I haven’t done much cruising in my life. My travels seem to have largely taken me overland, on board buses, trains and cars and staying in hotels, resorts and campgrounds. In fact, apart from my Antarctic expedition several years ago, I am pretty much a newbie.
So I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from a European River Cruise. Would I get along with the other passengers; people I would have to see every day? Would I have enough free time and flexibility to make the journey truly mine?
The one thing I did take away from my trip to Antarctica was the overarching benefit of only unpacking once. I am not getting any younger (!) and the days of packing and unpacking every morning are beginning to fatigue me and my adventures, I’ve got to admit it. And the beauty of cruising? You unpack only once but STILL wake up in a different place every single day.
So with that to look forward to, I arrived in Amsterdam full of excitement and anticipation. At the very least, this trip was going to be a lot less effort!
After a few incredible days exploring Amsterdam (I highly recommend you spend time here if you are beginning or ending a cruise in the city) it was time to meet my fellow cruise passengers and board the Travelmarvel Diamond…. We were going to be sailing on the Rhine River through to Germany on the European Gems cruise that evening and the anticipation was palpable.
Our floating hotel was a stylish, 4-deck vessel which can host 170 passengers with 40 crew members. I got the feeling that with this ratio, we were going to be made to feel very comfortable.
We got to know many of the crew during our time, and they couldn’t have been more helpful. Nothing was too much trouble and we felt like we were friends with the regulars who attended to us in our rooms, at the bar and at our tables each day. Along with the instant camaraderie of the passengers, the crew were just as much a part of the experience.
My stateroom surprised me. I often think of cruise ships as having quite small, compact rooms with tiny windows. Instead, most of the rooms on the Travelmarvel Diamond had floor to ceiling French Balconies – with sliding doors so you could let the outside in no matter what the weather, and at all times, you had an incredible view.
My room and ensuite had plenty of room to move about and relax – it was far from compact and was extremely stylish and comfortable.
The top sun deck was my favourite place to be – I loved heading up there at the crack of dawn and having it almost to myself (a couple of other early risers had the same idea as I did) – it was the perfect place to soak in the location, fresh air and enjoy a cup of tea or beverage.
The only time we could not access it was when the captain was navigating us through one of the extraordinary locks along the river – which always became an event for us all to watch from the lower deck.
I’ve already mentioned the crew but overall, it was the service on board the ship during our time that really made this trip outstanding. From the pianist in the lounge, to the entertainment after dinner; the snacks and refreshments served on the sun deck, to the restaurant quality service during your meals, you were always surrounded by the impeccable service.
And it was the tiny details that really made an impression. The omelette station at breakfast, the roses given to the ladies at our welcome dinner, the bar tender remembering your favourite drink order….
As the days passed, the general talk amongst the passengers was largely around the service and how we all felt so truly spoiled. I tell you, it was hard work leaving the ship, and going back home to reality!
Free time and flexibility
I would guess that some people are hesitant to book a ‘tour’ for fear of not having enough opportunity to make the trip personal. Sticking to a general itinerary and feeling ‘rushed about’ doesn’t appeal to everyone. But I can safely say this is nothing like that.
Free time had been built into the itinerary on pretty much a daily basis. Whether it was on the ship – where you had time (sometimes whole mornings or afternoons) to relax, enjoy the facilities and the scenery floating past, catch up on email (free wifi!) or get to the gym; or on shore, where we could often do as we pleased after participating in the organised activities.
The ship even had free bikes to borrow, so you could travel under your own steam at any of our shore stops. Personally, I loved the opportunity to do a little more exercise, considering the incredible meals and snacks I was consuming heartily on board!
The excursions often went beyond the standard walking tours most tour companies rely upon. The aim of this cruise was to dig a little deeper, and truly explore the location and its culture. I found myself tasting the famous Rudesheimer Coffee and the smoked Bamberg Beer. And visiting a local couple in their home in Miltenberg to truly see how the locals lived was the Insider Experience that has really stayed with me since.
I never felt rushed or tired. The pace was easy, the activities on the shore were led by passionate and friendly local guides, and the fact that there were only around 150 passengers on board never felt overwhelming – we saw the same faces all the time and everything felt really familiar and friendly at all times.
The final comparison – what is river cruising really like and how does it compare to ocean cruising?
The beauty of river cruising is that you are never in the middle of a body of water, with no land on the horizon. You can always see the two river banks, and most of the time there is incredible scenery on both of them to simply gaze at.
The amount of comments from my fellow passengers about how watching the scenery gave them a constant reminder of where they were and what they were doing reinforced how special that is. We truly felt immersed in the country. We had a front row seat to everyday life there – we watched locals go about their business, we immersed ourselves in the history that was evident all around us, and we observed the landscape change as we cruised into different regions… We watched as farmland rose into highlands, vineyards mixed with castles, cathedrals towered over villages, and bridges and locks told the tale of ancient versus modern engineering.
River Cruising gives you a really close insight into the region you are literally cruising through. Sometimes, we felt so close to the banks of the river that we could reach out and touch them. The size of a river ship means it can dock at any of the smaller towns and villages along the way.
Ocean Cruisers have huge restrictions around this, meaning they can only stop at certain ports, and rely on buses and transportation to visit whatever is nearby. And you certainly don’t enjoy the advantage of being able to sit on the deck, or in your room, simply watching the scenery go by like a never-ending documentary…
Have you been river cruising before and what were your first impressions? Tell us in the comments!