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Crystal Harmony
By
Richard B. Griffiths

Crystal Harmony Scandinavian/Baltic Cruise July 1997

Crystal Harmony

We had the pleasure of taking the Crystal Harmony on a cruise of the Baltic Sea and Scandinavian countries in July 1997.

This was our fifth cruise with Crystal (having deserted HAL in 1991). We have been on the Crystal Harmony through the Panama Canal, from Venice-Istanbul-Rome, and this cruise of the Baltic. We have been on the sister ship the Crystal Symphony from Hong Kong to Singapore and from Singapore to Sidney.

First a comment as to the subtle differences between these two ships:

The Crystal Harmony was first and they did make a few improvements when they undertook the Symphony. But . . . they are really very minor. The stateroom baths are adequate on the Harmony but are enlarged on the Symphony to accommodate a double sink. The closet is large (7' long) on the Harmony but is relocated and enlarged by a foot on the Symphony. The Symphony has an enlarged Lido cafe to accommodate more guests at the breakfast and lunch buffet. Other than that, the changes are relocations of the theater, the cabaret, and the bistro to make more efficient use of the space. Also the Symphony does not have an open deck forward of the forward lounge ("Palm Court"). Both ships accommodate 950 passengers and 550 crew and have a "per guest space ratio of more than 50." From my perspective, the two ships are so close to identical that I would not use that as a criteria in selecting which Crystal Cruise to take.

The Crystal Harmony is now about seven years old and is just beginning to look a wee bit frayed around the edges (including the pot of coffee that I spilled on our stateroom floor one morning at breakfast). She is going into dry dock this winter for the usual ship mechanical things, and I understand she will also get all-new carpeting (including the stateroom we besoiled) and new furniture in the public areas and the staterooms.

These two ships are truly in the luxury cruise line class but lack the pretensions of some of their competitors. The ships are owned by the Japanese NKD shipping line and operated by Crystal Cruises out of Los Angeles. It is scaled towards the middle to upper income passenger in their 50s +. We have found that most passengers (80%) are Americans with representation from all states, but a bias towards California, Texas, New York and Florida. On our cruise, there were people from Japan, Europe, and a delightful couple from New Zealand.

Crystal makes a big thing of the "Crystal Spirit," and its staff and crew exhibited it from our first cruise and still did on our latest. It is a friendly atmosphere that is sensitive to the passenger's wishes - if you want to be alone and aloof, that's ok. If you want to be pampered - that's ok, too. Most guests enjoy the friendliness of the staff. The cabin stewardesses are all Norwegian, the dining room staff is English/french/Portuguese, and the other passenger-directed staff is Filipino. The Master, Officers and deck crew are all Norwegian or Swedish.

To our way of thinking, Crystal has done a good job of putting their sea/land package together and it is a good value for the cost. (They have all kinds of deals and "offers," so don't be put off by the brochure prices until you talk with your friendly, helpful travel agent!) The hotels they use pre- and post- cruise are the best they can find in the location. The shore excursions are well-run, reasonably-priced, and timed to not leave you exhausted from seeing too much in too short a time. The food is very good to excellent -- the servings are more than ample, and if you don't like what you see on the menu, you can always order a filet steak or fresh fish. The alternative restaurants, Italian and Asian, are very good, and the only additional cost is the separate tip you leave for the waiter. You can order off the menu for stateroom service, and it arrives in courses and piping hot -- no extra charge! We usually had breakfast in our stateroom -- on the veranda if the weather was good -- on those mornings where we were in port and had a morning shore excursion.

Palm Court
The Palm Court

Our Baltic cruise was from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Dover, England with ports of call at Helsinki, Finland, St. Petersburg, Russia, Stockholm, Sweden, Warnemunde, Germany, and Oslo, Norway. Following are some "thumbnail" observations on these ports.

Copenhagen

"Nyhaven" (the old port) is quaint and interesting. Lots of restaurants to serve you dinner at canal side. Tivoli is a lot smaller than I had imagined it, but still interesting. Look out for the bicycles: they have the right of way (and take it) over cars and pedestrians(!). There are really only two good hotels in town: The Grand (old and grand), and the Radisson SAS (new and modern). We stayed (our bad choice) at the Scandic Copenhagen (which was the Sheraton until March 1997), and we were using Frequent Flyer Miles. We can see why the Sheraton sold it: worn out rooms and smelly bathrooms! We were distressed to see a decidedly "Berkeley" influence in Copenhagen: lots of graffiti, pot and "stuff" around. Too bad this is what we export!

We did get out in the countryside. We went up to Elsinore Castle of Hamlet fame. It's a desolate place, even in the sunshine: we could see why he ended up holding a conversation with a skull!

The Copenhagen best buy was the china at the Royal Copenhagen "seconds" store - but don't expect them to give it away. Any cab driver can tell you where it is. Do take a cab - they are all new Mercedes diesels (we found the same everywhere in Scandinavia, other than Russia)

Helsinki

Finland is so clean and well-ordered that it is almost frightening. The harbor entrance is worth getting up early to see. Nothing like threading the needle between two rocky islands at 5 knots with a 55,000 ton ship. The city is so compact that you really could walk from the ship to the downtown area. Among the highlights were the underground stone church (carved out of your typical city block-sized boulder) with great acoustics; the Sibelius monument in the park; the toonerville trolleys; and the open air market (near the pier where the cruise ships dock). In that market, they have everything for sale, including lots of handicrafts. Interestingly, they are open from 8A until 3P. Then they close up and disappear for a half-hour while the city hoses the whole area down and picks up all the trash (with skip loaders). And then they all come back and are in business by 3:30 until around 8PM. I was told this is so that the vendors are not considered "permanent" establishments.

St. Petersburg

We really didn't know what to expect of St. Petersburg, and that is just as well, because it turned out to be not at all what we could have expected!

We woke up early enough (5:30AM) to observe our passage through what once was the Russian secret Baltic Sea naval base located on an island at the beginning of the channel into St. Petersburg Harbor, about 15 miles from the harbor proper. We were struck by the complete absence of any people, and by the fact that the ships seemed all but abandoned: doors and portholes open, several of the smaller ships listing or down at the bow, obviously in need of pumping out. It was all too obvious who had won the Cold War.

The port of St. Petersburg is marked by a big sign spelling out Leningrad . . . only the sign is buried in tall weeds and the "L" is hanging on a bias. The rest of the port is a maze of tall cranes and ships, but with very little sign of activity. We docked at Pier #1 and were greeted by a private entrepreneurial brass band playing martial music and American pops, and they were good! They were "free-lancing" to earn American dollars and they did manage to earn a few, and they expressed considerable gratitude.

Going through immigration was bureaucratic but not difficult! If you stay with the cruise-arranged shore excursions, you don't need a visa ($50 each and a three page application). We chose to have the freedom of choice, so we got visas.

We took three tours of the St. Petersburg area: an overview of St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, and on the following day, a trip into the country out to Pushkin to see Catherine the Great's Summer Palace. I will comment on each:

 

Our overview of St. Petersburg took in all of the normal tourist sites: St. Isaacs Cathedral, the Battleship Aurora (where the revolution started), Peters & Paul church, a host of Winter Palaces and generally a drive through the city. We were struck first off by the relative absence of people. There were lots of seemingly-abandoned apartments and factories, and the general disrepair of the infrastructure was obvious. It was explained to us that it was summertime, and all of the people were vacationing at their "dachas" in the country (right!). Also, we were stuck by the absolute absence of graffiti: it is illegal and the fines are severe -- like severing the hand that holds the spray can (not a bad ideal!). The tourist attractions were spiffed up and generally well-attended by guides, attendants and gypsy beggars -- watch your wallet, watch, and etc. The city was immaculate: no trash or butts to be seen. One wonders if it takes a totalitarian society to teach respect for anti-littering.

At every stop there were "private entrepreneurs" selling lacquer boxes, nested dolls and postcards. The official currency is the US$; if you attempt to pay in Russian rubles you pay top dollar, but can get up to a 40% discount off asking price if you offer to pay in US$. Quality is an iffy thing -- many of the "lacquer" boxes are nothing but photos or prints pasted on a cheap box and sprayed with multiple coats of plastic (these can go for up to US$30 and are worth, at the outside, US$5.) You quickly learn to tell the cheap from the valuable. If you find the good stuff, be prepared to dicker it down (with US$) to between $35-$50. As for the nesting dolls, you're on your own . . . if you really want a nested doll of Bill Clinton with 12 little Hillarys inside, be my guest.

The Hermitage is almost too much to comprehend. It is a place you must do on a tour if you want to see anything. We were told that if you only spent one minute in front of every object of art they have on display, you would finally emerge from the Hermitage seven years later. I can easily believe it! It is almost mind boggling! There is nothing in the world like it. On a half-day tour, be prepared to be overloaded and escape with only an impression of the finest of European art, sculpture, vases, armor, etc.: a gluttony of visual impressionism. Be sure to see the large exhibit of French Impressionism that has recently been "re-discovered." This is the stuff that Hitler "liberated" from all over Europe in the 40s; the Russians seized it after their capture of Berlin and then denied any knowledge of it for the next fifty years. Now it has emerged as the Russian collection of the "Lost Paintings of WWII."

Catherine's Summer Palace in Pushkin is almost too lavish to describe! The drive fifteen miles into the country is interesting. Rural St. Petersburg has become a place of "subsistence economy." The palace is excess almost beyond belief. Built over three generations it just goes on and on. Gold gilt is the basic architectural direction. The rooms are breathtaking -- the main ballroom is huge, and all gold gilt and white draperies. The rooms which seem to go on for miles are beautifully decorated. The Amber Room is being rebuilt with native amber -- no one knows what the German Army did with the original panels.

The gardens, reflection pools and bath houses match the "understated" quality of the main palace. One can easily grasp why the peasants got a little bent out of shape over the years with the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots."

St. Petersburg was extremely interesting, but rather depressing in many ways. They need more than tourist attractions to put their economy back together and get people back on the payroll. This will take massive infusions of capital, and so far the world has been reluctant (other than Coca Cola) to invest in Russia. What is the ultimate cost if the Free World doesn't?

The Baltic Sea

The Baltic is an almost landlocked ocean. It is brackish, with less salt content than the open oceans due to the large flow of fresh water from all of the surrounding countries. Unfortunately, it is also getting massive doses of raw sewage and agricultural fertilizer phosphates from Russia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The Finns, Swedes and Danes are upset about it, but powerless to stop it. The result is an increasing problem with algae "bloom" each summer. We saw miles and miles of this pollution result day after day. The Baltic can be a rough sea at times -- witness the sinking of the Latvia-Stockholm ferry several years ago. When we were there it was a mill pond.

Stockholm

The approach to Stockholm starts some ten hours before reaching Stockholm proper with the entrance to the Swedish Archipelago. This is a labyrinth of islands, some with summer homes on them, others with just pine trees. It is the most beautiful sailing country in the world (I am a sailor), and there are hundreds of boats to prove it. The Swedish summer is short (late May to early September); then the weather is ideal for outdoor living. The rest of the year it is the pits unless you really, really love ice skating, putting on tire chains, frostbite and scraping snow off the roof!

Stockholm is a beautiful city, where old and new are intermixed. It is sparkling clean and expensive (unless you are living on your cruise ship). I would suggest taking a half-day overview tour and a two hour water tour, then take off and walk the rest. The people all speak better English than you do and are quite outgoing.

Be sure to see the view from the top of the Stockholm City Hall, visit "Old Town," and go see the Vasa Museum (the ship that was so top heavy as it was designed by the king -- whom no one would tell -- that it rolled over and sank in the harbor half a mile from the dock).

The best buys here were . . . crystal, crystal, crystal! Prices are about half of what you would pay in the States. Be sure and get your VAT-free voucher to get the heavy 20% Value Added Tax back. The best crystal shops are in the Sheraton Hotel and in Ahler's Department store.

Warnemunde/Rostock

The ship docked at Warnemunde, the seaport on the Baltic nearest Berlin. We were greeted with the best German brass "Oompah" band you could imagine. They played everything: marches, waltzes, American jazz, football fight songs . . .

Warnemunde is a tourist town and literally everyone, tourists and locals, turned out to greet us, stare at the ship all day and stay until 9:30PM when we departed, again with the band serenading us. The town is "quaint" and touristy. Everything is walkable or you can ride one of two motorized miniature "steam engines" that pull a string of cars around town. We loved a fire plug that was arranged so that when a dog put his paw on a pedal it delivered water into a bowl so they could drink. The dogs were standing in queue for their turn.

Rostock, about 20 minutes away by train or bus, was the capital of the old Hanseatic League in the days when that meant something. Later it was the home of the Heinkel bomber plant and the staging area for the work being done at Peenemunde on the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Because of that, the Brits and the Yanks did their best to level it to the ground -- and almost succeeded! The huge Cathedral of Rostock remained standing and suffered only minor damage (one does wonder how so many of the English and European churches managed to survive the war).

However, the Germans were (are) a hardy lot, and set about rebuilding the city's town hall, and much of the central part of town using the original plans and drawings! (Do we have the original plans for colonial Philly somewhere on file, I wonder?) The net result is it looks very much like it once did if you can look above the cars, and the central area is verboten to cars. Major sights: the town hall, the walls, the 12th Century university, the 13th Century convent (with 1" iron bars on the ground and first floor windows -- to keep the girls in, or the boys out?), and the Cathedral with its huge wooden pipe organ and massive astronomical clock. The East Germans wanted to tear the church down (the no religion thing), but the church elders convinced them it was too unstable after the bombings and might fall over if touched and wipe out whatever of the downtown was still standing. They settled for concrete blocks closing all of the windows, belfry, doors, etc.. The net result was its almost perfect preservation "as is" for fifty years.

But what about the East Germans? These are referred to as the "dark Socialist years." All but the most diehard local seems delighted that reunification has taken place. Everything has been painted in bright colors over the concrete gray of the Communists. They did make the avenues wider for parades and built a super trolly and railroad system, which is good because the cars they made, the Triblaunt (Tribby for short, which looked like a cheapened version of a 1949 Fiat 500 Sedan) were 2-cylinder, 2-cycle, oil-and-gas-mixed rolling disasters. The brakes were mechanical and the bodies were made out of plastic and pressed wood fiber. The seats were canvas slings. If you dinged one, you had to wait a year and take whatever body part you needed in whatever color they were making at the time. You had to wait 15 years for a new one, so there was a brisk market in used "little old lady cars." But, no one wanted a pristine example all the same color: that meant the engine was no good and it hadn't been driven enough to get banged up.

The former East German economy is booming - thanks to massive infusions of capital from West Germany, the rest of the Free World and Coca-Cola (they are everywhere!). Fortunately, the former East Germans I talked to realize this and are very grateful to have gotten their belated freedom.

But what about Berlin? We did not take the day excursion (8AM to 8PM), and that was fortunate, as it turned out from what we heard from those who did! The private train from Warnemunde dockside to Berlin ran two hours late on a scheduled two hour trip due to "track construction," the traffic in Berlin was terrible and slowed everything down again, and many of the major sights were closed for renovation in anticipation of Berlin once again becoming the capital of Germany in two years. After taking an hour and a half out for the obligatory "fine German lunch with beer or wine," that left four and a half hours for sightseeing: taking time out for three 30-minute potty breaks (all that German beer in all those old bladders) resulted in a much-abbreviated high speed tour of greater downtown Berlin. I understand those tour buses were really smokin' around town. Recommendation: if you are going to see Berlin, go there specifically to see it!

Oslo

Oslo is like Stockholm (Norway was once part of Sweden -- before Sweden decided it was nicer to be neutral), except with less smiles and less color - they seem to tend to the dark brick and gray tones. Again it is a small city and easily walked with the aid of a cab or two.

Things to see:

  • Town Hall (every town has one - but they outdid themselves on this one)
  • The Viking museum (there's no way I'm going to sail across the ocean in one of those things!)
  • The Resistance Museum honoring those who fought the Nazis every inch of the way for all of the years of the occupation
  • Fogner park, which contains about 150 works of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland -- he tended to healthy athletic women
  • The Munch museum -- the "Scream"
  • Also a trip up to the 1952 Olympic's Ski Jump with a great view of Oslo and the surrounding fiords
Things to buy: almost anything Scandinavian. That means Swedish glass, Danish pottery, Finnish sweaters, and of course, anything made in Norway. Norway has a 20% VAT, so it has to lower its prices to be competitive with its neighbors. Tourists get the 20% back (if you buy over US$50, which isn't hard to do, with my wife), so you get the double advantage of competitive prices and the highest percent VAT refund in the Baltic.

North Sea

True to tradition, we had lousy weather in the North Sea crossing to England from Norway. Ship stabilizers do work: we weren't aware of anyone getting seasick! There are lots of offshore oil drilling rigs everywhere, and the ship channels go right near them. Fortunately, they present perfect radar targets, and there is no record of a cruise ship plowing into one.

Dover

We docked at Dover. Since the opening of the "Chunnel," the ferry business out of Dover has dropped way off. As a result, they are offering the cruise lines good deals to dock there. The port facilities and the cruise ship terminals are first-rate and we were through English customs in a flash -- makes the serpentine lines at Heathrow look stupid by comparison. The M20 four-lane highway goes right from Dover around London and passes by Heathrow, so it is a quick trip to your plane connection. One word of caution about Dover: if your ship eases in at night and you don't awaken, be prepared to wake with a jolt at 5:30AM when the first of the jet-powered hydrofoils fires up and roars off to France. This took place only two hundred feet from our veranda, and I'll testify the noise is awe-inspiring!

Conclusion

This Baltic cruise was probably the best cruise we have taken with Crystal (the others were the Panama Canal; Venice to Rome via Istanbul;- and Hong Kong-Singapore-Sidney.) We saw more -- and unfortunately, however (for me), spent less time at sea. It was very well organized from the perspective of the shore excursions: they were all interesting, informative and scenic. I would recommend it, but don't do Berlin from Warnemunde in one day!

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As you can tell, Richard (Dick) Griffiths is a very experienced cruiser. He can be reached for questions or comment at: 74640.323@compuserve.com.


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