By Arvin Steinberg
It was a unique and awesome experience to see the huge Crystal Symphony cruise ship being raised 28 feet as it went through the three lock steps (a total of 85 feet) above the level of the Caribbean Sea as it went through the Panama Canal and entered Gatun Lake.
The ship’s itinerary called “Caribbean Circle” interested me. It was different from most cruise lines because it included ports of call in both the Eastern and Western Caribbean and in addition the exciting journey through the locks in the Panama Canal.
Most ships travel to either the Eastern Caribbean or the Western Caribbean. But as a Crystal Symphony passenger I had an opportunity to visit the exciting eastern ports of St. Thomas, St. John and Aruba on the Eastern Caribbean route, as well as Grand Cayman Island, Panama Canal, Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen in the Western Caribbean.
The itinerary was exceptional and so was the ship.
From the moment I set foot on the Crystal Symphony until I disembarked 12 days later, I was treated to superb cuisine, award-winning entertainment, outstanding service, and unending courtesy by the entire staff.
The Crystal Cruise staff works as a team with each member striving for perfection to make each guest’s cruising experience a memorable one. From the dining staff to the stateroom steward, each guest’s request receives top priority. The staff knows passengers by their names, even on the Lido deck, where one is merely passing through the buffet line.
The Crystal Symphony has a guest capacity of 940, which makes it a large ship, but not in the mega-ship capacity which carries as many as 2,500 passengers. I liked the size because it was easy to find my way around the ship. And, with a dedicated staff of more than 500, the service was outstanding.
The staterooms on most cruise ships are small, and the bathrooms are tiny with almost minuscule shower stalls. I am of average size, and I often wondered how larger people could even fit into the showers. All bathrooms on the Crystal Symphony have a standard size bathtub with a shower and two sinks that I really enjoyed.
I found my stateroom on the Crystal Symphony to be very comfortable and I enjoyed my veranda. More than half of the staterooms have verandas. All staterooms have nine feet of hanging space in the closet, a TV, a minibar, dressing table with lights and mirrors, a full length mirror, a couch, and a dining table should you order room service.
I wasn’t lost at sea, either. All during my cruise, I could click on my TV and get the news live on CNN, or CNBC to check my stocks, or ESPN for the latest sports results. I also received an eight page New York Times Digest delivered to my stateroom each day to further keep track of the news and sports and to read the Times’ editorials and even try the Times’ crossword puzzle.
Cruise ships are famous for their food and the abundant amounts they serve. But the Crystal Symphony does not just serve fine cuisine. It focuses on your total dining experience. I usually ate breakfast in the Lido Café, high up on the 11th deck rather than in the magnificent Crystal Dining Room. Here, I had a glorious view of the ocean and/or the port of call. I also listened to beautiful music piped in while I enjoyed the sumptuous buffet. It was not only a wonderful buffet, but a waiter carried my selections to a table I chose and was ready to refill my coffee cup or bring me anything I forgot.
Some days I had lunch in the Crystal Dining Room and other days I had lunch in the Lido Café. I loved the wonderful music piped in during lunch. Other cruise ships offer music as well, but on the larger ships you can’t hear the music or you only hear it faintly because of the noise and commotion of the large crowds of guests on board.
Three times during my cruise an extraordinary luncheon buffet was presented outside on the Lido Deck. One buffet featured Asian cuisine, a second offered Mediterranean dishes representing foods from 14 different Mediterranean countries, and a third luncheon buffet featured lots of America’s favorites from corn on the cob to barbecued ribs. At each of these special buffet luncheons, the Lido Deck was colorfully decorated in accordance with the theme of the buffet, and the staff was dressed in festive attire to blend in nicely with the luncheon theme. One afternoon in the spectacular atrium just outside the Crystal Dining Room, guests enjoyed a lavish luncheon buffet featuring lobster, shrimp, roast beef and turkey, complete with beautiful ice carvings.
Dinner in the Crystal Dining Room was a carefully orchestrated performance. Waiters were waiting in attendance, escorting you to your chair and placing a napkin in your lap. And that was just the overture. Then came the delectable entrees, such as lobster, Chateaubriand, and veal scallopini, to mention a few. The maitre d’ tossed a great Caesar salad at my table. He also prepared a delicious flaming Cherries Jubilee dessert tableside. The wine list was one of the most extensive I have seen on cruise ships. One evening was entitled the “Royal Feast”, and it was served as if in Medieval times. The waiters were dressed in brilliant costumes and guests were also invited to wear costumes if they chose. Each evening a trio of strolling musicians stopped at my table to play a request. Creative vegetarian selections were also offered. What more could anyone want?
Now I don’t want to give the impression that the Crystal Symphony is some kind of highfalutin, snobbish ship where everyone dines only on lobster and caviar. No way! In fact, a guest at the table next to mine half jokingly told the waiter he would love country-fried chicken with mashed potatoes the following evening. Within minutes the maitre d’ came to that guest and told him that the chicken dinner had already been ordered. The next evening the guest was served a country-fried chicken dinner with all the trimmings. Also, one evening was “50’s Night”, and the “50’s” theme was carried throughout the ship. The staff was dressed in “50’s” hats and uniforms, and one of the selections on the menu was meatloaf and mashed potatoes. And to top off the “50’s” theme, at 11:30 that night a buffet was offered featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, milk shakes, and pizza.
The Crystal Symphony also offers two specialty dinner restaurants: Jade Garden featuring Asian cuisine, and Prego offering fine Italian fare. I found both to be charming restaurants serving outstanding cuisine. I would highly recommend dining at both during a Crystal Symphony cruise.
The Crystal Symphony also has two additional choices for dining; The Bistro, a cozy nook, located near the spectacular atrium, offered coffee, Cappuccino, Danish pastries, snacks and tarts from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Trident Grill, located near the swimming pools, served hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and frozen yogurt from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. I especially enjoyed the grilled veggie burgers while lounging beside the pool.
The entertainment aboard the Crystal Symphony was sensational. I usually see only two or three of the nightly stage shows on a cruise. That gives me a taste of what the ship has to offer. But on the Crystal Symphony I attended every stage show and actually looked forward to seeing each one. The Crystal Symphony presented five lavish production shows in the Galaxy Lounge during my 12-day cruise. I learned from the cruise director that each production takes at least one year to develop. The cast consisted of ten talented singers and dancers who sing “live”, and the music (more than 40 musical numbers and dance segments) is played live by the Galaxy Orchestra.
The stage shows in the Galaxy Lounge on nights other than the production shows were also splendid. For example, on two nights guests were treated to concerts by Dale Kristien who is perhaps best known as Christine Daae in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. She played that role for more than 1,700 performances on Broadway and for the entire four and a half record-breaking years in Los Angeles. Both of her concerts aboard the Crystal Symphony were wonderful.
The sounds of beautiful music never stop throughout the day and evening on the Crystal Symphony. An easy-to-listen-to band plays lots of your favorite songs at the pool in the afternoon. A trio plays lovely relaxing favorites during the elegant tea-time in late afternoon. A band plays dance music before dinner in the Palm Court Lounge and observation area high up on the 11th deck. Piano music is played by very talented musicians in the Crystal Cove located in the spectacular atrium for you to enjoy both during pre-dinner cocktails and after-dinner cocktails. Another group, The Galaxy Quartet, performs in the Palm Court after dinner. An orchestra plays dance music in the Starlite Club on Deck 6 from 9:45 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. If you enjoy a cozy piano bar, the Avenue Saloon on Deck 6 is the place to be to listen to a fine pianist during pre-dinner cocktails or later in the evening from 9:45 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. when late night gourmet snacks are offered.
For those who love the movies, recently released movies are shown in the ship’s “Hollywood Theatre” which seats 140 guests. Movies are shown in the afternoon and evening.
If you love the theater, Crystal Cruises offers an innovative theatrical concept, Repertory Theatre at Sea. A troupe of professional actors presents selected abridged scenes from some of the world’s best-loved plays. I especially enjoyed the hilarious moments from The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite.
The ship also has “Caesars Palace at Sea”, a lively casino managed by the famed Las Vegas gaming operation. It features blackjack, roulette, craps, mini-Baccarat, and slot machines. Free gaming lessons are also offered.
Crystal Cruises also has a unique enrichment program that includes at least two expert speakers during the cruise for the enjoyment and education of the guests on board. The speakers might be a prominent historian, anthropologist, or similar expert on the itinerary area. The ship had mainly a senior crowd on board, but there were also a few young families with children, that seemed to be having a great time.
Every day the Crystal Symphony offers lots of activities. Bingo, complimentary dance classes, golf clinics, computer classes, art classes, physical fitness classes, bridge classes, and Karaoke are offered daily. There is a Computer University at Sea where you can surf the Internet and check your e-mails. There is a library with a wide selection of books and movies. And, of course, there is a spa and physical fitness facilities. The 3,000 square foot ocean-view “Crystal Spa” offers a complete line of exercise equipment, saunas, and steam rooms. The full-service “Crystal Salon” features skin treatments including massage and facials.
Now that you have a grand idea of what the ship was like, I’d like to tell you about the ports I visited.
After departing from Fort Lauderdale and traveling two days at sea, the Crystal Symphony arrived at the city of Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands. This is the capital of the U. S. Virgin Islands and many call it the shopping capital of the Caribbean. The shops downtown are filled with tourists looking for bargains.
Away from the bustle of downtown Charlotte Amalie, are some interesting sites. At one time St. Thomas was a haven for fearless pirates including the notorious Blackbeard, Edward Teach. Located high on Government Hill is Blackbeard’s Castle that is interesting to visit. It is now a hotel. The massive stone watchtower was built in 1679 and was at one time the headquarters of the infamous Edward Teach. From there you have a marvelous view of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor below.
Close to the harbor is Fort Christian that was built between 1672 and 1687. It is St. Thomas’s oldest standing structure and is a U. S. national landmark. There is a museum in its dungeons which features artifacts of Virgin Island history.
While I was in the busy downtown shopping area of St. Thomas, I noticed some signs at the bottom of a steep hill that indicated a historic synagogue was located up the hill. After walking two blocks up the steep incline, I came to a street called Synagogue Hill that I followed for another block up another steep incline. There was the synagogue. The doors were open and the public was free to enter and browse. I learned that the synagogue was founded in 1796 and is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. The most unusual aspect of the synagogue was its floor that consisted of white sand. It is thought that the sand was derived from the practice of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism but secretly continued to practice Judaism. They gathered in cellars for prayers and a sand floor helped muffle the sound of their prayers and songs.
St. Thomas has many beautiful beaches and glimmering bays. The year-round average temperature is a pleasant 80 degrees, and the lifestyle is very relaxed.
St. Thomas is at the eastern end of the Caribbean and from there the Crystal Symphony headed south to the island of Aruba, Netherlands Antilles just 15 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. We arrived at the capital city of Oranjestad.
Tourism flourishes in Aruba, partly because Arubans are friendly people who go out of their way to be helpful. While I was exploring this capital city, I had to stop and ask directions many times. I enjoyed chatting with the locals.
There are many extraordinary beaches in Aruba and some in the capital city. And, in addition to having lots of fine shops and restaurants, there are beautiful hotels, resorts, and casinos. If you are interested in visiting historical sites, on the edge of town is Fort Zoutman that dates back to the 18th century, and a lighthouse, William II Tower, built in 1867. I found both to be interesting and worth visiting.
Continuing on our “Caribbean Circle” cruise, the Crystal Symphony sailed on to George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman Island. The many shops in George Town are loaded with china, crystal, and jewelry. But Grand Cayman Island is most famous for its world-renowned underwater gardens. There are many ways to enjoy the underwater sights. Of course, you can put on a mask and fins and float along the surface. I chose a glass-bottom boat, and the ocean flora and marine creatures I saw were spectacular. There is also a 46-passenger Atlantis Submarine that takes passengers to about 50 feet below the surface. Some smaller submarines are also available, but much more expensive, and can take you to 800 feet below sea level.
The highlight of the cruise was our visit to the Panama Canal. This was one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.
Construction of the Panama Canal was extremely difficult. From the time the French started digging the Canal until its completion under U. S. administration in 1914, more than 25,000 people died from accidents and diseases. However, the construction of the Panama Canal rates among the great peaceful endeavors of mankind that contributed significantly to the progress of the world. For example, a ship carrying cargo from the east coast of the U. S. to Japan, via the Panama Canal saves about 3,000 miles, as compared to the shortest alternative route by water. A ship carrying bananas from Ecuador to Europe saves about 5,000 miles. About 15,000 ships travel through the Panama Canal each year.
The Crystal Symphony was scheduled to arrive at the Panama Canal at about 7 a.m. I set my alarm clock and at 6:30 a.m. I got out of bed, grabbed my camera, and headed to the forward observation area of the ship.
As we approached the locks, known as the Gatun Locks, from the Caribbean, a small rowboat delivered a set of cables to the bow of the ship. The cables were attached to small locomotive cars that were on tracks along each side of the locks. Each lock is 110 feet wide and the Crystal Symphony is 100 feet wide, so there was only five feet clearance on each side of the ship. The locomotive cars with cables attached to the ship kept the ship on a steady course without colliding with the sides of the locks. The locks were constructed in pairs so that two ships can travel side-by-side at the same time in one direction, or there can be two-way travel, with one ship going in one direction and another going in the other direction at the same time.
It was an amazing experience to see the huge Crystal Symphony cruise ship being raised about 28 feet at each of the three lock steps (total of 85 feet) above the level of the Caribbean Sea. After passing through the Gatun Locks we entered Gatun Lake. An experienced guide explained the process to the passengers. I learned that it takes more than 26 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake to raise the ship the 85 feet within the Gatun Locks.
The Crystal Symphony dropped anchor in Gatun Lake and passengers on board could watch other ships move through the Gatun Locks and onto Gatun Lake on their 43 mile journey through the Canal. Those other ships would later pass through two other sets of locks that would lower them to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The Crystal Symphony did not proceed to the Pacific Ocean, and later that afternoon we returned to the Caribbean Sea again through the Gatun Locks to continue with our “Caribbean Circle” cruise.
The final port of call on our cruise was Cozumel, Mexico, which is an island just 11 miles off Mexico’s coast. The first thing that caught my eye in Cozumel, even before disembarking the ship, was the bright turquoise color of the Caribbean. It is so beautiful. And so is the port with shops and open-air restaurants lining the waterfront. There is something for everyone in Cozumel, the shops, beautiful beaches, and ruins.
Tulum is one of Mexico’s best known Mayan ruins. One of the most important buildings at Tulum is the Temple of Frescoes. Much of the color inside the temple has faded, but those frescoes that remain are very interesting.
A flight excursion into the city of Chichen Itza was offered to passengers by the Crystal Symphony to visit the Mayan ruins located there. Only 20 or 30 of the several hundred buildings at the site have been fully explored. The most famous structure there is the great pyramid known as Kulkulkan whose Snake God amazingly shows itself only at the biannual equinox.
From Cozumel, the Crystal Symphony set sail on the final leg of our journey returning to Fort Lauderdale and completing our most memorable “Caribbean Circle” cruise.
Photographs by Arvin Steinberg
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