(3:30 p.m. EST) -- The five European ships that new river cruise line Riverside Luxury Cruises bought in 2022 –- Riverside Mozart, Riverside Ravel, Riverside Debussy, Riverside Bach and Riverside Mahler -- hold a special place in the heart of luxury lovers.
Why? First, four of the 114-passenger ships – all except Riverside Mozart, which is a special refitted vessel on the Danube notable for being wider than most – were custom-built for Europe’s rivers by now-defunct Crystal River Cruises.
The luxury line outfitted them to the hilt with swanky extras, including posh suites, an indoor swimming pool, a rooftop bar, a main lounge with a glass ceiling that brings in extra light and a gorgeous restaurant that actually feels like one you’d visit on land, with the buffet discreetly tucked away.
Second, Crystal’s food and wine program, featuring a la minute cooking and included top-shelf vintages, was so good Cruise Critic declared it tops in our annual Editors Picks. Finally, the service on the ships had that special intuitive touch, complete with butlers and an outstanding concierge program that helped to set the line apart.
With this legacy, Riverside has big shoes to fill on the rivers of Europe.
Luckily the new company has luxury in its DNA. Riverside is owned by the Seaside Collection, a family-run hotel brand with properties in the Canary Islands, the Maldives, and its home country, Germany. We’ve been told that the owners have been watching Riverside’s maiden season carefully to make sure the line is living up to Seaside standards.
After a week with the line in southern France on Riverside Ravel, we’re happy to report that many of the aspects that made these ships such a draw are still intact. Although the line is now leasing two of its ships to luxury river cruise operator Uniworld for several years – Bach and Mahler are becoming S.S. Victoria and S.S. Elizabeth -- Riverside Debussy will join Mozart and Ravel in service in early 2024.
That being said, there are some things that the fledgling line needs to work on, mostly onboard communication and shore excursion organization. The good news is travel professionals and agents have been onboard Riverside Ravel for the ship’s abbreviated inaugural season, giving the line much needed feedback. We’re hopeful that Riverside Ravel returns in 2024 even stronger.
Here are our takeaways from a week with Riverside Luxury Cruises:
While food can be subjective, there’s no arguing that fresh ingredients, local dishes and excellent execution are a winning formula. That’s what we experienced at almost every meal we had in the ship’s Waterside Restaurant.
The space is set up for success: Unlike on other river cruise ships, these vessels have their buffet tucked into a separate room, so diners aren’t subjected to annoying queues or bustle. The spread at breakfast and lunch is extensive, with outstanding presentations and a choice of made-to-order options. Cheeses are local and unusual (think Pave d’Affinois, Pont l’Eveque and Reblochen); pastries are made onboard by executive chef Jozsef Reichenbach.
The waiter-served dinner menus were creative and gourmet, with ingredients such as lobster, foie gras, truffles and escargot. It’s hard to have a cruise ship restaurant with food as good as what you’d find on shore, but we found Riverside Ravel came close. Executive chef Paula Iacoblev deserved her nightly kudos, as well as applause during the day for the once-per-sailing top deck BBQ that featured a whole suckling pig, prawns and Tomahawk steaks.
Our only head-scratching meal came at The Bistro, an alternative restaurant that the ship ran several nights during our trip. Billed as tapas by one server and bistro by another, the menu contained dishes like venison carpaccio, dilled salmon salad and fried frog’s legs, served family style.
While the food was delicious and well presented, we found the concept to be confusing, and the tastes somewhat odd for North American cruisers. The terms “tapas” and “bistro” evoke certain expectations for passengers, and when those aren’t met, passengers are left puzzled. The space might be better utilized as a nightly casual menu for those who don’t want to clean up for the main dining room.
Another area where Riverside shines is in its wine list. People come to Europe to drink local wine, and that’s exactly what we received on Riverside Ravel. Every dinner in the main dining room offered a choice of red and whites from the individual wine regions we were traveling through. We were particularly appreciative of the bartender George in the Palm Court who pulled out a special Chateauneuf-du-Pape for us. (One of our top wine tips: Let the servers know what you like and you might be delighted).
True oenophiles will want to splurge for the seven-course Vintage Room experience. This private dining room seats 10 and comes with an eye-watering price of $295 per person -- or $3,000 for the entire room. Yet we felt the price tag justified, once we saw the wines that were selected and served by urbane restaurant manager Andras Horvath.
All bottles opened were in the 50-to-100-euro range, with the top vintage – a 2018 Premier Grand Cru from Bordeaux’s Chateau Figeac – coming in at nearly 300 euros. The wines were poured liberally to accompany chef Iacoblev’s menu; our group of strangers left as happy and full (and more than a bit tipsy) friends.
We were happy to see that Riverside didn’t mess too much with the ship’s cabins and suites. The décor is similar to a fine European hotel, with white wainscoted walls, vaulted ceilings and gray silk draperies. Beds are ultra-comfy, king-sized and in some rooms, face the river as opposed to a wall. A flat-screen TV can be pulled out from the wall for better viewing and there’s a complimentary mini-bar close at hand.
We stayed in a Seashore Suite, which comes with 257 square feet, a double vanity sink and a walk-in closet. The space felt big, especially compared to your typical smaller European hotel room. Riverside Ravel and its sisters also have truly grand Owners Suites that, at 506 square feet, are the largest on the European rivers (a fact that Uniworld is already trumpeting in its literature since chartering Riverside Ravel’s sister-ships).
The one drawback is that the ship lacks true balconies. While there’s a room-length picture window that can drop down and be screened for fresh air, the ships have a design flaw that causes the windows to break if you go into one of Europe’s many locks. As a result, you’re cautioned to keep them closed while sailing – a real bummer.
We were delighted to see some familiar faces onboard; a Riverside representative said that the company went out of their way to hire back as many Crystal employees as they could. After a few days, it was easy to tell who had been with Crystal and who had not – there was a professionalism and charm to the veterans that has always been hard to duplicate elsewhere.
Horvath, for example, worked on Crystal’s ocean ships for over 20 years. Chef Iacoblev is also a Crystal veteran. Others onboard went out of their way to help – excursion manager Stephanie sorted out a transfer that went awry; housekeeper Victoria helped find my plus one’s iPhone that inexplicably slipped into a drawer crevasse.
We did hear some grumbling from staff that the experience for them, workwise, is perhaps not what it was under Crystal. And we did feel that the butler service on Riverside was not as fluid and intuitive as we had experienced under the previous owner. We rarely saw our butler and we feel that position might be one that could assist with some of the ship’s overall communication issues.
We missed out booking a spa service, for example, because of the lack of an overall sailing schedule. It was also never explained to us that room service was available and complimentary; a brochure left in the room had prices on it. Other guests felt they didn’t know about booking opportunities like the Vintage Room until it was too late. The ship should work to make that kind of information available to passengers, whether it’s from the butler or is more present on the daily schedule or broadcast somewhere visible onboard.
From an overall guest standpoint, however, Riverside is starting strong. We hope the company continues to scoop up – and retain – these Crystal vets. A stronger hand overseeing the onboard communication details might also help.
It also seems like the ship staff is willing to adjust – when passengers questioned why no one was checking guest room cards as they left and arrived onboard, the hotel director stepped up and started writing down room numbers as people boarded after excursions. This common step – used aboard every major cruise ship afloat – allows for better security onboard, as well as an accurate account of all passengers onboard and ashore at any given time.
One thing that is consistent between Crystal and Riverside is that the onboard experience feels more like a hotel than a typical tour group. There are very few announcements, no planned onboard activities, no port talk during happy hour. Nightly entertainment is limited to a piano player as people linger over dinner.
Riverside has a shore excursion program, with all tours included in most North American fares (although you can purchase a less-inclusive fare that doesn’t bundle alcoholic drinks and excursions, this is aimed more at Europeans). We found very little information about these excursions available online before we left, however, which meant we spent more time at the concierge desk than usual.
The excursions themselves varied wildly, from grand successes – an engaged truffle hunt demonstration and tasting at Domaine Bramarel, complete with happy sniffing Labradors – to the disorganized: an oddly rushed chocolate and wine pairing session at Valrhona. A walking tour of Aix-en-Provence was centered around a cheese tasting that was not mentioned in the description – in a location where a woman in a walker had to stay outside downstairs while others partook -- the person giving the presentation didn’t have enough English to properly explain what we were eating.
Consistency of the shore excursion offerings day-to-day was also problematic. On one day, we had three excursions and several choices, while on another, there was only one offering. It was also odd that we were bussed to Avignon from Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a short day trip when our cruise ended up there. It led us to wonder if Riverside’s later start date in the season led to less convenient docking locations.
Hotels typically rely on guests to make their own arrangements, while river cruise lines traditionally give more hand-holding. This might be an area where Riverside and the Seaside Collection work together to provide a more boutique excursion experience that appeals to an emerging river cruise demographic. The younger travelers who are gravitating toward luxury cruising are going to want to go beyond “follow the lollipop” tours. We’d love to see Riverside innovate in this space.
One area where Riverside is innovating is through the length of its cruises. Passengers can choose from three and four-day taster cruises to the more typical weeklong itineraries – or string several together to make a longer voyage.
This flexibility makes it easy for a couple who may already be in Europe spend a few days on the river to give cruising a try. We also see this format appealing to newer and younger travelers, some of whom may still be in their working years (by the way, Riverside has StarLink internet access – and it worked consistently).
Although Riverside only has two ships operating in 2023, with one more sailing in 2024, we see the line as a solid option for luxury. It’s perhaps not as polished as Uniworld – at least not yet – but its commitment to food and wine are already comparable and the average room is larger. The ship itself is a delight and first-time cruisers who prefer a more independent hotel experience to a tour will be more at home here than on competing luxury tour and river cruise operator, Tauck.
We look forward to seeing how Riverside evolves as it grows.