Luxury line Crystal Cruises made its debut on Europe’s rivers a couple of years ago when it acquired and refitted Crystal Mozart, the ship winning much approval for its beautiful interiors and gourmet food. Mozart, though, was an older ship. Now, Crystal is building four riverboats to its own specification. The first two, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Bach, launched in 2017, with Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy due to follow in 2018. All five ships will sail permutations of Rhine, Main and Danube itineraries.
In many ways, Crystal is re-writing the cruising rulebook with its venture into river cruising. The new ships, for a start, have no lower deck cabins, meaning every single guest has a panoramic window that pulls down to create a balcony effect. Dinner really is open seating; you arrive any time you want to between 7pm and 9pm (practically unheard of in river cruising), when everybody is expected to dine at the same time.
However upmarket, many river cruise lines have evolved from a ‘touring’ mentality but on Crystal River, this has gone. Guests are not expected to wear name badges. There is no cruise director or tour leader; just a hotel manager and a shore excursions manager. There are no nightly port talks in the lounge. The sense is much more one of a smart boutique hotel.
For the 2018 season, shore excursions (most included in the cruise fare) are being redesigned into small group activities themed around food, the arts, activity and local culture. Experiences will include kayaking through the canals of Strasbourg or going behind the scenes in Amsterdam with a tulip grower. More exclusive, tailor-made tours will be on offer at a charge. Guests in Penthouse cabin grade or above will be entitled to dinner ashore one night in a restaurant that either has Michelin stars or some kind of local renown.
This new, more flexible approach is bringing a younger age group to Europe’s rivers; Crystal claims its average is 61, considerable less than other lines. Who would it suit? Adventurous, sophisticated and inquisitive travellers; lovers of fine food and wine; and certainly, anybody who has previously thought that a river cruise might be too structured for their tastes.