The Best Way to Tour the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland Is by Boat
I touched down in in Amsterdam on a rainy Sunday morning, with every intention of wandering the city that afternoon. But as a bracing wind carried me up the gangplank of the luxe Crystal Bach, my home on the Rhine River for the next few nights, I decided this was more the kind of weather for staying indoors and curling up with a good book. Or, in my case, sitting down to a buffet lunch of country pâtés with plum chutney, artichoke salad with black-truffle vinaigrette, and the most heavenly Dutch cheese soup, cut with cherry water to add a little sweetness. Who needed Amsterdam?
Why, I asked myself, had I not done more river cruises? In recent years, this style of travel has exploded in popularity, in no small part because whether you’re on the Danube, the Mekong, or the Amazon, the ships are always intimate and they hit a lot of ports, sometimes two in a day. Multiple companies have launched recently to focus on this type of cruising, including Crystal River Cruises, an offshoot of the award-winning ocean line.
The Bach quickly quashed any fears I had about choosing a ship over a hotel, particularly in Europe, where the standards for design and food are so high. The ship marries world-class amenities—a swimming pool, an indulgent glass of Château d’Yquem—with ever-changing views and the pleasures of drifting down the Rhine. Launched in 2017, the Bach feels like a floating boutique property. So do its sister ships, Debussy and Ravel, both of which debuted this spring; Mahler, inaugurated last year; and Mozart, which first set sail in 2016. The cabins across all five vessels are sleek and minimalist, in a crisp white-and-gray color scheme accented by pops of emerald and amethyst.
The Petite Suites, sized at 188 square feet, are best for solo travelers, while the River Suite Deluxe cabins, which start at 237 square feet, are ideal for couples. Thoughtful details like a walk-in closet and a rainfall shower operated with a push of a button made my River Suite Deluxe feel extra sumptuous. For those who want to stay in their own floating apartment, the one- and two-bedroom suites have sitting rooms with ambient fireplaces.
The Bach, which holds 106 passengers, does 14-night sailings between Amsterdam and Frankfurt, stopping in both large cities like Antwerp, Belgium, and small ports like Rudesheim, Germany, famous for its medieval Old Town and Christmas market. Nearly all river-cruise lines offer complimentary excursions, and Crystal is no exception, taking you to places like the Rubens House, Peter Paul Rubens’s art-filled 17th-century palazzo in Antwerp, and the Netherlands’ Kröller-Müller Museum, home to the world’s second-largest collection of van Goghs.
That said, where Crystal really stands out from the competition is on the ship. After a long day in port, the first thing that greets you on the third deck of the Bach is a charming café offering French-press coffee and shaken Zotter hot chocolate—not to mention apple strudels and sandwiches. Toward the bow is the Palm Court lounge, crowned by a honeycomb-like glass ceiling that lets daylight flood the space. In the evening, I would go there to drink a glass of Grüner Veltliner and admire the lights onshore.
Downstairs, on the first deck, is the main dining room, Waterside. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and leather banquettes, the space transitions beautifully from casual buffet-style breakfasts and lunches to more formal dinners, where you can feast on forest-mushroom tart and slow-braised lamb shank. What’s more, Crystal sources the freshest ingredients in port and never dishes up the same thing twice on a sailing. (Unless you ask: after I fell hard for the beef carpaccio with shaved truffles my first night, the kitchen served it to me again.)
And then there’s the wine. Passengers can choose from 25 complimentary pours by the glass, with a strong focus on Germany and Austria. For true oenophiles, it’s worth the extra $356 per person to book the Vintage Room, the ship’s private dining space for up to 12 people. It was there, during a seven-course dinner, that I sipped that glass of Château d’Yquem, which came paired with a dark chocolate mousse. It followed a broiled turbot accompanied by a Riesling from Prager, a boutique Austrian winery I’d discovered years earlier. Families and couples who have become friends on previous sailings often book the Vintage Room. On a ship this size and this well appointed, it’s easy to get comfortable with one another. 14-night sailings from $5,685 per person all-inclusive.