By Susan Hanson

River cruising remains one of the top travel trends for 2019, according to the latest Luxe Report. The annual survey of Virtuoso travel advisors also finds European waterways among travelers’ top cruise destinations. The reason for their popularity: River cruising is intimate, immersive, and increasingly sophisticated, especially when it comes to dining on board.

Case in point: Crystal River Cruises. Europe’s only all-suite, butler-serviced ships bring the high culinary standards of their seagoing vessels to these legendary waterways. Albuquerque-based Virtuoso travel agency executive Alfred Volden compares the gastronomic experience on board a Crystal river ship to “dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant on land, but with ever-changing scenery.”

Here’s how Crystal does it.

1. The galleys are built for big ambitions.
Since its launch in 2016, Crystal River Cruises has been lauded for its innovative menus crafted to Michelin standards. While the majority of its ships are designed to carry just 106 guests – around half that of similarly sized vessels – the galleys are significantly larger. This extra space allows the highly trained chefs and kitchen staff to whip up creations such as shiraz-braised oxtail ragout or sous vide Mangalica pork belly served with honey-whiskey espuma.

2. The chefs have home-field advantage.
The regionally inspired fare relies on traditional recipes and cooking methods. When Ruth Turpin, a Virtuoso agency executive from Fort Worth, Texas, cruised the Danube, for example, she had a Viennese veal goulash “that was beyond wonderful!” In many cases, Crystal’s chefs hail from the region visited. “So when they prepare, say, strudel or wiener schnitzel, they make it the way their mothers did,” Turpin says.

3. Ingredients don’t travel far to reach the plate.
Europe’s storied rivers wend through some of the world’s richest farm regions, and Crystal takes full advantage. You’ll never taste a frozen carrot or pre-prepared duck breast; all meats, fish, and vegetables are sourced locally and brought on board fresh. The ship’s chef may even invite guests on a market visit. One decadent exception: For a special treat on each cruise, Crystal flies in fresh oysters from France and live lobsters from Maine or Canada, which are served that evening.

Dishes are prepared à la minute.

4. Everything is made to order.
To the delight of foodies, every dish – from chilled cucumber soup to Saibling Steckerlfisch (char grilled on a stick) – is prepared à la minute according to individual preferences. “They artfully prepare every entree to your liking,” Volden says, “just like a fine restaurant at home.” Even the breads and pastries are baked fresh daily, something few other cruise lines do. One of Turpin’s favorite memories is the aroma of warm croissants wafting through the ship in the morning: “It was like waking up in a bakery. So fabulous!”

5. The wine cellars are full of surprises.
Certified wine sommeliers join every voyage to offer generous pours and expert advice. The all-inclusive wine menu features nearly two dozen varieties, many from local vineyards; Volden was impressed that his ship’s sommelier “always provided the perfect pairing for the regional cuisine.” Plus, Crystal’s wine cellars include some of the grandest wines and Champagnes ever produced. Take for instance: a Petrus Pomerol Grand Vin 1994, priced at 4,500 euros a bottle.

6. Guests can pick and choose how and when to indulge.
If Volden had to pick one aspect that sets the Crystal culinary experience apart, it would be the number of options available on each of the line’s five river ships. “The choices truly are above and beyond,” he says. In addition to Waterside, there’s the Viennese café-style Bistro, which, come evening, transforms into a global tapas restaurant. The Vintage Room provides an intimate venue for educational winetastings and private pairing meals, while 24-hour room service features items from Waterside’s dinner menu.

Chef checks in with guests at Waterside, the flagship restaurant across Crystal’s river fleet.

Even more unusual for river cruising: Guests can dine when and with whom they like during restaurant hours (seatings from 7 to 9 PM). Reservations are not required, and tables are adjusted to fit the party size up to six. “You don’t have to tell the restaurant in advance,” Turpin says. “Just show up when hunger calls.” With such flexibility, she adds, travelers are free to dine with new friends met during a shore tour or, in the case of honeymooners on her recent voyage, enjoy a romantic dinner for two every night.

This article is sponsored by Crystal Cruises. All photos courtesy of Crystal Cruises.