Jaunts with the ju­niors

River cruis­ing has be­come more fam­ily friendly

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - JANE KNIGHT

It’s all ele­gance aboard River Em­press as we bob se­dately on the Rhine in sight of the hill­top fortress of Koblenz. While we sip cham­pagne and G&Ts on squishy so­fas in the bar, a tal­ented trio of two vi­o­lin­ists and a gui­tarist ser­e­nade us in style.

But step away from the chink of glasses and the sound of the strings and you will hear some­thing a lit­tle more dis­cor­dant — the noise of a fierce bat­tle be­ing waged. Some of the 40 or so chil­dren on board, in­spired by our ear­lier tour of Marks­burg Cas­tle, are play-fight­ing with swords and shields in the li­brary, which has tem­po­rar­ily been con­verted into a games room.

Wel­come to the fam­ily river cruise, still a rar­ity on the world’s wa­ter­ways. Al­though ocean cruis­ing for fam­i­lies has taken off on gi­ant be­he­moths that of­fer ev­ery­thing from ice skat­ing to wa­ter slides, river cruis­ing has un­til re­cently been the pre­serve of an older clien­tele seek­ing a slower form of travel.

A hand­ful of up-mar­ket cruise com­pa­nies is look­ing to change all that, in­clud­ing Uni­world, which adds a num­ber of voy­ages timed mostly for north­ern sum­mer school hol­i­days. Among them is the week-long Cas­tles along the Rhine itin­er­ary from Basel to Am­s­ter­dam that we are on, ac­com­pa­nied by mostly Amer­i­can pas­sen­gers. “Where’s the pool?” asks my 10-year-old son as we ar­rive on a swel­ter­ing day. “Where’s the cin­ema?” asks my al­most-oc­to­ge­nar­ian fa­ther, some­what be­mused to be told he and my mother will be play­ing one of a stash of board games in­stead. With no pool, cin­ema or kids’ club, this small ship caters for 130 pas­sen­gers, al­though its size means ex­cel­lent ser­vice from at­ten­tive staff.

It’s not a promis­ing start when my par­ents — used to the struc­tured ex­cur­sion for­mat of ocean cruis­ing, with signs and an­nounce­ments rather than the re­laxed river cruise ap­proach — climb aboard the wrong tour bus. They end up get­ting a drench­ing in the medieval vil­lage of Kay­sers­berg rather than en­joy­ing the dry weather in Col­mar, de­scribed as the pret­ti­est town in the world. Mean­while, my son and I find the town of Breisach not par­tic­u­larly suited to the or­gan­ised cy­cle ride we join us­ing the fleet of ship bi­cy­cles.

By Stras­bourg, we be­gin to re­lax, head­ing off on a canal cruise around this pretty city that has changed hands be­tween France and Ger­many sev­eral times over the cen­turies. We cel­e­brate France’s even­tual vic­tory with a fine se­lec­tion of French cheeses at lunch. That evening there are es­car­gots and french onion soup in the restau­rant (the ex­cel­lent food on board is par­tic­u­larly strong on lo­cal pro­duce). It’s not un­til we reach Speyer, though, that we re­ally un­der­stand the value of the packed pro­gram of ex­cur­sions, with sev­eral choices each day (and which, like all drinks and tips, are in­cluded in the price). Here, my par­ents try vine­gar tast­ing at the Dok­toren­hof es­tate, while my son and I opt for a tree­top ob­sta­cle course, which might not be any­thing close to the health and safety reg­u­la­tions we’re used to, but does prove to be ex­cel­lent fun. There’s plenty to chat about when we re­con­vene at lunch, be­fore head­ing off to­gether to the Speyer Tech­nik Mu­seum, with the added at­trac­tion of a slide down from a jumbo jet.

There’s a sim­i­lar choice of ac­tiv­i­ties back on board. So while there’s Pi­lates, a lec­ture on Martin Luther, and an amaz­ingly good opera singer for the adults, there’s also a pro­gram of events for the chil­dren, in­clud­ing tast­ing Ger­man sweets (a huge hit), a wa­ter bal­loon fight (a bit of a damp squib, prob­a­bly be­cause the or­gan­is­ers don’t ex­actly in­spire fun) and sto­ry­telling and face-paint­ing for the younger kids.

So we float down the Rhine, and the liv­ing gets eas­ier. As we go, there are con­stant re­minders that this is one of Ger­many’s main trans­port ar­ter­ies, with a stream of cargo-car­ry­ing barges head­ing both ways, and a sur­pris­ing amount of in­dus­try along the banks. There are 15 locks to ne­go­ti­ate, when the chil­dren (and I) rush out to touch the emerg­ing lock walls and stand mes­merised as the wheel­house is low­ered and the 11.4m-wide ship squeezes into a space only 12m wide.

It was guard­ing this im­por­tant trade route, the own­er­ship of which was much dis­puted be­tween the French and Ger­mans, that gave rise to the fa­mous cas­tles, most of which are con­cen­trated along a 65km stretch, from Bin­gen to Koblenz, known as the Rhine Gorge. On one glo­ri­ous af­ter­noon, as the chil­dren or­gan­ise their own gi­ant chess tour­na­ment, we adults hap­pily snap cas­tle af­ter cas­tle, tuning in to a com­men­tary on head­sets and sip­ping the odd glass of ries­ling.

There are ru­ined cas­tles and re­stored cas­tles (some con­verted into youth hos­tels or ho­tels), cas­tles named Katz and Maus, one on an is­land and an­other two sep­a­rated by a high wall (lo­cal leg­end tells of two war­ring broth­ers who owned them). Some tower over pretty vil­lages with pas­tel houses, and ev­ery­where they are sur­rounded by fields of tum­bling vines grown at seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble an­gles on the slopes. One of the most im­pres­sive is Marks­burg, which was never de­stroyed, pos­si­bly

Canal ex­cur­sion in Stras­bourg, top; Speyer Tech­nik Mu­seum, above left; Fa­rina 1709 per­fume shop, Cologne, above; River Em­press, left, and state room, be­low

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