THE ROMANTIC RHINE, A CRUISE WITH TAUCK TOURS, May 24-31, 2019
(Most photos are the author’s; web photos are identified. Click on them to enlarge & read the captions).
I wasn’t really looking for a cruise for my annual May travel plans; I had my heart set on Morocco. I spent too long searching small-group travel to Morocco and none of my favorite providers had posted announcements. Very late I learned it was Ramadan; restaurants don’t open until after sundown, and no alcohol is served. Scratch Morocco. No plan B, but Carter Goodman, my agent at Vacations to Go, found space for me on a deluxe Tauck cruise on the Rhine. Tauck’s all-inclusive small riverboats usually sell out a year in advance so I was fortunate to find space, albeit in a category higher than I usually book and with a steep single supplement. Vacations to Go found me a bargain business-class airfare from JFK to Amsterdam on Swiss Air with a stop in Zurich, returning with Lufthansa from Basel Switzerland with a stop in Munich, both ways with excellent timing and connections. Non-stop business-class flights from JFK cost almost double.
My May 23 overnight flight from JFK to Amsterdam arrived about 2 pm May 24 and a Tauck-contracted driver met me in the airport lobby and whisked me to the ship in half an hour. Having read about Amsterdam’s over-tourism, I should not have been surprised to see so many other vessels in the dock area. After a champagne greeting, I was led to my cabin with time to freshen up before joining the other passengers in the lounge for welcome cocktails and an orientation meeting with the Cruise Director and the other important personnel. Waiters served unlimited premium spirits. There were only 88 of us aboard Tauck’s MS Grace.
The dining room offered open seating with flexible times and I always found interesting people to dine with despite traveling single. In addition to the breakfast buffet, one could order Eggs Benedict and other hot dishes. The lunch buffet featured many main courses in addition to salads and side orders. The evening four-course dinners were always superb, accompanied by premium wines or champagne and cognac or cordials. Another smaller dining room offered casual meals from 6 am to 10 pm, including early continental breakfasts and any-time snacks like hamburgers, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, salads, and the like.
Sat. May 25: An Amsterdam city tour and canal- boat ride.
Our first-day shore trip included a scenic drive around parts of Amsterdam ending in the bus park under the Rijksmuseum which we toured after embarking on a nearby canal boat. I think everyone agrees that the city is more attractive seen from the water, passing picturesque bridges and sidewalks crowded with pedestrians and bicycles. The canal- boat staff served coffee, tea, and cookies as we glided along various canals and the Amstel River with narration by a witty guide. It’s hard to believe that the city and most of Holland is four meters below sea level.
From the canal boat we walked back to the museum where we broke into small groups for guided tours of the most important paintings of the Dutch masters of the 17th-century Golden Age. The main hall features works by Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Peter Paul Rubens, and, of course, Rembrandt Van Rijn. (Van Gogh came later and has his own museum). Thankfully all groups use earbuds or there would be a cacophony of guides shouting to their groups. My group of just thirteen traversed the corridors enjoying guide Theresa’s mastery of art history. Amsterdam (like Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Dubrovnik) has been a victim of over-tourism, evident in the long lines to enter the museum (except for groups with pre-paid tickets) and crowds mobbing some paintings and too many tourists snapping selfies.
Our group had an 11:45 am ticket for the Rembrandt special exhibit, and even that was overcrowded for a timed entry. But it was great to see most of the museum’s Rembrandt works altogether in one area. One would need days to see the entire museum collection, but this was a wonderful sample.
There was free time for restrooms and shops, after which we reboarded the coach and returned to the ship that had moved to nearby Utrecht. I imagine it saved time for the ship to leave the congested dock area, jammed with a dozen other river boats. We departed Utrecht as soon as everyone was aboard. One could spend days in Amsterdam, and many passengers arrived a day or two prior to sailing. I had been in the city twice before and risked arriving the day of departure knowing the second day was spent in Amsterdam.
The weather on this first day was overcast, cool, and windy so I was not tempted to ascend to the roof-deck for scenery and enjoyed the view from my floor-to-ceiling window with a French balcony. (I never knew the French liked balconies that are too narrow to fit a chair on). I enjoyed catching up on the news on my laptop, downloading photos from the day’s tour, and a jetlag-induced nap. It was an enjoyable afternoon with nothing planned until cocktails at 6:00 pm where I met a nice small group and joined them for dinner. My residence in Mexico usually elicited surprise among the other guests, all of whom carried U.S. passports.
Sun May 26 Cologne & Bergischesland
I don’t recall where the ship spent the night but we were sailing again before breakfast. We had a morning at leisure since today’s excursion did not begin until 12:30. Meanwhile I enjoyed sunshine on the top deck despite a brisk wind. Only one person was jogging on the lengthy track around the deck. We had open seating for brunch before the excursion, and I had planned to eat lightly until I saw the enormous poached salmon in addition to the usual array of salads and cold cuts.
The ship arrived in Koln (Cologne) Germany just before noon as the sky darkened, but it didn’t rain. The Rhine was an important border even in Roman times and the city was a Roman provincial capital from 50 AD. The coach dropped us in the city-center where we broke into small groups and followed the guides who explained the history and main features of the famous cathedral that took six centuries to complete. It has been a world heritage site since 1995. Guides are not permitted to speak inside but the explanations served until we entered later on our own after a walking tour nearby. We circled the ancient city center, passed Fishmarket Square, and returned to the cathedral square from behind by a ramp built for a visit there by German Pope Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI. Some say the cathedral was not destroyed in WWII because the tower was a landmark for Allied bomber pilots operating over Germany. In fact, it did suffer from bombing both directly and indirectly because of its location next to a rail yard and other strategic targets. But it was saved from destruction due to its solid construction and other factors you can read about online.
After half an hour free time in the cathedral, we could follow a tour conductor to either a beer tasting in a local bar or to the Ludwig Museum of contemporary art. Knowing I would get plenty of alcohol back on the ship, I chose the museum. I like modern art but I am not fond of “contemporary art;” perhaps the photos will explain why.
I never learned the history of the city’s famous production of eau de Cologne and didn’t bother to research it. We all needed some of it by the end of the day. We regrouped in the square and walked to the coaches at 3:30 for a half-hour ride back to the ship. There wasn’t much time to rest before boarding the coaches again at 5 pm for a 45-minute drive to Ecolut, an eco-lodge in Bergisches Land in the hills above Cologne. We were welcomed to the lodge by a brass band while waiters passed out beer or wine and delicious rolls with grilled bratwurst. Prior to dinner we had three options for activities: a guided hike in the forest, watching trained hunting dogs perform, or listening to an actress narrate one of Grimm’s fairytales. I chose the latter, perhaps more enjoyable for youngsters. Soon after we were called to a farm-to-table sit-down, family-style dinner in the lodge including venison, trout, and other local delicacies. We returned to the ship, now anchored at Loenigswinter, about 9:45. It was a long but interesting day and evening.
Mon. May 27 Koblenz
I awoke to find the MS Grace docked in Koblenz, Germany, a center for the Rhine/Moselle industry. The city was another Roman military fortress before the common era, named in Latin “confluentes” for the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. Julius Caesar built a bridge across the Rhine here and fortresses to protect both sides, all replaced in later times. One could choose an 8:30 am bicycle ride along riverside paths through forests and Riesling vinyards. I chose a 9:15 walking tour, passing through a commercial district to the center the Aldstadt (old town), through baroque sqares to Deutsches Eck, the German Corner, where the Rhine meets the Moselle. Adjacent to it is an enormous equestrian monument to Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia, who unified Germany and became its first emperor in 1871.
Circling back, adjacent to our ship, we boarded the gondolas (cable cars) to the top of the cliff to Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, 112 meters above the river. It began to drizzle requiring an umbrella for the first time. The weather did not encourange a lengthy stay, but I found the observation platform with a beautiful view of the Rhine and surrounding countryside. The State museum offers a history of the fortress.
Returning to the ship with a little chill, I went to the lounge for some hot tea and cookies before heading later to the German buffet that included two kinds of sausage, trout, and sauerkraut (one of the few things I don’t eat). A large German beer seemed to be the appropriate beverage.
The ship set sail before lunch and we cruised along the Unesco designated World Heritage section of the Rhine, for which the adjective “romantic” applies, depending on your status I suppose. It’s not very romantic for a single senior traveling with mostly couples, some of whom are older than god. One could listen to tour director Kim’s loud-speaker narration from the lounge, the top deck, or one’s cabin, as she described the many villages and about 20 castles that we sailed past. The rain put a damper on the day, but it finally stopped in the late afternoon allowing us to enjoy the views from the rooftop deck.
In the late afternoon Chef Femma offered a cooking class in the lounge, but the menu was Hachee, a Dutch beef stew that called for apple butter and gingerbread which I knew I wouldn’t find at home in Mexico. I used the time to read papers online and post photos.
After cocktails, tonight’s dinner featured the seasonal local white asparagus that Europeans are crazy about. I find it bland compared to the green variety. Besides the asparagus soup and garnishes, choices included a tempura of cod, delicious duck, and apple strudel. Later, a delightful group of musicians and singers, including a sensational sax player, provided an entertaining show in the lounge.
Tues. May 28 Heidelberg
This morning we could enjoy a more leisurely breakfast since nothing was scheduled (except optional bridge) before afternoon arrival in Heidelberg. I enjoyed the time to catch up on U.S. and Mexican newspapers, updating travel notes, and posting photos. On the television in the cabin I could watch a video of the ship’s progress filmed from the bow .
After the buffet lunch, we had time to rest up before docking at Speyer, a major transport hub on the Rhine, where we had two options: touring Speyer including its impressive technology museum and its world-heritage cathedral, or visiting Heidelberg, renowned by poets and the site of Germany’s oldest university (1386). Of course, the professor chose the university town on the Neckar River, about a 45-minute drive from the Rhine. Since it was a student town and not part of the Rhine transportation hub, it was spared Allied bombing during World War II.
We passed near but did not stop in Mannheim, an industrial city that was heavily bombed in the war and became the Allied base for the military occupation of Germany after the war. The tour leader was not aware that General George Patton had a car accident in Manheim and died in the military hospital in Heidelberg in December 1945. (I like to google a site before visiting it and find Wikipedia especially informative).
The coaches took us up to Heidelberg Castle, the largest castle ruin in Germany, built and rebuilt from the 13th to the 17th century. From the battlements one could see for miles over the Rhine plains and the picturesque city below. After a tour of the castle we returned to the city below by way of a funicular.
We regrouped in the old-town square, dominated by a statue of Hercules, from which we could tour or shop on our own for an hour. I walked to the scenic old bridge that afforded great photo opportunities of the river, a good view of the castle from below, and handsome buildings nearby. Nearby shop windows were decorated with typical products like cuckoo clocks and toy soldiers.
At 4:30 pm we regrouped in the square, used the clean facilities in the city government building, and walked to the coaches for the return ride back to the Rhine. After the pleasant cocktail hour I enjoyed a dinner of bouillabaisse and wienerschnitzel, among other offerings. We returned to the lounge at 8:15 for a fun show performed by the ship’s staff. A group impersonation of the Village People and a River Dance were the highlights.
Wed. May 29 Strasbourg/ Baden Baden/
I needed an early breakfast this morning due to an 8:15 am departure for Strasbourg France, capital of Alsace province. It’s an island city surrounded by canals and the River Ill. Enroute to the old-town center, the coaches passed impressive modern architecture, particularly buildings of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Flashy modern trams guided passengers to their destinations while pedestrians and bicyclists traversed the stylish streets.
Our guided walking tour concentrated on “La petit France,” with its picturesque canals bordered by lovely palatial homes, ending up at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg. The original church begun in 1015 burned due to its highly flammable wood nave, a remarkable similarity to the Paris cathedral burning in 2019. The “new church”, 6th tallest in the world, was built between 1176 and 1439. Also spectacular are the 19th-century pipe organ and a famous astronomical clock that could calculate Easter, leap year, and other dates. A bell-ringing angel and other moveable figures entertain at different times. A web-search will explain the complicated workings if you are interested. It’s amazing that 12th to 14th century stained-glass windows survived World War II, removed and hidden in a salt mine. But the city suffered at least 13 air raids during the war that severely damaged the cathedral and devastated the old city center. After the cathedral tour, an hour of free time is hardly sufficient to do justice to such a beautiful city, though passengers could skip lunch on the ship and be collected at 4:30. But staying required one to miss the afternoon excursion. We were back aboard the ship by 12:15, where the lunch included unlimited mussels, coq au vin, and other delectable choices.
We barely had time to rest before departing at 1:20 for Baden Baden, Germany, a spa town since the ancient Romans enjoyed its thermal waters. (Two Badens, one for the city and one for the province). It was long the “summer capital of Europe” since foreign officials, ambassadors, and political sycophants flocked there to be near the vacationing Kaiser. Some wealthy Russians who escaped the Bolsheviks bought lavish homes here. The casino, horse track, and concert hall cater to a set of modern vacationers. The lovely park, Lichtentaler Allee, is a botanical treasure with exotic trees from many parts of the world. Those who wanted to enjoy the thermal waters brought a swim suit and towel and skipped the pleasant walking tour. Shoppers loved the the glitzy stores, and outdoor cafes beckoned weary tourists. I joined a small group for cappuccino at famous Café Koenig. We didn’t get back to the ship until 5:30, not leaving much time to freshen up and dress for the Captain’s party.
For the cocktail party, Chef Femma covered a table with bowls of fresh-shucked oysters and various condiments, a rather large appetizer before the special six-course dinner. The menu was magnificent with a smoked-duck appetizer, porcini mushroom soup, a scallop with a bit of caviar, then a surf-and turf tenderloin with a small lobster medallion, followed by crème brulee or other desserts, and red or white wine or champagne. I enjoyed the French Bordeaux Rothchild followed by cognac. As if such a special meal were not sufficient by itself, I was rewarded with even more special treatment. I had asked the chef if we would ever have fois gras on the menu during the week; she said “No, but I will get some for you.” True to her word, she came by my table and offered the delicacy to all eight of us, but most declined. She gave me two large slices, each one larger than the single piece that would cost at least thirty-five dollars in Manhattan. This was consummate self-indulgence, but where else if not on an all-inclusive deluxe vessel. I think I like it even more knowing how Vegans despise it.
Thurs May 30 Alsace or the Swiss Alps?
For our last day of excursions, the choice was a long bus ride to the Swiss Alps and Lake Lucerne, or a short drive through nearby Alsace, the disputed region that changed hands from French to German four times since Louis XIV occupied it in the 17th century. France declared war on Prussia in 1871 and lost the war and Alsace to the Germans; it returned to France in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, but was occupied by the Nazis from 1940-45, returning to France again in 1945. Today it is the center of a flourishing wine trade and culinary specialties like sauerkraut and fois gras.
I hope to take a broader trip to Switzerland on a future occasion so I chose the 9 am excursion to Alsace wine country between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains. We passed charming story-book villages before arriving at Chateau Haut-Koenigsburg, a majestic mountain fortress dating from the 1200s. I think it is more beautiful and more interesting than the castle in Heidelberg. The photos should be self-explanatory.
Leaving the castle, we passed through fields and vineyards producing mostly French white wines, stopping for a tour of the village of Riquewihr. As you might expect, a charming story-book village attracts thousands of tourists daily and restaurants were overflowing. For the only meal not planned for the group, our tour leader Iris handed everyone a 20-euro note to buy lunch on our own. I wandered off the main street and found a rare space at an outdoor table with prix fixe lunch choices. I chose the fois gras option and indulged in three large slabs with baguette, jam, and a small glass of sweet wine for 20 euros. After lunch we regrouped for a wine tasting at Maison Zimmer, an ancient wine bar dating to 1579 where we sampled three different Alsatian wines: a dry Reisling, a medium Pinot Gris (from the same grape but with much more body than the insipid Pino Grigio Americans prefer), and a sweet wine not worth noting. Iris then invited us for ice cream which I skipped having had too large a lunch, and we walked back to the coach to return to the ship, now anchored near Basel Switzerland.
For the cocktail hour chef Femma set up a table of various swiss cheeses to try with our beverages. At dinner. Chef Femma returned to offer me more fois gras, and no one else at the table wanted to try it. I think I finally got my fill and will not find it again until my favorite gourmet restaurant in Acapulco. My dinner choices were shrimp Louie and rack of lamb with ratatouille. A generous Glen Fiddich accompanied me to the cabin while I recorded notes, posted photos, and packed for the next day’s departure.
Fri May 31 Auf wiedersehen.
I had a quick breakfast sandwich and coffee very early, finished final packing, and departed my cabin at 7 am. A couple from Jacksonville FL shared the car to the Basel airport and were on the same Lufthansa (United) flight to Munich where we went in different directions. I connected in JFK on Jet Blue to Buffalo with a 90-minute wait rather than spend six hours for a Delta flight to Rochester, and I was in my rental car by 8 pm. The radio news reported on another shooting with 12 dead in Virginia Beach, and the president threatening to destroy the Mexican economy with punitive tariffs. I was back in the States but not home sweet home.
Personal reflections on the tour.
I really liked the all-inclusive nature of the Tauck cruise. One has so many choices given how many river boats cruise the Rhine. I think this is the Cadillac of river boat tours. It includes all meals, all shore excursions and additional events, all gratuities to ship staff, the cruise director and three tour directors, local guides and coach driver. There was never even a suggestion about extra tips for anyone, although I left a gift for my cabin attendant who was escaping the economic distress of Serbia. We never had more than 15 passengers to a local guide, but I saw many huge groups from other ships. On many ships, one pays 8 euros plus tip for two-fingers of scotch unless you buy a drink package, and premium wines at dinner cost extra. With Tauck, all premium spirits, beer, and wine were included, and not just at meals. Dinner wines were all superb, and so were after-dinner drinks like fine cognac. Of course, that meant that non-drinkers were paying for my excess, and less expensive ships might be a better choice. (Of course all-inclusive means one is likely to drink more. Like Oscar Wilde, “I can resist anything but temptation”, but a week of self-indulgence can be corrected later. One could pay extra only for spa services. The only non-group meal was the lunch in Alsace where the tour leader gave us 20 euros each. There was no charge for bicycle usage when that was an option, nor for museum entrances. The tour director treated us to ice cream and passed out samples of local delicacies on the coach. Since I had no spa charges, I never needed local currency, and I never had to take my wallet out once on this cruise.
Of course, one pays extra for Cadillac service. Given my late registration, I took what was available, a more expensive cabin than I would normally book. Some passengers who booked early paid no single supplement in the lower-cabin category, but I had to pay such a stiff supplement that my only low grade on the final evaluation was on “value for price paid.” It pays to book early and compare costs.
One major disappointment for me was not getting to see Basel, Switzerland, my own fault for not reading all the pre-departure literature carefully. The Tauck ad online on itinerary said “Explorations in Koln (Cologne) & Basel.” We ended up near Basel the last night too late to go ashore. The daily itinerary did not include Basel, and one could book extra nights at the Tauck-recommended hotel in Basel which I probably would have done had I read more carefully.
I prefer land tours to cruises. This was my eighth tour with Tauck but only my first cruise. Despite the convenience of not having to unpack and pack frequently, I feel I see and learn much more on the land tours. One learns how to layer clothing for each day and not unpack other than laundry. I use a garment bag that just has to be hung in the closet. On the land tour of central Europe we stayed in the heart of great cities like Vienna and Prague and for more than one night. I love to be able to walk out of the hotel during free time and explore on my own. There are even naughty venues ship passengers aren’t likely to investigate. In Budapest I was able to attend a concert before dinner in a sumptuous music hall. In Vienna I went to one of the best restaurants in the city. The magnificent tasting menu was enhanced by a five-person string quartet. With Tauck in Central Europe we enjoyed five private music or dance concerts. Shore excursions seldom provide so many cultural treats. With Alexander + Roberts in Russia, we spent five nights in Moscow, and the highlight for me was leaving the hotel at night and wandering the pedestrian street watching the young people having such a good time. In Saint Petersburg I found a fabulous local restaurant where I was the only American. With Tauck in Ireland we stayed in magnificent castles for more than one night. On coach trips, between cities the tour escort shares a wealth of historical and cultural information available only briefly on ships. So as comfortable and enjoyable as the Rhine cruise was, I will try to save cruises for my nineties and do more land tours while I am mobile. I do understand why some travelers prefer ships, a very personal and reasonable choice. Remember, a blog post is a personal opinion piece. The most important thing is not to stay home bowling or playing bingo. Happy travels to all.
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