Henk and I were invited on a 7-day European luxury river cruise by Crystal River Cruises and this is our experience onboard the Crystal Mahler. All opinions and descriptions in this post are our own and reflect our genuine experiences.
I’ve been ruined for river cruising.
Last month, Henk and I experienced our first European river cruise down the Danube onboard the luxurious Crystal Mahler, an all-suite ship that is part of the 6-star Crystal River Cruise fleet. And to be perfectly honest, this experience may be impossible to beat. Which is why it comes as no surprise to us that Crystal River Cruises was recognized in 2019 as Conde Nast’s Best River Cruise Line and why for Henk and I, after this luxury river cruise, there may be no going back. Here are 6 reasons why.
1. The Largest Staterooms, Period.
Crystal River Cruises prides itself on offering the largest staterooms of any river cruise line, and after seeing our own suite, it’s hard to argue with that. But it wasn’t just the beautiful décor, king sized bed, full 2-vanity washroom and walk-in closet that impressed us: it was the intuitive touches that made the space truly luxurious…things like a heated floor in the bathroom, a night-mode lighting option that provided subtle, floor-level illumination, and the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, the top half of which opened completely so you could enjoy fresh air as the ship sailed down the Danube.
And then there was the butler service, offered with every suite, including 24-hour room service from the Michelin-inspired menu. For Henk and I, it was luxurious enough to start every morning by having Marco, our butler, bring us a steaming pot of coffee and tea. We left the eggs benedict delivered-to-the-door or the 3am entrees to other guests. (Indulgence is personal, after all, just like the service on board.)
2. “All-Inclusive Luxury” is Not An Oxymoron
If you think that the terms ‘all-inclusive’ and ‘luxury’ rarely deliver on both, you will be pleasantly surprised onboard a Crystal River Cruise. Not only was the cuisine decidedly gourmet, but the wines and cocktails were of the highest quality (and generous as well!).
One night Henk and I enjoyed a tapas-style 9-course menu inspired by global street food featuring everything from Almo beef tartare and to-die-for cubes of lemon marinated Alpine salmon to decadent Belgian chocolate desserts.
Another night we were treated to spheres of foie gras followed by buttery lobster and melt-in-your mouth beef tenderloin. Every dinner menu offered something unique, and even the lunch buffet featured interesting regional dishes from the countries we were visiting, like Brydzove Halusky, the Slovakian national dish (a version of cheesy gnocchi topped with bacon.)
Of course wine and cocktails were all complimentary, all day long, whether we wanted a mimosa at breakfast, champagne in our suite, or the signature cocktail of the day after returning from a shore excursion.
One of our best memories was spending an unseasonably warm October afternoon on the top Vista Deck, sipping a ‘Hugo” prosecco-based cocktail, chatting with other guests and watching castles slip by on either side of the Danube.
TIP: ‘All-inclusive’ on a Crystal River Cruise even includes gratuities and shore tours, (there are at least 2 complimentary Crystal Adventures® Shore Excursions offered at every destination).
3. Destinations That Offer More
River cruising is as much about the destinations as it is about the ship amenities, and although many cruise lines may visit the same towns and cities, Crystal River Cruises finds ways to bring exclusive curated experiences to their guests, with their Crystal Signature Events.
In Vienna, we were treated to an extraordinary evening at the Belvedere Palace, a former royal summer residence, now art gallery famed for being the home of Austrian masterpieces like Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’. We literally had several galleries in this UNESCO-named museum to ourselves, before enjoying a private orchestral concert in the extravagant Marble Hall, including operatic and ballet performances.
To me, this kind of exclusive experience is what luxury is really about, and one of the ways that Crystal River Cruises made our visit to Vienna unique and memorable.
4. Onboard Entertainment
The entertainment on the ship was another way that our Crystal River Cruise over-delivered on expectations: we were particularly blown away one evening by a command performance by Stephen Mullan, a Welsh tenor who previously performed at Milan’s La Scala for 12 years, then as soloist at Vienna’s Mahler Philarmoniker, and even at Pope Benedict XVI’s birthday party. Mullan and his accompanying pianist, Francesco Carlo Leone, brought down the house (think Andrea Bocelli/Mario Lanza/Il Divo calibre and you get the idea), and afterwards everyone present lined up to compliment the artist. (I actually asked him how many languages he spoke/sang which turned out to be six!)
To enjoy a voice this powerful in such an intimate venue is a rare treat, and something that came as an unexpected surprise. Although maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising, given that music was an integral part of every evening on board – and it’s probably no coincidence that Crystal River Cruise ships are named after some of the region’s most famous composers.
5. Service, Service, Service
In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. But when it comes to setting yourself apart in the hospitality industry, it’s all about service, and Crystal River Cruises takes this personal approach to heart.
I have no idea how every member of the staff that we met onboard managed to remember our names, almost immediately after being introduced. But they did, and this attention to detail is something on which Crystal River Cruises prides itself as a company. Plus with only 100 or so guests on board, the ship staff can become like family to some guests, especially on longer cruises. In fact, when we disembarked at the end of our own cruise, there were genuine hugs and kisses exchanged by many of the Crystal Mahler staff and guests.
6. What Happens If….
Of course the true test of Crystal River Cruises’ commitment to service comes when things may not go as planned, and with river cruises, the level of the river ultimately decides where ships may or may not go. Unfortunately for us, towards the end of our cruise, the level of the Danube had dropped so that we weren’t able to sail into Budapest.
Of course this was disappointing to all, but the Crystal Mahler staff quickly made alternate arrangements to transport us by bus to the city, and we were put up in an absolutely spectacular hotel in the heart of Budapest, which more than made up for any initial disappointment.
(Admittedly, we missed having our morning beverages delivered by Marco, but the ambiance of the Parisi Udvar was a pretty good substitute!) And of course staff from the ship were available 24/7 on-site to help with whatever we needed.
Crystal Sets a 6-Star Standard
In hindsight, our experience with Crystal River Cruises was a bittersweet one. On the positive side, our week was filled with dozens of things to see and do both on-shore and onboard, making the time fly by. On the negative side, the time flew by! We could have easily spent another week just enjoying everything the ship offered, taking advantage of its 6-star amenities and services, and indulging ourselves even more.
But worst of all, Henk and I fear that Crystal River Cruises has set the bar so high with this luxury river cruise that we may well be ruined for future cruises.
Which probably explains why our post-trip depression was a little more pronounced this time after returning home. Because even though the Danube river itself may not be blue, after saying goodbye to our Crystal River Cruise experience, Henk and I certainly were.