August 2011 - MSN Travel
"What do a retired Australian tyre company boss, a Canadian oil worker and a Californian accountant have in common? Well, apart from possibly being the opening line of a joke, they and their partners were my fellow guests on a river cruise up the Rhine, and are typical of the kind of people who enjoy this booming sector of the holiday market. First things first: if you don't like meeting new people from around the world and enjoying wide-ranging conversations, this sort of trip is probably not for you. Secondly: These are not Club 18-30 raves. The travellers are mostly more mature people who have seen life, know what they want and have put a few bob aside to enjoy themselves.
Our seven-day voyage from Amsterdam to just outside Zurich took place on what was, in effect, a luxurious child-free floating hotel. Spacious but limited to around 160 guests, after a while you get almost blase about the stunning scenery floating past the windows, as you sail along one of the longest rivers in Europe. Couple all this with excursions into some breathtakingly picturesque German and French towns and villages, and this becomes a truly memorable holiday. Please don't confuse it with an ocean cruise. As our tour director Nancy pointed out to my wife and I at the very beginning of our voyage: "The two have only one thing in common: they both involve a ship!"
On board our Avalon cruiser Felicity there were no casinos, clay shooting bays or black tie dinners. Instead, there was a spacious but comfortable bar, elegant dining room, quiet club lounge, huge sun deck taking up the full length of the ship, and our cosy and beautifully-equipped ensuite cabin came complete with floor to ceiling windows to enjoy the views.
The pattern of the holiday emerged on our first night on board, a few hundred yards from Amsterdam's huge central station. A seven-course welcome dinner (this is no holiday for those on a diet) saw us sharing a table with Australian builder Richard and wife Beth, who were taking the voyage during a four-week tour of Europe. Robust Aussie humour and a fair bit of the complimentary wine soon had us chatting as if we'd known each other for years.
Seating at dinner, and the equally expansive lunches, is open, so you're not tied to the same table and people each day. Some holidaymakers who arrived in groups liked to stick together, while others used the opportunity to meet new people every night. And with relatively few native Brits on board, we had an entertaining trip around the English-speaking world without having to leave our seats. After our first dinner it was time to plunge into Amsterdam's city centre. While we took a trip around some of the more interesting bars serving the Dutch speciality gin known as jenever, others joined the organised tour of the city's Red Light district, including a lady in her 80s who didn't bat an eyelid at the displays of flesh on offer in the shop-style windows. These free organised tours, available at places of interest all along the route, form an important part of the trip. Small groups are given their own guides and everyone gets a personal radio receiver and earpiece, so there's no straining to hear those words of wisdom.
First stop after the canals of Amsterdam was the historic German city of Cologne, or Koln as the natives call it; the massive black bulk of its world heritage cathedral visible from miles around. It's an amazing building, not just from the point of view of its architecture. Virtually the entire city was flattened by the RAF during the Second World War but the cathedral, despite being hit around 70 times, somehow survived and remained standing, a dark stone colossus in a field of rubble. These city tours also emphasise another advantage of canal cruising. Our ship moored up right in the heart of the city, the cathedral was no more than a 10-minute walk away. Compare that with some of the marathon trips that passengers on an ocean cruise liner so often undertake to get to their destination - with the coach whisking them away from a chilly quayside at 8am. The beautiful town of Koblenz, on the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, proved the perfect curtain-raiser to one of the most scenic parts of the trip - a five hour cruise down the Middle Rhine. With its vertiginous valley sides alternating between vertigo-inducing vineyards and castles, seemingly drawn straight out of fairy tale books, perched on crags high above us, the whole stretch is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Its beauty used to be accompanied by a particular hazard. Tight, bendy stretches with little room to manoeuvre once gave parts of the river a killer reputation with sailors, especially around the massive Lorelei rock where a combination of swift current, dangerous shallows and narrow passages took many a boat to a premature end. So dangerous was this particular stretch that 19th century sailors devised the legend of Lorelei, the spirit of a beautiful young woman whose hypnotic singing would entrance the unwary and lead them to a watery death. Thankfully, 21st century technology in the form of ship-to-shore river traffic control makes the passage safe for today's visitors. Although as you sail under the cold shadow of the sheer, 450ft high Lorelei, it's not hard to imagine the terror the area must once have held for those on the river. Safely through and onwards, our next port of call was the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg, a busy metropolitan contrast to the other-world dreaminess of the Middle Rhine. Typically French, the city is stacked with marvellous restaurants and chic shops, just the place to give your credit card some exercise after letting it lounge around idly on the boat.
Another memorable destination was the small town of Rudesheim in the heart of German wine country, where you can not only join a free guided tasting, but also take a cable car skimming above the fields of vines that sweep upwards from the Rhine. On another day, our trip through the Black Forest took in a cuckoo clock maker and ended with a slice of the eponymous cake. And later on, we had a guided tour of the magnificent but ultimately useless French Maginot line of underground forts, that failed to save France from Nazi invasion at the start of the Second World War. After each excursion, you return to the peaceful haven of the ship to recuperate from your exertions, feet up and drink in hand to raise a toast to another day spent enjoying yourself. As a relatively new holiday option, I can certainly see why river cruising is catching on so rapidly".
Key facts - Rhine cruising
:: Best for: Sightseeing without the effort.
:: Time to go: Spring or summer.
:: Don't miss: The crew's on-board 'Entertainment Night'.
:: Need to know: There are 40 castles and fortresses on the Middle Rhine.
:: Don't forget: Binoculars and good sunscreen.