Six countries, endless history and sumptuous scenery unfold on a cruise between Basel and Amsterdam. Brian Johnston learns why the Rhine and Moselle rivers are ideal for novice cruisers.
As Scenic Pearl pulls away from dock in Basel, Switzerland, passengers gather on the deck, agog. In no time, green countryside appears as the Rhine points northwards over 700km towards Amsterdam. Vineyards and gorges, medieval villages and crumbling castles will pass along the way, and you’ll soon realise why this is a river-cruise route for the ages.
The ship is hardly across the Swiss border when it stops at Breisach, a lively bar-filled German town topped by a splendid church. From here a shore excursion takes guests on coach drives into the Black Forest, with noses stuck to windows as plunging gorges and cow-chewed farmland unfold. It’s just the excuse for a short hike to earn that Black Forest cake bursting with cherries and cream.
Next day, Scenic Pearl is docked at Kiel across the Rhine from Strasbourg. Now we’re seeing vineyards and geranium-draped houses. Strasbourg is a gorgeous city of canals and a towering cathedral, surrounded by half-timbered buildings that seem straight from a book of fairytales.
This sweeping change gives a fair indication of the cruise’s variety, and makes it a great choice for river-cruise novices. You board in Switzerland, visit Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium, and disembark in the Netherlands. From Alps to lowlands, Middle Ages to modernity, the aspect is always changing.
Germany is the very core, the heartland of the journey. Enjoy a day’s excursion in Heidelberg, the country’s oldest university city, famous for its romantic ruined castle, atop the old town like a crumbling crown. Later, the ship embarks on perhaps the highlight, the Rhine Gorges. The epicentre of wine-production and riverine trade for centuries, this section of the Rhine is dotted with battlemented towns, rolling vineyards and castles on crags. As we cruises through the gorges, passengers use their own Scenic “Tailormade” audio system to learn of the history and legends of this dramatic region.
As Scenic Pearl sails northwards, passengers fall into a pleasant routine of indulgent buffet breakfasts, followed by shore excursions into the surrounding landscape or nearby towns. Some use their Tailormade on self-guided tours at their own pace. Navigating through frequent locks on this most regulated of rivers fascinates many passengers. In the evenings, the ship’s 167 guests are treated to lobster tail on saffron risotto with snow peas, or herb-encrusted rack of lamb with grilled zucchini. Somehow, there always seems to be room for peach melba or baked Alaska for dessert.
The Rhine Gorges end at Koblenz, where the Rhine meets the Moselle River at a town flanked by agreeable promenades with views to Festung Ehrenbreitstein, one of Europe’s most imposing fortresses. As a special treat, passengers ride over to the ramparts of the fortress by cable car for a cocktail with some view!
The following days are spent on Rhine tributary, the Moselle, a smaller, more intimate waterway with closer views, and villages rather than towns. Vineyards tumble into the water. At Cochem we visit Reichsburg Castle high above the town on a bend in the river and one of Europe’s most romantic spots. The sailing is glorious all the way along the Moselle to flower-filled Bernkastel, where an optional excursion takes passengers to curious little Luxembourg, or alternatively to Trier, an ancient German city with Roman ruins.
By journey’s end, Scenic Pearl is gliding through the Netherlands, where the landscape has flattened out and big skies form a canvas of ever-changing Dutch paintings. It’s a marvel to observe how water management has created this entire landscape, with its locks, dykes and network of canals. A foray into Belgium has Scenic Pearl anchoring in Antwerp, where the day is best spent on an excursion to Bruges. This wonderful town lies on canals with watery vistas towards church spires and medieval clock towers. Horse-and-carriages clip-clop across the main square, where visitors slurp ice-creams and admire grand buildings.
A gala farewell dinner of beef tenderloin with port-wine sauce followed by strawberry cake, and a hilarious and off-beat evening show from the ship’s crew, make for a happy final hurrah. It seems appropriate that Amsterdam, a city defined by water, is the final destination and a fitting end to a great river journey.
CRUISE LINE: Scenic
VESSEL: Scenic Pearl
STAR RATING: 4
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 167
TOTAL CREW: 53
PASSENGER DECKS: 2
ENTERED SERVICE: 2011
LENGTH: 135 metres
FACILITIES: Crystal Dining, River Café, Table la Rive, Panorama Lounge, wellness area, sun deck, walking track
BOOKINGS: Eight-day Rhine Highlights cruise from Basel to Amsterdam is priced from $4295 per person twin share. Visit: scenic.com.au
HIGHS: Roomy cabins and butler service on the ship; and the big variety of sights and landscapes along the way.
LOWS: There isn’t enough time to see everything in depth, as river cruising leads you ever onwards. You’ll want to sail this route again.
BEST SUITED TO: Couples aged 40 and above. There are no amenities specifically for children.