Gary Walther, Contributor – Forbes
As the Crystal Symphony bore down on Hong Kong, the conclusion of its 16-day “Treasures of Southeast Asia” cruise from Singapore, The Hotel Detective made a list of the things that distinguished the ship and the brand. (See my previous posts, listed in the box at the bottom of the story, for my first two reports.)
The Crystal Symphony, shown here in Cape Town.
Crystal isn’t cheap—in 2014, the full cruise-only fare for this voyage will be $24,270 for two in the lowest level cabin. (Penthouse Deck cabins like the one I had are $59,280 for two.) However, the line offers “Book Now” discounts that change every two months and usually decline as embarkation approaches. If you book the 2014 version of this cruise (departs Bangkok Dec. 21) by June 28, the fare is $22,470 for two in the lowest level cabin, plus a $900 per person discount, bringing the tab to $20,670, and to $57,410 on the Penthouse Deck. (The lowest level cabins are far from steerage; see my next post, coming soon.)
Bottom line: The Hotel Detective thinks Crystal is worth the money. Here are his 15 reasons why.
1. Unique Niche: In a world of big ships (1,500-plus passengers) and boutique (fewer than 400), Crystal has carved out the Goldilocks Niche, not-too-big and not-too-small. At 940 passengers, the 882-foot-long Symphony is small enough to offer boutique luxury and big enough to offer a full slate of onboard activities, among them a nightclub, enrichment courses and lectures, golf (teaching pro Roberto Borgatti, driving nets, and a putting green), and a paddle-tennis court. On my cruise, the standout lecturer was Jim Jimmiro, the former head of the Disney Channel whose specialty now is parsing the lyrics of the Great American Songbook.
2. Newly Refurbished:The ship has just undergone a $15 million redo. That included the creation of the Avenue Saloon, a piano bar with the feel of a gentlemen’s club, the Palm Court (see next entry), and a bridge lounge (that’s cards, not looking over the captain’s shoulder, and heavily patronized on my cruise). The 535 staterooms received a face-lift.
A Penthouse Deck cabin
3. Where is Everyone? The Symphony offers generous public spaces. I never saw a crush for loungers around the pool, there were always tables open at the Trident Bar & Grill, which has a cool, retractable roof, and The Palm Court, high up on the bow of the ship, was as quiet as a library in the afternoon, which is how many guests used it. But let’s take one tiny example that is more representative, the secluded lounging terraces at the stern of decks 10, 9, and 8. You could have had them to yourself for most of this cruise.
4. Guest-Crew Ratio: There are 570 crewmembers for 940 guests (when the ship is fully booked). That comes out to a 1.6/1 ratio. Bottom line: Someone is always there to say, “Can I help you?”
5. A Staff Trained In Yes: Here’s a small example. One day at lunch, the writer from the Guardian in Britain ordered an entrée that came with creamed spinach. The waiter sensed—and it was his call on this—that she didn’t want creamed spinach, and he started a conversation that lasted two minutes and finally elicited (she’s British, after all) the fact that she wanted steamed spinach. Which is what she got. (Read about my great butler in a previous post.)
6. Traditional Ship Architecture:Most cruise ships today are completely enclosed, but the Symphony, like all Crystal ships, is traditional, with plenty of places to catch the sea air. The broad Promenade Deck exemplifies the approach. It has shuffleboard courts, but guests mostly use it as a walking and jogging track. As Mimi Wise, Crystal’s vice-president of public relations, said, “This is really expensive real estate.” Meaning that this deck space could have been devoted to creating larger cabins (and more revenue).
The Promenade Deck
7. The Sushi Bar at Nobu: One of the ship’s specialty restaurants and worth the price of admission. I assumed it would be jammed, but I found a free seat at 7:00 on several nights. Try doing that at Nobu in Manhattan.
8. The Spa: I’ve seen scores of them (I’m the ex-editor of a spa magazine), and I was astonished at the amount of space Crystal devoted to the one on the Symphony (6,000 sq. ft.,10 treatment rooms), and the quality of the real estate—on the top deck at the stern. Imagine the revenue from a penthouse suite here. Figuring that the spa would be empty the morning we docked in Hong Kong, I booked in and had an excellent massage from a lithe, bantamweight, but very strong therapist.
9. Drinks Are On The House: Spirits, cocktails, and house wines are included in the fare, which eliminates anxieties about the bill on disembarkation day.
10. The Wine List: It says that “We’re not out to gouge you.” Yes, there are the high-roller bottles (Pingus 2003 for $1,300 and three vintages of Penfold’s Grange at $465). But the Symphony also offers many connoisseur’s choices at a great price. My picks: Billecart-Salmon Brut Crystal Cuvee Champagne ($55), 2008 Guigal Condrieu ($50, and great with the papaya and seafood salads), 2009 Vieille Vigne Chateau de Fuisse Pouilly Fuisse ($56, and perfect for fish), and 2007 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($65, and your go-to wine for rack of lamb). Oh yes, and try finding that Dom Perignon 2003 for $155 on land.
11. Cabin Verandahs: Most cabins have them, and it’s amazing how 269 square feet (about the size of an average five-star hotel terrace) expands your sense of living space. The verandah is a party perch when the ship sails, a contemplative realm during nights at sea, an observation tower for cruise segments like the majestic procession down the Mekong Delta, when you’re actually above the tree line and can marvel at this expanse of mud and palm, and a box seat for the early-morning trip up the Pearl River Delta to Hong Kong.
12. Crystal Is Eco-Conscious: It uses cloth, not plastic, laundry bags. It crushes glass for recycling. Bins in the restaurants invite you to recycle, with openings for “burnable” and “paper.” Garbage is burned three miles out (the heat supplies the hot water) and grey water 12 miles out. The line recycles unused cabin soaps and lotions through Clean the World. We were told that throwing a cigarette butt into the ocean by a crewmember is grounds for immediate dismissal. Even the paint on the hull was chosen because it reduces energy consumption at sea.
13. Free Laundry Rooms:Another sign that Crystal doesn’t nickel-and-dime. Having them also saves on packing, especially on a tropical cruise where you go through lots of T-shirts and shorts.
One of the stern lounging terraces.
14. Toe-In-The-Water:Never been to Southeast Asia? This is a great way to experience six ports with your hotel already booked. An experienced Asia hand? You get to zero in on cities you already know without the effort of getting there.
15. Feeling Free: We all carry around yesterday’s regrets and tomorrow’s anxieties. I’m not exactly sure why, but a cruise itinerary like this erases them: You wake up to today’s possibilities and live them.
FESSING UP: I was a guest of Crystal Cruises on this trip.