Cruise ships have personalities like people, I've always thought. Some are rugged and adventurous, but rough at the edges. Large ships give you the razzle-dazzle while picking your pocket at every turn. Luxury ships can be uptight, and wrongly assume that Italian bed linen and Maine lobsters are sufficient to impress. Others might be eye-catching and boastful, distracting you with artworks and French menus, but never quite delivering on fundamentals.
Crystal Symphony is none of these. With capacity for 848 passengers the ship is neither small nor large. It has luxury but doesn't flaunt brand names and excess. Old money, rather than nouveau riche. The quality is there in its finishes, but this isn't a ship that sets out to wow you, and the decor never quite turns your head. And although it isn't wildly sociable, even a bit sedate, this ship is far from dull.
If cruise ships are like people, Crystal Symphony isn't your most glamorous acquaintance or your party pal. It's your sensible, organised, agreeable friend that you can rely on.
Crystal Cruises is a small company never blowing trumpets, but always doing what is promised. While some will prefer to be seduced by the smoke-and-mirrors of other luxury ships, discerning passengers will be pleased. Indeed, Crystal Cruises has a band of loyal repeat customers, some of whom have racked up double-digit cruises.
Understanding this is something of a slow burn. The ship's main atrium, with its cascade and stained-glass cupola, looks old-fashioned, and Crystal Symphony, built in 1995, has generally smaller cabins than is now common on increasingly extravagant luxury ships. There are no contemporary sculptures leaping out of corners, wall art is discreet to the point of blandness, and its casually elegant decor seldom lurches into bold statement or head-turning colour. Greys and muted blues predominate, in which the popping pink accents and parrot motifs of the delightful Silk Bar come almost as a shock.
And yet, softly softly, as the days pass, you become more enamoured of this impressive vessel. It's a ship to make you pause and ponder what it is you really want from a cruise ship, and you realise the answer is exactly what this one delivers. Not useless bling but impressive service, for example.
Crystal Symphony's efficiency never falters, and yet this is pleasingly matched with crew informality and friendliness. Waiters remember your name, your preferences in breakfast toast, your penchant for a particular dinner wine. The butlers attached to some cabin categories make everything appear effortless. My butler Millind has a Jeeves-like attentiveness and seemingly immediate capacity to solve minor problems.
Many ships focus on hardware, and there's nothing wrong with Crystal Symphony's hardware. Think quality without opulence, function before form. There are comfortable crannies everywhere for cocktails, a cinema, a terrific library and mood lighting in cabins. The shower is the best I've enjoyed at sea – no bruised elbows in a Seabreeze Penthouse cabin, at least. Public space is abundant, too. A complete multi-million-dollar refurbishment in 2017 reduced passenger numbers on a ship already notable for its passenger-space ratio.
All this is terrific, but Crystal Symphony really excels at the software, and its service levels are just the start. It has perhaps the most comprehensive on-board enrichment and entertainment program of any luxury cruise line. International experts give lectures on the destinations you visit, and on history or international politics. You can take lessons in golf, yoga, bridge, Latin dancing, art or cooking, depending on the cruise itinerary. The ship's Computer University is regularly jammed with guests wanting to upgrade their Photoshop and web-design skills.
While the big productions of mega-ships can't be bettered, when it comes to entertainment on smaller luxury ships Crystal Cruises is surely unmatched. Its main theatre (Galaxy Lounge) features the excellent ship's ensemble and invited international singers and musicians, while Starlite Club hosts comedians and dance demonstrations that receive standing ovations. The latest-release movies screen in the cinema. One afternoon in the small Avenue Saloon bar I'm treated, along with 20 other guests, to a close-up magician's performance of perplexing sleight of hand.
This, I think, is the trick performed by Crystal Symphony. Everything runs well and at such a high standard, yet appears effortless. You stop looking for obvious oomph and the ostentation you expect of luxury cruising. So what if the atrium is slightly old-fashioned, when the reception and shore-excursion staff that work there are so helpful? So what if your cabin's artwork goes almost unnoticed, when you have complimentary Wi-Fi that actually works? As for the restaurants, they're going to win no particular prize for decor, but you can scarcely fault the food or the service.
Cruise ships like to crow about their specialty restaurants, but the truth is they seldom match the standards of onshore equivalents and can feature pretentious service and heavy surrounds. Crystal Symphony is more modest. Specialty dining is inclusive and, since the ship's 2017 overhaul, has become much more informal, dispensing even with tablecloths in Silk Kitchen (Chinese cuisine), Umi Uma (Japanese-Peruvian fusion created by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa) and Churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue).
The best of the specialty restaurants though is Prego, whose northern Italian fare combines classic dishes with more contemporary remakes. It says a lot about Crystal Symphony, though, that the fare in main restaurant Waterside was often just as good, and at times better than that in the speciality restaurants. The ambience was elegant, too: bone china, Riedel crystal glasses, French linen.
Waterside's menu has somewhat adventurous contemporary dishes (curried clam chowder, sous-vide pheasant), and even the classic alternatives go far beyond the usual "always available" cruise fare, tempting with changing options such as seafood hotpot, lamb chops with eggplant parmigiana, and pork loin with gratin.
Meals on this ship, like just about everything else aboard Crystal Symphony, will leave you satisfied. Some of the best dishes – such as Prego's porcini mushroom soup or lasagne – are deceptively simple. Typical that these should be signature dishes rather than something more highfalutin. Sometimes the standards are the hardest to get right.
As other ships roll out new gimmicks and gastronomy, more promises and more distracting decor, Crystal Symphony certainly isn't falling behind. The ship just sails sedately onwards, confident in its own skin, attractive and sophisticated, never boastful. The sort of friend you can rely on, and who makes you smile.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Crystal Cruises.
In 2020 Crystal Symphony sails in Asia from February to April, then the Middle East and Mediterranean before a northern European season between June and August. Phone 1300 059 260. See crystalcruises.com