Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Active European River Cruises on the Rhine & Moselle

By John Roberts.

When it comes to the great rivers of Europe, those often enjoyed on a delightful river cruise, the Moselle is too often overlooked.

This stunningly gorgeous river is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s notable for its terraced vineyards that grow some of Germany’s best Riesling.

The Moselle is also where I started my “Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main” river cruise with Emerald Waterways, embarking in the scenic upriver town of Bernkastel-Kues.

Our ship for the week, Emerald Destiny, would take us on a journey to the towns of Cochem and Koblenz before reaching the Rhine River. Then along this great waterway we would visit Miltenberg and Wertheim in the Lower Franconia region of Bavaria and continuing to Wurzburg and Bamberg as we traversed the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

European River cruises with Emerald Waterways

Sporty John alongside the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

The entire voyage was similar in many regards to the more than a dozen European river cruises I have enjoyed on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with walking tours of the towns and villages alongside hearty meals onboard the ship. We also had a full menu of castles, ruins, churches, terraced hillside vineyards and charming towns that provided wonderful eye candy as we sailed lazily along the winding rivers.

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The cruise on Emerald Destiny, however, differed in many important ways to me. I was particularly drawn to try this cruise because of Emerald Waterways’ new EmeraldACTIVE program.

Offered on all of Emerald’s European river cruises, the program offers a wide range of cruise entertainment and activities led by activity managers. Traditionally, river cruises have entertainment offerings that typically include a piano player in the main lounge each afternoon and at night after dinner, as well as a selection of guest performers who come onboard in certain ports to highlight song and dance styles from their region of Europe.

You might also have cooking demonstrations or an activity like a painting class.

However, the EmeraldACTIVE program delivers a more energetic vibe, ideal for families with kids as well as any travelers who are simply young at heart.

Each day, passengers were offered a broad array of cool things to do, from exercises to interactive entertainment, led by our engaging Activity Manager Harry Jordan, who hails from the U.K.

The ship does not have a piano player, by the way. I dove right in to participate in as much as possible, and in fact, I had one of the most fun cruises I have ever had — on the rivers,  or anywhere else, to be honest.

Great beer on a European River cruise

Cheers! * Photo: John Roberts

A Week on the Move

Bernkastel-Kues, our embarkation port, is a small town of just more than 7,000 residents that sits in the Middle Moselle region, the heart of wine-growing Germany. Highlights include the colorful half-timber buildings and the Medieval Market Square.

We kicked off our EmeraldACTIVE week with a 12-mile bike ride around the town and countryside. Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard, and passengers can sign them out for personal use in each port or on guided bike excursions led by local guides.

bicycling on a river cruise in Europe

Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard for personal use or guided rides. * Photo: John Roberts

We docked for an overnight on the bank opposite the bustling town and with the iconic Burgruine-Landshut Castle ruins looming overhead. The castle has been a ruin since a fire in the late 17th century, and Harry led a large group of passengers on a post-lunch afternoon hike to take in the views from high above the river and town. The hike was the second active endeavor of that first full day.

I was really liking the active nature of the cruise so far. I mixed in a morning run, as well, to round out my day.

jogging along the Rhine River

John works in a quick jog whenever he can! * Photo: John Roberts

The full scope of the EmeraldACTIVE program became clear during that evening when Harry, who is a trained singer and dancer, gave his “Not Quite Diamond” cabaret performance in the ship’s main lounge. Harry ran down a nearly complete list of all the Neil Diamond classics, teasing us until the very end when he feigned signing off for the night with one notable omission from his song list. Alas, the night was complete when we all joined in to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” before finishing off our cocktails and heading back to our cabins.

Harry the cruise manager of Emerald Destiny

The multi-talented and multi-tasking activity manager Harry Jordan. * Photo: John Roberts

The EmeraldACTIVE program also features a lineup of fitness-focused sessions. Pilates took place outside on the Sun Deck; morning stretching classes were in the lounge; and yoga and aqua aerobics were conducted in the indoors pool area. (Emerald Destiny’s large indoor pool with a sun roof can be opened in good weather conditions.)

You also can enjoy petanque, a game similar to boules,  as well as golf putting competitions on the Sun Deck.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Pilates on the Sun Deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Activities for all Fitness Levels

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer a wellness program and onboard wellness hosts, and that line’s programming is decidedly more challenging and aimed at exercise fanatics.

Related:  John’s QuirkyCruise article about his AmaWaterways fitness cruise.

But the Emerald Waterways program has more activities and a broader appeal — designed mostly to keep people entertained and interacting with one another.

The activity manager is essentially a co-cruise manager. The position adds a lot of value for passengers, says Ray Muehlbauer, corporate cruise director for Emerald Waterways.

“What our Activity Managers do is probably five main categories,” he says. “One is the EmeraldACTIVE program, supporting it together with the professional guides. That helped us massively because now we have the guides and someone from the ship who can help the guests and answer any questions.

Ray Muehlbauer

Ray Muehlbauer. * Photo: John Roberts

“Plus, all the wellness activities. We’ve had requests from people to be able to do morning stretch, yoga, Pilates and maybe some mild walking on the deck. On top of that, we do onshore activities (like the hike in Bernkastel-Kues) to show the guest a little more of the towns and cities. Maybe take them to a beer garden or something like that, or for bike rides, hikes, walks — whatever the city has to offer.

“When we’re cruising, we we provide nightly entertainment and game shows, trivia, karaoke, passenger talent shows and dance classes, you name it.”

I had fun doing  yoga, daily runs, bike rides, walks and hikes during the days in port. But it was indeed the daily afternoon and night-time activities that made this cruise a standout.

Most activities were well-attended, with more than a dozen passengers participating in the putting contests and Pilates sessions. The trivia sessions were packed and lively in the main lounge. A handful joined me as Harry led yoga and water aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a river cruise in Europe

Water aerobics is one of the many ways to keep fit and active on the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

That said, most passengers I mingled with didn’t book this cruise because of the focus on activities, though it was a bonus for many who enjoy being active and maintaining some daily fitness regimen.

The crescendo of the whole voyage, however, was the ship’s end-of-week disco dance party. Harry spun tunes as DJ, and the dance floor was packed with 70-plus people at a time. It was raining men, indeed — and women and crew members — as we were heaving and whirling all around the floor with arms pumping late into the evening.

entertainment on a European river cruise

Harry’s singing was a big hit! * Photo: John Roberts

The Week’s Itinerary

After leaving Bernkastel-Kues, it was on to Cochem, home of the imperial Cochem Castle and its majestic views over the Moselle Valley.

Cochem Castle on a river cruise

The beautiful Cochem Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I began my day with run along the river before joining the walking tour of the town and shuttle ride up to the castle, which I think has the most picturesque and iconic river views of any destination along the Moselle or Rhine Rivers. We were blessed with an especially sunny day, which made the image even more stunning.

European river cruise castles

Check out the view from the castle! * Photo: John Roberts

Europe river cruise excursions

Stunning Cochem views! * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Destiny set sail at 1 p.m., and we enjoyed lunch and activities onboard as we journeyed toward Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine. A few of us went out for an evening walk and a couple beers in Koblenz.

The next day, passengers rode the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress during a drizzly morning. I ran across a bridge crossing the Rhine and then up to the fortress before taking the cable car back.

At noon, we set sail for Miltenberg. This period of afternoon cruising took us through the Middle Rhine Gorge, always a highlight of a Rhine River Cruise, as you get to pass the famed Lorelei rock and dozens of historic villages, castles and ruins.

Sailing continued overnight and into the next morning before we arrived at Miltenberg for a city tour and short hike up to Miltenberg Castle. The ship then sailed and we would meet it later as in Wertheim. We were free to carry on with our adventures in these two splendid German towns.

Miltenberg views

Views from the Miltenberg Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I was able to break off for a quick run after our tour in Miltenberg, and when we arrived in Wertheim, I found a secluded hiking route up to the castle there. The weather was hot, and by the end of the day, after exploring the two cities, I was more than ready for a hearty dinner and cold beers back onboard Emerald Destiny.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner on board with a view. * Photo: John Roberts

Harry delivered his second cabaret act after dinner, sending us off the bed with the songs of the Rat Pack still on repeat in our heads.

Our ship arrived in Wurzburg harbor the next morning, and after a morning stretch session with Harry, passengers were off to tour the Wurzburg Residence — a UNESCO World Heritage site and a beautiful baroque palace — and a visit one of the country’s oldest and largest winery for a tasting session.

exercising on board a European river cruise

Harry’s morning stretch class was a great way to start the day. * Photo: John Roberts

We had free time to explore the historic old town area of Wurzburg, and many from our ship settled in for a glass of wine and snacks or a sausage at a café or wine bar near the Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrucke), while some ventured to the Market Square to pick up souvenirs and sweets.

We then sailed from late afternoon until the next morning until we reached Bamberg. During the evening, we enjoyed a festive time on Emerald Destiny with the farewell gala dinner featuring choices of Chateaubriand (roasted beef filet) or salmon and chorizo, followed by Baked Alaska for dessert.

Afterwards, dozens of people hit the dance floor as Harry played DJ for Disco Night. I have never seen such enthusiastic passenger participation on the dance floor. We worked up a sweat and sang along to familiar hits from the 70s and 80s.

In Bamberg, another city tour was on tap. The ship arrived after lunch, and we shuttled to town to explore the cathedral, a garden and other sights.

Bamberg visit on a Europe river cruise

Pretty Bamberg. * Photo: John Roberts

Bamberg's lovely gardens

Bamberg’s lovely gardens. * Photo: John Roberts

But the highlight on this day would a sampling of the city’s famed “smoke beer.” The stout dark brew owes its smoky flavor to the process that uses malted barley dried over an open flame. We all washed down a couple salty pretzels with the cold and flavorful beers.

beer and pretzels in Europe

Beer & pretzels in Bamberg * Photo: John Roberts

This unique taste of Germany was a pleasant way to toast the end of a great voyage with new friends — half of our week’s 170 passengers were from the U.S., with a quarter each from the U.K. and Australia.

The next morning, the journey would end in Nuremberg, and we would all go our separate ways, but with fond memories of a special trip.

Related: John’s QuirkyCruise article about his sporty Ponant & Backroads cruise to New Zealand.

Onboard Emerald Destiny

The ship carries up to 182 passengers in 92 staterooms (two solo cabins), and it basically owns the standard design you’ll find among almost every other European river ship. There are four decks, a Sun Deck up top, small gym, main dining room and a bar/lounge area that also has a small library and coffee area.

Emerald Destiny does Europe River cruises

The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, on the left * Photo: John Roberts

But Emerald Destiny and all other Emerald Waterways ships are unique with a large indoor pool at the back of the ship. This space was my favorite aside from being out on the Sun Deck.

The pool area has loungers with soft cushions, foot stools and a bar. There is a swim-against jet in the large pool (4.5 feet deep), and the activity manager offers aqua aerobics classes in the water and yoga sessions on the pool deck. The roof opens above the pool when the weather is nice. The pool area also serves as a movie theater at night, as the water is drained and pool floor raised to provide more seating. A screen drops down, and a surround-sound system offers the perfect environment as you can watch select recent releases each night.

small pool on a European river boat

Emerald Destiny’s pool area is impressive. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge also offers plenty of comfy seating, and an area near the front of the lounge offers bar-style seating or tables so you can enjoy the views over cocktails or during lunch or breakfast. A small buffet is set up daily in the lounge for a lighter breakfast and lunch option.

pretzels on a river cruise in Europe

Snacks … pretzels of course! * Photo: John Roberts

An outside deck at the bow in front of the lounge is also available with a few lounge chairs, and this is a relaxing spot to enjoy the scenery as you sail or navigate locks.

Cabins are spacious and comfortable enough, with plenty of storage. Minibar drinks and snacks come with an added fee, but water bottles are replenished in your room as needed. You don’t have a full walkout balcony but a flexible indoor/outdoor space that converts with the touch of a button that drops down the glass to railing level so you can enjoy the fresh air and views.

cabin view on European river cruises

The view from John’s cabin balcony. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the Emerald Destiny’s public areas and cabins!

Meal Time

The main restaurant features a breakfast and lunch buffet with select featured menu items daily. The highlight of the voyage for many was the traditional Bavarian lunch feast put out as we sailed from Miltenberg to Wertheim. This featured sausages, pork loin, sauerkraut, spaetzle and pretzels — with servers circulating around the room handing out mugs of German lager at a furious pace.

beer mugs on a Europe river cruise

Mugs of beer were plentiful. * Photo: John Roberts

Dinner includes appetizers, soups, main courses (meat, fish and vegetarian choices) and desserts. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included in your fare for lunch and dinner.

Some of the delicacies we enjoyed: onion soup, mushroom risotto, forest mushroom cappuccino, trilogy of lamb, breaded hoki fish filet, pork tenderloins, poke bowl (tofu) and sliced duck breast and leg.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Desserts included panna cotta, pumpkin seed parfait and Black Forest cake.

I found the service to be excellent, and the crew always on the lookout for how they can help and ready with a friendly greeting and smile. This was a nice change from lukewarm hospitality I have seen on other river cruises in recent years.

I should note that the itinerary, sailing from the Moselle and on through to the Rhine-Main-Danube on the way to Nuremberg takes you through numerous locks and under low bridges such that the Sun Deck is off limits to passengers for most of the latter stages of the cruise. This could be a disappointment if you aren’t aware of this detail on these itineraries. However, Emerald Destiny handles this nicely by offering the pool area as an alternative, with wonderful panoramic views and an open roof to the skies above.

Next time you’re on an Emerald Waterways European river cruise, head out back to the pool, and you just might find me there again.

QuirkyCruise Review



In a nutshell, John says …

writer John Roberts

John Roberts

Why Go?
  • Emerald Waterways has carved out a space offering affordable and higher-energy fun river cruises.
  • The new EmeraldACTIVE program ensures passengers will always find an activity to keep them entertained and engaged.
  • The indoor pool (it transforms into a cinema at night) is a highlight of an attractive and comfortable ship, and service stands out.

At 182 passengers, the space-per-passenger ratio is a bit smaller than on the spacious boats of the luxury river cruise lines.

Video Overview:



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New Viking Einar Impresses

New Viking Einar Impresses A First Timer

By Judi Cohen.

This was my first ever Europe river cruise, and I was awed the moment I stepped into the spacious and bright two-story atrium of Viking Cruises’ 190-passenger Viking Einar.

The natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and the reflection of the water danced with the light woods, the beige and blue carpeting, the woven fabric on the walls, and the large artworks to create a warm, yet dramatic, environment.

I was aboard Viking Einar last month for the boat’s naming festivities and afterwards, a four-night mini Rhine cruise. Click here for the Naming story.

Judi on Sun deck of the Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 Pretty Public Spaces

The Viking Einar is typical of Viking’s fleet of 72 longships, though Richard Riviere, the architect and veteran designer of the fleet, explained to me that each vessel has minor design differences, from the color of bathroom tiles and fabrics, to the type of wood flooring.

Judi and Viking Cruises Designer Richard Riveire in the Einar’s Lounge.

The Atrium

As on many boats and ships, large and small, the Einar’s atrium was the hub of activity. The reception, gift shop, concierge and blond Scandinavian wood and fabric chairs were all found here. Looking up to the second level above was a small library with sofas, two computer workstations, and a 24-hour refreshment nook with coffee, tea and cookies.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Upper level of atrium looking down. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Aquavit Terrace

The Einar was designed with a rounded bow to create an indoor/outdoor lounge and viewing area called the Aquavit Terrace at the stern, where I spent much of my time. Some days I enjoyed dining alfresco on the Aquavit Terrace at breakfast and lunch, and then returning in the evening for a glass of wine to watch our transit through the Rhine’s many locks.

Aquavit Terrace on the Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

From the Aquavit Terrace, I could easily go up to the sundeck for a 360-degree view and check out the boat’s well-manicured organic herb garden (used for cooking on the ship), walking track, putting green, and shuffleboard.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Sundeck with Organic Herb Garden. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Lounge and Bar

Before dinner, passengers gathered for cocktails and a catch-up on the day’s activities in the spacious lounge and bar on the upper deck. Many made the most of their time while aboard the ship at the bar with its signature “clinker” overlapping wood-plank-on-wood-plank design harkening back to early Viking boat-building techniques.

With the aid of a large video screen, the cruise director briefed us on the following day’s schedule and shore excursion options.

The lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides, was also a lovely space to work and gaze at the scenery as the ship made its way along the river.

On our final night, a four-piece orchestra played Bach and the Hungarian Czarda, and everyone seemed to enjoy it very much.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Delightful Dining

Located on the middle deck, the restaurant offered one dinner sitting for all guests. Open for breakfast and dinner daily, the restaurant was bright with large floor-to-ceiling windows and comfortable blond wood tables and chairs. There was plenty of space between tables for circulation and service.

The buffet area in the centre of the restaurant featured white granites and steel, and was approachable from all sides, with space in the middle for the chefs. This is where I ordered my omelettes every morning. The service was wonderful, and by the second day I didn’t even have to say how I wanted my omelette made! There were loads of fresh fruit, plus yogurts, nuts, smoked salmon, bacon, open-face Danish sandwiches, and all sorts of breads and pastries.

The dinner menu offered “classics” that were always available including a rib eye steak, poached Norwegian salmon, and roast chicken with a Caesar salad. Dessert choices included creme brûlée, cheese, seasonal fruit, and ice cream. Beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner are included in cruise fares.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Norwegian salmon dinner. * Photo: Judi Cohen

There were also options that changed daily, and I typically ordered from the three-course tasting menu with recommended wine pairing. The honey and rosemary rack of lamb with a potato gratin was outstanding as was the three-onion soup prepared Lyonnais style with punchy provolone and gruyere cheeses.

The Surf and Turf, with lobster-au-gratin and slow cooked beef, was paired with the sommelier’s recommendation of Valleta Barbera d’Alba Schloss, a full-bodied red wine — they were perfectly matched.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Surf and Turf dinner in the Restaurant of the Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Being a dessert fan, I could not resist trying the specialty every night. From the mango lassi cake with chia passion fruit sauce, to the Heisse Liebe, a vanilla parfait with crunchy nougat and raspberry sauce, I enjoyed each burst of unique flavour.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Mango cake with ice cream. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Cabins

The Viking Einar’s 95 outside cabins were located on the first three of the boat’s four decks, comprising 25 standard cabins, 22 French balcony cabins, 39 veranda cabins, seven veranda suites and two explorer suites. There are no inside cabins aboard the Viking longships.

Most cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows or doors, while the water-level cabins on the main deck have smaller windows at the top of the outside wall.

My cabin (309) was a Category B, 205-square-foot Veranda cabin located mid-ship on the upper deck, making it very easy to get to the atrium and central staircase. I found the closet and drawer space generous and loved the heated bathroom floor, mirror, and flat-screen TV.

The light wood counters above the dresser drawers and desk provided ample space to work along with a comfortable chair. When I wanted a break, I could sit on my private balcony and watch the world slowly float by.

The white fluffy towels and crisp linens made me feel like I was in a fancy hotel. In fact, my daughter Face-timed me, and I showed her my cabin. She could not believe I was on a river boat and not in a Four Seasons Hotel!

Judi’s Balcony Cabin 309. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Ports

While the ship was a beauty, the food excellent, and my cabin very comfortable, the highlights of the mini-cruise were the ports and shore excursions. There were tours offered in each port, but it was also easy to walk along the short gangway from the ship directly onto a sidewalk. With temperatures between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with sunny skies, all I needed was a light down jacket.

Rhine cruises typically start in early April and for me, it was a perfect time to go.  Ahh…springtime in Europe!!

Flower Garden in Old City of Mainz, Germany

Flower Garden in the old quarter of Mainz, Germany. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On this four-day mini-cruise, we sampled some of the ports visited on a full cruise including Basel in Switzerland and Strasbourg, France, along with Heidelberg and Mainz in Germany.

The full 7-night “Rhine Getaway” cruise would also visit Breisach, Cologne and Koblenz in Germany, and Kinderdijk and Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

In each port, the fare includes one two- to six-hour shore excursion, usually a walking tours and sometimes via bus. Optional excursions are available including “Privileged Access” tours at an additional charge, such as “The Hermitage Behind Closed Doors” ($129 USD pp) in St. Petersburg. It starts with a private tour of the museum’s public collection followed by a transfer to an off-site location with an art historian to learn something about the millions of pieces of art, furniture, gifts to Russian royalty and imperial carriages that are held in secured vaults.

In Prague, a half-day “Privileged Access” excursion visits the “Lobkowicz Palace” ($119 USD pp), the residence of one of the region’s most avid patrons of the arts. Learn about the 400-year Lobkowicz family history and enjoy lunch in the family’s original living quarters and then a private concert in the Baroque concert hall.

Basel, Switzerland

This was our embarkation point with the vessel docked only a 15-minute walk from the city centre. Shuttles ran regularly as well. During the walking tour in Basel I loved seeing the blend of old and new buildings with colourful trams running in all directions from the centre.

Basel, Switzerland’s Old Quarter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The large red sandstone 15th-century Basel Minster cathedral dominates the old town, and the streets are full of small shops selling unique Swiss trinkets like cow bells, cuckoo clocks, swiss flags, and other handicrafts.

Many fine jewelry stores, including the iconic Patek Philippe watch store, were located throughout the old city.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Basel, Switzerland. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Strasbourg, France

Leaving the ship around 9am allowed a full day to enjoy this historic and colourful city. The morning excursion began with a short scenic bus ride from the port to Strasbourg’s historic old town. The bus took us along streets of well-pruned trees where storks sat in giant nests.

We passed university areas, parks and churches, as we made our way to Petite France, a historic quarter on Strasbourg’s tiny “Grande Ile” island, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We meandered along Petite France’s canals, admiring the half-timbered houses and cobblestone roads lined with tiny shops and buildings.

Being a foodie, I was thrilled that the afternoon optional “Taste the Best of the Alsace” excursion ($189 USD pp) started with lunch in a charming French restaurant, and included eating opportunities as we strolled through Petite France. We visited gingerbread bakeries, macaron and chocolate shops, high-end fromageries (one with the largest cheese bell in the world!), and wine stores.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Judi’s all day “Taste of Alsace in Strasbourg” * Collage: Judi Cohen

Our taste tour culminated with our group seated at a long wooden table in one of the quaint Alsace wine shops, feasting on everything we had bought along the way.

The afternoon tour concluded with a wonderful “behind the scenes” private organ concert in the 13th-century Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral; a visit to the cathedral is included on many tours but rarely an actual concert. WOW! Imagine being one of only 30 people in this majestic space to hear the organist play for almost an hour. It was truly magical. Listen to Judi’s video below!


Heidelberg, Germany

We had a full day in one of Germany’s oldest, and in my opinion, most romantic cities: Heidelberg. Following a short 20-minute bus ride from the port in Mannheim up a winding road to the 12th-century Heidelberg Castle, we enjoyed a walking tour around the red-sandstone ruins of the Renaissance-style complex high above the old town.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The ruins of Heidelberg’s impressive hilltop castle. Some sections date back to the 12th century. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We then drove down to the old town to see the 14th-century Heidelberg University (Germany’s oldest university, with some 56 Nobel Prize winners as alumni) to walk around the Baroque-style old quarter with its narrow cobbled streets.

In the town there are several memorials to the Holocaust, one that caught my attention were the stumbling stones (Stolpersteine in German) placed in front of buildings where the Nazis removed residents for transport to the death camps. Each concrete block bears a brass plate inscribed with the name of a victim persecuted and killed by the Nazis, and the date and place of death.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Heidelberg’s moving “Stumbling Stones” (Stolperstein) * Photo: Judi Cohen

During our bus ride along the Neckar River back to the Einar we saw well-manicured private homes and many old vaulted bridges.

The Einar was now docked in Worms, Germany, for our onward short sail to Mainz, Germany.

Mainz, Germany

Mainz was our last port of call. Docked right in front of City Hall and the major shopping area of Mainz, we were met by our guides and taken for a brief walking tour in the city centre to see the flower gardens and the thousand-year-old St. Martin’s Cathedral and under renovation. The town square was packed with restaurants and crowds enjoying the sunset with drinks and food.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The city center of Mainz, Germany. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our tour continued to the Gutenberg Museum with a private visit to see two of the famous 15th-century Gutenberg Bibles kept in a security vault. We were also given a demonstration of how early printing was done during the time of Johannes Gutenberg and saw some of the historic printing presses. Fascinating!

As our mini-cruise was, sadly, over, the following morning I headed to the Frankfurt Airport, (a short 45-minute drive) for my flight home to Toronto.

New Viking Einar Impresses

New Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

It was a whirlwind of a week immersing myself in the Viking brand of river cruising aboard the newly christened Viking Einar.

I must admit I am hooked on “The Viking Way” and I look forward to another Viking river cruise one day soon.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Until next time! 🥂

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Anne Hanifen from the USA.

Cruise Line

Viking River Cruises.


Viking Lofn.


Rhine River.

# of Nights


Departure Date & Ports

June 2017, Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland; stopping at German and French ports along Rhine River.

Overall Rating

5 out of 5 stars  (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

Have you been on a small ship cruise before?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.


For our first family cruise we took a seven-day Viking Rhine river excursion from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland.  Although there was an option to stay in Amsterdam for three days prior to embarkation, we opted to add three days in Lucerne, Switzerland at the end of the cruise.  Thankfully, we had the afternoon to see some of Amsterdam before the ship departed around midnight as Viking provided shuttles into the city and tours all day.  After a long flight it was a treat to have easy access to the city and an opportunity to explore a bit.

With 50 crew members aboard the Viking Lofn, the approximately 190 passengers were taken care of well.  Our state rooms on the upper deck were modern with small balconies, air conditioning, internet (spotty at times) and television (not a lot of movie options for our teenagers).  We all enjoyed the complimentary fresh baked goods, coffee, tea and cocoa available in the common area all day.  The dining on board was exceptional with many wines, cooking demonstrations and delicacies from the local areas we visited.  Though the menu choices changed daily, there were certain items that pickier eaters could always order.

Traveling between ports primarily overnight was quiet and relaxing, while each day offered new places to explore.  Transportation, local guides and access to historic sites were all included.  Passengers could tour on their own, remain on board, or participate in the well-organized included tours.  For a fee, Viking offered additional tours at many of our stops along the Rhine.  We added a tour of the medieval village of Colmar, which was charming with canals, half-timber houses and Alsatian architecture.  Our daughters aged 15 and 18 were old enough to appreciate the history and culture of all the sites we visited.  One of our favorite days was spent touring the Marksburg castle in the morning and lounging on the upper sundeck in the afternoon as we cruised past numerous castles perched above the scenic Rhine.

At the end of the cruise, Viking provided transportation for those traveling on to Lucerne and booked us in a gorgeous hotel overlooking the lake.  Viking maintained staff in the hotel lobby to arrange activities as well as transportation to the airport in Zurich for our return flight.  Viking took care of every detail and the service was fantastic.  The cruise was excellent from start to finish and we would happily travel with Viking again.


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By Heidi Sarna.

The storied, romantic Rhine is one of the world’s most legendary rivers — a muse for artists and writers, a snaking siren to lovelorn sailors, and a coveted cruising destination. Along with the Danube, it’s also served as a vital waterway for trade, invasions and defence since the Holy Roman Empire. More recently, during WWII, the Rhine was a much fought over frontier between the Allied and Axis powers. Over the centuries, major cities developed along its banks, from Basel, Switzerland, to Strasbourg, France, and Germany’s Mannheim, Mainz, Bonn, Cologne and Dusseldorf where prestigious universities and important industries thrived. Today, the cities delight visitors with their flower-lined canals, and medieval half-timbered buildings and cathedrals.

The scenic Middle Rhine from a hilltop castle. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The scenic Middle Rhine from a hilltop castle. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

One of Europe’s longest rivers at 820 miles (or 1320 Kilometers*), the Rhine begins in the Swiss Alps, born of glacial ice and snow. It rushes down steep slopes, taking the form of waterfalls and rapids — hence it’s no surprise that “Rhine” is a Celtic and Gaulish word meaning “raging flow.” ­From its origins, the Rhine passes through remote forests and travels into and out of huge lakes, taking a sharp turn west at the foot of the Alps, ever twisting along its course until reaching Basel, at the junction of the Swiss, French and German borders. At different points, the Rhine forms the border between countries: Switzerland and Lichtenstein, Switzerland and Austria, and Switzerland and Germany. It separates France and Germany for just over a hundred miles between Basel and just south of Karlsruhe.

Photo Credit: Tauck

Photo Credit: Tauck

It is from Basel that the Rhine becomes navigable all the way to the North Sea. From Basel north to Bingen, the river is called the Upper Rhine and it proceeds on a flatter, calmer, tree-lined path, in part because the Rhine has been canalized and straightened over the past two centuries; in this section river boats will pass through 10 locks. Between Bingen and Bonn (just south of Cologne), the Middle Rhine is that fabled 90-mile stretch of castles and vineyards, largely original, deeply incised and forever winding. Finally, at Bonn, the Lower Rhine continues north and eventually splits into several named tributaries in the delta region of The Netherlands to empty into the North Sea. On a typical weeklong cruise, roughly two days are spent in each region. For a list of river cruise lines that ply the Rhine, click HERE.

Not all of the Rhine is scenic. Industrial complexes with belching smokestacks, especially around Ludwigshafen, and north of the Rhine Valley, around Cologne, Dusseldorf and the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart, flank some sections of the Rhine. Luckily this grey commercial landscape is confined to a few spots, and it should be noted that much of this region drives Germany as Europe’s economic powerhouse.

An industrial area along the Lower Rhine, as seen from a river cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

An industrial area along the Lower Rhine, as seen from a river cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Besides other tourist boats, another frequent sight are commercial barges carrying heaps of coal (Germany still relies on coal power for a lot of its energy), chemicals, oil, ore, new cars, and other cargo. Some barges, privately-owned and the equivalent of water-going 18-wheelers, are also home so look for barking dogs, flower boxes and cars parked behind the living quarters and wheelhouse.

* The exact length of the Rhine seems to be up for grabs; another popular figure found online is 764 miles or 1,230 kilometers, the later of which is supposedly a transposition of the “3” and the “2.”

Canalizing & Straightening of the Rhine

A good part of the Upper Rhine, roughly between Basel and Strasbourg, was redirected, straightened and/or canalized (with locks) at various points over the past two centuries to improve navigability and make inland shipping and water management more predictable. Varying weather conditions in the Alps, for instance, mean a winter with too much ice and snow can cause flooding, while too little leads to low water levels, with the depth of the Rhine ranging between 5 and 35 feet. To offset this and make conditions more reliable, the Rhine’s original curves were cut off like the elbows of a bent arm, not dissimilar to what happened to the Lower Mississippi when it was straightened and kept in check by levees.

Passing through one of the 10 locks on a typical 7-night Rhine itinerary. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passing through one of the 10 locks on a typical 7-night Rhine itinerary. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

In his 2006 book, “The Rhine,” Hydrologist Thomas P. Knepper goes into great detail about how the Rhine has been altered. Here’s an excerpt:

“For centuries, man has been seeking to control the rivers. With the growth of cities and the expansion of industries, the river landscape has inevitably become an artificial landscape, with considerable difference between various river branches. Although the rivers today are far from natural, they probably cannot be completely controlled by man, which is demonstrated by unexpected floods and inundations.

The Rhine has created a number of problems in the past, particularly in the regions of the Upper Rhine, the Lower Rhine and the Delta Rhine. To address all of these problems, extensive river improvement schemes began in the 19th century. Main channels were systematically fixed and narrowed, navigation channels were dredged, sandbanks were removed, groynes [structures that stop sediment] were created to fix the riverbanks, and the rivers straightened at necessary points.

In other parts of the river, particularly in the Netherlands, dikes were erected. The oldest dikes on the Dutch river system were built in the 10th century. By 1450, the great rivers had been more or less completely diked.”

Cruising Between Basel & Amsterdam

Most Rhine River cruises last a week and ply between Basel and Amsterdam. Many travelers tack on a few days at either end using the cruise lines’ pre-/post-cruise hotel packages or creating their own. Amsterdam is a wonderful city of museums and gorgeous architecture, a necklace of canals, and with a vibrant street life thronged with pedestrians and zillions of bicycles. As a welcome bonus, its airport makes a convenient gateway.

Amsterdam, what else but canals and bicycles. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Amsterdam, what else but canals and bicycles. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Underrated and less known, riverside Basel’s lovely old town is a treasure trove of stunning medieval buildings. In summer, “Rheinschwimmen” is a popular activity in Basel, when adventurous souls float down the cold fast-moving river clutching brightly-colored, locally bought waterproof bags to hold their phones, wallets and stuff, bobbing along like fishing floats for 15 or 20 minutes until they climb out and do it all over again. (A good place to enter the river is behind the Tinguely Museum, and then exit out of the ramps or ladders that line the northern banks — just follow the crowd).

"Rheinschwimmen" in Basel. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

“Rheinschwimmen” in Basel. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

For those who choose to fly in or out of Zurich, Switzerland, the country’s best-connected airport, or Lucerne, they tend to spend a few days in one of these beautiful, historic lake cities — both about a two-hour drive or 1-hour train ride from Basel.

The Rhine Valley: The Star of the Show

The gorgeous Middle Rhine, or Rhine Valley, is the highlight of the cruise, with two days spent soaking up the beauteous glory between Rudesheim and Koblenz, a feast of medieval castles one after another popping into view atop the river’s steep rocky slopes and interrupted by quilt-like patches of emerald-green vineyards. This outstanding section has deservedly earned the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage site. See old toll towers, some perched imperiously atop rocky outcroppings, where tariffs were once collected before the boats could pass.

The castles of the Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The castles of the Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The legendary Lorelei is a craggy cliff that towers over a deep, narrow and at one-time dangerous section of the Middle Rhine. It once held a powerful sway over sailors who imagined there to be a beautiful mermaid in the rocks beckoning them with her alluring song, and causing ships to come to grief. From the early 19th century to current times, the mythical siren and the desire she stirred have inspired an endless procession of poems, paintings and the late 19th-century opera Lorelei.

Throughout this stretch, besides the many day and hotel-style river boats, campsites — clusters of neat and tidy tents and RVs — pop up along the banks paying homage to the gorgeous landscape.

The gorgeous Middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The gorgeous Middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A Rhine River Cruise is a UNESCO World Heritage Fest

Besides cathedrals and the old quarters of many port towns and cities on a Rhine Cruise being designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, in 2002, the 40-mile (65-km) Middle Rhine Valley region between Bingen und Koblenz was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Here’s an excerpt from the world body (

“As a transport route, the Rhine has served as a link between the southern and northern halves of the continent since prehistoric times, enabling trade and cultural exchange, which in turn led to the establishment of settlements. Condensed into a very small area, these subsequently joined up to form chains of villages and small towns, and for over 1,000 years the steep valley sides have been terraced for vineyards.

The landscape is punctuated by some 40 hilltop castles and fortresses erected over a period of around 1,000 years. Abandonment and later the wars of the 17th century left most as picturesque ruins. The later 18th century saw the growth of sensibility towards the beauties of nature, and the often dramatic physical scenery of the Middle Rhine Valley, coupled with the many ruined castles on prominent hilltops, made it appeal strongly to the Romantic movement, which in turn influenced the form of much 19th century restoration and reconstruction.

Thanks to the relatively modest leeway given by the natural landscape of the Middle Rhine Valley to the people inhabiting it, this section of the river has undergone fewer changes than others. As a result, but also thanks to various early attempts to protect the landscape and its historical monuments, the landscape has remained largely untouched. And so, many of the features and elements that lend the area its authenticity have been preserved. However the railways that run along the valley contribute to the noise pollution in the Valley, which is a problem that needs to be mitigated.”

Pretty Port Highlights

Most river cruises offer guided walking tours in each port as part of the fares, plus another optional tour or two to a vineyard, castle or notable city or town further afield.

Breisach, for Colmar. It’s a 30- to 40-minute bus ride from Breisach to charming Colmar, a compact French city in the heart of the Alsace wine region. The city’s old town is lovely, with colorful half-timbered houses, flowers everywhere and historic treasures like the 13th-century St. Martin’s Cathedral and the 14th-century Gothic Maison Adolph house. Colmar is also the birthplace of Statue of Liberty sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.

Kehl, for Strasbourg. One of the highlights of the week is gorgeous Strasbourg, an Alsatian city on the French side of the Rhine. Its historic center is actually an island, called Grande Île, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site with no shortage of half-timbered houses and flower-lined canals — the photo ops are endless. The city’s impressive Gothic cathedral has a tower you can climb for sweeping views of the city.

Stunning Strasbourg. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Stunning Strasbourg. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Germersheim, for Speyer. It’s a short bus ride to Speyer, a lovely small town whose big star is Europe’s largest Romanesque cathedral, the massive 1,000-year-old Speyer Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s also a local brewery, Domhof Hausbrauerei, that’s definite worth a visit for a pint or two. Some lines offer day trips to beautiful Heidelberg on the Neckar River, with its 14th-century university.

Rudesheim am Rhein. Classic Germany, admire the vineyards that line the hilly river banks surrounding this charming and popular riverside village, known for its 15th-century Drosselgasse cobblestoned lane lined with half-timbered shops and restaurants. Many folks choose to take the cable car up (you can also walk) to the top of the slope for an hour’s trek through the Niederwald forest with panoramic viewing points of the Rhine Valley below, and then down again via ski lift at the village of Assmannshausen.

Over the grapes and down to the Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Over the grapes and down to the Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Koblenz. Highlights of this historic city include a short aerial tram ride over the Rhine up to the 19th-century Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a massive complex built on the site of previous forts that kept watch over the surrounding area for thousands of years. The gigantic equestrian statue of Emperor William I of Germany is another top site in this city, both for its size and its setting at the tip of a promontory where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet.

Cologne. Walk from the boat to the city’s old town to marvel at Cologne’s massive Gothic Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of Europe’s most famous (though much of Cologne was destroyed during WWII by Allied bombings, the pilots spared it). It’s stunning stained glass windows comprise classic designs and modern ones too, including an abstract 20-meter-high window created by German artist Gerhard Richter. Other sites include the 12 Romanic churches in the city’s old quarter along the Rhine.

A lovely corner of Cologne. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A lovely corner of Cologne. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Worms. There’s a lot to see in Germany’s oldest city and one of it’s most important wine-growing centers, from the 7th-century Romanesque Cathedral of St. Peter to a Jewish cemetery with tombstones dating back to the 11th century. One of Europe’s oldest Jewish quarters, Worms was once called the “Jerusalem of the Rhine.” It’s also renown as the city where back in 1521 German theologist Martin Luther refused to recant his teachings about Christianity at the Diet of Worms.



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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Debbie Dutton from the USA.

Cruise Line: Scenic.

Ship:  Scenic Jasper.

Destination: Rhine River.

# of Nights: 7.

Departure Date & Ports: June 2017, from Basel, Switzerland to German and French ports along the Rhine River.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

-Food Rating: 4

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? No.


We went on this cruise with a group of 40 people from our community. I can say with pretty much certainty that we all had a great time and would do it again!! This was my first time visiting Europe and I think it was a perfect way to go.

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Kathi Savarese from the USA.

Cruise Line: Scenic.

Ship:  Scenic Jasper.

Destination: Rhine River.

# of Nights: 8.

Departure Date & Ports: June 2017, from Basel, Switzerland to German and French ports along Rhine River.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

Review: Surprised at the value!

Never thought I would take a cruise that was all inclusive, just assumed it would be out of my price range.  I compared this river cruise to another cruise line with an almost identical itinerary and was surprised that just adding in the land tours alone it was above Scenic.  This of course, did not even factor in the beverages and gratuities!  The cruise itself was wonderful, the staff could not have been more attentive, the food fabulous and a nice variety.  Looking forward to booking another trip on Scenic.


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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: TJ from Singapore (age 13).

Cruise Line: Uniworld River Cruises.

Ship: River Empress.

Destination: Rhine River in Germany and France.

# of Nights: 7.

Departure Date & Ports:  July 2016, between Basel, Switzerland and Amsterdam, to Colmar, Strasbourg, Speyer, Rudesheim, Boppard, Koblenz and Cologne.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? Yes, I think five.

Review:  A nice and relaxing holiday.

I expected a big retro sailing boat, much like my last experience on a river cruise, however I was really surprised and happy to find a beautiful modern reception and lounge! Overall, I think the whole ship was great, but I especially loved the cabins, ‘kids room’ and dining room. I loved the cabin because the bed and bathroom was cool and the TV had a really good movie selection. The kids’ room was actually the ‘captains lounge’ reconfigured so that kids could play on a play station, as well as sit on small tables to play board games. This was a great place where all the kids met to play FIFA. I also really liked the dining room because it was really fancy, and the buffet selection as well as the menu was stockpiled with great food.

For activities, I liked watching movies in my room or playing FIFA with the other kids. In port, I liked where we could get off and just bike, and we didn’t have to go on a long boring guided tour or bus ride. I liked how you got to know everyone really well. Things were also incredibly efficient and easy, compared to big ships where you have to wait for ages to get on and off at ports and other things like that. Though it was disappointing at first, we got used to not havingWiFi on the river cruise.

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Kavi from Singapore (age 13).

Cruise Line: Uniworld River Cruises.

Ship: River Empress.

Destination: Rhine River in Germany and France.

# of Nights: 7.

Departure Date & Ports:  July 2016, From Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, and on to Colmar, Strasbourg, Speyer, Rudesheim, Boppard, Koblenz and Cologne.

OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? Yes, five.

Review Title: Scenic Journey with Great Food

The River Empress was quite fancy as the lobby was very elegant with lots of glass and chandeliers. I really enjoyed the food at the lunch buffet and at dinner, but my favourite food had to be the club sandwich that was available at the lounge area. The front lounge was very cozy and it was nice how they provided plug points for all different countries. I thought that the top of the boat was the nicest part as I could see up and down the river. I really enjoyed one of the days when we could eat up there and see as all the castles went by. My other favorite thing to do was play video games in the captains lounge with the other kids.

My favourite port was Rudesheim as I enjoyed the view from the top of the hill and also enjoyed walking down. Another nice thing was the long bike ride that we did one day and it was really nice riding next to the river. Even though I like big ships, a smaller one like River Empress lets you go everywhere very quickly and you easily get to know a lot of people on the ship.

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Rhine River Family Cruises

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.

Rhine River Family Cruises

The River Empress. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

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small ship river river cruises

My sons in the elegant River Empress lounge, even teens appreciate the finer things in life. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

small ship cruises on the Rhine

The gorgeous Middle Rhine attracts the attention of two brothers. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

RELATED: A 5-night wine country river cruise from Bordeaux France …. by Heidi Sarna

small ship cruising on the rhine

Gorgeous scenery in every port of a Rhine cruise, here Strasbourg. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Picturesque Ports

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. 

Enjoying a tasty mug at the Domhof Brewey in Speyer. * Photo: anonymous

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.

Rhine River Family Cruises

It’s a castle fest on the middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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).

Rhine River Family Cruises

You can bike every day in port on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

A lovely standard cabin aboard River Empress. * Credit: Uniworld Cruises

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.

The kids gaming room for the week was a natural hub. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

small ship cruises with kids

Kids joined planned activities like knot tying and pastry making, and also did their own thing. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

small ship cruises on the Rhine RIver

Great views of the river scene while dining. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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.

Our first family Rhine River cruise and we’d do it again in a heart beat. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

  • 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


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by Heidi Sarna.

A young man in a white uniform appeared with a welcoming smile to help us with our suitcases the moment our taxi arrived at the pier. What excellent service we thought and such a great start to our week-long River Empress Rhine River cruise last July.

A few hours later when I saw him at the reception desk, I asked if he was the hotel manager, this time noticing several stripes on his shoulders. He said no, “I’m the captain.”


Uniworld Captain Henk Jan Plaatje * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Uniworld Captain Henk Jan Plaatje * Photo: Heidi Sarna

At 32 years old, Captain Henk Jan Plaatje manages to come off as both youthfully exuberant and exceedingly mature, no doubt the result of the impressive experience he’s racked up at such a young age. He’s spent 14 years working on rivers — since 2011 with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (the last three as captain), three years before that working on the Dutch Red Cross’s J. Henry Dunant providing special river cruises for sick and disabled people, and his first six years on river-bound cargo boats. Plaatje’s river captain license allows him to sail on all inland waterways in Europe, though he mostly sticks to the Rhine, Danube and Dutch waterways.

Why river boats?

“What I like about river cruises from a nautical standpoint, is that we don’t need tug boats and we don’t need pilots,” he says, adding “It’s the most amazing feeling to steer the ship through a narrow river using only a joystick.”

With the help of its 360-degree-turning azipod-like propellers and bow thrusters, River Empress can maneuver side-to-side easily, making docking relatively simple, whether tying up to a pier or against another boat, quite common in busy European ports in the summer.

Rhine River Family Cruises

The River Empress. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

“It’s more hands-on and more dynamic than steering large oceangoing cruise ships. If there’s an issue there are just six of us to solve it — two captains, one engineer and three sailors,” Plaatje says.

Navigation requires a combination of monitoring the instruments and of course looking outside at the water, the currents and the weather.

“We also have to feel what the ship is doing — vibration in the wheelhouse, for instance, can indicate that there is a sandbar under the ship,” he says.

One of the 10 locks many Rhine River cruise boats pass through. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

One of the 10 locks many Rhine River cruise boats pass through. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

To Plaatje, the most challenging sections of the Rhine River are the 10 locks that boats must pass through on the Upper Rhine. Another, is the stretch of river between Iffezheim and Mannhein, downstream of the locks. This part is tricky because boats usually sail through the area at night while tying to keep an eye out for the many “wing dams,” low wall-like barriers built under the water to direct the river’s current towards the center and to minimize erosion of the riverbanks.

Technical aspects of Plaatje’s job aside, he loves that he gets to work in such close proximity to the outdoors and the elements.

Like most of the passengers, Plaatje's favorite section of the river is the scenic Middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Like most of the passengers, Plaatje’s favorite section of the river is the scenic Middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

“The view from the wheelhouse is amazing 24-7. It’s wonderful to see how the seasons are changing, from snowy mountains and the first green leaves of spring, to the summer when people are out on the river enjoying their holidays. Of course, the most spectacular is fall when the trees along the river turn into the most beautiful mosaic of reds and browns. Even the storms in the winter are interesting, when it is freezing cold and ice builds up in the smaller canals. A day on the river is never the same as the last; each day has its charm,” Plaatje muses.

A snowy winter day on the Rhine River. * Photo: Henk Jan Plaatje

A snowy winter day on the Rhine River. * Photo: Henk Jan Plaatje

A River Boat Captain Wears Many Hats

A captain isn’t always “in” the wheelhouse steering the boat though. When there are low bridges, many vessels, including River Empress, have retractable wheelhouses that can be lowered about six feet in just 30 seconds at the touch of a button, making the top of the boat flat so it can pass beneath. In the temporary absence of a wheelhouse, the captain navigates by sticking his head out of a hatch or by steering from the boat’s wing controls.

The whole riverboat operation is very streamlined compared to a large cruise ship. To make it all run smoothly, crew members wear many hats, whether it’s the captain helping to load passengers’ luggage or a cruise director painting children’s faces on one of the special family cruises each year. Uniworld will offer 22 such cruises in 2017 for families with children as young as four years old. My family and I sampled one in July and my husband and I loved it; our 13-year-old twin sons wound up really enjoying themselves as well, much to their initial consternation. (More on that in an upcoming article.)

Captain Plaatje and some crew holding a knot-tying class on a family cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Captain Plaatje and some crew holding a knot-tying class on a family cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

“I feel more responsibility with family cruises. I have to be looking everywhere,” Plaatje says.

Being hyper vigilant is part of a captain’s job. So is being sociable. Plaatje loves the intimacy of riverboats and how easy it is to get to know the small contingent of passengers over the course of a week. It’s the same with the crew, a mix of mostly Eastern European men and women.

“We have a crew of 40 and I know them all — their stories and their families,” he says.

Of course there are times the job is difficult, for instance loading and unloading cargo in the rain or navigating during rough storms.

“We have to pay a lot of attention when there are strong winds, as the ship can easily get blown around on the water like a balloon or like an airplane with a strong crosswind,” says Plaatje.

Life is good

Challenges aside, Plaatje knows he has a good thing going.

“I feel very blessed to have my job, and I can truly say that I have never worked an hour in my life,” he says, although in truth, he works four weeks on and four weeks off. It’s an appealing schedule especially compared to captains on big cruise ships who tend to work for much longer stretches.

“All and all, my job feels like a hobby.”

How many people can say that?

A gorgeous melty sunset on the River Empress. * Photo: Henk Jan Plaatje

A gorgeous melty sunset on the River Empress. * Photo: Henk Jan Plaatje



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Cruise Planners Deals (April 20, 2018)

By Heidi Sarna.

I just got off the River Empress after a weeklong cruise with my family on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. Yes, that’s right, a Europe river cruise with a pair of 13-year-old boys! My husband and I were excited to do Uniworld Cruises’ “Castles of the Rhine” itinerary while my boys had tried to convince me to book a big oceangoing ship with ping pong tables and a basketball court and a pizzeria and hundreds of other kids.

Luckily I’m still the boss.

Turns out, we all had a great time and it proved to me that an intimate Europe river cruise can indeed be a fun family-friendly affair. Disney thinks so too, they just finished up a series of Danube River cruises on a boat chartered from AMA Waterways. But that’s another story.

Uniworld scheduled 16 special family cruises in 2016 (with 22 planned for 2017) and we sampled one of them. Nearly 40 kids under 18 were aboard the 130-passenger River Empress on our July 20th cruise and thanks to a PlayStation gaming console taking pride of place in a playroom occupying the ship’s library for the week, the kids had something to do and a place to hang out! Two extra crewmembers were on board to supervise special activities for the younger kids, like face painting and knot tying, and to host a kids’ table at dinner. By day 2, there was a posse of about 15 to 20 kids between the ages of 5 and 14 who became fast friends. We were set.

As is the norm for river cruises, we spent part of each day on shore exploring the charming medieval towns and cities that flank the Rhine, two on the French side (Colmar and Strasbourg) and rest on the German side (Speyer, Rudesheim, Boppard, Koblenz and Cologne). Our favorites were the embarkation port of Basel where we spent an extra day before the cruise, and we loved Strasbourg, Speyer, Rudesheim and cruising past the castles of the curving Middle Rhine region. The River Empress carries a fleet of bicycles on board that we rode nearly every day on bike paths along the river; it was one of the highlights of the week. The cruise ended in Amsterdam, one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world, where we explored the museums, rode the trams and walked for miles and miles along its network of canals marveling at just how many bicycles one city could contain.

On board, the 151-square-foot cabins were luxurious and the movie selection tops, the restaurant retro chic with its red upholstery, and the lounge and bar an elegant place with damask and a bit of frill. Service was excellent and the food was very good, including the regional fare. The all-inclusive rates mean all drinks are included (let me tell you, I grew verrrry fond of the Sekt German sparking wine!), all tips on the boat and off, and several shore excursion options per day.

Below are some photos to show you what I mean. I’ve got a lot more to report and I’ll be back soon with a full feature article on my fab family river cruise and several other related mini articles as well.

Auf Wiedersehen for now!

Uniworld's 130-passenger River Empress. * Heidi Sarna

Uniworld’s 130-passenger River Empress. * Heidi Sarna


Strasbourg takes your breath away. * Heidi Sarna

Strasbourg takes your breath away. * Heidi Sarna


Castles of the Middle Rhine are a photo fest. * Heidi Sarna

Castles of the Middle Rhine are a photo fest. * Heidi Sarna


Gorgeous Speyer street scene. * Heidi Sarna

Gorgeous Speyer street scene. * Heidi Sarna


Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it's time to sail. * Heidi Sarna

Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it’s time to sail. * Heidi Sarna


Castles of the Middle Rhine. * Heidi Sarna

Castles of the Middle Rhine. * Heidi Sarna


Hi little Rhine way down below, near Rudesheim. * Heidi Sarna

Hi little Rhine way down below, near Rudesheim. * Heidi Sarna


Local Speyer beer, YUM! * Heidi Sarna

Local Speyer beer, YUM! * Heidi Sarna


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Photo: Crystal Cruises

Photo: Crystal Cruises

The 154-passenger, all-suite CRYSTAL MOZART was just christened in Vienna and sets off on her maiden voyage along the Danube river July 13, 2016. MOZART marks the official launch of Crystal River Cruises, an arm of Crystal Cruises, with four brand new river yachts joining the fleet by the end of next summer 2017, and two more after that by 2019, for a total of seven river boats.

Gliding along the Danube River and calling in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia, the 395-foot-long CRYSTAL MOZART is the largest European river vessel afloat these days. Big enough to boast four dining venues plus a large spa with an indoor pool, gym and salon facilities. Tech-wise, each suite has Apple® iPad devices that serve as digital directories for virtually all of passengers’ on-board needs, from dry cleaning and butler service to room service and dining reservations, as well as concierge and shore excursion inquiries. Among their amenities, all suites have 40-inch HD flat screen TVS and heated toilet seats.

Rates include wine, spirits, soft drinks, tips, one or two excursions in every port, WiFi (an hour a day), self-serve laundry, butler service, and 24-hour in-room dining from the restaurant menu.

For more info on Crystal, click here.

Crystal Mozart in Budpest, Hungary. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart in Budpest, Hungary. * Photo: Crystal Cruises


Crystal Mozart's spa and indoor pool, WOW! * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s spa and indoor pool, WOW! * Photo: Crystal Cruises


Crystal Mozart's Waterside Restaurant. * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s Waterside Restaurant. * Photo: Crystal Cruises


Crystal Mozart's Penthouse with French Balcony * Photo: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Mozart’s Penthouse with French Balcony * Photo: Crystal Cruises

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