So, we arrived at Munich airport full of anticipation for our maiden voyage with Crystal cruises which would take us along the beautiful River Danube and promised a journey of enriching discovery and luxurious comfort.
The River Danube is the second largest river in Europe running from its origin in the Black Forest of Germany for 2,730 kilometres ending at the Black Sea. As we were to discover it’s truly stunning and passes through the borders of ten countries.
Having packed extensively for an autumnal trip we were greeted by bright, warm sunshine and met outside customs by a Crystal representative who took us to our limo. A diversion due the low river conditions meant a slightly longer trip to Passau where we were to embark the ship, the Crystal Mahler.
The Crystal Mahler
The Crystal Mahler was launched in 2017 as one of the first of Crystal River’s “Rhine Class” vessels and is the definition of luxury river cruising, essentially a luxury hotel that happens to float. The ship carries fewer people than other river vessels its size, onboard there was always plenty of room and peace to enjoy the experience.
The Crystal Mahler oozed style and luxury from the moment we embarked. We were met by a friendly representative who took us to our deluxe suite featuring panoramic balcony windows to make the most of the stunning river views on our journey.
We were greeted with a welcoming bottle of chilled champagne and introduced to some of the features of the room – all suites feature the Crystal acclaimed 24-hour butler service and we were quickly introduced to ours for the week, Marco. He guided us through some of the other Crystal facilities, walk-in closet,24-hour room service, daily canapés and appetizers, a fully stocked mini-refrigerator, ETRO luxury amenities and some of the sate of the art technology including bedside digital iPad directory and interactive TV system with complimentary music on demands and an extensive music library along with the essential 24-hour complimentary, unlimited Wi-Fi.
We were then introduced to our delightful cabin attendant Jelena who informed us of the twice daily housekeeping services and additional facilities such as the free pressing service. Laundry can be done in two ways – sent out with your butler at a per-item fee or by using the self-service laundry on Deck 1.
We enjoyed a cocktail on the exclusive “pop up “Vista Deck bar. The full-service bar serves a canopied lounge area that has stylish tables and chairs, as well as highly comfortable sofas. A perfect place to enjoy the scenic views.
As we were to discover The Crystal Mahler offers an array of elegant and casual dining options throughout the day and we sampled some of the Michelin inspired farm to table dining that evening in the Waterside Restaurant. Passengers dine when and where they want, sitting at tables for two and four. The dining on the ship is of luxury standard in its inventiveness, ingredients and presentation. All breads and pastries are baked fresh daily. Traditional dishes are bought to life with clever touches.
For dinner, the meal is served table side where you select from a generous menu. An all-inclusive white wine and red wine selection is listed although you can also purchase “fine” wines at a price,from a Connoisseur menu. You can get all-inclusive wines at any meal or whenever the bar (Palm Court) is open.
After a perfect night’s sleep, we enjoyed a morning coffee in bed, bought to us by Marco with a beautiful view over the river before a great breakfast at the Waterside restaurant.
Crystal Mahler offers an array of shore excursions in port, with a choice of complimentary options.
A branded Crystal coach with Wi-Fi, a bathroom and free bottles of water transports passengers to the different destinations and we found ourselves on the tour to Passau that morning where a local guide provided a backdrop on the area. Crystal listening devices are provided to enhance your experience.
Passau sits on the Bavarian-Austrian border, a charming medieval city with a beautiful setting where the River Danube meets both the River Ubb and IIlz.
Later that day we took a Crystal tour bike ride all around the town and enjoyed a well-deserved local Kristallweizan beer overlooking a bridge where on one foot you’ll be in Germany and the other Austria.
That evening we ate at the Bistro Mahler which serves coffees, pastries and charcuterie by day and a diverse global tapas dinner menu paired with local wines in the evening. Afterwards we visited the Palm Court Lounge, a beautiful light-filled space, with two large sections of glassed-in roof and swivel chairs strategically placed so you can watch the ever-changing views or watch the nightly entertainment.
The next morning, we woke up in Melk, we were a mere 10-minute stroll away from the heart of Melk where the impressive Abbey of Melk rears up on a jutting cliff some 60m above the river. Each day Crystal provide a guide to the visiting location.
Melk is a very cute town with historic houses dating back to the 15th century beneath the abbey which we enjoyed strolling though whilst browsing some of the local shops.
The Abbey itself was designed as a retreat for Benedictine monks sworn to poverty and a simple life. The Abbey was rebuilt, and the monastery epitomises the extravagance of the Baroque style in which modesty was generally conspicuous by its absence. It’s truly impressive with beautiful gardens, amazing views and my favourite spot was the library which houses around 85,000 books and 2000 manuscripts.
It was another beautiful day, so we enjoyed a glass of champagne on the vista as we set off back along the river towards Dunstein. The scenery on this stretch of the river was stunning, each side offering visual delights.
Durnsein, situated among Austria’s most famous vines, is considered as one of the romantic and prettiest towns in the Wachau Valley and as we arrived, I could see why. Beautiful surrounding landscapes with a dominant blue baroque church spire that greets visitors from either direction, it’s quite exceptional.
After walking through the town, we hiked up to Durnstein castle where Richard the Lionheart was once imprisoned. The trail was steep in some areas and was a mixture of man-made rocky steps and natural “stairs” of rocks. The views of Dürnstein, the Danube and the Wachau Valley were captivating!
Back on the ship I looked around at the fitness options – there’s a small but well stocked exercise room on Deck 1 with free weights, a rowing machine, and 2 exercise bikes. Ebikes are available on request and there are daily yoga and fitness classes.
Inside at the back of the boat there’s a small indoor pool where you can activate a jet of water and can then swim against the current whilst enjoying the views.
That night we enjoyed another sumptuous meal onboard and some more night entertainment in the Palm Lounge. Name a cocktail and the bartender will make it.
We sailed overnight to Vienna – the ship is so smooth you’d have no idea you were in motion! A foggy start greeted us, and we decided to do our own itinerary although even then there are regular Crystal coaches that ferry you back and forth at your own leisure.
Vienna is Capital of the Republic of Austria and one of Europe’s most visited cities, owing much of its charm and history to its location on the banks of the Danube River. Historic sights, famous art collections, glittering palaces, and musical heritage that’s continued in its concert halls and one of the world’s great opera houses.
It was initially the first proper autumnal day we had so we warmed up by doing plenty of walking, going further out to the Vienna Naschmarkt, its best-known food market containing around 120 market stands and an array of cafes, restaurants and bars.
We enjoyed some shopping at Graben, an exclusive shopping street with lots of stores located in historical buildings, had an idyllic walk through the Burggarten and went past the monumental Vienna opera house and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We also saw the Fiakers, the famous two horse carriages which tourists can tour in.
Ahead of dinner that evening we were shown the Vintage Room where true gourmets can pay an additional fee for a private eight-course wine pairing meal.
That night all Crystal guests were invited to an private, Crystal signature event, an exclusive classical concert at the magnificent Belvedere Palace, We were treated to a private viewing of Gustav Klimt’s internationally acclaimed masterpiece “The Kiss” before enjoying some opera, ballet and Viennese Waltzing in a truly stunning location, quite an experience.
Low river conditions due to the fine weather we’d been experiencing meant a deviation to our journey. Crystal dealt with this impeccably and we were promptly informed of the changes to our route and the next morning we awoke in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, set along the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary.
After another fine breakfast in bed bought by the fabulous Marco we strolled across from the ship into the pedestrian-only, 18th-century old town, home to a variety of lively bars and cafes. We took in Michael’s gate city fortification system which dates to the 14th century the upper terrace of its 51-metre-high tower providing an enchanting view of the Bratislava Castle and the Old Town.
A 15 min walk up the hill took us to the reconstructed Bratislava Castle which overlooks the old town and the Danube. The views were stunning across the UFO bridge, the old town and St Martin’s Cathedral.
We stopped off for a few glasses of local wine near to the Primate’s Palace, a Classicist palace built in the 18th century in which the Peace of Pressburg was signed after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz between the representatives of the French and Austrian emperors.
Some of the most photographed attractions of Bratislava are its sculptures in human size which are located all over its Old Town. The most popular, Cumil, has become one of the symbols of the Old Town. One story around this man sticking out of a manhole says that a wish will come true for you if you touch the head of the man, if you keep it secret forever.
That night we sailed back to Vienna ready for our last meal and night on the ship before a coach trip to our final part of the journey, Budapest.
The following morning, we left to some fond goodbyes – massive thanks to Marco, Jalana and the reception ladies who made our onboard experience both easy and fun. Predominantly European based we found the onboard service to be of a luxury standard, discreet but professional. They made a point of learning passenger names and greeting us with a smile whenever we saw them.
All staff were then on top deck to see us off, a nice, final touch and then we were on the way to Budapest.
Budapest looked amazing as we drove across the bridge toward the city, the sun was shining again, with lots of tourist milling around.
As we were checking into hotels later in the day Crystal had organised a lunch for all the ship passengers. After this we took a final tour up to Castle Hill taking in the The Széchenyi Chain Bridge that spans the River Danube between Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest. There are eight bridges that span the Danube in Budapest linking Buda and Pest, each with its own tale to tell.
The cobblestone streets and leafy promenades of Castle Hill lead past baroque houses, Habsburg monuments and cafes. The main attractions are Buda Castle which is now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum whilst the turrets and terraces of Fisherman’s Bastion offer astonishing views over the Danube and nearby Matthias Church. It was very busy, we saw at least three wedding parties, but there was still plenty of opportunities to take photographs.
We walked back down to our hotel for the night, the quite stunning Parisi Udvar Hotel, where our Crystal representatives were waiting along with our luggage. After an effortless check we had a few glasses of local wine before meeting for a last meal with some of the others.
Afterwards we were taken to the famous ruin bars. These bars are built in Budapest’s old District VII neighbourhood (the old Jewish quarter) in the ruins of abandoned buildings and stores. Whilst I’m well past my best in terms of clubs the atmosphere was friendly, fun and we had a great time.
The next morning, we were due to depart relatively early. Again, a Crystal representative was at hand to make the journey back to the airport a swift and effortless one.
Overall, we had an amazing experience onboard the Crystal Mahler. Delightful surroundings, the best-in-class food and service, and the ability to tailor your time to your own pace and interest. Many people on the cruise had been long-time Crystal users, testament to the experience that they offer. We can’t wait to cruise more with Crystal, an eloquent way of seeing parts of the World in the most luxurious manner!