As the Emerald Star docks in Cologne, Germany, on an eight-day Rhine river cruise, passengers gather in the lobby, ready to disembark for their daily tour. The room drones with conversations and two words ring in accents from Australia, the U.S., Canada and the UK: “kölsch” and “cathedral.” When the gangplank drops, some passengers line up to board the ubiquitous motor coaches but another two dozen don bicycle helmets and, armed with maps supplied by the cruise director, hop on bikes to pedal to the heart of one of Germany’s oldest and most historic cities.
By late afternoon, a few passengers sit in the square in front of the Cologne Cathedral, watching chalk artists illustrate the flagstones outside. The bike racks outside Gaffel am Dom, a brewhouse across the street, are crowded with Emerald Waterways-logoed bicycles, and the tall tables inside are even more crowded with passengers. The barman circulates, dropping cold glasses of kölsch and snatching up empties.
One of the tour guides stands and raises a hand for quiet. The crowd, mostly Emerald passengers in this part of the brewhouse, hushes, a little.
“The coaches are on the way, so if you rode here, please settle your bills and follow me to the square,” she says.
The crowd thins, but a few Emerald passengers sit tight.
“One more?” An Australian man asks his table. “We’ve got time before we bike back. If we drink fast.”
Days like this are typical for river cruise passengers. Ships generally sail in the evening and dock at some picturesque town in the morning where passengers head out to explore on their own or as part of an organized excursion. At night, it’s dinner and drinks—sometimes dancing or trivia—on board as the ship makes way to the next port.
River cruises have a reputation for being packed with stodgy retirees, but that’s not the case with many river cruise lines these days. Passengers are getting younger, excursions more active, and the style of the ships sleeker and more appealing. So why not book a trip along one of Europe’s storied rivers?
Here are five reasons a river cruise should be on your vacation radar this year.
Let’s Get Physical
Photo courtesy of Emerald Waterways
Cruises were once thought of as sedentary vacations, but Emerald Waterways, AMA Waterways, Avalon Waterways and Scenic keep a fleet of bikes on board for passengers to use in port. On the Rhine, beat the busses to downtown Cologne, pedal to the cathedral and breweries in Bamberg, or just go for a long morning ride along the river. Some cruise lines, like Scenic, are taking their bike game to a new level by partnering with Trek Travel for road cycling excursions up to 60-miles long.
Active excursions aren’t just limited to bikes; you can hike to hilltop castles or through vineyards, even go canoeing or kayaking, depending on the cruise line. You can also build your own active excursion, like the runner who, seeing the distance between the morning and afternoon ports, grabbed a map, laced up her shoes and got in some miles. She was waiting, beer in hand, when the ship arrived at the next port.
Nighttime Is the Right Time
During many river cruises, the ship will dock overnight in a port, giving you time to dine at a local restaurant or just explore the town after dark.
At Koblenz, The Emerald Star docked in the shadow of a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I at the point where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers meet. Several of us decided on dinner ashore and found our way to Münzplatz, a restaurant-lined square in the center of the old town. After dinner, we rode the funicular across the river and found the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress on the opposite bank of the Rhine transformed into a miniature music festival for the night.
Make New Friends
Photo by Jason Frye
Of course you’ll get to know your fellow passengers (you never know who’s traveled here before and knows a secret spot to visit), but get to know your crew as well. They come from all over Europe, so on the river you may be cruising through someone’s home country or even hometown. They’re proud of the places they know, so they’re ready to share bits of the language, favorite local foods and drinks, and customs. Sailing through Hungary, don’t be surprised to find waiters humming the national anthem or teaching guests to say (but not spell) köszönöm—thank you.
Don’t overlook the captain, who often is available in the wheelhouse on easy stretches of the river, or the chef; tour their respective (tiny) spaces for insight into how the ship operates.
The Ship Is Yours
Photo courtesy of Emerald Waterways
Every river ship is a little different, but they’re all built for one thing: your comfort. The Emerald Star has the typical features—a chair-lined top deck with a putting green and walking track, a spa, a small gym, tons of on-demand movies on the televisions and bar service any time you need it—but one thing set it apart: the infinity pool turned nighttime cinema (pictured above).
The pool, at the back of the ship, is heated, deep enough to dunk in, shallow enough to stand in, and surrounded by windows. One lazy afternoon we took in the scenery of a particularly castle-packed stretch of the Rhine while floating in the pool thanks to a retracting roof. Surprisingly, not many passengers made use of the pool, which meant every time we went for a dip, there were only a few others there with us. At night the pool area converts into a cinema, complete with popcorn and comfy chairs.
Lastly, remember to relax. The first couple of days onboard, passengers invariably flit about to make sure they experience everything the ship has to offer without taking a moment to relax and enjoy it. Get a coffee from that futuristic coffee machine and sit on the deck. Schedule a massage. Take a nap. Relax; the ship will be there for your whole vacation.
Jason Frye is a travel writer from North Carolina who finds that no matter what country he’s in, people assume he speaks the language; he suspects he has an international face.