Baltic trip – with a but­ler

Josh Martin joins the Baltic Leg­ends tour aboard the lux­ury liner Crys­tal Sym­phony.

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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?

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