Sponsored by Viking River Cruises
Cruising the Rhine in the depths of winter isn't something that tends to be top of travelers' wish lists -- and until now it hasn’t been widely available.
During the winter season, sailing on Europe's waterways showcase some of the most popular draws on the region at a more peaceful time of year, starting in November and taking travelers through the magical festival season, when rivers are aglow with Christmas markets. This year, Viking also offered its first winter river cruise in the heart of Europe during the off-season months of January and February.
Here are 9 things I learnt on my recent Rhine River winter cruise.
Admittedly, I was somewhat skeptical at the thought of sailing through the gloomy rain and chill of a European winter rather than jetting off somewhere sunnier and revelling in warmer temperatures.
On my January sailing, I was pleasantly surprised at how little the weather conditions affected my enjoyment of exploring the varied port calls. Our cruise started amid downpours and dark skies in Amsterdam, but it didn't matter because the city's vibrant buzz and picturesque Christmas lights quickly lifted my spirits.
A few days in and the mild temperatures disappeared, replaced by a snowy chill with gorgeous blue skies and sunshine that showcased the medieval glories of the riverside towns perfectly, though freezing temperatures could make walking tours particularly glacial.
But it was nothing that decent attire and a welcome coffee couldn't cure and it also made our Viking Longship, the Viking Tialfi, even more cozy to return to, especially when we were greeted on our return from shore excursions by crew bearing warming drinks.
The biggest benefit by far was the lack of other tourists with no sign of the vast throngs of visitors that swamp the Rhine's most popular towns and cities during the rest of the year.
In all the stops on this cruise, we appeared to be the only tourist group -- even in the likes of Cologne and Strasbourg which, especially during the summer months are busy with tourists.
Yet at this time of year the cobblestones and winding streets of Strasbourg were blissfully deserted and even the picturesque passageways of its historic Petite France quarter, which on my previous visit were heaving with summer crowds, were virtually empty.
There was barely a line for the city's stunning Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral, just 10 or so people waiting to have their bags checked by security staff, and it was a similar situation for the daily 12 noon show highlighting the workings of the Astronomical Clock.
Aside from Amsterdam, which had the usual crowd of international tourists, it was the same everywhere which gave a fascinating taste of everyday local life.
Nearly all tourist shops and local draws were open as usual in the places we visited, and the focus of excursions was more concentrated on museums and indoor attractions less affected by the vagaries of the weather.
The cities on our sailing were always going to offer enough points of interest, but each place had been specifically included in the itinerary because they stayed open as usual in the New Year.
This was certainly the case for Heidelberg, Speyer and also the Dutch city of Nijmegen -- which still bustled with local life, but on a visit to the fascinating World War II Freedom Museum nearby, we enjoyed the luxury of having it virtually to ourselves.
The cruise director gave a presentation about the Netherlands and Dutch traditions on one evening, while resident musician Sal kept the night-time tempo tapping.
Even though I was onboard in the winter months, there was little trace of the festive season as there were no Christmas decorations, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.
With this being midwinter, there were no deck activities as such, though I spotted fitness fans doing regular circuits in the fresh air.
Our passage through the Rhine Gorge was the only time when guests went on to the open decks in any large numbers to admire the panoramic views and crew members soon appeared with warming mugs of hot chocolate -- with a tot of rum for those who wanted it.
This sailing was fully-booked with mainly Americans (accounting for 84 percent) and the remainder made up of Britons, Canadians and Australians, ranging in age from 18 to 80 years.
Many guests had been keen to travel at this time of year, citing cheaper prices, less crowds and having more time to travel now than during the summer.
British couple, Tracey and Andy Kenyon from West Sussex, said the timing of a winter cruise suited them better.
"We thought it would be really nice to do this after having Christmas with the family as it meant we had something for us and we could get away," said Tracey.
As Viking Tialfi appeared to be the only passenger ship on this stretch of the Rhine (apart from its sister ship traveling in the opposite direction), there was none of the juggling for docking spots.
In most places, we enjoyed prime position and while Viking owns several docking locations, we weren't even in competition with the usual fleet of Viking ships as most were moored up for the season.
This also avoided the traditional double-docking situations when you sometimes find your view of the river obscured by another ship that suddenly moors up alongside.
Many Christmas decorations were still in place along our route, though in Speyer it was fascinating to see the lofty cranes brought in to dismantle its giant spinning Christmas pyramid.
But even where Yuletide decorations were coming down, many stores were still had a festive feel. In the dedicated Christmas shops in Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Basel, it was so relaxing being able to browse the displays without the usual crush and, with some items reduced, it was an ideal time to snap up decorations for next time.
In Cologne, we were lucky enough to catch the final day of its Christmas markets that were bustling hubs with stalls selling off their final goods, the ice-skating rink busy with gliding skaters and the bars doing a roaring trade in steaming gluhwein.
The atmosphere was lively and buzzing and I got the impression that crowds of locals had come out to make the most of this final day.
Many Christmas decorations were still in place along our route, though in Speyer it was fascinating to see the lofty cranes brought in to dismantle its giant spinning Christmas pyramid. As with most of the towns and cities dotted along the Rhine, Speyer's enchanting festive decorations and Christmas market adorned the center since late November (as they will again in 2024).
But even where Yuletide decorations were coming down, many stores were still had a festive feel. In the dedicated Christmas shops in Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Basel, it was so relaxing being able to browse the displays at leisure, with some items reduced, it was an ideal time to snap up decorations for next time.
The most important thing to remember about cruising the Rhine at this time of year is how cold it can get and how quickly the weather can change.
My voyage started with mild rainy conditions in the mid-40s Fahrenheit, but in just a couple of days this transformed to freezing, snowy sunshine with temperatures plummeting to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Such a variation means that bringing a variety of clothing is essential with thick coats, hats, padded gloves, scarves and comfortable shoes or boots (preferably fur-lined, like Uggs).
It's also a good idea to bring thermals for extra warmth, while hand and foot warming pouches which heat up instantly are a definite must if you want to ward off the cold while on walking tours which involve a degree of standing around.
In the depths of winter, it doesn't get light until around 8 a.m. and with some tours starting at 8.30 a.m., be prepared for early morning starts which resemble the depths of the night. Though, once daybreak comes, it does get light quickly.
I didn't expect to enjoy this cruise quite as much as I did. All our stops were compelling and had enough to capture my attention.
I enjoyed that it made me feel as if I was peeking behind the tourist curtain to get a more authentic flavor of each place, though some cruisers may find it a little too quiet for them.
So would I do it again? Most definitely. The ease of exploring away from the usual crowds added its own special feel to this sailing that definitely made it more memorable.
What's brilliant about a winter Rhine cruise is, you can pick and choose whether you want an all-in festive immersion (in which case plump for a voyage between late November through December 24), or prefer seeing the towns and cities just as the festive markets wind down and the streets are filled with more locals and less travelers.