Christmas Markets on the Rhine

The Festive Season seems to be more a sales frenzy than celebrating the most important birth in history. And I confess that in recent years tinsel-clad trees have lost their lustre; while turkey and all the trimmings aren’t tickling the taste-buds. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’, I find myself more humbug than hosanna.  On an assignment and unable to say no to noël, I unenthusiastically packed my chattels last December and headed off for a ‘Christmas Time on the Rhine’ cruise.

The tastefully-decorated Crystal Debussy set the tone for my 7-night cruise from Amsterdam. For the next six days, the Rhine became a slow-running commentary to tableaux of brightly-lit, snow-dusted Christmas markets. Wandering around a seasonal village of tinsel-clad wooden chalets surrounding the ice-rink in the Dutch city’s Museumplein, my cynical views began to melt as I tucked into sizzling olibollen donuts washed down with mulled wine.

I visited the Grote Markt in Antwerp where the Yuletide scene was pitch-perfect; the following morning nineteen frost-tinged windmills dating from 1740 at Kinderdijk reminded me of countless Christmas card scenes. In front of Cologne’s imposing Gothic Cathedral, the Weihnachtsmarkt Am Kolner Domis the mother-lode of festive markets. Ambling past illuminated rustic huts savouring the aroma of sizzling bratwurst, roasted chestnuts, gingerbread and Glühwein, my frosty scepticism was replaced by an overdose of Gemütlichkeit (winter cheer). By the end of the cruise, this old curmudgeon no longer dismissed tinsel and baubles as irredeemably naff.

As the only all-balcony, all-suite river ships operating on European waterways, Crystal River Cruises’ four identical 106-passenger vessels boast the largest accommodations in the industry. All categories of suites, ranging from 253 sq ft to 759 sq ft, are situated above the waterline and feature river-facing king-sized beds; panoramic balcony-windows; large glass-enclosed showers, plus attentive butlers. An award-winning Michelin-inspired modern-tasting menu is served alongside classical, regional cuisine in the Waterfront Restaurant; as well as globally-inspired tapas-style dinners in the Bistro. A 24-hour Pantry offers coffees, teas, wines and soft drinks.

The glass-ceilinged Palm Court is the social hub for afternoon tea and cocktails as well as the most sophisticated evening entertainment on the rivers of Europe. There’s also an indoor heated pool and Crystal Life Spa. The pop-up Vista Bar on the top deck is no doubt a popular hangout in summer months but I was happy to stroll through the halls decked with holly inside Crystal Debussy. My all-inclusive, out of season cruise turned out to be a perfect prelude to the Festive Season.

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Gary Buchanan

Gary Buchanan has been a specialist cruise writer for 22 years contributing to national newspapers and consumer publications. He is the author of five books about cruising and spends over seven months every year at sea sailing the world’s oceans. He’s a former chairman of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and in 2014 he won the Cruise Lines International Association Award for Best River Cruise Feature.