Baltic trip – with a butler
Josh Martin joins the Baltic Legends tour aboard the luxury liner Crystal Symphony.
My travel buddy put the phone down just as we could faintly feel this floating resort rumble into life, ‘‘I don’t think I’ll ever adjust to being able to order whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like and the answer simply being ‘yes, certainly madam’ all the time’’.
Minutes later, our butler (yes, butler) arrived with three courses and cheese. Silver service. A three-piece suit with tails. Despite the pomp, we – a pair of jetlagged and painfully out-of-place young’uns – brought the tone down by refusing to get out of the perfectly plush white robes. Such frauds.
‘‘So, is this your honeymoon?’’ asked a leisure-wear connoisseur with a South Carolina drawl in the Crystal Symphony’s Bistro cafe over a (nothalf-bad) flat white later that afternoon. It was the first of many times that harmless question would be asked, the subtext of which had overtones of ‘‘there is no way you’ve paid for this two weeks of all-inclusive luxury without the help of many generous wedding guests’’.
We smiled back. ‘‘Oh, no,’’ we replied, without divulging much more. She humble-bragged about having a penthouse room with a veranda. We kept this in check, ‘‘Us too, aren’t they so spacious’’. She said: ‘‘Well, do you know all the benefits they come with? The 24-hour room service and laundry service is a life-saver. You must get them to bring you entrees, mains and desserts from three different restaurants, OK? And you know you have a butler on call right?’’ Way ahead of you South Carolina, way ahead of you.
We had boarded in northern Germany, part-way through the Crystal Symphony’s 12-night Baltic Legends itinerary, so we had to make up for lost time. Sun-deck, pool, spa, tennis, sauna, cinema? Or cinema, tennis, pool, spa, icecream bar, icecream bar, icecream bar? We had less than two days at sea but I could see the itinerary overflowing with all the onboard distractions. It was clear from the fartoo-easy boarding and the generous staff-to-guest ratio that this wasn’t your entry-level family cruise.
Yes, the pool deck is still the social centre by day and the theatre and nightclub draw the crowds at night, but Crystal certainly turned it up a notch on the refinement scale. There was an absence of the usual boozers and buffet abusers (us notwithstanding). In fact, there was barely a buffet in sight. Instead, we were catered to by Nobu-trained chefs at pan-Asian Silk Road and the sushi bar, or the team serving fine Italian fare at Prego. Or both. In bed. Truffleyuzu soaked lobster and strips of rare rib-eye with jalapeno salsa are close to perfection on any day, but I can smugly confirm it’s better parked up on a super-king bed with a glass of Burgundy red and an 11pm sunset view across the Baltic Sea. Your standard all-inclusive this is not.
But despite the flashes of modernity, living garden walls and side plates of melt-in-your-mouth sashimi, Crystal – like all other cruise companies – still knows who’ll be paying the most and the most often to board its cruises. So, you’ll find the usual bridge club, dancing classes, computer lessons and early dinners at large sharing tables. Unlike me, these passengers love the structured routine, organised fun and making great friends at sea who they reunite with every other year. While I mourned being docked only eight hours at the fascinating Estonian capital of Tallinn, for them a scheduled (and rather expensive) bus tour and chocolate-making workshop in the walled medieval city – all booked through the cruise liner – was enough of a taste of the former Soviet state. Like in the dining room, I’m more one to pick a couple of larger options done with flair and intensity, but many passengers like their holidays as they like their cruise-liner dinners: a buffet of small bites from various places, nothing too strenuous or challenging, and served by well-put-together staff with perfect English.
We were grateful for Crystal Symphony’s planning skills when it came to our three days docked at Russia’s former imperial capital, St Petersburg. Russian bureaucratic hoop-jumping had left us exhausted and despite the prior form-filling the best we could get was a two-day tourist visa (as an annoying catch-22, the friendly folks at the cruise ship visa terminal treat day-tripping and then re-boarding the cruise liner each night as one visit – technically ‘‘entering’’ and then ‘‘leaving’’ Russia each day, despite being docked at St Petersburg throughout).
This form-filling and visa fee can be avoided simply by paying extra for a cruise-organised excursion into the canalled city, which allows passengers to pass through the border and back each day without the need for visas. On day three, with the other option of wasting a day aboard while others go out and further explore Russia, we joined the tour bus to the Versailleslike palace and manicured gardens of Peterhof and Catherine the Great’s not-so-humble abode.
For the vast majority of passengers, such four- or eight-hour escapades did the trick, but our time spent sorting a separate tourist visa paid for itself, as we had the freedom to explore the city after dark (which during the summer solstice didn’t arrive until midnight) and on the cheap – our ballet performance at the grand Mariinsky theatre was a fraction of the cruiseorganised option. A combination of self-guided exploration in the endless dusk of midnight in St Petersburg and our final day exploring the ornate amber rooms and gardens of longdead Russian imperials, with wellinformed guide Danya, meant we could pirouette around the mad Russian tourist rules as skilfully as the ballerinas on stage.
Back on board, we clinked champagne flutes at the captain’s cocktail reception. We had dolled ourselves up to partake in one of Crystal’s last vestiges of the formalised dress code (most evenings I’d got away without donning a suit). Despite my cynicism, the other attendees from our top floor greeted the crew like old friends and recounted past cruises, ships and itineraries.
As we docked in Stockholm, a poloshirted waiter on the pool deck followed us to our wicker nest lounger with a blanket and a drinks and snack menu; it was the same ‘‘you-read-mymind’’ attentive service we had enjoyed all week and it had continued right up until our final few hours aboard.
Although the usual cruising destination itineraries remain too much of a ‘‘sampler size’’ for me (you never linger long enough to sink your teeth into anything), when it came to getting our fill of pampering and the luxury side of sea travel, Crystal left us bursting at the seams.
The writer travelled courtesy of Crystal Cruises.
Crystal Symphony’s menu includes dinners like truffle-yuzu soaked lobster and strips of rare rib-eye with jalapeno salsa.
Crystal Symphony: your standard allinclusive this is not.
It’s luxury all the way, and you have your own butler. Champers and a cheese platter on the balcony, old chap?