Recently launched Crystal River Cruises prides itself on introducing new levels of luxury to river cruising and going one step further with its shore excursions, giving passengers exclusive access to attractions and recitals.
Each Crystal River Cruises itinerary includes two complimentary "signature" excursions. One is a Champagne reception followed by a private evening tour of the art collection and classical concert at Vienna's UNESCO-listed Belvedere Palace (the other is lunch or dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant). A glass of Champagne, or soft drink, is served on arrival at the 18th-century palace. Passengers then wander through part of the palace's world-famous art collection before attending a concert of popular Viennese music in an adjoining concert room, followed by a post-performance drink. The excursion is around three hours in total, including transfers.
We traveled from our ship, Crystal Mozart, in the comfort of one of Crystal's specially adapted motorcoaches where aisles of seats have been reduced to provide passengers with extra legroom. The journey provided a glimpse of Vienna's landmark Ringstrasse, which follows the line of the old city walls, and some of its grand buildings.
The evening took us to the impressive palace built by baroque architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Today it houses one of the greatest displays of Austrian art dating from the Middle Ages to the present -- including the world's largest collection of paintings by symbolist painter Gustav Klimt -- along with works by international artists such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh.
Our visit took place outside normal opening hours, and the imposing iron gates swung open to allow us into the driveway. We walked toward the palace, pausing to take photos of uninterrupted views across the lake and gardens, without having to dodge the usual crowd of other visitors trying to snap the same shot.
Inside the palace, we were handed a drink and ascended the stairs to walk through several rooms housing the works of art, culminating at the highlight of the collection, "The Kiss (Lovers)," painted by Klimt between 1907 and 1908. The guide provided a short explanation about the painting, and pointed out other noteworthy exhibits. As the only visitors in the building, we were able to walk straight up and get a close-up view.
We then filed into the ornate Marble Hall for the recital by members of the Schoenbrunn Palace Orchestra. There was time to look around and admire the surroundings, including the beautiful painted ceiling, before the start of the performance. All "signature" excursions can comfortably accommodate all of Crystal Mozart's 154 passengers, and the room did not feel crowded.
Vienna is renowned for the music of the Strauss family, who were born in the city, and Mozart, who lived in Vienna. The concert included some of their most popular compositions, including the overture from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" and "The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss. A pair of dancers came in to perform a waltz and members of the audience were invited to join in and clap their hands to a rousing rendition of the "Radetzky March," also composed by Johann Strauss.
At the end of the performance, we were given another drink before heading back to the ship, where a late-night buffet had been set up in the lounge. We all received a CD of musical highlights from the concert, which provided a lasting reminder of a memorable evening.
Absolutely -- especially as the excursion is included and you usually have to pay extra to attend evening concerts organized by other river cruise lines. If you are a serious classical music aficionado, you might find the concert a little tame, as it is unashamedly made up of well-liked "crowd pleasers." On the flip side, the program is under an hour, which is plenty long enough for the less musically minded. We felt very privileged having the whole place to ourselves, and the sparkling reception made it even more special.
To avoid a rumbling tummy during the concert, or drinking on an empty stomach, have a snack or dinner before you leave. When we visited (during a very hot spell in July), the concert hall was only cooled by a few fans and very warm and stuffy; and we suspect it could be chilly during colder months, so dress accordingly.
Crystal's motorcoaches have free Wi-Fi so passengers who are social media-minded can post photos of the evening on the way back to the ship.
Updated September 06, 2018