By Heidi Sarna.
By the end of our weeklong Rhine River cruise last July, we had forgotten that months earlier my 13-year-old twin boys had grumbled and pleaded for us to do a big ship cruise where they could play Ping-Pong, shoot hoops and zip down a water slide with other teens.
Their transformation to the other side started within minutes of arriving at the 130-passenger River Empress. Turns out my experienced more-erudite-than-I-realized offspring were very impressed that a smiling crew member (who we later realized was the master himself, Captain Henk Plaatje!) trotted up to our taxi the moment we reached the pier to whisk our suitcases onto the vessel. Straight away we were shown to comfy sofas in the fancy main lounge, a sea of damask, brocade and gilded picture frames. We were offered drinks and snacks in silver bowls to while away an hour or two until our cabin was ready. We were happy campers.
My boys loved their cabin across the hall from our identical room, with its large windows peering out just a few feet above the river and nest-like beds covered in thick European-style duvets and huge pillows. Over the week, they enjoyed many on-demand movies on the TV, from Ant Man to Monument Men, Meet the Parents and Gandhi, welcome consolation given the weak Wifi on board ruled out playing on their phones or laptops. Though they were definitely not happy about this initially, they got over it pretty fast and it wound up being a blessing that pushed them to socialize the old fashioned way.
Until fairly recently, river cruises in Europe were strictly a seniors-only affair — all about older couples planted on deck watching the scenery float by with a cup of tea or a glass of rosé. Not anymore. On our sailing there were 39 kids under age 18. Uniworld, like some other companies, including Disney Cruise Line, are offering more special family cruises than ever before, mostly during the summer. In 2017, Uniworld has 22 scheduled.
Europe river cruises work well for families for a few reasons: their intimate size makes it easy to meet to new friends; they stop at one or two ports a day, assuring no one gets stir crazy being on board for too long; many carry bicycles for use in port; and rivers are serene places to sail with little chance for choppy water.
Our “Castles along the Rhine” itinerary from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam was a week of back-to-back visits to medieval towns and cities along both the French and German sides of the Rhine. Each of the seven ports offered some combination of charming timbered buildings painted in bright colors, towering Gothic cathedrals and wending old canals lined with flowers. Walking tours and other excursions in every port are included in the fares, with several designed for kids on our sailing such as an adventure climbing park.
Our favorite stops included Strasbourg, the capital city of the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region of France and a lovely town of cobbled traffic-free lanes and the Grand Île Unesco World Heritage site, an island within the city bordered by canals and home to the 15th-century gothic Strasbourg cathedral and other old churches.
We also loved Speyer, on the German side of the river. Here, we split up, our boys going with a group of other kids and some parents on a guided excursion to a transportation museum to walk on the wing of a retired Boeing 747. My husband and I, along with another couple from the boat, choose a guided tour of the massive and beautiful Speyer Cathedral, dating back to the 11th century and considered artistically and architecturally to be one of the most significant examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. It’s been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1981. After the tour, we headed to the nearby Domhof Hausbrauerei for some liquid refreshments.
In Rudesheim, Germany, we took a cable car ride above the emerald-green hillside vineyards to Niederwald Heights for a nature walk and views of a particularly scenic section of the Rhine Valley. One son joined us for the outing, and the other stayed on board to sleep in. Later that day, the kids especially liked tours of two castles in this region, Rheinstein and Marksburg, where they could climb up inside narrow towers, try on armor and learn about life in medieval times.
The big draw in Cologne was its massive Gothic cathedral with its towering spires and gorgeous stained glass, particularly a modern abstract window by German artist Gerhard Richter that really caught my eye.
The highlight of the week was clearly the two days spent on the gorgeous Middle Rhine, from Rudesheim to Koblenz, the classic region where medieval castles one after another seem to grow out of the steep rocky slopes, in between quilt-like patches of vineyards, deservedly earning the area Unesco World Heritage status.
Bicycling Every Day
A big plus for our family was the option to use the boat’s complimentary bicycles in port. Nearly every day we hopped on one of the sturdy Swiss-made bikes for rides along the paths flanking the river. As the boat only departed Basel in the evening, after lunch on our first day we headed out along the Rhine, towards the center of Basel, pedaling past an arty industrial area, a bustling sunbathing spot and an elegant neighborhood of river-facing mansions. We got up-close views of the popular summertime pastime of “Rheinschwimmen,” when adventurous folks hop into the water for a float down a section of the cold fast-moving Rhine River clutching brightly colored backpack-like waterproof bags sold all over town to keep phones and wallets dry. Another day we signed up for one of the week’s handful of guided tours, the four of us and about 15 others disembarking at Boppard and riding for about 20 kilometers behind the ship’s fitness instructor, to Koblenz. It was a lovely pedal that meandered along the river, through villages and past hillside vineyards. Another day docked in Germersheim, after our excursion in Speyer, I biked solo for an hour along a quiet undeveloped stretch of the river. Bikes are available on every sailing, and extras are brought on board for family cruises (about 40 on our voyage, including child sizes).
Unfortunately, not all of the 1,320-kilometer Rhine is so scenic, including the southern part between Basel and Strasbourg that was canalized in the 1930s and 40s to improve navigability. Industrial complexes with belching smokestacks, especially around Ludwigshafen, Cologne and Dusseldorf, dot other sections of the Rhine. Read more about the history and science of the Rhine HERE.
Luckily during those bits, most people were happy to hit the small gym or spa, attend the once- or twice-weekly lectures (on our cruise, a children’s book author did a reading), or chill in their comfortable cabin. Four suites measure 214 square feet and the rest of the rooms 151 square feet, all with smart fabric wall treatments, marble-clad bathrooms, plush Savoir beds handcrafted in England, and large windows or sliding doors (French balconies) just a few feet above the river. As there are no connecting cabins or triples (as is the case on most river boats), families must book multiple cabins.
While some kids stuck to their parents and others were older teens, on our cruise about 20 formed a vibrant kid community that thrived whenever they were on board, which was usually mid afternoons onwards after the shore excursions wrapped up. From a precocious and popular 5-year-old from England to my guys at the upper end of the age bracket, the band spent many hours in the playroom (the converted library for the week) taking turns playing FIFA soccer video games and generally having a ball, racing back and forth to the big jars of marshmallows and Gummy Bears offered for the week on a marble-topped credenza in the Main Lounge.
Two extra crew members were on board for our family cruise to help supervise the kiddos and special activities like a story-reading session, knot tying, strudel-making class and long kids’ tables at dinner. During the big day zigzagging along the Middle Rhine past all those legendary medieval castles, the kids piled toppings onto still-warm waffles at a mini buffet set up at one end of the sun-drenched top deck, while the adults snapped photos, listened to short narratives on the personal tour-guide devices everyone had been issued, chatted with new friends, soaked up the scenery, and sipped glasses of chardonnay and German lager.
Dinner & After
As a family, we all looked forward to mealtime in the stylish restaurant, with its red leather upholstery, green water glasses, and floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed the river scene to be the backdrop as we ate. At the lunch buffet, my boys gravitated to the pasta with alfredo sauce, fish and chips, carving station, and sandwiches, while mom and dad hit the salad bar and sampled the German options, from Weinershnitzel and potato salad, to sauerkraut and sausages. At dinner, jackets weren’t required but many wore them anyway. Menus featured several options for every course including a regional dish, the likes of a delicious roasted chicken with mushroom gravy, escargot Alsace style with a splash of Reisling, and traditional Blackforest cake. Kids could also choose from their own menu, with classics like macaroni and cheese, and burgers.
For the adults, complimentary red and white wine were generously poured at dinner, usually one or both were German or French from the Alsace region. Before and after dinner each day, we always hit the elegant Main Lounge to relax with a glass or two of the dry and tasty Sekt German sparkling wine, and listen to the talented Cezar sing and play piano. Pre-dinner there was a talk from the cruise director about the following day’s highlights. Post dining, musical acts were brought on board a few nights for the grown-ups, while the kids went back to their virtual soccer tournaments or to the small Patio Lounge down on Deck 1 to play board games and drink hot chocolate from a coffee and drinks machines on call 24/7.
Each day was perfect, as the River Empress with its lovely interiors and excellent service glided down the Rhine to some of Europe’s most charming towns and cities. What a wonderful family holiday.
- Fares include meals, shore excursions, tips, and wine, spirits and soft drinks. Family sailings tend to be higher priced than non-family sailings because there are special activities and excursions offered.
- Basel and Amsterdam are two beautiful and historic cities that are definitely worth a few day’s stay before and after the cruise.
- Bring layers, as summers temps on this itinerary can vary between the 60s in Amsterdam and the 80s and 90s in Basel.
- For more info, see QuirkyCruise’s Uniworld profile or go to www.uniworld.com.
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