Rhine River: Christmas Market Cruising

Wednesday October 22, 2014 at 7:07 AM | 0 Comments

My wanderlust and love of boating each began at the same time: on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland when I was a child. At first the exotic costumes and props sparked my interest — then it struck me how pleasant it was to see the world pass by as I floated on a boat, cushioned by the water beneath the hull rather than bounced along a hard, rocky road or sealed inside a tourist bus.
These old feelings flooded into me as I awoke from a short nap in the forward observation deck of the Viking Jarl longboat as it docked on the Rhine River in downtown Strasbourg, France. My wife and I were on an eight-day upriver cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. She had been invited on the trip as a writer specializing in food and wine to experience Viking hospitality. I decided to tag along when I heard my two favorite travel words: “water” and “boat.” “Europe” didn’t hurt either.

"Strasbourg" Germany, Christmas Market

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Viking River Cruises is probably the most well-known to Americans of the European river cruise lines because of its advertising and marketing. The cruise line also boasts one of the most modern fleets on the rivers and it is adding new boats at an intense pace. Already in 2014, Viking has christened 16 new boats, a feat that got them listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Boat
Viking calls its boats “longships” in honor, one supposes, of the earliest Viking ships of that famous name. But they are nothing like the Viking ships of old. The boat we were on was the “Viking Jarl” — long and narrow due to the narrow rivers the longboats ply and the barges with which they compete for space. Still, the riverboat actually feels spacious.
Staterooms at river level have a large porthole window and no balcony, but are appointed with refrigerator, flat-screen TV, a small desk and a well-designed bathroom with high-end counter tops and all the accoutrement you would expect in a land-based hotel. Above this level, rooms are similar, but many have full-floor windows or balconies. At the back are more luxurious suites with bedrooms and sitting rooms. For waterbugs who spend most of their time on small pleasure craft, like the 30 foot sloop I sail, the accommodations are luxurious. For cruise ship aficionados used to rooms on gargantuan cruise lines, the space will feel elegant, but a little tight.

"Viking River Cruises" longboat

Viking River Cruises lounge

The front of the boat is devoted to public spaces — lounges, a library, dining rooms and a well-stocked bar. But these are nothing like the glitzy, cavernous public spaces on a typical ocean-going cruiser. Viking’s longships offer a much more intimate space, designed for quiet comfort. The land-based comparison might be between a small boutique hotel and a Disneyland resort.
Viking’s longships are not for those wanting to blend into the touring masses. They are intimate ships, with only 95 staterooms accommodating about 190 passengers, with 52 crewmembers, a ratio of one crewmember for just four passengers. The Jarl never felt crowded, and there was more opportunity to get to know people at the open-seating meals. There was also a lot of head-nodding and “how you doin’s” to people whose faces you had seen many times but had not actually met.
Mostly, I was struck by how these longboats are purpose-built ships. They honor the passing scenery as the main event, with walls of glass and intimate resting spots where passengers can feel closer to the life of the river and not far from life along the shore.
"Rhine River"

Rhine River

The River
The Rhine is one of the most storied waterways in all of recorded history. There is too much history of the river to be digested on even an eight-day cruise. Everywhere you look there is history oozing from the rocks, literally. Some of the earliest mentions of the Rhine River Valley come from the Roman Empire around 1 BC. The Romans brought their armies and building skills far north and constructed fortifications, aqueducts and lots of swords and shields to the area. Skipping ahead a few thousand years, World War II buffs will find themselves surrounded by names that evoke heartrending battles on both sides, from the Arnheim Bridge — immortalized in the book and film , A Bridge Too Far — to the bridges Nijmegen, and Ludendorff, spanning the Rhine at Remagen, which became famous, when U.S. forces took control of it, keeping open a key entryway for US forces fighting Hitler’s Third Reich.
Christmas Marke, "Strasbourg Cathedral" France

Christmas Market at the Strasbourg Cathedral

The boat generally travels at night and docks in a new locale before sunrise. That is, except for days when the scenery is spectacular. We saw the beautiful sections of the Rhine during the day, like the rapids through the Rhine Gorge below the famous Lorelei, and a stunning stretch of the river studded with castles that each encapsulate a period of European history.
I thought I wouldn’t like traveling so much while asleep, on the theory that I would miss a lot of scenery. Wrong. The trip was scheduled so well that we traversed most of the industrial heart of Germany while asleep, missing most of the smokestacks and car factories, while waking up refreshed and ready for a day of sightseeing and fun. It was perfect: new locales to explore each day but no packing and unpacking. It was “It’s a Small World” for adults. (For anyone fearing motion sickness, the boat was almost too still; hard to tell if it was moving or not without looking outside).
Oops. I guess I started out this story by admitting that I was taking a nap during the day, missing some of the beautiful scenery. But my wife was there to make sure I did touch land on a number of occasions.
Christmas Market "Heidelberg Castle" Germany

Christmas Market under Heidelberg Castle

The Shore
What attracted my wife to the trip was the timing: the Christmas season when the public squares of towns and cities all along the Rhine hold Christmas markets. I figured I would spend my time on the boat. But to my surprise, visiting the cities and small villages along the Rhine during the holiday season was invigorating and entertaining. It looked like each of the places we visited were committed to keeping the celebrations local and traditional, from the music filled markets in Cologne to the food-filled markets in Strasbourg, France. There are themes that carried through all the markets along the Rhine, be they in Germany or France. Warm, spiced wine — called Glühwein — is ubiquitous and comes in souvenir cups. I usually roll my eyes at the overwrought treacle in public relations brochures. But I reread this when I got home: “Songs of local choirs mingle with the aroma of sweet pastries and mulled wines along glimmering streets where local craftspeople showcase their hand-made wares and mouth-watering delicacies.” This was actually what it was like. Maybe it was all the Glühwein.
Our cruise was timed to fit in as many Christmas markets as possible. I thought one market would suffice — “If you’ve seen one … ” — but that turned out not to be the case. In Cologne there are many markets, and each one differentiated itself from the other. Some focused on food, others on toys and crafts, other on Christmas decorations. Some had music, others stunning locations, like the one surrounding the awe-inspiring cathedral in Cologne. Some small towns just had one, like the charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a small wine-producing town in the Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow overlooking the river. The Glühwein there was a cut above the others I’d had downriver, but that might have been the result of quantity imbibed, or because it was steeped in more fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves.
"Strasbourg Christmas Market" sausages

Sausages at Strasbourg Christmas Market

Then there’s the food. Some of the time I was there I felt like I was competing in the Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. The range of sausages available was mind-boggling, eye-popping and waist-enhancing. All kinds and sizes were being grilled and served in brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut, potatoes or spätzle noodles. And there was always a good German beer within reach. The vendors in each market had their own tales to tell of how they came to make their regional wurst. When the Rhine nudges up against France, as it does in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between German and French control some five times in its history, the cuisine is distinctive, a German-French collaboration that was sublime. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes but also beignets and some gorgeous chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.
The food onboard was also pleasing, with three substantial meals plus numerous snacks throughout the day. And the chef tried to make sure that at least one thing on our plates each day came from the surrounding area. And since we were on the border of Germany and France for much of the time, the selections were excellent.
A Few Things to Note:
Demographics: Viking must have the best marketers on the planet. They have chosen their preferred customer demographic and they have mastered the skill of getting them on board. The Viking ship we were on was filled with retired Americans, generally from the middle of the country, and some Canadians. The average age of the passengers was 63; when you met someone at dinner the opening question was usually “Are you retired?” The crew is well- trained and prepared to deal with the special issues of the older set; the whole trip seemed wheelchair accessible, and every excursion offered a way for the mobility-challenged to enjoy at least part of it.
"Cologne Cathedral", Germany

Christmas Market Cologne Cathedral

Bareboat Charming: “Bare Boat” is a term used by sailors for a boat one charters without a captain or crew, and with only the essentials needed to sail. While the longships are by no means bareboat, you should not expect all the amenities that you would find aboard a large Princess Cruises ship for 4,000 people. These boats are elegant but simple: no casino, no workout club, no cabaret, no clowns twisting balloons into barn animal shapes. There was not a child (or even a young teenager) on board. There is entertainment fitting to the style and close-in engagement with the local area. Local musicians came on one night to play classical music; a lecturer on the European Union gave a great talk on the politics of the region; local children sang Christmas carols; and a talented pianist played every night in the well-appointed lounge.
The Captain and Crew. The international, multi-lingual team that runs the ship is exceedingly proud of the vessel, as it should be. And the crew is more-than-happy to spend real time with a passenger who expresses interest. The captain held an open visit to the boat’s bridge and after a full hour of heckling him with questions, I asked if I could tour the hidden areas of the ship, including the propulsion, electrical, and waste systems (I know this sounds strange, but not to a sailor). After deciding that a middle-aged American wearing “Nautica” clothes was unlikely to be a terrorist, he hooked me up with the chief engineer of the ship, who spent nearly two hours taking me on an exclusive, impromptu tour of the “hidden” ship. For a boat geek, it was heaven, although my wife was a little taken aback that I was so thrilled to see the waste system (which, by the way, treats the sewage on board and returns only clean water back into the river).

It turns out it’s a large world, after all, and the Viking ships are a lovely way to experience the real thing.
If You Go:
Viking River Cruises
This is a guest post by Spencer A. Sherman who was a guest of Viking River Cruises. Photos courtesy Spencer Sherman.

Spa Week Deals

Saturday October 18, 2014 at 7:07 AM | 0 Comments

I’ve said it before, “If money were no object, I’d splurge on a massage once a week.” But like everyone else, I watch my pennies and treat myself to a spa treatment once every few months or when I come across a deal. Twice a year in April and October, Spa Week offers $50 spa treatments. The ladies at Healing Hands Day Spa offered me a massage and facial in anticipation of Spa Week. Are you in need of a little me time?

wellness and health

Laughter is key to wellness and health

Wellness and health benefits

Simply walking into a spa tends to lower my blood pressure. The low lights, relaxing atmosphere, soothing scents and welcoming staff are in complete contrast with my job as a travel writer. I’m used to rushing to catch a flight, shoulder strain from carrying a too-heavy laptop computer bag and hours of poor posture while typing on a computer keyboard. I need to shift my focus away from spa treatments as a splurge and keep in mind the wellness and health benefits to my body and spirit.

Benefits of massage

“My goal as a massage therapy ambassador, having studied at National Holistic Institute, is to increase people’s awareness about the benefits of massage,” explained Massage Therapist Amelia Academia. “To receive a massage is blissful, reduces stress, and improves circulation throughout the whole body. I believe that it is important to incorporate massage into a health plan, as much as going to the gym to exercise. It may be easy to think of massage as a luxury treat you do once a year. It really is so much more of a mind and body holistic healing experience.”



The benefits of massage


Having recently returned from a food and wine trip to Quebec, Canada, I opted for the detoxing massage. The aromatherapy treatment began with essential oils of rosemary, burdock, echinacea, lemon, geranium, peppermint, figwort and watercress. I was able to identify some of these scents from my apothecary experience at The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

Microdermabrasion facial

In my world, you only live once and you’re only given one body, so why not take care of it? As I have now entered the active baby boomer stage of life, I’ve decided to be open to facial treatments. Before my skin started showing the signs of age, I didn’t give it much thought. Now I realize the error of my ways and understand the need to keep adequately hydrated.


Young and cheerful, my esthetician Hannah Sweet grew up drawn to skin care. “I’d mix my own masks. As I got older I learned that I liked the functionality of the skin and how and why it works.”

My appointment began with a warm paraffin treatment to moisturize my hands & deeply penetrate the skin. Next came the microdermabrasion facial. Having never experienced this machine before, Hannah compared it to a cat’s tongue licking your face and that was a perfect analogy. A hydrating mask followed and I was ready to re-enter the work world after a morning of pampering.

Bookings for Spa Week deals are available online now with Spa Week taking place October 20-26, 2014 nationwide. To schedule a Healing Hands spa treatment click here. Check the Spa Week website for additional locations.

Insider Tip:
Spa Week offers deeply discounted treatments via Spa and Wellness gift cards. Redeem gift cards for treatments at any participating spa. For additional insider tips follow Northern California Travel Writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter and Spa Week on Twitter @spaweek.

If You Go:

Healing Hands Day Spa (925) 362-9892

2551 San Ramon Valley Blvd. Suite 107B

San Ramon, California 94583

Article and photos by Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown. I was a guest of Healing Hands Day Spa for review purposes. I was not paid for this review. All opinions are my own.

Small Ship Review: UnCruise

Friday October 17, 2014 at 7:07 AM | 6 Comments

"Safari Endeavour" crew

The crew of Safari Endeavour. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown

It’s not often that you meet a hotel manager while cruising on a small ship through Alaskan waters. In fact, I had no idea that the role of hotel manager existed on the high seas. Yet when you think about an 84-guest passenger ship, it really should be considered a floating boutique hotel.

I was one of 84 guests to experience an UnCruise Adventure aboard Safari Endeavour while exploring Alaska and Glacier Bay National Park. The 232 foot luxury vessel Safari Endeavor is Un-Cruise Adventures top-of-the-line ship. Similar to an all-inclusive resort, meals, alcohol, airport transfers to and from the ship, as well as all shore excursions are included in the price of the adventure. Something else that is included in the price of the cruise; one complimentary massage per person. You won’t find that at any luxury hotel!

"Safari Endeavour" stateroom

Commander Stateroom #318. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


Like the television show Fantasy Island, passengers are individually shown to their staterooms (offering five accommodation types) and sparkling wine awaits guests in the main lounge. The crew is friendly, energetic, knowledgeable and professional. From expedition leaders to waitstaff, wellness instructors and Safari Endeavour Captain Barrett Whitten, the mindset is “how may we make your experience unforgettable?” The goal of Un-Cruise – un-plug, un-wind, un-stress.

My stateroom on the third floor deck featured two single berths, a desk and chair, full-length closet, as well as several cabinets and drawers. The bathroom was small, but clean and functional. I loved coming back to my cozy room after an expedition and reading a book while the scenery passed by.

"Safari Endeavour" "Philip Bley"

Safari Endeavour Chef Philip Bley. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


Onboard dining

After touring the ship’s all electric galley kitchen, I have new respect for preparing hot meals for 80+ passengers in one sitting. The pastry chef worked her magic throughout the 7 day voyage and the executive chef prepared fresh Alaska salmon, as well as rack of lamb, among other menu items while sailing along Glacier Bay National Park.

“Our food service is based around the expeditions,” said Hotel Manager Kathy Madison. “The guests come to experience southeast Alaska. Our role is to support that adventure.”


"Kathy Madison" "Safari Endeavour"
Insider tip

For anyone concerned about food allergies or special dietary needs, Un-Cruise aims to please. Notes are kept in the kitchen with any special requests from guests, as well as birthday or special occasion celebrations. I also took advantage of the healthy snacks and granola bars available 24/7 for guests to enjoy in the lounge. I travel with my own water bottle, but the hotel staff had placed eco-friendly water bottles, as well as binoculars in each stateroom.

"Alaska" salmon

Fresh Alaska salmon. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


For additional insider tips follow Luxury Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown on Twitter @Nancydbrown and follow @UnCruise on Twitter.

If You Go:

Un-Cruise Adventures (888) 862-8881
3826 18th Ave
W. Seattle, Washington 98119

Article written by and photos courtesy of Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown of What a Trip, Travels from Northern California. Kathy Madison photo courtesy Un-Cruise. I was a guest of Un-Cruise Adventures.