My first instinct when embarking a cruise ship is usually to roam the decks, get my bearings and satisfy my inner explorer. But this evening, having boarded Crystal Bach, one of the stylish new "six star" vessels of Crystal River Cruises, I'm content to hang out in my room (OK, deluxe suite).
Clad in a cosy bath-robe, I am lounging on a king-size bed laden with Egyptian cotton linen and lovely, firm pillows, watching the blue sky turn a pinky-orange over the wooded banks of the River Rhine through the Panoramic-Balcony Window (you can wind it halfway down to give the effect of a balcony).
Just as these calming sunset vistas threaten to lull me to sleep, the doorbell sounds. It's the butler. Every suite on this all-suite vessel gets one, round the clock, and they'll do everything from unpacking your luggage (if you ask) and surprising you with in-suite hors d'oeuvres and canapes to restocking your fridge with "free" drinks (both soft and alcoholic) and ensuring your Inspresso pod machine is always freshly topped up with water (something that lazy old coffee-addict me really appreciates).
Paulo, my butler, is clutching a tray with my three-course dinner, which I'd ordered 20 minutes earlier from the 24-hour room service menu. Besides a delicious lobster bisque and a creamy creme brulee, there is what turns out to be the best room-service burger I've ever had (brimming with succulent Almo beef from Austria, it's actually one of the best burgers I've eaten in ages, full stop).
This guilty pleasure, enjoyed with pleasing river views, gives me a flavour, an appetiser, of the standard one can expect on Crystal's Jewels of the Rhine voyage, which sails the navigable stretch of the legendary river between Basel and Amsterdam. I figure that if the room service food is this good, what about the rest of it?
Buoyed by a good night's sleep, and a revitalising morning shower with the aromatic ETRO toiletries, I'm eager to explore every nook and cranny of Crystal Bach. In truth, as with most four-deck river vessels, it doesn't take long. You can stroll from your suite to virtually anywhere within 60 to 90 seconds, whether it's the tiny gym, spa and self-service laundry area on deck one, the snug indoor heated pool at the rear of deck three, the bars and restaurants on decks two and three or the open-air Vista deck that caps this 135-metre-long ship.
Peppered with sofas and deckchairs, it's perfect for absorbing the diverse scenery and character of "Old Father Rhine", which flows 1232 kilometres from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, its banks skirting six countries. Although we mostly cruise from port to port after dark, there are four daylight sailing days on this 14-night cruise, with the passing landscapes ranging from the idyllic to the industrial.
Sometimes it's all breathtakingly beautiful, such as when the river snakes past the steep-sided vineyards, medieval towns and clifftop castles of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rhine Gorge between Bingen and Koblenz. Other times, including sections when the river acts as a natural border between Germany and France, it's more gritty than pretty, as we navigate concrete locks, pass dams and hydro-power stations, and eye brutalist-looking factories spewing smoke. Crystal Bach is one of four near-identical, purpose-built "Rhine Class" ships launched in the last year, all named after famous composers, with the newest, Crystal Debussy, christened in Amsterdam in May. Each has the air of a floating boutique hotel, carrying a maximum of 106 guests and 68 crew, who are mostly European and unfailingly attentive and polite.
As well as excellent service and larger than average suites – mine is almost 24 square metres, and has a walk-in closet, mirror-backed writing desk, velvet armchair, wall-mounted flat-screen TV and double vanity bathroom – Crystal proudly trumpets its all-inclusive "complimentary" perks, which include on-board Wi-Fi, Michelin-inspired farm-to-table cuisine and fine wines, premium spirits, craft beers, cocktails and champagne.
There's also a wide choice of "free" guided shore excursions designed to deepen your appreciation of the Rhine region's history and culture (we're usually in ports from 8am to 10pm and in some places, like Basel, we overnight, so we never feel rushed and for those runners among you, there's ample time for riverside jogs).
Ferried about on Crystal's own coaches, which follow the ship by road, shore excursions cover dozens of activities, such as foie gras and wine-tasting in France's postcard-perfect Alsace region, savouring Cologne's incredible cathedral, cable car rides to historic fortresses, discovering Beethoven's childhood haunts in Bonn, e-biking past Dutch windmills and canals, and hiking in the myth-drenched Black Forest.
Enjoyable though these side trips are, it's always a treat to return to the ship. Re-embarking is a breeze. Security is sufficient but laid-back, the queues are short – a striking contrast to ocean cruises I've been on. And there's dinner to look forward to. Despite Crystal's upmarket air, the onboard vibe is relaxed, with the evening dress code smart-casual – rather than black-tie-formal – and my fellow guests are a serene bunch (about half are from North America, with others from the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Philippines). While breakfast and lunch in the main Waterside Restaurant is "marketplace" dining – you serve yourself from a buffet and can have certain dishes, such as omelettes and pasta, cooked to order – dinner is a la carte and, by and large, superb, with high-quality, regionally-sourced ingredients and certain specialities (such as whole Maine lobster) flown in.
Complemented by a good selection of wines – mostly from Austria, Germany, France, Italy and California – I usually opt for the recommendations from my server and I'm never disappointed. The soup de poisson (poached mussels and Rhine river fish like trout and salmon) is wonderfully more-ish. Baked halibut filet with champagne beurre blanc, and sliced Zurichoise veal tenderloin are other highlights, while tasty desserts include pralines, ice-cream and macarons, and Black Forest cake.
Bistro Bach is an easy-going dining alternative. As well as top-notch teas and coffees, you can order snacks here throughout the day, enjoy spreads of cheeses and charcuterie, dainty cakes and pastries, and on selected evenings, there are tapas-like "small plates" to order (think: pulled pork sliders, roasted jumbo shrimp, lemon-marinated alpine salmon and Almo beef medallions).
If you really want to push the boat out, for an extra €290 ($454) per person, you can sign up for wine-paired, multi-course fine-dining in the Vintage Room, an intimate enclave beside Bistro Bach. Over three hours, expect dishes such as foie gras and salted caramel, Dutch caviar and oysters, with executive chef Benoit Tesson popping in to offer culinary insights, and the head sommelier doing likewise with the reserve wines. Wherever you dine, you'll probably find yourself in Palm Court afterwards. Open all day, but especially alluring pre or post-dinner, this is the ship's plushly-furnished lounge-bar with a glass roof that allows daylight to flood in til late.
Evening entertainment is staged here and it could be anything from name-that-tune piano quizzes with the ship's entertainment director to special guest performers doing renditions of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich songs or quirky tap-dancing acts such as Tap & Tray. Palm Court also has a mini-library of books flaunting the finer things in life, from art and architecture to luxury travel and classical music.
There are glossy brochures, too, that might tempt you onto another Crystal river cruise (the company also sails the Main, Moselle and Danube). Options span much of the year, from the tulip season in March and April to the Christmas market festivities in November and December. For the best weather, cruise between May and September, when the days are long (the sun doesn't set til about 10pm in June) and temperatures often in the 20s and 30s. Such conditions are perfect for relaxing on the Vista decks, which have pop-up bars during day-time cruising. Life rarely seems more blissful, I find, than when you're zipping along the water, under sunny skies, with a glass of bubbly in hand.
As we pass through Germany's Rhineland region on the last day of our voyage, I see spired village churches poking out of lush green fields, cyclists pedalling languidly along the leafy banks and forested mountains looming in the distance. The only sounds disturbing the peace and quiet are the mellow hum of the ship's engine and the birds – hidden somewhere in the trees over there, making an almighty, glorious racket.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Crystal River Cruises.
Crystal River Cruises offer a series of Rhine voyages on Crystal Bach and Crystal Debussy, priced from $US3490 ($4690) per person for a seven-night cruise, starting either in Basel or Amsterdam. There are also 10-day cruises. The 14-night Jewels of the Rhine cruise is priced from $US5965. There's a southbound option that starts in Amsterdam and cruises to Basel before dropping off guests in Frankfurt, while the northbound voyage sails in the opposite direction (starting from Frankfurt). See crystalcruises.com