Vinny, our Bulgarian butler, on the 106-guest Crystal Bach river ship, wanted to know what he could do for us. “Let me spoil you,” he said.
We couldn’t imagine why we would need to call him on our seven-day cruise on the Upper Rhine, around Germany’s Black Forest with stops in Strasbourg, France, and Basel, Switzerland. But we found reasons – such as when we struggled with a corkscrew while opening a complimentary bottle of French wine. Vinny came to the rescue.
On Crystal river ships, each guest has access to a butler – and stays in a suite with a large panoramic window that opens at the touch of a button. There are free-flowing drinks, extraordinary cuisine and attentive service. It’s luxury, delivered with aplomb, from a cruise company that knows the wants and needs of its well-heeled guests.
The Waterside Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Crystal River Cruises.
Looking for ways to expand in the luxury travel sector, ocean line Crystal Cruises launched the renovated 154-guest Crystal Mozart, in 2016. Four identical, 106-guest newbuilds followed, Crystal Bach (2017), Crystal Mahler (2017), Crystal Debussy (2018) and Crystal Ravel (2018). The ships do seven to 14-day itineraries on the Rhine and Danube, March to December.
The Crystal river ships are sparkling examples of smart design – they look and feel like luxury hotels that happen to move. You are not on a floating coach tour, there are no loud speaker announcements, and there’s no herding here or there or rigid schedule. You are in a beautiful, crowd-free, exclusive environment slowly taking in the sights and sounds of the rivers of Europe.
Private club atmosphere
Walking onto Crystal Bach, the first thing you might observe are the European crew members pronouncing “Bach” in its proper German, harsh-sounding, back-of-the-mouth form.
But there’s nothing harsh about this ship. All is bright and airy and lovely, especially the light-filled Palm Court. This spacious lounge is the most beautiful space on any river ship, with its cushy, subtly colored contemporary décor and expanses of glass on the walls and ceiling. You could sit here watching the passing scenery and have a perfectly wonderful river experience without ever leaving the ship.
During cocktail hour, the cruise director plays piano tunes and guests, most from North America and aged 60-plus, wander into the Palm Court at their leisure. After dinner, there’s entertainment for those who want it – a comedic Liars Club with crew members one night, a performance by a pair of German tap dancers another. Some guests stay to enjoy while others drift quietly to their suites.
When we joined the ship for seven days, on the second week of what some cruisers had booked as a 14-day voyage, guests met us with a warm, welcoming curiosity – as if we were being accepted into a private club.
Palm Court. Photo courtesy of Crystal River Cruises.
Oh, the cuisine!
With galley space limited, Crystal hires only experienced chefs (no cooks), and it shows. Perfect omelets arrive piping hot even if ordered via room service. All bread is baked onboard. Dishes are cooked à la minute, using fresh local ingredients. The cuisine is extraordinary for the rivers, or really any cruise experience.
Breakfast and lunch at the Marketplace, in the far corner of the elegant Waterside Restaurant, has chefs preparing eggs to order at breakfast and pasta at lunch, and a large array of self-serve choices – even a congee station at breakfast. In a clever design move, the area is closed off at night, so that the restaurant, with its floor-to- ceiling windows and leather banquettes, can maintain an intimate allure. Dinner is 7-9 pm, arrive when you like, open seating, with plenty of tables for two or four. The daily, multi-course menu includes local selections – such as an excellent wiener schnitzel or Mosel river trout. If you have an urge for truffle shavings on your vegetarian pasta, just ask and do the same if you want a steak.
Complimentary wine pours might include a German Riesling and a California cabaret one night, a Weisser Burgunder and a Tuscan Botrosecco another.
Bistro Bach, open select nights, has a playful menu of globally inspired small plates including pork sliders and beef tartar topped with caviar. The same venue serves as a coffee bar with fancy, all-day snacks. For the foodie elite, The Vintage Room offers an
extraordinary private experience for up to 10 guests (about $337 U.S. per person, reservations required), with the menu created by the head chef, the wines selected by the sommelier, both offering commentary. In our case, dishes such as a foie gras mousse with salted caramel, Dutch caviar with raw oyster and local venison were accompanied by pours including Dom Perignon, Puligny Montrachet and Opus One. The butter had been purchased that day in Strasbourg.
Exclusive experiences on shore
Coaches with the Crystal river line’s logo follow the route, rarely carry more than 20 guests and embark with local guides on a creative selection of complimentary excursions. During an overnight in Basel, there was time for a full-day visit to breathtakingly beautiful Lucerne. In Strasbourg, guests had access to the city’s famous gothic cathedral with a private, Crystal exclusive after-hours tour and organ recital. For-a-fee tours take things over the top, whether your interest is learning about making Swiss chocolate, seeing the Swiss Alps by helicopter or dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
A Deluxe Category Suite aboard the Crystal Bach. Photo courtesy of Crystal River Cruises.
Crystal Bach has an indoor swimming pool in a beautifully lit space with cushy loungers and artificial fireplace. The area was little-used and so was a great private escape. For relaxation, some guests booked massages with the onboard spa therapist. Others
headed up to the open sundeck to enjoy the breezes, grab a drink at the pop-up bar or nap on one of the couches or loungers. Excellent abs, Pilates and yoga classes run by the fitness director on mats in the Palm Court were well-attended and there was also a small gym, with personal training sessions available.
Our Deluxe category suite felt like a fancy hotel room complete with trendy mid-century furnishings, walls decorated with molding, a king-size bed, walk-in closet and bathroom with double sinks and glass shower with a push-button rainforest showerhead. With the bed facing the river, we didn’t miss any sights. The mosquito screen allowed for an open-window, multi-sensory experience – we could see the birds and hear them too.
One and two-bedroom suites come with living rooms. Petite Suites are favoured by solo travellers. All suites have such niceties as full-size bath amenities, luxury bedding and big TVs with movies-on-demand.
Butler Vinny. Photo credit: David Molyneaux.
Butler Vinny (whom we shared with 16 other suites) brought ice, shined shoes, pressed clothes. We also called him when fellow guests raved about the Crystal hamburgers, and we decided an in-suite burger-and-movie night was in order. He urged us to try the brownies too, insisting we each get our own because they were so delicious (he was right!). We stayed in our bathrobes, Vinny served our meal, and we were spoiled indeed.
IF YOU GO Fares on Crystal River ships include an open bar, gratuities, free Wi-Fi and excursions in every port. See your travel professional or go to www.crystalcruises.com.
Written by Fran Golden. Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2018 issue. Main photo: Crystal Bach, courtesy of Crystal River Cruises.