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All eyes turn to Crystal Cruises as the company embarks on an unprecedented expansion program that will see yachts, expedition ships and planes added to its luxury portfolio. One of the new ventures is Crystal River Cruises. Instead of buying an existing operator, Crystal wanted to start a river-based variant of their succesful ocean cruise product from scratch. Their first river ship Crystal Mozart entered service in July, 2016 and four more ships are being built on the line's own shipyard in Germany. So, what is it like to experience Europe's rivers in Crystal luxury? I had the opportunity to sail on Crystal Mozart on a two-night sampler cruise on the Danube River. So, let's hop on a plane and head for Vienna!
A morning in Vienna
My first-ever rivier cruise starts with my first-ever visit to the capital of Austria. Vienna is a stunning city that is easily explored on foot. From the towering Stephansdom Cathedral with its colorful tiled roof to the wide immaculate pedestrian avenues lined with uber-exclusive shops, this city impresses instantly. The sheer number of monumental buildings show that Vienna was once the center of a much bigger empire. So I stroll along boulevards and parks, admiring statues and buildings. I order a Viennese "melange" coffee on a trendy terrace. I enjoy a "Wiener Schnitzel" and a beer for lunch. And before I know it I am in a taxi heading for Crystal Mozart.
Welcome Aboard Crystal Mozart
It was an interesting decision of Crystal Cruises to not wait for their first custom-designed newbuilding, but instead purchase an existing river ship and completely rebuild it. The 1989-built Mozart had spent all of her 26 years on the Danube for which she was designed. Twice as wide as regular river ships, the Mozart has always been unique. And she got even more unique when she was transformed into Crystal Mozart. Completely stripped to bare metal and basically rebuilt according to the exact standards of Crystal Cruises, she sailed on her first cruise on the river Danube from Vienna in July, 2016. With a length of 395 ft (120 m), she accommodates a maximum of 158 guests and with no less than 91 crew members she boasts an unprecedented crew/guest ratio. Crystal Mozart is an all-suite vessel with butler service for every suite. All meals, drinks, tips and most excursions are included. And leave it to Crystal River Cruises to come up with some unforgettable experiences along the way. But more about that later. Let's first explore Crystal Mozart, our home for the next 42 hours.
Typically, most river cruise ships will have one main lounge and perhaps a separate bar area. Not so on Crystal Mozart! The large Palm Court Lounge on deck 3 spans the entire width of the ship and can seat all passengers. Skylights have been added to give a more spacious feeling, while huge windows and ultra-comfortable chairs enable you to sit and see the world (read: the Danube) go by during the day. The adjacent Cove has an intimate bar and a piano so expect some impromptu singalongs here. In the Connoisseur Club across the hall, smokers find their little piece of heaven. Done in an exquisite "Gentlemen's Club" style, this is the place to light up a cigar and drink a glass of cognac. Go one deck down to deck 2 and you will find the main entrance and reception area. On port side there is a tiny but beautiful little library corner, complete with faux fireplace. On starboard side you will find The Pantry, a 24-hour self-service area to get your coffee or wine fix. All the way forward on this deck is the large Crystal Life Spa that has an excercise area, treatment rooms and an indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi. A quick run up the stairs will lead you to deck 4, the top deck, which in summertime is transformed into one large open air bar and lounge, complete with open air movie screen, a pop-up bar, garden and the most comfortable lounge chairs on the river.
The Suite Life
You cannot help but being impressed with Crystal Mozart's suites. They are exquisitely designed and decorated in a style that is stylish without ever going over the top. The standard suite with window is located on the lowest deck 1. It features a full double bed and a seating area. The bathroom comes with Etro toiletries, a power shower and one of those high-tech self-thinking Japanese toilets. All suites have butler service, free WiFi access (up to 90 minutes a day depending on your suite category), Nespresso machines and a minibar stocked with water and juices. There is also an iPad that can be used to order room service (avilable 24/7), dim the lights or turn off the TV. On deck 2 you will find the suites with French balconies. Similar in size and amenities to the standard suite, the higher grade enables you to experience the countryside up close. And mind you, it is close. From your suite, you will see people walking their dog or cars waiting for the stop sign. This is cruising IN a country, not cruising TO a country.
The most elaborate accommodations on Crystal Mozart are the 330 sq ft (30.6 sq m) Penthouse Suites and the gigantic 883 sq ft (82 sq m) Two bedroom Crystal Suite. The Crystal Suite is a sight to behold, with the look and feel of a downtown Manhattan apartment. I was very fortunate to stay in one of the beautiful Penthouse Suites. The suite features a walk-in closet, a dressing area, sitting area and a larger bathroom with two sinks, a shower AND a tub. The French balcony doors open up the whole suite to the outside world which is a wonderful feature. Oh, and the beds are heavenly!
Concert at the Belvedere Palace, Vienna
Leave it to Crystal River Cruises to make their Danube cruises unforgettable. On most itineraries, they will actually invite all of Crystal Mozart's guests to a special evening at the Belvedere in downtown Vienna. This miniature version of Versailles was built in the 18th century as the summer residence of Prince Eugen of Savoy. These days, the stunning Upper Belvedere Palace is home to a priceless art collection including some masterpieces by famous Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. After an exquisite buffet dinner on board, four gleaming white Crystal coaches bring all guests to the Belvedere which opens only for us. We are welcomed with a glass of champagne before touring the art gallery with a local guide. Our tour ends in the stunning Marble Hall where we are treated to an exclusive concert featuring the music of Mozart and Strauss. It's beautiful. Mind you, this is included in the fare. On this, the first evening of our short cruise, the Crystal difference is already crystal clear.
Wining & Dining on Crystal Mozart
If you have cruised on board Crystal Serenity or Crystal Symphony, you will understand that the food quality on Crystal Mozart will be superb. It is of course very different to cater for 150 guests instead of 1,000 and you shouldn't expect the same elaborate choice of venues and dishes that you will find on the ocean going ships. Still, you will feel right at home in Mozart's Bistro, the riverside counterpart of Crystal's oceangoing coffee house annex wine bar annex upscale tapas bar. Go here for continental breakfast, a mid-morning cappuccino or some tapas and a glass of wine in the afternoon. Oh and don't forget to give the ice cream a try! Further aft is the ship's main restaurant, aptly called Waterside. Tables are mostly for four or six persons and the restaurant operates on an open seating basis meaning you can come and go when and with whome you like. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style and quality and service are downright perfect. Dinner is an a la carte, multi-course affair paired with mostly regional wines. Included in the fare, naturally! Service is friendly and far from stuffy making any Crystal fan feel right at home. If you would like to splurge, you can reserve the 12-seat Vintage Room for a private dinner party that will be forever talked about. Last but not least there is the intimate Blue, open for lunch and only accessible via the Promenade Deck. Expect a small menu of delicious regional specialties here. Order a glass of regional white wine and enjoy. Recommended!
A Day on the Danube
When I open the curtains in the morning, Crystal Mozart is gliding through the Austrian countryside. We approach the town of Krems by breakfast time and I hop ashore for a good half hour to quickly walk around the pretty neighbourhood of Stein with its pastel colored houses and impressive church. I see parents bringing their children to school, people going to work. And I realize that this is the infinite charm of river cruising: to immerge in a country rather than just quickly visiting it. All too soon I am back on board, only to pick up my QuietVox listening device (provided in all suites) and head back ashore. Two complimentary shore excursions are offered this morning and I elect to visit the Grafenegg Castle. There is no need to reserve shore excursions, you just show up on the time posted in the daily program and you are on your way in one of the big Crystal coaches that travel with ship for the whole duration of the cruise. These coaches come with free WiFi, coffee makers and comfortable seats offering lots of leg room. What a wonderfully relaxed way to travel!
The privately owned Grafenegg Castle is a discovery in itself. We are led through the impressive and beautiful historic building by a knowledgeable guide and the QuietVoice systems means you can move freely away from the group but still keep in touch with the commentary. Leaving the world of coats of armor, castle towers and dungeons, we head for the center of Melk where we are free to roam around before we are brought back to Crystal Mozart that is now docked in the town of Weissenkirchen. As the lines are cast we cruise down a very scenic part of the Danube. In the Wachau Valley you will see vineyards (Grüner Veltliner as far as the eye reaches!), pretty little towns and abandoned hillside fortresses. I am out on the top deck sitting in luxurious surroundings watching the beautiful landscape pass by.
We arrive at the town of Melk at 5.00 PM and how comforting it is to see the trusty four Crystal coaches lined up on the quayside already. All guests are brought to Melk Abbey, one of the most famous abbeys in Austria located on a rock overlooking the Danube. As we a steady stream of visitors leaves the abbey, we walk in. Again, Crystal has arranged a private viewing and it's downright fantastic. Accompanied by the commentary of our expert guide through QuietVox, we walk through the abbey's museum that is filled to the brim with historic relics and objects. The library is another highlight. It contains some 1,800 manuscripts, some more than 1,000 years old. My jaw literally drops when I enter the abbey church. First, it's huge. Secondly, it's as baroque as it gets. Covered from floor to ceiling in opulent decorations, literally crowned by a glittering high altar. Since you are not allowed to take any photos inside the abbey, I am able to give my undivided attention to the mind boggling architecture and listen to the overpowering sounds of the church organ as we are once again treated to an exclusive concert. Slightly overwhelmed we return to our ship where I order a gin &tonic in the Cove and talk with fellow guests about the feeling of utter exclusivity that prevails on this voyage.
What about a river cruise?
Having been on almost 100 ocean cruises, my first ever river cruise gave me the sensation that there is a whole different world waiting to be discovered. I loved the fact that on a river cruise ship, you always sail close to the shore. You can see people buying groceries or children going to school. It is also far more active than I had imagined: because there is so much to see and do in this area you want to make the most of it and so you will be taking excursions most days. Life on board is very much Crystal Cruises, albeit on a smaller scale. You will find the same atmosphere and service level. Also, with just 151 guests on board, you should expect to make new friends quickly. That said, Crystal Mozart is the largest ship on the Danube and her spaciousness and exquisite suites will never make you feel closed in. But no matter how stunning the ship, the destination takes center stage. Crystal River Cruises is taking things seriously and strives to offer the unexpected. You have already read about the private visits to the Belvedere and Melk Abbey. But what about shoreside lunches or dinners at Michelin-star restaurants? Or the fleet of hi-tech electric bicycles that allow you to paddle from port to port? On Crystal Mozart, you can expect the unexpected and ... best of all ... it's all included. The all-inclusive exclusivity makes this ship stand out. Crystal River Cruises is here to stay!
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