Most people would be content sitting on their king-sized bed in their 253-square-foot Deluxe Suite, watching the Danube flow by their balcony window while their personal butler (yes, really) introduced them to a canapé and a glass of Champagne. But for this bright-eyed river ship novice, the shape-shifting landscapes left me with an insatiable fear of missing out. This was day one of four on a Central European cruise aboard the uber-luxury river ship Crystal Mahler, and I was determined to experience every sight, sound, and smell these foreign lands had to offer. Luckily for me, I was quick to discover that the 106-passenger floating boutique hotel promised luxury, in equal parts, both aboard and ashore.
Budapest at its Best
The itinerary began and ended in Budapest, Hungary: twin cities (Buda and Pest) with the distinctive personalities of strangers. Docked on the bustling bourgeois side of Pest, our tour group wasted no time in crossing over the grandiose Chain Bridge to Buda. Ascending 108 steps, a whimsical marriage of Romanesque and Gothic architecture awaited in the form of Fisherman’s Bastion; the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a historical monument memorializing the first thousand years of a united Hungary. In what Crystal calls one of their “Signature Events,” our excursion gave us exclusive access to a sectioned-off terrace, high above the rest. The panorama of the Danube and the palatial Hungarian Parliament Building would have been enough to leave us slack-jawed, but then the sound of lively strings cut through the air and an impromptu flash mob of folk dancers invited us to dance the uveges, a Hungarian folk dance performed with a bottle of red wine on the head.
Back aboard the ship, we kept our wine safely guarded in our hands at the Vintage Room. This extravagant dining option accommodates only 10 people per seating and costs your prettiest penny (think $300 to $2,000 per person). Our eight-course tasting menu featured ingredients from a local market, like guinea-fowl breast and fresh fish and vegetables. Besides the food, the intimate group dinner allowed me to conspire with an equally adventurous passenger on visiting one of the city’s famed Turkish baths together.
After carefully consulting several informed opinions from the Mahler crew, we opted for the “biggest” and “prettiest” of all Budapest’s nine medicinal baths — Széchenyi Thermal Baths. The admittedly Instagram-famous site is an indoor/outdoor network of natural spring water in the form of 18 pools of varying temperatures. Some choose to brave it and initiate each stop on the “pool crawl” by jumping in the water without toe-dipping first. But for those of us who intended to use the baths for their original purpose — to relax — a swim in a warm pool housed in a bright-yellow Neo-Baroque palace was a cultural and holistically soothing experience all in one.
Vienna via Crystal Mahler
Vienna, Austria, is among the least spoiled of the great European capitals, and we were able to see glimpses of its past as we ….
By Chanel Samson
Photo: Crystal Cruises