We had been thinking of a river cruise for a couple of years and after 3 groups of friends raved about Viking we pulled the trigger on a downstream Rhine Getaway from Basel to Amsterdam. We booked the 2 extra days in Switzerland as I am ... Read More
We had been thinking of a river cruise for a couple of years and after 3 groups of friends raved about Viking we pulled the trigger on a downstream Rhine Getaway from Basel to Amsterdam. We booked the 2 extra days in Switzerland as I am convinced you need the extra time to get your body (and mind) over the time change. Those who flew in directly to the boat all had that hollow eyed and totally fried look. The trip over was fine and we were met by Viking at the baggage claim at the Euro Airport in Basel and taken right to the hotel. We stayed in the Swissotel hotel in Messeplatz right next to the convention center and took advantage of the free transit card (for all trams and buses) to go ALL over Basel. They also had a "Basel Card" promotion for the month of Jun that offered free to half price admissions to museums, etc. There are 25 museums in Basel as well as lots of good food and tour type things to do. We really liked the Roman ruins at Augusta Ruarica in Augst a short bus ride out of town. We'd like to go back to Basel and spent a week just there. The local Viking rep, Georg, was awesome for showing us how to get around and tips on where to go.
We had only been on one other cruise years ago, Carnival from Norfolk to Bermuda, and the small boat (185 passengers, 43 crew) was SO much nicer than that floating megahotel ! Open seating for meals let us make friends quickly and we were on a first name basis with the bartenders, wait staff, and stewards by the second day. We got the premium beverage package as a promotion and used it extensively for upgraded drinks. They didn't seem to mind if we ordered multiple bottles of the premium wines on our package for the entire dinner table. The Lofn is 2 years old and very modern and clean. We really liked the Aquavit Terrace which is an indoor/outdoor café at the bow and had breakfast there everyday watching the scenery go by. It was also nice to have that option for meals if you didn't want the full blown dinners every night. The only architecture issue is the "quarterdeck" reception area is kind of small when a large crowd of people is gathering to check out or return on a shore excursion. The boat is just the "bus" to get you from point to point as the excursions and tours are the point of the journey; but is it a very nice "bus". And as to buses, all the excursion buses are new comfortable motor coaches.
We took advantage of a mix of the included and optional excursions and almost all were exceptional (more on those that weren't later).
First stop was Breisach in Alsace. We spent the morning on a self directed walking tour of the old town. Of course every town has a medieval cathedral and lots of history and this was fun. We went on the WWII history tour to the Colmar Pocket. Being retired military and still a DOD contractor I found this fascinating. The little museum in Turckheim is one of the best I have ever seen (and I support many). The chance to see the US memorial at Sligosheim and stand at the very spot where Audie Murphy won the Congressional Medal of Honor was very cool.
Second stop was Strasbourg and we opted for the optional Taste of Alsace tour. This is a walking tour of the old city but you also stop at the farmer's market, boutique cheese shop, bakery, and a boutique wine shop where you have a lunch with all the stuff you bought. This was our favorite excursion. Valery our guide was really fun and entertaining. We finished with a visit to a restaurant to make our own FlammeKueche (a kind of thin crust pizza with roll our own toppings) and a visit to the cathedral and shopping area. We got maybe an hour of free time to wander as it was an all day tour. The only tour issue occurred in Strabourg as they were hosting Helmut Kohl's funeral and memorial service. Many roads were closed and the optional Alsatian wine tasting had to be canceled as the buses couldn't get to the winery. We also had to leave the dock early as they were closing part of the Rhine as part of the funeral. LOTS of security on the streets but it didn't effect our tour .
We docked the next morning in Mannheim to catch a bus for a day tour to Heidelberg. This was a bus tour and about a 1.5 hr visit to the Heidelberg Castle followed by an hour or so of free time in the town. Not long enough at all to explore this city but our guide, Andreas, grew up in town and went to school there so we got lots of history with the touristy castle tour (highlight was the world's largest wine barrel - okay I guess, but I wanted to see more....). We did find a neat Christmas shop in town and got some ornaments (collecting ornaments is our thing for souvenirs). We met the boat at Gernsheim for the trip on to Rudesheim.
Rudesheim was kind of a bust for us. The boat arrived at 5:00 PM on a Sunday and we had signed up for the "Dine in Rudeshiem" dinner at 6:30. Everything but the food sellers closed early on Sunday. A cheeky tram ride (think Busch Gardens tram) to a local restaurant for a dinner of the same German food that was served on the boat the next night. How much fun you had depended on where you sat in the restaurant. Our group ended up at an outlying table and they forgot to serve half our table. So the food was cold, the meat tough, and we missed most of the fun in the center of the outdoor restaurant. We would rather have had more time to explore on our own and found food on our own. The German dinner on the boat was better. But, conversely some said that dinner was their favorite excursion - to each his own.
The cruise down the Middle Rhine from Rudesheim to Koblenz was AWESOME. 16 castles and the weather was perfect (see pictures). This day is the reason you do the Rhine cruise. We did the bus/walking tour to the 700 year old Marksburg castle, the only one not conquered over the years since it is WAY up high. The special German dinner onboard was the second best all trip (to the farewell last night dinner).
Left Koblenz in the middle of the night to spend Jul 4th in Cologne. This was a busy day with a city walking tour in the AM with the biggest cathedral in Germany the highlight, a trip to the Bruhl palaces UNESCO site in the PM, and a Cologne beer culture dinner and pub crawl at night. I didn't think I was going to like the trip to the summer palace and falconry hunting lodge of Clemens Augustus, Prince Elector and Archbishop of Cologne. He was part of the Wittenburg family of Bavaria and was elected to the offices (an archbishop and he wasn't a priest - money talks!) But it was an unbelievable look at wealth. The German gov't used to use the place for state receptions when the capital was at Bonn. Cologne is the home of Kolsch beer and on the night tour you start with a dinner and beer and then go to a number of brauhaus (think microbrewery in the US) to sample the different flavors of Kolsch. Marci is not a beer drinker and even she enjoyed this night (of course we were with good friends we met along the way). Our guide, Marcos, was the same for both Cologne tours so that made it special. We got back to the boat just in time for the 11:45 PM departure for the Netherlands.
This part of the trip was a long (13 hr) cruise to a stop to see 18th century windmills at Kinderdijk outside Rotterdam. We made a quick stop at Gorinchem to disembark the folks who were going on the optional Dutch cheese making tour. They joined us later at Kinderdijk after a LONG detour for a closed roadway. They got a really long unplanned bus ride. This part of the Netherlands is very industrial and the Rhine here is one boat yard after another with rusted out hulks and nothing else much to see. It reminded me of a trip down the Elizabeth river in Norfolk, VA. It was interesting though to talk to the capt on "open wheel house" time. This part of the Rhine is full of work boats and barges and looked like rush hour on I-64. The windmill tour was very informative and we learned a lot. There are people living in these windmills and they are functional even today.
The boat arrived in Amsterdam in the middle of the night after we all enjoyed a fantastic farewell dinner and last evening with our new found friends. The disembarkation went off without a hitch. The crew had it all figured out as to how to separate bags and people depending on your flight times or if you were spending extra time in Amsterdam. We had a final breakfast in the restaurant, departed the boat at 8:30 and arrived at Schipol in plenty of time for a 1:00 PM flight. Interestingly, as we were disembarking there were people already arriving for the return trip cruise.
Because we were usually on a shore tour we didn't see much of the onboard "enrichment experience". We did catch the end of a glassblowing demo one night and bought some neat Christmas pieces. They did have some local musicians on board for Germany night and Boris, who is the house piano player. Think a Billy Joel "piano man" kind of guy who was friendly if not up to the caliber of Billy Joel.
One nice touch was the breakdown of the tours. Usually there were 5 groups, A,B,C.D, and "F troop". I think they did it alphabetically so we usually ended up in D group with the same friends. F troop was for those with a little less mobility and who needed a little more time, and those folks really seemed to appreciate it.
A word on the trip home. We had paid $100 each and took a day to travel to the Customs and Border Patrol office at Dulles airport for a 5 minute "interview" to get Global Entry status for "expedited" entry back into the USA. In typical CBP and TSA fashion it was anything but. After showing our passports and answering security questions no less than 6 times at Schipol, Global Entry did get us around the l-o-n-g passport line in Atlanta, only to be first in line with all those people who caught up to us to wait 45 minutes in the int'l baggage carousel to shlep our bags 50 yds to the domestic carousel (NO customs in sight, why did WE have to do this and not Delta) and then stand in line again for the full TSA security screening all over again ! No pre-check line. So what good is Global Entry?
All in all, about a 9.5 out of 10. Now, we want to do the Danube cruise to visit all the Christmas markets. Read Less