Crystal Symphony cruising Rome to Istanbul

Posted on May 13, 2013 | Comments Off on Crystal Symphony cruising Rome to Istanbul

Crystal Symphony from Santorini DSC4194

Cruising from Rome to Istanbul through the islands of Greece on the Crystal Symphony is a voyage through the origins of Western Civilisation. Even the one-hour limousine transfer to the ship in Civitavecchia from the grand Majestic Roma Hotel on Rome’s stylish Via Veneto is a reminder that ancient Rome was a long way from the sea. By contrast, Athens is within sight of the sea and Istanbul (once Constantinople and the heart of the Holy Roman Empire) spans the Bospherus that separates Europe and Asia.

It’s a trip through film culture, too. In Rome we downloaded and watched Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn scootering through “Roman Holiday”, looked for “The Godfather” in Sicily, viewed the museum jewels to be heisted in “Topkapi” and recalled friends who were roped in as beachside extras for “Shirley Valentine”. Clever Crystal Cruises had a television channel running movies that featured ports along our route.

The first stop on Crystal Symphony’s voyage was a port the line had never visited before. It’s hard to believe that there are any new Mediterranean ports after millennia of civilisation have washed across it like a tidal flow but the island of Ponza was a first for all of us. Midway between Rome’s port of Civitavecchia and Sorrento, Ponza has been an escape for Neopolitans (the people of Napoli, not the icecream) for centuries.

In April we were reminded how seasonal European summer resorts (and indeed summer) can be. Shuttered cafes lined the harbour front and a tunnel, built by the Romans, to Chiaia di Luna Beach backed by a towering crescent of black tuff cliffs, was closed. The steep hills provide a good workout and walkers and cars sharing tunnels through the cliffs between the parts of the village was, um, challenging.

Chiaia di Luna Beach Ponza DSC2766

Storme Brown, Crystal Symphony’s Shore Excursions Manager, told me that the company had been planning Ponza as port of call for two years before this visit. “Some of its infrastructure isn’t up to our standards – for example the buses are pretty basic,” she told me. “But, on the other hand, there’s the excitement of a new destination. That’s particularly important to our repeat passengers.”

In the pecking order of cruise lines, Crystal is consistently rated as one of the best among the rarefied ranks of luxury lines. Crystal Symphony has a different atmosphere to other ships. She was built in 1995 so she is far from new but she radiates refinement and the public areas gleam without being brash. Substantial expensive refits in 2006 and 2009 succeeded in making the ship contemporary (including raised bathroom basins and effective wifi ship-wide) and sophisticated bars and restaurants. This year she became all-inclusive so not only do Australians not have to fret about tipping etiquette but drinks are included, whether from your minibar or the various bars and dining venues. Also “Dining by Reservation” has been introduced – a great system whereby most guests can still select first or second sittings for dinner but others can reserve a table for a different time each night, depending on the day’s activities.

We found “Dining by Reservation” achieved its aim of making you feel the ship provides fine dining restaurants, rather than a set-seating dining room experience. The greatest freeform option we discovered was the Sushi Bar within the specialist Silk Road Restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. About half a dozen chairs front the open kitchen so the lucky few have a front row view of three sushi and sashimi chefs working their magic. It was excellent food and great interactive entertainment.

Positano DSC3063

Sorrento poses a dilemma for the visitor. Do you stay in the charming little clifftop town itself, take a boat to the Isle of Capri, drive down the winding road carved into the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast where villages like Positano seem suspended in space or visit the volcanic ruins of Pompei? Fortunately, Crystal Symphony spent two days in Sorrento so we did it all in a couple of very crowded days. Part of the joy of cruising is that you can accomplish so much more each day because your home comes with you and you aren’t battling with luggage, taxis, transfers and check-ins at each destination. We had been travelling for a few weeks and unpacking for 12 whole nights was great. Inclusive luxury cruising also deletes the decision of whether to spend three Euros for a drink in town or $15 for a cocktail in the comfort of the ship.

Taormina Greek Theatre & Mt Etna DSC3271

Sicily was a revelation to me. I’ve never been before but I left vowing to go back. Taormina is set back from the sea almost in the shadow of Mount Etna. It’s an unusual cruise destination because, after tendering ashore, there’s a 20 minute coach transfer to a car park where you catch the lift up seven levels to emerge in a quaint cobbled pedestrian street where the inevitable jewellery stores abut fashion stores like Cellini and Zegna. There’s no doubt about when you reach the end of town – you pay your Euro and enter the Teatro Greco that, as the name suggests, was built in 300 BC by the Greeks when they occupied Sicily. The Romans expanded it (of course) and introduced lions to the program. Now it’s used for concerts from rock to classical on many summer nights. Sitting in the back row watching Mt Etna erupt directly behind the stage would be worth any admission.

After voyaging on a few cruises over the years I’ve learned that you should always pick a sailing that has sea days. Our 12 day voyage had two – one during the 645 nautical mile crossing between Sicily and Rhodes and the other, on Anzac Day, as we sailed through the Dardanelles towards Istanbul while Turkish military aircraft flew in commemoration low over our heads. Both were days to appreciate the ship at leisure but they turned into packed agendas where spa appointments had to be squeezed in between French classes, an informative lecture on Istanbul, time on deck and meals.

Unlike most of the Greek Islands Rhodes is a stolid place of Crusader and Knights Templar solid castles, cobbled streets and greyness. Fortunately, the food is Greek so we found a tavern in the sun and ordered dolmades, souvlaki and Greek salad doused in olive oil. It was a moment of pure bliss.

Mykonos DSC3705

I once lived on Mykonos for a winter, met a Canadian girl and followed her to Vancouver, split up, met and married another Canadian, etc, etc. I’d never been back to Mykonos. Decades later I can report that the town has grown but hardly changed. You still get hopelessly lost in the winding alleyways (legend says to confuse pirates) and the sea appears in front of you at unexpected turns. I remembered houses so whitewashed they resembled sagging wedding cakes but I’d forgotten the whitewash continued between the street stones. The whole main town is a fantasy village and I fell in love with it all over again.

Santorini has a cable car! On my previous visits the only options to get from the port to the town 564 metres above on the rim of the flooded volcanic crater was by climbing the 588 steps or overloading an expensive, wheezing donkey. I paid the cable car fee with pleasure. The geometric white houses hanging off the cliffside were as picturesque as ever and the town remains a whitewashed step machine that provides an excellent workout.

Constant news reports of the dire state of European economies gave us some trepidation about travelling through Italy and Greece. We always looked but saw no signs of economic stress – not even any sales. The tourist regions appear to have quarantined themselves from the general economic malaise.

On the other hand, you have no doubt you’re in Asia when you visit Turkey. My feet had hardly touched Turkish soil before I was offered a taxi (1), Turkish delight (lots), a guide (1) and rugs (several). Everyone comes to Kusadasi to visit Ephesus but we rented a car to drive to Pamukkale, a hillside covered in white calcium pools. Driving several hundred kilometres across Turkey in one day revealed that the road system has definitely improved and you can’t always believe photographs – as visitors are no longer allowed near the main pools of Pamukkale and the water flow to fill the pools had been diverted.

After a day exploring Istanbul – from the Grand Bazaar to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia it was time to leave the Crystal Symphony. There was more than a twinge of sadness in our farewell as I’ve never felt so welcomed or so well treated on a ship as I was by the Crystal crew. We never had to wait more than a minute for a tender boat and that efficiency was matched by the speed of our first arrival and final departure from the ship. One minute we were in the pampered cocoon of the Crystal Symphony and the next we were in a car bound for the airport. The variety of destinations across the Eastern Mediterranean makes it a very appealing cruise destination. Crystal Cruises’ new inclusions and greater dining flexibility have enhanced an already excellent cruising experience.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul DSC4818

TRAVEL FACTS

  • Getting There – Of course, many airlines fly to Europe. Try Qatar Airways from Melbourne for excellent service and good deals for Business Class. If you are returning to Europe from Istanbul check the baggage allowance with that airline as it may be just 20kg.
  • Getting Around – Crystal Cruises offer comprehensive tour options at each port. Or it’s easy to organise your own. For post-cruise touring in Turkey: Timeless Tours Toll Free: 1800 671 610, : www.timeless.com.au
  • When To Go – Crystal Symphony cruises Rome to Istanbul June 27, 2013 and returns on July 25, 2013. This is summer in the Med so pack resort wear.
  • Where To Stay – In Rome the beautiful Majestic Roma Hotel, is so central you can walk everywhere and the staff are exceptionally helpful. In Istanbul, splurge at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski – you’ll see it on the waterfront when the Symphony is tied up alongside. Both are members of Leading Hotels of the World (www.lhw.com).
  • Further Information – Crystal Cruises’ information, both before and during the voyage, is so good you hardly need more, except a good history book. Crystal in Australia is Wiltrans Toll Free: 1800 251 174, www.wiltrans.com.au.

By David McGonigal

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