‘Twas three weeks before Christmas And I’m on a cruise I should be shopping and planning And not sippin’ booze
An unusually busy November and a lack of shopping mall visits had diverted my attention from fast-approaching Christmas Day. When I left New York on December 4th for Los Angeles and a 7-day Pacific Coast cruise, cards, gifts and trees were the furthest thing from my mind.
And then I boarded Crystal Symphony.
Even with my Thanksgiving turkey barely digested, the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony quickly hammered home the fact that there were damn few shopping days until Christmas. Symphony had decked the decks with boughs of holly, as well as gloriously decorated trees, garland, lights, wooden soldiers, carousel horses, wreaths and Santas. No matter that the California sun was blazing and the temperature hovered near 70 degrees, Christmas was coming and it was the geese—not I—who were supposed to be getting fat. (But they wouldn’t have a week of Crystal’s outstanding cuisine and a stocked bar in their cabin.)
Christmas, they say, is a time for family so it felt natural that my husband and I weren’t ensconced in our deck 10 penthouse suite for 10 minutes before we were reunited with butler Teo who had served us on a past Crystal cruise and was now ready to repeat his superb performance this week. Aboard Crystal, Penthouse guests are spoiled with butler service, and Teo is one of the best, stocking our in-suite bar, delivering afternoon canapés, arranging reservations (and changing them—sorry, Teo!) at specialty restaurants and delivering room service orders (even selections from the Crystal Dining Room or specialty restaurants). Most important to us, Teo arranged our ironing. And, oh yeah, we had a lot of ironing always promptly picked up and delivered crease free in garment bags that evening.
For Penthouse guests, it’s the butler who provides an orientation to the stunning and spacious accommodations. Having had the pleasure of two previous Crystal cruises, we stopped Teo mid-spiel (hell, he did have all that ironing to do) because we were fully aware of the penthouse’s luxurious details and perks, including queen size bed, generous living area, walk in closet, refrigerator stocked with soft drinks, beer and bottled water, flat panel television with DVD/CD player, and our choice of two complimentary bottles of wine and two bottles of spirits. The stunning dual-sink bathroom includes both a full Jacuzzi tub and shower and features what could amount to a store-display of Aveda amenities: Shampoo, conditioner, energizing shower gel, body lotion, soaps, and bath salts. Full sizes of each, for each occupant of the suite.
Early December is one of the least travelled weeks of the year, but not aboard Crystal Symphony which was impressively populated with those who, I assume, had completed their Christmas shopping in August. The majority of passengers hailed from California and, I imagine, couldn’t resist a luxury cruise in their own backyard. The balance of the passenger roster was, not surprisingly, largely American, though others had traveled from as far away as Japan, Singapore and the United Kingdom to enjoy this unique itinerary that included Santa Barbara, an overnight in San Francisco, Ensenada and San Diego.
On Monday morning, Symphony anchored off Santa Barbara, nestled between the Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains. Our only tender port, Crystal provided a shuttle for those wishing to do the town on their own, and in the morning, I took advantage of it to hit State Street, the heart of the town’s downtown area. My shopping plan included not only Christmas gifts but some shorts and golf shirts for my husband Michael who, somehow, had totally neglected casual clothes when doing his packing. Fortunately, the delightful combination of chain stores and quirky independent ones allowed me to pick up a few unique gifts and save my husband from going to the Lido breakfast buffet in a suit.
That afternoon, I was able to accompany the spectacularly unathletic Michael for his Ellings Field Paragliding Adventure, a $296 Crystal-offered shore excursion that promised he would glide (in tandem with an expert) over “some of the most stunning landscapes of the Pacific Coast, if not in the world.” With no other Crystal guests participating (and that right there should tell you something), I had scary visions driven by the tour book description that Michael would “count to three and fast-walk or jog to the end of the seaside cliff and jump.” Just as I wondered if I shouldn’t have bothered buying those casual clothes for him that morning, we pulled up to Ellings Field. Not a seaside cliff and certainly not a stunning landscape, the fear-inducing paragliding adventure, it turned out, amounted to a gently rolling dirt training hill with the two “flights” each lasting less than 10 seconds, and the lift achieved not much greater than the height of the TV cabinet in my living room. I guess Michael would have been better off buying a red convertible like other men in the throes of midlife crisis do.
Back on board for our 4:00 p.m. sailing, it wasn’t long before the sun was sinking, illustrating exactly why this particular cruise was tagged “Pacific Sunsets.” With clear, sunny weather for the duration of the sailing, each night at sunset, purples, reds and oranges spread across the sky in a spectacular lightshow. As an early riser, rising even earlier than usual thanks to the 3-hour time difference between New York and California, I was also treated to an equally spectacular sunrise each day while I sipped coffee on deck prior to my daily pre-dawn visits to Symphony’s well-equipped fitness center which, like your local 7-Eleven, is open 24 hours a day.
The fact that I was never alone at the gym, even at that ungodly early hour, may be a testament to the fitness level of Crystal’s passengers and their commitment to health. More likely though, it’s a testament to Symphony’s onboard dining experience and the irresistible choices offered—none with the restaurant surcharges so common on other ships.
Single-level and elegant, The Crystal Dining Room’s menu changes each night with options that could keep even the most finicky eater happy with Chef suggestions, lighter dining, vegetarian choices, low carb and more. Unlike most of today’s luxury ships, Crystal continues to offer main (usually 6:00 p.m.) and late seating (usually 8:30 p.m.) dinners, but in 2010, introduced “Perfect Choice Dining by Reservation,” an option which allows guests to specify their choice of dining time. As one who has enjoyed open seating cruise ship dining almost exclusively for many years, I must admit that I’d forgotten the charm of the “assigned” seatings and the familiar comfort of tablemates and a waiter who quickly learns with your preferences.
Prego and Silk Road are Symphony’s alternative dining venues, and it’s a good idea to book your reservation for these popular spots online before sailing. Silk Road, a relaxing restaurant with dishes from celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, features a soothing waterwall at its entrance and an Asian motif. Don’t look for chow mein or egg foo yung at this sophisticated venue, but instead indulge in its signature Black Cod with Miso or Nobu-Style Lobster. And, for pete’s sake, even if you don’t want the chocolate soufflé cake, ask for a serving of the homemade sesame ice cream that accompanies it! Divine!
It had been three years since we’d sailed Symphony and, in that time, the ship had undergone a dramatic redesign in a number of its public areas. While we found all of the enhancements to be lovely (and in some cases, like the removal of the Neptune pool to create a relaxing indoor/outdoor lounge--brilliant!), the transformation of Prego into a sophisticated, modern Italian restaurant was our favorite. But it’s all about the food, and I’m happy to say that our favorite dishes were not thrown out with the gaudy barber pole décor of the old Prego. Worthy of its own paragraph—and perhaps its own feature—is Prego’s signature mushroom soup. Served in an oregano bread “bowl,” complete with lid, the mushroom-filled cream base is decadently rich without being heavy. You want to inhale its aromaâ¦you want to savor each and every mushroomâ¦you want to scrape the soup-saturated sides of the bread bowl to create a kind of mushroom flavored bread pudding so you won’t miss a drop. And then you want to order another bowl.
For breakfast, lunch and mid-day snacks, Symphony offers the more casual Bistro, a coffee-drink driven spot that includes a nearby buffet and bistro seating. The pool area’s Trident Grill is a personal favorite with popular favorites like burgers, Reubens, Chinese chicken salad, chili, and crispy, crinkle-cut sweet potato fries. The popular Lido Buffet has added attractive partitions that have transformed the space into a more intimate breakfast and lunch spot. Smartly-planned food stations and buffet, sometimes carrying a theme like Asian, but more frequently offering a lovely selection of hot and cold dishes, salads and meats, always throws in a few surprises: A full roast suckling pig at the carving station, anyone?
On our sailing, San Francisco and our overnight stay was for many the high point of the cruise. At 9:15 a.m., Symphony sailed majestically beneath the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, past Alcatraz prison, and docked at Pier 35 where we’d remain until midnight the following day. With Michael never having experienced that wonderful city before, we set out on foot, our location just a short walk to Pier 39 and its quirky shops, Fisherman’s Wharf and its sea lion symphony and Ghiradelli Square where it was decided that a whole lot of our friends and family would be receiving chocolate in their stockings this year.
We can thank the Jones Act (the law that prohibits non-American carriers from picking up and dropping off passengers in American ports without first visiting a foreign port) for our visit to Ensenada, a not-very-well-reviewed Mexican port located 70 miles from San Diego. Among Crystal’s well-travelled guests, I couldn’t find one who had positive memories of Ensenada, and when the shopping lecturer revealed that the three reputable shops in town sold t-shirts, “crafts” and t-shirts, respectively (“and whatever you do, don’t eat there!”), a day aboard Symphony seemed like an excellent idea. (Note: The major attraction in Ensenada is called “The Blow Hole.” Really.)
Our final stop during our Pacific Sunsets cruise was San Diego, and it lived up to its reputation as having the best weather in America. While not a drop of rain fell on Symphony’s flawlessly-maintained decks during our 7-day cruise, the sun was brightest and temperature highest in this lovely southern California city. While others took advantage of a shore excursion to the San Diego Zoo, reputed to be the best zoo in the country, I hit the shops at Horton Place and then strolled over to Seaport Village, a waterfront combination shopping/dining/entertainment site where I hit the Christmas shopping jackpot thanks to the more than 50 unusual shops set around the working 100-year-old hand-carved carousel that awards a free ride to anyone who snatches the brass ring.
I’ve always been a multitasker, but aboard Crystal Symphony’s Pacific Sunsets cruise, I learned how to combine a luxurious and relaxing vacation with a Christmas shopping marathon. With elaborate holiday decorations and an on-board festive atmosphere spurring me on, I completed my shopping not in hectic desperation as I usually would, but in a spirit of joy and a desire to share my glorious west coast voyage with those I care about at home.
I just wish I had purchased something for myself somewhere along the line. Like maybe another suitcase.