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LUXURY CRUISE: Crystal Symphony
Style: Mid-size, city-sleek hotel afloat.
Scene: Crystal Cruises's ships, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity offer global itineraries according to the season.
Seen on Deck: Quality Country Club casual by day. Subtle sparkle on dress-up nights.
 
I'm quite taken by a tall, elegant man striding purposefully along the companionway of the Penthouse Deck on Crystal Symphony. I can't see his face, as I am behind him. His coattails swing rhythmically with each step. Aha! I've got it! A visiting conductor from a famous orchestra perhaps?
But then he stops and knocks on the door of our stateroom.
Friend Annette opens it. 'Ooh' she squeals. The handsome gentleman in full formal rig of white tie and the aforesaid tails gives a courtly bow and introduces himself in a deep-throated resonant Russian accent.
"My name is Igor. I am your butler".
"We don't have a butler" Annette said faintly. Igor persisted. I step forward and introductions are exchanged. "I am your personal butler for the duration of your voyage," Igor repeats. "You are my ladies. I am here to look after you."
 

crystal symphony
crystal symphony
penthouse suite
crystal penthouse, living room
crystal dining room
pool deck
luxe bar

'Prince Igor' as we call him, explains his role: booking shore excursions, making restaurant reservations for the ship's specialty restaurants - the Venetian-inspired Italian restaurant Prego, the amazing Nobu Matsuhisa, and the Asian-inspired Silk Road; attending to pressing (and laundry) needs; packing and unpacking upon request, afternoon tea service, but most importantly "What time would you like your caviar served?" We decide on 5pm.

Each day at 5pm sharp the most 'igorly' awaited moment is his arrival with trolley bearing caviar and trimmings: chopped egg-white and yolk, onion, lemon and melba toast. In Igor's hands, the service of caviar - lifted tenderly with a mother-of-pearl spoon as though each cluster of dark grey, individually-plump fish eggs are pearls or better still, an exquisite Faberge egg - reaches artform status. "Will it be Stolychnaya or champagne this evening, or both?" He asks his ladies with a twinkle.

While Crystal Cruises are all about luxury, it is not in-your-face glitz.

Most important for many Crystal faithfuls, is the innovative "All-Inclusive. As You Wish" shipboard credit program, where you can decide for yourself how you want to enrich your holidays. Guests receive up to US$2000 per couple to spend any way they wish from spa treatments, a unique Crystal Adventures® shore excursion, a memorable Vintage Room experience with friends or something special from one of the boutiques.

We had boarded Crystal Symphony the day before in stunning Stockholm. We lingered long on deck as we sailed through the gorgeous archipelago bound for St Petersburg. Here, Crystal Symphony would spend three days, making the most of this magnificent city built by Peter the Great out of a swamp in 1703. But other Baltic beauties also beckoned on this fabulous itinerary: Helsinki, Berlin, Copenhagen, and our final destination, Dover.

In Igor's hands, the service of caviar...reaches artform status. "Will it be Stolychnaya or champagne this evening, or both?" He asks his ladies with a twinkle.

The sea days en route to St Petersburg gave us the opportunity to enjoy the ship's outstanding amenities: The Crystal Spa; the Creative Learning Institute should we wish to learn Russian, play a Yamaha keyboard or attend the Computer University@Sea where we could learn digital photo finishing, or master gizmos such as Apple iPods, Blackberrys and the like.

More to our taste were talks on subjects relevant to our itinerary, in particular St Petersburg: Faberge - famous for his richly-ornamented eggs and jeweller to the last Czar Nicolas 11; the story of Baltic Amber - 'The Ancient Gold of the North', understanding the painstaking artistry of lacqueur box painting and the folk art style of Marioska (nesting) dolls. Some of these objects are for sale at the ship's boutique, and are authentic.

Tackling four excursions of St Petersburg over three days requires stamina. The first was a city overview, which included a stop at the cruiser Aurora whose guns signaled the 1917 Boshevik Revolution; Nevsky Prospekt, the city's most famous street; and the magnificent emerald green Winter Palace which houses part of the vast Hermitage art collection founded by Catherine the Great. The next day we ticked off as many masterpieces as time permitted.

That evening, we swept off to the extravagant blue and gold Catherine palace where we were greeted by the Imperial Guard and 'marched' off to the Carriage Collection, a viewing of Romanov portraits, then to the Amber room, only restored in 2003 after its theft by the Nazis. Highlight of the evening were the 18th century dances in the Throne Room, followed by a traditional Russian dinner.

The next day was Alexander Palace, last residence of Csar Nicolas 11 and his family. We could hardly stem the tears when we looked at the childrens' toys and clothes, and one of the last family photos ever taken. A happier environment was the gilded splendour of Peterhof, the glorious gardens, spectacular gravity-fed fountains with the Baltic shimmering in the distance.

Back on board, we couldn't pass up Crystal Symphony's specialty Mozart afternoon tea in the Palm Court lounge, where we ate petit fours which glittered like a Csarina's jewels and listened to the string quartet - playing Mozart.

Our dining 'tastes' alternated between the conviviality of the Crystal Dining Room, revelling in the taste sensations of the Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant, Silk Road or the Prego.

Between ports, we were never short of entertainment. This was a Theatre At Sea cruise with a fantastic line-up of theatrical and screen greats: Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal (for Hud opposite Paul Newman), Susannah York celebrated for her Shakespeare, and Loretta Swit - everybody's sweetheart from MASH plus some big Broadway voices.

The other blockbuster destination after St Petersburg was Berlin. Our bus was equipped with a giant screen depicting historic footage of this city's tormented past, while we could see 'the now' from the windows.

When it came to our two last ports, Helsinki and Copenhagen, we chose to amble around on our own, indulging in essential retail therapy, enjoying these beautiful cities for their parks, markets, outdoor cafes, pubs and unique architecture.

There was only one night left. When Prince Igor made the caviar call, Annette was sniffling in to her hanky. "Can I be of assistance Madam?" he enquired civilly. "What am I going to do without you" she wailed. "You could always book another cruise with Crystal. Join us in Alaska next year" he suggests.

Check in: St Petersburg , and other ports on Crystal Cruises' 'Baltic Bliss' itinerary.
Ultimate Luxury:  Your very own butler service.
Most Indulgent Moment: Perfectly-served caviar every evening for penthouse- suite cruisers.
Insider Secrets: Even the needles in your repair kit are already threaded for you.
The Little Things: A menu of pillow options, luxurious Frette bathrobes (and slippers) for cooler mornings if you fancy your first coffee on your private balcony, or a kimono on a hot August night for that after, after-dinner drink.   
Junior Luxies:  Summer holidays are tops for tinies (3 years old) and teens (up to 17). All have age-appropriate activities and their own space.
Dress code: New York and European sophisticate. Fur is in from A to B - Alaska to the Baltic. Wear it with confidence on board, or just fake it. Or waft about in filmy shirts over perfectly-matched slinky slacks.
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Link: www. crystalcruises.com
Maggy Oehlbeck   18/7/10
Photos courtesy of Crystal Cruises
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