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As our 106-passenger river ship departed Amsterdam and cruised placidly along the Rhine, on the way to Cologne, I realized I'd lost my husband. He wasn't nestled into one of the very cozy couches on the sun deck, or in the Bistro snacking on pimento cheese or even, since it was lunchtime, tucking into a multicourse meal in the restaurant. He wasn't in the pool, having a massage or -- and I knew better than to even bother to check -- in the self-serve laundromat. Ultimately, he turned up in the sprawling lounge, the ship's living room.
It wasn't the only time on our cruise that I'd lose Teijo while onboard Crystal Mahler. There were just so many alluring spots onboard that begged to be explored. That's when it occurred to me: Space aboard any European river vessel is always dictated by the limitations of the river's locks and low-slung bridges. And yet, this ship, from stateroom to sun deck, felt extraordinarily spacious. It's not just the fact that the ship carries only 106 passengers on a vessel that is sized comparably to other lines that carry nearly 200 travelers. It's also that the design maximizes space, so much so that you forget that you're not on a luxury oceangoing vessel.
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Updated December 25, 2019
Crystal Mahler is part of Crystal River Cruises, the offspring of the luxury cruise company that also operates oceangoing and yacht-like vessels. Its Crystal Mozart debuted in 2016; the largest boat on Europe's rivers, it previously sailed for the legendary Peter Deilmann. Crystal transformed Mozart in a down-to-the-studs refurbishment (Crystal Mozart will depart the fleet at the end of 2019). Next came new-builds. Designed by Crystal, Bach, Debussy, Mahler and Ravel are identical in layout. Itineraries offered by the Crystal River Cruises fleet focus on the best-known waterways of the Rhine and Danube (along with the Moselle and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal). An interesting fun fact: In 2020, Crystal River Cruises will have the industry's youngest fleet of ships.
An unabashed fan of all kinds of cruising, river voyages -- with their intimate ships and ability to pull right up to towns and villages -- have long ranked right up at the top of my favorite travels list, particularly in Europe. But even this enthusiast will admit that restrictions that apply to European riverboats, primarily dictated by the size limitations of locks and bridges, can require a little bit of compromising for passengers. That might mean adapting to more rigidly scheduled dining hours, smaller-than-ocean-ship-staterooms or less variety when it comes to onboard amenities.
On our cruise aboard Crystal Mahler, no such compromise was required. The experience blended the amenities and variety we've come to appreciate from ocean cruising with the intimate ambience, superb service and easily-accessible ports that make a river cruise so special. In creating this experience, both on the ship and off, Crystal has transformed the nature of luxury river cruising. Here's how.
The win: All-day-long dining.
Mealtimes are usually pretty structured on river vessels. Outside of dining hours, the peckish normally have to settle for cold sandwiches or other casual snacks. It's quite the opposite on Crystal's Mahler; no matter what time you get back from a shore excursion, the casual Bistro offers a mouth-watering spread. At breakfast you'll find fresh fruit, cereal, meats, pastries and cheeses. At lunch, order off a menu (the burger and Reuben were both superb and the fries qualify for best-on-river) or choose from a selection of soups, sandwiches, cheeses and the most beautiful cakes this side of a Viennese patisserie.
More: Crystal is the rare river operator to offer not just all-day dining but all night, too. While some river lines offer in-suite meal service only to the highest category, all passengers on Crystal's Mozart, Mahler, Bach, Debussy and Ravel enjoy 24 hour room service. The menu choices are thoughtful, including Caesar salad, a burger, vegetable lasagna and sweets. And here's another big plus: The breakfast menu goes way beyond continental fare and fruit to include smoked salmon, omelets and waffles.
The win: Rather than buy off-the-rack tours from the same vendors that most cruise lines use in ports along the rivers, Crystal creates its own experiences ashore. This means that they conform to the interests and travel styles of its passengers. Depending on your mood of the day, you can choose your tour from categories like "exhilarating adventures," "cultural discovery," "tantalizing gastronomy" and "personal connection."
With joint interests in culinary arts and active tours, some of the super-intriguing choices on our Amsterdam to Budapest cruise included dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, several bike rides through vineyards (with tastings) and even "Weißwurstakademie Neumarkt." This tour afforded the chance to learn how to make bratwurst, the sausage that Nuremberg's famous for, while we were there. We sampled Kolsch, the distinctive beer produced in Cologne and toured private homes in Amsterdam to learn how the Dutch live.
More: Many tours are complimentary, included in your cruise fare. The more specialized outings, like dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, incur an additional fee. As well, Crystal's terrific shore excursion team also was happy to arrange special, private tours at passenger request (these also cost extra).
Still more: We loved that the shore excursion team also served independent-minded travelers who just wanted advice. On our stop in Cochem, which coincided with an annual medieval festival at the mountain-top castle, the shore excursion staff gave us all a heads-up -- and offered to cover the 8 euro admission fee for anyone who wanted to go. The cost wasn't an issue; if you're on this cruise, you can afford the fee. It was just a nice touch.
Strategically Designed Cabins Emphasize Space
The win: Staterooms feel bigger and more spacious in the predominant "deluxe river" category. Though this category, at 237 to 253 square feet is roomier than most comparable cabins on other river vessels, it's greatly due to the design. Crystal has turned the traditional riverboat stateroom layout on its side by orienting the bed (king size, also a rarity on the rivers) to face the window. It has carved out a roomy bathroom with the best shower we've experienced on any ship, river or otherwise, and a walk-in closet. There's even room for a table-for-two and a sprawling armchair.
More: Instead of balconies, which consume a lot of square footage (and which we find on river cruises that we barely use) there's a wall-to-wall window that stretches the length of the stateroom. The window slides down with the push of a button, transforming the entire room into one big balcony. Including screens that keep insects at bay (and that also can slide up and down) was a brilliant touch.
Crystal's Crew & Staff Is Superb
The win: On paper, the best way to tell if a cruise experience is going to have superb service is to check the crew-to-passenger ratio. All passengers, in all cabin categories, have butlers. On our trip on Crystal Mahler, there were 68 crew for 106 passengers, which works out to 1.5 passengers for every crew member. That's luxury level. Off paper, first impressions, particularly your welcome onboard the first time, is an even better example of luxury. And, indeed, to be met at the taxi, bags taken out of your hands (and out of the taxi trunk), a warm greeting by name and the briefest of check-ins, is symbolic, too.
More: On the rivers, in many cases, lines actually contract with hospitality and navigation staffing companies -- all of which are extremely experienced in river vessel operations. Crystal does not. It hires all the crew on its ships, from the captain to hotel director to the spa therapist (and everyone in between). Service is consistent with what we've experienced on Crystal's oceangoing Symphony and Serenity, as well as its Esprit yacht.
Unparalleled Culinary Variety and Quality
The win: Trying out restaurants in port is usually an important part of the river cruise experience, but we'll be honest: On this trip, we loved the quality and relaxed style of our onboard venues so much that we didn't dine out as often onshore as we might have. On-ship cuisine was consistently superb: fresh, perfect portions and a nice balance between regional dishes that represented the itinerary and those that were more familiar. As well, Crystal chefs use locally sourced provisions.
There are three restaurants onboard, including the main dining venue that Crystal calls Waterside. It serves multicourse meals at specific times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All meals feature restaurant-style service. Breakfast and lunch also have buffet choices, and you can always order off a menu. Waterside is open for dinner from 7 to 9 p.m., for instance, and you can arrive anytime within that frame. Another place where flexibility comes in is Waterside's design; it feels more like a boutique restaurant with plenty of tables for two. You can interact with fellow passengers if you want, but you are not forced to.
More: We've already waxed lyrically about the casual Bistro and Crystal River Cruises' around-the-clock in-room service, but there are other surprises to reveal. On some busy port days, the Bistro will open for dinner with a tapas-inspired menu. And there's this: If you're intrigued by Michelin-quality meals, the only fee-extra venue onboard is the 12-seat Vintage Room. The cost is 290 euros per person and includes an eight course, wine-paired meal that starts off with Dom Perignon.
Small Touches Mean Everything
The (other) wins: There were so many small touches that elevated this river experience beyond any European cruise we've taken. Its motor coach fleet is one example. Crystal designed its own buses so that they're the roomiest of any river line, complete with an onboard coffee maker and complimentary Wi-Fi. We love that the drivers all follow the ship from port to port so you get to know them during touring outings.
The experience felt unregimented; there was no sense of go-here-do-this. We really did get a chance for some much-needed downtime. At night, the atmosphere was particularly relaxing. Crystal, unlike most lines, doesn't put on a lot of local entertainment. After-dinner entertainment was handled by Neal Fullerton, a wonderfully talented pianist and vocalist with a hilarious sense of humor.
More: Crystal River Cruises is one of the most inclusive experiences in Europe. A full bar is always available, more than a few tours in port are complimentary and gratuities are included. Unlimited use of Wi-Fi is a generous perk -- and it worked really well.
We just loved the ship. There were so many great nooks to tuck into. At night, and definitely whenever we were sailing, the sun deck -- with its own bar -- was the hot spot for many passengers. It's furnished with cozy couches and big armchairs and table settings so you could write postcards or play cards, it was the perfect alfresco living room. And, by eliminating any staterooms at all on the first of the river vessel's three indoor decks, Crystal found space to create a fitness room, small spa and self-serve laundry.
And one more thing: Ultimately, what has earned Crystal Cruises its global reputation for providing outstanding luxury cruise vacations is the quality of its crew. In fact, the crew is a major contributing influence that convinces passengers aboard Crystal's oceangoing ships to book voyage after voyage. And, that same powerful ethic of consistent and authentic service effortlessly carries over to Crystal Mahler and all ships in the Crystal River Cruises fleet.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic’s Chief Content Strategist, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for 20 years. She was a staff writer for The Washington Post, and a cruise contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, Town and Country Magazine, and The Times of London.