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Cruise Review: First look on board Crystal Symphony as she returns down-under

Abercrombie & Kent Travel Group's newly refurbished ship, Crystal Symphony, recently arrived for its first Australian visit since being acquired by the company in 2022. MATT LEEDHAM reviews the refreshed luxury liner sailing from Melbourne to Sydney.

Abercrombie & Kent Travel Group’s newly refurbished ship, Crystal Symphony, recently arrived for its first Australian visit since being acquired by the company in 2022. MATT LEEDHAM reviews the refreshed luxury liner sailing from Melbourne to Sydney.

After undergoing a multi-million dollar makeover under the new ownership of A&K Travel Group, who acquired Symphony and her sister ship Serenity last year, Crystal Symphony first entered Australian waters again by docking in Fremantle in early December.

Crystal Cruises has officially relaunched under a reimagined name and vision: Crystal – Exceptional at Sea, dropping the word ‘Cruises’ from its name and luxury from all its communications. It’s a testament to new owners A&K Travel Group’s considered approach of retaining its much-loved classical characteristics of the ships for returning passengers while enhancing the offering for a new generation.

Seahorses Pool Symhony
Seahorse Pool deck on Crystal Symphony

She then sailed on to Busselton, Adelaide, Melbourne (where I joined her) and Sydney, with itineraries continuing to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and Auckland over the new year, hosting many travel advisors along the way who, like me, got to sample Symphony for the first time since she resumed her service in July.

What’s new and noteworthy?

The transformed Aurōra Spa on Crystal Symphony
The transformed Aurōra Spa on Crystal Symphony

Improving space on the ships is the first significant point of Crystal 2.0’s refurbishment. Symphony’s total capacity has been reduced from 900 passengers to 606 due to a substantial change in preferencing bigger cabins over smaller ones.

For example, Symphony’s 20m² Guest Rooms have decreased from 347 to 95, while the larger 40m² Sapphire Suites have risen from 31 to 132.

With an industry-leading space-to-guest ratio (1 to 93.1 ft.) and nearly one staff member per guest, I was impressed to hear that since relaunching the brand, 88 per cent of the original crew who were laid off when Crystal went into receivership have since returned.

The choice of suites is another prominent Symphony transformation. Rather than refurbish the entire ship, which perhaps would have been the preference of other companies upon take over, Crystal has decided to keep its classic cabins, which feature a darker, heritage design and are treasured by previous cruising passengers.

Sapphire Veranda Suite on Crystal Symphony
Sapphire Veranda Suite on Crystal Symphony

As such, only decks seven and eight on Symphony feature the new look with a lighter and brighter, contemporary styling across its Crystal Penthouse, Junior Crystal Penthouse, Double guest room with ocean view, Double guest room with verandah, Single guest room with ocean view, Aquamarine with veranda suite, Sapphire Ocean View Suite and Sapphire Veranda Suite.

I’m staying in a newly designed Sapphire Veranda Suite on deck eight (Suite 8012), which, at 40m² plus a 10m² balcony comfortably hosting two sun loungers, feels very decadent, private and spacious.

There’s a sizeable separate living area and an oversized walk-in closet, accompanied by 24/7 butler service, which all cabins now include. The marble bathroom is also generously sized, with two sinks and the most impressive rain shower I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of using on land or sea.

Sapphire Veranda Suite on Crystal Symphony
Sapphire Veranda Suite on Crystal Symphony
Crystal Symphony Bathroom
Sapphire Veranda Suite Bathroom on Crystal Symphony

“Understated and all about the details” is how the Crystal team describe their new approach.

To illustrate that point further, the Queen-size bed is a dream to sleep on (the ultimate water bed?) and forms just one detail of the ship’s stunning new Italian-designed fittings and furnishings, including extensive use of marble right through to the carpets and furniture.

The crisp white hand-embroidered bed sheets for example, which hail from legendary Italian linen maker Jesurum 1870 in Venezia and at a cost of US$2,000 per set, are also a stand-out conversation starter.

Things to do, eat, drink and enjoy

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UMI UMA by Michelin-star Chef Master Chef Nobuyuki (Nobu)
Crystal Symphony Library
Crystal Symphony Library

There is a significant difference in the sheer amount of public spaces inside and out to stretch out and relax in. Rather than being an “amusement park”, as one fellow passenger described to me about some other ships he had cruised on, the vibe here is more geared to stimulating your mind, body and soul as much or as little as you desire with your time.

Spoil yourself in the new Aurōra Spa with an expanded range of wellness treatments and a sauna and steam room; workout in the extensive, well-equipped gym; or play pickleball. Get lost reading in the library; inspire yourself at one of the many talks and workshops on offer; watch a movie in the Hollywood cinema or your cabin; practice your golf swing or putting technique; or of course, laze in or around the pool on the vast, teak sun deck and watch the waves go by.

Thanks to the nearly one staff member per guest ratio, whatever your taste buds crave is never far away – someone is always on hand to care for you.

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Waterside Restaurant on Crystal Symphony

When it comes to dining day or night, the onboard specialist options are varied. UMI UMA is an outstanding Japanese and Peruvian dining experience and sushi bar by Michelin-star Chef Master Chef Nobuyuki (Nobu). As the only Nobu at sea, it is a 20-year partnership with Crystal and an incredible one.

Dining at Italian-inspired Osteria D’Ovidio, featuring Italian cuisine inspired by the North and South of Italy, is also a highlight. The restaurant is named after Crystal’s owner, Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, who has a long and esteemed history in the cruise industry, including owning and selling Silversea to Royal Caribbean.

Osteria d’Ovidio Crystal Symphony
Osteria d’Ovidio on Crystal Symphony

The classic Waterside Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has a varied menu. For more casual options and cocktails on the go, there’s the Bistro, Trident Grill, Tastes Kitchen or The Marketplace. If you don’t feel like leaving your suite, 24/7 dining is available via your butler service.

Given the cruise line’s Italian heritage, Scoops ice cream bar is an authentic story of its own, with all of the gelato made on the ship to the strictest standards, apparently approved by CEO Cristina Levis, herself from a proud Italian gelato-making family.

Palm Court on Crystal Symphony
Palm Court on Crystal Symphony

Afternoon high tea looking out over the ship’s bow in Palm Court is a daily drawcard and was a favourite indulgence of my cruise. Each day, the hour-long High Tea has a different culinary theme, including Viennese, chocolate and classic. It is accompanied by a classical piano player with a selection of sandwiches, pastries, fine teas and ocean views.

Post-dinner entertainment is also widespread, from live jazz and blues sounds at Avenue Salon to the Conesseur Club cigar bar, live comedy at The Starlight Lounge as well as Jade nightclub, featuring a resident DJ who formerly worked at the famed New York 70s nightspot Studio 54. The main theatre, Galaxy Lounge, showcases nightly performances by Broadway-style performers and headline entertainers.

The verdict

Avenue Salon on Crystal Symphony
Avenue Salon on Crystal Symphony

It felt to me that the romance of cruising is alive and well on board Symphony and is a beautiful thing that comes down to the journey experience rather than just getting to the destination. She’s elegant, refined, ultra-quiet and relaxed due to minimal kids and no casinos, which makes a big difference.

In the spirit of balance, I tried to find something to write about that I wouldn’t say I liked while cruising with Crystal, but honestly, I couldn’t find anything. Granted, I only spent two nights on board, but I found the suite, service and experience impeccable, which has only piqued my interest for more.

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Luxury tours from Abercrombie and Kent

As the world’s largest Destination Management Company (DMC), A&K Travel Group’s move into cruising with Crystal is a savvy one, given they can blend their acclaimed touring business with a means to navigate and connect their world of products in a different but aligned way. Add to that the cruise pedigree of Crystal’s owner, Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, and it is a recipe, as the brand vision proposes, to be “Exceptional at Sea.”

Looking at how well A&K Travel Group has transformed Crystal and got her moving again in only 12 months, this product will be one to watch as the blending brands evolve even more in the coming years.

While Crystal may have dropped the word ‘luxury’ from their vocabulary, their high-end offering will appeal to travellers who value their space and one of the finest offerings on land and at sea.

More details

Crystal has announced plans to expand its fleet with four new ships by 2029, which includes two expedition vessels.

A&K Travel Group CEO Cristina Levis recently told trade media at a preview sailing for Serenity that the company aims to start construction on a 650-passenger ocean ship and 220-person expedition vessel in 2024.

Onshore experiences will also tap into Abercrombie & Kent’s ground arrangements with plans to add A&K land tours into Crystal’s 2025 world cruise.

To find out more about Crystal’s forthcoming itineraries, visit crystalcruises.com