It all began with reminiscing about our honeymoon cruise. We'd had such a great time cruising the Caribbean that we decided it was time to do it again. Suddenly, we found ourselves booking a Rhine River cruise.
Rhine River cruise vs. a Caribbean cruise
Living in Panama as we did, we quickly found that few cruises leave out of there. That of course meant that we'd have to fly to Miami, or wherever the cruise left from.
Comparing prices, we decided to head to Europe and soon were asking ourselves, why not try a river cruise? Except for the lack of rough seas, it would be the same thing, right?
Put all your Caribbean memories aside and prepare for a different experience.
Okay, some things are the same.
- It's still true that you get to see a lot of places and you only have to unpack once.
- Lodging and all your meals aboard are included
- There’s free entertainment on board every night
But that's where the similarity ends. When it comes to river cruising,
- Wine is included with lunch and dinner
- There are no boring days at sea where all there is to do is sit by the pool and look at an endless stretch of water.
- On a river cruise, it's all smooth sailing and every day is a new place. Or even, a new country.
- You'll never need medication for a queasy tummy.
- Most of the shore excursions are included in the price.
Choosing a cruise
River cruises can be as exotic as the Mekong, as wild as the Amazon, or as romantic as the Danube. Looking at the list of choices in our search results, we felt like kids in a candy shop. Everything sounded good to us.
Our first step: We considered the cost of getting there. The cruise is one thing; getting to the port is another. It didn't take long to realize that Europe was the most affordable option.
Next step: Find a reputable, affordable cruise line. Thanks to Google and some cruise forums (Cruise Critic was my favorite) we made a list of some with excellent reputations and reviews. It took a bit of time to compare prices, but we finally settled on Viking River Cruises.
Finally: Select the cruise route and date. We soon found out that our choices were limited because most of their most popular routes were completely booked. Who knew they start filling up the year before? Anyway, we finally chose to enjoy a trip on the Rhine River. Our one-week cruise would take us to four countries: Switzerland, Germany, France and Netherlands.
Our Rhine River Cruise
Every cruise port had an included tour. There were four optional tours, quite fairly priced. Certainly they cost less than what our Caribbean cruise line charged for its excursions. Considering the amount we were saving just on that—plus they were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities—we signed up for all four.
Our biggest splurge was on the optional Silver Spirits package (unlimited cocktails, premium wines, beers, espresso drinks, and more). Okay, it wasn't necessary but it sure was nice to have those better local wines at lunch and dinner, with as many refills as we cared to have. Better yet, we could have lattes after dinner and were able to visit the bar whenever we wanted and not worry about an exorbitant bill at the end. We don't drink a lot but we considered it peace of mind insurance.
We had a fabulous time—it was worth absolutely every penny—and we met some wonderful people, some of whom we still keep in touch with.
Below you can see all the places we visited. Though you'll get a taste, what you won't see here are all of Dan's amazing photos. (That would be one LONG post!) The best shots are in each destination's story, so read on and then head over to our photo galleries for even more shots.
DAY 1 – Basel
We started our cruise in Basel on the Rhine River, where Switzerland, France and Germany meet.
DAY 2 – Breisach and the Black Forest
We arrived in Breisach during breakfast, then took a picturesque bus tour through the scenic Black Forest and its rolling hills and dense forests. We stopped to visit a very old, historic abbey and then drove to a local workshop and see a cuckoo clock-making demonstration and eat Black Forest cake. I even got the recipe.
Back to Breisach for lunch on the ship. Then, while some of our shipmates enjoyed an afternoon in town, we took an optional excursion to the quaint Alsatian town of Colmar. To see what our dining companions were raving about we took a short walk through Breisach after dinner. The ship set sail in the late evening.
DAY 3 – Strasbourg
Our ship docked in Kehl while we were sleeping. Today we could take a guided tour of Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament and capital of France's province of Alsace. Our bus took us through a few of the province's quaint villages on the way. They reminded us of Belle's town in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Alsace is a curious blend of French and German culture and we were excited to sample its delicacies.
DAY 4 – Heidelberg and Rüdesheim
On the fourth day we woke up in Mannheim and spent the morning touring Heidelberg University and the ruins of Heidelberg Castle. We then took a walking tour through the city’s Old Town.
We spent the afternoon cruising down the Rhine to Rüdesheim in time for dinner. Some stayed on the ship but we’d signed up for an optional dinner in town. But this wasn’t just any old boring dinner….
DAY 5 – Braubach …
This morning we sailed along the most scenic stretch of the Rhine, where castles overlook the river from their hilltop locations. This part of the Middle Rhine Valley is so beautiful that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We'd also pass the famous Loreley Rock.
… Marksburg …
But it wasn't all cruising. We also were given an opportunity to have a guided tour through one of the castles along the way. It was in great shape, especially for being 700 years old, and I was surprised to learn that people actually still live there!
… and Koblenz
Another short cruise then took us to Koblenz, a pretty town where the Moselle joins the Rhine. What timing! We arrived during the Federal Flower Show and so Viking purchased free tickets into the show for every passenger. That was a bonus we hadn't expected.
DAY 6 – Cologne
Cologne, home of 4711 Eau de Cologne, is just as famous for its Gothic cathedral (another UNESCO Heritage Site). This is where our walking tour of the city ended. We spent a lot of time exploring shops and finally had to return to the shp in the afternoon because our feet hurt.
Our day ended with another optional tour: Bar hopping in order to try kölsch, Germany's only true, all-barley, pale ale.. It's a locally-produced beer that can't be exported.
DAY 7 – Kinderdijk (a UNESCO Heritage Site)
Kinderdijk is a long cruise from Cologne so our morning was spent on board. While we were en route the crew gave us a chance to enjoy some classic Dutch cheeses and sample jenever, a Dutch gin (see the photo above). We also joined a competition in Dutch table shuffleboard and relaxed on the sun deck, just watching the changing scenery.
As home to 19 authentic, working windmills, Kinderdijk has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. We had the unique opportunity to not only learn how the Netherlands continues to keep its below-sea-level land dry but to also explore the inside of an actual working windmill. Dan took lots of photos of its mechanics and a windmill keeper's living quarters, as well as the town of Kinderdijk itself.
DAY 8 – Amsterdam
We were really sorry to wake up on our final day. Sadly, our breakfast in Amsterdam marked the end of our extraordinary tour. We only had the rest of the day to explore Amsterdam because we were leaving for Paris in the morning. And there’s a lot to see in this city.