High Living Above the Waves

White-gloved service and stellar dining put 'Crystal Harmony' at top of luxury liners

It could have been serious. After unpacking his luggage aboard the Crystal Harmony, Ted discovered that his tuxedo - bought especially for the cruise - was missing. ''Someone stole it!'' Ted exclaimed to his wife, Karen.

Eventually the young couple realized it had been left at home. ''We'll have to stay in our cabin and have room service,'' Ted moaned.

''I was ready to jump off the ship,'' he said later. A rather drastic measure, even if black tie on this most elegant of luxury liners is de rigueur. Then he had a better idea: He cried on the shoulder of the ship's concierge.

''No problem,'' the concierge told him upon hearing Ted's woes. ''What's your size?''

A tuck here, a stitch there, and Ted was as well turned-out as a Ken doll.

That's the kind of attention one gets used to aboard this ship.

The cruise was a 14-day sail from Buenos Aires and back, with stops at various ports in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, at the Falkland Islands, through the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan, and around Cape Horn. It was a first-time passage through these remote and sometimes difficult waters for the Crystal Harmony, but Capt. Tom Forberg deftly handled all 49,000 tons of floating steel.

''He's so young, I hope he knows what he's doing,'' a woman in a black Issey Miyake dress whispered in mock concern as passengers lined up to meet the youthful Norwegian captain.

Crystal Harmony, launched in 1990, and its sister ship, Crystal Symphony, launched this year, are among the high-end luxury liners on the water today. If you're expecting to bump into Richard Simmons doing jumping-jacks, or singing waiters who cha-cha to your table with trays balanced on their heads, you're on the wrong boat, baby.

NOT that this line is all hoity-toity. Except for several black-tie dinners and receptions, the atmosphere is casual and friendly.

For the active, there's a paddle-ball court, a lap pool, two outdoor Jacuzzis, a spa and exercise room, golf lessons, and courses in art - even in napkin folding.

For the more cerebral, there's a 1,400-volume library, first-run movies, and lectures by eminent oceanographers.

My favorite public room - Palm Court - is a ship-wide, restful area with wicker furniture, full-length floor-to-ceiling windows, and palms reaching toward the skylights. This court opens to the Vista Lounge at the bow, a remarkable horseshoe-shaped room with windows that sweep two stories high and stepped seating where one can get a captain's-eye view of the waves ahead.

The staterooms are particularly spacious. Mine, on the Penthouse Deck, was open, warmly decorated in soft pastel colors, and bright and airy, due in part to the sliding glass doors (no little peek-through portholes here) that opened onto a private veranda overlooking the water. There, one can sit at sunset and watch the south Atlantic snuff out the day's light.

The bath not only offered a separate shower, but a marble tub with Jacuzzi to boot.

''Would you care for a few hors d'oeuvres on your veranda before dining?'' the Welsh butler - smartly tailored in a swallow-tailed coat - suggested as I unpacked.

''That would be fine,'' I consented, not wanting to be disagreeable. Although breakfast and lunch may be taken on deck in a more casual setting, dinner is held in the main dining room (or in your cabin, if you wish) and is especially choice. Waiters are European, attentive, impeccably trained, and take their profession seriously. (That's not to say they won't show you how to flip a teaspoon into a glass from across the table, if the maitre d' isn't looking.)

Custodio Grosso, the maitre d', was a smooth Portuguese who constantly hovered over us as we sat beneath the 60 lotus-shaped crystal chandeliers: ''Mr. Young, perhaps you would like to order something special for the table for tomorrow night's dinner?'' he suggested one evening.

''Hmm, maybe some fettuccine in a reduced-cream herb sauce tossed with shellfish? Oh, and perhaps garnished with a sprinkling of caviar?'' I replied.

''Of course,'' he consented graciously.

After dessert, there was always time for dancing, a romantic promenade on deck, window-shopping at the haute couture boutiques, or a live Broadway-class show at the Galaxy Lounge on Tiffany Deck.

The Harmony is so spacious, with such a well-planned variety of public spaces that, as full as the ship may be, you can always find a quiet place to read or be alone with one's thoughts.

This liner puts any thoughts of cruising being claustrophobic quietly to rest.

For those who simply can't tear themselves away from work, there are several small office spaces with computers. Fax and secretarial services are also available. But instead, I chose to lounge at the Neptune Pool. It's the one (there are two) with the retractable dome just in case the weather gets a bit nippy.

Many pleasant touches grace this ship: Oriental rugs in the elevators and rest rooms; exquisite bouquets of flowers everywhere; a harpist, piano players, and a classical trio bring music everywhere.

For those willing to 'pay plenty'

Such white-gloved service and stellar dining doesn't come for naught. ''Fodor's Cruises and Ports of Call 1996'' (Fodor's Travel) calls Crystal Harmony one of the world's most luxurious ocean liners catering to ''wealthy passengers who are accustomed to the best. [It's] designed for those who love physical activity and fine food and are willing to pay plenty for them.''

The ship has received the coveted Five-Stars-Plus rating from ''Fielding's Worldwide Cruises 1995'' (Fielding Worldwide), as well as top honors in ''Berlitz's Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships'' (Berlitz).

Per diem runs about $480 per person. So I guess there is a price for having caviar as a condiment.

Having been on about 15 cruises, of which this was by far the finest, I've been asked if there was anything I didn't like. The only thing that comes to mind that seemed a bit tacky is that the baked potatoes were served in aluminum foil. Not too bad for two weeks at sea.

I deliberately haven't dwelled on the ports of call as no similar itinerary is planned in the future. Land excursions on this trip were mixed: I enjoyed the gaucho tour in Montevideo, Uruguay, and especially visiting a colony of snooty King penguins on the Falkland Islands. Near the Horn, as we pushed toward Antarctica, the best choice was to stay right on board and gape as we cruised by a string of glaciers hedging toward the sea.

Ho-hum land excursions

Some things to remember when cruising: Ports of call may sound alluring but are sometimes disappointingly brief, or just downright disappointing. Often there's just enough time to get a quick overlook, and then it's time to climb back on board. There is no guarantee you'll get to explore your favorite port. On this trip, our call at Punta del Este, Uruguay, was canceled because of high seas.

The main thing to consider when choosing a cruise is the ship itself. That's where you'll be spending 99 percent of your time. And don't hesitate to book a cheaper cabin to get on a better ship.

There is a Crystal philosophy on board: If you have a request, just ask. If you don't believe me, ask Ted and Karen. (Ted's one of the 300 or so men over there dressed in black tie.)

* ''Fielding's Worldwide Cruises 1995'' gives only a handful of ships a Five-Stars-Plus rating. They include, in addition to Crystal Harmony: Queen Odyssey, Royal Viking Sun, Sea Goddess I and II, Seabourn Pride/Seabourn Spirit, and Song of Flower. Costs vary from $400 to $1000 per person per day.

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