Entries in ‘Cruise’ Journal

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.

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.

Cruising Alaska: Active Adventure Travel

Friday October 3, 2014 at 7:07 AM | 4 Comments

“I’m not the cruise ship type.” I heard this statement over and over during my trip to Alaska with Un-Cruise Adventures. I met an 18 year old traveling with her aunt; celebrating her high school graduation and an 80 year old retired teacher from New Zealand sailing solo. Both guests were cruising Alaska with active adventure travel in mind.

“Last year I cruised Antarctica in a small ship,” said Barbara deCastro of New Zealand. “I had to try Alaska. I wanted to compare our fjords with Alaska. They are totally different. Ours are beautiful, but so are these. Alaska’s glaciers are much bigger.”

Two active adventure travelers; yet two unique Alaskan experiences were had on the same ship. What keeps people coming back? “The sort of people who sail on small ships are nice people,” deCastro noted with a smile.


"Safari Endeavour" Alaska, cruise

Guests aboard Safari Endeavour are all smiles. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


Small ship cruise benefits

One of the benefits of small ship cruising is the flexibility the captain has with itineraries. Our original itinerary had Safari Endeavour sailing to George Island and Elfin Cove. At 25 knot winds Captain Barrett Whitten determined that it was too windy for this destination, instead, he would steer our 232 foot ship to Idaho Inlet. Once here, our expedition guides re-grouped and we were offered “Plan B.”


Itinerary change to Alaska's Idaho Inlet. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown

Itinerary change to Alaska’s Idaho Inlet. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


Tracking bears in Alaska

I signed up for the “Skiff and beach walk” adventure on Chichagof Island.  I pulled on my Kamik rubber, waterproof boots, rain gear and personal flotation device (PFD) and headed downstairs to the EZ dock boat launch.

Insider Tip

For those of you who don’t own foul weather gear, Un-Cruise Adventures had plenty of travel gear stocked in their lending library. I also packed my own healthy travel snacks, a water bottle and binoculars – all unnecessary, as Un-Cruise had all of these items ready and waiting for every guest.

With the smell of Sitka Spruce hanging heavy in the air, we walked the beach in search of animals. Armed with bear spray and a camera, our Expedition Guide Kenneth O’Brien led us into the Alaskan rain forest. Chichagof Island is known for housing a dense brown bear population. We saw evidence of the bears in the form of bear scat, claw marks on trees and moss covered bear tracks, but no bears were actually sighted on this particular outing.

Upon return from our bushwacking adventure, passengers were greeted with hot chocolate or coffee – with or without alcohol. Ahh, the benefits of sailing on an all-inclusive small ship. Another benefit of sailing with Un-Cruise Adventures is a complimentary massage offered to every guest. Two of the first floor staterooms were converted to spa rooms. Did I mention that Safari Endeavour also boasts a sauna and not one, but two hot tubs on the 3rd floor deck? Soaking in a hot tub while cruising by glaciers – now that’s a conversation starter for your next cocktail party!


"Chichagof Island" mushroom

Colorful mushroom on Chichagof Island. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown


Alaska" bear tracks

Tracking bears in Alaska. Photo © 2014 Nancy D. Brown

Does cruising Alaska on a small ship appeal to your sense of active adventure?
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. I was a guest of Un-Cruise Adventures. All opinions are my own.