Travelogue: Crystal Symphonyís 'Cruise of the Millennium'
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Crystal Symphony Photo
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Itinerary: December 28, 1999 - January 13, 2000: Auckland to Los Angeles by Steven Salta


Background

About ten years ago, I started thinking about where I wanted to be on New Yearís Eve 1999. Nerd that I am, I thought it would be cool to spend New Yearís Eve on the International Date Line. That way, I reasoned, you could celebrate the dawn of the year 2000 twice. With that decided, I stopped thinking about it until the summer of 1998.

Other people had the same idea. By the time I first heard about Crystal Cruisesí Millennium Cruise, it was June of 1998 and it was already sold out. Thinking that there would undoubtedly be cancellations, I called American Express Platinum Travel (hate the service overall, but love my travel agent) and had them put us on the wait list.

Martha and I had only taken one cruise between us (a 3 day Premier "Big Red Boat" cruise with the kids) and knew next to nothing about cruises or cruise lines. The only thing I knew about Crystal Cruises was that Paul Allen had once chartered the Crystal Harmony to take a bunch of his friends to Alaska. Most people donít seem to have heard of the cruise line (understandable, since the Crystal Symphony and Crystal Harmony are their only two ships).

The January 2000 issue of Condť Nast Traveler magazine rated Crystal Cruises the best cruise line in the world, giving it an overall score of 93. Amazingly, this beat out the "boutique" cruise lines such as Seabourne and Silversea. Even more amazingly, the shipboard dining room was ranked among the top five hotel restaurants in the world, along with such luminaries as the HŰtel de Crillon in Paris and The Peninsula in Hong Kong. This was all great, but it set my expectations so high that there was nowhere to go but down.

The wait list cleared as expected in early 1999 and we asked our travel agent to go ahead and confirm a cabin. Crystal didnít ask us anything about cabin preferences and I didnít know enough to have a strong opinion. All the Crystal Symphony cabins were outside, and most had verandahs, so I didnít suppose we could go too far wrong.

December 26-28
Seattle to Auckland, United Airlines

The cruise included airfare from Seattle on United. Only economy airfare was included and I didnít relish the idea of spending 12 hours in that cramped coach seat. I was Premier Executive on United, so I decided to see if I could use miles to upgrade this special group fare. My travel rule number one, especially for airlines, is "if you donít like the answer, keep asking until you do." The more people you ask, the more likely it is that someone will say yes (or theyíll just want to shut you up).

No dice. I spent a lot of time on hold while various agents consulted various supervisors, but in the end the answer was no, sorry. I had to look for other options.

American Express suggested their two-for-one Business Class deal on Air New Zealand. Great idea! Iíd flown Air New Zealand before, Iíd get Mileage Plus credit, and, after all, we were going to New Zealand. There was even a flight with an ideal schedule. Unfortunately, the flight was totally sold out in Business Class. The wait list was so full that they werenít even taking more names for the wait list. It seemed like everyone wanted to head for the South Pacific for New Years. I resigned Martha and myself to flying coach.

(At this point I forgot travel rule number one and stopped asking. When I called back on a lark the day before we left, business class on NZ was wide open. I could have switched then, but figured weíd save a couple of grand and stick with the included coach tickets.)

For the SEA-LAX leg, we were able to upgrade to First Class with no problem. I was worried about the crowds at the airport and a relatively tight 40- minute connection at LAX, but everything went perfectly. We sat out the brief wait in a deserted Red Carpet Club. The millennium scare was keeping folks at home.

On UA 841, the overnight 747 flight from LAX to AKL, our one consolation was that we were seated in an exit row, the seat in front of us a good six feet away. This flight was also a meal flight, so we got dinner, a "midnight snack", and breakfast. Service was subdued, bordering on - and occasionally crossing over into - surly. There was a series of movies, but we mainly wanted to get some sleep. We did get some sleep, but not very much. I hate flying coach.

The flight to Auckland took 12 hours but only involved three time zones, just like flying westward across the US. I suppose it would be more accurate (and sound more impressive) to say that we were now 21 hours ahead of Seattle. In any case, jet lag was minimal.

We walked off the plane and went to baggage claim. There was a separate baggage carousel for Business and First Class, but it didnít seem to produce bags any faster (heh, heh). Our bags actually came off quickly and we were among the first through customs, immigration, and agricultural inspection. No lines and very smooth.

A smiling Crystal representative at the exit took our bags and put us on a bus (which everyone in the cruise industry calls a coach, not knowing our feelings about the word "coach" were not particularly pleasant right now). The bus took us, along with a lot of other passengers, into downtown Auckland.

It was a holiday in Auckland. Boxing Day, which actually fell on Sunday, was being celebrated on Monday. Iím sure that my friends from the Commonwealth can tell me the meaning of this holiday, since I had absolutely no idea what itís about. There didnít seem to be a lot of boxing going on. In any case, downtown Auckland was deserted.

Crystal had booked space in a big hall in Auckland (I have forgotten the name, which was a Maori word). They served food, registered guests, and answered questions. We were offered a tour of the city later in the day, which we accepted, and met some of our fellow passengers. We were expecting an older crowd, and that was exactly what we were seeing.

We spent most of the day exploring Auckland. I wonít go into the tour, except to say that it was very nice and worth the time. Auckland went onto my list of places to come back to. At the end we were delivered to the Princess Dock, where the 50,000-ton Crystal Symphony dominated the pier.

December 28
The Crystal Symphony

Checking in and boarding was a smooth and uncrowded process. In fact, any time I wanted to "follow the crowd" in order to see where we supposed to go next, there was no crowd to follow. We walked up a gangplank, had our picture taken by the shipís photographer, walked through a metal detector, and entered the Crystal Symphony.

The first thing one sees when entering this ship is its magnificent atrium. Thereís a striking two-story waterfall and a "crystal piano" (really made of Lucite). Since this was what I was expecting (maybe there is such a thing as doing too much research), I was not as impressed as I might otherwise have been.

There was a long line of white-gloved porters as we entered, one of whom took our carry-on bags and showed us to our cabin. Our category C cabin was on the Promenade Deck and was the first cabin towards the bow on the port side. At the time, I didnít know if this was good or bad (it turned out to be both). The cabin itself was quite impressive. There was a big picture window, a queen -sized bed, a sitting area, and a makeup area. There were a TV and VCR. The bathroom had dual sinks and a good-sized bathtub. The promenade of the Promenade Deck was way below our window, so the only the tops of peopleís heads were visible, and the windows were glazed in such a way that we could see out, but people couldnít see in if they should try. There was plenty of space for our three huge bags of clothes, which were already there.

American Express had sent us a "Bon Voyage" gift, a wooden box of delicious liqueur-filled chocolates. There was also a fruit basket which got refilled daily. I have to remember to tell Starwood Platinum about this!

When we had been in the room for about 10 minutes, there was a knock on the door. It turned out to be our cabin stewardess, who introduced herself as Lisa. She explained the room to us and told us how to call her (or someone like her) 24 hours a day. She also told us that weíd be "seeing a lot of each other" over the next couple of weeks, but her service was so flawless that she was nearly invisible - our room just got magically clean whenever we stepped out.

Drinks were on the house for our embarkation, so Martha and I went to the Lucite piano bar in the atrium. We ordered our usual Bombay Sapphire-hold-the- Vermouth martinis, and they arrived in oversized Martini glasses. They were triples.

The ship left Auckland at 8:00pm on the dot. Complimentary champagne was served and we walked out onto the Promenade deck. Fireboats and police boats turned out to see us off and the omnipresent photographer appeared and took our picture (which turned out to be quite good).

Our dinner was the late seating, and was open seating on the first night. Since we booked at a table for six during the cruise proper, we asked for a table for two this first night. One of the dining room staff escorted Martha to a window table. I resisted the temptation to yell, "Hey - bring back my wife!" and followed along.

The menu consisted of five courses (appetizer, soup, salad, pasta, entrťe), with multiple choices in each course. Weíd heard they were happy to do off- menu items and they were. Martha had fun turning an appetizer into an entrťe and an entrťe into an appetizer. I just ordered stuff from the menu.

Crystal didnít skimp on food. The menu included both lobster and chateaubriand, and also offered Sevruga caviar as an appetizer. Portions were huge. Desserts were always masterpieces and were surprisingly light (the tiramisu was out of this world). The table setting itself was a work of art.

The table was served by a waiter and an assistant waiter who were eager ( perhaps a bit overeager) to please. Was this dining room really among the worldís best? I wasnít sure, but I would have to nit-pick to find fault.

December 29
The Crystal Symphony

Martha got up early to swim while I slept in. Crystal delivered a daily schedule, newsletter, and a New York Times fax in the evening. (They would also get you daily quotes on your favorite stocks, but what was I going to do with that information out here? I just imagined they were all going up.)

After waking up I read an article entitled Meet TVís Jan Wahl in the newsletter, about one of the shipís guest lecturers. If youíre from San Francisco, youíve probably seen Jan. Sheís a film critic on KRON-TV.

I found Martha, after a brief search, outside on the Lido deck. We had begun a habit of eating breakfast and lunch outside and skipping the dining room until dinner. As good as the Crystal dining room was, who wanted to eat indoors in the middle of the South Pacific? The food all came from the same kitchen and the same chefs.

While I was reading Meet TVís Jan Wahl this morning, Martha was off actually meeting TVís Jan Wahl. Jan and her husband Russ became great friends and companions of ours throughout the cruise. (Jan and I discovered we shared a number of common interests, notably Cole Porter musicals, The Thin Man movies, and that sort of thing. Russ and I also discovered common interests, notably great cigars and vintage Port.)

This was a better chance to look at our fellow passengers. There were a number of small children aboard with their parents or grandparents - almost no teenagers. We felt as though we were among the younger passengers and we heard that this cruise had attracted a somewhat younger crowd than was usual. I wondered how old the typical Crystal passenger must be? Eighty-five?

Soon it began to become obvious why this cruise had been hard to book. We were one of the few Crystal first-timers that we encountered. Most people were coming back for their fifth or tenth cruise. Some people booked this cruise three years ago, before there was even an itinerary. The customer loyalty that Crystal had was amazing. Jeffrey Gitomer (author of Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless) should look into this.

Some of the reasons for this loyalty became obvious. The staff quickly began to greet us by name. The waiters remembered what we liked to drink. The deck staff remembered who we hung out with and helped us find them.

Even though the ship was full, it did not seem crowded. There never seemed to be anyone else waiting for elevators and we rarely met people on the stairs. The swimming pools seemed underutilized and we were always able to find a great table outside. I suspect it has something to do with fact that so many cabins had their own verandahs.

We wound down the day at the Captainís cocktail party, followed by another great dinner looking out onto the ocean. This was our first black-tie dinner and it seemed like all the men really were wearing tuxedos rather than taking the "dark business suit" option. Food continued to be outstanding. W e were delighted when Jan and Russ switched their table to sit with us. I made a futile plan to eat less during the day so that I could savor these dinners.

We ended the day with a little gaming in the casino. The casino on board the ship is the oceangoing branch of Caesars Palace. It was pretty empty this early in the evening, but the action really heated up later at night.

Jan & Russ, Martha & I took a long walk around the promenade before we split up and headed to bed. When we got back to the cabin there were two gifts on the bed, a pair of silver "Cruise of the Millennium" picture frames. It was a nice little touch to end the day.

December 30
The Crystal Symphony

It was another day to sleep in. After all, this was my vacation. Finally, Martha woke me up and we went to our usual spot on the stern of the Lido deck for breakfast. I ate a bit more lightly this time, hoping to make it to dinner with some appetite left.

Breakfast was followed by a swim (the pool was nearly empty) and a relaxing hot tub with Jan and Russ. Since almost all of our days were at sea, we needed to fill the time somehow. We checked out the dance classes but they seemed a bit advanced for us (OK, a bit advanced for me). There was a massive library stocked with what must have been a few thousand books and videos. The computer room (called Computer University at Sea) had 30 or so Compaq computers where they taught Microsoft products and you could send and receive email (each guest had her or her own email address). This was one of the few areas on the ship that always seemed to be full. There was another room where they play and teach bridge (which confused me when I first heard about it, since I assumed they were talking about the shipís bridge). Nothing grabbed us, so we went back to swimming, sunning, and talking to people.

I got up so late that it was now nearly lunchtime. They had set up a Mediterranean buffet called "Cuisine of the Sun," obviously part of their plan to get me to stuff until I was too full to eat dinner, but the joke was on them - Iím not a big fan of Mediterranean food. Unfortunately for me, the buffet included quite a few things that I did like, including kabobs (lamb, chicken, beef, shrimp, and fish) and one of my all time favorites - paella. The food was delicious but the line moved slowly. Older crowd, remember?

After lunch we relaxed and wandered the ship. Two Methuselahs of vintage Louis Roderer Cristal Champagne were on board and being auctioned off to the highest bidder. At $7000 and rising for the first bottle, this was a bit too rich for my blood. In another room, they were setting up for an art auction, run by a New York auction house. I had heard this was one of the bargains on Crystal, where art often goes for way below its market value. Martha went to art school and is an interior designer, so she knows a lot more about this kind of thing than I do.

Dinner that night was "informal," which meant jacket and tie for the men. No problem.

Now is a good time to digress and tell you a bit more about Crystal Cruises and the Crystal Symphony.

Crystal aficionados had told me that Crystalís one unforgivable sin was the two - seating dining room. Other ships in this class use a single open seating. Personally, I donít see how it would be possible to feed 950 people (when the ship is full) without two seatings, but regulars seem to find this a bit offensive.

To compensate for this, Crystal created two alternative restaurants as options to the dining room: Prego and Jade Garden on the Crystal Symphony, and Prego and Kyoto on the Crystal Harmony. These restaurants required reservations, best made immediately upon boarding, and were included in the price of the cruise.

Knowing this in advance, I headed straight for Prego and Jade Garden after we boarded to book a table for later in the cruise. I was greeted at the door to Jade Garden by a smiling staff member, who asked me to take a seat outside while the maitre dí was speaking with other guests. Through the glass doors, it appeared you had to be interviewed in order to eat here! As other people arrived, we started to talk about what sort of questions we would be asked by the maitre dí, and whether or not we would have to provide financial statements. If youíve ever seen the movie LA Story with Steve Martin, youíll know exactly what Iím talking about. To make the scene perfect, the maitre dí was a German named Dieter. (Dieter turned out to be a great guy and became one of my favorite people on the ship.)

In actuality, all the questions centered on when you wanted to eat, how big a table you wanted, and whether this might be a special occasion. Answers were entered into a giant book. I made one reservation for each restaurant and quickly escaped.

Back to the story.

When I got back to our cabin, I found out from Martha that Jan and Russ had called and asked us to join them in Jade Garden that evening.

Jade Garden was what might be termed an Asian Fusion restaurant. The wait staff recommended eating family style, and that was fine with me.

As it turned out, "family style" did not mean that they put a bunch of plates of food on your table and you took what you wanted. They served everything to everybody, in courses. It must have been at least 10 courses, starting with an assortment of very good sushi and ending with an assortment of very good desserts. The meal seemed like it was never going to end. It was great food, but the never-ending courses reminded me of a gourmandís private hell. Service was perfect, some of the best Iíve ever had and better even than the dining room.

We took another few laps around the Promenade deck and it was time for bed.

December 31, 1999 (New Yearís Eve)
Kingdom of Tonga

We ate breakfast outside again today. Our usual waiter greeted me by name and remembered what I wanted to drink. Very impressive.

This was our first port day, and we decided to eschew the packaged excursion and go exploring Tonga with Jan and Russ. Another ship had the only dock, so we went ashore by tender.

We hired a taxi at the wharf and embarked on a three-hour tour (a three-hour tour) of the island of Tongatapu. Jan and I took this opportunity to regale the Tongan cab driver with a small selection from our repertoire of Cole Porter songs. Surprisingly, Cole is not too well known in Tonga.

The main town of Nukuíalufa is an interesting combination of old South Seas and suburbia. There was another cruise ship here (the Europa) and that was it for ships. Every hotel room on the island was full, but thatís isnít saying much since there were not very many hotels (and no resorts) here.

I wonít bore you with details of this place except to say that Tonga would be a good place to escape to if you want to "get away from it all." Fiji is frenetic compared to Tonga. We bought lunch (barbecued chicken and some type of local tuber) from a street vendor and ate it while we wandered around. Captain Cook called this place "the Friendly Islands" when he was here in the 1770s, and the nickname fits. The people were helpful and friendly, and the ladies selling arts and crafts were not at all aggressive about hawking their wares. The salespeople at Nordstrom are pushier than the Tongans. The water was gorgeous, and although we brought our suits, we didnít swim.

When we got back to the ship, all the Christmas decorations that had been up were taken down, and the atrium looked like Times Square. They had erected a huge clock with shipís time and a big net full of balloons ready to drop.

New Yearís Eve was black tie (naturally). Martha and I dressed for dinner and headed down to the dining room. The chargers on which dinner was served were " Cruise of the Millennium" Villeroy & Boch china depicting a clock with the hands set a few minutes past midnight, done in black and white, which I thought was way cool.

We were offered a set menu with the only choice being the entrťe (a lobster and shrimp concoction or filet mignon). I didnít complain, since the set appetizer was crab with caviar and the set soup was Portobello mushroom with gold leaf. I resisted the temptation to yell, "Waiter - whatís this gold doing in my soup?" Each couple (there were three couples at the table now) ordered a bottle of wine for the table, which we drank with no problem.

There were several choices after dinner, including a "black and white ball" with big band music. Russ and I decided to have an after-dinner cigar and Port in the cigar bar while Martha and Jan went swimming. Swimming sounded like a great idea, but I didnít wear a swimming suit under my tuxedo. We met up later in the piano bar to test the pianistís knowledge of Cole Porter and George Gershwin (it wasnít bad). He did a version of I Get a Kick Out of You with a Y2K lyric. Cole Porter would have approved.

We made our way to the Times Square atrium at 11:30 and it looked like everyone on board was already there. A band was playing disco music, which seemed kind of weird to me. The staff was serving complimentary champagne ( Veuve Cliquot NV) to all comers, and they did it so well that my glass never got to the three-fourths level. It was apparent to me that there was a lot of security (which I could distinguish by the fact that several of the tuxedoed men had walkie-talkies and did not look like they were having a good time).

At five minutes to midnight, a champagne glass crashed to the floor. I wisely resisted the temptation to yell, "That manís been shot!" The staff was anticipating dropped glasses, and they had it swept up within seconds. I wondered why they didnít just catch it.

The Captain made a five-minute speech summarizing the last 1000 years and the cruise director did a Y2K countdown. The music that took us into the year 2000 was Crystalís theme song, What a Wonderful World, sung by Louis Armstrong. I couldnít believe we made it to midnight without hearing that damned Prince song. Beautiful.

We reached the year 2000 and the ship was still afloat! We crossed the International Date Line and it was 1999 again. Short millennium.

Caesars Palace was now going full blast, and the craps tables looked hot, but we decided to pass (pun intended). We only made it to 1 a.m. before we headed off to bed. There were more gifts in the cabin, this time matching champagne glasses engraved with "MM" from the president of Crystal Cruises. Villeroy & Boch again.

December 31 (again)
Cruising from Tonga to Western Samoa

Iíd been telling people that the worst technical breakdown that would happen at the Millennium would be that you wouldnít get your wakeup call but it came right on time. Microsoft Exchange, however, didnít expect to be running on a server on a ship crossing the International Date Line on New Yearís Eve, and it had crashed. Come on, guys - you should have thought of this!

Our first order of business on New Yearís Eve No. 2 was dual massages in the salon on the Sun Deck. I was interviewed before my massage about stress, headaches, and that sort of thing. I had a lot of both - thatís why I wanted the massage! It was an hour-long massage from a young Scandinavian woman. The massage was possibly the best I ever had.

After the massage we decided just kick back and relax. Days at sea (and we had a lot of them) were wonderful.

Lunch was another buffet, served in the atrium and eaten in the dining room. This one didnít seem to have a discernable theme but the dessert table was out of this world. There must have been fifty different pastries (the pastry chef was Austrian, and the desserts were reminiscent of ones Iíve eaten in Salzburg). I asked about names, but it was stuff I had never heard of. Lots of creamy, light confections. The dessert table was the best part of my lunch.

After lunch we took in one of those Rodgers & Hammerstein revues that they have on cruise ships. My expectations were low, but they did a workmanlike job. Martha fell asleep and went back to the room to nap. I went to the pool, which as usual was nearly empty.

Dinner tonight was at Prego, the other alternative restaurant. Our waiter was from Tuscany and told us a bit about the variety of cuisine in Italy. I ordered something from the antipasti list and got the herb-encrusted rack of lamb for my entrťe. Lamb is one of Marthaís specialties, so I consider myself a bit of a n expert in this arena. Martha ordered lamb also but, as always, wanted it as rare as the kitchen can make it. I just ordered it medium. It was great. Martha thought it was the best rack of lamb sheíd ever had that she didnít cook. Dessert was a plate of cakes and pastries, including an especially creamy tiramisu.

The second New Yearís Eve party was tonight (this was beginning to have a Twilight Zone quality about it). This one was a costume party with a futuristic theme called the Future Fair, and the crew spent the afternoon and much of the evening setting up a veritable Coney Island of arcade-style games and contests outside on the Lido deck.

Unfortunately, the tropical weather turned nasty and there was no way they could have the party outside. The crew had to tear down our own private Coney Island and reconstruct it inside in and around the atrium. This was a big job and even the Captain pitched in to tear down the booths (this impressed me, and the Captainís efforts really seemed to impress the crew).

The Future Fair didnít work nearly as well inside as it would have worked outside. For the first time, the ship felt crowded and uncomfortable. There were long lines to play the games. I tried a few throw-the-object-through-the- hole games, and then wandered around the ship to escape the crowds.

There was a sushi buffet set up, but it was completely deserted because of the Future Fair (heh, heh). I found Martha and we loaded up.

At midnight, we celebrated New Yearís Eve (again) with a glass of Champagne. It was actuality a bit anticlimactic.

January 1, 2000
Western Samoa

Martha and I began the year 2000 as the Crystal Symphony docked in Apia on the island of Upola, the capital of Western Samoa. We had the dock this time, and the only other ship around (the Silver Cloud) was at anchor some distance off shore.

Upola was as mountainous as Tongatapu was flat. The sky, which was overcast, had turned to blue. Apia looks like a South Seas town should look - something out of James Michener. Jan & Russ, Martha & I hired a taxi to take us around the island.

There was only one thing in Western Samoa that I really want to see - Vailima, the house and gravesite of Robert Louis Stevenson, who came here to live in 1890 and died here in 1894. I imagine that Stevenson has had an impact on anyone who has ever read Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or my personal favorite, The Body Snatcher. The Samoans, who are great storytellers in their own right, revered Stevenson.

The taxi driver took us to Vailima, where we took a guided tour of Stevensoní s home. Some of the furnishings of the house were original, but most were copies. Even so, the display of Stevensonís letters and photographs were fascinating.

The real highlight of our time ashore was the hike to the top of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson and his wife were entombed (like New Orleans, the graves in Western Samoa were above ground). Neither Martha nor Jan wanted to make this trip so Russ and I went off on our own. It took us about an hour to get to the top and we saw almost no one on the way up. Stevensonís grave was there, and there was also a group of huge Samoan guys drinking vodka. The view down to the Crystal Symphony in the harbor was absolutely breathtaking and worth the long hike.

We walked back down (about 45 minutes), got lost briefly, and met up with the women. Our taxi driver had been waiting with Martha and Jan, and was educating them about Samoan history (he turned out to be a teacher, so that was appropriate). We went back into Apia and checked out the market, which was massive. Martha and I had lunch at Aggie Greyís hotel and headed back to the ship.

Dinner tonight was at Jade Garden again, sans Martha who was not feeling well. We asked the maitre dí (Dieter - remember him?) what he would recommend and he offered to make us an entire off-menu Thai dinner. We all love Thai food, so we agreed as long as we could still have Japanese appetizers (sushi and tempura shrimp). No problem. Dieter asked about Martha, and was distressed to find out that she was staying in our cabin. He offered to send her something, and we asked him to send her a bowl of Jade Gardenís yummy Tom Yum soup. He was delighted to do so, and I was forced to rethink my initial impression of Dieter.

The Thai dinner was delicious. There was a chicken curry, a couple of spicy shrimp dishes, and a marinated beef that Jan thought was the best she had ever eaten. Service was faultless.

Jan was hosting a shipboard Name That Tune contest that night. It was really a trivia game about movie music. We divided into teams and tried to answer 11 questions, mainly about movies and music that were before my time. Our team got all 11 correct, but so did half the teams in the room. (I wonder how much theyíd know if the questions were about The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Hair?) We lost on the tiebreaker question, which was to name the three stars of TVís 77 Sunset Strip. Iím out of my league.

Crystalís past cruisers are members of the Crystal Society, which gets them shipboard credits, upgrades, and that kind of thing. There was a Crystal Society Hostess, Lara, aboard to tend to their needs. Lara offered to buy us a drink, and we sat and talked with her for an hour or so. She answered all our questions about Crystal and gave us a little insight into life on the Crystal Symphony from the staff point of view. I love this kind of inside knowledge, and was not surprised to find out that the crew puts on shows for their own entertainment that are quite a bit different from the ones we get to see.

January 2, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Fanning Island, Kiribati

Martha and I were both getting sick, so we ordered breakfast in our cabin. You could order off the regular dining room menu during dining room hours, off a special breakfast menu (which had everything you could imagine on it) until noon, and off a 24-hour room service menu anytime you feel a bit peckish.

Jan was hosting another trivia contest, Scandal and Mystery in Hollywood History, but Iím not a scandal buff and didnít fare very well. The most embarrassing question for me was a two-parter: Name Bugsy Siegelís Las Vegas hotel/casino and also the name of his girlfriend. I remembered Virginia Hill, but even with the hint that "he named it after his girlfriendís legs" my team couldnít come up with "Flamingo." Sheesh!

Martha stayed in bed most of the day and skipped both lunch and dinner. There was a Chocolate Tea Time in the Palm Court, but I wasnít up to both that and dinner. It looked delicious, though.

Dinner was a French dinner, and both escargots and coq a vin were on the menu. We had an Australian fish (I think it was barramundi) that was absolutely delicious. Service was relaxed and attentive.

After dinner there was a Cole Porter revue. Since I bow to no one in my love for Porterís music, I wasnít going to miss it.

I should have missed it - it wasnít that good. It should have been billed as the "dancingest Cole Porter youíve ever seen!" I didnít get the sense that they had much of a feel for the material. Most of the audience seemed to like it and many of them probably saw the opening of Kiss Me Kate on Broadway in the 1950s, so what do I know? In any case, Iíd rather listen to Tommy Dodson play Cole Porter in the Avenue Saloon.

January 3, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Fanning Island, Kiribati

It was a sick day for both Martha and me. We needed to clear US immigration today, but Crystal has that down to a science, and it was over in a matter of two minutes. When I told the immigration officer that Martha was sick, she offered to come to our cabin later in the cruise. I think Crystal should train all government employees.

Sea days are among the better days to be sick. We took meals in our room, which could be served in courses, just like in the dining room, or all at once. We pretty much spent the day in our bathrobes, although I did change and stumble in to dinner. Our stewardess Lisa couldnít do enough for Martha. I wanted to take her with us when we went home.

Jan was hosting a Liarís Club contest tonight, which was the same as a game I know called Fictionary Dictionary, but played for laughs in addition to points. Since I didnít plan to go, I worked with Jan on fake word definitions over dinner. Apparently people really went for one of the phony definitions that Russ and I made up (heh, heh).

Around midnight, we were awakened by a loud BANG! Iím pretty blasť about stuff like this, but Martha went to see if weíd struck a Lucite iceberg. One of the windows in our cabin was shattered. It was made of the same stuff they make windshields out of, and it was covered with a thin layer of film, so it didnít fall to pieces. It was almost like it was shot with a bullet, but we had no known enemies aboard. Martha reported it, but, after ensuring that there was no broken glass, we were advised that they would handle it in the morning. It was fine with me, but Martha didnít get much sleep.

January 4, 2000
Fanning Island, Kiribati

In the morning they offered us another cabin (not as "sold out" as you told us, eh? Or did someone die?) but we liked our room and decided to use the spare only while they repaired the window. When we were ready, they sent down three maintenance men to fix the problem (thereby answering the question "How many cruise staff does it take to change a window?")

We crossed the equator the night before and they were holding King Neptuneís ceremony this morning. A small group of passengers (Polliwogs) were tried by the King and his court, and we were shocked, shocked to learn that they were all found guilty. The guilty were smeared with a vile concoction of raw eggs, tomato paste, fish entrails, and various forms of goo and then ceremoniously dumped into the pool (they drained the pool right after this). Russ, who was in the Navy during Vietnam, told me what they did to Navy enlisted men who cross the equator for the first time. Trust me, you donít want to hear about it.

We anchored off Fanning Island in Kiribati. Martha was still sick, but Jan, Russ, and I went ashore via tender. This island is a classic atoll, a reef surrounding a lagoon. The Crystal Symphony more than doubled the population of Fanning, about 900 people. Lots of local people came to the dock to meet us. There was singing and dancing and much rejoicing. We did a little shopping at stands that the people had set up and then we took a swim in the lagoon.

Most people will never come to a place like this. Itís an unspoiled Pacific island, and I really hope that cruise ships donít spoil it. I usually make a point to learn a couple of words in the local tongue (like "hello" and "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines"), but I didnít even know what the local language was.

We left Fanning Island in the afternoon en route to Honolulu.

In the evening there was a South Seas Dinner and, while there were many fish dishes, I ordered Crystalís surf-n-turf (Australian lobster tail and filet mignon). The filet was exceptional, but the lobster was less than firm.

After dinner Russ treated to me a glass of 40-year-old Port in the cigar bar. It was one of the best Iíd ever had and we had the cigar bar all to ourselves. The Avenue Saloon was standing room only to listen to the piano stylings of Tommy Dodson.

Lisa delivered to our cabin two of the Villeroy & Boch millennium chargers, which we loved so much that we would have been happy to buy them. We have Villeroy & Boch china at home anyway, so this fit better than Crystal could have imagined.

January 5, 2000
At sea, en Route to Honolulu

Every day, the Captain gives updates from the bridge on the shipís position, speed, and heading. For some reason, I found I really liked listening to this. Perhaps it was his Norwegian accent, which I took to mean that he was a direct descendant of the Vikings.

Martha finished breakfast before I did and headed downstairs. When I saw her in the atrium talking to another couple, she called me over and introduced me to actor Adam Arkin and his wife. How does Martha know the Arkins?

As you probably guessed, Jan had introduced Martha to the Arkins. Jan conducts interviews whenever there is a willing celebrity on board (sheís great at it, by the way), and was interviewing Adam later that day. I had never seen an episode of Chicago Hope, but Adam told a funny story about Mandy Patinkin becoming so involved with his surgeon character that he began to believe that, in a pinch, he could actually perform open-heart surgery.

The captain thought we might reach Honolulu early but the weather turned nasty and he slowed the ship so it didnít rock as much. One downside of a forward cabin is the pronounced motion of the ship but Martha and I were not subject to seasickness and generally found the rocking quite soothing.

Martha and I wandered around the Lido deck and bumped into Jan. We took a short Jacuzzi, and then I joined Russ for a sauna. There were both a wet and a dry sauna and they were both deserted. We opted for the wet sauna, which was delightful.

We had another formal dinner this evening, this one billed as a Royal Feast. The ship was redecorated along the lines of Camelot, with armor and tapestries. The crew appeared decked out in medieval garb, and we particularly liked J.J. The sommelier dressed as Robin Hood and Chris the headwaiter dressed as a monk.

For dinner, I went for the mixed grill. It was quite exotic, including items that one didnít usually see, such as wild boar. It was delicious. Martha tried the fillet of sole and judged it the best fish she had so far in the cruise.

Service was somewhat uneven as the crew tried both to pull off a costume party and to provide exceptional service.

After dinner the Camelot theme continued with a show entitled Tales of Time. It was a very elaborate show, and may be an original Crystal production. The costumes and set design were world class, far beyond what I would expect on a cruise ship. The sound in the Galaxy Lounge left a little to be desired, but my cold may have been part of the reason I had trouble hearing.

January 6, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Honolulu, Hawaii

It was another rough day at sea. The guests seemed subdued, and I sensed that people were looking forward to a full day on shore in Honolulu.

Jan had another lecture entitled Treasures and Trash, or What to Rent When You Get Home. She also talked about new movies and recommended a great film that I had never heard of: Topsy Turvy, about the working relationship between William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I saw it as soon as I got back and it was great.

The buffet was the American Classic Buffet, with everything from Texas barbecue to New Orleans jambalaya. After being spoiled on lobster and caviar, Iíd rather have seen the Monaco Classic Buffet. The crew was dressed in classic American garb: blue jeans.

There was another art auction in the afternoon, and I was hoping that Marthaís years studying fine art at the California College of Arts and Crafts would come in handy. There was a painting she loved, but Martha is totally skilled at selecting the most expensive painting from among a hundred unpriced works. It was appraised at over $10,000, and the bidding opened at just under $5,000 - still too rich for our blood. We settled for a $150 print. Marthaís sense was that this would be a great place to pick up a lot of bargains.

This was our last dinner with Jan and Russ, since they were getting off in Honolulu, and we chose Jade Garden. I think we ate in the alternative restaurants at least as much as in the Crystal dining room. Mario, the perfect Maitre dí, was kind enough to get us a nice window table for four.

We chose a few items off the menu, but we let Dieter decide most of our menu. As always, the meal was exceptional. My favorite was a lobster dish with a sauce made from basil and other spices. Very tasty.

January 7, 2000
Honolulu

The Crystal Symphony was met in Honolulu by a helicopter dropping flowers from the sky. This must be the cruise-ship equivalent of a lei greeting.

There were several tours offered, but Martha and I spent the day with our friends Kathy and David who had come over from their house on Maui. Honolulu is not my favorite place in Hawaii - itís just too crowded. It was quite a change to come back to a big city as the first stop after tiny Fanning Island.

Our day in Honolulu was mostly shopping, although we did eat both lunch and dinner ashore. We sailed for Kona at 9 p.m.

January 8, 2000
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Martha and I had both spent a lot of time on the Big Island, and we had no desire to go ashore. Marthaís mother, who lived in Kona, passed away recently, and we honored her memory by casting leis into the sea.

Lunch included crab cakes that were heavenly. Itís hard to find good crab cakes in Seattle.

Jan and Russ left us, and a new lecturer, Major General Perry Smith, joined the cruise in Honolulu. His first lecture was billed as a personal reflection on the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he witnessed at the age of seven. He didnít quite have Janís lecturing polish, but his talk and his question-and- answer session were both fascinating. He spoke briefly about one of my heroes, General Colin Powell, whom he described as "even better than he looks" and predicted would be the next Secretary of State if George W. Bush won the election.

The seas turned rough again after we left Hawaii bound for Los Angeles.

The evening was í50s Night on board the Crystal Symphony. Personally, Iíve never understood the appeal of reviving the 1950s, a pretty bland decade. Why not have a í20s Night instead? The men could dress like gangsters and the women could dress like flappers. The drinks could be poured from hip flasks. Youíd need to say "Joe sent me" to be admitted to the Avenue Saloon. The staff of Prego could carry machine guns (heaven help you if you didnít have a reservation). Or have we become too politically correct for stuff like this?

The Rock Around the Clock show was cancelled because of rough seas. I figured I could catch up on the news now by watching CNN, but our CNN reception was terrible, even this close to Hawaii. Is it that hard to get good satellite reception at sea?

Martha and I turned in early and watch a movie from the huge video library.

January 9, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Los Angeles

Martha and I both slept in after a rather rough night. I decided that this might be a good day to take care of a few administrative chores, so I stopped by the front desk to give the staff an imprint of my American Express card. I also asked for a copy of our bill, just to check on the damages so far. Amazingly, there were no errors.

We skipped breakfast because there was another all-out buffet today. This was the Gala Luncheon buffet, and the highlight was the massive sculptures. These were not just in ice, but also in chocolate and marzipan.

The dessert table was spectacular, outdoing even the previous dessert tables in previous buffets. We sampled about six of the sixty or so items to choose from. My mother has made marzipan since I was in high school and I developed a fondness for it. The oversized fruit-shaped marzipan candies were especially good. This pastry chef was amazing.

We took our buffet lunch into the dining room. We were greeted by name by Leo the maitre dí, whom we had met exactly once. He told us he was holding a great table for our dinner tonight.

We spent most of the afternoon watching movies borrowed from the library.

The highlight of the afternoon was a tour of the galley with JŁrgen, the executive chef. About 100 of the Crystal Symphonyís staff work in the galley, doing food preparation, cleanup, or the actual cooking. It was a much larger operation than I had expected, and we only saw a small part of it. JŁrgen set the menus and ordered the food, but he didnít get involved in purchasing, which was a separate group. Sometimes heíd buy food locally, including buying opakapaka in Honolulu that was on the menu that night. Quite an operation.

Martha and I requested a table for two at dinner, since we didnít feel much like socializing. True to his word, Leo assigned us to table 1, a perfect window table for two in the corner. Service at a table for two was naturally quicker than at a larger table, since there wasnít as much to coordinate. We dropped back to ordering no more than two or three courses at dinner, and this evening we started with fresh fruit soaked in a liqueur. As an entrťe, I ordered the jumbo prawns over Indonesian rice and Martha tried the opakapaka. Both were superb. Dessert for me was another tiramisu.

January 10, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Los Angeles

The captain took the ship on a more northerly course, which resulted in much smoother seas and startlingly better weather. Martha and I had a morning swim and hot tub. The waves created in the pool by the rocking of the ship were a lot of fun, l ike being in a water park.

Lunch was a Mexican buffet, which is not my favorite cuisine. We spent most of the time lounging by the swimming pool reading and eating ice cream cones from the Trident ice cream bar, another great Crystal feature.

General Smith gave a lecture on the future in the afternoon. He had a consulting business now and worked with a variety of businesses, including Microsoft. His thoughts ran the gamut from economics and politics through computers and technology. He predicted that George W. Bush would win the presidency in a close race. He also predicted major breakthroughs in speech recognition. Weíll see.

It was mostly a day of relaxing and recuperating from our respective illnesses.

Dinner was in our new location at table 1. It was really the perfect table if you were looking for a quiet table for two. Martha and I both started with an appetizer of sea scallops and a very nice roast vegetable soup. The soups had been especially delicious, and this one was no exception.

Martha chose a pasta entrťe, and I selected mahi-mahi. Delicious.

January 11, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Los Angeles

I had to hand it to Captain Maalen. He certainly managed to find us a smooth and sunny route to Los Angeles. When you consider how much the ship was rocking after Hawaii, this was a total change.

Martha and I missed the served breakfast and we didnít feel like eating in the room. We stopped by the Crystal Cove and picked up some fruits and pastries.

Martha ordered room service for lunch. Excellent lasagna.

This was the last formal evening aboard ship, since we needed to pack tomorrow. It was also the captainís farewell cocktail party. We got a chance to speak briefly to Captain Maalen as we entered the Starlight Lounge and we expressed our appreciation for taking us into calmer seas. We were definitely not the only ones to thank him for this.

Drinks were on the house again and an army of waiters and stewards served canapťs. The highlight of the party was another brief speech by the Captain, who offered a toast to us first-timers who had never sailed with Crystal before. A nice gesture.

This dinner was the first time that I felt well enough to go back to the multi -course extravaganza. I decided to try the caviar just to be able to say that I ate it, but I was reminded once again that Iím never going to be a big caviar fan. The beef consommť was delicious, but the highlight of the evening was my entrťe, roast pheasant, one of the best game birds Iíd ever eaten. Martha had beef Wellington, a huge portion done blood rare the way she likes it. Dessert tonight was my all-time favorite - baked Alaska. It was served to the entire room by an army of waiters. The baked Alaska was not the best Iíve ever had, but very good. A nice finale to the dinner.

The last stage show, Million Dollar Musicals, was the best production we saw on board. It was a review of musical theatre from Mame through A Chorus Line, and involved countless costume changes. Theyíd presented this one many times before, but their enthusiasm was undimmed.

January 12, 2000
At Sea, en Route to Los Angeles

This was our last day before arriving home. Martha and I both slept in and skipped breakfast then went straight to lunch in the Lido cafť. This was the day that we (really Martha) had to get packed and place our luggage outside our cabin after dinner.

Luggage tags had been distributed to divide us into groups organized by flight time out of Los Angeles. Since our flight was not until late afternoon, we were one of the later groups to leave.

Dinner tonight was casual, since all of our dress clothes were packed. The food was as good as always.

January 13, 2000
Los Angeles

We got up early and ate our last breakfast on board. It seemed a shame to me that the crew didnít get much of a break before the next group of passengers joined the ship. Itís amazing that their energy did not seem to have dimmed in the slightest. Personally, there were a few passengers that I would have clubbed and left for dead by now.

I passed out tips to the staff just before we left the ship, and there were a number of people that I tipped in addition to the customary group. (Naturally I had to tip Dieter, our LA Story maitre dí.)

I had heard that Crystal had had problems with ground transport, but the transfer to LAX was quick and efficient. Martha and I were able to get an earlier flight (even though it meant giving up our First-Class upgrades) and we headed home to Seattle. What a trip.

 

© 2000, Steven Salta



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