This was my first River Cruise, after about 15 ocean cruises. I went with my sister, both of us in our 50s. Usually we travel with our husbands and/or children, but this was our "practice" River Cruise, just to see if we would like it. This was also our first time in Switzerland, Germany, eastern France and the Netherlands, and our main objective was to get a good look at this part of the world.
We chose the Avalon Visionary, a new 128-passenger boat, for a 7-day Rhine 500-mile cruise due northward from Switzerland to Amsterdam, 9 to 16 September 2012.
We traveled directly from JFK (NY) to Zurich overnight, Delta Business Class, with tickets purchased through Avalon. I got a lower airfare from Avalon than I could get on my own. We took the hotel shuttle--very easy--to the Zurich Airport Moevenpick, also booked through Avalon. The hotel was awesome, because the room was clean, modern and spacious, we got into the room at 8:30 am, and the hotel was easy walking distance to the tram that goes into Zurich, which we saw later that afternoon on our own.
I would strongly recommend getting to your embarkation city a day early, because of 3 factors: (1) you have an extra day to handle the time change; (2) you have a cushion day in case your luggage is late (happened to me before, and I was lucky for the extra day); and (3) delayed flight can mean missed vacation time--we met a wonderful couple from South Carolina who had to "catch up" with the boat on Day 2.
It is colder in Northern Europe on average in early September than it is at home (I live near DC), by about 10 degrees F. After all, Zurich is at the same latitude as Quebec, and we travel north from there. We had some unusually warm weather in Switzerland and France the first 3 days, but the temperature sank to normal fall temps (55-70 degrees F) the rest of the time.
The highest marks I would give for the trip are for the tours. I think Avalon did a fantastic job, providing plenty of room in the tour buses and making all of the tours easy to follow. My sister and I are physically fit, but we were impressed that Avalon offered "slower walker" groups on each included walking tour.
The first tour we took was a non-included pre-boarding tour, to Mt. Pilatus and Lucerne, and it was the best. Do not miss it. We took cable cars up Mt. Pilatus, and a rail car down. At the top was the most amazing view of Alpine peaks, along with people hang-gliding and hiking. We had a crystal clear day, so we were lucky to get such a great view. Lucerne is a postcard resort city, with cobbled streets and picture-perfect buildings.
We then traveled to the boat. Visionary was very clean, crew was great, decor was simple and streamlined. Tour Director, Robert, was a hoot, explaining each night the planned activities for the next day with a rare mixture of insight and sarcasm. My sister and I had a Royal Suite, which was the last suite available when we booked for that sailing. I would not recommend this larger room; unlike large suites on an ocean-going cruise, there are no perks, just more square footage, which is basically not needed. Getting on and off the boat was so easy--you just pick up your laminated room card in the lobby and walk in and out. Zero hassle.
The cruisers were 100 percent English-speaking. There was not one person under 40, I think, and most of the group was a least late 50s and beyond. This is a very easy-going and comfortable way to travel if you are "getting up there."
Because there are so few passengers, you get to know a lot of them right away. By the end, you can recite first names for about a third of them. That's not at all like an ocean cruise, right?
We met sisters from NC, sisters from MD, couples from all over--everyone very nice, and very relaxed.
The food I thought was typically good cruise quality, with an understandably smaller selection for our small river boat than on a big cruise ship, with healthy alternative choices every night. There is no assigned seating, and we sat with many different traveling groups. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style. Good news for wine drinkers--the included wine at dinner flowed, and a different specialty wine offered every night--nothing stingy about Avalon how did this on our cruise.
Entertainment--well, it was basically a piano-player every night and the crew talent show one night. The best was the Captain of the ship singing "New York, New York," with a heavy Dutch accent. I have no complaints about the entertainment, because a river cruise will not have a Broadway-style musical, right?
The first portion of the Rhine was straight, calm and maybe a Â½-mile wide, and descending from the higher elevation in Switzerland to the lower elevations in France and Germany by many locks. The first night, we must have gone through a half-dozen locks. There are very few large towns directly on the Rhine, because this river until a century ago was untamed and flood-prone. There is a lot of cargo and river cruise ship traffic on the river, all shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boats, nothing too big.
Our first included tour was Strasbourg, France, which we saw by canal boat. This is another beautiful town, but with a sad history, as it changed hands back and forth between Germany and France over the years. Heidelberg was next, and is obviously very wealthy town, with a wonderful medieval castle. Heidelberg was our second-favorite stop. Mainz and Rudesheim (2 separate stops) were a nondescript industrial-modern town, and a quaint storybook town, respectively. We did the optional German dinner in Rudesheim, which was held at a regular restaurant, for a change of pace. It was good, but not amazing.
After Rudesheim, the Rhine itself gets interesting, around the 30 mile or so (just guessing) section around the Rhine River Gorge. Our boat Visionary traveled mostly at night, but of course traversed the Gorge in the daylight, so that the cruisers could take it in. The river is wider, there are a lot more bends and rocks, and there are so many castles, every mile or so, I think. We had a cold and misty morning, but this part of the cruise was awesome. It is also famously dangerous, and one bend in the Rhine has a huge rock hill and the statue of the legendary Loreley, the maiden who distracts sailors and causes them to crash.
Next was Koblenz, at the intersection of the Rhine and 2 other rivers. We had a walking tour here that started right at the boat, and it was our only boring tour, so my sister and I ditched it. There is a new cable car strung high above the Rhine at Koblenz, crossing the river to an old, very large and very high-up fort. We did the cable car ride and toured the fort on our own instead, and that was a great decision.
The next day we saw Cologne, large, commercial, cold, windy, and, well you can tell, not my favorite. But, it does have an immense and impressive cathedral, and the best shopping strip on the whole tour.
Finally, there was Amsterdam, which I love/hate, very strongly, both feelings. We did a long included canal tour, and saw the gorgeous homes and mix of both nice and decrepit houseboats lining the canals. We even floated past Anne Frank's house. Avalon does not offer an Anne Frank house tour, and tickets have to be ordered well in advance. I regret not getting my own tickets before the trip.
We took 2 of the optional tours offered in Amsterdam, Van Gogh museum during the day and the Red Light tour at night. The first was just okay--even though I love Van Gogh, there is only so much one can see there. The Red Light tour was depressing and demoralizing, as we should have known. Sorry we took that tour. And sorrier still it was the last tour of the vacation!
The next morning we took a pre-purchased bus transfer to the airport, which was another hassle-free trip about an hour from the boat.
Upon reflection, this was a very relaxing vacation, and I think I want to do this again, but maybe after I have finished the more challenging stuff on my bucket list. If I were 5 to 15 years older, I think it would be right in my wheel house. I think Avalon is a good, straight-shooting company, and I will seek them out next time!