The typical Kiwi holiday in Europe is a whirlwind of trying to see and do as much as possible in the time you have. Cruising the Rhine with Uniworld turns out to be the complete opposite of that. As our riverboat glides soundlessly past picturesque windmills, half-timbered buildings and towering castles there’s little to do but take in the sights and be pampered.
Our floating hotel the SS Antoinette sets sail from the Dutch city of Amsterdam. This is a well-appointed vessel. On-board there are two bars, a swimming pool and gym, a cinema, a viewing deck and two dining areas. But my favourite place to be is wrapped in a rug beside the open window of our stateroom watching the banks of the Rhine slip.
There is something so magical about falling asleep in one place and waking in another. On my first morning I open my eyes to find myself in Germany where our first port of call is Cologne, famous for the cathedral that took 600 years to build. Being on the boat is so relaxing it’s tempting not to leave but guided walking tours are part of the package. Since there is excellent shopping in Cologne as well as impressive Romanesque churches I force myself down the gangplank. After all I need to hit chain store Zara to buy something to wear for the night’s Welcome Dinner.
Many of the towns and villages we visit on our way up the river are fairytale pretty. In Koblenz we stand at Germany’s most beautiful corner where the Mosel and Rhine rivers meet. And in Boppard we explore narrow lanes filled with ancient houses.
However the Upper Middle Rhine is the part of this journey that really takes the breath away. Here the landscape is rockier and more dramatic. Vineyards climb up steep slopes and colourful houses line the riverbanks. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this area is home to more than 40 castles. While not all of them can be seen from the Rhine it seems there’s another round every bend in the river. Some loom from rocky outcrops while one of the most famous, Pfalzgrafenstein, sits on its own island. These days many are used as hotels or youth hostels but back in the Middle Ages they were the homes of bishops and barons and there are stories aplenty that our cruise manager Christine is happy to share as we sail.
We stop at a village called Rudesheim where you can take a cable car up through the vineyards and admire the views, then walk back down in time to wander the cobbled streets and visit the year-round Christmas shop. We taste locally made wines and vinegars, specialities like sausages and black forest gateau.
With three gourmet meals a day supplied, plus afternoon tea, snacks at cocktail time and jars of cookies and lollies everywhere you look I’m relieved to discover there are bicycles on-board although it’s pretty gentle exercise bowling along the tow paths and through the forests particularly as there is often a beer garden to stop at along the way.
We leave Germany and cross to the other side of the Rhine to visit Strasbourg, France. This is my favourite place so far. Everywhere you look is ridiculously gorgeous from the houseboats we pass on our canal cruise to the half-timbered houses where leather-makers once plied their trade and the spire of the Notre Dame cathedral.
River cruising with Uniworld is a far more boutique experience than a trip on a huge ocean liner. With a maximum of 130 guests the atmosphere is friendly and the service very personal. By the time we arrive at our final destination, Basel in Switzerland, we feel like a little community and it’s bittersweet saying goodbye to such an exquisite taste of luxury living and walking down the gangplank for the very last time.