Jaunts with the juniors
River cruising has become more family friendly
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