Cruising Down the Historic Rhine River
A multi-generational amble down the Rhine River pays dividends for a pair of cruising newbies.
We chat late into the night from perpendicular single beds, jostle for bathroom time in the morning and confess our hopes and dreams for the future—it all sounds like the hallmarks of a classic 1980s John Hughes movie. Except in lieu of Molly Ringwald, I’m giggling with my 72-year-old father from a ship’s stateroom, and those hopes and dreams take shape at the bottom of a whisky glass each night at the bar. But the bartender knows our name here because we’re all part of the same cast. And our cinematic setting takes place onboard a riverboat while we cruise down Germany’s Rhine River. Ours has the makings of a different kind of classic.
River cruising isn’t the first activity that springs to mind when conceiving of the perfect father-daughter trip. My dad, Bill, is an ultra-fit 72-year-old who prefers open spaces and long hikes. I prefer stores that open early and don’t have long lines. And we both value a spontaneity that seems counterintuitive to being stuck on a 443-foot boat. In my mind, cruising was the purview of the sedentary white knee-high-sock set who long for the comfort and impossible-to-place smells of tour buses. But in the past few years, river cruising—the more intimate, erudite cousin of the ocean-going behemoths—has exploded in popularity. Its appeal is tempting—a new port every day, but not having to be one of 5,000-strong disembarking—so we booked passage on Viking Cruises (the world’s largest river cruiser) to amble down the Rhine. We’ll hit the Black Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and visit some breweries in Cologne and, after each adventure, retreat to the comfort of the ship’s bar to decompress against the backdrop of unlimited cocktails.
With Teutonic efficiency, our bags are loaded on the Viking Hlin in our compact 205-square-foot Veranda Stateroom—replete with balcony, two twin beds and heated bathroom floors—which will serve as ground zero for the next week. Before we decamp from the Upper Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, it seems fitting to celebrate with Champagne, so we head to the bar for a kir royale while Angela (pronounced with a Merkel-esque hard g), our resident bartender, suggests Bill switch out his Cardhu order for a more bespoke Balvenie. Drinks in hand on the rooftop deck, we contemplate our impending journey as the anchor is pulled. This wending, navigable waterway’s value as a trade route is clearly evident by all the castles, cathedrals and fortifications dotting its 1,230-kilometre stretch. We’ll take it in bite-size chunks, starting with some Black Forest cake. Literally.
As it turns out, the traditional way to make German Black Forest cake is to go easy on the cherries, heavy on the cream. And there are other lessons learned along the way: we’re in the Brothers Grimm heartland here. Shrouded in mist, all these towering conifers that block out the light served as inspiration for the duo’s iconic fairy tales. Little wonder Hansel and Gretel couldn’t find their way back home.
The next day, we find our own way in the medieval village of Colmar, with its “Little Venice” quarter, attendant gondolas and 13th century Gothic churches. The city overflows with perfect little Alsatian homes and a colourful mix of French and German Renaissance architecture. We’re happy to be free from the rest of the other 190 passengers, so we make a break for the 9th-century cobblestone streets to an out-of-the-way café perched on the water, and for a moment we sit and watch the river go by. Chasing our idyllic midday Gewürztraminer with a stop at the Musée d’Unterlinden, we note its previous iterations as a 13th-century convent and, in 1906, a public bath-house (the Germans’ love of nudity never disappoints) and take a moment to marvel the day. Neither of us has heard much of Colmar before this trip (by which I mean neither of us had heard the name Colmar before this trip), but herein lies the joy of river cruising—it brings you to these hidden gems and, unlike the big ships, they’re not forever changed by the arrival of a scant few curious souls.
In stopovers in larger cities like Cologne, then Strasbourg, then Heidelberg, our impact as cruisers feels non-existent, and while ordinarily just a day would be too brief for exploration, we find that when exploring on our own—something many river cruisers do—we’re able to make quick work of the charmingly crooked alleys and idyllic street cafés and discover the vibe of these historic towns, even if it means we don’t knock off every cathedral. And anything we miss, we hear about that night over local wine when we dine on board with our fellow passengers.
And before you know it, Germany falls way to France, then France to Holland, and a welcome pattern develops before we finish in Amsterdam. In a lot of ways, river cruisers define themselves by what they’re not—namely, ocean cruisers—but by trip’s end, even our now tight-knit group of eight friends on board have developed a relaxed affection for each other. And for the most part, we’ve come from different backgrounds: a jock, a geek, a princess…oh wait, that was The Breakfast Club.
While Viking Cruises has four ocean-going cruise ships, it’s in the river cruise market that it sets the industry standard, with more than 60 vessels in its fleet. The Rhine is a classic option, as is the Danube, but travellers can go as far afield as Russia, Vietnam or Egypt on the small boats. vikingcruises.com