Angie Kelly and her cruise buddy leave their husbands and kids on shore and set sail on Crystal Symphony, where their every wish is granted. Well, almost.
We have just been shown to our cabin and are still reading an array of notes left by everyone from the captain to the hairdresser, explaining how pleased everyone is that we are on board, when there is a knock on the door.
"I am Greg your butler and anything you want is not a problem," says a tall Polish man in a dinner suit. Anything, huh?
Highly amused, we both know what the other is thinking - I wonder where butlers draw the line? How much is too much to ask? What outrageous requests have come his way in the past? Our attempts to find out fail as Greg is a model of discretion, although he did let slip that a woman had once called demanding a helicopter be arranged to get her off the ship after ferocious waves hit the boat at sea. Greg sent the ship's doctor with sea-sick pills instead, and all ended well.
As guests in one of Crystal's spacious penthouse suites, another note informs us, we could have asked Greg to unpack (I pass up the chance due to a proliferation of distinctly unglamorous underwear and embarrassment over general suitcase disarray), or arrange a cocktail party (damn, if only we were on first-name terms with the first officer or the ship's medico, who both look rather handsome in their photos at reception, so we pass on this too).
However, we did ask for a nice hot cuppa. And just a little bit of ironing, which is complimentary and, after all, it would be frightful to join this evening's sail-away cocktail soiree crumpled. Over the next four days, Greg shows up with fresh ice, canapes, champagne, hand-made chocolates, fresh fruit, water bottles and a wealth of information about life aboard this luxury US floating hotel.
Indeed, making sure guests get anything their hearts desire is the modus operandi of all 575 crew. With a capacity of 922 passengers - our cruise had more like 600 - waiting for anything is quite unheard of. We joined the ship in Brisbane, where embarkation was a queueless five-minute breeze. We're here for a quickie - in four nights we'll be back home with our families in Sydney - so we decide to sign up for as much as we can fit in: the shows, the gym, the fine dining, the tennis, the shore excursion and the spa.
And we discover Greg the butler wasn't joking about getting anything our hearts desire while we're aboard. Want to catch up on the news in Croatia, Sweden or Dubai? No problem: a world of newspapers can be printed on demand. Want a cappuccino brought to your cabin? Here's two, just in case you decide on a second cup. Left your cabin key somewhere by mistake? We'll find it and then find you and return it in a jiffy. Fancy something that isn't on the main dining room menu? Not a problem. Forgot your telephone charger? Need a camera battery? It's all fixed.
We imagine that after our taste of the 12-day Koalas and Kiwis voyage of Australia and New Zealand, life on land will be hard to return to, so again we resolve to take advantage of everything Crystal has to offer. But we hardly make it past the pool deck. On the first day at least. The lure of the sunshine and the funky circular sun-pods are too strong. On our way to pool heaven we find the newly-styled modern outdoor Trident Bar and Grill - all lush vertical garden, white wicker furniture and pop-colour cushions serving our favourite grills and salads.
And the pool turns out to be the place to meet fellow passengers - lots of friendly, talkative New Yorkers and Californians - most of them repeat cruisers. These are people accustomed to airport lounge access, meeters-and-greeters, butlers and drivers, being fast-tracked and fussed over. And with the exception of one couple who aren't keen about being seated in the dining room with six strangers when they wanted a table for two, all sing the praises of the cruise ship.
Overwhelmingly, passengers comment on the friendly yet professional Crystal crew. We ask all the staff we meet about life and work on-board, and it doesn't take long for almost all to say they rate their Crystal gigs highly. Their happy attitude comes through in all their interactions with us, and chatting each day to our international shipmates from South America, eastern Europe and The Philippines is as enjoyable as meeting the well-heeled Americans.
"This French toast is the bomb," says a woman on the table behind us in the Lido Cafe early on our first morning at sea. And breakfast is certainly something to remember. The early-morning spread caters to every taste and culture known, from the greatest fry-up imaginable to elegantly sliced and bite-size morsels of stone fruit and berries, yoghurt concoctions, delectable pastries, Asian soup and a huge array of minutely-chopped ingredients for omelets.
Our voyage is one of Symphony's first since undergoing a $15 million redesign - the last stage of a five-year, $65 million splurge on updating every room and public space on the ship. This time round, the project mainly focused on restyling the Palm Court lounge - where afternoon high tea, pre-dinner drinks and after-dinner dancing take place - with a new dance floor and decor. The ship's Hollywood movie theatre, showing a mix of classics and out-now films, got comfortable new leather seats along with technology to aid the hearing-impaired and Bose audio equipment. A new bridge lounge features cutting-edge audio-visual technology, while the teens and young kids' zone got new furniture, Wii, Xbox, Kinect, wide-screen TVs and Marimekko-patterned bean bags. In the days to follow we make it to the gym (treadmill running while the ship pitches and rolls turns out to be a challenge), play paddle tennis (a bizarre but fun game with short-stemmed bats instead of racquets), see a show (top marks for Colin Salter, who wowed the house with his Billy Joel tribute), try our hand at Texas Hold 'Em and Craps in the ship's casino, run a respectable distance around the lovely teak promenade deck, ducking and weaving around the five o'clock pole-walking groups, and sing karaoke alongside a group of partying New Yorkers dressed in black ties and formal frocks.
Even after all that, you would need another week to take advantage of all the diversions and entertainment options detailed on the ship's newsletter that appears in our cabin mailbox each night. If only our butler could swing it.
The writer was a guest of Crystal Cruises.
Cruising for food-lovers
It's 11.30pm in the Avenue Saloon, and Australian pianist Colin Salter's performance is going down a treat with the mainly American couples cosied up together in the late-night cocktail bar. All low lights, timber shutters, aromatic leather and white-gloved waiting staff, the vibe in the intimate space brings to mind a colonial foreign correspondents' club of bygone days.
Colin has been tinkling the piano in this room for the past 12 years and few can resist joining in to sing his repertoire of old favourites, with no one quite as enthusiastic as 65-year-old Beverley Newsom from Texas, on her 21st Crystal cruise with husband Weldon.
"We love this ship," Symphony's No.1 fan says. "When I'm coming on-board they get the food I like and keep it special in the kitchen for me. The crew is so friendly, even the captain stops to talk."
Like the Newsoms, most of the guests tonight have made their way here from one of three dining venues where the chefs have also been performing to an appreciative crowd.
At Italian specialty restaurant Prego our group has been treated to a theatrical company of waiters presenting the creations of guest chef Luca Fantin, from Tokyo's Bulgari Hotel. (Earlier in the week, Fantin gave a booked-out cooking demonstration). Blame the plentiful supply of Italian wines, but with specialities including John Dory with olives and squid consomme linguine, plus a sublime limoncello souffle to finish, everyone agrees the meal was the trip's standout.
It pipped the previous evening's meal by only a sliver, however. At Silk Road, we tasted famous Japanese fusion dishes created by master chef Nobu Matsuhisa, including lobster with truffle yuzu sauce, black cod with miso and grilled wagyu beef with wasabi pepper sauce. Silk Road's Nobu-trained chefs honed their skills in the master's kitchens from London to Aspen, and Hong Kong to Mykonos. Opened two years ago, it's the only Nobu restaurant at sea — the man himself designed the china.
Big names in food are recruited on numerous sailings during Crystal's northern and southern hemisphere season — with Heinz Beck from Rome's La Pergola, Odd Ivar Solvold from Norway's Solvold restaurant and New York Times food writer Mark Bittman among the epicurean experts who have featured on recent voyages.
The ship also has 24-hour complimentary in-cabin dining, plus three cafes, a buffet, a sushi bar and an ice-cream bar. It's no wonder the gym on Deck 10 is popular.
How to book
Symphony is next in the Pacific early next year. The 12-day Polynesian Paradise cruise departs on January 20, 2014, from Papeete to Auckland: deluxe stateroom with large picture window costs $US3815 ($3720), penthouse with balcony $8315, followed by the 14-day Kiwis and Koalas cruise departing February 2 from Auckland to Sydney, with deluxe stateroom with large picture window $US6955, penthouse with balcony $US15,425. Fares are sold in US dollars. 1800 251 174, wiltrans.com.au.
What you get
Crystal's all-inclusive deal includes wine, champagne and spirits in all restaurants and bars throughout the ship, non-alcoholic drinks, 24-hour room service and tips. The ship's dining options are open seating, and there is no surcharge for reservations at fine-dining venues.
In penthouses and penthouse suites: butler service, afternoon canapes, complimentary pressing, optional in-suite massage, personalised stationery, complimentary bottles of spirits and wine. Walk-in wardrobe, bath with spa, flat-screen TV with 29 channels, DVD, safe, pool tote, bathrobes, umbrellas and Aveda products.