Whether your clients demand unlimited champagne, fine dining or discerning excursions, Crystal Cruises can service their every request, says Sophie Griffiths, who finds no limits in indulging her own guilty pleasure on a Med cruise.
How much is the Ben & Jerry’s?” I ask the barman. “I don’t know – we bulk buy it,” he looks at me quizzically. “No, no, I mean, how much do I pay for it?” I say. “Ah,” he smiles. “It’s complimentary, madam.” He’s grinning, and I suspect it’s because my face suddenly has the biggest beam on it.
For most passengers, six-star cruising is defined by the staff to passenger ratio; the butlers; the lavish staterooms. For me, it’s characterised by the unlimited ice cream. Later, as I laze under the Mediterranean sun by the larger than average swimming pool, one of the waiters (who now recognises me by name – naturally) asks if he can bring me a few more scoops. I think I might just be in paradise.
I am on the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony with my mum, sailing a section of Crystal’s 11-night round-trip from Rome. It is my first taste of a six-star ship, and my mum’s first taste of cruising. We have only been onboard an hour, but two blue cheese burgers, several glasses of wine and (far too many) Ben & Jerry’s scoops later – all of which is inclusive – we’re both firmly converted.
We join Symphony in Civitavecchia, which lies just over an hour’s drive from the Italian capital. Once boarded and (extremely) well-fed, we spend a happy afternoon exploring the ship, which, despite its small size still feels spacious, with a number of bars, restaurants, shops and sports areas to keep guests occupied. When we return to our room we are greeted by a bottle of champagne on ice, which we consume as we lounge on the balcony of our penthouse verandah. We laze on the large rattan beds and watch the Mediterranean sun sink slowly below the horizon.
The ship feels unique in its decor – its last refurbishment, which only took place four years ago, ensures that Symphony offers luxury with a modern twist. The colours are light and fresh – and its six-star offering is understated, evidenced more by the 100% Egyptian cotton sheets, complimentary champagne and pillow menu, rather than ornate furnishings. But despite its relatively recent refurbishment, the ship is set to undergo another $90 million overhaul next year. “We don’t do things by half,” hotel director Herbert Jager tells me with a smile.
That first night, we eat in the ship’s main dining room. Guests are offered two different time slots chosen prior to the voyage. We opt for the later option – probably a wise move given how much we enjoy at lunch. We are offered five courses for our evening meal, but stick with three to ensure we don’t end up being rolled off the ship at the end. The food is delicious – shrimps with garlic to start, followed by roast game hen, and despite my initial insistence that I can’t possibly manage anything else, a rich chocolate mousse, complete with white chocolate cream, for dessert.
The next morning, we wake to a deep blue sky and a horizon of green hills, in a port close to the historical Tuscan town of Piombino. It is a maiden call for Crystal, and only started welcoming cruise lines in the last two years, although Ponant and Oceania have all now added it to their itineraries. Jager later admits to me that it will be the feedback from the guests on this sailing that will determine whether Piombino remains a fixture.
The excursions on offer admittedly seem limited – there are just five to choose from, with visits to medieval towns and an abbey or an exploration of Elba – the island on which Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned for 300 days. As a result, we take the complimentary shuttle into the town of Piombino instead, which is just a 20-minute drive from the port.
We’re dropped off in a small square – five minutes walk from a viewing point, which lies above the small harbour. Out to sea five silhouettes loom out of the Tyrrhenian Sea forming the Tuscan archipelago of Elba, Corsica, Giglio, Montecristo
Piombino is just as enchanting. The town dates back to the 11th century and is even referenced in works by Leonardo da Vinci. The history of the town is felt in its narrow winding alleys and cobbled streets. Even the local tourist office has its own story – the woman
working there proudly informs us that it was once the house of Napoleon’s sister.
We explore meandering streets, lined with traditional bars and restaurants, above which lie green shuttered windows. After, we head to a small sandy strip by the harbour and wade into the refreshing waters of the Med, joining several gossiping elderly locals. By the time we dress and re-climb the steps back into town, we need to cool off again – this time with a delicious gelato.
Unlike other cruise lines, our itinerary features late nights in port and we don’t set sail until 11pm, enabling guests to spend an evening in Piombino. We, however, have a booking in the ship’s speciality restaurant Prego – one of two additional restaurants guests are offered at no extra cost, depending on their sailing. As its name suggests, Prego is Italian (well, when in Rome – or Piombino!) and we enjoy a mouthwatering meal of parma ham and parmesan, lobster and carbonara fettucini.
That night we sample the Crystal Cove piano bar, where a pianist serenades the room with old classics. I meet Joan and Travis Hall from the US and ask their thoughts about Piombino. Like us, they weren’t tempted by any of the excursions, but they add: “It’s a nice port, people were friendly and we loved all the little cafes. It felt like authentic Italy.” It seems Piombino could perhaps become a fixture for Crystal.
Later, we head up to the Palm Court lounge on the top deck, where we order cocktails that we carry outside to watch the ship leave port. I remind my mum how she once insisted “cruising just wasn’t for her”. Now, as we sip our drinks watching the lights of the hillsides slowly slip into the night and the pinpricks of stars emerge above, she admits she may have been wrong.
Our penultimate day is spent in the port of Livorno – notable for its proximity to Pisa. With the leaning tower on both our bucket lists, an excursion to the world famous tower is a no-brainer. Although at $149 each it’s an expensive choice, especially as Pisa is only a 40-minute coach ride away. The trip though is worth every cent, despite being only three and a half hours long. Our local tour guide Roberto Bello is the perfect accompaniment, and his witty observations and anecdotes have us chuckling long afterwards.
The excursion’s short duration also means we have time for a wander around Livorno, and we head into the quaint “little Venice” district, so called because of its arching bridges and weaving waterways on which small rowing boats bob.
That evening we sample Symphony’s other speciality eatery, Silk Road, which offers a mix of Japanese and Chinese cuisine, and boasts the celebrated Nobu as its chef. We start with a delicious sushi platter before moving on to teriyaki chicken and lobster truffle. Later, we head to the theatre, where a medley of classics from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows is being performed. As we walk in, Memory from Cats strikes up. It’s a fitting song for our last evening.
The next morning we wake up in the bay of Monaco, with the sun flashing off the thousands of yachts that dot the harbour. We enjoy a stroll around Monte Carlo, salivating at million-pound yachts before we reluctantly wave goodbye to Crystal Symphony.
By the time we’re at the airport, we both admit we’re already missing the ship – and the ice cream. Back home, I stock up on Ben & Jerry’s. And within a week my mum has booked herself and my dad on to a cruise.
Book it: Crystal Symphony will be offering a number of Mediterranean cruises in 2017 with cruise-only prices from £1,774pp for accommodation in a deluxe stateroom with all meals and soft drinks, most alcoholic beverages, port taxes and gratuities. Price
based on a seven-night cruise from Barcelona to Rome departing October 3.