The Crystal Harmony, all 49,400 sleek tons of her, tip-toes into Glacier Bay. Captain Birger J. Vorland is determined not to disturb two otter pups snoozing on the ice-floes sliding serenely by.
The ship is enfolded in silence, every passenger awed. Suddenly a thunderclap disturbs the stillness as one of a dozen glaciers “calves”. A huge block of ice the size of a 10-storey building sheers off the glacier, disappears for a few seconds to emerge and to start its life as an iceberg.
The sound echoes around us, the water trembling, as though disturbed by a giant’s hand. Calving is the phenomenon that occurs when salt water melts the glacier’s snout and huge pieces of ice are torn off the face. Tlingit Indians called the noise "white thunder".
The journey in the protected waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage is an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature at close quarters, timeless scenes of ice-age glaciers, towering snow-capped mountains, their flanks pocked with glacial ice, hillsides blanketed with spruce and hemlock, soaring eagles and humpback whales, gold rush towns, saloon bars, totem poles and native Indian legends. You see it all from the comfort of the Crystal Harmony.
On the first evening, as we cruised under the Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco , we were in the Sunset Bar (or was it The Bistro; or the Trident Bar?), an olive-throw away from Herb and Jackie who hailed from San Diego, when Jackie sighs: “Isn’t this wonderful? It’s like a floating hotel.”
Well, Jackie ...... it’s actually a lot more than that. A cruise on the Crystal Harmony has a stay in the most opulent hotel beaten hands down. Some regard it as “a retreat, an upscale resort, a country club and a spa rolled into one”. The feeling is elegant but never stuffy. You might say that the Crystal ships’ spirit and sense of class are reflected in their godmothers: Mary Tyler Moore christened Crystal Harmony in 1990, Angela Lansbury launched Crystal Symphony in 1995 and Dame Julie Andrews christened Crystal Serenity in 2003.
Show us the hotel where can you lean comfortably over a balcony rail to see pods of dolphins play alongside the ship; where you can sit at a restaurant table and watch humpback whales simultaneously lifting and waving their flukes in greeting.
At what hotel would you get free room service or have access to the most exquisite hot and cold cuisine round-the-clock?
There are six separate eating areas on the Crystal Harmony: the distinctive Crystal Dining Room; the Prego Restaurant (classic Italian dining); the Kyoto Restaurant (Japanese cuisine with a western touch); the Lido Cafe for breakfast and lunch; the Bistro for Continental breakfast and specialty coffees and cookies; the Trident Grill (and complimentary Ice Cream Bar) for late-riser breakfasts and open to early evening for hamburgers and sandwiches; and of course 24-hour room-service in your cabin.
On one evening of merry-making and pageantry, the entire Crystal Harmony became the stage for an "Evening in Camelot", complete with shipboard crew in costumes. The sumptuous Royal Feast that evening will give you some idea of the cuisine: Layered Salmon and Smoked Sturgeon Baked in Golden Puff Pastry with Tarragon Sauce (or three other appetizers), a choice of soups and salads, a Fragrant Greek Red Wine Sherbet, and three entrees - Pan Fried Dover Sole with Bitter Orange Jus, Whole Roasted Capon with Dried Fruit Stuffing and Roasted Lamb Shanks; among the many desserts, Layered Apple Brioche Pudding Topped with Meringue Flambé; fine cheeses from several countries.
Can you imagine what that would cost you in a five-star hotel, Jackie?
Where, in the space of a week to 10 days, would you get so many live entertainment shows .... for free? Crystal’s Galaxy Lounge showcases a wide variety of elaborate, broadway-quality production shows with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of costumes, and variety entertainment. The ever-changing Repertory Theatre At Sea performances, comprised of excerpts or selected scenes from larger works were packed out. There are pre- and post-dinner cabaret shows by top-name stars and pianists with wide-ranging repertoires in the Crystal Avenue Saloon and Crystal Cove. The Hollywood Theatre is there for movie-lovers.
Take a quick walk around the Crystal Harmony with us and then make the comparison with an hotel: The Crystal Harmony has 8 guest decks and a two-story Crystal Plaza and Crystal cove lobby area with atrium, comfortable seating and a piano bar.
The ship offers fitness buffs the latest high-tech exercise equipment in the deluxe ocean-view Crystal Spa and Salon fitness center which includes a full-service beauty salon. Two swimming pools include the Seahorse lap pool (with two adjacent jacuzzis) and the Neptune indoor/outdoor pool with retractable roof, plus the Trident swim-up bar; and the full Promenade deck is there for walking and jogging.
The Crystal Harmony has 62 penthouse suites (of different sizes) with jacuzzi tubs and verandahs, 198 outside deluxe staterooms with verandahs, 201 outside deluxe staterooms and 129 inside staterooms. The ship also has 4 staterooms equipped for the physically challenged. All have showers and bathtubs, VCRs, and minibars.
The question most frequently asked on the second evening was: "So what did you do today?" The most common response was a contented: ?Not much?. This, in spite of a first-day program which included a Walkathon on the Promenade Deck, aerobics in the Fitness Centre, a bridge lesson, a presentation on the shore excursions (see Ports-of-Call), table tennis, paddle tennis, a ?swing check? with golf professional Ray Elkins at the Callaway Golf Clinic, gaming lessons in the Caesars Palace at Sea Casino with Crystal’s professional dealers, a complimentary dance class, a team trivia board game, a beginners’ bridge lesson, some weight-loss tips from a fitness instructor, bingo and cocktail music whew! and that’s just in the morning!
The program of entertainment and activities was non-stop a lecture by an Emmy-winning playwright; a few hours in Crystal’s innovative Computer University@Sea program which has 24-hour Internet and email access and professional guidance for those who want it; a stroll down the shopping arcades of the “Avenue of the Stars”. A hundred other activities. Take your pick.
Crystal Cruises liners are geared to take advantage of the many wildlife sightings on the Inside Passage. Naturalists are aboard to help you see the wildlife and answer questions. There’s nothing to beat standing at the rails searching the seas or the shoreline for wildlife as the staff serve you hot chocolate.
There’s no question that for the 940 passengers on the Crystal Harmony the scenic highlight of the cruise was the time spent in Glacier Bay. At its head is Margerie Glacier, a vast crumbling tidal wave of ice - but a pretty mundane name for one of nature’s great sights.
To the otter pups of course, it’s simply home.
For more information visit the Crystal Cruises web site at www.crystalcruises.com