I'm 36,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean as I write this, returning from my Crystal Symphony cruise to Northern Europe. It was everything I had heard it would be, and more. The ship was beautiful and immaculate, and I truly doubt there is better service being offered anywhere on the planet, on land or at sea. It was certainly the best I have ever experienced.
The thing that struck me the most was how everyone working on that ship seemed to be genuinely happy to be where they were, doing what they were doing. I spoke to the captain about this and he said it was the Crystal philosophy that a happy crew made for happy guests, and that the company goes to great lengths to treat their employees well.
I can report that the philosophy is working beautifully. The crowd on any 6-star ship would not be described as easily pleased, but everyone I spoke with was pleased -- very pleased. And everyone I asked ranked Crystal above any other line they had sailed -- as I would. What a shock it will be to get back to my usual routine!
Crystal began offering significant discounts on a last-minute basis, on select sailings, back in 2002.
This Crystal cruise took me to Scandinavia and Russia, two areas of the world I had never seen. I can highly recommend Kristiansand, Norway, a little town that saluted our departure with a daylight fireworks display, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Helsingborg and Stockholm, Sweden. All were scenic, friendly and charming -- and immaculately clean.
Amsterdam is laced with countless, picture-perfect canal views. However, in July, I found it crowded, noisy and dirty. And while the Dutch are responsible for some of the world's finest art and architecture, the construction of public, open-air urinals was not their finest hour.
The port I will remember with the most intense emotions was St. Petersburg, Russia, partly because I never thought I would see Russia, and partly because of the suffering the city has undergone, which, in truth, continues today.
During WWII, the city was besieged by the German army and cut off from food. At least 800,000 civilians starved or were killed. Men and boys were sent to the front line, and so today, old men are a rarity in St. Petersburg.
Many of the once-magnificent buildings, museums and cathedrals of St. Petersburg bear the scars of war and neglect. Repairs and restoration are underway in an effort to restore the city to its past glory in time for 2003's 300th anniversary celebration. Even now, the incomparable State Hermitage Museum and the magnificent Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood (built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II) are must-sees for any visitor.
My favorite afternoon of the trip was the one my wife and son and I spent on our Russian Home Visit, a planned shore excursion, with 5 other Crystal guests and an interpreter. To Crystal's credit, this was truly a typical family, in one of the countless old, run-down apartment buildings in the middle of the city -- not a place the Russian government might have selected. We climbed four flights of stairs, in almost total darkness, to reach the flat, where we asked questions of our hosts and responded to theirs.
Three generations lived in a one-bedroom apartment -- the grandmother (our official host, Natasha, living on a pension of about $20 per month), her daughter (Anya), and 12-year-old grandson, Dimitri. The tiny family room we squeezed into was one of 3 rooms in an apartment of less than 800 square feet. The hallway was unlit, walls were adorned with what looked like old children's toys. There was a television with a 20" screen, a tiny, antique stove, and a single, glaring light bulb in each room.
For an hour and a half, we discussed Bush and Putin, communism and capitalism, and what little boys in Russia want to be when they grow up (Dimitri's goal -- to work in an office with a computer in it.)
Later, as we sailed from St. Petersburg at sunset, I tried to absorb that remarkable experience and I marveled at how easy it had been to make such a visit on a cruise. No foreign-language airports, taxis, hotels or menus to negotiate, none of the travel hassles that can beset a land-based visit to a strange new land. If ever there had been any doubt, I was convinced again that there is no better way to see the world than by ship.
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