Champagne and caviar anyone?
BY JANE MUNDY, SPECIAL TO THE SUN APRIL 27, 2013
'Here's the plan. We'll eat in the bistro first, have our butler bring us some caviar and then we'll freshen up for dinner."
I overheard this conversation in the van shuttling me back to the cruise ship Crystal Symphony from a daylong excursion in Thailand. My fellow passengers and I were set to weigh anchor from Laem Chabang near Bangkok and head to Saigon, our next port of call on the 16-day Treasures of Southeast Asia cruise.
I was already well acquainted with David Feliu, the butler in my premium penthouse. I first met him two days before when I boarded the ship in Singapore. As he delivered champagne to my suite, he apologized for not greeting me and asked me why I had unpacked my own suitcase. Had I already made a Downton Abbey faux pas?
"Perhaps I can bring you a little caviar?" he suggested. As I toasted the voyage with a glass of bubbly, my idea of cruising flew out the porthole, or should I say, the sliding glass door of my private veranda.
I figured that cruising was something I would do a few decades from now, when I'd had enough of worrying if my flights were on time and schlepping suitcases from airports to hotels. There's none of that on a cruise. I imagined myself wrapped in blankets on deck with nothing to do except watch the waves roll by reading War and Peace. Wow, was I wrong.
David was back in minutes with a bowl of luscious black roe. He then asked me if anything needed ironing or dry-cleaning. Pinch me. And did I care for spirits? Well perhaps a gin and tonic later on. "Bombay or Tan-queray?" I could already tell there was no such thing as the word "no" in David's vocabulary.
I scanned a copy of the daily bulletin listing the next day's events and decided that right now is the time to cruise. There was no time for boredom - I was going to be very busy for the five days we had at sea and the 11 days taken up by shore excursions, including everything from a volon-tourism trip to the Father Ray Foundation, an orphanage where we visited disabled Thais of all ages learning English and electronics.
On board, I started with one-mile power walks around the promenade deck and a light breakfast before Pilates class or maybe a tour de cycle in the fitness centre, fittingly paired with a seminar on "how to increase your metabolism." The average weight gain on a cruise is a pound a day, and I was told that Spanks sales in the ship's boutique rise as the cruise and waistlines extend.
Besides champagne and caviar - which I chose not to count as calories - it's pretty easy to pack on a few pounds, so it's a good idea to keep active. And the Crystal ships, Serenity and Symphony, are renowned for their cuisine.
Once you have decided which excursions to take, the next big decision is where to dine. Besides the Crystal dining room, the Symphony has two specialty restaurants. Prego, which is run in partnership with the New York restaurant Valentino, serves lasagna so wondrous I ordered it through room service one night.
The Silk Road, which has an Asian menu developed by Nobuyuki Mat-suhisa of Nobu, includes his famous miso cod and Wagyu beef. There's the Lido for breakfast (where I wisely opted for fruit and muesli to balance out the evening's excesses) and the Trident Grill for burgers and fries. And there's the bistro when you're craving a cupcake or espresso any time. If you napped through the dinner hour and crave rack of lamb at 10 p.m., just hit the direct-dial button to summon the butler.
After seeing David deliver a pitcher of fresh carrot juice to my neighbour with dinner, I asked for one myself.
"You don't have to ask again, it's now a standing order," he quips.
Dinner is the magic time when fairies replenish the box of chocolate truffles and the champagne angels visit my fridge again.
There is no such thing as running out of anything.
Another reason that cruising was never on my bucket list is that I hate crowds and lining up. But I was wrong about that too. Sometimes I had the promenade deck to myself, and if I timed it right, I had the bartender's undivided attention (just about anytime before 6 p.m., when he concocts a very dry martini).
Going solo doesn't mean you won't have a dance partner. At 2 p.m., there is always an "ambassador" available to twirl you around the dance floor - tango and salsa, waltz and line dancing. And I never saw anyone dining alone, although many passengers are single.
Anna Schenk, 84, from New York City, has taken 18 Crystal cruises, about half of them by herself. "I used to travel with friends, but they are a pain in the neck - we fought about so many little things," she says. "It's so easy to cruise solo. And the staff gets to know you. Housekeeping knows that I want my morning OJ and an orthopedic pillow. I don't even have to ask because they know me from previous trips. And it's nice not to sign any tabs.''
A few years ago, Crystal changed its policy from giving on-board credits - if you used them up, you'd get a bill at the end of the trip -to making almost everything all-inclusive.
There are a few exceptions, such as premium spirits and some wines, but the standard wine list was fine with me.
I got a tour of the galley with executive chef Andreas Schalek. In this sea of spotless stainless steel, more than 100 cooks prepare meals for up to 940 guests. (About 600 were aboard this trip.) The pastry chef expected that 200 Grand Marnier soufflés would be ordered on the first seating at 6: 30 p.m. (the second is at 8: 30 p.m. and I never encountered a lineup for either).
On a 10-day cruise, the galley's shopping list includes more than 60 tons of food delivered to Symphony's dock within a few hours on "turnaround day", when one cruise ends - in this case, in Hong Kong - and the next one begins later the same day. That's a well-orchestrated operation.
Fresh seafood is also delivered in each port. Eight hundred live lobsters were flown in from Maine, and on the first night of the cruise alone, my dining companions and I slurped back a dozen fresh oysters each followed by, you guessed it, caviar. It took me a few days to catch on and order half servings of everything so I could have more variety - and make room for afternoon tea followed by the 5 p.m. room service surprise, followed by dinner. That plan I overheard early in the trip turned out to be no joke.
After leaving Chan May, our second port of call in Vietnam, I sidled up to the sushi bar at Silk Road and left my dining choices up to the two capable Japanese chefs.
That day, our excursion took us to Hoi An and Danang, the latter famous for its black snapper, tuna and mackerel.
Of course, it's on the sushi menu that night.
In our last night on board, it was champagne all around in the dining room. And there was an appetizer I just had to have: Tower of creamy egg salad with caviar! As Maggie Smith's character in Downton Abbey once said, "Nothing succeeds like excess."
(Coincidentally, Vancouver is Crystal's Symphony port of call on Monday, April 29. )
View the Port Vancouver season's calendar online at www.vancouversun. com/travel
IF YOU GO:
When you take the trip of a lifetime, it's got to be "In for a penny, in for a pound." I flew Singapore Airlines business class from San Francisco and spent a few days at the new and fabulous Park Royal Hotel on Pickering in Singapore before boarding Crystal's Symphony. It's a green hotel, literally, with sky gardens and green walls and a killer view from the infinity pool.
If you only have one day in Asia's cruise hub, visit the futuristic Gardens by the Bay and dine at the superb Pollen, part of the gardens and a short cab ride from the ship. Across the street, bring your camera to the SkyPark terrace and observation deck at The Marina Bay Sands hotel.
And you might as well tag on a few days at the end of the cruise at the Intercontinental Hong Kong, which received a five-star ranking in the Forbes Travel Guide 2013. It has three Michelin star restaurants under one roof, including Spoon by Alain Ducasse. And if you didn't get enough miso cod on board at Silk Road, Nobu is here too. Not to be missed is Yan Toh Heen, possibly one of the world's best Chinese restaurants that holds its own with Spoon and Nobu, where I ate the best Peking duck I've ever had.
For a similar 14-day Singapore to Hong Kong cruise beginning on March 26, 2014, fares start at $6,265 pp/dbl occupancy. Penthouses start at $15,550 pp/ dbl.
Master chef Nobu Matsuhisa will be sailing aboard Crystal Symphony in the Mediterranean this July (www. crystalcruises.com/VoyageDetail. aspx?CID=3217) to teach, mingle, dine, and cook for Crystal guests. To make this deal even sweeter, those who book by June 30 will save $900 per person. More information on the sailing is on their website.
Crystal Cruises: www.crystalcruises.com
Singapore Airlines: www.singaporeair.com
Park Royal Hotel: www.singaporehotels.parkroyalhotels.com/pickering
Intercontinental Hong Kong: www. hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun