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Copyright © 1995-2002 
Linda Coffman


Crystal Harmony
Grand Panama Canal Cruise
December 9-23, 2002

by Patrick Regan

We took a 14 day cruise on the Crystal Harmony, Dec 9th through the 23rd, from Fort Lauderdale to LA through the Panama Canal. There were not many stops in between -- 2 Costa Rican provisioning and refueling (i.e. industrial) ports, Puerto Limon on the East coast and Puntarenas on the West, bookended by Cozumel on the third day and Cabo San Lucas on the 12th day. Lots of tropical days at sea. In effect, a long, lazy cruise to nowhere ending up 5000 + miles from where we began.

We had had a bad experience 2 months before this cruise with HAL on an Alaska inside passage cruise. It was the end of the Alaska cruising season and the crew was exhausted, the 2 year old Zaandam was worn and dirty and the glaciers were fogged in. You could only see a few feet above the height of the ship. When they edited the Zaandam cruise video they used footage of the glaciers they videotaped on a bright sunny day. Then they wore themselves out showing this video over and over on the ship's TV. It was the cruise from hell!

We needed the right cruise soon, we were still tired and feeling un-vacationed when our travel agent called us about a discount on Crystal if we could cruise the 2nd & 3rd weeks of December. We booked it. 

Left Vancouver BC, Canada for Seattle late Sunday afternoon. Long wait at the busy border -- forty-five minutes to cross into the U.S. Keep it simple by having your passports in the front seat with you. Gassed up the one-way Budget rent-a-car right next to Sea Tac and refueled ourselves with omelets at a nearby Denny's 'cause Jet Blue doesn't serve meals (ala Southwest). We were flying with Jet Blue on the red eye (12:45AM departure) to JFK, where we changed planes for the Jet Blue FLL leg. Blue was clean & very efficient. Leather seats and individual TVs ala Virgin Airlines. No wonder their stock is soaring and they are profitable after only 3 years in existence. Courteous and helpful from check-in through in-flight service (chips, energy bar and beverages) and a tight change of planes at JFK. I was skeptical about being able to depart on the FLL leg 40 minutes after arriving at JFK but we made it easily as Jet Blue said we would. The cost of Jet Blue one way for 2 from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale was $425.00 including tax (purchased on the internet).

We paid $20.00 apiece for transfers through Crystal Cruises to the ship. Crystal reps met us in the baggage area, obtained luggage carts and guided us to waiting transportation where we were driven to an Embassy Suites at the port for a buffet while we waited for our 4PM boarding time. I remember how hungry I was the last time, as we waited to board Holland America, which made no effort to give waiting passengers even water and crackers. 

The luggage was already in our cabin when we arrived there. We booked a cabin with a nice sitting area and a veranda - #8015. We like veranda cruising. We were shocked to find that the reason this cabin had a bit larger veranda area was because it jutted out forming the end of a line of veranda cabins -- there was no privacy on the sides and it wasn't fully roofed; all the cabins aft of this one looked upon our wide open veranda; somewhat like an audience viewing actors on a stage. Not very cruisey and no protection from the sun. We were able to obtain a new cabin through at the Concierge desk with the privacy we required on the port side of the same deck & corridor.

Our new cabin was an identical category B mini suite with one of the larger verandas with slipcovers on sofa and 100% cotton sheets by request. There was an older model small 13 or 14 inch TV w/VCR and old style remote; the TV was located on top of a cabinet where it was not easy to watch from the sofa in the sitting area or from the bed. The hotel desk had it moved for me to the vanity across from the sofa next to the veranda sliding glass door. The veranda was large enough for my wife to do some exercises... 2 chairs with cushions that our stewardess put away in the evenings... nice privacy... love that veranda. My wife says she likes the many relaxing blues of the never ending waters swirling by and bye as she sits on her veranda. We won't ever cruise again without one. Our cabin had a very clean, fresh feeling. Great for a ship launched in 1990. 

First night was open seating at dinner so we decided to reserve a table at the alternative Restaurant "Kyoto" -- $6.00 per person charge for the waiter and worth every penny -- and we had a tasty Japanese dinner. 

The Italian alternative restaurant Prego is next door. Yum, yum! We had some delicious dinners there later in the cruise. Same $6.00 per person charge. Maitre d' Paolo takes reservations for both venues at a fixed time morning and late afternoon. You get a reservation card and a voice mail reminder when you have a reservation in one of the alternative dining rooms. 

We didn't want to get our first impression of the Crystal dining room on open seating night. I think I mean that we wouldn't have a chance to meet our wait staff. And I won't know if it is Hell to eat at our assigned location because we won't be at that location, so why bother?

Crystal doesn't have a wine package ala Holland American or Royal Caribbean but the single glass selections are good wines very sensibly priced.

Early in the cruise we ordered room service breakfast and were surprised to have it served by our cabin stewardess, Jennifer from Sweden. They have a pantry down the hall where the trays are set up and the hot breakfast items are sent up from the kitchen, where the stewardess arranges them with the coffee, yogurt, rolls etc.

Crystal provides and requires passengers to use sanitizing hand wipes before boarding the ship or a tender, and the Captain's policy, explained in the daily bulletin, is to not shake hands anymore. These I think are good ideas in these Norwalk virus times, so why is housekeeping handling food in between cleaning individual cabins? Of course the stewardesses are told to wash their hands before handling food. but someone who's busy changing beds & scrubbing toilets shouldn't be serving your morning croissants and setting up your tray. By the way, there is only one non-positive food comment we can make about our experience on the Harmony -- the croissants served on the Crystal Harmony were more like dinner rolls than croissants. Club Med and Holland America have better croissants -- but not better anything else. We decided that was our last breakfast room service. No disrespect intended in the direction of our truly hard working stewardess who kept our cabin beautifully. Why take chances? In the evening room service actually does the deliveries. Our stewardess, Jennifer, also had the title role in "Santa Lucia," a candle-lit mini pageant performed by the (mostly) Swedish members of the crew in the Galaxy Theatre for the holiday season.

We had our second seating, table for 2, 8:30PM dinner in the dining room and met our waiter, Felix from Rumania, and his assistant, Josip from Croatia. Victor from Portugal was the wait staff Captain in our dining section and he was very helpful in the middle of a busy night (lobster) at our assigned table in the Crystal dining room. The rumors are true. The food is good here on Crystal Harmony. The suspense is killing me. Can they keep it up for 14 days? Yes they can. The dining room under the smooth direction of Maitre d' Jacques is a pleasant place to have a tasty, relaxing meal. Dining captain Victor made Bananas Foster & Crepe Suzettes for us to break up the usual dessert menu on a couple of different nights. Victor was very helpful in suggesting dinner and dessert items.

My wife says if you cruise Crystal and a dessert calls out to you like a lonely kitten from a cage, don't pass it by. You will never see it again. She will never forget the carrot cake, the mousse, and something divinely frothy in a glass that had a stem on it that we walked away from in the cafeteria in favor of the alternative dining venue on the first night. They don't repeat many entrees, tea sandwiches or desserts. The variety is amazing. 

We recommend cutting out and saving the master schedule published in the first day edition of "Reflections," the ship's daily paper. The schedule lists dates, the dinner theme, dress code, the shows, the movies and the port times and the casual dining buffets. I kept it with me folded in my shirt pocket so I could easily choose the days I would prefer to dine at alternative and casual restaurants and write them on to the list for easy reference. 

We especially liked the 2 nights that they had a poolside buffet and barbecue at the Trident Grill. Head Chef Markus Nufer himself was hovering at the grill turning out some steaks and seafood. The Trident grill was always open during the day but usually closed before dinnertime.

We loved dining around the pool under the open sky on a balmy tropical night and being able to have food at the dinner hour without having to dress in long pants or order room service. Now that's cruising. 

We're having trouble understanding the logic of the dress code we were saddled with over 14 cruising days... 3 formal nights, 5 informal nights, 6 casual, meaning no jeans or shorts. That's a lot of clothing in these days of having to leave your hold baggage unlocked and unstrapped. It's almost like kids playing dress up. We've been trying to cruise with just one hold bag, 2 carry-ons and a laptop, and we can't pack that tightly with this kind of dress code... it's the tropics for goodness sakes.

The day before we landed in LA they served Crystal's American Classic Buffet on the Lido deck... something akin to a huge 4th of July picnic... chicken, ribs, burgers etc. There was also an Asian buffet poolside one afternoon -- top notch -- and a huge seafood buffet served in the atrium area at the entrance to the main dining room. I had the privilege of being a long time member of a lovely private downtown club and beach facility when I lived in LA, and the Crystal Harmony comes the closest we've seen to the amenity level and quality of service and excellent food that was offered by the club.

We also enjoyed the tour of the main kitchen areas. I work on a film crew, most of the time on locations that have included institutional kitchens, hotel kitchens, etc., and the kitchen on the Crystal Harmony is the cleanest I have ever seen or -- not -- smelled.

This is starting to sound like a love letter about the Crystal Harmony but... YES in the midst of all of this food and service is a serious complaint. The bathrooms. They are small and awful in every category of cabin but the penthouses; it wasn't just my mini suite. The bathrooms all have a shower in the tub -- you have to climb into the narrow tub to shower. There are 2 actual grab bars you can hold on to and one bar that the shower head goes up and down on that you had better not grab. It is a bar but it is just for the shower head. We had some rough seas and I grabbed it and thought it might come out of the wall. Don't try to use it to steady yourself in the shower. The toilets are small in circumference and crammed into a corner next to a wall, in the mini suite cabins. The only way this mini toilet is comfortable is if you can sit on the toilet with the bathroom door open. Not very cruisey. 

Crystal held a Stateroom open house on 2 different days where we could see every category of cabin on the ship. The non-veranda cabins had a decent toilet location with leg room but still the same bad shower arrangement. The bathrooms in the penthouses were much better, some with separate tub and shower. The standard penthouse seems not much bigger in square footage than my mini suite but with a truly large square footage bathroom and butler service. The bathrooms really show the Crystal Harmony's age. She went into service in 1990, which means design and planning from the mid 1980's.

We thank Crystal for providing fluffy, thick towels and robes. These were very comfortable.

The other minor cavil is about the fitness center... it's very small and the treadmills and machines are crowded together, but they do have windows. The exercise bikes are even closer together located in a stuffy, windowless corner of the fitness area. When the 3 bikes are being used the riders are only about 18 inches apart. I solved the problem of closeness by going to the gym at 6AM or during special events or dinners that most everyone was attending so I would have the bicycle area to myself. 

The first Galaxy Lounge production show was a tribute to Gershwin entitled "Fascinatin' Rhythm." Talented leads, singers and dancers, well rehearsed & energetic, with a great band and costumes. Best musical show we've ever seen on a cruise ship. Broadway road company level talent.

The male comedian, Jimmy Travis, had a funny show. Opened with a Western swing song playing guitar accompanied by the excellent Galaxy orchestra (which also played each night before the show for dancing). Stand-up comedy, with song parodies and some sharp observational humor. He sang a great song riffing on Puerto Limon, Costa Rica the industrial port where we provisioned, dumped and fueled on the East coast. He oughta have a sitcom. He's funny. I wish I could say the same for the female comedian who shall and should remain anonymous. 

There were more production shows, great piano bars, lectures about interesting subjects, and art classes. It was all comfortably available.

Run by Caesar's Palace from Vegas. Mini columns ala Caesar's decor flanked the entrance to the casino. Professionally run table games and slots in a pleasant atmosphere. The best cruise ship casino we've played in, but couldn't get a pro football bet down though. You would think in this modern internet world they could send it to the main sports book computer.

Every day from 3:30PM to 4:30PM in the scenic Palm Court. A true cream tea with proper scones with clotted cream, finger sandwiches & mini pastries and of course many choices of tea served by friendly waiters in swallow tailed coats and boiled shirts, with music by the hard working Manila Trio. Rather grand. It was a daily pleasure, one of the many on this cruise. Whenever the Palm Court got too crowded they extended the tea into the next room, Vista lounge, by quietly setting more tables if the crowd increased. Everything about this cruise was well managed and well organized. Hats off to hotel director Herbert Doppler, Maitre d' Jacques Martin, and Chef Markus Nufer.

The tea on our last HAL cruise 2 months ago was just tea & a few pastries every day. HAL had a huge opening tea & then just tea & pastries, served in a crowded venue by an undermanned, grumpy serving staff.

We saw him some of the time on TV making various announcements and introducing the shows in the Galaxy Lounge. We don't much go for organized cruise activities, so we can't offer an opinion of Mr. Goodman other than he wore his uniform a lot and didn't give off that frenetic cruise director aura that some of them give off. We've never seen a cruise director before in his ship's officer uniform. 

The library was exceptional... great selection of all kinds of books; someone knowledgeable worked hard organizing this library. Thank you! I managed to read 9 books during our lazy cruise days at sea. It was great to catch up on our reading. The library is a quiet oasis with all kinds of books and long hours, open from 8:30AM to 11PM with a lunch and dinner break when most of us are also eating. It is presided over by librarian Ronnie Espina with help from some of the singers and dancers from the showroom. Nice video selection too, but it's now a DVD world. I watched some DVD's I brought on our laptop, which brings us to the subject of computers... they have plenty on board in a good sized classroom called the Computer University at Sea. They have classes teaching basic, actually rudimentary computer stuff, e-mail, word processing, etc., and very expensive internet connections; $1.25 per minute with a minimum. No thank you. There was a nearby internet cafe in every port filled with my fellow cruisers.


COZUMEL - We were forced to tender in Cozumel; 11 cruise ships were there the day we were. You can't cross the street from the pier without going up an escalator to the 2nd floor of a new shopping mall on the other side. The alternative is to walk a long way down the street and double back. Shame on them. The Cozumel restaurants had nosebleed prices similar to those in the U.S. No thank you.

PUERTO LIMON - Very industrial with vending stalls and shops nearby. People took off on excursions in packed vans for long drives. There is nothing to see nearby. 

PANAMA CANAL - Our second trip. Everyone should experience this at least once. A true wonder of the world. Relaxing on deck snacking and having a real cruise. We enjoyed this passage more than our first, because of having an idea of what to expect. The mechanical workings were more interesting this time, and the huge lake in the middle was more beautiful. The history of the Canal's creation seemed much more real.

PUNTARENAS - A long, long pier... there's a cute jitney style mini train like they have at amusement parks to take you to the craft venues at the end of the pier. Freddy, a courteous English speaking cab driver, took us to get bottled water at the supermarket and to the internet cafe for a few bucks. He waited for us and was surprised when I tipped him over the agreed upon price. A nice change from the venality & greed at some of the ports where we have docked. 

CABO SAN LUCAS - A short stay & a tendering stop; back on the ship by 2:30 PM in time for tea. Just another tourist area. Very different from 1965 when it was just a beautiful fishing village and starting to build posh hotels. I discovered that the bars of Cabo had satellite sports & news coverage... yet when we left the Crystal Harmony at Cabo we were told we were not yet in satellite range... older equipment on the Crystal Harmony needs to be upgraded. 

There were some good recent movies shown on board in the comfortable Hollywood Theatre and designer coffee was available nearby at The Bistro where in the morning there were pastries and in the afternoon snacks, yogurt, cold cuts, etc. 

Regular coffee and the snacks were free of charge, but the designer coffees had a $1.75 charge, only at the Bistro. Cappuccino & lattes were free in the dining rooms and at the Lido cafeteria. 

The Lido was open for breakfast & lunch, and early morning coffee & light snacks were available from 5AM until the breakfast buffet opened at 7:30 AM. We're not big fans of cafeterias, even those as good and clean as the Lido always was, so we ate in the dining room and at the outdoor special buffets. 

We are not excursion people; we prefer to just cruise. Our 14 day cruise on the Crystal Harmony was the best vacation we've ever had. The food taste & quality, the service, most of the entertainment was top notch. Our fellow passengers were a courteous, quiet bunch...nobody pushing or shoving in buffet lines or when trying to board a tender...or braying loudly in the public areas -- a very well behaved crowd. Everything was low blaring PA announcements, just the Captain's 9AM daily report and the lifeboat drill. 

We can't say enough about the professional serving staff and their great attitude... the waiters & waitresses were wonderful. They had many costume changes for work in various dining and snack areas and for theme meals and buffets. We ended up tipping a bit more on this cruise because of all the extra services... whenever we were served tea or snacks at the casual snacks & meals we always gave the server a buck or two... we were truly grateful for the service.

It's hard to review everything that was available on the Crystal Harmony... Jacuzzi, Pool, Sunbathing, Yoga, Pilates, golf lessons, dancing lessons, piano bars, lectures, classes, 2 piano bars, late night activities, and dancing. A tremendous variety of things to do & see. 

Captain Egil Giske sailed us through it all on schedule and with a smile and a sparkle in his eye. He's the youngest large cruise ship captain we have seen. His ship's officers, security staff, and tender crews were very efficient and organized.

We really prize cleanliness, and the ship was clean...all the public areas were clean, not just "picked up" but really clean. The buffets and casual food areas were clean too. Tables were bussed and properly wiped immediately. There was a night time cleaning staff always working during a couple of nocturnal strolls I took because I was wide awake. That's the penalty for too many afternoon naps taken with a full stomach.

We really enjoyed our cruise on the Crystal Harmony. Hats off to the Hotel Director Doppler. It is indeed a grand hotel; with a propeller!

The crew works 7 days a week. It's too bad they can't close the dining room 1 day a week and fill in with the other dining places or a poolside buffet with less serving staff... they could also close the buffet and the alternative restaurants occasionally. The troops work so hard... I know they signed up for it but that doesn't make it right and the cabin stewardesses should get off some too. They put out a superhuman effort... big hotels give the maids a day off. I spoke to some in management and my sources say the cruise lines are afraid not to offer every dining venue every day plus they fear they might end up having to hire extra help reducing their bottom line.

Everything was done quietly on this cruise right down to the disembarkation where there was no PA system blaring. No PA at all is the Crystal policy. We were requested to come to the Galaxy lounge 15 minutes before our appointed time based on our tag # and were quietly called to disembark in short order. Most efficient, quiet & pleasant disembarkation we've ever had.

We took the Crystal transfer to LAX for the flight home to Vancouver. We waited at the Westin hotel near the airport where we had a buffet lunch included in the transfer. We shuttled to the airport at the appointed time. Much better than waiting at the airport. This was on Dec. 23rd and LAX was a zoo.

We're looking forward to cruising on an internet and interactively wired, newer ship, the Celebrity Infinity, with veranda, on May 20th from Hawaii to Vancouver. We want to go online at will in our cabin and we like being able to review our cruising bill and doing the final checkout on the in-room TV. 

We thank the folks who run the various cruise sites on the net and the many cruisers who have taken the time to write thoughtful reviews and let the rest of us know what's up on the various cruise lines.

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