In the weeks leading up to a much-anticipated Rhine river cruise in August, Europe was hit by a record-breaking heatwave. Bearing in mind that in 2018 historically low water levels on some rivers caused several cruises to be cancelled or re-routed, I kept an eye on various weather reports; thankfully, it looked like business as usual. What I didn’t anticipate was being greeted by grey skies and rain in the lovely Swiss city of Basel, our embarkation port for the seven-night cruise with Crystal Bach .
No matter that I’d forgotten to pack my trusty travel umbrella – of course, Crystal provides them. Although it is a recent arrival on Europe’s river-cruise scene, Crystal has a long history in luxury ocean cruising and it has established its signature dining, contemporary style and exceptionally high crew-to-guest ratio on its glamorous new river ships.
After a Champagne welcome aboard Crystal Bach, my cruise buddy and I meet our friendly, smiling butler, Daniel, in our Deluxe Suite. He immediately takes our detailed morning tea request and shows us how to operate the balcony window – a huge floor-to-ceiling glass wall that opens horizontally for fresh air and full river views.
Our suite is roomy by river ship standards and beautifully decorated in calming neutral colours. In fact, the whole ship feels spacious. Although river ships all conform to about the same size (up to 12 metres wide, 135 metres long and three decks high) to fit under bridges and through locks, most are designed to accommodate 150 to 190 guests. Crystal’s ships accommodate just 106, so suites are bigger, the main dining room has tables for two as well as group settings (unusual on the rivers) and the light and airy Palm Court lounge is never crowded.
The Crystal cruise
Between Basel and Amsterdam Crystal Bach calls at Strasbourg in France, then Germany’s Ludwigshafen (for a tour of historic Heidelberg), Rudesheim, Koblenz and Cologne. A selection of free shore excursions is included at every town or city, tailored for individual fitness levels.
Most involve walking in small groups, led by superb local guides who share their knowledge of each destination’s history, culture and everyday life; free time and activities such as cable car rides at Rudesheim and Koblenz, and canal boat cruises in Strasbourg and Amsterdam are woven into the tours, which range from two to seven hours. The ship carries a fleet of bicycles, so you are also welcomed to explore ashore at your leisure or take a guided bike ride at certain stops.
A limited number of free excursions are offered in select ports – for example, a foie gras and wine-tasting session in Strasbourg and a full day at Baden-Baden’s Spa and Casino from Ludwigshafen – but the free tours that most guests join are without exception absorbing and intelligent.
In Strasbourg, as well as taking the canal boat cruise, we are treated to a private organ recital in the city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral; in Koblenz, guests are whisked off to a concert performed by a vibrant all-female German string quartet in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Electoral Castle.
It’s hard to pick a standout experience among so many packed into the week’s cruise. Having said that, walking through vineyards planted on the hilly slopes above Rudesheim after taking the cable car to the impressive Germania monument at the summit makes for a memorably peaceful Sunday morning; a tour exploring Cologne’s Nazi past, led by a passionate, articulate young woman, is a sobering reminder of not-so-distant history.
Life onboard Crystal Bach
While the main focus of the cruise is discovering what’s on the riverbanks, there’s plenty to do on the ship. Yoga classes are held in the mornings before breakfast, while an indoor pool and well-equipped gym offer additional opportunities for keeping yourself fit.
Dining at any time of day is an absolute delight. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style in the main dining room, Waterside, and dinner is a la carte. The food and wines are sublime, the service is impeccable – throughout the ship, crew members you meet are unfailingly professional, warm and personal.
Tucked away behind Bistro Bach on Deck 3 is the Vintage Room, a private dining room where you can book lavish wine-pairing lunches and dinners for up to 10 guests (charges apply). Bistro Bach serves coffee, tea, pastries, charcuterie and cheeses during the day and a tapas menu with wines at night. Should you by any chance feel hungry at any other time, there’s 24/7 room service.
Resident musicians Joe and Liv perform every night in the Palm Court; the young married duo are charming, versatile and by far the most entertaining act I’ve seen on a river cruise. German professors come aboard to deliver in-depth lectures in Koblenz and Cologne, and more light-hearted activities include bingo, watercolour painting, trivia and quizzes.
Crystal might be a newcomer to river cruising, but it is making an indelible impression on loyal guests and newcomers alike.
Crystal Bach’s seven-night Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Basel sails from March to December. Fares start from US$3,395, based on November 2020 departures, when booked by 31st October 2019.
Etihad operates 35 flights a week out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with direct connections from Abu Dhabi to 21 cities in Europe, including Amsterdam and Geneva or Zurich for Basel. See etihad.com
Read more about our luxury experiences with Crystal when we sailed from New York to Montreal aboard the decadent Crystal Symphony.