Palm Court

With five ships now plying Europe's waterways, Crystal River Cruises is realizing the vision that it set out several years ago: to replicate the standard of luxury found on its ocean lines inland.

We're currently onboard Crystal Mahler, one of the line's four 106-passenger "Rhine class" ships, for part of its Grand Europe itinerary. As we sail, we've noticed some luxurious touches that sets Crystal river cruises apart from its competitors. While some of the things are part of the ship's décor and hardware, we're finding it’s primarily the programming and onboard atmosphere that make Crystal different from other river cruise lines.

Here are our thoughts:

Dining Is Exceptional

Last year, Crystal River Cruises won an Editors' Picks Award for Best Dining, and we still believe that the line serves the best meals on the rivers. The secret is partially due to the setup: unlike other river cruise lines, where a large buffet station anchors the dining room, the "market" on Crystal Mahler is set off in its own partitioned space. The galley, too, is closed off in the middle of the room, as opposed to the end, which makes the service seem more natural and restaurant-like.

Crystal Mahler dining

The food itself has a few differences. All breads and pastries are baked fresh daily. Because diners come in at their own pace, the entrees are made to order. The presentation at dinner is spectacular, with traditional dishes like Dutch fish and chips, elevated with playful touches such as newspaper wrapping and a gourmet version of mushy peas. Casual dining at The Bistro includes a to-die-for burger at lunch and a diverse global tapas dinner menu with tiger shrimp, beef medallions and pulled pork sliders. A room service meal showed up, still hot, in 15 minutes. We have yet to try a full Vintage Room dinner on our own -- we'll sample the eight-course meal with paired wines like Opus One on Friday -- but a lunch that we had on sister ship Crystal Debussy featured luxury ingredients like caviar and lobster (as it should; the dinner carries a 290 euro price tag -- and is the only for-fee extra, understandably), served in inventive ways. If you're a foodie, this cruise is for you.

Cabins Are Luxe

Crystal's affluent passengers likely have pretty nice digs back home (or homes, plural), so why should they skimp when they're on vacation? Thus the cabins all have true king-size beds -- unusual in Europe, let alone river cruising -- walk-in closets with spaces for shoes, double vanities and heated floors in the bathrooms, full-size bath products, USB ports near the beds and iPads to use while onboard. The smallest cabins are 188 square feet, and the majority are 237 or 253 square feet (compared to a competing luxury river line, whose cabins start around 150 square feet with the majority at 225 square feet).

We love the panel molding on the walls, which makes the rooms seem like what you'd find at a hotel instead of a ship cabin. We like the insect screen that fits the drop-down panoramic window, the rainforest shower head that starts up with the touch of a button, and the fact that the view from that cushy bed to the river is unimpeded by posts, a railing or a TV. We also appreciate the daily canapes delivered by our butler promptly at 4:45 p.m. and the stocked mini-bar. Our only quibble is that the towels aren't as large or plush as you might find in a luxury hotel (or at our house, for that matter).

Individuals, Not Groups

Crystal makes a point of eschewing many of the onboard trappings that you find on most river cruises, including folklore entertainment shows, daily port talks and announcements. When a morning or afternoon tour is over, people scatter to do their own thing -- and even though the ship carries fewer passengers than others on the rivers, you might not see them again for a few days. It feels much less like a group tour than any river cruise we've been on (although, given the demographic, we feel the city walk tours could be even smaller and more intimate). Even the traditional commentary that you find when you pass through scenic areas, such as the Rhine Gorge, are opt-in only, through individual listening devices.

The Palm Court Lounge, with a restful cream and light blue color palette, is one of the best places to while away the day. It's a fantastic light-filled space, with two large sections of glassed-in roof and swivel chairs strategically placed so you can look outside or watch the entertainment. The bar staff there is still professional and formal (as we've found most of the service) but with a little more give and small talk skills. We've enjoyed watching the changeable Rhine River from here; it's a particularly moody spot when it rains, as you can see a storm from several angles. It's like spending time in a lovely luxury hotel you don't want to leave.

Passengers Are Private

Because people aren't grouped into one place for port talks or eating in the dining room at the same time, we're finding that this is a far less social river cruise than any that we've been on. It's a ship designed for couples: most of the tables in the dining room are set for two, as are the comfy swivel chairs in the Palm Court Lounge and many of the cushy shaded sofas on the Sun Deck. The small groups that are onboard tend to keep to themselves at the tables that are designed for four or six people. There is a luxury to doing your own thing, and we get the sense that anything that smacks of herding is anathema to most passengers (as evidenced by the amount of people who peeled off from a tour group in Cologne).

All in all, we've found that a Crystal river passenger has his or her own agenda of what to see and do, as well as high expectations for dining, accommodation and service. They are looking for Crystal Mahler to deliver that and more -- and from what we've seen in our few days onboard, the ship is meeting the challenge.

--By Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor