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Cruise Ship Information

Crystal Symphony is a cruise ship owned and operated by Crystal Cruises. She was built in 1995 at Kværner Masa-Yards Turku New Shipyard, Finland. She is the sistership of Crystal Symphony and Crystal Harmony

Atmosphere on board

It's 1 a.m., and an enthusiastic -- if not altogether talented -- would-be American Idolist is wailing her way through Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Fellow night-clubbers, armed with Cosmopolitans, and glasses of cabernet sauvignon and Veuve Clicquot, are cheering her on while dancing, cuddling on the art-nouveau-meets-21st-century banquettes or perching atop Philippe Stark barstools. It's another karaoke night at LUXE, and again, for the third time in a week, we've broken "curfew" and stayed up way, way, way past our bedtimes.

You'd think we were party animals on a three-night cruise to nowhere.

Once one of cruising's more sedate vessels (and, by all means, you can still enjoy the peace and quiet), Crystal Symphony underwent three major refurbishments, one in 2006, turning what was effectively an elegant dowager into a sophisticated socialite, and a second in 2009 that added some really stylish and, in some areas, ambitious boutique hotel-like touches. The third refurbishment, in 2012, completed the five year plan to redesign every room onboard the ship. Combined, the five-year-long project cost a whopping $65 million and was the most significant ship redo in Crystal's history.

In 2006, a lot of work was done in the public areas and cabins. The refurbishment added LUXE, the pocket-sized nightclub tucked into a corner between the atrium and the casino. Looking at how busy it is nowadays, you wonder how the ship ever did without it. Sleek and colorful -- almost raucously so -- this 10 p.m.-until-late venue would feel right at home on South Beach.

The casino was remodeled, as was the Bistro cafe, the all-new atrium shops and the aforementioned LUXE. Cabins got facelifts, too: The decor now feels more boutique-hotel than luxury-cruise-ship, featuring beds with leather headboards and bathrooms with now-trendy bowl sinks.

Also completely redesigned was the Starlite Club; walls were removed and new, almost Starbucks-like clusters of wonderfully cozy armchairs were arranged around a brand-new circular bar (one of the best people-watching spots onboard).

In 2009, the Lido Cafe was completely remodeled; Prego, the Italian specialty restaurant, received a total overhaul; and dramatic changes were made to the Lido Deck, adding a 20-person Jacuzzi but removing an entire pool to create a rather beautiful lounging area. The Penthouses, the ship's premier suites, were all refitted.

2012's refurbishment saw the redesign of several of the ship's public spaces, including Avenue Saloon, which relocated the piano to make more room for brass-tack couches, embossed-leaf barstools and tufted booths. Seating was also changed in the panoramic-view Palm Court, and the dance floor was enlarged.

The ship's two theaters also underwent significant updates. In addition to new furniture and decor, a new stage extension expands the performance space in the Galaxy Lounge by 30 percent. And both the Galaxy Lounge and Hollywood Theatre received technological upgrades to lighting, sound and projectors.

New following the refurbishment is a tender embarkation foyer with comfortable seating and five-foot-tall travel photographs from around the world.

What Crystal understands better than any other luxury cruise line is how to add more contemporary elements without changing its essential ambience. Plus, despite all this expenditure, the line's priority remains stalwartly planted in creating a sense of community among those onboard -- whether it's passengers, crew or both.

And, despite all this expenditure, the line's priority remains stalwartly planted in creating a sense of community among those onboard -- whether it's passengers, crew or both.

Past Passenger Programs

Crystal Plaza is Crystal Symphony's central, two-story atrium. Its focal feature is a lovely waterfall, though the heart of the atrium is the Crystal Cove lounge, a spot that's ideally placed for people-watching and pre-dinner cocktails. The ship's shops, recently redesigned, ring around the atrium's second level; they're visually stunning, but I have to admit that, in order to achieve the minimalist look, less merchandise is on display -- and there wasn't much to buy.

The library, just off the Atrium, offers a reasonable selection of books (and, to its credit, quite a few new releases); there are also games, DVD's and CD's. Thumbs-up to its staff for creating a special shelf for guidebooks, whose destinations are featured on current itineraries. Passengers can't check them out and must read them in the library, but the good news is that whenever you need to check a guide, you have access to it.

The Bridge Lounge, which was part of the recent refurbishment, is another great place to hang out. New convertible game tables and armchairs have been added. The space also can double as presentation locale with a new podium, credenza and A-V system.

The Internet center offers a dozen computer terminals with Internet access, and its onsite staffers answer questions and provide assistance. As well, for those who bring their own laptops aboard, wireless connections are available throughout the ship (and worked extremely well in cabins). Large-screen iMacs are being introduced and will provide those taking the Computer University @ Sea classes with a chance to learn about Apple's operating system, as well as Windows. (The iMacs run both.) The per-minute charge for Internet connection is relatively high at 74 cents, but reasonable packages are available: two hours ($50), 10 hours ($200) and 25 hours ($300). Starting in Fall 2014, all members of the line's Crystal Society past passenger loyalty program will receive free Internet (up to 60 minutes free per day).

Editor's Note: GSM phones worked pretty consistently while onboard, even when at sea, but be wary of high charges for roaming when calls are routed through the ship's satellite.

Crystal Symphony has three self-serve laundry facilities. There's no charge to use them, and soap and dryer sheets are provided.

Fitness And Spa

The "big event," sports-wise, on Crystal Symphony revolves around the ship's paddle-tennis court. It is always (or so it seemed) busy! The promenade on Deck 7 wraps fully around the ship and attracts walkers and runners. Most move at a slower-than-jogging pace.

Crystal offers an interesting fitness program for walkers. Called Walking on Water, it basically consists of cotton vests with pockets for weights that add resistance. The vests are loaned out on a complimentary basis, and the workout definitely requires a comfortable bit of extra exertion. (Try the vests while walking stairs if you are really feeling energetic.) Plus, since October 2009, Crystal has offered Nordic Walking through a partnership with LEKI USA. Passengers can enjoy complimentary use of walking poles onboard.

The pool deck is one of the areas that was changed most during the recent refit. One pool, the Neptune, and its adjacent Jacuzzi, have been taken away (see Dining, above) to create extensive outdoor seating around the Trident Bar & Grill. The area surrounding the main Crystal pool (a proper lap pool, incidentally) has also received a makeover. The two small whirlpools have gone, and a huge, 20-person Jacuzzi has been installed, great for socializing on cool-weather cruises. On our Baltic sailing, there wasn't too much action at the pool, but the ambience (if not the weather) was pleasant. On the other hand, during a tropical trip along the Mexican Riviera, the pool scene was electric.

New deck furniture creates a plush, contemporary look. Featured are white loungers and circular double sunbeds in white rattan with splashes of burnt orange and turquoise in the cushions that add a bright, summery touch.

The spa and beauty salon on Crystal Symphony are two of the nicest at sea. Each facility is decorated with an Asian theme. The cost for a basic Swedish massage is a bit pricier than average at $132 for 50 minutes, but the treatments we tried (this massage, an 80-minute salt and lime ginger scrub and a shiatsu massage) were excellent -- and there was no heavy selling of products, which you find in Steiner-run spas on some cruise ships. Facials start at $79 for a New York Lunchtime Peel Facial (20 minutes). Acupuncture treatments are a relatively new addition to spa services. We loved the locker room, featuring multi-head showers, a sauna and Aveda toiletries -- not to mention (and this falls in the "nice touch" category) a mini-fridge, stocked with complimentary carbonated and noncarbonated water.

The fitness facility has a full line of equipment that's nicely grouped in stations. There are plenty of treadmills and stationary bicycles (each equipped with a flat-screen television); on sea days, there were signup sheets to prevent congestion.

Food & Dining

A controversial point about Crystal is that, until now, it's been the only luxury cruise line in the marketplace to feature assigned dining times and tablemates (at dinner only -- other meals in the main dining room are open-seating). This has now changed (as of July 2010), and open-seating dining at dinner (between 6:15 and 9:15 p.m.) has finally become an option as part of the line's new Perfect Choice Dining program. Those who prefer the more flexible dining option can, via Open Dining by Reservation, book in advance online. They can also opt to make arrangements once onboard.

At the same time, we are assured that Crystal's more traditional dinner scenario will on no account be scrapped, as too many passengers like it.

Beyond this, dining on Crystal Symphony -- at any meal -- is a superb experience in both quality of cuisine and attentiveness of service.

Menus for all three meals in the Restaurant are elaborate, offering light choices and vegetarian options. Breakfast is sumptuous. You can order the usual, including granola, fresh fruit, omelets and superb, perfectly cooked eggs Benedict. The unusual? Light, fluffy omelets topped with smoked salmon and caviar; chocolate chip pancakes; and lamb chops are among the choices that will make breakfast a special event.

At lunch, the menu offers a good range of choices -- appetizers, salads, a pasta dish, sandwiches and hot entrees. Choices are mirrored, to some extent, in the ship's buffet venue.

Even on a 17-night cruise, dinner in the Restaurant never got dull. Menus varied comfortably. One night was French-themed, another featured Austrian dishes, and a third was dedicated to an Italian guest chef onboard. Menus are divided into appetizers, soups and salads, pasta special, a salad entree and main dishes. Occasionally, there were region-specific dishes, but more often, there was no clear local angle.

Desserts were comprehensive, and choices balanced indulgence with healthy sweets. (I became a serious fan of frozen yogurt on this cruise!)

For more casual dining, Crystal Symphony's Lido is the vessel's Deck 11 buffet venue, subject to a complete overhaul during the 2009 refit. What was a traditional buffet arrangement is now an elegant space with individual travertine islands that allow the food to be displayed more elegantly and reduce queuing. New, spruced-up chairs in colors inspired by the shoreline of the Hamptons -- lime, olive, grey, yellow -- and more space provided by a new layout have given the Lido a summery, light feel. There are also tables on the aft deck for outdoor dining. At breakfast, staples include fresh fruit, oatmeal, cold cuts and cheeses, made-to-order waffles, several styles of pancakes and an omelet station. There's also a breakfast bar with dishes that are aimed at Asian passengers (miso soup, fried rice). Absolutely don't miss the unlimited, fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 9 a.m. There's a more limited Continental offering for early risers, beginning at 6 a.m.

Lunches in the Lido (from noon to 1:30 p.m.) generally feature the same dishes offered in the Crystal Restaurant but also include additions, such as sides of beef and roast chicken.

On one recent cruise, a sea day between two ports in India featured an awesome Indian buffet in the Lido, but for the most part, this eatery is theme-free.

Crystal offers plenty of casual options during the day. One of my favorite places for a late-morning bagel was The Bistro. (It also serves morning pastries, afternoon pastries and antipasto.) I loved its coffee bar, which featured complimentary cappuccinos and the like; there's a terrific list of by-the-glass wines, too.

We also enjoyed the outdoor Trident Bar & Grill, which served up custom-cooked burgers, wraps, hot dogs and grilled chicken, as well as a delicious Chinese chicken salad. The Neptune Pool, which used to be in this space, is no longer; now the area is a sprawling teak-decked space with clusters of chic, white rattan furniture around granite tables, shaded by oversized green sun umbrellas. It feels like eating in a conservatory when the magrodome roof is closed on cooler days and like a garden party when it's open in the sunshine.

Afternoon tea is a pleasant ritual on Crystal, and a formal interpretation takes place in the ship's Palm Court. Don't miss these events, which include the Chocolate Tea and -- my favorite -- the Mozart Tea. The latter spread included croissant and crustless white bread sandwiches and, more importantly, decadent desserts like Black Forest cake, Vienna sacher cake and linzer torte. The hot chocolate "Amadeus" (rum, whipped cream and shaved chocolate), a specialty drink at the Mozart Tea, is absurdly delicious.

Crystal Symphony excels in other dining areas, too. The ship's two alternative restaurants -- Silk Road (with a sushi bar, serving Asian fusion cuisine from a menu designed by celebrity chef Nobu) and Prego, specializing in Northern Italian -- were sublime.

Silk Road is supervised by Nobu Matsuhisa, one of the world's most highly regarded celebrity chefs; the first Silk Road was introduced on Crystal Symphony. First of note is the restaurant's stand-alone sushi bar, offering both traditional and nouvelle varieties that are created as you watch. Passengers are pretty much limited to sushi choices here (a great stop for appetizers one night on our way to the Crystal Restaurant), but there are a handful of regular menu options offered, too, in case passengers want to make a night of it. Sushi choices range from salmon tartar with caviar to white fish "new style" and also includes traditional favorites like California rolls. Anyone can dine at the sushi bar on a first-come, first-served basis.

In the restaurant, decorated in sleek sea colors and highlighted by dark woods, passengers are offered two menus (one for sushi and the other for Nobu-style appetizers, entrees and desserts), and they can mix and match from both. Starters included creamy king crab, seafood ceviche and lobster spring rolls. There are also soups and salads. Entrees include Nobu-style lobster with truffle sauce and signature black cod with miso. The grilled Wagyu beef ribeye steak is also marvelous.

Desserts there, as they were everywhere onboard, were outstanding; the chocolate souffle cake with sesame ice cream and the sweet ginger creme brulee were deceptively light.

Silk Road is the most popular restaurant onboard, so make reservations early.

There's a suggested gratuity of $7 that applies to diners in the restaurant, as well as to those who eat at the sushi bar.

Prego, the ship's Italian restaurant, has been a Crystal stalwart since Symphony's launch; it's overseen by Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino's in Santa Monica and Las Vegas. The restaurant has had a complete makeover in the latest refit and has transformed its rather gaudy, pseudo-Venetian look into something stylish and luxurious. The reception area is deep wine-red, and the actual dining area, in stone and beige with chocolate suede walls, has a more relaxing look. The menu is pretty predictable. Signature dishes include king crabmeat salad, mushroom soup served in a bread cup, lasagna alla Casalinga and butternut ravioli. These are all precursors to the main courses. Mains include osso buco, lamb rack and striped bass.

The service charge to dine there is, as at Silk Road, a suggested $7 per person. At both venues, service was so exceptional that we tipped more.

The menus at Silk Road and Prego stay the same throughout the cruise, but are sufficiently varied to offer enough selection if you make multiple visits (though the ship may place a limit on your number of visits, depending on demand).

One area in which Crystal in general -- and Crystal Symphony, in particular -- excels is its poolside buffets. Always held on sea days, these are culinary events that emphasize regions like Asia and the Mediterranean or simply celebrate the very vast array of cuisines in the U.S. The highlight is an elegant and incredibly expansive sea day brunch, held in the atrium (typically on one of the last days of each cruise). This year, I noticed there was an entire station displaying sushi. The best tables are in the Crystal Cove bar (beautifully set with linen and silver); it's a great spot for people-watching, as the whole ship turns out!

Room service is available around the clock and includes a variety of soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts, along with hot, made-to-order items that range from a sirloin strip steak to burgers.

One note about wine lists onboard: Each restaurant has its own wine list, and selections vary. Crystal's by-the-glass offerings were of a much higher quality than is usually found on cruise ships. The line also deserves kudos for fair mark-ups on wines by the glass and by the bottle.

Entertainment

One of the best aspects of Crystal's itineraries is that each is padded with a solid number of sea days. And while one can find many opportunities to simply relax, kick back and work on his or her tan, days onboard are also filled with enrichment activities -- from notable guest lecturers to the line's Creative Learning Institute offerings.

Through that program, unique to Crystal, passengers can participate in classes on the arts, wellness and history. There are also courses in computer-related skills, piano-playing, golf and language instruction. Crystal features occasional wine and food festivals, too.

I've long been a big fan of the enormous effort that Crystal makes to enrich and entertain its passengers. But on this cruise, I was disappointed that the program seemed stuck in a rut. Our port lecturer, billed as a journalist-expert, presented dry, outdated lectures on the places we visited. The wine tastings were banal. The French class, hosted in conjunction with Berlitz, was absurdly low-tech -- our instructor pointed to pictures in a book to teach us words.

With all the resources -- and commitment -- that Crystal brings to its enrichment activities, it sorely needs to bring the program up-to-date.

Beyond the above, there's Team Trivia, Scrabble, Mah-Jongg, movies in the cinema, bingo, dance classes, an art auction, arts and crafts and napkin-folding.

Evenings are, at least in the early stages, a bit more low-key. The Starlite enjoyed a post-refurbishment rush for pre-dinner cocktails; a band plays on the stage, and there's a dance floor. Gentleman hosts are available to dance with single women (or those whose husbands won't venture onto the floor).

The casino is tucked between Luxe, the ship's nightclub, and the Galaxy Lounge (perfectly placed to capture the crowd as it moves from each evening's theatrical performance to its "after hours" nightclub).

In the Avenue Saloon, a pianist plays Broadway tunes and sentimental favorites. The Connoisseur's Club (for the cigar-smoking crowd) is a charming hideaway, located next door. The Palm Court is the ship's airy observation lounge -- a great place to be at sailaway.

Itineraries mix and mingle styles of post-dinner entertainment; sometimes it's low-key, and during other times, big production shows are offered. The latter are featured in Galaxy, the ship's primary theater.

And don't miss a visit to LUXE. It doesn't even open until 10 p.m.! A D.J. spins dance favorites, and karaoke is a staple.

Fellow Passengers

Crystal passengers are generally an empty-nester crowd, especially on unusual itineraries like World Cruises, where longer itineraries attract those who clearly have the time (read: retirement) to take the longer sailings. In fact, we overheard solicitous staff greeting repeat passengers or those who had been living aboard even while the staff had been on hiatus. On our sailing, our daughter was one of only three children aboard (though the kids of a visiting professor and the child of a performer rotated in and out).

In the Mediterranean, you can expect about half of the passengers to be American. The rest are mostly English-speaking passengers from the U.K., Australia and South America. Crystal's management tells us that plenty of passengers also come from Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and Spain.

Our recommendation

In the end the fundamental statistics of maximum number of passengers and the crew-to-passenger ratio allowed Seabourn to edge out Crystal in terms of overall cruise experience. This aspect was most prominent with respect to service. The crew on Symphony tried very hard, almost too hard, to please while their Odyssey counterparts provided slightly superior service in a very unobtrusive way. The Symphony’s crew was simply overstretched viz. the number of passengers aboard and it showed. Given the utility and consistency of these vital cruise statistics, I was sorry to learn that Seabourn is selling its three smaller ships to Windstar in 2014 and 2015, presaging a replacement fleet at least the size of their remaining fleet and perhaps larger?

I was actually surprised that I chose Seabourn over Crystal given the latter’s better cuisine, wine, and more numerous dining venues, but I did. The key variable was the drop in quality of food and service that took place when venues, in particular the Crystal Dining Room, reached capacity; the kitchen got backed up and the front of the house had to scramble. Even though food is and always will be a key discriminator for MagoGuide, if you get two cruise lines that are close in this key area, you look to other aspects of their ships for tie breakers.

A major tiebreaker between Seabourn and Crystal is cabin size and layout. I realize that travelers and cruisers are not really in the same marketing space, but even if you really do only sleep in your cabin (and most passengers spend more time in their staterooms than, say, nine hours every twenty-four) you are still spending a significant amount of time there on a cruise. The bottom line is that the space in our stateroom felt cramped and sub-optimized. The latter problem continued in the larger foot print venues that we toured during the Funchal open house, and this was in staterooms that had been prepared specifically to entice future bookings.