A kettle seemed a prosaic request to make of a butler but it was soon sitting in my suite along with a selection of teas.
Only later, considering the boutique nature of Crystal Bach, and our location – afloat on the Rhine, did I wonder it must have been a tall order to secure a spare. Crystal has many American guests, hence Nespresso machines rather than kettles as standard.
Butler service is among the passenger perks of Crystal’s all-suite Rhine Class ships, which bring a foodie focus to European river cruising on the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle.
Though “Michelin-inspired” is the mantra, I was frankly dubious that a tiny floating kitchen serving 106 covers could pull off something so special. However, night after night meals in the Waterside restaurant were a real treat, with the likes of Alpine salmon, Austrian Almo beef tartar, and lobster with leek risotto and split pea cappuccino. The dishes were beautifully presented and generously proportioned and dessert was often set to defeat us until we were teased with taster plates.
Most food had been sourced locally, except the lobsters – flown in from Maine. Similarly, less familiar Austrian and Swiss wines were among those proffered as part of Crystal’s commitment to showcase vineyards close to its routes.
The sommelier was excellent, making suggestions to complement our dishes and tastes. There was no sniffiness when a fellow diner confessed to loving sweet wine, instead it was treated as a challenge to match it to her main.
Premium spirits and beers, fine wines and champagne are included but connoisseurs can pay extra for some of the world’s most sought after vintages like the $20,000 a bottle Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
A small, part self-service, bistro proved a handy place to grab lighter fare like pastries and tapas. Pre-dinner cocktails were taken in the Palm Court where cheery pianist Perry Grant – at a Steinway no less, was the main entertainment. We were often slow to prise ourselves from the lounge’s armchairs and margaritas to head to dinner – not a problem with no regimented sittings or seating plans. No captain’s table either; a deliberate relaxing of a convention that could alienate a new, younger audience Crystal hopes to court.
On the Basel to Frankfurt section of the Jewels of the Rhine voyage I joined in winter, the scenery was short on wow-factor but it mattered little when one non-excursion day I joined a party lunching in the private hire Vintage Room.
I stoically worked through four-courses, kicking off with a glass of Dom Perignon then the likes of black cod and wild forest mushroom wellington with creamy spinach and roast sweet potatoes, matched with Austrian wines.
Under Crystal’s Highly Acclaimed Dining programme guests in higher category suites can take some meals ashore on a complimentary basis at Michelin-starred or other well-respected restaurants. The food focus also extends to regular excursions with typically two per port themed as Tantalising Gastronomy. For 2020 these will include private cheese tasting in Amsterdam, culinary walking tours of Nuremburg and Bratislava and sausage making at Weisswurstakademie.
The Rhine Class excursion programme in general is generous; an average choice of four per port, at least one complimentary, though pre-selection is advisable. I lost out on burning some of my extra calories e-biking in the Black Forest but in Basel joined the complimentary trip to Vitra Design Museum of architecture and art, while those with €1,069 reservations took helicopter rides over the Alps.
Of course, on board, Bach and its sister ships are more than floating restaurants. In my deluxe suite the king-sized bed felt uncommonly vast, the wardrobe was walk-in and the bathroom had dual sinks. All 53 suite-cabins had floor-to-ceiling windows that descended to balcony height at the touch of a button (enabling some passengers to feed the swans that often seemed to escort us).
In the smart cream-toned Palm Court with its mirror-backed cocktail bar, the ambience changed for daytime thanks to a glass ceiling. Elsewhere was a spa treatment room, a gym and small pool with retractable roof and a resistance jet to help us earn dinner. On deck a bar cleverly collapsed for low bridges.
I met vice president and managing director for river cruises Walter Littlejohn III on my voyage – one of his frequent visits to test and tweak the experience. He told me the line benchmarks itself not only against other cruises but hotels groups like Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton.
Crystal Bach’s décor is perfectly pitched – calming and classic, with contemporary accents like teal velvet chairs and chunky green glassware in the restaurant. It’s designed to keep Crystal’s core clientele happy (“they haven’t put a foot wrong,” a regular cruiser told me), while enticing younger professionals who enjoy boutique hotels to chance a river cruise. The Rhine Class voyages could be considered a series of city breaks, Littlejohn believes, calling at the likes of Strasbourg, Cologne and Amsterdam, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna.
Crystal customers value the cruise experience over ‘hardware’ he told me: “They want good food and service way more than a rollercoaster ride on the top of the ship.”
It made sense to me. Besides the meals, my greatest luxury was simply lounging in my king-sized bed watching Oscar-winning films on the huge wall-mounted TV and wondering if I could squeeze in one more of the butler-delivered canapés.
A seven-night Crystal Bach cruise between Basel and Amsterdam in 2020 starts from £2,458pp, based on two sharing. Flights extra (020 7399 7604; crystalcruises.co.uk).