November 17, 2013 in Features, Travel

First-time cruisers discover smooth sailing on the Rhine River

From Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Above: The scenic Le Petite France neighborhood in Strasbourg, France, is filled with half-timbered houses, bridges over canals and cobblestone roads.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

IF YOU GO

River cruises

Find more information about river cruising on these web sites:

• Viking River Cruises www.vikingrivercruises.com

• Avalon www.avalonwaterways.com

• Uniworld www.uniworld.com

• Ama Waterways www.amawaterways.com

When our train from Brussels arrived in Amsterdam, it was raining hard but our spirits refused to be dampened. My husband, Bill, and I were about to begin a new adventure.

Once we arrived at the boat dock on the Rhine River, we turned our bags over and were shown to our stateroom. Wow, we were off to a good start already.

We’d been getting ads in the mail for about three years. Each mailing touted Viking River Cruises’ itineraries and the more we perused them, the more the eight-day cruise down the Rhine River – from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland – appealed to us.

I have avoided the big ocean cruises because I just don’t do well on the ocean. The thought of being on a much smaller ship with fewer than 200 passengers – and on a calm river, to boot – seemed doable.

Our new home was the Jarl, a recently-christened longship. The ships – 415 feet long and 36 feet wide – are narrow because they must fit inside the locks along the river. When the ship was sailing, the ride was wonderfully smooth.

Our Veranda stateroom featured a small, private sitting area outside our room for watching the scenery. There was a queen-size bed, bathroom with shower, and plenty of storage. Everything was first-rate and kept spotless by the hardworking housekeeping staff.

The itinerary included daily shore excursions. The passengers were divided into four groups and provided with a Quiet Vox wireless audio device to easily hear what the local guide was saying.

If a shore excursion required a bus ride, four Mercedes buses took us where we needed to go in comfort.

Even when a tour guide wasn’t needed for some of the stops, a staff member would take us on a stroll through a village to help us get our bearings.

The first morning, we were in Kinderdijk, Holland, for a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of 19 windmills. Even though it would’ve been nice to see them on a sunny day, the chilly fog gave the windmills an ethereal appearance.

When we arrived at Cologne, Germany, it was a good news/bad news situation: Yes, the famous cathedral was open but no, the shops aren’t open on Sundays. We visited the fascinating Roman-German museum instead and Bill checked out the Früh brewery to sample their famous Kölsch beer.

Other stops included guided tours of the Marksburg castle in Koblenz, Heidelberg castle, and the beautiful old town area of Strasbourg, France. Passengers were frequently provided with plenty of free time at the ports for sightseeing and shopping. Viking also offered several optional tours at an additional cost for those wanting to explore even more areas.

The dining room accommodated all passengers in one sitting and we were invited to sit wherever we liked. As a result, we met a lot of wonderful folks.

The food was so good, it was hard to keep from over-indulging. Buffet breakfasts, locally themed lunches, dinners served with regional wines, and extraordinary desserts took eating to a whole different level.

I have so many pleasant memories from the cruise:

Sailing through the Rhine gorge on a sunny afternoon. Dozens of castles dot the hillsides along the way and the fall colors made them stand out even more. Lunchtime fare was traditional German dishes and Kölsch beer, while German music played in the background.

Wandering through the streets of old Heidelberg while snacking on hot, roasted chestnuts from a street vendor.

Participating in a cooking demonstration with executive chef Georg Pfandl in which we made flammkuchen, a savory tart.

Buying ornaments at the ultimate Christmas shop, Kathë Wohlfahrt, in the little German town of Rüdesheim.

Getting up in the middle of the night to watch the ship go through a river lock. These locks are used to raise or lower ships to a different level for navigation purposes. The concrete wall of the lock was about 6 inches from the edge of our veranda, demonstrating the tight fit for river cruise ships.

Would we do this again? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, there are two other cruises that we are considering for future vacations. We liked how organized the ship’s staff was and how they made sure passengers of all interests and abilities could participate and get the full experience of the cruise. Suggested attire on the ship was “casual and comfortable,” creating a relaxed, informal atmosphere.

We appreciated the fact that the primary language spoken on the ship was English. The daily excursions, with local guides, were always interesting and enjoyable.


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