Crystal Cruises has become synonymous with luxury when it comes to sailing the oceans, but the company is relatively new to the rivers. (Its first river cruise ship, Crystal Mozart, debuted in 2016; the vessel, a refurbishment of one of the largest existing boats on the Danube, can only sail there.)
But the cruise line has ambitious plans for growth and will have five newbuild ships sailing Europe's waterways by spring 2018. This summer, it launched a pair of riverboats: Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler. We're onboard Crystal Bach sailing the Rhine River to experience the new ship. Here are our first impressions from a full cruise.
It's impossible to talk about Crystal Bach without first mentioning dining, a real highlight onboard that has many passengers on our sailing raving. Meals are served open-seating style in the Waterside restaurant throughout the day. Dinner is a plated meal, while breakfast and lunch are buffet -- Crystal calls it "The Market." Regardless of what you call it, it's well done, with an expansive selection of premade and a la minute options. Quality is high, and options are unique. We loved the suckling pig and roasted pumpkin with pistachios, for example, and fresh fish like whole trout left us wondering if we'd have room for dinner (we did!).
Dinner is a more formal, though not stuffy, affair. Passengers can dine when they choose, any time between 7 and 9 p.m. Menus include the chef's recommendations, along with local dishes and more traditional options like steak or salmon. Dinner is where the ship shines. Dishes are creative without being overworked, and every ingredient is fresh and necessary. The local dishes are reimagined in a way that makes the both familiar and brand new. For example, a traditional German meal of bratwurst is served with an elevated cabbage slaw that is reminiscent of sauerkraut without being heavy, while the sausage itself if crispy on the outside tender on the inside.
Meals are paired with an impressive list of regional wines, but if you really want an over-the-top experience, try the Vintage Room. Here, you'll get an eight-course dinner paired with an incredible array of wines (Opus One! Chateau d'Yquem!) and Champagne. This experience is 280 euros per person, but worth it for foodies and wine lovers dying to try some real heavy-hitters.
Decor on Crystal Bach feels more like what you'd see in an upscale hotel rather than what you'd expect on a riverboat. That's especially apparent in the cabins, which are large by river cruise standards and include features like true double sinks and walk-in closets. Design throughout the ship is chic, relying on a subtle, neutral color palette punctuated by surprising bits of jewel-tones. (Cabins, for example, are mostly white, gray and beige, but armchairs and pillows are emerald or eggplant.) The Palm Court lounge has the same hotel feel, with gorgeous light fixtures studded with large crystals and big armchairs and cushioned loveseats. (The chairs are so big, in fact, squeezing through when the room is full can be somewhat challenging, but they sure are comfy.) Natural light pours into the Palm Court, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass ceiling that opens up the space. The atrium is reminiscent of a hotel lobby, with sweeping spiral staircases, a tube elevator and desk where you can book appointments and check in on shore excursions.
Sure, crew on Crystal Bach are well-trained in service, but there's a sincere friendliness and desire to make sure passengers are really enjoying themselves. For example, one passenger -- OK, it was me -- didn't bring a winter jacket, and two different crewmembers offered their own coats. Staff knows the name of every person onboard, and they greet them by it every time they see them. In the restaurant, waiters and waitresses are intuitive, and they feel comfortable making meal recommendations for diners on the fence. Special care is given to small things, like delivering and clearing dishes for the table at once or replacing napkins (rather than simply folding them) when passengers step away from the table for a break. For lunch and breakfast, servers will carry plates back to the tables for passengers or even get food for passengers who don't want to (or can't) fill their own plates.
Items such as USB ports in cabins and decent Wi-Fi are pretty much standard with any new cruise ship, and Crystal Bach has both. But Bach also has iPads for onboard use, so passengers can check out news from home and full-sized bathroom toiletries so you don't run out midweek. Butlers are assigned to every cabin, and they will pack or unpack for you, if you ask, and also make sure your mini-fridge is stocked with the beverages you prefer.
Because of lock sizes on Europe's biggest rivers, modern riverboats, regardless of ownership, are pretty much the same on the outside. It's what's in the ship that differentiates. Crystal Bach stands apart for having a large, indoor pool. While seldom used on our fall sailing, it will likely get good use during the summer, especially after excursions under the hot sun. Crystal Bach also carries a 36-foot motorboat onboard, which can be booked for private excursions.
-- By Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor