We were asked by retired friends of ours to join them on a river cruise on Grand Circle Travel’s “River Rhapsody” for a cruise up the Rhine and Mosel rivers. We have been on numerous large ship cruises but never on a river ship. We had a couple of major concerns; “would there be enough to do on such a small ship?” and “we will probably be the youngest people on this ship”. We are in our early 50’s and still have active lives and like to have an active vacation. We ultimately signed up for the trip along with 2 other couples, friends of ours that are our same ages.
Regarding the ship itself I learned online that the River Rhapsody was about 20 years old. Needless to say I had concerns about the condition of a vessel that old. But my concerns were soon laid to rest. I’m not sure when the last updating/refitting was, but the ship looked new. The condition of all of the paint, tile, carpet, lighting and furnishings was excellent. Our stateroom was very well laid out and indeed had the largest shower of nearly any cruise ship I have traveled on. The old joke in the industry is that to take a shower on a cruise ship you first soap down the walls of the shower, and then you jump in and spin. If I drop the soap in a normal shower I might be able to squat down to get it, but more than likely I would have to step out of the shower to pick it up. Not so on the River Rhapsody. The shower was more than ample. There was plenty of storage in the stateroom with an overall great use of space.
This was partly due to the interesting design of the beds. They fold down from the walls on each side of the cabin. When folded down there are overhead reading lights, and the head of the bed raises up like a chaise lounge for added comfort. When stowed away, the beds become a rather small settee with a table between them. The only drawback with the design is that they cannot be reconfigured into a queen size bed.
Noises on this ship were somewhat of a problem. There were numerous locks our ship had to navigate on this journey, many in the middle of the night. The compact size of the ship did not allow for much in the way of sound isolation. Many times people in our group were awakened in the middle of the night by all of the noises associated with passage through a lock, under a low bridge or setting up the gangway at a dock. The associated electric motors and hydraulics reverberated through some of the cabins at a level that would wake many of us up in the middle of the night. If this is an issue of maintenance of the equipment, then they absolutely need to fix the problem. If this is the nature of the ship itself then perhaps more care in performing / scheduling these operations (particularly in the middle of the night) would benefit the passengers slumber. We did find out later from repeat passengers that the balcony staterooms on the upper deck were much quieter.
This was a new one for us. After a couple of ports we got the concept. The program director is sort of a tour guide / camp counselor for a portion of the passengers on each ship. At each port there is generally a walking tour to orient the passengers to the port. This was a great service in that we learned information about the port or found places to go in the port we might not have learned about or found on our own. These walking tours usually took approximately an hour. That left us the rest of the time in port to wander on our own. Most of the time this concept worked very well. Other times the pace was maddeningly slow. Again, we like to spend as much time in port as possible exploring, shopping, dining, and taking pictures. It did not always work out that way with the amount of hand-holding required by some of the other passengers.
The crew on the ship was as good as or in some ways perhaps even better than any I have encountered on any ship or cruise line. Because of the small number of passengers (140 max.) and the small size of the crew (I believe it was 28) you really get familiar with the crew; much more so than on a large ship. There was never a request that was too great and the friendliness and attention to detail was top notch. One evening before dinner we were having drinks on the sun deck of the ship while in port. The captain as it so happens was off that evening and he sat with us sharing wine and conversation. That was delightful.
Another concern with the smaller ship was regarding the availability and the variety of food. There is only one dining venue on this ship and only during set meal times. The food however was plentiful and in the off hours there were usually snacks in the lounge. There were a couple dishes and meals that were very good but, while the presentation was beautiful, the overall quality was only average.
We are primarily fans of dry red wines. The regions we traveled through primarily have white and sweet whites at that. In a wine shop in Cochem I asked for a dry red and was introduced to a variety called a Dornfelder. It was about 13% alcohol and thus very dry. It was magnificent. From then on whenever we found a bottle shop in port we looked for/asked for Dornfelders.
The ship also had free Wi-Fi available. There was a 500 megabyte limit for your sign-on but we never hit the limit. That may be partly due to the fact that it was not always working. In fact, if I can fault the customer service on the ship in any way it would be because of the Wi-Fi. I was having a terrible time connecting at one point of the cruise. When I pointed out that I was unable to connect to the Wi-Fi, every response from the Hotel Manager was directed back at me regarding my competence in using it or that perhaps that I had done something wrong with my account (in the interest of full disclosure I work extensively with computers in my job so I am very familiar with connecting to a network). I’m sorry but rule #1 in customer service is you do not blame the customer. Later when numerous other passengers were unable to connect, well suddenly there was an admission by the Hotel Manager that they had a problem with their equipment. Ugh.
The itinerary on this trip was fantastic. The number of ports we saw, the variety of places we went would be hard to duplicate by any other form of travel. We started in Antwerp Belgium and went up the Rhine to Basel Switzerland. There were also several days spent on the Mosel. Our countries included Belgium, Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland, and because of an optional excursion we signed up for, Luxembourg.
The Program Director for our group (Gunther Callebaut) was superb. He was very knowledgeable with respect to the history and culture of each port and spent considerable time orienting us to the layout of each city and places of interest we should not miss. He was very personable and also had a great sense of humor.
The only scheduled port we missed was Boppard Germany. That was due to the large amount of barge traffic on the Mosel and the fact that one of the 2 locks available in Koblenz was not working thus doubling the amount of time it took for the series of barges to pass through. Once we finally made it through that lock the ship actually stopped in Koblenz instead of Boppard. Upon leaving Koblenz we saw what has to be the most stunning section of the Rhine. From Koblenz up through the next several miles of the Rhine we passed by 17 castles. It seemed like at every bend of the river you could look further up stream and see another castle on a bluff overlooking the river. Amazing.
Our individual ports and excursions were as follows;
• Antwerp Belgium – It’s a beautiful and a very easy city to navigate. Plenty to see and great places to eat. They also have a Paul’s Patisserie in the Groen Platz. One of my favorite places I remember from Paris.
• Willemstad Holland – Very picturesque little village built within the walls of an old star shaped fort. Apparently it is a vacation/retirement spot for the very well heeled. An absolutely delightful little village.
• Kinderdijk Holland – This is where the windmills are located that are seen in so many postcards. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the passage paid to Grand Circle by each passenger is donated to the Kinderdijk site through the Grand Circle Foundation.
• Nimegen Holland – Picturesque city but not much to do. The optional excursion for this port is the Kroller-Muller museum. That might be the better option for this port.
• Bonn Germany – A much larger city than either Bernkastel or Cochem but with the university located there it very much has a college town feel. Beethoven’s house is there as well as St Remigius, a small church in which he played the organ for Sunday services as a boy. Our optional excursion was to Augustusburg Palace. Wow!
• Cochem Germany – Wow! Walt Disney must have visited here before designing Epcot or Disneyland. The city was like a movie set. Make certain to go to Reichburg Castle which is on a hill overlooking the city. It is well worth the visit.
• Bernkastel Germany – Like Cochem the day before, an amazing village. Be sure to visit the Dr. Thanisch Winery. Also if you hike up the hill to the castle ruins you will be rewarded with a great view of the city, the river and the Mosel valley.
• Trier Germany – A larger city like Bonn. At first it looked like just a big city but the more we explored the more we liked it. Make certain to visit the Black Gate, the Amphitheater and the Trier Cathedral.
• Traben-Trarbach Germany – A very small village. We chose the optional excursion into Luxembourg which included a stop at the American Cemetery where the soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge are interred. General Patton is also buried there. Luxembourg City is very picturesque. Be sure to see the Prime Minister’s residence and the Parliament building.
• Boppard Germany – Noted in the intro above
• Speyer Germany – Beautiful small city and also the location of our home hosted coffee. The latter turned out to be a complete disaster. The wife of our host was ‘called away’ because of work. The husband filled in as host. We’ve all heard the expression the “Ugly American”. Well we were unfortunately the guests of the Ugly German. What was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between us ended up as an hour long lecture from him about the evils of American foreign policy from Ronald Reagan to Afghanistan. It was an unbearable experience which was later made all the worse by the wonderful stories we heard from the other passengers about their respective home hosted visits. I believe they have been removed from the list of host families.
• Strasbourg France – What a beautiful city. Feels a lot like Paris but with an obvious German influence as evidenced by the amount of half-timber buildings. Our first morning included a boat ride through the canals of the city and a walk through part of the city to the Cathedral. You really need several days to see it all. In the afternoon we did an excursion to Baden-Baden and the Black Forest. Our second day in Strasbourg was a trip to the Alsatian town of Riquewihr. Wow what a beautiful village! Be sure to get the Muenster Cheese Pretzels. Delicious.
• Basel Switzerland – Another big city. Very picturesque and historical but by this point the trip was wearing on us so we probably did not enjoy it as much as we would have earlier in the trip.
Occasionally the program director will hand-off their group to a local guide, presumably because the local guides have better knowledge of the port. Our guide in Antwerp was fantastic... very informative and very funny. Our guide in Trier was pitiful. Very hard to understand and completely blew past the Trier Cathedral, a must see as far as our group was concerned. We went back to it after the tour.
This is a remote listening device for hearing the guide or program director as you move about on your walking tour. It’s basically a radio receiver and as long as you have your receiver tuned to the frequency your guide is transmitting on, you can hear them up to about 50 feet away. A really great concept but for me it failed in the execution. My receiver was always cracking and popping in the earpiece. They said it was because the battery was low so they had to recharge it. This meant that much of the time I had no receiver and unless I was walking within earshot of our guide I missed much of the commentary. Others in our group had the same problem.
The passengers of the ship were primarily retirees as we expected. Some of the passengers were really old and considering they were on vacation, really unpleasant to be around. With some of the passengers there was a cliquish mentality about the number of trips taken with Grand Circle and being part of the “Inner Circle”, the name for their frequent travelers.
While visiting the city of Bonn we were in a café and I overheard the discussion of another couple from our ship. The husband asked if she wanted to get something to eat. She said, “No, we paid for the food on the ship and we are going to eat the food on the ship!” Really? You come all the way to Europe on vacation and you’re not going to sample the local cuisine? Surely a meal off the ship will not bankrupt you and if so then how did you afford the cruise in the first place?
Which brings up another point… the obvious engineering of the daily schedules to race back to the ship for lunch or dinner, with little or no options for those that want to stay in port for the meal. As I stated before, in my humble opinion the food on the ship was only average to begin with and was hardly worth racing back to the ship for or was hardly so good that you could not afford to miss it.
So we come to the question which we all of our group asked of and answered for each other… “Would we travel with them again?” To a person each of the six of us said not for another 10 or 15 years. Virtually everything that Grand Circle did was great, start to finish. Overall we had a good time and are glad we went on the trip. But the general age and attitude of some of the passengers really began to wear on us.
For those that want or need or prefer to have everything planned out for them so they don’t have to worry about or even think about the details, it’s great. Our group however was composed of younger competent world travelers that needed more latitude and options in the daily schedule. And I’m sorry, but sitting in the lounge working a jigsaw puzzle on a sailing day does not constitute enough in the way of entertainment.