Crystal Symphony Panama Canal Cruise October 1997
Have you ever wished that, just for once, you could really believe all the wonderful promises the cruise lines make in their brochures? Are you weary of having to decipher the exaggerations, do you expect there will be compromises, are you always holding back your enjoyment just a little, expecting the inevitable failure of some element of the experience that will snap you back to the impossible reality from which you had been sold escape?
There is a place where all the promises are true, there are no exaggerations, no compromises, you may genuinely let yourself go, depend on being fully pampered, even lean on the boundaries of all the things that make a cruise pleasurable, and nothing about this place will let you down for one moment. This is Crystal Cruises.
Crystal has thought out every single situation where potential problems could cause something to go amiss, and they've planned for every variable. THEN they made it delightful. Imagine a "charter flight" to join the ship. Well, it took one minute to check in, and I walked away with our dining room assignment for that evening, which was also our boarding pass. On the wide-body flight, almost everyone had an aisle or a window or an empty seat alongside. Crystal had selected a lovely menu which was well prepared and presented (best food in Coach ever). There was a good movie and we enjoyed special amenities. Then, from the moment we left the plane in Acapulco there was no waiting. We processed Customs swiftly, walked straight through the airport to waiting buses, and were transported directly to the pier where we walked right on the ship to be escorted to our stateroom. Rarely can you flow through all these transitions as smoothly as this. You may leave a credit card impression for your shipboard account at your convenience.
By the way, for the U.S. tourist, though there is some minor visible damage from hurricane Pauline, Acapulco is as beautiful as ever. Mexico never ceases to charm; it is so human, so handcrafted, always warm and genuinely welcoming. Even "glamorous" Acapulco is friendly and unassuming, while still a dramatic and exciting city, and yet a completely peaceful place to begin or end a cruise.
At 50,000 tons for about 960 passengers, the Crystal Symphony is the most spacious ship in her class. Where the Crystal Harmony is quite aptly named with its overall feeling of deeper tones and warm resonance, the Crystal Symphony becomes visual from a very different sound. It is much lighter and brighter with more high notes, smashing and even brittle at times, rarely understated, always refined and certainly polished to perfection. I think the general layout is better on the newer Symphony, though I miss the distinction between the Vista Lounge and the Palm Court found on the Harmony. The grand Crystal Plaza atrium is ever a sparkling gathering place, with the soft wash of the fountain often complimented by the extravagant stylings of Jeff Walters at the piano in the Crystal Cove. The Caesar's Palace at Sea casino is spacious and civilized. All the public rooms are very comfortable and elegant, luxuriously furnished and perfectly finished. The great circular Starlite Club is a personal favorite.
These are ships for those who prefer the roaming space and additional amenities of a larger vessel. And perhaps a further clarification might be made about the style of Crystal Cruises: that where other ships in, or approaching, this class may feel kind of Old Guard, Fifth Avenue, here it's more like we're having fun on Rodeo Drive, and not pretentious at all. Yes, everyone is well turned out in the evenings -- it is part of the whole, appropriate to the occasion. Here, dressing is done, and done well, and your efforts are rewarded. Fellow passengers are mostly in their 50's and are entirely familiar with this environment.
The cabins are absolute comfort truly realized. Though on every ship I'll wish for just a few more inches here or there, a couple of decent deep drawers, a real temperature gauge on the thermostat, and so on, let's talk about: roomy (for a medium length cruise) lighted closets with shoe racks; a built in night light; dimmers on bedside lamps; a comprehensive and useful in-cabin entertainment guide created for each cruise that includes, by day, details of the extensive performers, lecturers and instructors, as well as evening shows and the great variety of listings for the 15 TV channels; divine European down pillows and comforters; a most generous (in variety of food and times available) breakfast service menu as well as an elaborate 24-hour room service menu (though you're welcome to have served anything from a posted menu at mealtimes); and, of course, exemplary hotel service. Also, there is simply nothing in the world like having your own private verandah, at any time of day or night, any port in the world, or (my ultimate favorite) at sea, at sea, at sea. It is total peace and serenity, with the gentle sound of waves crashing softly, or with a mighty roar, just like at the beach. For once here is something so priceless, so out of time, so out of mind, that money CAN buy.
Well, let's tear ourselves from the stateroom, put on some glad rags and eat. From my experience on other large 5 and 5+ star ships, this is the most creative, the freshest, the best prepared, presented and served, the most delicious food at sea. In particular, the fish is consistently excellent, salads varied and inventive, vegetables perfect (though I've still not seen or tasted a real red tomato in a long time), sauces true classic reductions, all the menus rich in variety, awake, alive, contemporary, and always with little extras here and there. In the absence of single seating dining (and there are great advantages to everyone on the ship doing everything together), this is it. The food is great. And though many people have slight reservations about "Theme" nights, it works well here because they don't do it every night. When they do, it is so innovative and refined, it's even more delightful. Arguably best of all is the Guest Chef's Dinner, sure to reveal a unique personal love of food and cookery, a special inspiration.
And then there are Prego and Jade Garden: not just a change of venue, but somehow even better on top of best. These alternate restaurants give Crystal a chance to really explore two areas of international regional cooking with superb ingredients and authoritative, sophisticated style. The fascinating combinations of elements and preparations are outstanding by any comparison you might make. Here is the benchmark for this niche in the industry. Though it can be a little unnerving to have your regular tablemates disappear (one evening we were alone at our Crystal Dining Room table for 8), Prego and Jade Garden are exceptional adventures.
Lido breakfasts and lunches are typical of what you find on today's large deluxe cruise lines, though I became very fond of the big silver bowl of cold prawns at lunchtime that you do not see everywhere. I quite enjoyed a few theme buffet luncheons they set out around the Neptune Pool, and having the Ice Cream Bar there (with wonderful cookies) open from 11am-6pm is handy and allows for flexibility. The Bistro deserves special mention: this convenient place on the ship's central plaza offers a changing variety of small things to eat all day long, just the right spot for a quick gnosh. I don't think they should charge for their non-alcoholic espresso drinks here (they don't in the dining room), but then I think it's time for all the ships (especially deluxe) to stop charging for soft drinks. It seems petty in this atmosphere.
Of course, the afternoon teas are lovely, with even a few "theme" teas sprinkled in. I was also glad they set out the late night buffet from 11:30-12:30 -- a better hour for a little bite before bed. It is of the highest quality, though they stayed with a similar menu each evening. Sometimes it's nice to know what to expect. They did the Gala Buffet at lunchtime, making it much more accessible for everyone. It is extraordinary, as the curve of tables flows all around and through the Crystal Plaza, beautifully laden with every favorite luxury food and such outrageous desserts. I also loved all the fine imported china, crystal, silver and linens throughout the ship. These things complete and confirm the luxury quality experience.
There are no public address announcements except the Captain's 9:00am update on things, and essential port arrival and departure announcements. Daily activities are extensive, well scheduled, the lecturers engaging, all the regular house musicians and performers excellent. There are the superb Steiner salon and spa treatments. Even the art auction business, which I usually detest, is done so tastefully, with interesting pieces set about sparsely and unobtrusively, that for once I was able to enjoy the dimension it added to the overall ambience.
The evening performances are professional and polished, clever and snappy, plenty of glitter and flash, hardly any gratuitous glitz. At one show, there is even an explosion of multicolored confetti and a brief pyrotechnic display. I'm sure the lasers are on order. Special entertainment was outstanding, particularly the concert pianist, Blair McMillen.
The last and perhaps greatest given reality here is that everyone is so genuinely happy, so deeply satisfied with this life at sea together. Crystal Cruises likes to refer to a "Crystal Family." You become a glad part, not just because you're "all in the same boat," but by a wonderful, tangible sense of shared contentment that leads to a kind of caring connectedness. There develops a magical atmosphere here, a rare kind of fulfillment, and an accord.
To put all of this in motion, to sea we go! The heat and humidity are quite soft and pleasant out here: hammock weather. It shuts down the rushing, urgent pace you left behind, and makes for a drowsy life -- gentle and calm. Too bad time passes so consistently and relentlessly in our universe. It seems that time itself should be affected by this relaxing realm of blue water and sky, THIS reality. Days and days at sea are without a doubt the best way to really enjoy the Crystal Symphony, but just 3 or 4 ports in an 11-night cruise is a very good balance of land and sea. Shore excursions available through the knowledgeable staff were a small variety of long and short, classic and new. The evening before a port, a reminder of your next day's tour, with specific meeting time and place, is left in your cabin -- a nice touch. And there's always at least one member of the ship's staff along to ensure quality and comfort.
Costa RicaWe took a fascinating Mercedes bus ride, climbing up into the central valley, where it was cooler and drier than the coast. Our George was a winning guide, perfect English, very well (U.S.) educated, with a vast knowledge and great pride of his country. The Britt coffee plantation tour and show was pleasant and fairly clever. We had a good buffet luncheon at Pura Vida, the name a unique Costa Rican expression which means "excellent." We returned by a different route, travelling on part of the Pan American highway. Even here, the landscape is verdant, lush and unspoiled, with world-renowned biodiversity. It was a very beautiful and informative excursion.
Panama CanalWe had a cooler day entering the Panama Canal than I've ever had before. What a relief! The transit is always exciting, with the realization of the history and meaning of the effort and achievement of the Canal coming in stages, as do the locks. Up and up we go, and warmer and warmer it gets as we move inland and into the day. You feel you could reach out and touch the hillsides during the narrow passage through the Gaillard Cut. After a languorous chase, some cooling rain caught up with us later in the day while crossing Gatun Lake. Then it was just down the Gatun Locks and into Limon Bay to complete our transit. There was an unexpected pause that evening in the waters off Cristobal to take on fuel.
San Blas IslandsThe San Blas Islands are truly an other-worldly place, like going back into the remote, primitive past. Here the Cuna Indians live as they have lived since Columbus, except for a few outboard motors and a generator here and there. I saw hundreds of molas, those unique, hand-stitched tapestry pieces, some quite beautiful. But the Indians are not bargaining as easily as they used to, if at all. Take your cabin fruit for the children, so very many.
CozumelCozumel is such a versatile port, there is something for everyone. I had the pleasure of a superb, mile long, "drift" snorkel of Palancar reef, in full sun and with great visibility. What a lovely variety of coral and fish! Do be careful shopping in Mexico, especially for jewelry and "gems." You always want to have done some shopping around back home before you buy. For example, when each stone in a case is exactly the same color, you might conclude that they came by that color in an unnaturally uniform way, and you may be right.
New OrleansAnd finally, the great Mississippi River called to the ship. It's really something to wind up her bayous and swamps, past levees and canals and small towns below sea level into New Orleans. We were blessed with a sunny, cool day, a little hazy, but just right. For me, the air of New Orleans hums with a lazy yet persistent energy, with the lush mystery of her easy ways, with her rich history. Some force lures me here as unmistakably as my next breath.
Disembarkation was as transparent as embarkation. In the post-cruise package, Crystal provided a very good overview city tour, and an overnight at the Omni Royal Orleans in the French Quarter. How we got a balcony room right on Royal Street I'll never know, but I drank in the exotic atmosphere of the Quarter like so many eager sailors before me, and was fulfilled.
Enjoy the brochure. Take a Crystal cruise. You may believe.
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