This article first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times’ Escape Section, 19th May 2013
I’ve dressed up for this. Not being a Frequent Floater (a cruise term), boarding this massive white ship moored in Auckland’s harbour is enormously exciting.
I’m glad I made the effort, because as we step on board, completely unable to appear nonchalant, they take our photo. Proof of my evident delight now sits framed on my desk.
Our fellow travellers on the Crystal Symphony have not taken such pains, but I soon realise this is because most are old hands at this floating hotel business. Still far off Zimmer-frame age, our companions seem mostly of the East Coast of the United States variety, liberal and well heeled.
Over the next five days, we discuss US presidents and New Zealand’s history while lunching al fresco. My heart swells with pride every time someone raves about our country and we take great pleasure offering advice about what our guests should see when they hop off the ship for excursions around Tauranga, Napier and Wellington.
For a five-day cruise, my suitcase is ridiculously large. I have packed six evening dresses – one for each day plus one more for good luck. But that’s not a problem. My suitcase is taken from me when I board and delivered to my cabin soon after by one of the countless crew who are here to ensure we need not lift a finger for the duration.
The word cabin doesn’t really do it justice. It is a penthouse suite, with a veranda, spacious twin beds, a sofa and armchairs, a widescreen television set and a walk-in wardrobe. The bathroom, with twin basins and every kind of Aveda toiletry, is poshness personified, and the lighting is just right, ensuring you look ravishing at all times.
So overawed are we by the opulence that it is several minutes before we notice the welcoming bottle of top-drawer champagne on ice. But before we can think about when to open it, our staff arrive for introductions.
First of all, our maids. This makes one feel terribly Downton Abbey and it does not sit well with one’s socialist principles, last seen somewhere in my flat as I locked the front door behind me.
After checking we have everything we need, Yelena and Joanna vow to return while we are at dinner to turn down our beds.
Before the champagne makes its way from bottle to flute, our butler arrives for his orientation. Sebastian is an avuncular fellow from Alicante in Spain who also speaks heavily accented French and Italian. He is quite literally at our beck and call. This also does not sit well with one’s socialist principles, but when we finally settle on the veranda with champagne glasses in hand and a platter of chocolate-dipped strawberries, we decide what we really need is a cheese platter, and so I call him up. A short while later he arrives with five different cheeses and an assortment of crackers.
This cruise is all inclusive, which means you do not need to think about anything once you are ensconced in cruise life on the Crystal Symphony. Every meal, wherever you choose to eat it, and every drink, from single-malt whisky in the saloon bar to ginger ale by the pool, is included in the price of the trip. I cannot get over how relaxing this is. While it doubtless encourages a degree of gluttony, it is wonderful not to have to worry about scrimping or going over budget.
On the first night, we dine at Silk Road, one of the ship’s two specialty restaurants. From the world-renowned chain created by the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa, we are served some of the best sashimi, sushi, tempura, seafood, fish, steak and other Japanese fare I’ve ever tasted.
Later, at the Avenue Saloon – think Casablanca with fewer palm fronds and more oak panelling – a pianist tinkles the ivories and makes amusing small talk with the punters. He is even gracious enough to allow someone who wouldn’t get through the door of X-Factor to sing a little number. The elderly Americans clap and are sweetly encouraging of my efforts. I could get used to this, and start to idly wonder how to get a job on board.
At Luxe nightclub – all cream leather and pinky-mauve lighting – we have the undivided attention of the DJ and the dancefloor. As we discover, he will rock out some Rick Astley, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Black Eyed Peas if you ask nicely.
After a night on the tiles, a nourishing breakfast is in order. You cannot beat Bistro cafe, a charming French-inspired delicatessen which serves amazing fresh bagels, salmon, cream cheese, jams, muesli, yoghurt and pastries. It is another fine day, so we do a couple of circumnavigations of the Promenade Deck on 5. It is 440 metres around, so it would take 11.4 laps to complete a 5km run, which my friend vows to do. Sadly, I “completely forgot” to bring my running shoes. Nevermind.
On exploring the ship, I am delighted to find the Hollywood Theatre, which screens a different movie each evening, though you can just stay in your cabin and watch it simultaneously on the widescreen TV.
Further entertainment during the cruise includes a performance by one of Australia’s top pianists, a magician, the daily cocktail lounge accompaniment of In-Transit, knocking out The Girl From Ipanema and other cruise hits, and the Route 66 musical show, which showcases a lot of high kicking and excellent singers.
There is also a casino, some posh shops, a modest but slightly heated pool and a fitness centre. Mostly, this vessel seems devoted to ensuring we are well fed and watered, and it is done with aplomb.
All this and we’ve yet to leave Auckland.
You may be thinking “Five nights, Auckland to Wellington? It doesn’t take that long!” Two of those five are spent in Auckland before we head into the open sea and then back towards New Zealand. I know we go at least as far as the border of American Samoa, however, since my phone beeps about 10pm to welcome me to the US.
That evening we dine in the main Crystal Dining Room. Guests are split into early (6.15pm) and late sittings (8.30pm). Several options come under appetiser, entree and main, including low-this-and-that dishes which all look delicious. I opt for chicken broth with a large cheese tortellini, then an exquisite piece of herb-encrusted lemon sole on a dollop of prawn and sweetcorn risotto, with two mange tout and a blanched, skinned cherry tomato. This is accompanied by a fine pinot grigio. Heavenly.
Sailing towards Tauranga the next day, the ship becomes a hive of activity. Everything opens on an At Sea day. The casino is heaving with people bashing away at pokie machines, while other passengers prepare to attend talks on Better Fitness, Knowing your Colours, “What’s So Great About Australia” or somesuchlike (the Crystal Symphony continues on to Sydney after I disembark) and so on.
I already know I am a Summer colour person, so I attend a lecture by a retired US Air Force general about North American Aerospace Defense Command and other agencies tasked with homeland security, as well as actions overseas. The audience seems to be largely ex-US military, so I decide not to ask him whether he thinks the TV series Homeland is accurate.
Each evening we receive a cruise newsletter for the next day, telling us about the shore excursions, listing the many dining options available throughout the day and prescribing the appropriate attire for the following evening. This is usually “Resort Casual”, which suggests women may wear sundresses or pant suits and men can get by with slacks and no jacket, but no-one may wear shorts or baseball caps after 6pm.
We will have one semi-formal, optional black-tie night during our stint on board, but it is great fun to make an effort every night.
So that evening, suitably attired, I leave my companions to pre-dinner drinks and go to experience the magic of Bernard Walz, reputably one of Australia’s best, most awarded, entertaining pianists. He plays a spot of jazz, some movie soundtracks and a classical montage, rounding off with an orchestral version of Bohemian Rhapsody. I sip my champagne and have a wonderful time.
This good mood may explain why, at the ship’s other specialty restaurant, Prego, I order my meals in Italian. My friend orders hers in an Italian accent.
The attentive staff serve us delicious beef carpaccio, mushroom soup in a mini wholemeal loaf, veal scallopine and lasagne. When we deliberate over desserts, they bring us several to share. The souffle al limoncello melts in the mouth.
As with all the meals we have had, the food is sensational and the staff uncompromising in both their attentions and their light-hearted manner. Somehow, it assuages one’s Downton guilt to know the crew are happy in their work. The personal touch is everywhere.
Having eaten and drunk as well as I have anywhere in the world, I can happily say the seafaring life is for me.
The Galley Tour
Having gorged ourselves silly for a few days, we are fortunate enough to receive a galley tour. WHAT an eye-opener.
In the same way I’d joked about there being men in the annals of the ship, shovelling coal into furnaces while we are at sea, I fully expected the ship’s kitchen to be like something out of a Gordon Ramsay TV programme. After all, they cater for as many as 922 guests (though presently our ship is carrying about 700) plus the 500-odd staff. Instead, it is an oasis of well-planned, logistically-perfect calm, and we are honoured by an hour of the Executive Chef’s time as he shows us around and answers our enthralled questions.
One thing that has been apparent all along is how happy all the crew seem – and genuinely so, not the tight smiles of retailers in posh department stores. Chef Markus cheerfully explains how he works 3 months (solid, 7 days a week) on, and then has 3 paid months off, living at home in Fiji. Sometimes his wife (and other staff spouses) will live on board, free, for a couple of months. Chef runs a tight ship down in the galley, and his sous-chefs and food preppers are largely Filipino, Indian and Pakistani. They are all trained to top-class service in a cook school in Manila. Everyone is paid good money and treated very well.
While Prego and the Nobu restaurant have their own kitchens (which gives you a feel for the size of the ship!), there is one Head Pastry Chef, and he and his team of 7 produce all the cakes, pastries and and desserts for every cafe and restaurant on board. Work continues 24/7 in the galley, with people chopping veges and making soups into the wee hours. Bread is baked on board three times a day (the bagels are far and away the best I’ve had anywhere in the world). The ship carries 40,000 bottles of wine.
Shockingly, we are told that the dairy and produce for this NZ/Australia itinerary was bought or shipped in from American and Australia, because New Zealand’s exorbitant prices make it prohibitive. The cruise ship industry being the size it is, it is hard to believe New Zealand isn’t missing a significant opportunity here.