THE BLOG
01/03/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Cruise Review: The Crystal Symphony Makeover

Many luxury travelers are skeptical about taking cruise vacations. They associate cruises with mediocre, calorific buffet food; cramped, ill-designed cabins; hoards of people with lines at every turn; not being able to get off the beaten path; and being nickeled and dimed for extras. If you are cruise avoidant, a voyage on the Crystal Symphony will dispel any such misgivings.

An overview of the Crystal Symphony
The Crystal Symphony and its sister ship, the Crystal Serenity, are the only two luxury-class cruise ships operated by Crystal Cruises, Inc., a subsidiary of NYK, a large, global shipping and transport business based in Tokyo. Operating since 1988, Crystal is managed by Americans and has had the same president since its inception. Perhaps having such a small fleet has made it easier for the line to redefine itself to meet the changing temperaments and tastes of luxury travelers.

The Crystal Symphony, christened by its godmother, Angela Lansbury, in 1995, accommodates over 900 passengers in 461 cabins (more than half of them with balconies) spread over eight decks. This places it in the category of a mid-size ship: large enough to offer a host of dining and entertainment options but small enough to offer individualized service and the feeling of a boutique hotel.

The last phase of a five-year, $65 million redesign of the ship was completed in 2012, which included updating staterooms, public spaces and tenders, and creating dedicated areas for children and teens. For any first-time passenger, the ship looks brand new, contemporary and tasteful.

A peek inside
From a wide choice of interesting itineraries, my husband and I booked a 12-day Baltic voyage, which left from Stockholm, Sweden and disembarked in Dover, England, with stops in St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; Warnemünde, Germany; and Copenhagen, Denmark. (To appeal to families, busy travelers and luxury cruise virgins, Crystal recently expanded the number of shorter "getaway" itineraries it offers.)

Our home away from home on this voyage was Stateroom #1063 on Deck 10, located near the bow of the boat. The 367-square-foot cabin was spacious with a walk-in closet, queen-size bed with Egyptian cotton linens, desk/make-up table, sitting area with a sofa and table and large balcony with sliding glass doors. It was beautifully appointed with warm wood furnishings and upholstery in soothing pale grays and neutrals. Had there not been so much to do, both on port days and sea days, we could have comfortably cocooned there with some good books for a month without any complaints.

The bathroom was roomy too, with a separate stall shower and full-size Jacuzzi tub, double sinks and adequate drawer and shelf space to stow our toiletries.

No crowds
The ship never felt crowded. Au contraire! We rarely saw other passengers in the passageways, never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for an elevator and had no trouble making or changing restaurant reservations. The ship has one of the highest overall ratios of space per passenger among cruise ships, with plenty of open decks for sunbathing or soaking in views of the sea.

My husband and I prefer to dine at a table for two; the maître d' always was always able to seat us at a quiet table for two near a window in the main dining room or an alternative dining venue. There was never a problem finding seating at the pool or at the Galaxy Lounge for evening musical productions.

Dining fit for foodies
In the Crystal Dining Room, no menu is ever repeated, even on three-month long world cruises. Dishes were moderate-sized, often reflecting fresh ingredients and creative recipes associated with nearby ports of call. The ship has two intimate, specialty restaurants: the Japanese Silk Road, with Peruvian and European-inspired menus (and a charming sushi bar) designed by Nobu-trained chefs; and Prego, with classic Italian fare.

Crystal's Lido Café is several notches above the typical cruise buffet, both in terms of quality and presentation. It offered indoor and outdoor seating for breakfast and lunch, and a changing menu featuring a wide variety of hot dishes, salads, soups and desserts. With an increasing number of Asian passengers cruising, soups and rice were available at breakfast. Wait staff was always eager to help passengers carry their plates to their tables or to serve beverages once they were seated. The Bistro Café and the Trident Grill & Ice Cream Bar offered additional options for casual dining throughout the day including cooked-to-order minute steaks, Napa-slaw chicken wraps and delicious sweet potato fries.

In 2011, Crystal introduced "open dining by reservation" which allows guests to make reservations wherever and when they want -- in addition to the fixed, first and second seatings in the main dining room. Dress codes have also been modified to be more relaxed.

Those who want to dine in their cabins can opt for 24-hour room service; during lunch and dinner hours, meals can be delivered course by course. Those who worry about overeating can hustle over to the full-service fitness center to work off extra calories.

Attention to detail
It seems like the line has worked out every possible kink to assure the comfort and safety of guests. For example, the bathrooms in our cabin were well ventilated so mirrors never fogged up after a shower. Although we always travel with a power strip, an ample number of electrical outlets were well-placed throughout the cabin. The safe in the walk-in closet was adequately lighted and placed at eye level. The door had an electronic do-not-disturb system and there were no intrusive announcements broadcast into staterooms. The paper take-away coffee cups for cappuccino at the Bistro Café were ribbed to make very hot beverages easy to hold.

No extras
When the bill was delivered to our room at the end of our voyage, there weren't any surprises. This year, Crystal went "all-inclusive" with complimentary bottled waters, soft drinks, juices, fine wines and premium spirits available throughout the ship. At dinner, we were given the option of four different white wines or four reds. Additionally, gratuities for housekeepers and bar and dining staff are included in the cost of the voyage.

There was no need to have a roll of quarters in hand (or worse yet, to have to visit the ship's purser to exchange coins for tokens) to use the convenient self-service launderettes. Use of washers and dryers, detergent and fabric softener was complimentary -- again, without any waits.

The right kind of stimulation
Despite drinks being "on the house," there weren't any boisterous drinkers or revelers hanging around the many bars and lounges or the casino. On this lecture-intensive ship, passengers were more likely to be attending a class given by a mixologist, watching a cooking demo, participating in a class at Computer University@Sea or attending one of the many lectures by historians introducing them to upcoming ports. Even the television programming was keyed to destinations: Before visiting St. Petersburg, we followed the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain on "No Reservations."

Shore excursions are an extra that often take a big bite out of a cruiser's budget. While Crystal offers complimentary shuttle service at each port, the shore excursions we took were expensive. Yet, we felt they were worth the cost: Groups were small, English-speaking tour guides were very knowledgeable and vehicles were well-maintained and extremely comfortable -- and usually outfitted with seatbelts. When we took a day trip to Berlin, healthy snacks were provided on the bus back to the ship to stave off hunger (although that was unlikely). In written materials we received before the cruise, Crystal did an excellent job at describing its tour options and the level of exertion they required.

There is a spa and a sports deck with a golf driving range on board. For more active travelers, the cruise offered many alternatives including exploring Warnemünde by Segway, bicycling through Copenhagen and horseback riding in Helsinki. For those who want to give back and experience more authentic travel, every sailing offers a complimentary voluntourism excursion option called You Care, We Care.

The very professional crew who not only responded to requests but also anticipated them best distinguished our cruise on the Crystal Symphony. From the time we boarded, everyone seemed to know our name and went out of their way to make our stay on board a memorable experience. Our waiter remembered that my husband liked still water and that my preference was sparkling. Yet, on the last day of the voyage, staff was discretely busy, with no outstretched hands saying goodbye. Instead, we discretely said our thank yous in an envelope we left in the cabin for service that went above and beyond.

In 2012, Crystal ranked first place overall in the Condé Nast Traveler Gold List. It's easy to see why a voyage on the Crystal Symphony could convert even a jaded cruiser into an enthusiastic one. Reflecting on the many memories of this relaxing, hassle-free voyage, we felt like we had received value for our money. Moreover, the price per person was far cheaper than for a comparable land-based voyage, which would have entailed transportation costs between cities, meals at restaurants and the inconvenience of checking in and out of new hotels.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is an award-winning travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). You can follow her blog for travelers over 50 at More Time To Travel or on Twitter.

PHOTO GALLERIES
The New Crystal Symphony

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.