Come Sail Away
By SANDRA GORDON
Recently, I had the chance to leave my husband and hormonal teen daughters behind (darn!) and sail with a friend on the Rhine Getaway, one of Viking’s most popular river cruise itineraries.
The plan? We’d sail on the Rhine through Germany from the gateway city of Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on the Viking Hlin (pronounced “Lin”), covering four countries in eight days.
I imagined leaving my laptop behind, lounging on the deck, enjoying lavish meals and cocktails, and maybe using the spa. After all, cruising has that reputation, and I was a newbie.
River cruising has its own identity. While ocean cruises focus on the amenities of the ship, such as the pool and the fitness center, river cruises are more about the easy access the ship offers to the world’s top destinations, with the details — accommodations, destinations, food, and transfers — taken care of for you.
Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Quiet and Smooth Sailing
After setting sail in Basel that first night, the Viking Hlin traveled 60 miles at 60 miles per hour overnight to Breisach, Germany. The Hlin, a longship designed for Europe’s grand rivers rather than an ocean, was like a duck, gliding on the surface, with its four rudders and hybrid, ecofriendly electric engine working hard below to quietly propel us forward.
than the burbling water outside my well-appointed stateroom and the passing
river bank, I couldn’t
tell we were moving. A heads up: On river cruises, motion sickness isn’t an issue.
At every river cruise port, Viking offers a complimentary shore excursion, such as a guided walking tour. On our first day, the freebie was a trip by motor coach to Hofgut Sternen, a tourist village known for its cuckoo clocks and Black Forest cake.
On the ride, the Black Forest belied its name. It was so lush and verdant that I wondered if the famed mountainous region in southwest Germany, bordering France, needed rebranding. In May, green is the new black.
Motor coaches and river cruising go together like German beer and wienerschnitzel. When destination hot spots aren’t near a port, a motor coach gets you there. But European roads, like the one to Hofgut Sternen, can be windy. If you’re prone to motion sickness, that’s where some Dramamine might come in handy.
the Best of Alsace
The next morning, five of us motor coached from Kehl, Germany, where the Viking Hlin had sailed overnight, to Strasbourg, France, in the historic region of Alsace, which was just over the bridge and a few miles away.
In Strasbourg, we met up with Valerie, of Food and City Tours of Strasbourg, who led us on a seven-hour Alsatian walking food tour through Strasbourg’s cobblestoned streets. On Viking river cruise ships like the Hlin, guests can book add-on excursions. Our foodie frenzy turned out to be a cruise highlight and well worth the splurge.
Before our first stop, Patisserie Christian, the famed chocolate shop and tea room at the base of the Strasbourg Cathedral, Valerie relayed Strasbourg’s whiplash history through our audio listening devices (supplied by the ship). On a river cruise, be prepared to listen up. Your headset is a lifeline.
With Valerie in our ears, we learned how the residents of Strasbourg were forced to change their nationality, including their language and customs, from French to German four times over the course of 75 years. Today, Strasbourg has a decidedly double culture, half German, half French.
tasting dry and sweet Alsatian pinot noirs at a local wine shop, we sat down at
a restaurant for tartes flames/flammenkuchen, the national Sunday dinner dish
Sunday dinner in Strasbourg always ends with a sweet tartes flambé, often made with apples. “Ooh la la,” Valerie said. Psst! Want to try this at home? Check out Trader Joe’s Tarte D’Alsace, which is produced by Maître Pierre, in Alsace. It’s a close cousin.
Heidelberg – College Town on Steroids
Day three brought us to Heidelberg, our next stop along the Rhine. Home to Heidelberg University (Germany’s version of Oxbridge), Heidelberg is Germany’s nerd epicenter, according to Will, an American philosophy Ph.D. graduate candidate from Arkansas and our prolific tour guide.
Because Heidelberg wasn’t bombed during World War II, it’s a historic architecture mecca. We toured the Heidelberg castle (Schloss Heidelberg), with its grass moat, and imagined that tigers once filled it over 300 years ago.
Heidelberg castle is home to the world’s largest wine barrel, a 250-year-old vat shaped from 130 oak trees; it once held 50,000 gallons of wine. Will informed us that wine was safer to drink than water in the Middle Ages.
Midway through our cruise, the Hlin took us on a scenic tour of the castles along the Middle Rhine, from Koblenz to Rüdesheim.
It was a chilly and cloudy day on the upper deck, but Candi, our cruise director, brought the region to life with castle commentary over the loudspeaker.
“Medieval noblemen built soaring castles to oversee trade, collect tolls, and defend kingdoms from marauders and power seekers.”
Day five took us to Marksburg Castle, a 700-year-old hilltop fortress that offered fantastic views of the Rhine Valley from its 550-foot perch.
Robert, our guide, unlocked the castle with a skeleton key, and we set out to imagine knights in armor and life in the Middle Ages by touring the citadel’s impressive rooftop herb garden and cavernous rooms, including its eerie torture chamber and impressive kitchen and bedrooms.
The Middle Ages were more interesting than I had remembered. But a guided tour could turn any location into a textbook come to life.
“Medieval people slept sitting up so that death wouldn’t take them,” Robert said. Lying down to sleep was considered too vulnerable a position.
Climbing the Dom in Cologne
The next morning, we disembarked the Viking Hlin in Cologne, Germany’s oldest city.
We followed Udo, our tour guide for the morning, to Cologne’s magnificent Gothic Cathedral (“Dom”), with its pointed arches, beautiful stained-glass windows, and two soaring spires, one deliberately higher than the other by 7 centimeters “because the only perfect thing in the world is God,” Udo said.
From the ground, the cathedral’s spires did appear close to God and impassibly pointy. But Udo informed us that the second spire was navigable — just 533 stairs from top to bottom — so I took the challenge. With all the touring and now the cathedral climb, river cruising was turning out to offer plenty of exercise. And it’s a good thing.
Artisanal Dutch Cheesemaking
After sailing overnight,the Viking Hlin docked in Gorinchem, the Netherlands, which turned out to be another favorite stop on the Rhine.
It was an overcast day, the kind the Dutch take in stride. Like rain on your wedding day bringing good luck, the Dutch have an expression to make themselves feel better: “As long as the sun is shining in your heart, the rain will stop.” Rainfall in the Netherlands averages 145 days per year.
In the birthplace of gouda (pronounced “howda”), we motor coached through Holland’s flat, lush countryside to Booij Kaasmakers, a family artisanal, small-batch cheese farm near Rotterdam.
There, we met Marika, a young cheesemaker who took over her grandmother’s cheesemaking operation. In Marika’s dining room, 10 of us sampled her award-winning gouda, the product of a recipe that has been in the family for generations.
The hint of manure in the air was a further reminder that we were in farm country. Holland’s plentiful rainfall helps the grass grow, which keeps the milk cows happy.
“The grass is why the gouda is so creamy,” Marika said.
The Windmills of Kinderdijk
After a short ride on our motor coach, we found ourselves in Kinderdijk with its 19 historic windmills, the largest group in the Netherlands. Twelve million people live on half the country, which is below sea level.
In conjunction with the Delta Law, passed in 1959 to protect all Netherlands residents from floods, the windmills of Kinderdijk have an important job: to pump water from one side of the dyke to another to prevent flooding. The windmills have a 90-foot blade span and spin at a max of 120 miles per hour.
They’re also for rent. Families live in 16 out of the 19 of them, though the waitlist is a decade long!
Viking River Cruise Trip Tips
Because I’m a nerd at heart, I enjoyed this maiden voyage much more than I anticipated. And because it’s a supremely convenient way to travel through Europe, we could focus on just taking it all in rather than on the trip’s logistics, such as hiring our own tour guides or getting from country to country.
With so much to see and do, we didn’t spend much of our free time in our staterooms, which were as upscale as you might imagine on a cruise ship. They featured a streamlined Scandinavian aesthetic and nice touches, such as a 40-inch flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi access, a refrigerator, hair dryer, a heated floor in the bathroom, and a hotel-style bed with luxurious linens and pillows.
Viking longships are four decks high, with guest cabins on levels two and three, and hold up to 190 people.