Am I a cruiser? No. I’m a hiker. A mover. A can’t stand still-er. I am not a lay on the beach, relax, vacationer. But you had better believe that when I got presented the deal of a lifetime from my best friend’s incredibly generous parents to take a cruise down the the Rhine River whilst visiting The Netherlands, Germany, and France, I was beyond excited to alter my normal travel M.O. and take this absolutely amazing Viking river cruise.
The Viking Trip
The Viking cruise starts in Amsterdam and ends in Basel, Switzerland. Depending on your flights you may or may not have time to see these two cap-end cities. You have the option of letting Viking book your flights or booking them yourself. If you let Viking do it you can arrange flight changes with them if you want to alter or extend your stay on either end. The stops along the way were Kinderdijk (The Netherlands), Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim, and Speyer (Germany), Strasbourg (France), and Breisach (Germany). Optional excisions are at all of these ports, some of which are included and some of which cost extra. Two of these excursions give you the option of also seeing Colmar in France, and the Black Forest in Germany.
There were six of us on this trip. Depending on what we all wanted to do, sometimes we were all together and sometimes we were split up. Four of us chose to fly in early to explore Amsterdam. There was basically no way I was going to fly into Amsterdam and then get on a boat and leave without seeing Amsterdam. I chose a lot of the included walking tours for my excursions and then treated myself to a few of the ones I had to pay for. I definitely included both Colmar and the Black Forest because who knows if I’ll ever be back!
The first stop on the cruise was Kinderdijk in The Netherlands. This is essentially a suburb of Rotterdam and is pronounced kin-der-dike. This was one of my favorite spots on the cruise. They are known for their windmills having no less than nineteen windmills, most of which are still fully operational.
Facts that Fascinate
- The person that runs the windmill lives in it. Just imagine: “come over to my home for some wine and cheese; it’s the third windmill on the left.”
- It takes two years of schooling to become a certified windmiller. If you want a windmill, the waiting list is generally seven to twelve years. Once you have a windmill it is in your family for life. In Kinderdijk there was a windmill that had been in the same family for eleven generations. That family probably had that windmill before The United States was a country.
- It is a UNESCO World heritage site.
The Viking Tour
Viking gave four excursion options for this stop. The free tour was the walking tour which came to about a mile of walking and included a tour of the inside of one of the windmills. Two optional excursions were windmill tours on either bikes or on a barge. Both of these options meant seeing more windmills from the outside but a less extensive tour of the inside. We were still able to go in one but it was one of the non-operational windmills that is set up more like a museum. The last optional excursion was taking a shuttle bus to a nearby cheese farm.
Our group was completely split on this one. Two did the cheese tour, two did the barge tour, one did the walking tour, and I chose the biking tour. We were all exceptionally happy with our tours. On the walking tour, when they went inside the windmill, they were able to take the stairs up and really see all of it. The barge tour still included getting off the barge and seeing inside the museum windmill and had extra sitings of waterfowl which my friend, a huge bird fan, loved. My friends that did the cheese tour said the potent smell of cheese was overwhelming but they found the excursion interesting. And I absolutely loved the biking tour. Even without the windmills I would have loved it. It was so beautiful and we saw horses, cows, and various birds. There were swans and their babies (which I learned are called signets). It came to about five or six miles of leisurely biking with a few stops along the way.
The next stop of the trip was Cologne, Germany. This was a stop that I was so excited about. Maybe it’s the fun name but, prior to even my first trip to Germany, Cologne was one of the German cities on my radar. Unfortunately, I actually found this city to be the biggest disappointment of the trip (though still enjoyable). There was construction absolutely everywhere which is both ugly and loud. Several city squares felt deserted. Even the parts of the city that had no construction and were more lively, there was nothing especially remarkable or notable about the city that stood out.
Facts that Fascinate
- In English it is spelled Cologne (and pronounced as such) but, in German, it is Köln and is pronounced without the extra syllable.
- The Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark and is the tallest twin-spired church in the world.
The Viking Tour
The standard walking tour was included and the extra tours included doing a Cologne tour by bike, a tour of Brühl UNESCO palaces, and a beer culture and dinner event. We had the whole day in Cologne so, if the times worked out, people could double up on tours if they wanted to with the Cologne walking and biking tour going on during the day and the palaces and dinner event in the evening.
I chose the regular walking tour on this one over the biking tour. This was the worst tour of the trip which, I’m sure, also contributed to my overall disappointment in Cologne. To me it felt like the tour guide had done the tour so many times that she’d stopped preparing for them and she was very easily distracted. We saw the highlights and learned some interesting tidbits but, overall, I felt bored and disengaged throughout the guided tour.
Four of us all chose to forgo a second Viking excursion that day and went off to do our own thing. We walked around more on our own, did some shopping, and visited the Schkoladenmuseum. Or, in English: The Chocolate Museum. Yes, please. This was actually a stand-out attraction. It impressed me way more than I thought it would. I knew it would be fun and that I’d get to eat some delicious chocolate. I did not, however, expect it to be so interesting and informative. All four of us were surprised and impressed at this museum; it was absolutely well worth the 13.50 Euros.
Koblenz and Rüdesheim am Rhein
This was a packed day. We started with an excursion in Koblenz, sailed in the middle of the day, and then had a second excursion that evening.
The Viking Tour
There was, as with all the rest of the stops, an included walking tour of Koblenz. Alternatively, during the day, you could tour the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress or the Marksburg Castle. Both Koblenz and the fortress were a shuttle drive away and the Marksburg Castle was visible by the boat.
After these excursions, everyone returned to the boat and the boat sailed down the middle Rhine. This was almost like an excursion in and of itself as the guests were invited to the sundeck to spot all the castles as the program director, Radin, informed us about all the castles we were seeing. They also served us ice cream for no reason other than they apparently felt like it. It was a gorgeous afternoon that we spent cruising down the Rhine river laying in the sun, eating ice cream, and photographing castles along the river.
By early evening we had reached our next port: Rüdesheim am Rhein. There was no walking tour here but guests that were not participating in one of the excursions could easily walk into the town to explore. The two optional excursions were a German dinner out at a restaurant in town or a wine tasting and dinner at the Eberbach Monastery.
For the Koblenz part of the day none of us actually ended up doing the Koblenz walking tour. Two chose to do the Marksburg Castle and myself and the three others chose the Ehrenbreitstein fortress. The fortress was different and interesting and the tour guide was most entertaining as the guides there are actually actors that pretend to be trying to gather information about the fortress. Our guide never wavered from his part pretending to be weary when we saw another tour group and telling us to “watch the horses” when someone drove by in a motorized cart. There were beautiful views of Koblenz from up in the fortress and the tour ended with a gondola ride down into the town that gave us a great view of the Deutsches Eck monument. I thoroughly enjoyed this tour and the only downside is that, with the fast turnaround to the boat, we really only got to see one little piece of the town as we had to get to the shuttle almost immediately.
For the evening, my group was split up again. My friend Amy and I chose the German dinner in town. We also spoke to the program director about what else we could fit in. He gave us advice and a timeline including when and where to meet the group for the dinner and to be back on the boat by midnight so we don’t turn into pumpkins (or maybe because that was when the boat was leaving) so we scurried into town early and met the group at the restaurant instead, then, afterwards, stayed late in town so we could do extra exploring.
I adored Rüdesheim. All the towns were so quaint and cute, but this one felt even more so. The dinner was enjoyable and it was also just fun to do something different than the dinners we had been having on the boat. After dinner, Amy and I hiked up through vineyards to the Niederwald Monument. It was a packed day and a great one at that.
I didn’t have a whole lot on my list for Speyer. Additionally, the day we were there was also a German holiday and almost everything was closed. Restaurants were the only thing open and people were relaxing sitting in restaurants’ outside seating.
The Viking Tour
The only excursion at this stop was the included walking tour. The first half of this day the boat was still cruising so there was actually a limited amount of time at this stop, although it really doesn’t need much. This also meant that there were several tours and the groups were large and often running into each other in the small area that the tour went on.
After the walking tour the group split up for their own agendas. Amy and I took off to try and see as much as possible, while the other four were determined to find a German pretzel. Ironically, Amy and I were the ones that accidentally stumbled across the only place open selling pretzels. It was good but, in total honesty, doesn’t come close to the delicious pretzels I had in Salzburg.
Oh, France. How I have dreamed of going to France. It did not disappoint. Strasbourg is in the Alsace region and included the possibility of going to other French towns as well including Colmar and Obernai. The boat was actually docked on the Germany side of the Rhine and we were shuttled over. There was also a pedestrian bridge that I absolutely had to walk over so I could walk from Germany into France.
Facts that Fascinate
- The Alsace region and its towns are known to be what inspired Belle’s town in Beauty and the Beast. Which, after having seen it, makes perfect sense. It really looks like it.
- Being right on the border, this area is part of land that changed hands between France and Germany several times due to conflict and war. There are people that have never moved whose citizenship has changed five times between French and German citizenry.
- The buildings are very old because, during the war, it was known that the goal was eventually for the cities to become French again and therefore, out of desire to keep the city in tact, minimal bombing and destruction ensued.
The Viking Tour
The Viking included excursion was a general walking tour of Strasbourg. However, you could opt to do optional excursions to tour the city a different way. One was called Strasbourg from the Top which meant going to the top of the cathedral in Strasbourg before seeing some of the city. Another was called Flavors of Alsace. This was an all day tour moving around sampling food and drink of the region (side note: no one in my group did this excursion so I don’t know if you leave the city or if all the stops are in the city itself). The other two optional excursions were Alsatian wine tasting at a winery in one of the little villages or a tour of the Mercedes-Benz factory.
I have to say, I was seriously tempted by the Flavors of Alsace tour. It sounds like so much fun to move around the city tasting all the local foods and, as a guided tour, you know they’re taking you to good places. Especially now that I’ve been there and had some of that food, while no one in my group did it, I feel confident in saying that this tour has got to be a win. The French pastries and cookies I had were to die for; I will daydream about them for years to come. I ultimately decided not to do this tour because it was an all day affair; doing it meant it was the only excursion I could do whereas, with the other excursions, I could double up and do two different things. I chose the walking tour for during the day and the Alsace wine tasting for the evening.
I enjoyed the walking tour; it was probably the best one of all the walking tours I did on this trip. That’s partially because the guide was so good and partially because Strasbourg itself was such a treat. Strasbourg is the eighth largest city in France but, even so, it had such a quaint feel like some of the smaller towns. The only exception was the main square in front of the cathedral. It is clearly tourist town; it was a total madhouse packed full of people and the tour guide advised us to mind our purses and wallets for pickpockets. After the guided tour, we still had a little time to walk around on our own. Even so, I could have still spent more time in this city but, with our evening excursion, we had to get back to the shuttle by 4:00.
The Alsatian wine tasting ended up being so much more than just a winery visit. It included a drive through the small towns of Rosein, Boersch, and Ottrott followed by a stop in Obernai where we had time to get off the bus and walk around before departing again for the small village and winery. The owner was eccentric and engaging and gave me a new perspective on what it means to taste and understand wine. We sampled four different wines, one of which I purchased to bring home for my family to try.
Back to Germany. Sort of. The boat docked in Breisach, Germany but two of the three excursion options for this day were in France. This is the stop that gave us the opportunity for both Colmar and the Black Forest.
Facts that Fascinate
- The Black Forest is actually not the name of a forest. It is the name of the mountain range.
- There is a dessert named especially for the Black Forest called Black Forest Cake. It is made with cherries and alcohol (and maybe a few other ingredients but, really, a lot of alcohol). It is potent; you can definitely taste the liquor.
The Viking Tour
There were two options to go to Colmar, France, one of which was a guided tour of the town and the other was called Colmar in WW2: Museum & Memorial. The last excursion was the Black Forest in Germany which meant an hour and a half drive to the destination and then an hour drive back. The two Colmar excursions were at the same time so you could only pick one, but the black forest was in the other half of the day so you could double that with either of the Colmar options.
I did the guided walking tour of Colmar on this one. I was so excited that seeing Colmar was an option because I’ve seen so many photos of it in my travel feeds. It’s just as cute, if not cuter, then I imagined.
We all did the Black Forest in the second part of the day. We had read ahead of time that people felt that this excursion was underwhelming due to all the driving, which also meant that there was limited time at the destination. Even so, it is likely the only chance I will ever have to go there and I was not going to pass it up. I would argue against anyone who says it’s underwhelming because the bus drive itself is beautiful but this comes with one major caveat: you have to be sitting on the right side of the bus. The bus takes a scenic route to the destination but a shorter route back which, I understand, is because it’s already a long bus ride and it lengthens the amount of time that can be had at the actual stop. But, on the scenic drive, the views were all on one side of the bus. Those sitting on the “wrong” side don’t have the opportunity to then see those views on the way back because a different, non-scenic, route is taken. I have to admit, this made me a little grumpy. Obviously they can’t have everyone crowding one side of the bus but, being on the bad side really compromised my experience. (If you choose to do this you want to be sitting on the opposite side as the driver).
The Countries and People
- The Netherlands: I enjoyed my time in The Netherlands. It was clean, unassuming, and I found the culture to be very open-minded and accepting.
- Germany: This was my second time in Germany and, while I was in a completely different part of the country, I found the people to have similar attitudes. They’re exceptionally friendly, sometimes on the verge of perky, and seem very willing to share and talk.
- France: The French have a reputation for being so proud that they are rude. Stories of French people refusing to speak to American tourists in English abound the internet. This is supposed to be at its extreme in Paris but the country overall is known for that pride. However, Americans are known for expecting everyone to bend to them so, from a different perspective, one could argue that perhaps the French are just holding Americans accountable and reminding them that Americans are visiting their country. What I found was that the French pride translates to them just wanting you to try. We were advised to greet in French and then follow with, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.” This approach did not fail us: every time we got a polite nod and some variation of, “English is ok,” in return.
- How it’s run: It’s kind of nice to have everything planned for you and Viking’s team are pros. There were a few times when there was a hitch in the regular plan (as so often happens when traveling). My group only noticed because of our obsessive planning accompanied by a 15 page printed guide of our plans (yes, really). These “hitches” were handled so seamlessly by the Viking staff that I’m willing to bet that the majority of the guests on the boat didn’t even notice that there was a slight change in plans.
- Excursions: In general I found the excursions well-rounded with options for everyone. The only thing I would say is that, for me personally, they were a bit too slow-paced and low energy for me. However, there was probably only about ten people on the boat below the age of 40 so the excursions are likely geared towards an older age group.
- Tours: What I liked about the Viking tours is that they choose local guides at every stop. With exception to my guide in Cologne I was impressed with every tour guide.
- The Boat: The boat was so very, very nice. It had two coffee stations that could make cappuccinos, mochas, lattes, or hot chocolate. It was also always stocked with snacks.
- The Staff: I was above and beyond impressed with the staff on the boat. I wish I could be friends with them in regular life.
I knew I was lucky to be invited along this trip. I knew I would enjoy it. I knew I would be seeing places that interested me but that I previously wasn’t sure I’d ever see. I didn’t expect to enjoy the relaxing cruising part as much as I did. I did occasionally get antsy, but I can also see the merits of a more relaxing vacation. Perhaps another cruise is in my future.