  the Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony are the only cruise line members of the prestigious Les Clefs d'Or (Society of the Golden Keys).  On Crystal Symphony the concierge is not a  multi-tasker as on other cruise lines.  They are there to serve exclusively as concierges.To read more about this society you can visit www.lcdusa.org. 

In the last 9 years the largest ship I have sailed on was the Odyssey class vessels of Seabourn.  At 450 guests I thought the size was perfect.  I was a little worried as to how I would transition to a 900+ passenger ship.  The answer is:  Easily.  

The size of the Crystal Symphony allows for a winning combination of multiple dining venues, entertainment venues, bars and lounges, without any of them seeming over-sized.  The Crystal Symphony actually has some features that have to be sacrificed on smaller vessels such as an actual movie theater.  They also have a very large casino, which follows Las Vegas rules, and includes a craps table.  The library is a nice size with a good variety of books.  


Crystal Symphony's Fully Stocked Library
As there is a DVD player in every cabin a full array of DVD titles are available for checkout.  If you check out a DVD there is a 48 return policy.  While many cruise lines offer an infotainment system, with on demand viewing, there never seems to be as complete an offering as a DVD library.

The first 24 hours on a cruise usually sets the expectations for the voyage.  Dining is always a highlight of any luxury cruise and the first night should provide an accurate reading of things to come.  The Crystal Symphony has a rather unique dining scheme.  They have the traditional early (6:15pm) and late (8:30pm) dining.



Crystal Symphony's Main Dining Room
Has Plenty of Tables for 2 or 4 Guests
Crystal Cruises also offers a hybrid, which I chose, that is Dining by Reservation.  You simply decide when you want to dine and what size table and you are accommodated as close to possible based on your choice. I love the ability to choose and not having to dine on a schedule and I am not a fan of seating at the same table with the same people every night.  I think the dining by reservation is a nice compromise which would work best for singles, couples or two couples traveling together.  (There are a lot of tables for two in the dining room which is a great feature that benefits those that like to done alone or with a partner.)

Something to consider is that if you come in at 8:00 there is the advantage of a nearly empty dining room.  This is because the first seating diners are mostly finished or have finished and left the dining room.  So, until the late seating diners arrive you have a quiet dining room and almost personal service.  There is about a 10 minute time frame where this vanishes.  This is from 8:30 to about 8:40 when the second seating diners arrive at their assigned tables.  Those 10 minutes are a hustle and bustle for the staff as they great the new arrivals and help them settle in.  

The menus offer a large selection for each course as would be expected of a luxury ship.  What I really enjoy and have had the first two nights is an Entree Salad,  I have never seen this offered anywhere before and is a great alternative to a salad course and a large entree.  On the first night the offering was a grilled salmon salad and the second night a Mediterranean Steak Salad featuring filet mignon.  Crystal is noted for its Crab Meat and Brie Soup.  If you cruise on Crystal in the future, and I hope you do, it's a must have.  Desert is served with cookies and my one comment is that I would prefer chocolates to cookies! 

A nice surprise is that Ben and Jerry's ice cream is served daily at the Ice Cream Bar in The Trident Lounge.  The traditional favorites are on offer including Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia.  The Trident Lounge is an area conducive to reading, eating, drinking or just contemplating how fortunate we are to be on the Crystal Symphony.


Crystal Symphony's Trident Lounge
I'll end this first post here and in later posts will describe the cabins and hopefully set aside some misconceptions about their size. I'll also be writing about the entertainment and lectures that are offered onboard.  Again, it's an abundance of choices.  I will offer separate posts on the ports as well.

I hope you enjoy reading about my journey.  I know I enjoy writing about it.  If you have any questions on Crystal please be sure to email or call Eric at eric@goldringtravel.com or (877)2GO-LUXURY.