I had been told that a Christmas Markets cruise was the perfect prelude to the festive season, and with this in mind I embarked Crystal Debussy for a 7-night 'Christmas Time on the Rhine' cruise from Amsterdam last December. The superb decorations throughout the vessel set the tone for my voyage; as did a late afternoon trip to a village of tinsel-decorated wooden chalets surrounding the ice rink in Amsterdam's Museumplein.
Here I banished the winter chills with mulled wine and sizzling olibollen donuts. Later that night, as we headed east towards Cologne, I wrapped up warm and headed to the Vista Deck. I was alone under a canopy of ink-black sky filled with stars and moonlight so bright that the river shone like an illuminated runway.
For the next six days the Rhine became a slow-running commentary to a tableau of frosty fields, snow-dusted hamlets and medieval cities brimful of yule time eye candy. Nestling around Cologne's soaring gothic cathedral, the Weihnachtsmarkt Am Kolner Dom is the motherlode of festive markets - it even boasts the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland.
Revelling in their overdose of Gemütlichkeit (winter cheer), I ambled past illuminated buden (rustic wooden huts) savouring the aroma of sizzling bratwurst, roasted chestnuts, gingerbread and Glühwein.
In Koblenz, the countdown to Christmas is revealed in an Advent calendar created in the 24 dormer windows of the fairytale Baroque Town Hall; then in the impossibly quaint Drosselgasse in bucolic Rüdesheim, wooden stalls showcase festive traditions from around the world.
The Christmas market at Mannheim's Wasserturm is one of Germany's oldest, with countless stalls selling unusual tree decorations. Seasonal reverie turned to reality in Strasbourg where a Christmas market on Grande Île has existed since 1570. Here a pitch-perfect yuletide scene surrounds the architectural masterpiece of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame.
One of four identical sister ships, Crystal Debussy entered service in April 2018, conveying 106 passengers in all-inclusive luxury. I was looked after by a convivial crew of 68, who understood guests' preferences with unerring instinct and charm.
As European river cruising's only all-balcony, all-suite river ships, Crystal's fleet boasts the largest accommodations in the industry: Deluxe Suites are a commodious 253 square feet and two-bedroom Crystal Suites a generous 759 square feet.
All categories of suite are situated above the waterline and feature king-sized beds, panoramic balcony-windows and walk-in showers, not to mention attentive butlers. I enjoyed the award-winning Michelin-inspired modern cuisine menu, alongside classical, regional cuisine in the Waterside restaurant and globally-inspired tapas-style dinners in the Bistro. In the Vintage Room, guests indulged in a variety of wine-themed menus featuring fine wines and Champagnes. There's also a 24-hour pantry offering coffees, teas, wines and soft drinks.
The glass-ceilinged Palm Court is a social hub for afternoon tea and cocktails, as well as the most sophisticated entertainment on the rivers of Europe. There's also a pop-up Vista Bar on the top deck, indoor heated pool and Crystal Life Spa.
It's difficult in measured terms to convey the perfection of Crystal River Cruises which, since their inception, have infused this serene holiday choice with a bolt of panache.