Our report on a recent cruise aboard the KD Rhine vessel, M/V Britannia. Accommodations, food, entertainment and shore activities are evaluated.
By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
This report begins with a disclaimer. We are NOT your typical cruisers.
Some people, we think, are born cruisers. Others have it thrust upon them.
We would fall foursquare into the latter category, for traditional cruising has never held much appeal. Too much passivity. Forced conviviality. Contrived fun. Whatever.
That's not to say we don't like water. We love it. Any kind. And we've done our share of sailing over the years, including crossings of the Atlantic by freighter and the QE2 and so many runs up and down the perilous western coastline of Norway that they're thinking of naming a bay or a bight after us...and including Holliday/Fischer in the daily shipping forecasts on the BBC.
So given our grump about cruising, what in the world were we doing, in late September, riding up the Rhine between Düsseldorf and Strasbourg aboard the M/V Britannia?
Call it convenience. Or curiosity. Or maybe just a much neglected service to Gemütlichkeit readers. Suffice to say, we were there. And a short river cruise happened to fit very neatly into a planned two-week France and Germany itinerary.
KD Cruises, hq'd in Purchase, New York, had the requisite three-day schedule on its books, an available berth and also permitted us to jump ship in Strasbourg a day early, instead of carrying on to the endstation, Basel.
KD (short for "Köln-Düsseldorf") also happens to be the largest and most venerable passenger line on the European continent, morphing into its current moniker from the Prussian Rhine Steamship Company of Cologne which first began navigating the river way back in 1826, a mere decade after the very first steamship made its tentative way up or down (history doesn't tell us which) this 1,000 kilometer long scenic and commercial artery.
Now, after some 175 years of Rhine cruising, they've naturally outgrown their initial itinerary and have expanded to such an extent that they currently operate almost 400 cruises along a multitude of Europe's prime rivers and canals including the Elbe, Danube, Main, Neckar, Saar as well the Seine, Rhône and Saone.
This means that besides swanning around in their own backyard, they also drop anchors in Austria, Holland, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and France.
KD's US-based team whom we called for reservations and other pertinencies were, from the outset, the very essence of courtesy, helpfulness and efficiency. And joy of joys, Wunder of Wunders, you can actually reach them by phone without going circular or even being put on hold (800-346-6525).
A further KD Cruise plus from our standpoint at least was the bus the company operates between Amsterdam Airport (Schipol) and the Britannia's Düsseldorf embarkation point. And while it did mean cooling our heels in Amsterdam for the better part of a day after a nonstop night flight from Detroit, there are certainly far worse places to cool heels.
For Amsterdam these days is the epitome of laid-back laissez faire...and considerably sanitized from its trashy 60s hippydom, so a canal ride, a stroll through the old town, and a Dutch lunch pleasantly took care of the six-hour layover.
As KD, among its other many services, also arranges hotel accommodations for clients on request, the chartered bus does spend rather a long time gathering up guests from the various pickup points around Amsterdam before beginning its three-hour Autobahn run into Northern Germany.
Despite several delays we still pulled up next to the Düsseldorf loading dock in plenty of time to check into our cabin, knock back a quick cocktail and sample the buffet table before attending the all important 9pm orientation meeting. That first onboard meal set the tone for good things to come with great platters of smoked fish, beef, ham, roast pork and turkey, a variety of fresh salads, several hot dishes, an extensive array of cheese and bread and some very decadent desserts.
It was at the postprandial orientation meeting, incidentally, that the only real hiccup of the voyage occurred. A minor contretemps in which a handful of Italian-speaking passengers stormed out of the meeting because the orientation was not translated to their language. Unpleasant for all but it did get the trip off to an interesting, if controversial start.
After Dagmar Seier, our youthful guide-cum-activity director, explained the ins and outs of shipboard living, the dining arrangements, optional excursions, organized activities, that sort of thing, we all lined up, (friends and Romans included) outside the ship's only restaurant to select tables and dining companions for lunches and dinners, sign up for excursions and for the much advertised BIP, an acronym whose provenance we've frankly forgotten, but whose significance is that for a 90 DM ($47) up-charge one can enjoy specially selected wines, beers as well as nonalcoholic beverages with meals. It includes an invite to attend a special back-of-the-boat "BIP Party mit Musik" near the end of the cruise. Booze and Ooompa-pa. We signed. Of course.
By next morning, after a good night's sleep in our ultra-compact but comfortable outside cabin ("Light packing makes for Better Living," Holliday/Fischer 1999) and a complete German style buffet breakfast of meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, cereal, yogurt and juices along with eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes cooked to order, we were ready to take on whatever the mighty Rhine had to offer.
Quite a lot as it turned out. And all efficiently previewed in a daily yellow news sheet slipped under the cabin door during the night.
It should be noted too, that as the ship ties up at night, sleeping on board the M/S Britannia is a pleasant, if somewhat lonely experience...single beds that turn into sofas during the day were the order of the day for the particular level of cabin comfort and cost we had selected.... and we were invariably gently rocked off to sleep to the rhythmic sound of Rhinewasser slapping softly against steel hull. Sort of like napping on a waterbed with built-in sound effects.
From then on, the days and nights passed according to one's own personal desires, appetites and activity levels.
Each day there was an optional excursion available with prices ranging from 24 to 55 DM ($13-$29). And while we personally participated in only two of them, word on the water was that the quality and value of these excursions varied considerably. Some were super. Others less so. But as these outings were not actually under KDs direct control, it's difficult to hold them to account for any inadequacies. (One might suggest a closer monitoring of the subcontractors, however.)
From reports...and our own experiences...the 2 1/2 hour city tour of Cologne was well run and informative, an excellent value at 32 DM ($17). The excursions to Heidelberg and Strasbourg, on the other hand, were neither recommendable...nor inexpensive...at 55 DM ($29) and 40 DM ($21) respectively.
On our Strasbourg tour, for example, we spent most of the ground time walking from a bus parking lot to the cathedral and then waiting for a 12th century astronomical clock to perform some meager and almost indefinable mechanical gyration.
The guide then gave us one or two more general ecclesiastical explanations of the cathedral interior before running off and leaving us to amuse ourselves in the adjacent square for the better part of an hour.
In retrospect, one might be better off organizing one's own city sight-seeing whenever possible as most of the highlights are within walking distance and a local guide book would probably tell you all you need to know.
(Further, we were a bit disappointed that on the up-river schedule, there were no opportunities to visit any of the pretty riverside villages and small towns that give the Rhine so much of its character.)
We did sign on for the wine-tasting tour held in the ancient cliff cellars of the Weinhaus Schwaab in Koblenz.
The cellar atmosphere alone should have made for a pleasant evening but unfortunately too many wine tasters...in too confined a space...and not enough staff...meant that we all felt a bit short changed by the event.
To be fair, too, we don't have that much experience with the region's Rieslings and are therefore not adequately qualified to comment on the nuances of the six Spätlese and Auslese wines offered. Suffice to say they were typical and eminently drinkable. However, the rather frantic atmosphere and the cramped conditions made for a less than leisurely wine tasting evening. That said, the 24 DM ($13) per person charge was not a bank-buster either.
Back on board the Britannia, there never seemed a lack of things designed to amuse and entertain...in a low key sort of way. From the well meant if slightly goofy games and activities organized by Dagmar...to the regularly scheduled cocktail parties...and a "crew show" with magic, in which your intrepid scribbler (in the spirit of investigative reporting, of course) somehow found himself trussed up in a sack with a quite voluptuous blonde. Oh, mein Gott!
As in all cruises, food figures heavily in the daily agenda. The substantial breakfast served between 7:30 and 9:30am is followed at 12:30pm by an enormous lunch, mid-afternoon tea/coffee with a selection of elaborate cakes and tarts and finally, a five-course dinner.
The menus were consistently more interesting than ordinary German fare although the framework was still conservatively meat and potatoes. One day, lunch began with homemade tomato cream soup, and a choice of chicken breast with curry sauce (VERY mild) or cod fish in white wine sauce and ended with Rote Grutze (red berries) and whipped cream.
Dinner led off each evening with either soup or seafood cocktail followed by an extensive salad buffet, choice of two hearty entrées like braised leg of lamb or roast breast of turkey, a number of very fancy desserts and an admirable table of cheeses, bread and fruit.
The food was beautifully presented both on the buffet tables and individual dinner plates, with well thought out color schemes and plenty of fresh herbs. Even more important, the service was expert and focused. Each waiter was responsible for just two tables of six so there was plenty of personal attention for everyone during the leisurely meals.
When not eating, sleeping or excursioning, the time was spent pleasantly idling...above or below decks according to weather...and watching the passing river life. As one of Europe's busiest and most important commercial waterways, there was rarely a shortage of colorful barge traffic to study and scenery to enjoy.
The most gorgeous of it and the main reason that the Rhine has been cruised since 1816 came on day three on the incredibly beautiful and rightly famous stretch between Koblenz and Mainz.
Here, finally, was "Rhine Romanticism" in all its traditional glory. Evocative stuff. With cliff top castles, charming riverside villages, vine covered hills and wooded islands...and picturesque ruins popping up at every twist and loop.
This was the splendid, mystic Rhine immortalized in the music of Wagner, the poetry of Holderlin and Heine, and the paintings of Turner. And at the climactic kilometer 554, with the Lorelei in our sights, we could almost hear the sirens singing Heine's famous song, "I know not for what I am yearning." This day alone was worth the price of the trip.
A few hours, two deep locks and an energetic BIP party later, we reached Strasbourg and the end of our cruise. The M/V Britannia itself would continue on for another 80 miles or so to Basel before starting the return voyage to Cologne.
So what did we really think of our Rhine River cruise?
Well, relaxing, comfortable, low pressure, excellent value...all come to mind. Plus it's a most peaceful and enjoyable way of getting over any residual jet lag.
We believe however, that cruising the Rhine should come with written warnings. Like, river cruising can lead to obesity, high cholesterol and lethargy. In addition, and rather curiously, for a couple of curmudgeonly non-cruisers like us, it can also be highly addictive.
So watch out Elbe and Danube et al...we'll probably be coming up your lazy river real soon.
Additional cruise facts
* KD River Cruises of Europe
* Phone: East Coast 800-346-6525, West Coast 800-858-8587; Web: www.rivercruises.com
* 2000 Prices: Düsseldorf-Basel, four nights - $710-$1,330; Basel-Düsseldorf, three nights - $590-$1,100
* M/V Britannia was built in 1969 and is called by her captain, Antonius van Ingen, "the old lady of the Rhine in her best years."