I have long been a fan of ocean cruising, but last fall I sailed on my first river cruise on the Rhine River. It is Europe’s longest river, beginning as a glacial drip high in the Swiss Alps and flowing 870 miles northward to the North Sea. Commercial and passenger river ships sail the Rhine River in both directions between Basel, Switzerland, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, transiting Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and France en route.
River water levels are hard to predict and can change quickly with the weather, so last-minute itinerary modifications aren’t unusual. My chosen itinerary was supposed to start in Basel, traveling north; however, low water levels made it unnavigable at the Swiss end, so I met the ship in Speyer, Germany. Spring flooding can make water levels too high for ships to pass under bridges, also affecting cruise itineraries. Cruise companies adjust port calls accordingly and usually transport guests to the original points of interest by luxury motorcoach. My cruise did just that, and I didn’t miss any of the planned destinations. Tip #1: Remain flexible and purchase trip insurance in case you have any out-of-pocket expenses due to the changes.
The onboard experience varies by cruise line but is generally a casually elegant atmosphere. Most river ships carry only 120 to 300 passengers and provide attentive service levels with high crew-to-guest ratios. Tip #2: With this club-like ambiance, it’s easy to meet like-minded travelers and share fun experiences of your day over drinks or dinner. Entertainment is low-key yet engaging — live music, local performers, or a guest lecturer, but no casinos.
A scenic highlight of a Rhine River cruise is the Middle Rhine Valley between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, Germany. The craggy landscape is dotted with numerous romantic castles, charming villages and remote chapels. The many legends and fairytales, including the story of the beautiful maiden Lorelei, will stir your imagination as you take in the picturesque views.
Staterooms usually have floor-to-ceiling windows that open, French or full balconies to optimize the scenic views. Cuisine gives further insight into destinations by featuring regional specialties. Wine is typically included with lunch and dinner and the more upscale lines include open bar all day.
River cruises also offer a variety of complimentary shoreside experiences in each port. Some Germany highlights I enjoyed were:
Speyer: Visit the Romanesque-style Cathedral, the resting place of medieval emperors, and the 12th-century Jewish Ritual Bath, recently inscribed by UNESCO.
Heidelberg: Take a funicular up to the ruins of Heidelberg Castle (Schloss), which houses the largest wine cask in the world. The view from the castle gardens is beautiful.
Mannheim: This important industrial city has considerable shopping opportunities and boasts the second-largest Baroque castle after Versailles. Or trace automotive history at the Carl Benz Automotive Museum.
Rüdesheim: After a miniature train ride through acres of hillside vineyards, visit the Drosselgasse, a narrow, cobbled lane in Old Town that draws three million visitors a year to its many wine gardens, wine bars and restaurants. The Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments is fascinating, too.
Koblenz: In summer, take the cable car for stunning views of the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Marksburg is a medieval castle and former prison, complete with a drawbridge gate and dungeon torture devices.
Cologne: The magnificent High Gothic Cathedral is Germany’s most visited building. Learn about the rise of nationalism at a museum that was once the seat of the Nazi secret police.
Summer is the peak season for cruising the Rhine, although spring and fall offer more temperate weather and fewer crowds. The autumn color makes the already scenic landscape spectacular, or starting late November, you’ll catch all the fabulous Christmas markets, adding another layer of charm to the experience. Tip #3: There really is no bad time for a Rhine River cruise.
If Europe is on your list for 2022 or beyond, river cruising is a delightful way to vacation. Tip #4: Be sure to plan your trip with a travel professional.