Getting to the heart of the adventure

River cruises gaining popularity for a reason

By Paul Knowles

By every measurement available, river cruising is gaining in popularity, every year. The stats prove it – and if you ask almost anyone on a river cruise if they prefer it to the large-scale ocean cruise experience, the answer is almost certainly to be “yes”.

Oh, river cruises don’t have all the amenities of an ocean-going cruise ship. There is one lounge that serves as a bar, piano lounge/performance room, and special events venue. There is a top deck and a front deck, and the better rooms have small balconies. There are probably two places to eat – a restaurant and a more informal dining area near the front deck.

On a Viking river cruise, that is the reality. So why do its passengers say they would opt for this, every time?

There are a plethora of reasons. The staff ratio and impeccable service are high on most people’s list. Staffers on river cruises will do almost anything to make sure their passengers are having a good time.

Colmar, France.

There is the fact that these more limited spaces are used to the max – there will be locally inspired special events in the lounge, ranging from cooking demonstrations to an evening of light opera. The on-board entertainer is always a terrific lounge musician.

But mainly, it’s that each day finds you moored at yet another fascinating destination, to be visited on foot or after a short bus ride. No tendering in. No “sea days”. No ports that are indistinguishable, one from the other. From the moment your ship ties up, you are immersed in the real deal – authentic, historic towns and cities, ready to be explored.

Evelyn Kolditz was the highly competent and convivial hotel manager on the Viking Alruna. She says Viking’s goal is constant improvement, always striving to offer an experience that is “exclusive” and “local”.

“We want you to have the best experience,” she says. And she says that the key is quite simple: “Happy crew, happy guests.”

Kolditz has been in her job on the Alruna since the ship was launched, and she loves her boat. “I’m a very proud Viking,” she says.

Viking is doing something right – their fleet is growing annually. The current total of 63 river vessels will grow up another 25 over the next five years.

Steamtram conductor

The “Rhine Getaway” cruise runs from Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland, or vice versa. You visit the French province of Alsace, and several cities and towns in Germany. And it includes day-time travel through the castle-rich area of the Middle Rhine.

One hint: time in Amsterdam and especially Basel may be quite limited. Viking offers pre- and post-cruise tours; sign up, or spend some time on your own visiting sites in The Netherlands and in Switzerland.

On a Viking cruise, your ticket includes at least one excursion every day, at no additional cost. There are other “optional tours” for purchase.

We boarded the Alruna in Amsterdam a few hours before departure; our time in the Netherlands had come in the days prior to the cruise. So our first Viking excursion was on day two, at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kinderdijk, known for 19 beautifully preserved windmills. The tour of a windmill is fascinating, conducted by people who are actually millers. In the Netherlands, that doesn’t mean they grind grain – these windmills were exclusively used to pump water from the low countryside into canals, then rivers, and then the sea.

Viking adds a nice touch on an optional tour, here – you travel to the windmill in a barge used exclusively by Viking.

Day three found us in the fascinating city of Cologne, Germany, where the basic walking tour allows visitors to explore the astonishing Gothic cathedral, spectacular Roman artifacts including an in situ mosaic floor, and pubs selling the popular local beer, Kolsch. An optional evening tour involves a pub crawl!

Day four presents passengers with a challenge. The starting place is the city of Koblenz, and the free excursion will introduce you to that city. But there are two nearby sites that each also deserve a visit – the perfectly preserved 13th century Marksburg Castle, and the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a citadel most recently reconstructed in the early 19th century. We had previously visited Marksburg so this time we rode the gondola up to the fortress, for a fascinating guided tour led by an actor portraying a British army officer of the period.

The Rhine castles cruise day ended in two dining-out opportunities in unique settings. We chose wine tasting and dinner at the Eberbach Monastery – a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Alruna hotel manager Evelyn Kolditz

Day five brought us to Heidelberg, and an included tour of the uber-romantic Heidelberg Castle.

The following day, we were in France, in the cosmopolitan city of Strasbourg. Included is a great walking tour of the Petite France district, and Strasbourg Cathedral. Not surprisingly, given the stellar reputation of Alsatian wine making, there is a wine tour as one option – a good one, with terrific wines to be sampled.

On Day seven, we moored in Breisach, Germany, but travelled by bus to the beautiful small Alsace city of Colmar. One optional tour, which we took, covers the heart of Colmar. Others took an E-Bike tour of the Black Forest, and loved it.

Day eight, on this intinerary, means arrival and disembarkation in Basel, Switzerland.

But we didn’t want to go home, so we stayed in Basel for a couple of days, and then moved to the wonderful small Swiss town, Solothurn.

Basel is known as the “capital of culture”. Explore the galleries, museums and historic churches. If you are there in the summer months, summon up your courage, buy the waterproof, fish-shaped bag called a “Wickelfisch,” don your swim suit, stow your belongings in the fish, and join hundreds of Basel residents as they casually float down the Rhine on their fish. Or at least, be sure to stop and enjoy this local spectacle.

One tip – when you are planning to dine in Basel – or anywhere in Switzerland – check the prices on the menu in advance. Dining out is not inexpensive.

If you have a couple of days, do visit Solothurn, a convenient train ride from Basel. Solothurn is located at the foot of the Jura Mountains; you can hike up, or take a gondola. The town has great restaurants, interesting churches, and an art gallery exhibiting works far beyond the reach of any small Canadian town – a Picasso, a Monet, a Van Gogh, and work by every important Swiss artist.

In Solothurn, stay at the historic La Couronne Hotel, where manager/co-owner Simone Berchtold has nailed the fine art of combining elegance and relaxation.

And whether your cruise begins or ends in Amsterdam, be sure to spend a few days in the Netherlands. If it’s your first visit to Amsterdam, you will want to stay in the city, visiting Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum, and so much more. But if you have been here, venture farther afield. We stayed in The Hague (and visited the terrific Mauritshaus art gallery and the panorama). We spent one day on a perfect itinerary, taking a steam tram from Hoorn (north of Amsterdam) to catch a ferry on the Zuiderzee, which took us to the Zuiderzee Museum at Enkhuizen, a sprawling historic fishing village well populated with costumed interpreters. We also visited Amersfoort Concentration Camp near the town of that name – a sobering and important experience.

The truth is, when you start experiencing the magic of western Europe, you never want to leave. A river cruise is an ideal introduction – four countries in eight days – and with some planning, curiosity, and a few extra days, you can add a great deal of delight to the cruise that lies at the heart of your adventure.

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