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First Impressions of Crystal’s Revamped Ship

Key Takeaways

  • Recently refurbished ship offers larger, modernized suites and a new spa concept.
  • Complimentary specialty dining, including Umi Uma: the only dining experience by Michelin-starred master chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa at sea.
  • Crew-to-guest ratio of nearly 1-to-1; all suite categories have access to personal butler service.

Having taken nearly two dozen ocean cruises around the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Alaska and the Mexican Riviera, I’ve been yearning to explore new waters in far-off lands. Southeast Asia has been one of my bucket list destinations for a couple of decades, so I finally set my sights on a cruise to this region in February 2024. My father joined me for another one of our father-daughter adventures (we take a few each year), and we excitedly selected a luxury cruise line we’d both been curious about for some time: Crystal.

Crystal only has two ships in its fleet – Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity – both of which recently returned to service after a change in ownership (the line is now managed by A&K Travel Group). A multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the Crystal Symphony included revamped suites, expanded public spaces and new wellness offerings. We chose the 606-passenger Crystal Symphony based on the itinerary (and dates) that most appealed to us; the cruise stopped at ports in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Thanks to its impressive remodel, I never would have known that Symphony was built in 1995 (coincidentally, the same year I took my first cruise). And with an equally impressive staff-to-guest ratio of nearly 1-to-1, we quickly learned we’d want for nothing during our voyage.

Crystal Symphony itineraries

Jill Schildhouse

Unlike cruise lines that run the same itineraries over and over for a few seasons, Crystal keeps its ships on the move. This may be partly due to the fact that the line has a number of customers who book back-to-back sailings; with so much variety, such cruisers won’t repeat ports.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2024, Crystal Symphony makes various seven- to 12-night voyages around Europe and the Mediterranean. Example itineraries include Monte Carlo, Monaco, to Barcelona, Spain; Stockholm to Copenhagen, Denmark; and Venice, Italy, to Athens, Greece. In the winter, the ship moves through the Suez Canal and into the Arabia Peninsula, with stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and India.

During the first few months of 2025, Symphony heads to Asia, with itineraries reaching Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines, before heading back to the Mediterranean. When in Europe, it hits popular ports like Civitavecchia (Rome), Piraeus (Athens), Venice, Marseille, Barcelona, Lisbon and Monte Carlo. At the end of 2025, the ship then returns to the Middle East via the Suez Canal.

Who should sail on Crystal Symphony?

Jill Schildhouse

Crystal caters mainly to seniors and retirees who are willing to spend more on their vacations to ensure their every need is taken care of. Many of the guests I spoke to had sailed with Crystal before and were already loyal fans of the brand, noting that they sometimes book two or more back-to-back sailings because they have the time and resources to do so. Some of the guests I encountered were planning to spend 30 to 45 days on board.

A few of these seniors were traveling solo, which is convenient (and more affordable) aboard Crystal Symphony because it offers a single guest room cabin. In contrast, solo travelers on many other cruise lines must pay for double occupancy.

I also noticed a couple of multigenerational families on board (grandparents and school-aged children). While some other high-end lines don’t allow guests younger than 18, Crystal embraces children, offering a youth director and youth programs on select voyages (typically during the summer or holidays when school is not in session). Don’t expect to find waterslides and splash zones – but do look for the Fantasia children’s playroom and Waves teen center.

Finally, there were some younger couples on board as well. After speaking to a couple of them, I learned a few were celebrating their honeymoons or anniversaries, while others were simply interested in a high-end vacation they’d remember forever.

The stateroom

Jill Schildhouse

Crystal Symphony has eight different cabin types, ranging from a single guest room with ocean views (perfect for solo travelers) to the Crystal Penthouse Suite. The latter is a 909-square-foot condo that offers a spacious living room with a Swarovski chandelier, a custom built-in bar, a master bathroom with a whirlpool tub and a separate shower, unlimited dining at the specialty restaurants, and unlimited complimentary laundry and dry cleaning.

My dad and I stayed in the Sapphire Veranda Suite (two categories below the Crystal Penthouse Suite), which was perfect for our needs. The spacious cabin – which used to be two separate cabins before the remodel – had a huge private balcony, a living room and dining room area separated from the bedroom, and a walk-in closet by the entrance. Our butler turned our queen-size bed into two twins, and we still had plenty of space. The part that really wowed us was the bathroom, which was enormous (and not just by cruise ship standards – it would even be considered huge for a hotel room in Europe). The bathroom featured a long counter with double sinks and tons of storage, plus a shower that could have comfortably held four people. On top of that, the water in the shower gloriously came at me from every direction: there was a rain showerhead above, a handheld faucet and two jet streams that shot out of the wall. Showering here was akin to being in your own personal car wash.

Our two-room suite had just been remodeled in 2023, which meant we had plenty of outlets and USB ports, plus modern furniture and artwork. There are two other styles of this suite as well, marked by the year of remodel: a 2017 version with a stand-alone makeup vanity and an in-cabin washer and dryer (in select units), and a 2014 “Classic” version featuring rich wood finishes and a bidet. You can’t go wrong either way (my dad was actually drawn to the wood version), but the 2023 remodel is best if you have a lot of electronic devices to charge.

If you don’t need two rooms (something that was helpful for me and my dad so we could each have a bit more privacy), the Aquamarine Veranda Suite is just one step down from the Sapphire. It will save you a bit of money without sacrificing much more than a separation between the beds and couch in the process.

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Best amenities on Crystal Symphony

Jill Schildhouse

Some of the best amenities on board are right in your very own cabin. For instance, my Sapphire Veranda Suite came with afternoon canapes, an espresso maker, binoculars for checking out the wildlife at sea, complimentary pressing for five articles of clothing each day, complimentary washing of one bag of laundry for every 10 cruise days and nightly turndown service with handmade truffles.

It’s worth noting that there are free self-service laundry facilities on board as well, which is crucial to any trip over a week long. Laundry rooms are conveniently located on various decks, and even the detergent is free (though my dad and I both had problems with the soap not properly dispensing in different machines, so I would advise bringing your own).

A highlight for both my dad and I was afternoon tea, held each day from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Once you arrive in the bright and airy Palm Court to the welcoming sounds of a live violinist, settle into your pick of comfortable window seats. A server brings your choice of tea in a personal pot, along with a three-tiered display of tea sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and sweets (some days even have specific themes, like Viennese Tea Time or Chocolate Tea Time). It’s such a peaceful experience as you sip your hot tea and nibble on these delicious treats while overlooking the ocean. One day, as we reached Hong Kong, it was super chilly out and the servers brought us cozy blankets to keep warm.

The calendar of daily activities offers plenty of variety. One afternoon at sea, I dragged my dad to an art class where we made elephants out of clay and then painted them. Another day, I learned how to make beaded earrings. We also attended a few enrichment programs after befriending the charismatic guest lecturers on board. Crystal even offered seminars on Chinese herbal medicine, morning stretch and fitness classes, and games of bridge with an onboard instructor.

We assumed a small ship wouldn’t prioritize entertainment, so we almost didn’t go to the after-dinner show on the first night. What a mistake that would have been! Night after night, we were mesmerized by the talented cast performing Broadway-style shows and the special guests brought on board to showcase their unique styles (including the captivating Christine Allado, a Grammy-nominated artist who has appeared on stages in London’s West End and across Asia). We looked forward to this ritual every evening, no matter how long of an excursion we’d had that day.

Best dining venues on Crystal Symphony

Jill Schildhouse

Having sailed on eight other cruise lines before Crystal, I can confidently say that this brand’s culinary program is second to none. It’s rare that I truly enjoy a ship’s main dining room, but I was blown away by the Waterside Restaurant on Symphony. Each breakfast, lunch and dinner there was fantastic. The dishes were fun and inventive, and the elegant setting offers the same impeccable service you’ll find everywhere else on the ship.

Similarly, I tend to avoid buffets on most cruises, but even the Marketplace on Symphony impressed me. You’ll have your pick of hot and cold dishes as expected, but the staff will carry your plate to your table, arrange the plate before you and place a napkin on your lap. Other casual dining options include Scoops Gelato Bar and Trident Grill (the pool grill, specializing in burgers and fries).

While I thoroughly enjoyed both meals we had at Osteria D’Ovidio – the traditional Italian specialty restaurant – the two best meals I had on board were at Umi Uma, created by legendary master sushi chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa. The first time, we ate in the dining room, chowing down on delectable rock shrimp tempura, Nobu-style lobster tacos, miso soup and Nobu’s famous black cod entree. However, an officer on the ship tipped us off that sitting at the sushi bar was an even better experience (hard to believe!), so that’s exactly what we did on our second visit. He was right – we had so much fun interacting with the sushi chefs as they prepared our sushi rolls and sashimi. The other patrons were equally impressed; the women next to me were from Japan and kept oohing and aahing in absolute delight. It’s a meal I still think about months later and won’t soon forget.

Aside from the delicious food, the absolute best part about both specialty restaurants is that they are included with your fare. (Just keep in mind: The number of times you can visit each one depends on the length of your sailing. If you’d like to visit beyond the complimentary allotment, the upcharge is $50 per person.)

Best excursions on Crystal Symphony

Jill Schildhouse

One of the things I liked best about Crystal Symphony was the carefully curated excursions that immersed me into the communities we visited or allowed me to have meaningful interactions with locals. For instance, I toured Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a motorbike driven by a friendly college student who was studying tourism – she was excited to show me her city and practice her English (while my nervousness caused me to grip her waist harder than she probably would have liked). We ended up following each other on Instagram by the end of the day.

During an excursion called “A Glimpse of Vietnamese Countryside,” we visited a small town near miles of rice paddies in the midst of its annual spring festival. The whole town was out and about, celebrating with music in the streets and selling food and crafts.

Outside of Laem Chabang (the port for Bangkok), I fulfilled a lifelong dream of spending a magical day at an elephant sanctuary that truly cares for its animals with zero exploitation (read: no riding or tricks). We spent our time feeding the herd of seven females their fill of sugar cane and bananas before escorting them to mud pits. There, we helped scrub them down with a cooling layer of earth, then rinsed them off with a bath. It was everything I’d hoped it would be; I bonded with the oldest elephant, who was born the same year as me and shares my love of sugar.

From a port stop in Chan May, we took a bus to Hoi An, where we explored a food market with a knowledgeable local (I purchased several interesting kitchen tools and some spices) before attending a cooking lesson with a chef to prepare authentic Vietnamese cuisine. We made several local dishes with wonderfully fresh and fragrant ingredients, each more delicious than the last. The cooking school sent us home with recipes I look forward to attempting to recreate.

Each excursion left me feeling grateful for the experience, the conversations we had with our guides and the interactions with everyone we encountered along the way. Crystal thoughtfully arranged every outing, from the comfortable transportation (as some of the days were quite long) to each meaningful and culturally significant activity.

If group shore excursions aren’t your thing, Crystal also offers private half- and full-day experiences with an English-speaking guide who will transport you via a private vehicle for independent exploration. No matter which route you go, I highly suggest booking your outings ahead of your trip to secure your top picks (popular excursions may sell out).

Overall impressions of Crystal Symphony

Jill Schildhouse

Of all the cruise lines I’ve sailed with, Crystal is the most sophisticated and the most foodie-focused – and it has the most attentive staff. I’ve sailed on other cruise lines that were happy to provide the things I asked for, but with Crystal, I rarely even had to ask; the staff picked up on my habits and preferences to ensure my desires were met.

Crystal offers “quiet luxury” to its guests; a voyage with the line is a pampered experience that makes you feel like a valued guest, without being stuffy or pretentious. The culinary program is elevated yet approachable, with something for every palate. The entertainment is truly top-notch, especially on a ship this size. The small touches, from afternoon tea to art classes, help provide a sense of community and enrichment. And the ever-changing itineraries mean you can happily book back-to-back sailings and see new cities and countries every single day.

Crystal is pricey, but it’s also the epitome of “you get what you pay for.” My dad loved it so much that he and my mother will be celebrating their 50th anniversary aboard Symphony’s sister ship, Crystal Serenity, on back-to-back Alaska sailings next month. I’m jealous I wasn’t invited!

Why Trust U.S. News Travel

Jill Schildhouse has been an avid cruiser since the ’90s, when she joined a family cruise vacation during college. She has sailed on nearly every type of cruise ship built, including the newest megaships in the Caribbean, tiny riverboats on the Seine and Mekong Rivers, small yachts around Alaska and Iceland, and midsized ships in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. Schildhouse covers the travel and cruise industries for national publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Insider, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living, AARP, The Points Guy and more.

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Bernard Greenhall
Bernard Greenhall

Bernard is a sports and physical education expert with years of experience. He's passionate about promoting health and wellness through physical activity, and he's worked with athletes and non-athletes alike to help them achieve their fitness goals. Bernard holds a degree in Physical Education and is dedicated to staying up-to-date with the latest trends and research in his field.

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