River cruises are supposed to be something for older people. At least, this is what people said on each resort ship cruise that we have taken so far. And it is kind of true, at least when we talk simply about the average age. But remember how in general cruising was poised to be a typical retirement vacation until just a few years ago? And look where it is heading these days. The same will happen with river cruises, I believe.
It was a very spontaneous decision to float on a river instead of the ocean. Most of my vacation was ruined by a severe bronchitis and I needed a little getaway, if only for a week. I needed a cruise preferably in Europe (to avoid long distance flights) and, most importantly, I was trying to keep the single occupancy surcharge as low as possible.
And so I finally decided to try something totally new. Spring was just around the corner and I pictured it to be quite picturesque to see my home country Germany in blossom from a completely different angle: From the gently flowing stream of the Rhine River. My ship, the Swiss led Excellence Princess operating for the Swiss tour operator Mittelthurgau Travel.
Day 1: Arrival & Embarkation in Basel, Switzerland
The journey started in Basel and would halt in beautiful destinations such as Strassburg, Heidelberg, Rüdesheim, Koblenz, Cologne and Duisburg before stopping with an overnight in Amsterdam. Passing the Loreley is supposed to be one of the most magical moments I have been told, so why not trying out oneself?
It was a gorgeous Spring morning when I left home and headed to the airport. There are several daily connections from Munich to Basel operated by Lufthansa which formed the most comfortable and quick connection. I also checked for bus and train tickets, but these would have come with a much longer travel time.
From Basel Airport it was rather easy to get to the Dreiländereck Pier, which lies a little outside the downtown area. Apparently, river cruise ships seem to relocate to another pier without forward notice, so it might be a good idea to check with the ship after your arrival in Basel. A telephone number should be listed in your travel documents.
The bus stop for Bus 50 is located right outside the terminal once you exit. Ticket machines (blue for the Swiss railway system, green for buses and trams) can be found adjacent to the bus stop itself. You can also pay with credit card, so no need to change money in advance! Bus 50 operates every 10 minutes from Basel airport to the main train station. I had to exit at Kannenfeldplatz, which is the fourth or fifth stop after getting on.
Just across the street lied the tram. It is just a few more stops on Tram 1 (direction Dreirosenbrücke) where I got off again. Apparently I could have ridden a different tram line from Dreirosenbrücke to cut the walking distance, but as the sun was shining brightly and the skies were blue, I took the chance and walked.
About 25 minutes later, I arrived at the pier. Excellence Princess was moored as the third vessel in a row to Dreiländereck. A new experience for me as ocean cruiser. To get to the ship, I had to cross through the sun decks of the other two ships, which was a little up and down with the suitcase.
Check-in time was stated as 3pm on the travel documents. I thought this to be like on ocean cruises to be a flexible timing. It was not. But the onboard lounge was prepared with little snacks and drinks to pass the time in a comfortable way while sitting at the large panoramic windows and enjoying the grand view outside. It was such a different feeling to be so close to the water surface and not looking down on the world from a 20 story cruising skyscraper.
Slowly, the other passengers found their way onboard and I could well listen to different languages and dialects. Apparently, most of the guests were of Swiss origin. But there were also a few British, some Germans (including me) and a French and an Italian couple.
As some of the buses were late, departure from Basel was at five o´clock in the afternoon rather than four. I was a little amazed how swiftly the ship maneuvered from the pier and then briskly sailed down the river past numerous bridges, of which some hung dangerously low above the heads of the people on the sun deck. I learned later during the day, that one some rivers, the entire deck fittings as well as the navigational bridge could be mechanically lowered in order to enable the ship to pass underneath. Now that sounds adventurous, doesn´t it?
I settled down in one of the many sun loungers and enjoyed this gorgeous spring day. Birds were chirping everywhere and people were waving good-bye from the shores. Everything is more or less just like on an ocean cruise where you concentrate on the sound of the waves. Here you can listen to the sounds of nature. I could almost compare it to day-dreaming on a fresh, green meadow. I was so quieted that I fell asleep for about an hour.
At 6.45pm, the welcome reception was conducted in the onboard lounge. Cruise Director Josef introduced the entire team and gave some useful information about safety and life aboard Excellence Princess. While some things reminded my of the classic SOLAS-procedures on large cruise ships, one thing that I had to adapt to was the sound of the alarm. No seven short and one long blasts, but a rather melodic chime would warn from any danger that could occur. The captain was part of the reception as well and handed a red rose to every female passenger. Just the men received everything but a wet handshake.
Swiftly after, the opulent welcome dinner was served inside the elegantly decorated restaurant in the front of the ship. As it was the first day of the cruise, it was rather a full nine course menu rather than dining à la carte, but it was an extraordinary experience. You would not expect less from a Swiss operated river cruise ship. Freshness and quality of each course was impeccable and the ingredients were carefully selected and well prepared. Unlike some of the ocean cruise lines, the level would not decline over the next seven days.
The first night onboard was rather tough though. As there were quite a few locks to pass on the section between Basel and Strasbourg, most of them during the night, there was a permanent outside noise. Unfortunately, I just had forgotten my ear plugs on this trip, so it was difficult to sleep through. Something new to me was also the fact, that the cabins with picture windows in the lower deck of the ship lie mostly underneath the water line. So even if you hardly notice any noises from the machines of the own ship, you can hear those of every other ship passing. I am sure, that this is not the fact on the higher decks where cabins generally have French or real balconies.
But anyways, I was still very happy with my little hideaway and the wonderful bedding it provided. It was the perfect environment to regain strength for the week ahead. What an adventure to explore my own country by river. A brand new experience to me!