Crystal Harmony 1997 Sea Lines Article
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Ship Gallery & Voyage Report

by Mark Cornford - published in "Sea Lines" (Issue 32 Autumn/Fall 2003) << Main Ship Gallery Index

Prior to 1990, the highest rating for cruise ships had only ever been awarded to an elite handful of ships. Moreover, this jealously guarded accolade had never been awarded to a ship that did not have single sitting dining. Then, in 1990, the Japanese entered the Western cruise market with a vengeance. The ship with which they intended to conquer this market was the Crystal Harmony.

Crystal Harmony photographed in Castries, St Lucia on Christmas Eve, 2000

Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and operated by a special cruising subsidiary of Japan’s enormous NYK shipping line, Crystal Harmony was conceived as the first of three ships that would provide the best in traditional cruising. Crystal Symphony didn’t appear on the scene until 1995, and it was to be 2002 before Crystal Serenity was announced to a public convinced by that time that the third ship was surely going to be called ‘Rhapsody’ or ‘Melody.’ Who are these people who think up seemingly endless lists of stupid names for ships? But I digress...

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Nights on board12
Days at sea9
Itinerary = ports at anchor
18th October
- Fly to Lisbon, Portugal
& embark Crystal Harmony
Sunday-at sea
Monday-Funchal, Madeira
Tuesday-at sea
Wednesday-(Horta/Ponta Delgada, Azores)
Thursday-at sea
Friday-at sea
Saturday-at sea
Sunday-at sea
Tuesday-at sea
Wednesday-at sea
30th October
-Fort Lauderdale, USA
Disembark & fly to UK overnight

See Detailed Mileage Log for this cruise >>

I am a firm believer that an ocean crossing is the best way to get to know a ship, so when the opportunity presented itself to do a trans-Atlantic crossing in October 1997, I was not going to miss it. Our itinerary involved a short flight to Lisbon to embark Crystal Harmony, then calls at Funchal, Madeira and Horta in the Azores, followed by 4 days at sea to Bermuda, and a final hop to Fort Lauderdale, from where we would fly home. However, things were not to go quite according to plan!

Fly cruises are all right, I suppose, if it were not for the flight! In this instance, thanks to British Airways, we were late departing, and there were no film tapes on board. Not that it mattered much, because there were no headsets either! Tip No.1 - always carry your own headset; it’s amazing how infuriated you can make other passengers!

We arrived in Lisbon during an appalling downpour of such intensity that it was impossible to see the great suspension bridge, let alone the magnificent statue of Christ on the other side of the river. Never mind, we thought, as we sipped our complimentary champagne in the registration queue and mused on the fact that embarking 960 passengers in 5-star style is a little more dignified than the mass herds of certain other cruise lines! Even the Purser’s staff looked a picture in their uniforms of ‘corporate colours’, white and turquoise. In the case of the young ladies, a delightful hat reminiscent of St Trinians topped this off.

Unfortunately, the facilities in Lisbon do not extend to a covered gangway so, after our dash across the rain-lashed quayside, it was an inauspicious entrance we made, as we presented our bedraggled selves to the traditional group of smart officers and white-gloved stewards waiting to whisk our hand-luggage, and us, to our staterooms - yes, Crystal still hold to this description and have not lapsed into modern hotel parlance, as many other lines have.

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Above: The Atrium or "Crystal Plaza"
The passenger areas of Crystal Harmony are arranged on eight decks, 5 through to 12. Embarkation is at Deck 5, into the lower level of a modest, two-deck atrium, over which a tasteful Tiffany-glass ceiling dome is internally illuminated, cleverly fooling you into thinking you are much higher up in the ship than you really are. Also in this atrium is a sculpture of two dancers in full evening dress, surrounded by the usual ‘moving water’ feature. Interestingly, throughout the whole voyage I only saw this working once, and it wasn’t on embarkation day! Hmm, I thought.

As in so many modern cruise ships these days, the cabins (sorry, staterooms) are almost all identical, but for their position in the ship and whether or not they have balconies. They are practical and spacious, and are decorated in soft pastel shades. Even the lowest grades have a fully-stocked, built-in refrigerator, private safe, multi-channel TV with VCR, walk-in clothes closet and bath-tub/shower. American ‘tubs’ may not be quite up to British Standard, but they are better than nothing and, after a hard day sightseeing, there is nothing I like better than a lovely soak in the bath while the water slops back and forth as the ship heads back out to sea.

Just a few snags though. There was nothing in the fridge, the safe wouldn’t respond to numerical instructions, there was no remote control for the TV, which didn’t work anyway, and we had a broken drawer in one of the bedside tables. It was at this point that we discovered that the ship had just come out of refit!

Well, at least our luggage had arrived. The Captain announced that departure would now be delayed until 11 p.m., and said that seas in the Atlantic were 10-12 feet high and he apologised in advance because it might be “a bit bumpy.” Hmm, I thought again. Such a technical turn of phrase.

Dinner was served in open sitting that first evening, which avoided the usual panic at the Restaurant Manager’s desk beforehand. First night is not usually a good guide as to the best a dining room can offer but, even so, we were impressed.

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The Crystal Dining Room
Subsequent evenings were to give the Crystal Dining room true opportunity to surpass any critic’s high expectations. True to the Line’s name, there is lead-crystal on the tables as well as silver cutlery and starched linen, and the waiters behave as though they are confident in their knowledge of their job. They are mostly European, mostly male (although our section had an excellent wine stewardess), highly intelligent, at least bilingual, and not to be underestimated. However, unlike many other ships’ dining rooms, the Crystal Dining Room is decorated in the simplest way. Tasteful crystal dressings to the lights are the only concession to glitz. There are no heavy colours and very little in the way of brass, glass or mirror finishes. Because the ship maintains two sittings for dinner, the room comfortably seats less than 500 passengers, so its size is not intimidating. This allows the food to speak for itself. Which it certainly does.

By the following evening, the safe had been provided with a new battery, the fridge stocked and we had a remote control for the TV. However, said TV still didn’t work, and the drawer was still stuck. Second trip to the Purser’s desk! It was also shortly before guests amassed for the Captain’s cocktail party that it was announced that because of our late departure from Lisbon, we would be 2 hours late arriving at Funchal. The time could not be made up, as the ship’s speed was limited, because of a ‘faulty coil’ following the refit. They hoped to have spares at Madeira. This announcement was carefully timed to be after the Tours Office had closed for the day, although the Tours Staff would have to run the gauntlet at the evening’s cocktail party! Hmmm, I thought ... again. The next day’s arrival in Funchal was even later than announced but, in consolation, the Captain announced (this is becoming a habit I thought) that we would now be staying until 6 p.m. Four hours late arriving, 2 hours late leaving. Hmmm...

Crystal Harmony in a grey and wet Funchal, Madeira

As it happened, Madeira was almost as wet as Lisbon. It was not only the sea that was coming in waves. (Tip no. 2 - Always pack a proper James Fox Travelling Umbrella, the type that is gale-proof, not the silly collapsible sort that collapses when it rains heavily!). So we took the thoughtfully provided courtesy bus back to the ship in time for afternoon tea in the Palm Court.

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The beautiful Palm Court
Situated on Deck 11, high atop the ship, the Palm Court is a truly delightful room and, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful rooms on any ship in service. Occupying the full width of the ship, with floor-to-ceiling smoked-glass windows, Rattan-style furniture and huge displays of palms and other plants, the room takes on the air of a spacious conservatory, emphasised by 4 lantern lights in the roof, over the plant displays. There is also a good-sized dance-floor and small stage in the centre, making the room ideal for all functions. Afternoon tea in the Palm Court is an event. White-gloved waiters, in tails, serve tea from silver teapots and dispense sandwiches and (real) cream cakes to tempt every palate. You can also help yourself from the selection laid out in the centre of the room, if you are one of those who like to ‘pile their plate up’ but generally speaking, the atmosphere is refined and dignified. A trio provides ‘tea-dance’ music and, on one afternoon, we were treated to an impromptu vocal performance from one of the Italian waiters. He was really rather good.

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The stunning Vista Lounge on Deck-11
Forward of the Palm Court is the Vista Lounge. Because the only way to get to it is via the Palm Court, by day it is a quiet haven with a spectacular 180-degree view, while by night it is transformed into a sumptuous pre-dinner cocktail lounge that never gets too crowded. Seating is arranged in shallow tiers, giving the room elevation and depth, while the lighting is subdued, with internally illuminated glass balustrades, etched with star-charts. All this gives the room an intimate atmosphere in which the attentive service of the stewards, and the variety of hot hors d’oevres they offer, encourage you to “go on, spoil yourself”. Almost every evening in our case! In fact, it was in the Vista Lounge that we were seated, watching the sun set dead ahead, as we headed to open sea from Madeira, our course allegedly for the Azores. Have a think about that for a minute, and we’ll come back to it later.

Aft of the Palm court, in the centre of the ship, is the main lido area, around the Seahorse Pool. There is nothing special about this part of the ship and, in common with so many other modern ships, the pool suffers from being too far from the ship’s centre of gravity. In this case, the pool is quite long in relation to its width, and it had a nasty habit of tipping its contents out all over the decks around it - so much so that most of the time it was drained, and I had only a couple of opportunities to take a dip.

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The Neptune Pool covered by its "Magrodome"
This endearing trait is also clearly the case with the ship’s second pool, the Neptune, which has a ‘swim-up’ bar, but was kept empty throughout the whole voyage. In all my travels, I’ve never seen anyone swim up and order a drink at one of these bars! This area, immediately aft of the lido area, is covered with the now ubiquitous ‘magrodome’ roof that can be opened in stages, depending on the weather and the wind. In fact, we found that when the ship was in motion, there was an unfortunate ‘vortex’ which meant that it wasn’t the sheltered place to sit you might think it might be. But by careful experiment, we found our favourite spots and, for us, the best feature of this part of the ship was the ice cream parlour - which was free!

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The Lido Cafe
Also on this deck, and running all the way aft, on the port side, is the Lido Cafe. Gently decorated in what I call ‘conservatory colours’, this was a pleasantly laid out space, practical, and not too crowded - but then, that is very much the theme of the ship. With just 960 passengers distributed around a 49,000-ton ship, a very relaxed and stress-free ambience is generated. The starboard side, opposite the Lido Cafe, is taken up with Crystal Harmony’s ‘alternative dining experience’ - both of them. Served by the same galley, ‘Prego’ is an Italian-style restaurant, with an accent on pasta, while ‘Kyoto’ is Japanese in theme. There is no extra charge for dining in either of these restaurants and reservations are on a first-come first-served basis, so booking can be a bit of a gamble; although to be fair, they do make sure that first-time reservations get priority over repeaters. The menus remain fixed for the week and the atmosphere in both restaurants is intimate but quite busy, particularly in ‘Prego.’ As these restaurants are positioned aft on Deck Eleven, the motion of the ship is quite noticeable and can be distracting. Perhaps it was for this reason, as well as creating more space for the Lido Cafe, that on Crystal Symphony, the equivalent of these restaurants was moved down to Deck Six, where most of the public rooms are situated.

The ship’s fitness suite is situated right up on Deck 12, above the lido and around the funnel-housing, with ocean views astern. There are the usual beauty salon, saunas, massage cabins and a large, well-equipped gymnasium. Indeed, that goes for the occupants too, judging by the dancers and entertainers regularly using this facility.

At about 10 a.m. on the Tuesday morning after leaving Madeira, the Captain broke the news that there was particularly inclement weather between Madeira and the Azores and it would not only be an unpleasant passage but we would be late - like very late! Moreover, he had not been able to fix his faulty coil while the ship was in Madeira and could still only maintain about 14 knots, so it would have meant that we would not only have had to miss our call at Bermuda but would probably be late arriving at Fort Lauderdale. In other words, we were not going to the Azores at all but heading straight for Bermuda, where we would arrive as per schedule on Monday. (Now, if you were paying attention earlier, you would have worked this out already – as indeed I had done at the time!)

Crystal Harmony's afterdecks provide a nice sheltered spot with a great view of the sea

The Captain’s announcement continued at this point to advise us that, in compensation for the loss of a port, we would all get a $200 credit on our shipboard account and, the following morning, the Hotel Director declared ‘complimentary happy hour’ at all ships bars until midday. Well, that was it - we were off to the Lido Bar to drown our sorrows at Crystal’s expense and, three Tequila Sunrises later, the sun came out and we had forgotten all about the Azores!

Thursday, and the sea was building to 20-30 ft and the spray from the bow was up to the Bridge wings but we were still making 14 knots. Modern cruise ships are not designed for this kind of sea but Crystal Harmony maintained a level of dignity that others lack. Mind you, we were booked into the Kyoto restaurant that night, and astern up on Deck 11 the motion was very noticeable.

Things began to settle down after that. The marvellous thing about sailing west across the Atlantic is that you gain an hour every night for at least five nights in a row. It never fails to amaze me how much sleep you can take when at sea doing nothing for six days, but perhaps the free wine-tasting seminars on two afternoons had something to do with it!

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Club 2100
Cabaret Lounge
Avenue Saloon Caesar's Palace
The Casino
The Bistro

The main public rooms on Crystal Harmony, with the exception of the dining room on the deck below, are on Deck 6. For only 960 passengers, the ship is extremely well provided: the main Galaxy Show Lounge is forward, and the Club 2100 (Cabaret Lounge) is astern, with all me usual attributes in-between. These include a full-sized cinema, a disco/night club, shops, two smaller lounges, the Avenue Saloon (which is very much the men’s smoking bar-lounge - all wood panelled and cigars), and the obligatory casino. Thankfully, this is quite modest in size, its only drawback being that it opens directly off the marble atrium, and the ‘rattle-rattle-rattle’ of the slot machines tends to carry too much for my liking. I probably noticed this more because the other neat feature, which is also off the atrium, is the Bistro. Here you can get coffee and other drinks along with chocolates or pastries all day. This is a nice, casual place to have morning coffee with your friends and, unlike on many other ships, everything, apart from the alcoholic drinks, is free. You may pay rather more for 5-star cruising, but this is due to all these little extras that you could easily take for granted.

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Crystal Harmony at King's Wharf, Bermuda
After six days, we arrived at Bermuda, two hours late, and tied up at the King’s Wharf Terminal at Ireland Island. I am truly fortunate to have visited Bermuda on a number of occasions over my cruising years, and there is so much to say in its favour; but this tale has its limitations and I can only say "Go there. It is the best of everywhere else, with all the nasty stuff taken out"; for a start, there are no crowds, no amusement arcades, and no slums. It is stunning and little short of perfection. If anywhere deserves the name "Paradise", this is it.

Our day in Paradise, however, was not to be without its price. In the course of our exploration to a deserted and beautiful beach, one of my companions slipped and fell on the jagged volcanic rocks, receiving some nasty gashes and bruises as well as the sad loss of his camera in a rock-pool. Anywhere else and my holiday destination assessment would be ‘-5’ but Bermuda is the one place where something like this can happen and it not affect your love of the place. We departed Bermuda at 4.30 that afternoon - far too early but Crystal Harmony had a schedule to meet and we had to be in Fort Lauderdale by breakfast time Wednesday – and we were still only doing 14 knots!

In 2006, Crystal Harmony left the Crystal fleet and was re-assigned to the Japanese parent company fleet as Asuka II. Meanwhile her almost identical sister-ship, Crystal Symphony (1995) continued in service for Crystal, along with the larger Crystal Serenity, which joined the fleet in 2003.

See Detailed Mileage Log for this cruise >>

Cruise Mileage: 3,934 nautical miles
Total Mileage to date: 62,319 n miles

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