Crystal Symphony in the Mediterranean

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

A great ship, a wonderful crew, fabulous food and historic ports of call — cruising doesn’t get any better than this. That was our reaction to a 10-day cruise from Lisbon to Rome aboard the lovely Crystal Symphony of Crystal Cruises (Los Angeles, CA; 866/446-6625 or

My wife, Susan, and I boarded the Crystal Symphony in Lisbon, Portugal, for a dramatic evening sail-away past the Prince Henry the Navigator monument. Gracing the banks of the Tagus River, this dramatic structure reminded us how lucky we were to be aboard a modern luxury liner instead of a leaky, 16th-century caravel from Prince Henry’s time.

The fascinating ports on our voyage included Gibraltar, Barcelona, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Portofino, Livorno (for Florence) and Rome. The best port was lovely Portofino with its picture-postcard setting and gorgeous small harbor. The only port with any negatives was Barcelona, where rumors of crime in the downtown Ramblas area led us to take two wonderful shore excursions instead, one featuring the famous Gaudí architecture and one up into the hills above the town to the fascinating monastery of Montserrat. These safe and interesting tours were excellent choices.

The Crystal Symphony (right center) alongside the quay in Monaco. Note the temporary stands (left foreground) set up for the running of the Gran Prix of Monte Carlo. Photos: Toulmin

The Crystal Symphony was launched in 1995 and christened by film and TV star Angela Lansbury. The ship cost $250 million then and would cost at least $500 million to build today. She has 480 staterooms, a maximum guest capacity of 940 and a crew of 540. She is 781 feet long and has a gross registered tonnage of 51,044.

She was built by the famous Kvaerner Masa Yards (KMY) in Turku, Finland (one of the top three yards in the world), and is owned by Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line (NYK), a 120-year-old Japanese firm that is one of the world’s largest shipping companies.

The Crystal Symphony is consistently rated as one of the best cruise ships afloat. For example, she consistently receives five stars from Berlitz, one of only a handful to get this accolade.

The following are some of the things that make the Crystal Symphony a real standout among cruise ships:

• A crew that is always trying hard to provide “6-star” service on a 5-star scale. They really go above and beyond the call of duty to satisfy their customers

Crystal Symphony passenger Pauline Huff wearing her well-deserved Crystal Society pin.

• Terrific on-board lecturers. For example, the movie and talk by Louis Zamparini, an Olympic track star, World War II prisoner of war and author, was one of the most inspiring presentations I have seen at sea.

• The quiet, solid feel of the ship. All cabins have a wall, then a sound-insulating air space, then another wall for the adjacent cabin. This unusual construction ensures that you’ll always sleep peacefully, with no bothersome noises from next door.

And Crystal Cruises has a policy of zero to minimal announcements on board, so there is never that loud racket from the corridors that you hear on many ships.

• Excellent Broadway-quality shows that are not overly loud and brassy as those found on many vessels. The ship is large enough to have an excellent show lounge but not so large that she feels crowded. The space-to-passenger ratio is one of the highest in the industry.

• Very attractive cabin décor, featuring blonde Scandinavian woods.

• 24/7 room service. You can even get breakfast until 11 at night!

An imposing “bobby” watches over the Crystal Symphony in Gibraltar.

• Truly outstanding food in the two specialty restaurants: Prego (Italian) and Jade Garden (Asian fusion). At Prego I had two of chef Billy Nykaluk’s creations, a mushroom soup in an oregano bread bowl and an agnolotti filled with slow-roasted duck. They were among the best dishes I’ve ever eaten at sea.

• An excellent gymnasium to work off those new pounds, with a helpful staff and a wide range of machines.

Is there anything to complain about? Some reviewers have carped at the fact that there are two dinner seatings on board, but I actually like two seatings so that I can eat early and dance it off later. And some cruisers don’t like having two or three formal nights per cruise, but I enjoy seeing everyone looking elegant in tuxes and gowns. It’s hard to find well-dressed people anywhere anymore.

I wanted to learn some of the secrets of the ship’s success, so I tracked down one of Crystal’s top passengers. Pauline Huff of Moraga, California, has sailed on 148 separate Crystal cruises and plans to keep on sailing with the line at her current rate of about eight months per year.

She said, “I tried a number of lines, but in 1993 I found Crystal and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been on eight Crystal world cruises, and I’ve been to many of our ports five times, but I always find something new to explore. For example, this morning I spent two hours ashore in Monaco at a wonderful aquarium, learning how baby fish are hatched and raised. Lifelong learning is my goal, and with the excellent speakers and shore excursions I am never bored and am always learning new things.”

The grave of Princess Grace of Monaco, at one of Crystal Symphony’s ports of call.

All of this quality and luxury does not come cheap. A typical price for a 10-day voyage on Crystal similar to the one Susan and I took in May-June 2005 starts at $2,795 per person, and for a class B cabin with a balcony the cost is about $4,810 per person (both prices include airfare). These high prices reflect the high quality and the fact that many cruises are booked up months in advance.

Billy Hare, an onboard Crystal Sales Consultant, offered some advice on how to save on future Crystal cruises.

“We don’t do any ‘distressed,’ last-minute sales,” he said, “but we do offer some specials where kids sail free or where we provide discounted airfares. If you make a future booking on board during a cruise, you can get a four to five percent discount. If you pay the entire amount more than six months in advance, you get an additional 3.5% off, and if you take a Crystal Society club sailing, you can get an additional 4.5% discount.”

Billy continued, “Once you join the Crystal Society — our no-cost club for returning guests — you can get a free cabin upgrade after five cruises or pay a one-grade-lower fare, and after 10 cruises you can get a 2-category cabin upgrade.”

If you are really ambitious, you can imitate super-passenger Pauline Huff, who said, “After 125 cruises I qualified for a free 14-day cruise in a Penthouse suite. I’m really looking forward to that!"

The Toulmins paid for their airfare, drinks, tips and shore excursions on their voyage in May-June 2005.