I was recently treated, by my parents, to the most fabulous family vacation. My parents had been dreaming of taking a European river cruise for a while and somehow their anniversary trip morphed to include my sister, my brother, my Grandma and myself. My mom did the research on various cruise lines and itineraries, settling on a 10-day Rhine River voyage with Crystal River Cruises. Crystal is new to the river cruise scene, with their first voyages beginning in 2016. Their trips are certainly pricey, but they are truly all-inclusive from meals and alcohol to impeccably planned shore excursions at each port and gratuities for their top-notch crew. We were on the Crystal Debussy which is brand new to their fleet, having it’s elaborate christening party while we were aboard. The Debussy holds a maximum of 100 guests who are pampered by around 70 crew members, an amazing ratio! The staff are all incredible, they remember your name and your food/drink preferences after the very first encounter and seemingly share this information with other staff members who also all remember who you are and what you like, immediately!
Our cruise boarded in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Sunday. We flew in direct from Houston and arrived around 9:30 AM Sunday morning, Crystal staff members met us at the airport to assist with our luggage and transport us directly to the boat. This personal assistance and airport transfer are all included for every Crystal passenger upon arrival and disembarkation. We were greeted with champagne and able to check in to our suites as soon as we boarded the ship (around 11 AM). Each suite has a butler available for any and all needs at whatever hour; they’ll bring a cocktail to your room while you get ready for dinner or deliver your meal in bed if you’ve walked too many miles exploring the day’s port of call (I even heard some older folks exclaiming how the butler delivered vacuum sealed ice packs for them to ease their aching joints each evening, they truly think of everything!). The rooms themselves aren’t huge, but they have a cozy and functional design with plenty of closet and dresser space to unpack the suitcase and completely move in for the 10-day voyage. Each room has a full wall of windows which can be opened to enjoy the fresh air. There is also a fully stocked mini bar that is maintained throughout the stay, at no additional cost.
The food on the boat is incredible and always readily available even outside of the allocated meal times. The breakfast remains consistent with a buffet of typical options including eggs, made to order omelets, bacon, ham, yogurt, fruit, cereal, cheeses, pastries, French toast, waffles, etc. Lunch is also served buffet style in the main dining room, including an extensive salad bar with rotating selections of lettuces, veggies and toppings; some sort of prepared fish and white meat, like turkey or chicken; a few different options of prepared veggies; a made to order pasta option; and some sort of local hot dish (ex. variety of sausages while in Koblenz, Black forest ham while near the German Black Forest, salmon en croute while in Strasbourg); and at least a half dozen different dessert options each day (bread pudding, panna cotta, trifles, mixed berries, etc.). Dinner in the main dining room is such a treat, we ate here every night. You can have as many courses as you like, so we typically did a 4-course meal selecting two of the starters, a main and a dessert. You can see some of the menu samples in the photos below; the entrees always featured two of chef’s choice (we mostly went for one of these), one local cuisine varying by port, a pasta, and two standard choices (typically steak and chicken). For starters, there is a soup, a salad and a couple of other options varying by port and chef’s choice. And all the desserts are delicious. The sommelier is super helpful and attentive as well, visiting every diner each night to make suggestions based on food selection and personal preference which she remembered throughout the trip.
A highlight of life on the boat is the evening show in the Palm Court, this is the main bar and lounge. The Palm Court is beautifully decorated with ample amounts of windows and comfortable furniture positioned for conversation or enjoying the show. We were fast friends with the bartenders and hope that they enjoyed our conversations and company as much as we enjoyed theirs (if not, they at least did a bang-up job of pretending!). The entertainer aboard our ship was pianist, singer, songwriter, Martin Kaye. Like the rest of the Debussy crew, Martin also learned the names of all the guests. He would greet us as we entered his shows and incorporate us into almost every song. Martin’s energy is contagious, he attracts a fun crowd each night. The show ends nightly at 11 PM and the bar stays open until midnight, our family shut the place down every night, but we really didn’t need to be up any later than that since each day was jam-packed with excursion fun in port.
There is a fitness trainer on board the ship who hosts a workout class every day, our trainer was excellent and really pushed us in the workouts. The age range and abilities varied for guests in each session, so he really catered the exercises to us individually. There is also a small gym with free weights, stationary bikes, a rowing machine and some resistance equipment. We booked massages with the on-board masseuse, she was thorough, professional and friendly, highly recommend her services. Also, of note, there is a small laundry room with necessary supplies to wash clothing as needed throughout the trip. We ended up doing some washing since the weather was warmer than expected; mid 80s and even into the 90s some days while we had primarily packed for 60s-70s with limited clothing options for the higher temps. The dress code is not stringent on board, allowing for shorts, tank tops, basically anything except swim suits/robes for day time meals and “Crystal Casual” at dinner (collar and slacks or even chinos for men; dress, skirt or dressy pants for women), no formal nights.
The only times we were sailing during the day were when we left Amsterdam on Tuesday afternoon (2 PM) until we reached Cologne, Germany the following day at 1 PM. And additionally, when we left Koblenz, Germany at 7 AM and arrived in Rudesheim, Germany at 1 PM. Koblenz to Rudesheim is a stretch of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its history and beauty. The upper deck bar was open all day and the ship was broadcasting sightseeing notes over our personal listening devices for those who wanted information about the many castles, vineyards and quaint towns we passed. While in Koblenz, the ship hosted a lecture in the Palm Court from a PhD scholar highlighting the history and significance of the Rhine River, it was a great prelude to our day of sailing through the romantic Middle Rhine Valley.
While family-vacation does not appear to be the target audience for Crystal River Cruises, our family had a wonderful time. We range in age from early-20s up to mid-80s and I can honestly say that each one of us considers this vacation the trip of a lifetime! This mode of travel is just so simple, with all the destinations pre-selected and activities at port pre-arranged, there is almost no planning required. We did look through the port excursions and pre-reserve them a couple of months before the trip, while this is not necessary, I would recommend it to lock-in an itinerary and decide if there are other must-sees outside of the scheduled events. For example, Anne Frank House was a must-see for me in Amsterdam, though not included in any of the excursions through the boat, so I made sure to reserve tickets for it in advance at a time that would not conflict with our other scheduled excursions. We enjoyed all the destinations and thought that the tour guides were all very well educated and well spoken. I will include our daily itinerary below accompanied by plenty of photos from each destination, again all the excursions were through Crystal at no additional cost!
Sunday – Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Arrive 9:20am – customs and transit to ship to check in
- Private canal boat tour + Rijksmuseum tour (2-6PM) – Amsterdams canals are an iconic part of the city’s history so a boat tour is a must, the Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands with tons of art and history, we were thankful for a guide in here!
Monday – Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Walking tour of Amsterdam with private wine and cheese tasting at Old Amsterdam cheese shop (9-12:30) – great overview of the city and its history, plus a walk through the flower market, followed by a variety of gouda cheeses paired with wines and some gouda (pronounced “how-duh”) education.
- Anne Frank House pre-reserved for 6:30PM – only excursion we booked on our own, make sure to go at exactly the time you reserve, cannot go in even a minute earlier; but very educational and emotional experience.
Tuesday – Amsterdam, Netherlands until 2PM
- Bike tour through waterlands (9AM – 1PM) – just a 3-minute, FREE ferry ride across the river from the bustling city, we bicycled through wide open spaces with livestock, windmills and picturesque cottages in small villages, stopped at a few different villages to listen to historic information from our guide; a BEAUTIFUL day!
Wednesday – Cologne, Germany 1PM-11PM
- Cologne Walk and Cologne Cathedral Visit (1:30 – 3:30PM) – Cologne is a small college town with the most care-free vibes of the places we visited (we enjoyed some people watching by the river after the guided tour), the Cologne Cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site and we toured with a well versed guide who commented on architecture and history
- “A True Taste of Kölsch” brewery and pub tour (8:30-10PM) – Kölsch beer can only be named as such if brewed with the metropolitan area of Cologne (in the same way that champagne must be from the Champagne region), we enjoyed information from a female beer sommelier on how Kölsch is brewed and how it is served in narrow glasses holding only a few ounces at a time in order to maximize the foam and prevent the light ale from losing flavor and fizz. We tasted typical bar foods like pork tartare, blood sausage and meatballs
Thursday – Koblenz, Germany 9AM – 7AM next day
- Cable Car to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress (9:30AM – 12PM) – guided walking tour around the German Corner (Deutsches Eck), up the cable car to the fortress which has lots of history and sweeping views over the river and the city; Crystal had arranged for refreshments like German pretzels and sparkling wine to enjoy while we took in the views
- Eltz Castle (2-5PM) – we had a private guided tour of the 12th century castle; it is well preserved and well-staged to portray what daily life looked like for the noble family who inhabited it
Friday – Rudesheim, Germany 2PM – 10PM
- Rudesheim by foot and Cable car (2:30 – 5PM) – walking tour of the small Rudesheim village with a cable car ride up to the hilltop overlooking the river; there was a Harley Davidson gathering in town so bikes and bikers everywhere in this otherwise quaint, little town. Finished tour at a small café serving traditional Rudesheimer Kaffee (Asbach brandy, sugar cubes, strong coffee, whipped cream and a chocolate shaving garnish)
- Crystal Signature Event: Evening of Classical Music at Kurhaus Wiesbaden
Saturday – Manheim, Germany 11AM – 8PM
- Heidelberg Castle & City walking tour half day13 (2:30 – 7PM) – parents and Grandma did this tour, will try to update with pictures and information from them
- Bike tour from Speyer to Schwetzingen Palace and Gardens (2-6PM) – kids decided to do another bike trip while parents and grandma did the walking tour of the Heidelberg Castle; the bike ride was okay, not as scenic as Amsterdam’s Waterland, but the gardens at Schwetzingen Palace were incredible! The inside of the palace was interesting, but similar to the castle and fortress we’d already seen, so would recommend more time in the stunning gardens
Sunday – Kehl, Germany 9AM – 10PM
- Panoramic Tour of Strasbourg, France with Canal Boat Cruise (9AM – 1PM) – Strasbourg is really interesting culturally (being capital of Alsace, a Germanic region of France with a little bit of an identity crisis) and historically (being one of the seats of the European Union) it has beautiful canals and a sweet little area called Petit France and a striking cathedral, this guided tour was a great way to learn about and experience the city
- The girls stayed in town between tours and grabbed some quiche and rose at La Petite Alsace then checked out a couple of shops before meeting back up with the group
- Strasbourg Foie Gras & Wine Tasting (2:30 – 5:30PM) – we sampled foie gras (a French luxury food made from a specially fattened duck or goose’s liver) at Maison Kammerzell which has a beautiful, private upstairs dining room with a window looking out at the cathedral while sipping a delightful French Riesling; we also tasted some Alsace wines like Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc along with the traditional Alsace tarte flambee (sort of like a really thin crust pizza with crème fraiche and caramelized onions) at Brasserie Au Dauphin
Monday – Breisach, Germany 9AM – 9 PM
- Riquewihr Village Walk & Wine Tasting (2 – 6:30PM) – quaint, picturesque, little village whose economy was historically driven by the vast number of surrounding vineyards, now a very large tourist destination with tons of local craft vendors, historic charm, and still a lot of tasty, Alsatian wine – we tasted a Cremánt, Riesling and Gewurztraminer at Maison Zimmer. We received an informative overview of the city from our guide before splitting up to wander the streets on our own for a bit
Tuesday – Basel, Switzerland 8AM
- Basel guided walking tour (9:30AM – 1PM) – I think I was a little over the guided city tour at this point, though information about the infamous Basilisk creature and it’s representation throughout the city was pretty interesting. Basel is a great mix of ancient and modern, visiting on a Tuesday we were able to see the farmers market bustling and people just out and about living life
- Trek & Tastes: Country Life in the Black Forest (2-5:30PM) – the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) is an intriguing borderland between France and Germany, we visited a country home (Bauernhausmuseum Schneiderhof) to see how Black Forest ham is traditionally smoked and how people survived the harsh winters of this region then we visited Kreiterhof Egerten to try some local charcuterie, cheese and wines (chasselas, rose, pinot noir)
Wednesday – Depart Basel, Switzerland at 8AM for airport
We visited this region at just the right time for floral blooms; the roses (TONS!), poppies, peonies and hydrangeas were all vibrant and just a nice extra touch. This river valley is filled with beauty, history and culture; the weather is temperate, and the wines are refreshing. We ate all the foods, drank all the drinks (really overindulged!) and soaked up as much knowledge and fond memories together as we could before the end of our 10-day cruise. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to travel together with my parents, grandma and siblings like this and would highly recommend the experience to any other family!