Effortless Luxury: Cruising on the Crystal Symphony

“This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” Alexander McCall Smith’s eulogy to Scotland’s most enchanting city still rings true today; Edinburgh is undoubtedly one of the UK’s greatest treasures, always on show, but still managing to retain its sense of individuality and style. It is the most photogenic – and, of course, Instagramed – city in Scotland. In fact, the only potential fly in this seductive ointment is the lack of affordable hotels in high season, as my unfortunate friends discovered last year.

However, there is an easy solution to this conundrum, which to sail into Edinburgh via one of the many cruise lines that stop overnight in the summer season. Indeed, there is no shortage of competition in this regard, although discerning travellers would do well to sail with the Crystal Symphony, as I discovered during my inaugural cruise. Launched over 20 years ago, the venerable Symphony still feels like a debutante, not least because Crystal has invested millions since the ship launched in refurbishing, upgrading and adapting the vessel as travel tastes have changed.

And so my partner and I found ourselves in glorious, early-afternoon August sunshine, safe in the knowledge that luxury, seafaring accommodation was merely a coach-ride away. Disembarking from the Symphony that morning, Edinburgh greeted us with the madness that accompanies the Royal Military Tattoo, an annual series of performances given by the British Armed Forces and international artists on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.

The event is either an additional enticement to visit Edinburgh or a massive pain depending on your point of view; the performances are spectacular, but then so too are the crowds and hotel prices. Feeling a little overwhelmed, we decided to omit the festival this year, and instead explored the city’s iconic Golden Mile before heading for an exquisite lunch at Harvey Nichols. Boasting awe-inspiring views of both Edinburgh’s majestic architecture and the Firth of Forth (depending on where you are seated),  our charming waiter served plate after plate of delicious, modern European dishes with Scottish culinary accents. It was the perfect respite from the street-side madness below.

But despite the memorable food and views, the lure of our glamorous vessel was too much to resist. By now approaching 6pm, we curtailed further exploration of Edinburgh and instead headed straight back to the Symphony with haste, keen to get acquainted with the much-lauded Avenue Saloon.  This 1930s-influenced bar is both chic and softly-lit, affording couples the perfect ambience in which to sip cocktails. “It’s the perfect end to a hectic day,” my partner  exclaimed. Warmly welcomed by the effortlessly charming staff, we imbibed copious amounts of Champagne, before retreating to our suite to take full advantage of the 24-hour room service.

We awoke early the next morning, the sun shining brightly through our suite doors which my partner insisted we leave open during the night. Awoken by the sounds of the gentle waves lapping, we rushed to our balcony to watch the Symphony gracefully sailing away from Edinburgh toward our next port of call. Already the balconies below were filling up with passengers intend on making the most of sunshine in the British Isles. Our penthouse with veranda was typical of the Symphony’s sumptuously appointed top-tier cabins, all of which boast sea-facing balconies. However, regardless of the view factor all the suites onboard symphony are furnished to the highest quality standard with luxury fabrics, designer bathrooms, butler service and insanely comfortable beds throughout.

After breakfast on our veranda – delivered by our affable butler Sebastian – we took time to properly explore the Crystal Symphony. Launched in 1995, the Symphony effortlessly combines the best elements of luxury, bespoke cruising with the amenities that are de-rigeur on larger vessels. The accolades speak for themselves: in October 2017 the readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted Crystal Cruises as “the World’s Best medium-sized cruise line,” marking the record-making 24th year the luxury line has earned this honor. I could add that the Symphony, like other top lines,  is all-inclusive, so the price includes gratuities,  meals and alcoholic drinks, including as much Champagne as one can safely imbibe in a lifetime.

Today, Crystal Symphony does an impeccable job of ensuring that you never want to leave. There are simply too many diversions: the lido deck with a seizable, glistening pool, multiple sun loungers, Crystal Spa & Saloon, numerous bars, restaurants and a gorgeous sun deck. The public areas are the epitome of elegance and class, tastefully decorated without being over the top or garish. Yet despite the firm’s grand origins, the Symphony feels surprisingly relaxed and informal; there isn’t a hint of pretension about the vessel.

Nevertheless, we did feel duty-bound to occasionally disembark from the ship, despite our strong impulses to simply sip Champagne and watch the world go. On our trip, we sailed from Edinburgh to the French port of Honfleur via the Channel Islands and Amsterdam – which, contrary to popular belief, does offer more than coffee shops and legal highs.

Not least the Anne Frank House, which is an essential part of any visitor’s itinerary. This harrowing and thoughtful  biographical museum details the life of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid from Nazi  persecution with her family and four other people in hidden rooms at the rear of the 17th-century canal house, known as the Secret Annex. It opened in 1960 to preserve the hiding place and teach the world about the life and times of Anne Frank, in addition to showcasing an exhibition space which powerfully conveys the dangers of discrimination. My only advice is to book tickets in advance in the summer, or expect a long queue.

Guernsey offered a welcome respite from the manic bustle of Amsterdam, an endearingly under-populated island situated in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. The capital, St. Peter Port, is packed full of small boutiques and nice restaurants, while the interior of the island is seemingly designed for tourists who want to travel back in time several decades, and is all the better for it.

Yet it was the delightful village of Honfleur that turned our heads, a destination that truly tests a writer’s ability to temper the use of endless cliches. You instantly reach for idyllic, picture-postcard, captivating, before quickly realising that millions of writers have done so before you. Instead, let me just say that Honfleur is surely France’s prettiest village. End of superlatives.

But I should add that Honfleur was founded in the 11th century, and that the Vieux Bassin (the heart of the port) is surrounded by glorious mansions which fight for space with shops and restaurants behind the quays in a very picturesque setting. Strolling along the cobbled streets, one finds a multitude of gastronomic temptations, a relative lack of fellow British travellers and boutiques galore, not to mention a surfeit of Parisian day-trippers, some of which own second homes in Normandy. It is expensive, though, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless.

At dinner that evening we decided to take advantage of the Symphony’s signature Asian restaurant, Silk Road. Supervised by legendary Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, it is the gastronomic highlight onboard and the most stylish venue, decorated in sleek sea colours that are complemented by dark wood furniture. Seafood ceviche, lobster spring rolls and the signature black cod with miso were all spot on, as was the gracious service and Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, which flowed all too easily. Next door is the other signature venue, Prego, designed for passengers desperate for a fix of flawlessly executed lasagna alla Casalinga and Osso buco.

Of course, our final day soon arrived and I’m ashamed to say that we pretty much stayed put. It involved a lazy breakfast on our veranda, a leisurely swim and one final meal in the main dining room before we packed for our early disembarkation and trip to Paris. And that is both the Symphony’s  greatest strength and weakness, for so seductive are its charms that you actually find yourself sidestepping the itinerary, regardless of how interesting it may be. Which is ridiculous, sort of, as luxury cruising doesn’t come cheap and it affords a very easy way of exploring the world.  But then, this is a medium of travel where the greatest attraction is, well, pretty much doing nothing – sit, read, socialise, sip Champagne and relax. Which, ladies and gentlemen, reaches its ultimate apogee aboard the Crystal Symphony.

Further information:

In 2018, Crystal Cruises offers a selection of European itineraries onboard Crystal Serenity with all-inclusive fly/cruise prices starting from £2,984 per person based on the seven-night cruise from Marseilles to Barcelona departing 30th September. Price includes return scheduled flights, overseas transfers and seven nights in a deluxe stateroom with picture window with all meals and soft drinks, most alcoholic beverages, port taxes and gratuities. Call Crystal Cruises on 020 7399 7601 or visit www.crystalcruises.co.uk

 Transfers to London Heathrow via Paddington were supported by GWR – www.gwr.com

Singles from Cardiff to London Paddington are available from under £30.00 each way

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.