Christmas Markets / Presidents Cruise
This is a review of our cruise aboard the Crystal Mozart for it's first Christmas Market cruise, which fell over Thanksgiving and was also announced after we booked to be the President's cruise. In a nutshell, we loved it, although there were some major flaws. Crystal clearly knows cruising, luxury, fine dining and great service. They've got some learning to do on River cruising.
First, a bit of background about us. I find it essential to know who is giving the review to know if this is a like minded individual. We are in our mid forties, have done about 10 cruises, all ocean, predominately luxury, never on Crystal before. We do cruise, but are active and also enjoy do it yourself land trips involving planes, trains and automobiles. We normally do not do ship excursions and are not really "tour" people. We have cruised Regent most often, but their inclusion of tours in the cost makes them less attractive since that is something we won't utilize. That is why we are looking for a cruise line that might be a better fit, though we aren't looking to be loyal to any one line.
We booked this cruise in September as a getaway over thanksgiving and a way to defrib from a tough year. We've always wanted to try river cruising, Crystal and see the Christmas markets and loved that we'd get to try out a new boat. We flew into Munich where we spent a day and night and then took the train to Salzburg for three nights before moving on to Vienna to board the ship.
Embarkation: A lot of people had problems finding the boat, but we knew it was at the Millennium tower docks and just took a train to Handelskai subway station and were right there. The only issue getting to the boat for us was that the elevator at the station was out and we had to get our bags down a few flight of stairs to the boat. Once onboard, they whisked our bags away and showed us to our cabin, a balcony suite on level 2. We had left our travel docs and luggage tags in our suitcase but were quickly told we didn't need them. They just asked our names and then took us to our room, took our photo for our ship board accounts and took a credit card for incidentals. All while we stood in our cabin. Fabulous! Quick! Efficient like we have never seen on a cruise before.
More about us. We live for food. Seriously. Food is a huge part of travel for us. We have trekked across Spain in the pouring rain to get to San Sebastián, shaped entire trips to New York around the whim of Per Se and Eleven Madison Park and went to Chicago for the reopening of Alinea. The food on the Mozart was very, very good in general. The menu in Waterside at dinner wasn't always inspiring, but the dishes were very good to outstanding with very few exceptions. Fresh fish, fresh vegetables, great cuts of beef, excellent soups and calorie worthy desserts. Even a Cobb salad was excellent. I know for a fact those are words I have never written before. Breakfast in Waterside was buffet style and while the food was all good it was always the same and got boring after a few days. Lunch was also buffet style in Waterside but was varied and excellent. The afternoon snacks available in the Bistro were fine, but the selection was beyond boring. Cheese and cold cuts and a few pastries every day. No variety. Dinner in the Bistro was very good. They call it Tapas, which it is not. It's casual plates served family style. And it is very good. Those fried mushrooms would have been a lovely snack in the afternoon or pre dinner canapé. Canapés are not served in the lounge during pre dinner cocktail hour nor are they brought to your room as advertised unless requested. Blue was also very good, though rarely open. So much could be done with that space and it would be so nice if it was open for a breakfast alternative or perhaps afternoon snacks. The room service menu was boring, had no snacks like a cheese tray or other nibble and it really wasn't an experience you'd do more than once for one huge reason. The table in our suite didn't make into a dining table. There was more than enough room for it. Every other cabin we have ever been in, on any ship, on any line, had a convertible table. But our butler told us this table didn't make into a dining table. It was just a small coffee table. Not suitable for room service breakfast. Either he was trying to dissuade us from eating in the room by making it uncomfortable, or Crystal screwed up in a rookie way. They certainly made other rookie mistakes, so I won't blame the butler. ;)
Stateroom: Much has been written about the terrible closet doors, so I won't belabor that. Much has also been written about the ToTo toilet. Most people hate it, and I don't get that. A warm toilet seat waiting for you in the middle of the night that lights your path to it when you open the door. What is there to not like? Sure, it opens every time you pass the bathroom. But seriously, my life is not so charmed that that qualifies as something to complain about. The room was a nice size. It was nicely laid out, except the bed really should face the window so you can see what you came for when lying in bed. USBs were everywhere. The water pressure in the shower was great and the shower head was great. Sounds weird, but I'm a rain shower snob. I'm used to a huge rain head and don't like someone passing off some dinky head as a rain head. This was the real deal. Another weird observation, but if you need this info you'll love me for it, the hair dryers were great! There were two and they both did a great job straightening my thick, curly hair. We had read that you could borrow a voltage converter from the front desk and that is untrue, you cannot. All the high tech gadgetry and controls in the room worked well. The butler told us not to use the iPad to order room service, but I'm thinking that was just his preference and not because the tech was lacking. We have never had a problem with the size of a suite on any cruiseline and this was no exception. We are not large people and rarely look to hang out in the room, though we always insist on having a balcony.
The Ship:The ship itself is lovely. I think the details have been covered, so I won't spend much time on that. I will say that there needs to be another area to have drinks in the evening. This is a serious need! The Palm court and Cove are really one room. You can't do something in one if there is something going on in the other. There seemed to be some sort of entertainment every night. If you didn't want to listen to opera, show tunes, or whatever the show was, there wasn't a place to get a drink and chat. There is a smoking lounge that was used by two people as their smoky office that I heard lots of folks complaining about. If we could have gone to Blue and had a drink and chatted with friends at those times, that would have been great. There were also times during the day that there was a sales pitch going on in the lounge and it was impossible to find a comfortable place to watch the world go by. Some comfy seating in Blue could have fixed that.
The staff: Really top notch in large part. There were some glaring exceptions, of course, and lets get those negatives out of the way now. The sommelier was always in a rush and would tell you he was busy. No charm whatsoever. Our room steward hated her job. We never asked her for anything, and she always had a frown for us. Our butler never did anything. That seems to be the case with us on all cruises, we ask for little of our butler and get even less. I wish nice suites didn't come with butlers. It's just someone that gets in the way of my room service order.
The front desk/excursion staff were truly awful. Like, they could ruin your trip kind of awful. We has excursions canceled which we were not notified of. I noticed it mIssing from the list of available excursions even though it was still on my list of booked excursions. I had to ask about it, and it took a really long time for me to explain the issue to Alexandra, not because of a language barrier, but because of her unwillingness to believe what I said was true. She had to double check all of my facts to find that indeed I was correct, it was canceled, I hadn't been notified and we were now double booked on other excursions. Another day we had a snow shoe hike planned that conflicted with the other time that canceled excursion could take place. It wasn't snowing when we were there. I asked Alexandra if we were being taken off to a snowy mountainside somewhere or if there was a guarantee that there would be a snow shoe experience. She assured me there would be. I explained that we were scheduling all of our excursions around that snow shoe hike and would be seriously upset if it didn't happen after we changed all of our plans. She assured me it would happen. A brain dead ferret would know to pick up the phone and call the excursion provider and ask if there would be a snow shoe hike and what the back up plan would be. You know where this is going. We find out with a couple of hours notice that our snow shoe hike is now just a walk. She also tagged along on an excursion and talked on her cell phone in the middle of the tour until someone told her to shut up or move away from the guide we were all trying to hear. It wasn't just Alexandra, the entire excursion staff was lackluster, to be kind. But she really was a special kind of awful.
But we were impressed with most of the tours we took. We are not tour people and this is definitely the first time we have ever gotten on a bus to do a tour. With only one exception, the guides were very good, the locations interesting and the tech earphones worked well. There was an issue with the pace of some tours. When they had multiple groups doing a tour they would announce that one group would be the slow group. There was one woman who had an issue needing frequent bathroom stops who refused to be part of that slow group and instead slowed us down on every tour we took. And there was an incident in Regensberg where a man and woman kept wondering off to check out the market stalls we'd pass and this horrid woman screamed at the top of her lungs that the guide was going too fast and leaving people behind. The guide was young and clearly flustered, but handled it wonderfully. And we all tipped him extra and told him so.
Waiters and in general everyone in the dining room were genuinely delightful to see each day. And they seemed to feel the same way when they spoke to us. There was one of the cooks in the Bistro who clearly took pride in his work and was so excited when you said you like the food. And we saw him all over the boat and he always had a smile and warm greeting. The waitresses in the bar were also always helpful and cheery even when dealing with huge crowds. The bar often seemed understaffed. I don't know if we were a bigger drinking crowd than they expected or if there was a staffing issue. The bartenders occasionally let that stress show and were snippy. The person who is solely responsible if I say this is the most outstanding cruise we have ever taken, is Sonja, the hotel manager. We said hello to her as we boarded and discussed how lovely the Christmas decorations were and what we had done before boarding the cruise. She remembered little comments made about our interest in those few moments and then had recommendations for us the rest of the cruise. We inquired about the Ebikes, which we discovered were about to be offloaded. She kept some on board for us and made great suggestions of where we should go on them. She was like our guardian angel and really went out of her way to make sure we were happy. When we made a complaint about what it is a huge snafu completely out of her control, she said she wished we had told her earlier. I really got the idea that she might have tried to fix it. More on that later, but Sonja is a superstar. If she isn't running Crystal's River cruise division soon it proves they don't know what they are doing.
The presidents cruise: This was announced as a presidents cruise after we had booked it. We researched what that meant and it sounded like there would be an added special excursion and maybe a few other touches. We were intrigued by this added bit of excitement on our sailing. But there was no added excursion, and there was only one added touch, which was a big of a laugh. Have you ever been to a convention of a group of which you weren't a member? Like a Shriners convention, and you don't really understand what they do, or why? Or have you been conned into hearing a sales pitch for a time share? What we discovered is that the vast majority of our fellow cruisers were travel agents. I can count on one hand the people we met that were not travel agents, and even some of those might have been and just been quiet about it. Every "event" or cocktail party was really just a sales pitch about the upcoming Crystal products. It was made more uncomfortable by the fact that they were constantly talking about the fact the travel agents weren't supposed to be soliciting business on board. That made every TA you talk to on edge for fear that they were breaking the rules. In all it was creepy and uncomfortable and something I would never do again. I would not take a presidents cruise for free, or even if you pay me. Add to the convention factor that Edie and her entourage often held things up and were in the way. Just plain bad. Those people using the smokers lounge as their private office? Edie's entourage. There were LOTS of complaints about that from others on the cruise. I don't smoke and would never want to go in there, so I wasn't bothered, but lots of others were.
Itinerary: We were very excited to cruise the Danube. There were a couple of weird things on the itinerary where we visited Passau one day and then went to another location the next day and then back to Passau the day after that. And were to leave Passau one afternoon and not get into Bratslavia until the next evening. Seemed weird until I looked at the map and saw we would be cruising the Wachau Valley that day. On most River cruises that is listed on the itinerary as cruising the Wachau valley. The entire valley is a UNESCO world heritage site and said to be breathtaking to see from the river. You can do day cruises to see it that way from many cities along the way, because it is a huge thing to do in this part of the world. But the Mozart cruised through the Wachau Valley at night. Twice. They actually had us leave Passau early from the time advertised on the itinerary to get to Bratslavia early, and the result was going through the valley at night. We didn't discover it until late that night. When we talked to Sonja about this huge error (she is from there and knows this was moronic though too nice to say so and said it was a corporate call) she said she wished we had told her earlier. I seriously believe she might have changed the itinerary back to its original plan if we had. She's that good. Interestingly, none of the travel agents we met had heard of the Wachau Valley. We don't use travel agents. We are proficient with computers, enjoy research and in general believe we can do a better job for us at booking travel that appeals to us than anyone else. The cluelessness of the TA's as to what the Wachau Valley is and why you should not cruise though it at night sort of confirmed that belief.
Entertainment: Neil was our entertainer and he was fabulous. His arrangements were really interesting and as he plays be ear you could request anything you wish and if you could hum it, he could play it. He was also very gracious about having guest come up to sing. Sometimes that was fun. Sometimes it was awful. I don't think Neal should have to tell a guest no. But someone needed to tell the Chinese man who not only insisted on singing My Way each night with his own piano player and then actually made us suffer though what was the worst excuse for a comedy show ever, that NO this was not his fantasy camp to live out whatever alternative career he didn't pursue. You should not have to tell someone that, but there are a lot of A-holes on the planet and that particular group had a few of them. Including the man who came to every show and would then sit and play videos on his phone, WITH THE SOUND ON LOUD during the performance. WOW. That isn't a cultural difference, that is rude in every place on the planet.
There are a lot of details I haven't gone into and could. I'm happy to answer questions if posted to the forums. Will we cruise Crystal again, yes. Will we do another River cruise, yes, soon. Will we cruise the Danube again, yes. We sort of have to to be able to cross Wachau Valley off the bucket list. We wouldn't do Christmas Market cruises just because we have now done that and we aren't shoppers, so no real draw. Will we do another Crystal River cruise, yes, but not anytime soon. The man in charge of River cruises needs to figure some things out first. Basic things. But we would cruise any ship that Sonja Gruber is in charge of.