The government have made it official – river cruising is back on the agenda! With FCO advice giving the go ahead for river cruises, we decided now was the perfect time to share our own experience of eating like kings, relaxing like queens and exploring like adventurers on Crystal Bach, the first vessel in the fleet of the most luxurious river cruise line in the world. Hosted by Crystal River Cruises on the Flemish Accents itinerary, a roundtrip cruise from Amsterdam, we sampled five-star luxury and fine-dining on a ship that brings everything Crystal Cruises are famous for at sea to the Rhine.
River cruising has never been more popular and that’s thanks in part to the fact that these small, sophisticated ships sail straight into the heart of their destinations with just a handful of passengers aboard. When you’re sailing, the scenery rolls by at the riverside, lulling you into a relaxed state almost hypnotically. And when you arrive at your next stop, you simply pull on your jacket, walk down the ramp and find yourself right there in the middle of the action, whether that means fields full of windmills or one of Europe’s most-popular city break destinations.
When you’re on board, the food is fabulous, the drink flows freely (including welcome champagne on embarkation and hot cocoa after evening excursions ashore), the crew (including a dedicated butler on all Crystal River Cruises sailings) are faultlessly friendly and there’s a calm in the air that feels restorative. Your river cruise ship becomes your retreat and in the case of Crystal Bach, it is a luxurious one at that.
Our river cruise itinerary promised a smorgasbord of familiar favourites like Amsterdam and Ghent, alongside lesser-visited locales like Antwerp. Here’s our diary of how it delivered on the destination front.
DAY 1 & 2
An afternoon flight means it’s tea time when I’m checked in and settled in my suite, leaving just enough time to get a quick look at Amsterdam before dinner. I get changed and go for a run along the canal, revelling in the fact that the city’s streets are flat as a pancake (or should that be a stroopwaffel?). By the time I’m back on board, card scanned and coffee in hand, I’m starving. There’s a smart casual dress code on Crystal River Cruises that takes away the hassle of donning your finest for dinner, but the ship is so gorgeous that it almost feels like you’re doing it a disservice by not getting at least a little glam. I dine in The Waterfront, heading the advice of my waiter to choose seared beef carpaccio, pink roasted veal tenderloin with Dutch baby vegetables and a crème brûlée dessert. Crystal are a foodie’s favourite for a reason and the food, as well as the service, is really impressive.
Amsterdam is one of my favourite European cities and I’m up early to get out and explore the next morning. A river cruise to Amsterdam sees you dock in the very centre of the city, right by the train station, so within minutes I’ve crossed my first canal into the winding streets. My evening arrival the previous day meant that an excursion to the Keukenhof Gardens was fully-booked, but I’m secretly thrilled at the thought of spending the whole day in Amsterdam instead.
Amsterdam is pretty unique in the way it manages to appeal to all ages and interests, and I think that is what makes the city so popular with so many. There’s a real good time vibe and the city is so big and so intriguing that there’s a totally new way to experience it every time you come. Sure, there’s the risqué red light district, but I noticed its lights felt dimmer compared to previous trips and any sleaze has subsided. The first signs of spring saw people sitting outside cafes, albeit in hat and jackets, and Dam Square was bubbling with activity from tour groups and street performers. I window-shopped for houseboats and delved into a sea of blue and white pottery at the Heinen Delfts Blauw shop, just along the canal from the Bloemenmarkt. After a stop at the Rijksmuseum, I snapped shots of canals, bridges and bikes against pinky-orange skies on my way back to the ship, where we’d be eating dinner in a couple of hours as the ship departed Amsterdam and the river cruise began.
KINDERDIJK AND ROTTERDAM
There is surely no more Dutch way to spend a Saturday morning than walking through fields scattered with windmills and hay bales. The skies over Kinderdijk are grey and moody, a smattering of early daffodils underfoot completing a scene that could have come straight from a Rembrandt masterpiece. With my earpiece in, I discover that the windmills continue to function not only as they were intended originally, but also as homes. After heading inside one, I conclude that – while they’re really quite quaint – I’d rather see them from the outside than live inside their curving, cramped walls. The excursion is an education in Dutch countryside living and the perfect juxtaposition to our next port of call, the architectural hotspot of Rotterdam.
If cruising shows you more of the world in one trip, river cruising shows you more of a city in one visit. There’s nothing quite like disembarking the ship right at the heart of the day’s destination. We dock in Rotterdam just before the Erasmus Bridge and a five-minute walk from attractions like the Markthal, a vast food court that is as popular with locals as it is with visitors – always a good sign. Zigzagging between the stalls, I could kick myself for having breakfast on the ship. Every continent is represented here and there’s a buzzy atmosphere that could keep you occupied with food and drink the whole day, shuffling back to the ship just before an early evening departure. Keen to make the most of my day here though, my aimless wandering sees me have an Alice in Wonderland moment beneath the bizarre cube houses by architect Piet Blom and stop by the Maritime Museum, homage to Rotterdam’s position as one of the most important ports in Europe. The city remains an industrial hub but it attracts architecture aficionados from around the world, lured by an ever-changing skyline of structures that have sprung up in the years after the city was bombed by the Germans in 1940 and almost entirely flattened.
Back on board at the end of the day, I take a coffee to the deserted Sun Deck and enjoy it with a view of Rotterdam and the Erasmus Bridge as the sun goes down.
One of my favourite things about cruising is the way it serves up destinations like hors d’oeuvres; tasters to whet your appetite for a feast of a return visit. As cool as Brooklyn and as historic as Bruges, Antwerp took just minutes to convince me that I’d need to return. I’d booked a bike tour of the city in the afternoon – when in Rome and all that – but my morning was gloriously free to explore a place that had never so much as crossed my mind before.
Crystal Bach docked minutes from the city’s old town heart, an amble over cobblestones to the Grote Markt and Town Hall. I took a wrong turn en route to Rubens House and found myself cast back to medieval days in Vlaekensgang; once home to the city’s poorest locals, these hidden alleyways come alive with the sounds of carillon concerts in summer, garden restaurants serving up shade and sustenance. While the old is evident in the architecture, the new comes courtesy of hip cafes that attract a chic crowd and quirky shops like Mark, a bazaar of books and interior bits that left me hoping upon hope for a generous check-in clerk known to turn a blind eye to overweight luggage.
After lunch on the ship, I saddle up and take on the town on two wheels. Again, the tour is included in the Crystal River Cruises fare, right down to the half-pint of Seefbier we refuel with mid-way through our ride. Our guide is a one-time teacher and Antwerp local, his well-rehearsed route taking us through the old town, past the cubic MAS museum and Zaha Hadid’s space-age Port House building, into the Seefbier brewery (what is a visit to Belgium without a beer?) and through the beautiful Antwerpen-Centraal train station (voted the most romantic in the world, don’t you know) We end back on the riverbanks, our tired legs a small price to pay for seeing so much of the city in a couple of hours.
There’s no Sunday fear in sight as we round off the day with an opera performance in a converted monastery. A Crystal Signature Event is included on every itinerary and this one feels like a suitably grand way to end our time in Antwerp.
River cruising can be as laidback or busy as you like. Take our final day, for example; some wake early for a 7.30am excursion to Bruges, while others sleep in, have a leisurely late riser’s breakfast with extra coffee and hop on the luxury coach for the ten-minute trip into Ghent. I joined the latter, lazier crowd, lured by the opportunity to see a Flemish city that gets less publicity than its counterparts Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp. Far fewer tourists make it here but that only means more space on canal cruises and no competing for the best views of the pretty Patershol neighbourhood from the turrets of Gravensteen castle.
If you love Bruges, you’ll appreciate Ghent. There’s a similar medieval appeal and canal cruises meander between bridges here in the same way they do in Amsterdam and Bruges, offering a lazier way to see one of Belgium’s oldest cities.