For more than 25 years we have promoted independent travel; emphasizing charming, off-the-beaten path villages, small family-run hotels and authentic restaurants that serve regional food—all supplemented with advice on how to save money and beat the crowds.
There is a different way to travel, however. One up-front payment eliminates the worries of finding hotels, getting lost on Europe's back roads or being trapped by a sneaky car rental attendant selling insurance you don't need. It's a cruise on one of Europe's rivers; the most popular being the Rhine, Mosel, Main, Elbe and Danube. Though it may not be the traditional Gemütlichkeit style of travel, it is a relaxing and enjoyable way to experience Europe and rapidly growing in popularity. The main players in river cruising (Uniworld, Viking, AMAWaterways, and Avalon) are steadily building new ships and upgrading their existing fleets with full balconies, swimming pools, and large suites. Traditional cabins with small portholes and fold down beds are being replaced with rooms that more closely resemble luxury hotels. Food is a main focus. Uniworld claims it is the only river cruise line rated by Zagat. Perhaps that's why our cruise and air ticket manager, Laura Riedel and her husband, Philip, recently chose to cruise the Rhine with Uniworld. Here is her report.
Castles Along the Rhine is Uniworld's most popular itinerary. Starting in Amsterdam and ending in Basel (or vice versa), the ship stops in both Germany and France and cruises through the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
Embarking on Sunday in Amsterdam was a breeze. We arrived before our cabin was ready, but they took our bags, pointed us upstairs to enjoy a light breakfast buffet and told us when to be back on board. From there it was an easy walk to enjoy a day in Amsterdam. Later in the afternoon we settled into our room, poked around the boat for a while and stood on deck as we departed Amsterdam, attended the welcome briefing, and ate our first dinner on board. It was exciting to wake up the next morning with the Rhine River gliding past right outside our cabin window.
We docked Monday in Cologne. A guided-tour of the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, and Germany's most visited landmark, was the tour for the day. Free time was spent roaming the Altstadt and climbing 509 steps to the top of the Cathedral. The ascent can be daunting, but the views from the spindly, open air spires are worth the effort.
Next stop was Tuesday morning in Koblenz where we docked near the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) where the Mosel and Rhine meet. We skipped the scheduled city walking tour for a pair of the bikes Uniworld offers for passenger use. Clearly marked bike paths led us several kilometers along the Mosel shore, past hillside vineyards and fruit orchards. Roaming the town's charming, narrow alleyways in the afternoon we came across one of Koblenz's whimsical fountains, Das Schängelchen (the Spitting Boy). Dedicated to the city's children, he spits a stream of water at irregular intervals onto unsuspecting passers-by.
That evening we ventured into town to find our own meal and skipping dinner aboard. After consulting a Gemütlichkeit article on Koblenz and wandering past several options, we decided on Café Einstein (Firmungstrasse 30), drawn in by the modern and lively interior. At one of the tables that spills onto the nearby plaza, we enjoyed the "Schnitzel Einstein." A twist on the traditional breaded veal cutlet, this was pork topped with fresh tomatoes and feta cheese.
After departure from Koblenz the next morning we spent several hours cruising the Upper Middle Rhine Valley past Medieval castles, historic towns, and vineyards. Our cruise manager, Rick, could be heard on the audio system throughout the morning recounting the stories and history of the castles and towns we passed.
Arriving in touristy Rudesheim in the early afternoon, we again opted for a bike ride instead of the scheduled walking tour. After a short pedal up the river, we locked up the bikes in town and strolled the Drosselgasse, a narrow pedestrian alley lined with cafés, wine taverns and kitschy shops. At a restaurant with a small outdoor courtyard, we stopped for a traditional Rudesheimer coffee (basically coffee, sugar, brandy and whipped cream—how could it not be good). Several other tables were filled with fellow cruise passengers and we all took turns taking each other's pictures and comparing notes on the day.
From Rudesheim, the Niederwald Monument is reached by a short cable car ride over hillside vineyards. Completed in 1833 to commemorate the reestablishment of Germany after the Franco-Prussian war, the monument was under restoration and covered in tarps, but we enjoyed the lovely view of the Rhine Valley and the hike back to our bikes through the vineyard.
On tap Thursday was Speyer, one of Germany's oldest cities. The short walking tour includes stops at the Romanesque Dom zu Speyer (Speyer Cathedral) and the ruins of the Medieval Speyer Synagogue, the oldest visible remains of a synagogue in Central Europe. Independently, we explored the vibrant main street (Maximilianstrasse) which came alive at the end of the work day with scores of residents filling the cafés and shops.
Docking in Kehl on Friday, our destination was Strasbourg on the French side of the Rhine. This was one day the ship did not tie up within walking distance of the main attraction. After a 15-minute bus ride to Strasbourg we boarded a small, glass-enclosed boat for a canal tour. Our American ex-pat tour guide did a wonderful job of explaining Strasbourg's significance as the "crossroads of Europe." The afternoon was spent with lunch on our own and wending our way among the canals and half-timber houses, and a visit to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Buses took passengers back to the boat at several scheduled times throughout the afternoon.
Our final day was a full day bus tour along the Alsatian Wine Road with stops in Kayserberg, Riquewihr, and Colmar. There was also a half-day option to visit only Colmar. All stops included a short, informative walking tour with plenty of time left to explore on our own. All three towns are good examples of typical Alsatian villages; preserved since the Middle Ages with colorful, half-timbered houses and narrow, cobbled streets.
That evening we enjoyed the Captain's farewell dinner (especially because we were invited to sit at his table). Then it was back to business, packing for the trip home in the morning.
Each day features at least one tour included in the price. Mostly these were walking tours of the towns with stops at the major sites. All guides speak English and the Quietvox portable audio headsets make hearing them easy. Optional outings are offered and range in price from 45 to 80 Euros per person. Excursions on this cruise were a visit to Marksburg Castle near Koblenz; a half-day tour of Heidelberg (leaving from Speyer); and, a Black Forest excursion with a visit to Vogtsbauernhof, an outdoor museum featuring Black Forest culture and history.
Other activities included a lecture ("The European City from the Middle Ages to the Present" presented by a local university professor), a Black Forest cake baking demonstration, and nightly entertainment in the lounge.
The Ship and Cabins
The S.S.Antoinette is Uniworld's newest ship. Modeled after Versailles and featuring a ten-foot Baccarat chandelier in the lobby, the interior is opulent. The main lounge and bar features custom-made carpets, silk taffeta curtains, fine antiques and original works of art.
The compact (196 sq. ft.) cabins are very comfortable and functional. After unpacking, suitcases are tucked under the bed and out of sight. The small counter space in the marble bathroom is supplemented by a large drawer under the sink that provides additional storage for toiletries. Comfortable waffle robes and L'Occitane en Provence bath products are provided. A small "desk" in the cabin is sufficient for charging electronics and holding the water bottle that is refilled daily by the housekeeping staff. The beds, with 100% Egyptian cotton linens, are very comfortable. A flat screen TV provides a variety of entertainment options. Besides movies and TV channels, a GPS map displays the ship's location on the river or you can view a live picture taken from the camera mounted on the bow.
Most cabins are the same size. Location and window size make the difference. Those on lower decks generally have smaller, non-operable windows. Higher deck cabins often have French balconies and more boats are adding full balconies. Suites with Uniworld are larger and come with extra services and amenities such as a bottle of wine on arrival, refrigerator, daily cookie and fruit plate, in-room continental breakfast, and free laundry service.
The food was better than acceptable. While no dish really wowed, everything was fresh and well prepared. Breakfast was always a buffet with the standard American fare of bacon and eggs as well as fresh fruit, muesli, lox, pastries, and deli meats and cheeses.
A light lunch option was served daily on the upper deck and featured a grilled sandwich, soup, and salad. Lunch in the dining room was more elaborate with a variety of hot dishes as well as soups and salads.
Dinners are multi-course with wine included. Each night there are a few choices from each menu course—Starters, From the Soup Tureen, Entrées, and Dessert Collection—all finished with a plate of chef-selected cheeses. Although most dinners are standard continental cuisine, many dishes hinted at the location along the Rhine. The "Rhine Trilogy" starter, for example, included small bites of a special blood sausage with apple-potato mash, leek quiche with crème fraiche, and herring with apple salad. An entrée choice one evening was pan fried fillet of Rhine River pike-perch.
Self-serve coffee, tea, and juice are available 24 hours. And, afternoon tea with a variety of finger sandwiches and cookies is served daily for those on board. We never went hungry.
On the morning spent cruising the middle Rhine Valley, a German-style lunch was served on deck. It featured various sausages, sauerkraut, big soft pretzels, potato and green salads, and beer, of course. Sitting in the sunshine, cruising past the castles and scenery of the Rhine and enjoying the meal was a highlight of the trip.
River cruises include almost everything in the price: all food on board, including wine and beer with dinner, most walking tours and excursions, and even transportation to and from the airport. Some passengers likely rack up quite a bill drinking in the bar each night or taking advantage of the masseuse on board, but we walked away with a minimal tab. Gratuities are also paid at the end, one amount for the cruise manager (who is not employed by Uniworld) and another amount to be split among the rest of the crew.
The majority of the 150 or so passengers were Americans, rounded out with a few Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. Being in our 40s, we were some of the youngest on board. A college-age woman traveling with her grandmother was the youngest, but the majority of passengers were 60 to 80 years old. Everyone was friendly and pleasant. It was a jovial group and we heard few complaints.
Service and Amenities
All crew members, from the cruise manager to the housekeeping staff, were friendly and efficient, and overall the service was excellent. Communication was very good and there was never confusion about where we had to be and when. The cruise manager always had maps on his desk and was available for questions.
Rooms are cleaned twice per day; in the morning, and then again in evening with turn down, a chocolate on the pillow, and the next day's schedule placed on the bed.
Besides the pool, which we dipped into several times, there is an exercise room and a small spa with a staff masseuse. A 20-seat theatre played movies throughout the day and evening.
A laundry room on the lower deck offered several washers and dryers and an ironing board. Laundry soap could be purchased at the front desk.
A Minor Hiccup
As we toasted our last day at the captain's farewell cocktail party, we were informed the Antoinette would not make it to the final stop in Basel. The locks we had to pass through were broken and the back-up of boats awaiting passage was long. Luckily, a trip that takes the boat six hours, would only take one hour by bus. All disembarkation plans were scraped and the crew scrambled to find buses for the morning. As we enjoyed our final dinner, they worked on a new schedule. Some passengers were headed to the airport, others to hotels, train stations, and car rental desks. In our case, it meant leaving the boat an hour early to make the bus ride to the airport. Not a big deal and the crew had it wrapped up by the time dinner was over.
Though river cruising does not immerse the traveler in European culture quite like independent travel, it does provide an interesting, relaxing, and enjoyable vacation, with many glimpses of the Europe we all love.
(You can book virtually any river cruise through Laura and get the special Gemut.com/Gemütlichkeit discount. Call her at 800-521-6722 x 2)