Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017

© Crystal Cruises

The Symphony's passenger-to-crew ratio is 1.6:1, so guests can expect attentive service.

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The royal treatment

Cruise with the Crystal Symphony and experience what it's like to be king

David the butler glides into my penthouse stateroom in full butler fig: black jacket with grey lapels, pristine white shirt, black and grey silk tie and matching striped trousers, burnished black shoes. “Will you allow me, sir,” he asks, “to bring you a bowl of caviar and fresh bottle of champagne for your afternoon snack?” With a discreet incline of the head that Downton Abbey aristos employ instead of the vulgar nod, I say, “Yes, David, that would be lovely.” It’s all I can do not to collapse into giggles.

Welcome to the Crystal Symphony, a blindingly white, 12-deck, 68,870-ton, half-a-billion-dollar behemoth that plies the unruffled waters of the South China Sea as it wends its stately way from Singapore to Bangkok and on to Ho Chi Minh City and ports beyond. The Symphony and its sister ship the Serenity have won so many awards for best ultra-luxury cruise ship line — 19-time winner of Condé Nast Traveler readers’ vote for “Best Cruise Line” (mid-size), 17-time winner of Travel + Leisure readers’ poll for “World’s Best Large-Ship Cruise Line” — it’s a wonder other luxury ships haven’t deflated their plastic pool toys and slunk home to dry-dock.

The Symphony and Serenity aren’t simply luxury cruise ships though; they’re up there at the empyrean “ultra-luxury” level, showering perks on their passengers that other lines haven’t yet dreamed of. Any old luxury liner can greet you with an embarkation bottle of lukewarm Moët wedged into your stateroom mini fridge; only the Symphony offers you a properly bucket-chilled Billecart-Salmon Champagne, expressly created for Crystal Cruises from pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes from not one, but three different years.

Any luxury liner can dole out miniatures of upmarket shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body cream; the marble shelf over the double sinks in my salt-lick-white bathroom held complimentary full-size bottles and flagons and tubes of emollients covering epidermal options previously unknown to me: a deep-cleanse facial wash, which looked amber and unctuous, but went on radioactive orange and gritty; a smooth shave oil, that smelled of eucalyptus with undertones of lavender and discreet wealth; and finally a post-shave recovery mask, with hints of macadamia nuts and raspberry Jell-O that peeled away after 15 minutes to reveal a dramatically, if not younger, at least more fragrant me.

The mask was to be followed by an S.O.S. survival cream, which I didn’t have. I had to S.O.S David the butler. I picked up the handset, dialed two digits and was briefly put on hold while the receiver poured forth Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”

After a day or two of this, I felt remarkably like Bertie Wooster, P.G. Wodehouse’s original upper-class twit: wellborn, inept and coddled by his unflappable, implacable gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves.

Dancing with the stars

The sybaritic extravagance afforded by the Crystal Symphony ¬— “your home away from home is better than home,” coos the Crystal brochure — encouraged, at least in me, a kind of lotus-eater lassitude that, at first, made it hard to leave my stateroom or wander too far from David the butler’s attentiveness. Eventually I did ascend to the top of the ship, however, Sun Deck 12, and there the sea was in all its daunting immensity. Feeling wonderfully nautical, I looked fore, aft, to port and to starboard, and all I could see was the flat silver water stretching endlessly out toward the horizon in the sea’s unnerving way.

I scurried back down to Lido Deck 11, where the water was nicely tamed and contained in the Seahorse Swimming Pool with its sidecar Jacuzzi. Bathers frolicked poolside — well, not really. They reclined and otherwise disported themselves on sleek sun beds, some in the shade, others out for the par-broiled look common to lobsters and incautious cruise ship passengers. A towel boy stalked me with a stack of fluffy cloud-like terrycloth, waiting for me to choose my own sun bed. Looking around, I realized I’d stumbled into one of those rare and delightful occasions where, in a good light, I can pass for a spring chicken. I remarked on this to the towel boy. “Didn’t they tell you, sir?” he said. “The more luxurious the cruise, the older the passengers. The real action’s downstairs.”

“The real action?”

He glanced at his watch. “Tango lessons start in five minutes in the Starlight Club on Tiffany Deck 6.”

Which is why I soon found myself cheek-to-cheeking across the dance floor muttering “TEE-AAA-N-G-O, TEE-AAA-N-G-O,” while my dance partner, Laura from California, attempted to smile her delight. Laura looked 60, admitted to being closer to 80 and reminded me of the widow whose “hair [had] gone quite gold with grief” in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Laura’s husband died two years ago, but she’s continued their tradition of sailing on the Symphony. “He was a property developer,” she told me as she whipped me through a hair-raising ocho adelante, “always on the go, Type A all the way. The minute we’d come onboard he would just collapse into a deck chair. I’d rouse him for meals, but that was about it.”

Laura can’t abide lounging about; her daily cruise calendar is full up.

“I did the Morning Walk on Water before breakfast and then attended a lecture called ‘What Happened to the Arab Spring?’ Pretty interesting, but the speaker used to write speeches for Netanyahu, so you can imagine where that went. After lunch, I attended the Chinese brush painting class in the Lido Café, but had to leave early to come tango. Next, there’s the Abs and Buns class at the Fitness Center.”

From stretches to supper

Torn between emulating Laura’s hyperactive daily regime or making a valiant attempt at taste-driving all the ship’s multitudinous dining choices, I compromised by sloping off to the Palm Court for afternoon tea. The crowning glory of the Symphony’s five-year, $65-million restyling of all its spaces both public and private, the Palm Court’s the kind of place you might run into Dean Martin cha-chaing with his niece. Modeled on Hollywood’s Coconut Grove, which closed in 1989, the lavish room features Calacatta marble floors, enormous Murano glass vases and cushy high-backed chairs that cozily swallow you up. Soon a team of Latvian waiters with matinee-idol cheekbones was pouring my Darjeeling and heaping little plates high with cucumber sandwiches, scones, strawberries and clotted cream. And all I had to do was sit there and gaze out the panoramic window-wall at the now slightly agitated sea, which caused a mild roll and made me feel like I was floating. But then I was floating. So much for that simile.

Then, good little semi-Puritan that I am, I headed off to the gym to work off the clotted cream. The conscientious instructor of the stretch class began by asking if there were any injuries among the group. Used to fellow gym-ers complaining of torn ligaments or tennis elbows, I was startled when one man said, “two hip replacements,” and a woman at the back of the class added, “osteoarthritis and a knee replacement.” When the stretching began and the instructor tried for a particularly arduous move, the man with the hip replacements protested: “That’s not a stretch, that’s the rack.”

These are the same people, all in their seventies or eighties, I saw at tango class and Morning Walk; these were the passengers who clambered aboard the excursion buses first when we arrived in a new port. At their age, they have every reason to loll in their staterooms or not even essay a cruise, but they’re still biting into life with amazing gusto. Then, it was back to my stateroom for a pre-dinner snack. The day before, as was my habit, I picked all of the cashews out of the nut bowl. That day, the nut bowl was only cashews. To reward myself for exercising, I had a hand-rolled truffle from the miraculous self-replenishing golden chocolate box on the marble shelf just to the left of a fresh bottle of Bombay gin.

Last-minute dinner reservations at the Silk Road, the only sea-going branch of master chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s global array of Japanese restaurants, always proved a futile quest, but there was always room for one more at the sushi counter. A young chef plied me with all manner of raw fish as well as some unexpected dishes, including a delicious eggplant in miso sauce, a lobster spring roll that was almost a meal in itself and cold soba noodles with crispy tempura vege. After such a feast, it’s tempting to beg off on dessert, but I was determined to show my mettle and go for the trio of crème brûlé, in sweet ginger, pink guava and passion fruit flavours, feeling I’d finally made the move from would-be gourmet to snuffling gourmand in the lifting of a dessert spoon.

As others adjourned to the Avenue Saloon for a nightcap or the Crystal Casino for an insouciant throw of the dice, with the connivance of David the butler, I adjourned to Lido Deck with a flask full of Chartreuse and sat by the flat blue plane of the pool, nobody else around, and counted the stars.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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