Martini in hand on Crystal Symphony's Wine
and Food Festival Cruise
By Toby Saltzman
Symphony approaching Malta.
It's a long way from the cuisine of Lutece to the floating kitchen
bound for Bordeaux, but Andre Soltner, celebrated chef of New York's
famed eatery, is in his element. Outside, the sun is shining, the
pool invigorating, the music upbeat - a mecca on deck for passengers
who care less for culinary art than eating. Inside, the air is fragrant
as Soltner dazzles his audience, whipping basic ingredients into
salmon en croute, tarte a l'ognion and fruity desserts. As each
nuance of skill is magnified on stage-side screens, Soltner peppers
his dialogue with anecdotes of Lutece (when the Kennedy's dined,
Jackie always said, "Andre, cook what you want.")...the paradox
of French diets rich in fois gras and red wine, and the tricks of
his trade. "Don't try to be too sophisticated. Cook from the heart...every
dish will be perfect."
floor graces the
main square of Barcelona.
When samples are passed, along with crystal goblets of Medoc Bordeaux,
the audience murmurs delight. Primed by earlier sessions with the
sommelier, they are anticipating excursions to the wineries of Bordeaux,
Medoc and St. Emilion.
More than a themed vacation for gourmands and oenophiles, the Crystal
Symphony cruise around the Iberian Peninsula - from Spain to Portugal,
France and Britain - imbues nonchalant eaters and novice imbibers
with connoisseur tastes. What with delectables stocked at previous
ports (tins of Russian Caviar, cheeses from France ripening in the
fridge), regional specialties culled from markets en route (plump
fruits and vegetables in Barcelona; escargot in Cadiz; oysters,
sea bass andpompano in Vigo; fois gras in Bordeaux) to supplement
freezers brimming with North American prime meats and poultry, meals
are a sensation.
Feeding temptations is second nature to Nippon Yusen Kaisha of
Japan - the Los Angeles based owners of Crystal Cruises' Harmony
and her US $200 million sister ship, the Crystal Symphony - who
know well the discerning habits of their clientele. Since the vessel
is as much a choice destination as the ports, a certain indulgence
is their rite. Fine victuals and potables are no less significant
than luxuriously outfitted staterooms, impeccable service, absolute
discretion from personal butlers, or the amazing grace the ship
bears for her size - 50,000 tons, huge by cruise ship standards
for a mere 960 guests, one of the highest space ratios afloat.
skyline of Cadiz
glows in the dawn light.
The Crystal Symphony embodies elegant restraint, with tranquil
hues, an atrium lobby, and (ignoring one campy bronze corpus - the
casino's signature mascot) not a smidgen of affected glitz. The
pool and lido areas, among the biggest afloat, include one pool
with a retractable magrodome. Activities are abundant and varied
with a good balance of intellectually oriented and mindless diversions.
If all this sounds contrived, too perfectly orchestrated, it suits
the passengers fine.
A foodie at heart, I was ready to fly to Barcelona at the drop of
a peseta, but my husband, Ken needed coaxing. Ken, who concedes to
like cruising for the fresh salt breeze on his face as he jogs around
the track at sunrise, but secretly, relishes a martini and caviar
while devouring a book on his private, sun-kissed balcony, needed
to know: "Does the ship have an uninterrupted jogging track?" he asked.
"A gym loaded with ample gizmos so I get a turn? A golf driving range
to practice my swing? A real swimmers' pool? To save my waist, alternative
"healthy" meals? And absolutely no demands to join group shindigs
or be herded on tour buses?"
tiles on street benches in Cadiz.
"For sure," I swore, though I knew he'd never touch a diet dish.
Others, I bet, would be enticed by the sophisticated gaming of the
ship's franchised Las Vegas Caesar's Palace.
Envisioning centuries of romance and historic folklore inscribed
in the time-worn architecture of the ancient Iberian ports on this
"Path of the Phoenicians" itinerary, I foresaw days exploring cobbled
streets, sipping frosty beers at bistros in sunny squares, returning
to the ship for a refreshing swim, or perhaps a massage and snooze
before cocktails and dinner. And though the Crystal Symphony offered
alluring excursions, I promised to coddle Ken's penchant for leisurely
independence by booking private drivers with the ship's concierge,
though I knew, somewhere along the line, for efficiency, he'd hop
sell oysters fresh from
the sea on the streets of Vigo.
After a frenzied tour of Barcelona - seeing spirited Catalonians
on Las Ramblas, devouring spicy paella al fresco, racing past buskers
and street musicians to view works by Picasso et al (not to mention
Miro's intricate tiles on the promenade) - the Crystal Symphony
was a haven of tranquillity. By the time we unpacked (stashing everything,
with room to spare in our spacious, veranda suite) we were ready
to explore the ship. So we started - where else? - at the Martini
Bar, where a pianist did justice to Debussy on a lucite grand piano.
"Perfect," said Ken, about his Stolichnaya Cristall Vodka-Dry Vermouth
concoction. My Bombay Sapphire Gin with Blue Curacao was heady stuff,
the right shade for a cruise.
Our first impressions of the Crystal Symphony's exceedingly amenable
style proved unchallenged after ten days at sea. The host of lounges
and eateries, each with unique ambience and cuisine (a clubby western
bar, continental style bistro, Italian restaurant, a salon-cum-tea-room
evocative of a lushly palmed Polynesian abode), cut the risk of
spatial boredom. Fresh flowers, appropriate live music enhanced
every venue - indoors and out. The nightly, cabaret was worth seeing,
and the bands had the beat so dancing was fun.
at Chateaux Mouton
Rothschild in Bordeaux, France.
Each port was enchanting in its own way. Ancient Cadiz, founded
on a breezy peninsula by Phoenicians in 1100 BC, is perhaps humble
by Spanish standards, yet rich with baroque cathedrals and warrens
of tiny streets adorned by brilliant tiles and intricate wrought
iron. Lisbon, a treasure of Moorish and Medieval architecture, which
we approached via the Tagus River, slipping under Europe's longest
suspension bridge. Vigo, gateway to the Spanish fishing fleet, where
Galicia's deep harbor is reputed to hold sunken galleons laden with
gold. Beautiful Bordeaux, steeped in 18th century classicism and
the best wine country in the world, where we piled into a bordeaux-colored
van for a private wine tour past dreamy vineyards and petite chateaux
with signs boasting "degustation vente", to visit Chateaux Mouton
Rothschild, Lafitte Rothschild, D'Estournel, Beychevelle, and historic
Saint-Emilion. And finally, St. Peter Port in Guernsey, spectacular
at dawn, when its houses, tiered into the hills, rise above brightly
colored fishing boats exposed at low tide.
It was a treat to return to the Crystal Symphony each day. For
a ship this size, it conveys the intimacy of a small yacht. If it's
trite to say the itinerary was delightful, the cruise relaxing,
the ship perfect, I'm at loss for words.
beautiful at dawn when the houses terraced into the hills
tower over fishing boats exposed at low tides.
Crystal Symphony's 104-day 2001 World Cruise from Los Angeles
to London, departing Jan. 12, is available in four voyage segments
ranging from 24 to 28 days.
"World Value" fares for individual segments begin at $9,850 per
person, double occupancy.
Crystal Cruise Line: 800-446-6620