To me, size really does matter. If a cruise ship is too big, I feel lost. Too small and there's no place to hide. A ship like the Crystal Symphony is just right.
At 51,000 tons and carrying just 940 passengers double occupancy, the ship is large enough to offer generous choices for dining, entertainment and activities, but it's also intimate enough to foster a sense of community.
On an 11-night cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore last spring, it was just the right amount of time on board (the ship's a destination, too) and off. There were four sea days and three ports, with a two-day stay in both Ho Chi Minh City and Laem Chabang, the gateway to Bangkok. A full day was spent in Chan May, for trips to Hoi An and Hue, and the ship arrived in Singapore the day before the end of the voyage, so passengers could use the Symphony as a hotel while exploring the Lion City (the translation of the country's Sanskrit name, Singa Pura).
One of the most spacious vessels I've ever been on, it's not the cabins that are impressively large (they're pleasant, but smallish), it's the Symphony's public spaces that are so open, generous and sweeping compared to the smaller Seabourn, SeaDream and Silversea ships, Crystal's luxury peers. You'll never feel hemmed in even when the ship is sailing full. The atrium and main lobby area is cavernous and so are the elegant shops that wrap around the second tier. The ship has five dining venues, many entertainment lounges and bars, and dedicated rooms for an Internet center, 25-seat classroom, movie theater and well-stocked library, with the Symphony's décor incorporating everything from cruise shippy marble, glass, chrome and mirrors, to more old-world dark wood paneling and funky touches like aluminum. Of course there's a gym and spa, and the outdoor decks seem to go on for miles. There's always a good spot by the pool or off in a quiet nook along the uppermost decks; my favorite hideaway is a chaise lounge along the lovely tiered aft decks facing the ship's wake.
As much as there is plenty of room on the spacious Symphony to do your own thing, because of the ship's size, there are also a greater number of passengers than on luxury peers Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and Seadream Yacht Club. Because of this, the mood on Crystal is more alive, social, and active than these other lines, which tend to have a stuffier, more restrained private-club vibe. On my recent Asia sailing, the mix of passengers included mostly North Americans, from business owners to real estate investors, executives and others. While the age bracket skews to the late 50s, 60s and 70s plus range, there were a number of 40-somethings in the mix as well, including two old friends who left their wife and girlfriend back in the States. Overall though, it's a homogeneous group of mostly senior couples, which may explain why one night at dinner my friend and I (we're in our early 40s and traveling without our husbands) were amused to overhear a conversation taking place among two older couples next to us about whether we were a gay couple or not.
Though idle gossip like this is a universal, in the sea of cruise ships, the Crystal Symphony stands apart from the crowd in many other ways.
Activities, Classes and Lecturers
Crystal's impressive speaker program is one of several ways that the line stands apart from its luxury smaller-ship peers. While these other lines also feature expert lecturers, Crystal tends to offer more of them on each sailing. On my April cruise, there were five speakers, and each one was impressive. With humorous anecdotes and slides, conservation biologist Bill Toone spoke about his efforts to save the earth, while author Dr. Catherine Lim lectured about the paradoxes of Singapore's cultural identity and the role of superstition in Chinese culture. Dr. Jay Wolff, an author, historian and commentator for The History Channel, spoke eloquently about the Indochina War between the French and Vietnamese in the 1950s. Art historian Joan Root discussed the temples, tombs and emperors of Hoi An and Hue, two important Vietnamese cities, while international relations expert and author Dr. Andrew Pierre presented a talk on revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. (For more, read the article "Cruise Smarter with the Ocean's Best Speakers and Lecturers.")
Aside from trying to catch as many lecturers as possible, I took one of several French classes offered, went to the gym a few times (catching one of the speakers on the treadmill video monitor), had a massage and spent time in the Internet center, which has the best support staff of any line I've experienced (there are also Wi-Fi hot spots around the ship). Besides the typical trivia games, galley tours and bridge tournaments, classes offered included jive and tango dancing instruction, wine tastings, courses on website design, basic word processing and photography, plus personal training packages to the tune of $800 per person in the gym. Some Crystal sailings have themes, such and food wine, film and theater, and classic or jazz music, when relevant experts are brought on board to run the programs.
Several fit couples enjoyed the large paddle-tennis courts at the top of the ship nearly daily and the golf driving nets and putting green were often occupied. Of the two pools, one is oversize, stretching almost 40 feet across one of the sun decks; the other can be covered with a retractable glass roof. Walkers and joggers were a constant presence on the uninterrupted teak Promenade Deck, a lovely throw-back that many newer ships as well as smaller ships do not offer.
For those couch potato moments, the movie selection in the ship's movie theater and on the cabin television was great, motivating us to order room-service breakfast nearly every morning so that we could watch movies, from Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth to the classic Sound of Music.
Though it's rare to see children on Asia cruises because they're long and not generally offered during typical school holidays, just in case, the ship does have a pleasant dedicated playroom and a teen club with video games; supervised activities for ages 3 and up are offered when demand warrants it.
The entertainment highlight of my cruise was definitely the a cappella group that roamed the ship. Four young, talented hotties performed impromptu and scheduled concerts in the atrium and other entertainment lounges, and also ran the karaoke nights a few evenings. Held in the funky new nightclub called Luxe with its polished aluminum Phillipe Stark bar stools and glass Bizzaza mosaics, karaoke attracted the ship's live wires, but too bad it was only offered twice on the entire cruise. Otherwise, the ship's entertainment offerings were the standard ho-hum cruise shtick, from Vegas-y shows with too much lip synching to magic acts and piano concerts in the horseshoe-shaped, rather plain Galaxy Lounge to ballroom-style dancing to a live band in the newly revamped Starlite Club with its cool round bar and walls of sparkling Swarovski crystals; a clutch of gentleman hosts aboard each sailing to provide dance (and dinner) partners for single ladies. There's also a casino done up in black and silver and our favorite lounge, the dark, paneled, and romantic Avenue Saloon with leather furniture, where a pianist tickles the ivories with show tunes, evergreens and pop hits before and after dinner. Smokers can head to the Connoisseurs Club, with its attractive with wood tones and dark leather furniture, to puff on a Monte Cristo or Davidoff stogie.
There were more options and special theme lunches than we had time to sample, and that's a high-class problem to have. Eating definitely qualified as an activity on the Symphony. The gala lunch buffet in the atrium lobby, for example, literally featured heaps of food, from jumbo shrimp to crab legs, homemade sushi, Greek salads, shish kebobs, gourmet cheeses, exotic fruits and more cakes and pies than I could count. Theme lunch buffets on deck just outside of the buffet restaurant also went overboard; the Asian spread on my recent cruise offered everything from sushi to satay, Vietnamese spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, and papaya salad. Other afternoons the theme was Mexican or Mediterranean. Sit indoors or outside at large wooden tables with umbrellas facing the ship's wake. Aside from the typical buffet fare, specialty stations featured soups, salads and entrees prepared ala minute. The poolside Trident Grill is another option, serving ultracasual lunch as well as dinners several evenings per cruise, with the menu typically featuring the likes of beef, chicken, and salmon burgers to wraps, tuna melts, salads, gourmet pizza and fruit.
The ship's pleasant one-level main dining room has dark wall paneling and lots of tables for two for couples who aren't interested in mingling. Dinner is served in two seatings, while lunches and breakfasts are open seating. Cuisine selections on dinner menus include vegetarian, low-carb and low-fat/cholesterol dishes, from Alaskan King crabs to roast turkey, coq au vin, Black Angus rib eye steak and stuffed marinated quail with porcini mushroom stuffing,
The ship's two themed, reservations-only alternative restaurants -- the Italian Prego and the Pan-Asian Jade Garden -- are more intimate and similar to a land-based hotel restaurant, so you go when it suits you instead of according to a pre-assigned time (there's a $7 per person service charge). Prego is a colorful venue with a Venetian flair (though it was a bummer to hear someone jogging on the track a deck above during dinner); the best dishes I sampled were the King crabmeat salad with fresh pear and aged balsamic and the linguine with lobster tail, zucchini and spicy tomato sauce. Jade showcases the Asian cuisine of Wolfgang Puck's Santa Monica restaurant, Chinois on Main and highlights included the sushi platters, steamed pork dumplings, Thai chicken satay, and seared sea scallops with Cantonese black bean chili sauce. Chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa lends his expertise to the Japanese restaurants on the Crystal Serenity, and beginning in March 2008, will now run the same pair of venues on the Symphony. His specialty is fusion cuisine that combines classic Japanese foods with Peruvian and European influences. Silk Road will offer more than two dozen dishes, including the Nobu-style lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce, saikyo miso black cod and beef with three sauces. The Sushi Bar will offer the likes of yellowtail sashimi with jalapeÂ?o and tuna tataki with ponzu sauce.
The bustling Bistro café in the atrium, with more than a dozen complimentary coffees and teas to choose from, was the ship's social hub. A complimentary snack spread included pastries -- an absolutely delicious Portuguese custard being the highlight -- quality cheeses, cold cuts, fruit and breads. Guests as well as officers and lecturers mingled here throughout the day.
Overall, I found service by the very polished team of mostly European waiters was excellent. In the main dining room -- and to a somewhat lesser degree in the alternative restaurants -- table settings are lavish and include heavy leaded crystal, Frette linens, and Villeroy & Boch as well as Wedgwood china. Even in the Lido restaurant, waiters are at hand to serve you your salad from the buffet line, prepare your coffee, and then carry your tray to wherever it is you want to sit.
Extras include daily afternoon tea (I never had the space for this, and I can eat a lot), 24-hour room service, and pre-dinner and midnight hot and cold canapés in the lounges including the likes of foie gras, caviar, and marinated salmon.
The ship's extensive wine list include Crystal's own proprietary label called C Wines, six chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons, and Merlots made in limited production with grapes from the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Arroyo Seco, and the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Completely redone in late 2006, cabins are decorated in shades of mauve, burgundy, rose and light wood tones and accented with Murano glass bedside lamps, Rubelli fabrics, and leather headboards. Starting at 198 square feet (plus 48-sq.-ft. verandas on many), their one fault is their size. They're about 30% smaller than the standard staterooms on the Silversea, Regent and Seabourn ships; booking a cabin with a balcony is a good idea for the additional space it provides. Otherwise, cabins are well designed. Standard amenities include a 20-inich LCD flat screen TV, VCR, LED reading lights and stocked minibar; bottled water and sodas are free, booze isn't. The single closet with a sliding door isn't overly large and it may be a challenge getting all of your stuff in there if you're on a long cruise of two weeks or more. The small bathrooms were redesigned and now feel a bit more spacious; each has both a shower and bathtub (a short little one in the lower category cabins) and a pair of trendy oval glass sinks atop granite countertops. Egyptian cotton sheets, feather bed toppers and a choice of pillows make sleeping a dream. Deck 10 holds the ship's penthouses, the best of which measure more than 750 square feet, plus nearly 200-square-foot balconies, with full-fledged oceanview Jacuzzis in their living rooms, dark-wood furniture, and sofas upholstered in silk and satin, plus Oriental rugs and entertainment centers. A butler is part of the package. The category E cabins located amidships on Decks 7 and 8 have views obstructed by lifeboats (and may be discounted), and there are no inside cabins.
The same 11-night Hong Kong to Singapore cruise I did last April will be offered again aboard the Symphony on April 14, 2008, with ports highlighted below (fares start at $4,495 per person), while a 12-nighter departing Hong Kong on March 15 on the Serenity includes ports below plus Ko Samui (fares start at $6,785 per person). Crystal has a total of seven Asia cruises in the spring of 2008.
Hong Kong, China
The ship departed from Hong Kong, one of Asia's two main cruise homeports, along with Singapore. Hong Kong is great city to explore for a few days if you have the time. As I had been there before (See "Mickey Does Hong Kong Proud,"), we arrived in the early afternoon on the day of departure. Even a few hours in Hong Kong is enough to do some worthwhile sightseeing. After checking in onto the Symphony, we went ashore for a few hours before the ship set sail for Vietnam. We took the famous green and white Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour, from Kowloon on the mainland side of Hong Kong where the ship docks to Hong Kong island. The ferry terminal is a short walk from the cruise terminal and it's just a 5-minute ride or so; the lovely old ferries provide picturesque views of downtown Hong Kong Island's skyline. With my trusty map in hand (which you can get one in the Hong Kong airport), by foot we headed for the Mid-Levels escalators, a series of outdoor escalators (yes, just like in your local department store) that take commuters from the central business district (where the ferry drops you off) up through the residential neighborhoods clustered along Hong Kong's steep terrain. They're complimentary and run in the down direction in the morning and the up direction in the afternoon. We took them to the end at Robinson Road, then hopped in a taxi for the 5-minute drive to the Peak Tram (a 106-year-old funicular railway) on Garden Road for the quick trip up even higher to the top of Victoria Peak, at a height of 1,395 feet. We were lucky, it was a clear evening (smog is very common from the factories on the mainland and it often obscures the view) and the views of Hong Kong's glittery lights were stunning. We could even spot our ship below in the harbor. We had a drink in one of the bars in the complex of shops and restaurants at the top, and then eventually took a taxi back down the mountain to the ferry terminal. We were back on board the ship by 8pm and headed to dinner at Jade. Definitely have some Hong Kong dollars on you for taxi rides
Chan May, Vietnam
Located mid way between Hue and Hoi An, this quiet port is the access point for tours to these historic sites. I opted to arrange my own tour instead of doing the ship's excursions and it worked out great. Through a travel agency based in Singapore called Hong Thai Travel Services (in the People's Park Complex mall in Chinatown; tel. (65) 6532 3223), for about $125 per person, I booked a private car with driver and an English-speaking guide to take us to Hoi An and China Beach for the day. It worked out splendidly. Our guide, a young woman named Phuong Anh, was articulate and flexible.
Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an old-world gem. From the 16th to the 18th century, the city was Vietnam's most important port and trading post, particularly of ceramics with nearby China. Today it is a quaint old town of some 844 structures protected as historical landmarks, and the unique influence of Chinese and Japanese traders who passed through (or settled) can still be felt. It's a picturesque town, small enough to cover easily on foot, with lots of good nooks and crannies to discover.
The trip to Hoi An started with a scenic drive (though air was a bit smoggy from factories inland) along the coast on a windy road that snaked along the coastal mountain range. The drive took about an hour and a half. On route, we stopped at a silk factory called Thang Loi on the outskirts of Hoi An (the silk here is the best in the country). Of course you could skip this part if you wanted to, but it was interesting for short while to see how the looms are worked and the embroidery is done. Table clothes, pillow cases, clothing and other silk and cotton items were sold. Once at Hoi An, we hopped on bicycle rickshaws for part of the tour and were peddled to the Japanese covered bridge dating back to the 1600s, Tran Family home (circa 1802, and filled with Chinese antiques and royal gifts), and the Quan Kong temple (built in the early 1600s to honor a famous Chin dynasty general and featuring a pair of 10-foot high wooden statues flanking the main altar). We also spent a bit of time browsing in shops on Tran Phu Street and near the Japanese bridge. I picked up some neat Tintin in Vietnam souvenirs (Tintin is a beloved Belgian comic book series popular in Europe and Asia).
After sightseeing, we ate a lunch of fried rice and noodles with soy sauce and vegetables (cao lau) at a rustic little restaurant called Wan Lu on Tran Phu Street. Afterwards we headed for China Beach, that legendary stretch of sandy coastline where military personnel went to relax. With its Marble Mountain views and great scenery, the area has been a frequent set for movies. It was a challenge to imagine what this calm, serene scene was like just 30-some years ago during the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese refer to it, the American War. The town of Da Nang is close by, and could easily be added to the itinerary; the Chan Museum there is simple but interesting because of its displays of Cham artifacts, temple decorations and sandstone sculptures.
Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam
Fortunately for us, the Crystal Symphony was small enough to transit the Saigon River, a several-hour meandering journey down the River between Ho Chi Minh City and the South China Seas. It was a highlight of the cruise and a rare opportunity to see the rice fields and small boats of the Mekong River Delta up close. Along the way, one of the ship's guest experts, historian Dr. Jay Wolff, spoke over the ship's PA system about the geography of the area and also its role in the Vietnam War.
Founded in the 18th-century, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is Vietnam's bustling commercial center. Located on the Saigon River, the city has an estimated population of over eight million people, most of whom cruise the town's clogged arteries on an estimated three million motorbikes. It was the logistical base for American operations during the Vietnam War time and Saigon is perhaps best known for its "fall," a pell-mell evacuation from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy and the desperate last-ditch efforts of helicopter pilots to get just one more person out to the offshore U.S. carriers.
With nearly two full days in port in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to take two different tours offered by the ship. The cruise dock was just a few miles from downtown.
One of the ship's excursions was a cooking tour ($115 per person), which is a great idea on paper, but one that had a few execution problems on my cruise. First, the congenial chef took our group of about 15 to a local market, where we got see how the fresh fish and seafood were prepared and displayed, as well as local vegetables and exotic spices, roots, nuts and beans. In the din of the bustling marketplace, it was difficult to hear the chef at times and it would have been a good idea if we had been given a printed hand-out listing and describing some of what we were seeing. Then we went to a local restaurant where a demo kitchen had been set up in a private room. The chef started to show us how to prepare several dishes, including spring rolls with shrimp and crabmeat, lotus root salad, shrimp mousse and simmered fish with black pepper. We watched and he cooked (it would have been nice if all of us would have had cooking stations to cook along with him), and then too much time was spent for some odd reason having each of us carve carrots and radishes into cute garnishes; this part could have been skipped. The demo ended with us enjoying the tasty lunch the chef had prepared.
The half-day city tour we did the next day was very worthwhile (and a bargain at $49 a person) and was a good way to see some highlights, plus spend some time browsing in a lacquer factory. The trishaw ride and water puppet show were definite highlights of the excursion.
The Cu Chi Tunnel tour was also very popular with guests. Cu Chi, a two-hour scenic drive away from the port, is famed for its intricate underground tunnels dug more than 60 years ago and used by the Viet Cong to fight the French and American forces during the Vietnam War. The guide explains how the tunnels were dug with very basic tools, and there's an opportunity to go into a tunnel that's been slightly enlarged for tourists. The tour also includes a propaganda film made in 1967 during the war.
In addition to the standard day tours, a group of passengers left the ship in Ho Chi Minh and traveled by bus to Angor Wat in Cambodia for a 2-night excursion package. They joined the ship again a few days later in Bangkok. (See "Overnight and Overland, Port Experiences Get Serious.")
Laem Chabak/Bangkok, Thailand
The industrial port of Laem Chabak is the jumping off point for tours inland to exciting Bangkok. The drive is two hours and the scenery is nothing special for the most part. The point in this case is not the journey, but the destination. To get the most out of a visit to Bangkok, some passengers opt for staying the night before heading back to the ship. Crystal offers packages with stays at the Peninsula Hotel or you can make your own arrangements as I did. A night at the Four Seasons was a great base from which to explore the city's golden Buddhas, must-see Grand Palace and many great shopping ops.
Singapore's rap of being a soul-less fantasyland of shopping malls is based in some truth (I live here now, I know!), but on the other hand, dig a little deeper than the clichés and Singapore has plenty to offer the traveler. For some of my favorites, read "Singapore Shore Bets: Top 10 Things to Do in Singapore."