SCENIC CRYSTAL – 12th to 19th October 2016 – Basel to Amsterdam
I have recently (well – not quite as recently as when I first started writing this), returned from a wonderful 7 nights on board Scenic Crystal (one of Scenic’s fifteen strong fleet of River Cruise vessels, not forgetting the addition of the very exclusive Scenic Eclipse discovery yacht which will be joining the family in August 2018). You may need a cuppa or something stronger to accompany your reading of this article as it’s going to be rather lengthy to endeavour to be as informative and comprehensive as I can.
Having specialised in ocean cruising for so many years now it was a real eye opener for me to actually get this first hand, invaluable experience on a river cruise with Scenic. It’s such a strong and fast growing part of the market these days which I’m tapping into more and more for my clients, that to get to be on board for a week was an opportunity not to be missed.
Our journey started in Basel and the first thing you need to be aware of at this airport, is which country you want to emerge in – Switzerland or Germany ! Whoever your documentation is provided by will advise you of this !
The short transfer of about twenty minutes to where Scenic Crystal was awaiting us was expedited well and transported the five of us Brits who had arrived on the same flight. We embarked through one of the Uniworld fleet which was my first taste of the sometimes ‘parallel parking’ that occurs when cruising the rivers. We were greeted with a glass of bubbles and a beautiful white rose stem.
Scenic Crystal accommodates just 169 guests in a selection of accommodations ranging from standard rooms on Deck 1 (Jewel) with small windows (160 square feet) up to 2 x Royal Panorama Suites (325 square feet). I personally had BA 233 Deck 2 (Sapphire), aft, 205 square feet. This had a ‘inside’ balcony (Scenic Sun Lounge – an all weather conservatory like space) with an electric powered full width window that came down half way (top>bottom) of the balcony area. The accommodations were well appointed and bijoux. The combined service from my Butler and steward were of a very good standard. The small fridge was stocked with spirit miniatures, soft drinks, beer and wine. I didn’t really use these but the offer was there to replenish with anything more specific to my taste requirements had I wanted to. The bed was extremely comfortable. The Apple Mac neatly hanging on the wall served to provide all the usual information about what was going on, along with a selection of international TV stations/films etc and a virtual fire place! The en-suite had a lovely walk in shower with a novelty function of ambient lighting in the shower head. WIFI, drinks and excursions are all included with Scenic.
Having arrived on board conveniently around lunch time it was possible to acquire a light lunch at the River Cafe while luggage was making its way to our rooms/suites. Of course based upon numbers alone (or lack of, compared to a cruise ship), this process doesn’t take any time at all, so it wasn’t long before I was unpacking and being given the informative & friendly chat by my Butler.
On this first evening we had an early Welcome Buffet Dinner which was served from 1700 to 1900. That was a bit of a surprise to be honest, but so many people were tired it wasn’t really an issue. Following that (and already on our way to Kehl), we had the Welcome and Safety Briefing. Obviously the maritime laws when on rivers is different (I don’t think I need to state the obvious here). As we know, when on the oceans the safety drill procedure has to happen before the ship sails. We had a very informative few words from the Captain (Plaman Veselinov); the Hotel Manager (Ivan Stoic) and Cruise Director (Cathy Lasouski). We were requested to bring along our Tailor-made devices to this intro for a quick instruction session. This was all followed by some music by their Italian on board musician Joe tinkling the ivories. Each evening, so I won’t bore you mentioning it again, Late Night Snacks were also available between 2230>2300. I never did find out what they consisted of, which I suspect my scales would be surprised to hear when I tentatively got on them a few days after I got home ………..
Before I close off our first day can I just mention that aside from the Crystal Dining room and River Cafe there are other evening alternative venues. One that needs booking, which is Portobellos – more about that at next stop. Additionally there is Table La Rive. This is a dedicated table in the Crystal Dining Room for guests booked on Diamond Deck and is ‘by invitation’. This dining experience offers up a sumptuous degustation menu paired with the finest wines handpicked by the ship’s Sommelier. Whilst I didn’t dine there myself I did meet people who had been invited who had lovely experiences here.
Despite a gloriously comfortable bed with lovely pillows and bedding I didn’t sleep that well on the first night to be honest as I was unfamiliar with the different sounds associated with being on a river. The main one on this trip being the locks – 8 between Basel and Kehl (our Day 2 destination) and approximately another 10 I seem to recall for the rest of the trip on to Amsterdam. Couple of things to bear in mind here – a) I am a very light sleeper and b) my room was pretty much at the rear of the ship where it’s known the disturbance can be more. This shouldn’t put you off but should encourage you of the need to book in plenty of time to ensure I can acquire you a more midship location. I ended up putting down my balcony window and looking out at a brick wall (with the ever brightening glimmer of daylight at the end) at one point where we down in the depths of a lock in the middle of the night and mindlessly experiencing what was happening……. Nothing like embracing the whole experience. A further point of interest that I learned is that there was a time that passenger vessels had priority at the locks, but this is no longer the case. The commercial vessels get priority so there can be a bit of waiting around to pass through these. Most of the time in truth, you’d be asleep of course.
The rest of Day 2 proceeded very well. Breakfasts on all days comprised of 0630>0700 and 0900>0930 Early Bird/Late Riser breakfasts in the River Cafe – aft of the Crystal Lounge. In between time 0700>0900 breakfast was served in the Crystal Dining room. This consisted of a lovely selection of buffet style offerings with one of the chefs conjuring up lovely omelettes and other egg preferences. Alternatively there was also a small selection of offerings from the galley if you preferred to have table service.
Champagne also always on offer for your breakfast bubbles if you are so inclined.
At 1000 we had a Mandatory Safety Drill, which really was very straightforward – so much so I can’t actually recall what we did ! This was followed by our cruise overview with the ever energetic and effusive Cathy (Cruise Director – doing an impression of a Duracell Bunny at times). At this meeting we also had to hand in the Scenic Free Choice Signup Form for a couple of day’s worth of excursions that we hadn’t selected thus far (some had been done prior to departure). This was followed by the opportunity to book a table at Portobello’s (Italian alternative – River Cafe’s evening identity).
After a light lunch either in the Crystal Dining (buffet or small selection from menu – format same as for breakfasts) or River Cafe it was time for our first Scenic Free Choice excursion. I had opted for a Wine region tour of Alsace Mittelbergheim. The organisation of these excursions was excellent and always (certainly from my point of view), appeared to go very smoothly. The other excursion options here were a guided tour of Strasbourg, or the Black Forest, or shopping with Chef. There’s one quite important difference, with Scenic at least. It’s not your room key card that serves as your ‘check off and check back on’ identity card. You need to acquire a separate card from reception (on the same floor as Crystal Lounge), which you take with you when disembarking and hand back in again when you come back on board. My tour ran from 1330 to 1800 hours (setting sail shortly afterwards – heading for Mannheim) so when I got back I had time to freshen up and get ready for my dining experience in Portobello’s which I’d booked in the morning. Before that however, we had our port talk with Cathy at 1830 followed by the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail party which was very pleasant with him introducing different key members of the team and explaining more about the river cruising experience, and where the challenges can sometimes lie therein. That was followed by the Welcome Gala Dinner in the Crystal Dining room, however I was booked to dine elsewhere.
As I was travelling alone it was nice to be joined in Portobello’s by a lovely couple I’d met from New Zealand who unbeknownst to me had also booked for the same evening. We had a very nice meal which was paired with different wines. Hand on heart I can’t say I was blown away by the food, but it was perfectly reasonable. Add to the fact that I’ve been very spoilt and perhaps I’m too difficult to impress?
After dinner we drifted out of the restaurant into the lounge (a few steps) for what it turns out was ‘Disco Night’. I didn’t hang around to be honest. The dinner was multiple courses so went on for a couple of very pleasurable hours and I was ready for bed. Scenic Crystal arrived in Mannheim while we were all asleep in the early hours around 0200.
With hindsight I think this may go down as my favourite day of the cruise. Before I tell you more about it I should perhaps mention that the first few days travelling on the Rhine weren’t exactly the ‘pretty’ Rhine I was hoping for – pretty industrial initially. That was however, about to change (more about that next stop). Back to Mannheim.
The day started as Day 2 started – with breakfast of course (they do a great Eggs Benedict by the way) . The pre-tour procedure was that everyone would pick up their cards from reception as previously mentioned above (there was never any queuing to do this as everyone did so at different points of their day). We’d then all meet in the lounge (having received our port talk about this the previous evening which was always further supported by our Daily Programme), and be asked to debark according to our tours and directed to which Coach number we needed to go to. My choice for Mannheim was the trip to the extremely unique Speyer Technical Museum (under an hour each way). Boy oh boy was I delighted with my choice. Full of incredible technological exhibits that you would not find anywhere else. http://speyer.technik-museum.de/en/ We had plenty of free time here to wander around and take in all the different elements of this fascinating Museum. This tour took place between 0900 and 1330. Other options included Guided tour of Heidelberg including the Castle or Guided tour sweet tastes of Heidelberg. We were all back on board for lunch (heaven forbid we get hungry) which was on offer between 1330 and 1500. During the afternoon there was a shuttle bus service for anyone who fancied venturing into Mannheim itself (which I didn’t do). Our port talk from Cathy was before an 1800 dinner time (early as we had an exciting evening ahead.) Tonight we had our Scenic Enrich experience – Mannheim Palace (dates back to 1720) cocktail reception, private tour and Classical Concert. WOW WOW WOW. Honestly I’m not great on ‘tours’ per se but that part didn’t take too long before we ended up in this INCREDIBLE room with the most fantastic acoustics, where Baritone Tibor Brouwer and Soprano Diana Fischer accompanied by pianist Fan Yang entertained us with a selection of eleven operatic/musical pieces. They were AMAZING – what a day. We were all back on board by 2245 to set sail for Rudesheim and the prospect of more wows tomorrow.
RUDESHEIM (am) & KOBLENZ (pm)
After, of course, breakfast, we had another reasonably early start – a mini (choo-choo per Cathy), train ride which we picked up literally on the river bank where we were sitting on board Scenic Crystal to take us to Rudesheim town first thing (it was a pretty fresh morning weather wise and I was wearing the wrong clothes – again !), to visit the Siegrieds Mechanisches Musikkabinett – well – that was something totally unexpected and unusual. Beautiful building, home to around 350 mechanical musical instruments spanning three centuries. Worth a quick peak –http://www.smmk.de/pages/en/welcome.php?lang=EN Following this visit we had an opportunity to take a cable car ride up to the Nierderwald Monument which overlooks the valley of the Rhine and is 125 feet tall ! The building of this monument started back in 1871 and is one of the world’s UNESCO sites. This cable car trip was a pretty steep incline over extensive vineyards and I was COLD – had been overly optimistic reference the temperature at this time in the morning…….. Having reached the top I took a brisk walk to the monument, took a couple of pics, said hello to a few people then made my way back down again to enjoy a wander around Rudesheim which by this point would be ‘open’ and I’d be able to try out the local Rudesheim coffee that had been recommended along with a shared slice of Apple Strudel as a few other guests wandered into the same place as I had found for myself. After all that excitement, so soon on in the day, my mission was now to go to the ‘must go to’ Christmas shop – http://wohlfahrt.com/en/christmas-stores/ruedesheimrhine-river – just where the Cable Car station is (what an amazing Aladdin’s cave of all things Christmas) to buy a decoration for my son and girlfriend to add to their collection.
There is an incredibly unique place to stay in this town where your accommodation is actually in a wine barrel ! yes, you heard me correctly. To find it you also need to find the narrowest street you’ll probably ever stumble across anywhere. Should you be intrigued – check out their website : http://www.lindenwirt.com/english/about-us.html
Afterwards I opted for a slow mooch back to my river-based home, wandering in and out of a few shops en-route of course.
Due to the time our day started we were back in plenty of time for lunch (served between 12 and 1330 in both the Crystal Dining room and River Cafe). Scenic Crystal had set sail around 1145 heading for our next river-bank of call, being Koblenz. Although it wasn’t one of the nicer days we had had so far it did brighten up a bit in the afternoon which made it possible to enjoy sitting up on the top deck (with a blanket) with our tailor-made devices set to River Mode (if we wanted to), to enjoy the scenic sailing through the Middle Rhine area. Almost everyone was either up there or enjoying same from the lounge below in the warm ! It was truly stunning and if you wanted to tune into the ‘device’ you’d pick up the commentary letting you know which castle/town/village/place of interest was coming up on either of the river banks as we meandered our way along. I have never seen so many vines! Some of them appeared almost vertical so I don’t imagine you’d see many overweight people picking those grapes !
We arrived in Koblenz late afternoon and very shortly afterwards headed off for our special early evening Sundowner tour, cocktail and general wander around at Ehrenbreitstein Castle. To get there we went on a few different multiple-person cable cars (with our different guides) across and up up up over the Rhine to the other side, which was spectacular in itself. This Castle and THE most incredible views did not disappoint. It was rather like a parallel universe up there that despite the castle being visible from the ground floor so to speak, you couldn’t actually envisage what awaits you up there. Click the wording that follows for an ATMOSPHERIC SOUNDBITE FROM THE CASTLE & IT’S HISTORY
After this, in our own time really (as once again, I peeled away), with the knowledge of when we had to be on board, I went ‘a-wandering’ to take some pics and make my way back to Scenic Crystal. Back on board in time for Cathy’s port talk at 1845 followed by dinner and a wonderful violin show, which was excellent.
KOBLENZ (am) & COLOGNE (pm)
Tours started at 0900 today in Koblenz – options being the scenic river hugging trip along Moselle to Cochem (Koblenz is located right at the junction where the Rhine and Moselle meet. This was the one I had opted for. Unfortunately as it was a very foggy (and chilly) morning, the outward trip wasn’t scenic at all as we couldn’t really see much (fortunately it had cleared up by the return journey). The other alternative was a Koblenz walking tour.
Despite the initial weather issues it was another INCREDIBLE tour. Once we reached Cochem we had a shortish walking tour of the town (which is BEAUTIFUL) prior to going to another meeting point for smaller minibuses to take us up to the iconic Reichsburg Castle – a medieval gem nestled grandiously atop the hills surrounding the Moselle River and (unsurprisingly) surrounded by vines.
The Castle itself was totally incredible and our tour very interesting. For me personally the most breathtaking part of this tour was the views. The fact that in fact, upon arrival the mists were still hanging low, almost made the views more dramatic and being there to see the clarity emerge as the morning dissolved the mist, was really rather special.
After our lovely clear drive back to Scenic Crystal where we could fully see and appreciate the incredible views, we got back to our Rhine-river-home in time for a light lunch which was served between 13 and 1430 hours when we set sail again heading for Cologne – which was but a hop skip and a jump away really (we arrived at 2100 hours). There was a galley tour (which honestly wouldn’t have taken long – how they managed in the small space they had was nothing short of pretty incredible), for those who had signed up for it. Our usual uber enthusiastic port talk with Cathy our Cruise Director (with cocktails of course), followed by a 1900 hour dinner (bit later if you are booked into Portobellos). There was entertainment on this evening – a young man and two ladies came on board to sing and dance for us – they (for my palette), were overly cheesy with their singing of ‘musical’ style renditions, but a lot of the guests on board seemed to enjoy what they put on for us. Thankfully it was only half an hour !
Following breakfast time we had two excursions on offer again today – one to Schloss Burg Castle and the other a Cologne Walking Tour. I opted for the latter as fancied something shorter. We had option of a walk into or coach into the city of which as it was a rather chilly morning, I opted for the latter. However, once we’d got into the city I peeled off to do my own thing, had a wander around, did a bit of shopping and then a leisurely stroll back to Scenic Crystal.
On this day there was a German theme lunch in the Crystal Dining room served between 1300 and 1430 between which we had set said for our last stop, Amsterdam. In the afternoon we had our Disembarkation talk, followed later by our Port Talk and then the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail party. Whilst this was the penultimate night it was scheduled this way as we were in Amsterdam overnight and they anticipated quite a number of guests planning to go off into the city. Our cocktail party was followed by a delicious Farewell Dinner after which we were entertained by the Crews own show in the Crystal Lounge. They were highly entertaining, talented and funny.
We arrived up to our last river bank on this wonderful seven night experience (early hours of the morning I think) and in fact, weren’t up against the river bank on this occasion, but nestled up against two other vessels from Scenic’s sister company, Emerald Waterways. Today I had opted for the Scenic Canal Cruise which actually comprised a short local coach tour, after which we were taken to our alternative river boat for the canal cruise (which was lovely and packed full of information from our wonderful guide Esther), after which she took us to a cheese shop for an informative chat/shop if we wished. I peeled off at this point to do my own thing, prior to making my own way back to Scenic Crystal (the rest of our group were taken on to do some other elements of the tour). Before reaching the ship I popped into the Hilton Doubletree (great location to access all Amsterdam has to offer and closeby to central station and where Scenic Crystal happened to be on this occasion). From here I headed straight up to the SkyLounge for an incredible view, lovely coffee and some FREE WIFI (that was speedier than on board)! Not quite sure if it was standard, but I got a second, complimentary cappuccino. I even grabbed an opportunity after my Amsterdam tour/swerve off to do my own thing time, to hop on board Scenic Jade for a quick look around a few of the public areas.
Some of the fascinating facts about this vibrant and eclectic city are:-
- 165 hand dug canals around just 3 metres deep (accommodating quite a lot of bicycles that have to regularly removed)
- The canals were started back in 1601, are all man made and took 50 years to complete
- 2500 house boats costing between 200 and 700,000 EUROS
- 400,000 trees
- One million or so bicycles which exceeds the population count of around 800,000
For those that came back on board, there was lunch – usual options as already covered. As we were there overnight there was plenty more time to go and explore Amsterdam for the afternoon and/or evening for those who wished to. I actually opted out of further explorations and spent a leisurely afternoon getting packed and catching up on a bit of work (which needless to say I had been doing intermittently throughout). Following a bit of pre-dinner musical entertainment and our goodbye port talk (providing all the explanations we needed reference disembarkation the following morning) we had dinner finished off by the ‘in-house’ musician Joe entertaining us in the lounge. Another great big tick in the box from my point of view is the JOY oh JOY of not having to have luggage outside our rooms the night before. What a difference that makes. We did have times to ensure it was outside our rooms the following morning to make the organisation easy for the crew. It was effected with military precision. We identified outside whichever coach we were going to be travelling on to the airport (in the piddling rain I hasten to add)! Those who had flight departures after 1400 hours (mine was at 1345), were taken to the Doubletree Hilton for hospitality and were then transferred to the airport at the appropriate moment relevant to their flight times.
Fortunately I was able to get ‘bag-dropped’, despite being a tad early, and I managed to while away my time air-side with some brunch (as of course I was hungry again), some retail therapy, gift buying and a lovely foot massage in Ritual. As anyone who has travelled to or from Amsterdam Schipol airport before will know, there is no shortage of shops, places to eat, lovely and unusual areas to sit, WIFI etc. It’s really not that much of a hardship to be there a little longer than necessary.
The guests on board ranged from 35-80 years of age (there or thereabouts) – so a really wide spectrum there and came from all corners of the globe. I can’t remember the precise split, but they were Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, South Americans and Europeans (and possibly some others that I have forgotten to mention).
Lastly I’d just like to say a massive thank you to Scenic for the invitation to experience my first river cruise.