Ocean’s Heaven: Cruising the the Californian and Mexican coasts

By Michael McHugh

The Crystal Symphony ducks under San Francisco's magnificent Golden Gate Bridge on its journey down the Pacific Coast.
The Crystal Symphony ducks under San Francisco's magnificent Golden Gate Bridge on its journey down the Pacific Coast.
From the foggy beauty of San Francisco to the stunning white coastline of the Mexican Riviera, Michael McHugh explores some of the world’s most incredible sights from the comfort of the six-star luxury cruise ship, Crystal Symphony. Could there possibly be any better way to travel?

Victor our butler, complete with black tie and tails, is from Romania. Although short, he sounds and looks more like a conductor.

“Vood yoo like moor champagne?” he asks us. I can imagine him with a conductor’s baton, bringing to life the orchestra around him within this award-winning sixstar luxury ship.

‘Yes’, to the extra complimentary champagne, my spirit of choice is gin, my travelling companion’s is whisky, and before we can say ‘yes please’, giant bottles of our favourite spirits appear with a bucket of ice, ready for the second act.

Our penthouse – yes, penthouse – suite is vast. There’s a bathroom with separate jacuzzi bath and shower, double sinks and space for a boogie – if dancing in the bathroom post-shower, pre-cocktails is your thing.

We also have a separate desk to work at, free unlimited wi-fi, a sofa to relax on and a walk-in robe.

All the suites have balconies, complete with two recliners to enjoy the sea drifting past in the sun.
All the suites have balconies, complete with two recliners to enjoy the sea drifting past in the sun.

There’s even a long, wide verandah with two recliners waiting for us to stretch out and watch the sea drift past in the sun. This feels like great value for money.

Our plan to return to San Francisco for dinner has been scuttled as the selection of all-inclusive restaurants on board is so good that we have opted to stay on the ship for dinner.

We will dine Brazilian-style at Churrasacria – a brilliant concept, and one I hadn’t seen before on a cruise ship.

‘Gauchos’ serve BBQ meats on giant skewers at the table, slicing off portions of beef, lamb chops, prawns, chicken, pork and sausages. Served with a selection of tapas and ceviche, salads and soups, it is a great way to start the cruise, and we haven’t even left the dock yet.

Fair to say it was the best barbecue in the bay.

Before boarding, I had an extra couple of days in San Francisco exploring the foggy city. Highlights included the Museum of Modern Art, a day trip to Sausalito and a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in an open-top bus, which was foggy on one side of the bridge and sunny on the other.

So much for sunny California, the locals told me their summer starts in September in San Francisco – or as Mark Twain once aptly intoned: “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”

The night we leave, Victor comes back with pre-dinner canapes, salsa, guacamole and a stack of peeled prawns, the ideal start to an evening that much later sees us farewell the city as we slip under the Golden Gate Bridge just after 9pm.

Now there’s no fog in sight – just a beautiful, clear, star-filled sky, heading out along the coastline to the Mexican Riviera.

In October 2017 the Crystal Symphony was completely renovated, and several staterooms were removed to make way for larger suites.

This meant the guest occupancy was reduced from 922 to 848. Our cruise was nearly at full capacity, but the ship never felt full due to reconfigured open-plan spaces around the public areas.

Crystal Plaza is the social hub of the ship, and is where you can find concierges, shore excursions staff, and Waterside – the reimagined main dining room.

Featuring open-plan seating, this foodie haven allows you to order from either the classic or modern cuisine menus. Both are good options, with the menu changing daily.

On Deck 6 there is the Computer University, which offers complimentary classes on anything technical. You can learn everything from editing your own movies to how to take a perfect photo.

There is also a bridge card lounge and a library – both very popular locations during sea days. The ship has its own cinema, too – the Hollywood Theatre – which is a perfect spot to watch old classics, new-release blockbusters or art films.

With giant boxes of popcorn available, there is something quite special watching a movie onboard.

Hotel director Herbert Jager has been with the cruise line since the beginning, and has seen many changes in the company and industry over the years.

“The ship has been totally refurbished top to bottom, we do that every couple of years. Of course things have changed in the cruise industry, all suites have balconies, there used to be only one restaurant with two sittings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, now there are multiple restaurants,” he says.

“Everyone now wants the internet and can’t be away from their phones and laptops, they still want to be connected back home. And, of course, not everything was inclusive, as it is now.”

Our first port of call, Monterey, is where the popular HBO-adapted novel by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies is set.

However, the real Monterey feels more touristy than Tinseltown as we walk along Fisherman’s Wharf surrounded by gift shops, candy emporiums and seafood restaurants.

In truth, the majority of Big Little Lies was filmed in and around Los Angeles and not on the Monterey Peninsula.

We are, however, stepping into Steinbeck country, as Monterey was the birthplace of the famous author and Nobel Prize winner for literature, John Steinbeck.

There is a statue of the well-regarded author, who wrote iconic titles such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men and, of course, Cannery Row.

Having read the book years ago, standing on the street now named Cannery Row – which was once lined with sardine canneries – feels a bit surreal.

Tourism breathed life into Cannery Row following the launch of the publication in 1945, as the sardine industry had disappeared many years earlier.

Before he died, Steinbeck famously said, “They fish for tourists now [in Monterey], not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out.”

Travelling back on the tender to the ship, we spot sleeping sea lions draped over the wharf and on rocks around the coast.

When I return to my suite, I can see the inquisitive mammals popping their heads out from the ocean to see if we had left yet, as if they wanted to come on board and sample some of Victor’s pre-dinner nibbles.

One fellow passenger walks past me with a slogan T-shirt in capital letters – ‘BLAME CHAMPAGNE’.

I’m beginning to know how she feels.

There are many dining options on board, with specialty restaurants like Nobu’s recently renamed Umi Uma serving the renowned Japanese-Peruvian cuisine.

A must-try is the roast duck, udon noodle soup and sashimi – though to be fair it’s all excellent, as is the Venetian-inspired Prego.

The wide selection of restaurants feels like a United Nations gathering of dining options at sea.
The wide selection of restaurants feels like a United Nations gathering of dining options at sea.

I enjoyed the best carpaccio I have had in a very long time, with the final dramatic flourish from my waiter Jorge – a sprinkle of salt and pepper, balsamic, olive oil and a spritz of lemon – making it all taste even better.

The handmade pasta was light and fluffy, just as it should be, and the accompanying wines were well-selected and delicious.

The range of restaurants and food offerings on board are some of the best on any ship at sea, and the service is excellent.

It was perhaps the alfresco Chinese-inspired cuisine on offer at Silk Kitchen & Bar that was the real surprise on board. The styling of the space, with a collection of black and white Fornasetti plates spread across one wall, was interior design at its best.

It didn’t feel like a cruise ship at all, but more like a very modern, urban café or a chic club. With living green walls and bright accents of colour throughout the space, the restaurant has many functions. It offers dim sum, noodles and soups for lunch, shared plates for dinner, and breakfast for late risers.

As it’s located by the seahorse pool and oversized jacuzzi, and neighbours the Trident Grill, which serves sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and pizzas, the deck has a friendly, relaxed buzz to it all.

For breakfast I decided against the Waterside restaurant and the Marketplace and went to The Bistro, a European-style coffee bar and café, where I watched passengers getting ready for the day on Catalina Island.

The golf cart is the best way to get around the island, as only longterm permanent residents can own a car.

So as soon as we stepped off our tender, we hired a buggy and were on our way around the rugged coastline and cacti-covered terrain, stopping off for a swim followed by lunch at a Mexican restaurant.

It was a perfectly clear blue sky and a comfortable 29°C as we watched yachts and floating gin palaces in the bay.

Chewing-gum baron William Wrigley once owned around 90 per cent of Catalina Island. He showed a real passion for the island, and during his time he built the 100-bed luxury hotel, St Catherine’s at Descanso Beach, the Botanical Gardens and the El Rancho Escondido, where Arabian horses are raised and trained to this day.

The Wrigley family still owns part of the island and has gifted the remainder to the Island Conservancy.

We pass the Wrigley Mansion at Mt Ada, built between 1919 and 1921. It overlooks Avalon, the main ‘port’ town of Catalina Island, with its brightly painted wooden houses that seem more like dolls’ houses lined up alongside each other.

The round Art Deco casino building houses a ballroom, movie theatre and entertainment centre, where some of Hollywood’s big bands would come and entertain back in the day.

We saw a number of deer foraging for food beside the road, and there are also bison here that were originally brought to the island as ‘extras’ for the 1925 movie Zane Grey. Once the movie had completed filming, the bison were left behind and the now 250-plus herd roam freely across the island.

A lovely, long relaxing day at sea is just what I feel like.

I head directly past the Fitness Centre, a room full of equipment which is foreign to me, but seems to be an impressive collection of high-tech torture gear.

There’s also a tailor-made golf programme, which I hear is brilliant.

“I have learned more in 15 minutes than I have playing golf for 35 years – that instructor is gold,” one of my fellow travellers, Bob from California, tells me.

Instead, I head to the spa, where Portuguese masseur Igor rolls out the red carpet treatment.

It includes stones from Bali, a Thai bamboo rolling pin and Swedish massage. When did one massage become such a United Nations hot bed, I wonder?

Drifting back to my suite, I stop by the Palm Court for afternoon tea, where a classical violinist is playing.

En route I have grabbed a puzzle of my choice, sudoku from the ship’s library.

I’m content to enjoy the view and moment, though I find myself struggling to complete the easiest of sudoku puzzles.

Honestly, what’s happened to me – or more importantly to my brain? I’m so relaxed, I feel I can hardly open my mouth and ask for another cup of Rose Apricot tea.

Rose Apricot tea? Was it that, or the Marrakech Mint, or Fruit Symphony?

Oh, I’ve changed – I don’t even drink tea at home. Ship godmother Dame Angela Lansbury would be pleased.

You can almost hear Cabo San Lucas before you see it. Anchored off the shore of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, which is backed by the Sierra de la

Laguna mountain range, we catch a tender into ‘party central’ Cabo. We take a tour that has been organised by Crystal Cruises to Todos Santos, a very pretty town filled with art galleries and shops. The town is popular with local artists and is home to the Hotel California, upon which the Eagles are said to have based their eponymous hit song.

Wandering around the streets with their white-washed houses and cacti, I buy a stack of hand-painted, handmade plates so a little piece of Mexico is coming home with me.

The stretch of coastline along the peninsula looks appealing, with its dreamy, long white sandy beaches.

We have dinner at Panchos, one of many local dining spots. The restaurants are built for tourists, with Mariachi bands playing guitars and tequila shots by the dozen.

After enjoying our fair share of Mexican hospitality, we head back to the ship.

The Land’s End rock formation at the end of the bay, with its neighbouring pristine white sand beaches, is my last view of Mexico, where one day I wish to return with the family and explore.

That’s the beauty of cruising, it gives you just enough of a taste of a location to make you want to come back at a later date.

Captain Nenad Willheim, who hails from Croatia, has been the captain on Symphony for a year.

“Where I come from in Croatia, every household would have a seaman,” he says. “At high school people would train for the sea, and when I finished college, I got a job at a small Croatian cruise line. That’s how I ended up in the cruise industry.”

His rotation involves two months on board and two months at home, but his love for the job makes the time away worthwhile.

“I’m very proud of the staff. Passengers often ask me how we make the staff so positive and approachable. I think that’s what Crystal do very well with the selection and training of the crew,” he says.

“They are professional. If we have a happy crew we will have happy passengers.”

Whatever they’re doing, it definitely worked for me. I was a very happy passenger.


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