Cruising the Caribbean on the Crystal Symphony

Visiting the Caribbean in style

Crystal Symphony

It was a unique and awesome experience to see the huge Crystal Symphony cruise ship being raised 28 feet as it went through the three lock steps (a total of 85 feet) above the level of the Caribbean Sea as it went through the Panama Canal and entered Gatun Lake.

The ship's itinerary called "Caribbean Circle" interested me. It was different from most cruise lines because it included ports of call in both the Eastern and Western Caribbean in addition the exciting journey through the locks in the Panama Canal.

Crystal Symphony

Most ships travel to either the Eastern Caribbean or the Western Caribbean. But as a Crystal Symphony passenger I had an opportunity to visit the exciting eastern ports of St. Thomas, St. John and Aruba on the Eastern Caribbean route, as well as Grand Cayman Island, Panama Canal, Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen in the Western Caribbean.

The itinerary was exceptional and so was the ship.

From the moment I set foot on the 940 passenger, Crystal Symphony until I disembarked 12 days later, I was treated to superb cuisine, award-winning entertainment, exceptional service, unending courtesy by the entire staff, and all the amenities and appointments of a luxury cruise ship.

And the reason is obvious to the seasoned cruise passenger. The Crystal Cruise staff works as a team with each member striving for perfection to make each guest's cruising experience a memorable one. From the dining staff to the stateroom steward, each guest's request receives top priority. The staff knows passengers by their names, even on the Lido deck, where one is merely passing through the buffet line.

Crystal Symphony

Cruise ships are famous for their food and the abundant amounts they serve. But the Crystal Symphony does not just serve fine cuisine. It focuses on your total dining experience. Three times during my cruise an extraordinary luncheon buffet was presented outside on the Lido Deck. One buffet featured Asian cuisine, a second offered Mediterranean dishes representing foods from 14 different Mediterranean countries, and a third luncheon buffet featured lots of America's favorites from corn on the cob to barbecued ribs.

Dinner in the Crystal Dining Room was a carefully orchestrated performance. Waiters were waiting in attendance, escorting you to your chair and placing a napkin on your lap. And that was just the overture. Then came the delectable entrées, such as lobster, Chateaubriand, and veal scallopini, to mention a few. The maitre d' tossed a great Caesar salad at my table. He also prepared a flaming Cherries Jubilee dessert tableside. Each evening a trio of strolling musicians stopped at my table to play a request. The wine list was one of the most extensive I have seen on cruise ships. Creative vegetarian selections were also offered. What more could anyone want?

Crystal Symphony

The Crystal Symphony also offers two specialty dinner restaurants: Jade Garden featuring Asian cuisine, and Prego offering fine Italian fare. I found both to be charming restaurants serving outstanding cuisine. These specialty dining rooms offered a restaurant style atmosphere and were available as an alternative to the main dining room at no additional charge, except a gratuity for the waiter. I would highly recommend dining at both during a Crystal Symphony cruise.

The entertainment aboard the Crystal Symphony was sensational. It was easily the best I have seen on a cruise ship. I usually see only two or three of the nightly stage shows on a cruise. That gives me a taste of what the ship has to offer. But on the Crystal Symphony I attended every stage show and actually looked forward to seeing each one. The Crystal Symphony presented five lavish production shows in the Galaxy Lounge during my 12-day cruise. I learned from the cruise director that each production takes at least one year to develop. The cast consisted of ten talented singers and dancers who sing "live", and the music (more than 40 musical numbers and dance segments) is played live by the Galaxy Orchestra.

Crystal Cruises also has a unique enrichment program that includes at least two expert speakers during the cruise for the enjoyment and education of the guests on board. The speakers might be a prominent historian, anthropologist, or similar expert on the itinerary area. The ship had mainly a senior crowd on board, but there were also a few young families with children, that seemed to be having a great time.

Now, that you have a grand idea of what the ship was like, I'd like to tell you about the ports I visited.

After departing from Fort Lauderdale and traveling two days at sea, the Crystal Symphony arrived at the city of Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands. This is the capital of the U. S. Virgin Islands and many call it the shopping capital of the Caribbean. The shops downtown are filled with tourists looking for bargains.

Away from the bustle of downtown Charlotte Amalie, are some interesting sites. At one time St. Thomas was a haven for fearless pirates including the notorious Blackbeard, Edward Teach. Located high on Government Hill is Blackbeard's Castle that is interesting to visit. It is now a hotel. The massive stone watchtower was built in 1679 and was at one time the headquarters of the infamous Edward Teach. From there you have a marvelous view of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor below.

Close to the harbor is Fort Christian that was built between 1672 and 1687. It is St. Thomas's oldest standing structure and is a U. S. national landmark. There is a museum in its dungeons which features artifacts of Virgin Island history.

Crystal Symphony

While I was in the busy downtown shopping area of St. Thomas, I noticed some signs at the bottom of a steep hill that indicated a historic synagogue was located up the hill. After walking two blocks up the steep incline, I came to a street called Synagogue Hill that I followed for another block up another steep incline. There was the synagogue. The doors were open and the public was free to enter and browse. I learned that the synagogue was founded in 1796 and is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. The most unusual aspect of the synagogue was its floor that consisted of white sand. It is thought that the sand was derived from the practice of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism but secretly continued to practice Judaism. They gathered in cellars for prayers and a sand floor helped muffle the sound of their prayers and songs.

St. Thomas has many beautiful beaches and glimmering bays. The year-round average temperature is a pleasant 80 degrees, and the lifestyle is very relaxed. St. Thomas is at the eastern end of the Caribbean and from there the Crystal Symphony headed south to the island of Aruba, Netherlands Antilles just 15 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. We arrived at the capital city of Oranjestad.

Tourism flourishes in Aruba, partly because Arubans are friendly people who go out of their way to be helpful. While I was exploring this capital city, I had to stop and ask directions many times. I enjoyed chatting with the locals.

Crystal Symphony

There are many extraordinary beaches in Aruba and some in the capital city. And, in addition to having lots of fine shops and restaurants, there are beautiful hotels, resorts, and casinos. If you are interested in visiting historical sites, on the edge of town is Fort Zoutman that dates back to the 18th century, and a lighthouse, William II Tower, built in 1867. I found both to be interesting and worth visiting.

Continuing on our "Caribbean Circle" cruise, the Crystal Symphony sailed on to George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman Island. The many shops in George Town are loaded with china, crystal, and jewelry. But Grand Cayman Island is most famous for its world-renowned underwater gardens. There are many ways to enjoy the underwater sights. Of course, you can put on a mask and fins and float along the surface. I chose a glass-bottom boat, and the ocean flora and marine creatures I saw were spectacular. There is also a 46-passenger Atlantis Submarine that takes passengers to about 50 feet below the surface. Some smaller submarines are also available, but much more expensive, and can take you to 800 feet below sea level.

The highlight of the cruise was our visit to the Panama Canal. This was one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. Construction of the Panama Canal was extremely difficult. From the time the French started digging the Canal until its completion under U. S. administration in 1914, more than 25,000 people died from accidents and diseases. However, the construction of the Panama Canal rates among the great peaceful endeavors of mankind that contributed significantly to the progress of the world. For example, a ship carrying cargo from the east coast of the U. S. to Japan, via the Panama Canal saves about 3,000 miles, as compared to the shortest alternative route by water. A ship carrying bananas from Ecuador to Europe saves about 5,000 miles. About 15,000 ships travel through the Panama Canal each year.

Crystal Symphony

The Crystal Symphony was scheduled to arrive at the Panama Canal at about 7:00 a.m. I set my alarm clock and at 6:30 a.m. I got out of bed, grabbed my camera, and headed to the forward observation area of the ship. As we approached the locks, known as the Gatun Locks, from the Caribbean, a small rowboat delivered a set of cables to the bow of the ship. The cables were attached to small locomotive cars that were on tracks along each side of the locks. Each lock is 110 feet wide and the Crystal Symphony is 100 feet wide, so there was only five feet clearance on each side of the ship. The locomotive cars with cables attached to the ship kept the ship on a steady course without colliding with the sides of the locks. The locks were constructed in pairs so that two ships can travel side-by-side at the same time in one direction, or there can be two-way travel, with one ship going in one direction and another going in the other direction at the same time.

It was amazing to see the our ship being raised about 28 feet at each of the three lock steps, high above the level of the Caribbean Sea. After passing through the Gatun Locks we entered Gatun Lake. An experienced guide explained the process to the passengers. I learned that it takes more than 26 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake to raise the ship the 85 feet within the Gatun Locks.

The Crystal Symphony dropped anchor in Gatun Lake and passengers on board could watch other ships move through the Gatun Locks and onto Gatun Lake on their 43 mile journey through the Canal. Those other ships would later pass through two other sets of locks that would lower them to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The Crystal Symphony did not proceed to the Pacific Ocean, and later that afternoon we returned to the Caribbean Sea again through the Gatun Locks to continue with our "Caribbean Circle" cruise.

Crystal Symphony

The final port of call on our cruise was Cozumel, Mexico, which is an island just 11 miles off Mexico's coast. The first thing that caught my eye in Cozumel, even before disembarking the ship, was the bright turquoise color of the Caribbean. It is so beautiful. And so is the port with shops and open-air restaurants lining the waterfront. There is something for everyone in Cozumel, the shops, beautiful beaches, and ruins.

Tulum is one of Mexico's best known Mayan ruins. One of the most important buildings at Tulum is the Temple of Frescoes. Much of the color inside the temple has faded, but those frescoes that remain are very interesting.

A flight excursion into the city of Chichen Itza was offered to passengers by the Crystal Symphony to visit the Mayan ruins located there. Only 20 or 30 of the several hundred buildings at the site have been fully explored. The most famous structure there is the great pyramid known as Kulkulkan whose Snake God amazingly shows itself only at the biannual equinox.

From Cozumel, the Crystal Symphony set sail on the final leg of our journey returning to Fort Lauderdale and completing our most memorable "Caribbean Circle" cruise.


Call 1-800-820-6663 or visit the cruise line's website