Crystal Cruises aims to recreate the appeal of its ocean ships on river vessels. Jennifer Morris and dad John join Crystal Mozart’s first Danube sailing of the season to discover its highlights.
I open my eyes, suddenly awake. I’m staring through a porthole and wonder for a second if I’m still dreaming before my masseuse Judit’s soothing voice informs me my full-body Vitality Massage has come to an end. I plod out to the pool area in a sleepy reverie.
With nowhere else in particular to be, and Dad entertained elsewhere on the ship – probably trying out the various machines in the gym before a wholly unnecessary second lunch – I decide to take a dip in the Jacuzzi.
It strikes me, as I watch the Wachau Valley slowly drift past the huge windows at the other end of the spa, that I have the facilities all to myself, despite us having set sail several hours ago. Such spaciousness and tranquillity prove to be two of Crystal Mozart’s top selling points.
The ship is Crystal’s first foray into river cruising and the line will expand its fleet over the next two years. Crystal Bach, launching in 2017, will be the first of four new luxury river yachts, followed by Crystal Mahler, and in 2018 Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel will join the fleet. The yachts will be all-balcony and all-suite.
My dad and I boarded in Vienna two days previously, spending a night and a full (sunny) day in the city before moving on to Durnstein, Melk, Linz and Passau, but disembarking before the 10-night Treasures of the Danube sailing proceeds to Bratislava and Budapest, before returning to Vienna.
While some of those destinations may seem a little obscure to customers unfamiliar with the area, by the end of our trip we feel like experts on the region.
During an excursion on Mozart’s own excursion yacht we learn that Durnstein’s castle was the one in which Richard the Lionheart was held captive (cue Dad excitedly exclaiming that he remembers the very scene before him from a Ladybird Book), while a complimentary full-day Crystal Adventure from Linz takes us to Salzburg – birthplace of composer Mozart and the setting of the The Sound of Music movie (cue Dad seeking out famous landmarks to photograph and compare to the film back on the ship).
More famous destinations do not disappoint either, with Crystal’s Signature event – an exclusive gallery tour and classical music concert at Vienna’s Belvedere Palace (Marie Antoinette’s wedding venue of choice) – leaving guests somewhat awestruck. “Don’t get stressed, get Straussed,” chimes the compere.
But even without the various excursions on offer at each destination – many of which are complimentary – there is plenty to keep us entertained onboard.
From simply ordering a cocktail from the pop-up bar on the top deck and lying in the sun, to sipping a latte in the ship’s Palm Court while listening to a lecture on the Austro-Hungarian Empire – which helps to contextualise everything we see – the days seemed to fly by.
In the evening, lead entertainer Mark Farris introduces local acts or takes to the piano himself for a sing-along.
With Dad and I being cut from the same cloth, our days onboard are organised firmly around mealtimes. Each morning despite my best intentions I skip joining him in the “better than the one at home” gym and we meet in the main restaurant, Waterside, for made-to-order omelettes and more courses besides.
The crew are so friendly and engaging (having greeted us by name from our first meeting) that by the end of our trip I’m a little sad to say goodbye. “A lot of the crew return, which I think speaks volumes,” hotel director Sonja Gruber tells me, adding that for 158 passengers, there are 92 crewmembers.
Lunch onboard is either back at Waterside; in the more casual lunchtime restaurant, Blue, offering views from the ship’s stern; at the buffet-style Bistro Mozart (which turns into a tapas bar at night); or out and about during an excursion.
Mozart even provides treats we didn’t know we wanted, such as laying on a buffet for our 10.45pm return from the Signature event, and handing us hot mugs of tea with Grand Marnier as we arrive back from our day out in Salzburg.
I am given a quick tour of Mozart’s enormous kitchen (which has around 20 staff) by executive chef Juraj Podolan, who works with Crystal’s vice president of food and beverage operations Toni Neumeister to create the menus.
Each day there are authentic local options available in all of the restaurants, along with international fare. The produce used to cook with is local too. Dad and I try everything from tafelspitz (boiled brisket), Sachertorte and Weiner schnitzel to an American-style cobb salad and ice cream. The wine offered by the sommelier in the Waterside Restaurant is always from the local region.
Every aspect of the ship has been carefully thought through, even down to the Toto toilets in the suites, with heated seats, automatic lid opening and closing, and bidet options – the inclusion of which, Gruber tells me, was the idea of Crystal’s owners (Genting Hong Kong).
There are also in-suite iPads that can dictate climate control, but rest assured, customers have a butler and a suite attendant on hand to give them the lay of the land.
Further notable aspects of Mozart include the fact that it is the “only river cruise ship with a wrap-around promenade” and the spaciousness of the communal areas. Gruber tells me it was important to design Mozart so that Crystal guests used to its ocean product “would not feel they were missing anything”.
“Mozart is the biggest river cruise ship on European rivers and the second biggest in the world, after one sailing on the Yangtze, in China,” Gruber says, while showing me the four main suite categories.
While the Penthouse (with French balcony) option is bigger than the Suite With French Balcony (S1 and S2) and Suite With Fixed Picture Window (W1 and W2) categories, and has a bathtub, it is not drastically different.
The W suites are on the lowest deck however, meaning guests look out onto the waterline. Elsewhere, the Crystal Suite I’m shown has a marble mantelpiece, a table for in-suite dining and a television concealed within a mirror.
The clientele Mozart attracts is truly international. Indeed on our first evening in the Palm Court piano bar we hear that guests from as far as Singapore, New Zealand, Brazil and the US have joined us, as well as those from the UK.
Over dinner I ask Gruber about the demographics on Mozart. She insists she has observed that the average age of river cruisers is becoming “younger than ocean”.
“You have to be active on the river,” she says. “We are also seeing more families with teenagers sailing with us, and last season we had five or six little ones onboard.”
As I pack my suitcase ready for my butler, Peter, to collect, I spot a note reading “in sauna – don’t worry, will be packed in time”… It hasn’t taken Dad long to relax into the independent agenda that river cruises facilitate, I observe. Leafing through the rest of the notebook I realise he’s been taking more notes during the cruise than me. No doubt he’ll be back on the river soon.
Book it: A 10-night cruise-only Danube round trip from Vienna starts from £2,4100pp (based on December 3 and 13, 2017 departures). Price includes transfers, all food and drink onboard, butler service, gratuities, Wi-Fi and a choice of shore excursions in every port. crystalcruises.co.uk