Crystal Cruises, a small but solid choice

Story and photos by Robert W. Bone

Crystal Harmony in Honolulu Harbor.

My special affinity for Crystal Cruises began in 1990, about four days before the first ship, the Crystal Harmony, made its maiden call in Los Angeles.

I was living in Honolulu, the Harmony’s first stop after leaving Japan where it was built. I hurried down to Pier 9 beside the Aloha Tower and talked my way on board. After scoring a nice lunch in the dining room, I managed an exclusive interview with the ship’s cruise director, who spoke enthusiastically about the modern facilities on his brand new ship.

My article based on this experience was carried a couple of days later in several newspapers, including those in San Diego and Los Angeles, scooping news of the actual arrival of the ship to its new West Coast headquarters.

Crystal Serenity off shore from Sorento, Italy.The most surprising fact about the Crystal Harmony at the time was that it was a Japanese-owned and Japanese-built ship which didn’t in the slightest seem Japanese. This vessel, and the two ships that later followed – the Crystal Symphony and the Crystal Serenity – were all designed and built in the European maritime tradition, but designed to attract the American market. The official ship’s language was English, although as on most cruise ships, the crew came from all over the world.

Crystal ships are not superliners. Generally speaking, they carry around 1,000 passengers, considerably less than today’s massive leviathans which accommodate two or three times that number. To me, these medium-sized ships mean they are sizeable enough to be luxurious; small enough to never feel crowded.

Over the past 20 years, I traveled five times on the three Crystal ships. This includes the Harmony from London to Norway and later from Honolulu to New Zealand. Then I was on the Symphony to the Baltic Sea, and the Serenity in the Mediterranean. Today there are only two ships in the fleet, the Harmony having been sent home in 2005 to be renamed and reconfigured for the Japanese market.

In the fall of 2010, my wife and I sailed on the Symphony again, this time from Dover (England), to Dublin (Ireland), Reykjavik (Iceland), Nuuk (Greenland), Halifax (Nova Scotia), and then disembarking in Brooklyn. 

Crystal Symphony docked at Nuuk, Greenland.

We were happy to see that the things we always liked about Crystal had remained in place: glamour without glitz; dignity without stuffiness; efficiency without regimentation. And, of course, really top-notch dining in three restaurants – the main dining room, plus two specialty restaurants, Prego, for Italian food, and Silk Road, specializing in Asian fare. There is also a casual Lido deck café for all three meals.

Typically, our two-week adventure in the North Atlantic included three “formal” nights, when passengers at dinner and in all public areas are expected to dress as they might for a presidential banquet or a debutante ball – tuxedos for the men and ball gowns for women. (Dark suits and cocktail dresses are also acceptable.)

This stylish tradition has been dropped in many cruise ships now in the 21st century. In the same conservative spirit, Crystal has not succumbed to the trend to install such add-ons as climbing walls, wave machines, waterslides, and other far-out diversions that have led some critics to size-up large modern cruise ships as seagoing amusement parks.

A quiet place in the lounge on theCrystal Symphony.Nevertheless, the Crystal Symphony has two pools, a spa, a fitness center, a casino, two showrooms, live entertainment, a library, and several bars and lounges. We attended enrichment lectures, language classes, computer lessons, fitness programs and well-designed shore excursions and other features – enough to satisfy almost anyone’s mental or physical sense of enrichment.

And unlike most other ships, which today rely only on stateroom TVs for movies, there is even a motion picture theater tucked away somewhere on board.

Our only criticism was one that applies to nearly all cruise ships today, the dubious tradition of the “champagne art auction.” It may be okay for some, but this is the only event which we never attend. Unlike in the casino, there are few winners at a shipboard art auction, except for the concessionaire who runs the thing.

Between our two Symphony experiences, the ship went through several upgrading procedures -- $25 million, I was told. These included improvements in both the staterooms and public areas of the ship.

I made a point of meeting and talking with both the captain and the hotel manager, the two most important officers on a cruise ship. The captain is in charge of navigation, the actual running of the ship, and the ultimate safety of the passengers. Practically his only other duty is to be a sort of father figure who hosts at least one formal reception for the passengers shortly after the beginning of a voyage.

On our recent cruise to Iceland and Greenland, the captain was Ralf Zander, who has captained cargo vessels and cruise ships. He said he vastly prefers the latter.

“You don’t get all this fancy food on a freighter!” he laughed.

Lunch on deck of the Crystal Harmony.And he also enjoys the social aspect of being a cruise ship captain. “I met my wife on board,” he said. “She was working on the ship. It was a genuine shipboard romance.”

The hotel manager is the top man responsible for everything else – staterooms, dining, and entertainment. If a passenger has a complaint, the hotel manager is the top guy to see. On the Symphony, this job is handled by Herbert Jaeger, who says he seldom has to deal with that kind of problem.

“On these ships, we have a very special clientele,” Jaeger told me. “They come to us for enrichment,” he said. “And we always have the best lecturers and teachers, too.”

I like most cruise ships, but there’s a special sparkle on Crystal almost making it seem like a multifaceted jewel sailing the high seas.

Travel writer Robert W. Bone, the author of several guidebooks, now lives near San Francisco after 38 years in Hawaii. More Crystal Cruises photos can be seen at http://robertbone.com/crystal. Bone also maintains websites at http://travelpieces.comand http://robertbone.com.

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