I am a budget travel snob. Not for me the chauffeured cars if a public bus is around, nor the five star hotel if a humble homestay is available. For isn&rsquot that the real way to travel So, the first few days I spent sailing from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City on the über-luxurious Crystal Symphony cruise ship, I tried valiantly to resist the charms of the said form of travel. But I eventually waved the white flag. The abject surrender happened when I was tucking into a mighty fine breakfast that room service had laid out beautifully on the verandah of my stateroom on the morning of the fifth day at sea. As I ate my mushroom omelette and sipped my organic English Breakfast tea while watching the vast expanse of blue ocean, I decided that, real or not, this was truly the most magnificent way to travel.
It all began in Singapore, that fine modern-day take on the Greek city-states of yore. I only had time for a whirlwind tour of the sights, sounds and tastes that I had missed on my previous four trips to the island nation. Over a day and a half, I dashed through the &lsquoSultan of Spices&rsquo walk via the Arab and Malay parts of the city, took a turn on the Singapore Flyer, enjoyed a lunch of slow-cooked salmon at the French db Bistro Moderne at Marina Bay Sands, wished I could kidnap a panda bear when I encountered two during the River Safari, and made time for a quick pilgrimage to Chinatown. All this with a chauffeur and a guide at my command.
But the main business at hand was the cruise. Since this was my first, I had done my research, yet I was taken aback by the splendour. The Crystal Cruises, as fellow passengers told me repeatedly during the voyage, is right at the top of the cruise ladder. There are many kinds of luxury&mdashand I am glad that Crystal Cruises eschews the gilded bathtub variety, and believes in elegance and subtlety. Massive in scale, the Crystal Symphony is spread over 12 decks, and when I was sailing, it was home to about 700 passengers and 500 crew members.
Tastefully decorated, the Symphony is filled with comforts of all kinds, from over a dozen restaurants and bars, including an outpost of the world-famous Japanese restaurant Nobu, dance floors, theatres, casino, spa, library, gyms, swimming pools, designer stores, paddle tennis court and even a putting green. The idea, as Symphony&rsquos hotel-director Herbert Jäger put it, is that guests should get everything on board that they are used to on shore.
My only real point of reference of a cruise ship until this journey was the movie Titanic, and I tried my utmost not to think of the doomed liner when we were sailing, especially when my co-passengers&mdashmostly cruise veterans&mdashstarted regaling me with stories of hurricanes at sea, and 20-foot waves. So I considered it an auspicious start when I nearly missed the moment the Symphony left Singapore port on its six-night voyage to Ho Chi Minh City, as I did not realise the over-50,000 ton ship was moving. Over the next few days, there were times I had to actually look out of windows to check if the ship was moving&mdashand it always was, at top speed The first evening I made it in time to the verandah of my stateroom on Deck 9 as the ship sailed into a glorious sunset.
The Symphony dropped anchor at two ports en route to Ho Chi Minh City&mdashKo Samui in Thailand and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. I booked the well-organised guided tours provided by the cruise and also went exploring on my own. But the best moments for me were on board. The great thing about the cruise is that there is enough going on to keep the &lsquoactive&rsquo cruisers occupied, but those who want to rest and relax are also indulged. So, on the first sea day of the voyage, when the ship sails the whole day without calling at any port, I lazed around. My stateroom, with its comfy queen-size bed, verandah, and a bathtub-fitted bathroom, was made for sleeping in, and I made full use of it.
Once I hit the top deck for breakfast, at the open-air Trident Grill, I stayed there for most of the day. I moved with the sun from the Trident to the seats near the pool, enjoying the moist sea breeze and reading Eleanor Catton&rsquos The Luminaries borrowed from the library. The only excitement of the day came in the form of a well mannered race with another cruise ship, which Symphony overtook with ease.
That first sea day, I discovered the Palm Court, which went on to become my preferred place of contemplation for the rest of the voyage. Located on Deck 11, right at the front of the ship with unhindered views of the sea, the soothing aqua and ivory-hued Palm Court is the venue for afternoon tea. But during post-lunch hours, the Palm is mostly empty. I sank into one of the many comfortable wing chairs that were placed facing the massive picture windows all around. With my feet up on an ottoman and the gentle sunlight on my face, I quickly fell asleep. Some days later, when the ship was berthed at Sihanoukville, I was just one of three people listening to the in-house Jazz trio performing a Swedish House Mafia number.
My second sea day, when we sailed from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City, could not have been more different from the first. Every evening I would discover the inhouse newsletter on my bed&mdashhandiwork of my friendly Slovenian housekeeper. Filled with gentle reminders, birthday notices and listings of events for the following day, the newsletter on the eve of the sea day also has the schedule of activities planned for the whole day. Unlike the first time around, I wanted to take in as many activities as possible. The day saw me hurrying from deck to deck with my much-scribbled-over schedule in hand. On the stairways and in the elevators, I encountered fellow passengers doing the same.
I went on a galley tour, attended a cooking demonstration of Macanese recipes, sat through part of a lecture on America&rsquos &lsquoPivot to Asia&rsquo policy and later another on Vietnam, circumambulated the ship on the promenade Deck 7, enjoyed my first vesper during a martini-mixing session, and attended the grand evening show put up by the Crystal Ensemble. In between, I managed to have three excellent meals, including a two-hour lunch, evening tea and even a quick nap. No wonder I was feeling extremely proud of myself when I fell asleep that night.
In the evenings, I fell into a comfortable rhythm dress up by around 6pm&mdashas Crystal is among the cruises that enforces an evening dress code&mdashand then stay up as late as I could. While the food throughout was delicious, the dinners, where I shared the table with fellow guests, were extra special. Crystal follows the all-inclusive tariff policy where guests incur additional charges only on some of the top-end liquor, the third visit onward to the speciality restaurants Prego and Silk Road, shore excursions and spa packages. So there was a real danger of over-eating and getting drunk, for the moment I sat down at any of the restaurants and bars, friendly waiters appeared at my elbow, awaiting their orders.
To pick the best meal is impossible each one was as delicious as the last. There were classics like the grilled Dover sole with lemon and paprika that I had on the final night, as well as modern concoctions with reductions and foam, all equally good.
I hit Prego with other solo travellers one night to enjoy true Italian cuisine. Their signature mushroom soup, pasta in pesto sauce and their version of tiramisu were all yum. My dinner at Silk Road was the grand culmination of my day of indulgence on the first sea day. The assorted sushi was brilliant, but I was defeated yet again by the raw sashimi. I can never seem to get over the fact that the meat is raw, even when it is from the kitchens of the great Nobu. But the main course of stir-fried lobster with garlic, asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and snap peas, with truffle yuzu sauce was as delicious as it sounds.
The after-dinner hours in the ship were precious. It was like roaming around a well-lit and safe city. At 1030pm, I would reach the Galaxy Lounge to enjoy the show for the evening, a wide variety ranging from performances by local artists to shows by entertainers like British musical humourist Steve Stevens. After the late-night show, I would saunter to the Avenue Saloon or sit in one of the seats right at the back of the Starlight Club and watch fragile, elderly ladies cha-cha and waltz the night away every night.
By the time I disembarked at Ho Chi Minh City, I had had enough time to contemplate on what luxury really is. The cruise took me to a parallel floating universe where breakfast in the verandah of my stateroom was normal, every meal was gourmet, and a retinue of staff were willing to humour my every request. That was true luxury&mdasha make-believe world for a few days.
The Crystal Symphony believes in understated luxury. So you will not see the over-the-top decorations that are preferred by many other &lsquobig cruise ships&rsquo. Spread over 12 decks, the ship can accommodate around 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members. I was on a 6-night cruise from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, with halts in Ko Samui in Thailand and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. You can check out the Crystal Cruises&rsquo 2015 calendar here www.crystalcruises.com/Calendar.aspxy=2015. Prices start from $1,730 per person on twin-share basis. Indian travellers can book through cruise vacations specialist Cruise Club (email@example.com, 91-8408991111/5555, www.cruiseclub.in). Check well in advance about the visas you need to get before boarding. I had to arrange for visas for Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia. Crystal Cruises made arrangements for my Thailand visa on board.
Crystal Symphony has a wide range of luxury rooms, the most luxurious being the 982-square-foot Crystal penthouse suites on Deck 10. Other options include penthouse suites with verandah, staterooms with verandah, and staterooms with picture windows. I strongly recommend getting a cabin with a verandah. The deluxe stateroom with verandah, where I stayed, comes with a queen-size bed, bar (most drinks are included in the tariff), television, shower, bathtub and other amenities that you would expect in a luxury hotel.
The ship&rsquos kitchens use over 900 kilos of fruits, over 340 kilos of fish and seafood, and 2,300 eggs, and churn out about 2,500 bread rolls and 90 kilos of salads, among other things, every day. So no one is going hungry, ever. Also, guests do not have to pay for most of the food and drinks. There are a dozen restaurants and bars. The Lido Café on Deck 11 provides lavish breakfasts and lunch buffets. The Trident Grill, also on Deck 11, offers all-day dining menus featuring burgers and wraps. The main Crystal Dining Room on Deck 5 offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, mostly fixed menus of classic and modern western cuisine. There are two speciality restaurants, Prego for Italian, and Silk Road for Japanese, which is a branch of the famous Nobu. The tariff includes two dinners at these restaurants. There is also an all-day Bistro serving cold cuts, snacks and pastries. There are seven watering holes, including the Palm Court, Avenue Saloon and Starlite Club.
See & do
So much to do On the ship, there is a grand evening show every night. There are pianists, jazz trios, singers and dancers entertaining guests at bars, clubs and even at the swimming pool, at all hours of the day. During the sea days, there are a number of classes and demonstrations, ranging from cooking and mixology to dance and art, seminars and talks. A newsletter sent out each evening lists out the events for the next day. Then there are the ports where the ship halts. Crystal offers on-shore tour packages that cost extra and are quite expensive. The Ko Samui tour, which included lunch at a resort, cost about $170, while the Sihanoukville tour cost around $75. They were well-organised and included different places of interest, from pagodas to a local school