I was about to embark on a voyage across the Bay of Biscay from Dover, England to the delightful ports of Honfleur, St-Malo, St-Jean-de-Luz, and San Sebastian before arriving in Lisbon. Of course, I have heard of Crystal Cruises’ reputation as one of the finest luxury cruise lines in the world – lauded by travel insiders and savvy guests alike. Sometimes though, you take these kinds of accolades with a grain of (ahem) sea-salt, but the moment I stepped onboard the 781ft. Crystal Symphony, I can see why Crystal has consistently earned its award-winning status in the large luxury cruise category. With an 848-guests capacity, it hits the sweet spot by being large enough to have a variety of dining and entertainment offerings, but not so mega-ship big that it takes you a week to familiarize yourself with everything.
A 2017 refurbishment maintained the refined elegance Crystal is known for, as well as reduced the number of staterooms which means more space as well as increasing the staff-to-guest ratio. The feeling onboard is that of a luxury resort with light wood paneling, plush carpets, marble, and brass finishes, and a neutral color palette accented with Crystal’s signature blue hue. Starlite Club, Symphony’s redesigned lounge area with a bar in the center is the perfect place to enjoy the panoramic sea views during the day, or for evening cocktails and dancing. Families are welcome and there is a small designated space – Fantasy & Waves for children, and a kids program for those ages 3 to 17, but the onboard facilities are designed more for adults in mind. This might be a good thing depending on the type of shipboard atmosphere you’re looking for.
All of the luxuriously-appointed staterooms feature a picture window (most have balconies) starting from 202 sq. ft. for a Deluxe Stateroom. Amenities include fresh-cut flowers; complimentary beer, wine and spirits in the fridge; a basket of fresh fruit and Frette bathrobes. Or you can indulge your manor-born yearnings with the new Penthouses and Penthouse Suites ranging from 367 sq. ft. to 982 sq. ft, which comes with a 24-hour personal butler who will bring you afternoon tea, champagne in Riedel crystal flutes, or arrange an in-suite massage, and pack and unpack your suitcases. Penthouse guests receive enhanced all-inclusive Crystal amenities such as unlimited complimentary dining at the onboard specialty restaurants.
When it comes to dining, this is where Crystal has long excelled. There are five venues to choose from on the Symphony: the main dining room Waterside, upscale Italian at Prego, Umi Uma created by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and two casual options – the Brazilian steakhouse Churrascaria, and the Asian restaurant Silk Kitchen & Bar.
At the main dining room, guests can order from the Crystal Classics menu of tried-and-true dishes such as Prime Rib and Dover Sole, or from the Modern Cuisine menu of molecular gastronomy specialties. The service by the dedicated staff is faultless and if you wish for something that is not on the menu, well, they can accommodate that too. At Umi Uma, I’m delighted to find there is my favorite yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and Nobu’s famous miso-marinated black cod. Although reservations are required for the restaurant, many guests simply walk in for the sushi bar seating. On Deck 11 is the Silk Kitchen and Bar which reminds me of a solarium with its glass skylight roof, green shrubbery, and photos of fauna and birds on the walls. The Chinese menu has dim sum during lunch and family-style dishes of Wagyu beef and lobster at dinner.
For evening entertainment, there are Broadway-style production shows and a stellar roster of guest musicians, singers, comedy and magic acts from around the world at the Galaxy Lounge. On my particular sailing, there was even a master mind-reader who demonstrated his impressive skills in knowing exactly what the audience is thinking! You can also try your luck at the Resorts World at Sea Casino, have a vintage cognac and rare cigars at the Connoisseur Club, enjoy live piano music at the Avenue Saloon, catch recent movie releases at the Hollywood Theatre, or mingle at the Starlight Lounge with its circular bar.
Crystal’s enrichment program excels in keeping your body and mind busy while at sea. There are USC digital filmmaking classes, Computer University@Sea courses, and expert instructors on everything from watercolor painting to wine tastings, cooking demonstrations and golf lessons. Technological improvements after the refit in 2017 ensure faster internet connectivity with all you can use free Wifi – although the bandwidth does get strained during peak periods. There is a useful guest portal called “Crystal Connect” where you can easily access shipboard information such as a map of the ship’s location, daily program of activities, menus from each restaurant, digital versions of international papers and shore excursions.
At the port of St-Malo in northwestern France, many guests opted for a guided excursion to the iconic Mont St-Michel, a 1,300-year-old abbey which was unreachable during high tides until a 2,500 ft. an elevated pedestrian footbridge was built in 2014. I visited it before, so this time, I came for the food of the region, and went off on my own to the nearby fishing village of Cancale – renowned as the “oyster capital of Brittany”. So famed are the oysters here that King Louis XIV reportedly had oysters from Cancale brought to Versailles. Hundreds of oysters beds stretch for miles along the shell-shaped bay as oyster vendors line the pier where 5€ or 6€ (depending on the size) will get you a dozen of these deliciously briny mollusks. I ate 2 dozen oysters with some lemon while overlooking the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel with the sea air against my face, and can’t imagine a more enjoying way to spend that afternoon.
My culinary exploration continued in San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain, another area that attracts serious food aficionados. Don’t miss the veritable San Sebastian rite of passage of going on a pintxo bar crawl in the Old Town where you sample as many types of the Basque version of tapas as you can. Each bar has its own specialties with many classic and creative combinations of meat, seafood, cheese and vegetables placed on top of a small piece of bread and consumed in a couple of bites.
Back onboard, you can work off your well-chosen calories in the Symphony’s state-of-the-art fitness center, or at one the complimentary yoga, pilates, circuit-training or aerobics classes. The Asian-inspired Crystal Spa & Salon with complimentary men and ladies’ sauna rooms were designed along Feng Shui principles, and also offers medi-spa services such as acupuncture.
As the ship sails from each port, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” is played throughout each of the cabins. A fitting signature as I marvel at how it is a wonderful world when you’re sailing on the Crystal Symphony.
Note: A similar sailing to mine in the Bay of Biscay is available from June 7 to 19, 2020 from Lisbon to London.