We were new passengers, my wife and I, when we boarded the Crystal Bach, docked at Mainz, Germany, on the River Rhine near Frankfurt. As we walked into the Palm Court lounge, fellow passengers made no secret of their curiosity. Most of them were at the midpoint of a two-week cruise from Amsterdam.
Warm and friendly, they acted as if we were new members of their private club.
“Welcome.” “You’re new, we haven’t seen you before.” “Just get onboard?” “Come join us.”
The cruise line could not have planned a better welcome.
When Crystal, which is known for its country club atmosphere on two luxury-style ocean ships, took an expensive plunge into the world of river cruising, I wondered how well the ocean product would translate when plopped onto a much smaller, less endowed river vessel.
To make it work, Crystal has built four of its own river ships that are warm, airy, and spacious with only 53 suites on vessels that could hold 90 cabins or more. Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler, Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel are the only all-suite, all-balcony ships on Europe’s rivers, with all accommodations situated above the water line. The vessels have the highest crew-to-guest ratio in the industry, including butler service for every suite.
The Palm Court is a new design on the rivers with a ceiling of glass on each side toward the bow, making it a sunny living room during the day, and a cocktail lounge with a busy dance floor at night. The Waterside dining room is open seating for specialties from the chefs (there are no cooks aboard, says Crystal, only chefs).
If my recent week exploring the upper Rhine on Crystal Bach is any indication, Crystal River Cruises is off to an impressive start.
Starting a river cruise line is not a typical move for a major ocean-going company, particularly one with a unique product and a luxury reputation to protect. Cruise lines rely on satisfied repeat customers. And folks who love the exhilaration of sailing oceans of the world are not always as fond of floating slowly along brownish rivers.
Crystal has been in a serious expansion mode, with scheduled construction of the first of a new class of 100-cabin luxury expedition ships and a new ocean ship, to join the recently added 62-passenger yacht and five river ships, including the four 106-passenger new-builds and a larger rehabbed ship, for cruising the rivers of Europe.
“We are redefining the luxury river cruise business,” says Tom Wolber, president and CEO of Crystal since 2017. He previously worked for the Walt Disney Co.
“River cruising will continue to grow,” said Wolber, who was aboard Crystal Bach in May. He said that his company is carving out the river cruise niche that “delivers at the greatest level of luxury.”
“Our staff training is rigorous,” he said. “We cater to the guest who likes personal space, they don’t want to be crowded. We don’t cram people. We never fill the bus on excursions. Other companies have new hardware. We have the crew. Service is personal, which is why we appeal to the younger, working wealthy.”
The intimacy of Crystal Bach is noticeable within a day or two. Seats are always available, and probably, too, a couch with throw pillows on the top outside deck. Soon, you realize you have seen just about everyone on the vessel. Most of the guests tend to wander into Palm Court before dinner to listen to the resident player of the Steinway piano, have a cocktail, and chat about the day’s events — though Crystal’s 24-hour room service makes it possible to hide for the evening while not missing dinner.
“People are gravitating toward river cruises because of the intimacy of our ships,” says Walter Littlejohn III, managing director of Crystal River Cruises. “Open seating dining works as a way for people to get to know one another.” The dining room, and an alternative small bistro, are furnished with tables for two, but designed so they can become tables for four.
“We discourage groups, partly because we don’t want everyone to arrive at dinner at the same time,” said Littlejohn. “Our entrees are not prepared until the order is placed. Carrots are peeled and cut when you order them.” At breakfast and lunch, passengers choose from a buffet selection or place an order from a menu.
On most river cruises, all passengers troop into the main lounge for a daily pre-dinner briefing with a lecture or announcements about the next day’s activities. Typically, the evening meeting is followed by passengers eating dinner at the same time.
But at Crystal, says Littlejohn, passengers have developed a tradition of a daily cocktail gathering to socialize during the hours before dinner, arriving at the Palm Court at different times, then leaving for dinner at different times.
There was always a cocktail hour (fine choices of alcohol are included in the cruise fare on Crystal), but never a pre-dinner meeting during my cruise on Crystal Bach between Mainz, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland. I didn’t miss it.
INFORMATION ON CRYSTAL CRUISES
Contact a travel agent who specializes in cruises or Crystal Cruises at 888-799-2437 or www.crystalcruises.com. The company’s 2018-2019 Crystal River Cruises Atlas highlights 35 itineraries along the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle rivers.