Louis Armstrong's classic song What a Wonderful World fills the air as Crystal Symphony sails out of the Manhattan cruise terminal and across New York's magnificent harbour into the open ocean. It's grey and drizzly, but the mood is upbeat, particularly when we sail past that most famous of landmarks, the Statue of Liberty. As the ship's whistle salutes the Lady, my cruise companion and I toast her with a Cosmopolitan in the elegant Palm Court.
We're on a cruise to Montreal aboard the unabashedly indulgent Crystal Symphony and over the past couple of days, while the ship has been docked in New York ahead of the journey, we have had time to look around the ship and meet a few fellow guests, in between exploring the city that never sleeps. Our spacious Seabreeze Penthouse suite is in one of the main areas of the ship, which underwent an extensive refurbishment a year ago – sister ship Crystal Serenity is now undergoing a similar multimillion-dollar makeover.
These two grand dames may be among the older generation of uber-luxury ships but they regularly win prestigious awards and the space they offer is palatial compared to some of their younger sisters. Crystal Symphony's redesign includes sleek new dining venues Umi Uma & Sushi Bar (Nobi Matsuhisa's only Nobu restaurants at sea), Chinese-style Silk Kitchen & Bar and the Marketplace, a casual buffet by day that becomes a lively Brazilian churrascaria in the evening.
Hotel director Josef Matt, who has been with Crystal for nearly 25 years, says the newly introduced open-seating dining system is working well and the increased number of tables for two in Waterside, the main dining room, are always full. The reconfiguration of suites that reduced maximum guest capacity from 920 to 848 means there is an even higher crew-to-passenger ratio than before; on our voyage there are 583 crew for fewer than 800 guests.
One of our favourite crew members is our brilliant butler, Dario. Italian, in his 30s, he is unfailingly friendly, considerate and good-humoured. He indulges us with afternoon canapes in the suite and refills the fridge without a hint of judgment about the astonishing quantity of champagne we get through, reminding us that actor David Niven once said, "Champagne isn't drinking".
Over dinner at Prego – perfection on a plate, naturally – we map out possible excursions for the coming days. We choose a mix of independent wanderings, three ship-organised excursions and a couple of locally operated tours.
The first of the local outings is a three-hour, 17-kilometre bike ride through Boston with Urban Adventours. Two guides lead 19 cyclists around the buzzy city, from the North End Italian residential district to a series of historic and scenic sites, including Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox since 1912, which is thronging with upbeat crowds heading for a Pearl Jam concert in the stadium. The tour is not for wusses and I have to confess to pushing my bike up the steep bit of Beacon Hill.
The following day, Crystal Symphony makes its maiden call to Rockland, a charming New England port that recently limited cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers to six calls a year – and only in September and October. We go ashore for a casual stroll, anticipating placard-waving protesters, only to be welcomed by the friendliest locals you could hope to meet anywhere. A stall covered with leaflets advertising scenic flights for $US60 catches my eye so we sign up for a midday lighthouse tour from Knox County Regional Airport with Penobscot Island Air.
Our plane is a single-prop Cessna 206 of a certain age and our pilot, Rob, who flew for Fed Ex until he retired, is nicknamed Santa, for his equally vintage appearance. The tiny plane soars over the craggy coastline and Rob points out numerous lighthouses, villages and islands below, including the island where John Travolta has a summer residence. He has flown the star home on several occasions. .
Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, is another port trying to prevent its natural attractions being overrun by tourists, particularly cruise-ship passengers. The small town is the gateway to Acadia National Park, which received more than 3.5 million visitors last year – most of them are not from ships but mass arrivals create traffic and crowd problems. It's a vexing, ongoing dilemma in many over-loved destinations around the world. I can only hope our ship-organised bike ride around the gloriously uncrowded park – it's early September, pre-peak season – makes an inoffensive contribution to the local economy.
On to Nova Scotia, Canada – we alight in Halifax, a busy working port inextricably linked to the Titanic tragedy. In April 1912, four ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies from the "unsinkable" liner, which had sunk in the freezing ocean some 1300 kilometres away. The haunting stories of their crews are graphically illustrated in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a short walk along the harbourside boardwalk from where we're docked.
It's not all doom and gloom – the museum's resident rainbow macaw, Merlin, puts on an entertaining show when his keeper showers and feeds him, and he has become such a star he has his own webcam. The Titanic story is so compelling we take a bus to Fairview Lawn Cemetery to visit the graves of 121 victims. It's a quiet reminder of the fleeting nature of life at sea, or life in general and, buoyed, with a renewed sense of making the most of every moment, we return to our ocean-going palace of indulgence praying it won't hit an iceberg anytime soon and that Dario will be there to boost our spirits and minibar.
Prince Edward Island is renowned not only for its lighthouses and potatoes, but for the fruit wines produced at the boutique Rossignol Estate. It is our second Crystal shore tour and like the others we take, it's well-organised and caters for a comfortably small group.
Our third tour is an energetic hike through Saguenay National Park, an area of astounding natural beauty. Trees are beginning to colour for the annual fall-foliage display but the season is late to start this year because of unusually high temperatures. The park is home to wolves, black bears, lynx, beavers and moose and although we don't see any our guide shows us recent photos of the animals roaming at night. We do, however, spot whales spouting and frolicking in the Saguenay River, a vast waterway that drains into the St Lawrence River.
Québec City, the heart of French Canada and the capital of Québec province, is built on the St Lawrence. It's the oldest city in North America and the fortified walls of the Old City are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The grand Château Frontenac dominates the skyline and during a day's walk of the city from top to bottom, we pay a quick visit to the Chateau's resident "canine ambassador", Daphne. She is asleep in the lobby, no doubt walked-out by dog-loving hotel guests – sadly a similar program wouldn't really work on-board luxury ships.
Crystal Symphony sails on to Montreal, where we bid a fond farewell to our stately home at sea and embrace the city's joie de vive for a few unseasonably hot days. Future cruises will operate between New York and Quebec on Symphony's equally sumptuous sister Serenity.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CRYSTAL
Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity were built in 1995 and 2003. The company spends millions of dollars keeping them up to award-winning levels of luxury; Symphony's most recent major refurbishment was in late 2017 and Serenity's in November 2018.
Crystal launched its first river ship, the 154-passenger Crystal Mozart, in 2016 and then built four new vessels. Crystal Bach, Mahler, Debussy and Ravel accommodate a maximum of 106 guests and sail on Europe's Danube, Main and Rhine rivers.
The 62-passenger Crystal Esprit cruises in the West Indies, Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula and, with 90 crew, has one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratios at sea. Crystal Endeavor, which makes its maiden voyage in August 2020, will accommodate up to 200 guests and will sail Polar regions and global expedition routes.
IN THE AIR
Crystal Skye is a lavishly outfitted private jet available for charter. The customised Boeing 777 features fully reclining flatbed seats, a stand-up bar, lounge, a team of Crystal Sky butlers and an executive chef.
ON THE HORIZON
Two new 800-passenger, 67,000-ton Diamond-class ships are being built at MV Werften shipyard in Germany, with the first due in 2022. They will be a similar size to Crystal Serenity but will carry fewer passengers.
Sally Macmillan was a guest of Crystal Cruises.
Delta Airlines flies to New York City from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide via Los Angeles. See delta.com
Crystal Serenity will sail eight-day voyages from New York to Quebec (and reverse) in September and October 2020, with fares from $US3083 for a Deluxe Stateroom and from $US6683 for a Seabreeze Penthouse, when booked by December 31, 2018.