Departing in late March on a Uniworld seven-night “Castles of the Rhine” cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, I was ready to embark on my first river cruise. I had previously travelled on large ocean liners, but sharing a vessel with just 130 other guests promised to be a whole new experience.
Within moments of approaching the elegant River Empress, Uniworld’s attentive service kicked in: my luggage was promptly whisked away and I was shown to my French Balcony stateroom, complete with lavish décor and gorgeous floor-to-ceiling glass doors that provided stunning views throughout the cruise. The marble-finished bathroom was a reasonable size and offered L’Occitane personal care products and I was more than happy to call this lavishly appointed place home for the next eight days.
My favourite thing to do when boarding a new ship is to explore and locate my favourite space. Exploration of the River Empress started on a lower deck in the coffee and pastry corner which is open 24/7 and is perfect for early-risers or those suffering from jet lag. On the next level, the restaurant makes a bold statement with bright red leather seating and contemporary artwork – trust me, it looks classy.
The lounge at the front of the ship is its social hub, with ample seating, a full bar and 180-degree views. This light and elegant space quickly became a favourite spot and after a quick visit to the top deck I had toured the entire vessel. Afternoon tea was being served in the lounge and the moment I took a seat a friendly waiter took my drink order. Uniworld ships are all-inclusive and you can order anything from espresso to bubbles to the cocktail of the day – whatever your heart desires! By day two of the cruise the staff knew all of our favourite drinks.
But back to the restaurant, which served the best fare I have ever had at sea... or river. Each dish was beautifully presented with all ingredients sourced locally and paired with lovely wines. There were also welcome and farewell dinners of five courses instead of the usual three. The chef even comes by to check on your meal.
Setting sail early the following morning, we braved the cool spring weather on the top deck to see the ship traverse the first lock of the voyage. On the left side of the river was France, on the right, Germany.
Our first stop was in the Alsace wine region where there was a choice of excursions to visit the historic town of Colmar, or local villages. Opting for the second choice we were soon strolling the cobblestoned streets of Kayserberg and Riquewihr, two small villages located between hilly vineyards. I must have taken over 50 photos of fairy-tale-type houses that come in every size and colour. It was like walking through my favourite story books.
Although every day of the cruise offers a choice of two excursions at no extra cost, you can also wander and discover on your own. My most interesting excursion was vinegar tasting in the Palatinate region of the Rhineland – yes, vinegar tasting! After learning about the production process we headed to the tasting room of the estate to sample the drinking vinegars that are produced as aperitifs to be consumed after meals. The vinegars are infused with herbs, rose petals, figs and a host of other delicious items. Vinegars are also produced for cooking and dressings and they must be good because many top restaurants in Europe source all their vinegars from this estate.
Despite all my mentions of food and wine, the cruise was considerably more active than I had imagined. In the mornings we were up and ready for the next adventure. Shore excursions generally last half a day and you can opt to return to the ship for lunch – and a cheeky wine if you are so inclined! We often chose to continue exploring on our own, admiring the endless rows of pastries through shop windows and taking in the French and German architecture surrounding us. One day took us 300 steps up the tower of Notre Dame Cathedral where we were rewarded with the most amazing views over Strasbourg.
Lunchtimes away from the ship were dedicated to finding local gems, with the criteria that they must be somewhere where locals dine (hand gestures quickly become a fun, international language when trying to decipher a German menu). You can never go wrong with schnitzel and German beer and the local brews were very enjoyable and thankfully hangover-free. Lunch in Koblenz was the most memorable: at a small pub we learned that the owner was not only the cook but also the hunter. The men in our group were soon swapping hunting stories with the owner (some pretty tall tales were told, I hasten to add) before sampling his homemade schnapps.
One of my personal highlights was cycling from the historic Rhineland town of Boppard to Koblenz. All Uniworld ships offer the use of bicycles and this was a relaxed ride along the riverside through quaint villages and small parks full of spring blooms. The stunning Marksburg castle soon dominated our riverbank views and rejoining River Empress was like coming home, with welcoming smiles and hot drinks on offer.
And of course I must mention the castles. In the middle Rhine, you will see your heart’s-fill of them. One afternoon, expecting to see just a handful, I was soon running from left to the right across the deck as every bend and twist of the river presented a new castle, some in ruins and others bought back to life.
A Uniworld river cruise is such a lovely, easy way to experience Europe. You unpack of course just once and everything is taken care of. You generally cruise at night, awakening in the heart of a new destination each morning. This allows ample time to explore at your own pace. The luxurious all-inclusive style of Uniworld is also non-intrusive and such a refreshing way to travel. Your only worry is, do I need this second éclair or not? Of course I do!
Have you ever been on a River Cruise before? What were your highlights? Let us know in the comments below.