The 2003 Alaska season is over, so I'm posting a few comments for those who are interested in hearing about the experiences of a first-time Crystal cruiser. See the Photo Galleries for my day-by-day snapshot album.
Crystal - What can I say? This has to be the best line I've encountered after trying a number of others, including HAL, Orient and P&O. I enjoyed the best service, food, entertainment and shore excursions ever. It will be hard to go back to the mass-market lines after being spoiled by Crystal.
food - Five star all the way. The menus were varied and creative, and everything was prepared to perfection. I rarely strayed from the Chef's recommendations, but everything I tried was outstanding. Special marks for Kyoto and the coffee bar at The Bistro. With the included drinks and the $2 daily Better Brews I ran a low bar tab, but prices were good for the cognac and single malt whiskey served at the Avenues Saloon - better than most shore establishments.
service - This is Crystal's underlying strength. They seem to do everything right from expeditious embarkation/debarkation to flawless wait service and friendly, efficient cabin attendants. All I had to do was ask for something and they made it happen. Such a big contrast from other lines. If only people knew the difference, they wouldn't put up with some of the cost-cutting measures on the budget lines.
entertainment - Other lines may have one or two outstanding production numbers, but Crystal goes all out to make every show outstanding. The only quibble I have is that they did too many medleys instead of full songs, and the ensemble singers wore those annoying wireless mikes. I know they're used everywhere now, but I think the best sound comes from performers who project their natural voices without amplification. I was also told by a professional singer that most [all?] vocals were pre-recorded. If so, at least the lip-synching was well done.
excursions - Some were better than others, but they all made the different port calls memorable. My favorite was the Signature sport fishing tour at Ketchikan. I've never enjoyed a more exciting or productive day of fishing.
the ship - She may be the old lady among the line's vessels, but I found the Harmony to be a beautiful ship, well maintained and complete with all the amenities. There are many special places, familiar to all Crystal cruisers. My favorites were the Crystal Cove and Avenues Saloon for a quiet place to hang out and enjoy good after-dinner conversation. I made good use of the video library and the CU@sea [but see my comment under lowlights]. My outside stateroom was more than adequate. I didn't even mind the bathroom layout, although the tub is too close to the sink for comfort.
passengers - I had been warned that the average age was around 70, but I found that not to be the case. It was a good, mixed crowd of experienced travellers with a wealth of knowledge to share on many subjects. I didn't see anything like the 'class snobbery' imputed to those who sail the luxury lines. Just friendly, courteous people who seemed to care a lot about their fellow travellers.
lowlights - Even the best of cruises has one or two negative points. Crystal has to rethink its Internet access arrangements. I never used the computer lab, preferring to connect from my stateroom by laptop. This worked great the first week out. I uploaded and downloaded email everyday, sometimes with a megabyte or more of photo attachments. The last few days were a different story, however. Internet connections kept getting interrupted in the middle of messages with aborted messages that had to be resent. They imposed a $5 charge for every reconnect, and sometimes it took four or five tries to complete a transmission. The CU staff promised they would remove the failed connection charges, but they never did and I finally gave up toward the end. They claimed it had to do with satellite interference from the surrounding terrain, but people in the lab had no such difficulties. I also have a complaint about the buffets. There were multiple serving lines set up on the Lido deck, but they each offered only partial menu selections, so you ended up spending twenty minutes or more in multiple lines, and there was never enough seating to accommodate the large turnout. One solution might be to offer the same menu selections in the Crystal dining room.
summary - I think Crystal is one of the best values for an Alaskan itinerary. For a single traveller they beat the best price offered by Princess [SFO-SFO]. I would love to make the same trip again, even though I don't usually do repeat cruises. I'll probably try Radisson or SilverSea for comparison if I can find a reasonable deal. But Crystal raised the bar for me as far as the ideal cruise is concerned. Let's hope they continue to offer the same great product with the same high standards.