Monday, January 24, 2011

Sailing the Rhine

The delights of a slow riverboat through Europe

I’m typing this out on my Mac as our riverboat sails today along the Rhine river from the historic city of Speyer to the wine-and-party town of Rudesheim amidst gloriously sunny weather. Speyer itself is a charming town with a handful of churches, and one disproportionately large compared to the rather modest-sized town it is. It has one major thoroughfare that serves as the main shopping street and the only place to go for any nightlife -- it's got cafes and restaurants on both sides of the street.

My husband and I are both avid cruisers, and this time we opted for a river cruise instead of the usual ocean voyage that I so love. We boarded our boat in Basel, Switzerland and are spending a week slowly gliding our way through Germany towards the port of Amsterdam.

Compared to the glamour and excitement of the luxury ocean cruises, with their formal dinners, Broadway shows, and on-board casinos, river cruises are all about small-town warmth and modest comfort. Size has much to do with it, of course, as river boats are constrained by the width of rivers and of the locks, which control the smooth flow of water. We’re passing through 14 locks on our Basel-Amsterdam route and our boat barely makes it through some locks without bumping the sides.

Every inch of space counts

Meanwhile, sea vessels are all about ego, although I personally prefer the smaller cruise lines which have 250 passengers at most, compared to the super ships that are really more floating cities than passenger vessels!. Our river boat has only 3 short decks vs. the kilometer-long 12 or 14 decks on some ocean ships, and each nook on the ship is so well-placed that I cannot find even one unused spare square meter of space. The cabin rooms too are testaments to excellent space planning. The rooms are only as big as some people’s dressing rooms, but within half an hour of unpacking, we had found satisfactory storage for every clothing or cosmetic in our tiny closet of a room, and had our five luggages out of sight under the bed. It took us about half a day to get used to our new "home," but afterwards we were extremely comfortable.

Informal camaraderie

Life onboard is also more relaxed than on an ocean liner, and again, it’s all about space. Riverboat cabinets won’t hold evening gowns and tuxedoes, so almost all meals are informal save for the captain’s dinners, which is a rather dressed-up affair. We were invited to be one of the six passengers joining the captain and his senior officers for the captain's dinner, and it was quite an enjoyable experience. We first had very private cocktails with the captain; and then when everyone was seated, we were escorted to our table at the center of the room and served a meal with lots of flourish.

However, this dinner was the exception. The generally relaxed atmosphere onboard promotes a jovial camaraderie -- people certainly seem friendlier in jeans and t-shirts than in gowns and diamonds. And because this ship is small and there’s not much to do – no chaotic schedules involving yoga in the gym, lectures in the theater, bridge in the cardroom and cooking demonstrations in the galley all at 10 a.m. – you’re more apt to spend time getting to know fellow passengers when you’re not out sightseeing. When you're out of your room, your options are pretty limited. One of the few places to hang out is the top deck, where picturesque villages and snippets of regular life pass by as you lie on sunbeds. It’s also the main place to make new friends.

Shared tables and new friends

Due to space constraints, dining on a river boat is mostly shared tables, enabling you to meet practically the entire ship by the end of the week. On this particular cruise, my husband and I are the only ones from Asia, so we tend to stand out and be easily remembered. The majority of cruisers come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. On our first evening, we sat with Jenny and Neil, a couple from Rotorua, New Zealand, who welcome Asian exchange students into their home every year. Meanwhile yesterday, at lunch in a historical restaurant in Heidelberg, we ate with a retired pilot from Dallas who flew B-52 planes in the Vietnam War. Yesterday’s dinner onboard was with Willy and Jill from the Canadian side of Lake Superior. Willy was once a famous hockey player whose story appeared in the cult movie “Slap Shot” starring Paul Newman. Meeting such people made the cruise so much more enjoyable.

To reserve a limited seat,
please call Rachel at 813-8400 or email
Tickets for the dinner and concert cost PhP 1499 per person.


1 comment:

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