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The days of all-inclusive – and all-regimented – river cruising may just be drawing to a close, says Donna Heiderstadt.

European river cruising is all about ease, right? Unpack once and visit several historic cities along a legendary river – the Danube or Douro, perhaps, or the Rhône or Rhine.

The entire journey is orchestrated by the cruise company, from dinner menus featuring regional dishes to motorised shore excursions designed to see as many landmarks as possible – typically viewed en masse while listening to a lollipop-waving guide and limited to the pace of the slowest passengers.

In other words, what seemed like a carefree holiday can end up feeling strangely like a floating bus tour. And a pretty pricey one at that.

But there are new players on the riverbanks of Europe, making a journey down the Rhine or Rhône much more accessible.

Enter Teeming River Cruises – where guests sleep and eat onboard but what they see and do while ashore is totally up to them. The result: prices that are a half to a third that of a typical all-inclusive river cruise.

I thought that sounded too good to be true so I decided to give Teeming’s Gems of the Rhine itinerary (almost identical to 2020’s Summer Rhine Adventure) a try. Here’s what the experience – seven nights from Mainz, Germany (near Frankfurt) to Amsterdam – was like.

Unlike larger river lines, this company owned by Americans Jeff and Gina Paglialonga and launched in 2017, doesn’t own any ships. It leases its small fleet on select dates, offering about 18 cruises a year. Teeming currently has itineraries on the Rhine, Moselle, Danube, Seine, Rhône, Douro and Po.

My friend Suzanne and I arrive in Mainz eager to board and see what the Rhine River Valley, with its castles and vineyards, is all about. It’s late October and as we wheel our luggage along the bumpy cobblestone embankment to the ship in a cold and steady rain, I have to admit that I miss the cushy transfers offered by more inclusive cruise lines.

Once up the gangway, though, things are somewhat sunnier. We spot fellow travelers whose passports peg us as fifty- or sixty-something, but whose brains think we’re a decade (or more) younger. No tour buses for us. We intend to explore seven ports in Germany and the Netherlands on foot!

Which brings me to the Teeming Walking Tour App. It’s a free app for smartphones that offers step-by-step directions to top sights in each city – plus a pin placed to show the ship’s position so you can find your way back. Passengers who prefer guided excursions can arrange them independently or book third-party tours via the line’s website.

Of course, we go 100 percent app. Mainz has landmarks worth slogging through a downpour to see – St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its Chagall-designed windows, the Sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater, and the Gutenberg Museum dedicated to the first movable press and printed Bible – so with an umbrella protecting my app-loaded iPhone we set out hoping it will steer us right.

Things quickly go wrong and a pert female voice runs us in circles for 15 minutes before we realise the GPS sync isn’t quite accurate. Once we shut her up and simply follow a dot path with the blinking one showing our location, we easily navigate ourselves to two top landmarks before torrents of rain send us ducking into a cafe for hot soup.

Back aboard, as we cruise toward Rüdesheim am Rhein, Suzanne and I bond with Ed and Angela over dinner. By breakfast and lunch the next day we’ve added Mike and Penny and sisters Mary and Lynette to our group. With the exception of Gen Xer Angela, we are all tail-end Baby Boomers, born within three years of one another. I have high hopes that our age-sync bodes well for the days ahead.

Even on a gray day, Rüdesheim was a delight. Known for its half-timbered buildings and rolling vineyards, it is easily explored on foot. Suzanne and I walk the Drosselgasse, a photogenic 15th-century cobblestone street, and take the Seilbahn (cable car) up to the Niederwalddenkmal monument to enjoy panoramic vineyard views.

We want to hike up to the hilltop Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard but decide to skip it because we aren’t sure we have enough time (the ship departs at 2PM and we still don’t quite trust the app). That night at dinner we learn that Ed and Angela had made it up to the abbey, while others had warmed up with Rüdesheimer coffee spiked with brandy and sugar cubes and set aflame.

Onboard dining had been a pre-cruise concern; Teeming’s fare was so low – less than US$900 per person (A$1318) – that had I expected the food might be a problem. It’s not. While not gourmet, most menu selections are well-prepared with dinner options such as pan-seared trout, orange-glazed duck and racks of lamb. Only vegan Angela is left wanting more, though the buffet breakfasts and lunches are more veggie-friendly.

Equally commendable is the service by the mostly Eastern European crew, who are always accommodating and polite.

The only misfire? The wine, for which Suzanne and I had paid US$75 each for by-the-glass pours with our meals. The house red and white are almost undrinkable, so it’s lucky the rosé is crisp and dry.

Our visit to the sleepy burg of Boppard begins slowly, since it’s All Saints Day and in the largely Catholic Rhine Valley everything is closed except St. Severus Church. Then we spot the “open” sign on Vineum, a wine shop across the street, and end up enjoying this little town’s most delicious activity: affordable tastings of superb dry and medium-dry rieslings.

Next: an overnight in Koblenz. Located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, where Deutsches Eck (German Corner) features a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s home to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress (reachable via a scenic cable car ride), a walkable river promenade, and a baroque Old Town notable for its parks, weinestube (wine taverns) and Schängelbrunnen (a statue of a spitting boy – don’t walk too close at the wrong moment!). We also had time to hire a taxi and visit Stolzenfels Castle, a fairytale fortress with magnificent gardens and views.

With 15 hours in Dusseldorf we are able to explore not only this city but also Cologne, 35 minutes away by train. Ed, Angela, Mike and Penny were game for an adventure – and our goal is to climb the 533 dizzying spiral steps 100 meters to the top of the 13th-century Cologne Cathedral. Five of us succeed (fear of heights sidelines one). Breathless, we refuel with a lunch of local bratwurst and beer and arrive back in Dusseldorf with time to explore Altstadt, strolling the Rhine embankment promenade as dusk bathes it in an autumnal glow.

On to the Netherlands. The city of Arnhem is known for its 16th-century Devil’s House, decorated with horned satyr sculptures, but it also has some heavenly sights. Park Sonsbeek with its photogenic manor house and grazing cows, and 15th-century St. Eusebius Church featuring glass-floored observation balconies added in 2018 at heights of 59 and 62 meters. Seven of us step out and take in the view to the left, right, up and (nervously) down.

By the time we disembark in Amsterdam, our group has decided to meet up that night after checking into our hotels. Our Teeming journey comes to an end with a unique Dutch treat. At Wynand Fockink, a circa-1697 tavern that serves genever (Dutch gin) and fruit brandies, we line up at the bar for the traditional bow for the first sticky sip – no hands allowed. We got for it, our intense slurps humorously memorialised on social media.

The Verdict

Highs: Meeting travelers enthusiastic about seeing sights independently (climbing Cologne Cathedral was literally a high and Stolzenfels Castle was a gem) and trying local food and drink, such as fiery coffee in Rüdesheim, excellent rieslings in Boppard, bratwurst and Kölsch beer at Früh am Dom in Cologne and a potent Dutch spirit in a 350-year-old bar in Amsterdam.

Lows: The onboard wine: a raspy red and an astringent white (in a region known for delicious rieslings no less) left just a dry rosé as the drink of choice.

Best suited to: Travelers without mobility issues who like to plan their own itineraries or simply wander and discover the soul of a place.