European river cruising is throwing off its dowdy image once and for all thanks to Crystal Cruises’ new-build river ships which Sue Bryant discovers offer a true boutique-hotel experience.
Upmarket cruise lines often say their biggest rivals are not one another, but luxury hotels ashore. You could certainly argue that lines such as Silversea, Regent, Seabourn and Crystal have succeeded in creating ocean-going ships that are comparable to some of the world’s most gorgeous hotels.
The situation on Europe’s rivers, though, has not quite kept pace. While there are without doubt some stunning river cruisers out there, it’s debatable whether any of them can offer a true boutique-hotel experience – the kind of holiday that gives you high-end service, exquisite design and the freedom to dine and explore in the way you want.
Until now. Crystal made waves on the Danube in 2016 when it acquired and relaunched its first river ship, Crystal Mozart, to great acclaim. In 2017, the line has gone one step further, launching two identical new-build ships, Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler, which take river cruising to a whole new level.
Crystal Bach is, quite simply, stunning. Like all European river cruisers, its dimensions are determined by the locks and bridges it has to fit through. Step up the gangway, though, and you’ll find a whole new world.
For a start, there are only two decks with accommodation, so every cabin has a panoramic window that slides down to create an indoor balcony effect. There are only three grades –15 smaller Petite Suites, two massive Crystal Suites and 35 classed River Suite Deluxe. I stayed in one of the latter and was blown away by its beauty. Heavy silver drapes and a whole wall of glass. Cream and grey tones, with a beautiful, emerald-green velvet armchair and a black glass-topped vanity. Even the light switches are chic, vintage-effect bronze. The bed was so dreamy I could have spent the whole cruise asleep.
The whole ship is done out in cool, contemporary shades of cream, silver, rich teal, emerald and burnt orange. It feels light, ethereal and classy. The main lounge, the Palm Court, has floor-to-ceiling windows and on each side, a glass roof, so the whole room is flooded with light. This is a glamorous, elegant cocktail bar, with piano music on a Steinway in the evenings. Forget about oompah bands and cringe-making folkloric shows; any additional entertainment is opera singers flown in from Milan, or a light classical trio.
Sometimes, people dance late at night on a small dance floor lit from above by pretty lights in the form of miniature crystals. There are no port talks; in fact, there’s no cruise director to boss people around, just a hotel manager and a super-efficient excursion manager. And most certainly no name badges for the guests, who seem well-travelled, energetic and certainly well-heeled – two couples on my cruise had arrived on their private jet.
Crystal Bach has three places to dine, the Waterside Restaurant, the Bistro Bach and the Vintage Room. Again, in the spirit of a smart boutique hotel, the Waterside is almost all tables for two or four and for dinner, you can turn up when you like between 7pm and 9pm. We successfully put this to the test every night, drifting in at 8pm. The way this flexibility is managed is by changing the whole culture of management. Most river cruise crew come from agencies and the chefs demand that everybody arrives for dinner at the same time. But every crewmember on Crystal Bach works for the company, and it shows in their enthusiasm and can-do attitude.
In the Waterside, we put away delicacies including herb-crusted halibut and chocolate coconut layer cake, while the Bistro is more comfort food; roasted jumbo shrimp and pulled pork sliders, served, tapas-style, on sharing plates. Breakfast, light lunch and afternoon tea are offered here, too.
The Vintage Room, seating 10 and bookable several days per cruise, is a fine dining extravaganza. Dinner is an eight-course, €270 (€270) feast – although it’s really the nine different wines you’re paying for, kicking off with vintage Dom Pérignon and carrying on in that vein. The ship now offers a lighter lunchtime option of a mere four courses and five wines, for €80 ($124).
With only 106 passengers on board (and remember, more mass-market lines will cram 190 into an identically sized ship) you really feel a sense of space on Crystal Bach and there’s room for extras such as a gym and a treatment room offering facials and massage. Aft on Crystal Deck is a small pool with a swimming jet. The whole top deck is arranged with squashy loungers and brightly coloured deckchairs, served by a small cocktail bar that sinks down into the deck as the ship glides under bridges.
Crystal Bach felt pretty close to perfect to me but changes are afoot after just one season. An elegant motor yacht sits on deck outside the pool (as it does on Crystal Mahler), but it blocks the view. So the boat, and its sisters from the other river ships, will instead be kept in ports such as Vienna, Budapest and Basel, and will be bookable for joy rides for up to six people with a captain, butler and guide. Meanwhile, a fleet of bicycles is being added – and the pool is going to be decorated with shimmery tiles and a terrace created in the space vacated by the yacht.
Shore excursions, meanwhile, are being completely rewritten. Crystal currently offers an included excursion each day and some optional trips you can pay for. While both will still be available next season, a whole new range of small-group activities is coming, themed around food, the arts, activity and local culture. Experiences will include things such as kayaking through the canals of Strasbourg, or going behind the scenes in Amsterdam with a tulip grower. This feels like the final goodbye to any vestige of the coach-tour mentality associated with European river cruising. It depends on what your definition of luxury is, of course, but to me, beautiful surroundings, being treated like an adult, freedom and choice are as close as it gets.