I lived in Germany for 3 years when I was younger and have been dying to go back to the German Christmas markets ever since. A Christmas market river cruise has been on my bucket list for years, so I was thrilled when the opportunity came ... Read More
I lived in Germany for 3 years when I was younger and have been dying to go back to the German Christmas markets ever since. A Christmas market river cruise has been on my bucket list for years, so I was thrilled when the opportunity came up for me to take this trip. I have done probably a dozen ocean cruises, but this was my first river cruise.
We began with two nights in Prague at the Hilton Prague Old Town. I can't imagine a better place to stay because we were within walking distance of two Christmas market areas. There were also some great local restaurants nearby. The second night we ate in an old 10th century cellar that had been converted to a restaurant. The food was good, and the atmosphere was excellent!
We were bussed to Nuremburg to board the ship. I was so excited as I stepped on board because for the first time in a long time, I had no idea what to expect from this cruise. The ship was so tiny (which of course I expected) but very welcoming. They had done a fantastic job of decorating for Christmas, and we even had a lit Christmas tree out on the bow!
We were in room 231, and the room was fantastic. It has the French balcony, so the entire wall is a window. I love the ocean, but it was a really neat experience to see the constantly changing scenery outside our room -- castles and vineyards and swans -- very different than ocean scenery! My one complaint about the room was that it occasionally reeked of cigarette smoke. I don't know if it was coming from the smoking area at the aft of the ship or the crew area that was just one room down from us, but there were times that it made me feel slightly nauseous. After the third occurrence, I mentioned it to the cruise director who blamed it on the ship next to us, but since that ship hadn't been there the first or second time we had the problem, that clearly wasn't it. Oh, one random complaint about the room: the tv had 8 different fireplace channels -- 8 different options for watching a fireplace on tv! -- but no music channels more recent than the 80's. :( I did, however, enjoy the German tv stations; they gave me a great chance to practice listening to the language and see how much I could manage to understand!
Speaking of the cruise director though (Jean Loup Domart), I have to say he was amazing. I left my credit card in one of the Christmas market shops & didn't realize it until we were heading out for an excursion. Long story short, he found out about it and actually went to get my credit card while I was on the other trip! I would have thought that he was absolutely fantastic even without the credit card issue, but that just proved his willingness to go way above & beyond what anyone would expect and shows how much he cares about the passengers.
I'm not going to go into detail on each port because that would take forever (and because until I get a chance to look back through my pictures, they're all kind of blending together in my head). But I will say that I would highly recommend this itinerary for anyone who is sort of a kid at heart and really just wants to experience Christmas every day. I was not at all let down by the Christmas markets and thoroughly enjoyed sampling all of the local foods & drinks and browsing the market stalls. We also visited some castles & impressive churches, so there's still plenty to do when you get tired of eating, drinking, and looking at Christmas trees. If you do a Christmas market cruise through Germany, the three things you must try are the Gluhwein, bratwurst (duh!), and roasted chestnuts. Oh, and in Prague, don't miss the honey wine and the trdelnik. If you see people eating something that looks like a hollowed out loaf of bread, believe me, you want one too!
The food was very good. Better than I've had on any mainstream cruise line. Maybe not quite up there with Princess, but not far off. I never ate breakfast on the ship because I knew there would be plenty to eat for lunch & dinner (and because I didn't want to wake up at 7 am just to have time to eat -- the included excursions were mostly very early in the morning). I only ate lunch on board twice because we usually ate off the ship, but everything I did eat on board was great. I especially appreciated that wine was included with dinner!
There was a happy hour almost every night offering half priced drinks. We definitely took advantage of that most nights, but you can't stray too far from what's on their drink menu. I tried to order a lemon drop martini (which I thought was an extremely common drink) and they had no idea what I was talking about. The server thought I wanted a regular martini (yuck!) with a lemon slice. So I reverted to a cosmo (which was on the menu) instead.
Nightlife on board is pretty much non-existent. There was a guy from Bulgaria (I think) named Sergio who played a keyboard and sang 70s & 80's songs (with a heavy accent). That was, until a drunk woman kicked him off his station so that she could play while she & her friends belted out "Bohemian Rhapsody." When my husband decided to join in, I became thoroughly embarrassed and decided it was time to retreat to the room! (It was pretty funny, though.) Aside from a cuckoo-clock demonstration one night (which I didn't attend, but my husband won a beer stein there), that was it for nightly entertainment. On the one hand, it was sort of sad that there was nothing to do after dinner, but on the other hand, I really didn't mind too much because I knew we were in for another early start the next morning. To me, this is the type of cruise you do primarily for the itinerary rather than the on board experience. We spent as much time as possible out in the towns and mostly considered the ship a nice easy way to get from place to place, not the primary destination like it sometimes is with ocean ships.
As for the excursions, I highly recommend the added excursion to Rothenburg. It's a very charming town that I remembered visiting when I had lived in Germany before, and I was so glad to have the opportunity for another visit. Most of the included excursions were great. The Bishop's Residence in Wurtzburg was amazing! But there was one that I felt was a waste of time (unless you're seriously into cuckoo clocks). I guess the ship has a deal worked out with this cuckoo clock store owner. He's the same one that came on board for the demonstration that one night. The excursion involved at least two hours on a bus (round-trip) to his store where we were given a free piece of black forest cake. Then we stayed at the store for an hour with nothing to do but look around this guy's shop. Yes, the clocks were impressive, but I had no desire to buy one or to spend my vacation time waiting in this guys crowded store. The cake was okay, I guess. I'm not one to turn down a free dessert.
After the cruise, we had two nights at the Movenpick Zurich Airport. I wasn't quite as impressed here as I was with our hotel in Prague. There was nothing within walking distance, so you have to take the train in to town. Once you get into the main part of the city, there really wasn't much to do. There's an indoor Christmas market that could've been nice if it hadn't been so claustrophobia-inducingly crowded. So we left there to find a place for dinner as soon as we could wrestle our way back outside, but Zurich is so expensive that it took forever to find a reasonable place to eat. We had booked an independent excursion for the next day to visit the Lindt chocolate store, a cheese factory, and ride a cable car up a mountain. That trip was one of the highlights of our entire vacation. From up on the mountain, we could see Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein, and the mountains that border Italy. There was this light shining down into the valley, and it was one of the most breathtaking things I've ever seen in my life -- right up there with the view from atop Capri.
Anyway, in conclusion, I'm not in a hurry to rush out and book another river cruise. I do prefer the ocean cruise experience overall and probably could never afford to do another river cruise anyway. However, if I were planning a trip through Europe, I would definitely prefer a river cruise to just driving around. I love being able to see multiple places in one trip, and a river cruise is a great way to get to places that can be hard to navigate on your own. I would not hesitate to book with Avalon again, although I am still very curious about AMA and Viking and would love the chance to see how they compare. Read Less