FROM the riverside terrace of the venerable Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois hotel in Basel our cruise boat can be glimpsed — long and low to the Rhine — past the Johanniterbruecke bridge and scores of riverside promenaders. It is an Aperol spritz kind of afternoon and fellow passengers and I hold aloft our vivid orange drinks and toast the thin sunshine.
It is the end of October and a fair has been set up in front of the Basel minster; every cobblestone of the Munsterplatz square has been given over to carousels, whirligigs and swing-chair rides. Merrily painted little vans are selling fairy floss and sugar-dusted treats. The air smells of roasting chestnuts. A balloon seller is barely visible under his bouncy cargo patterned with the likes of Minnie Mouse and Ninja Turtles. Higher and higher soar the rocking gondolas, casting shadows against the red sandstone facade of the cathedral so it looks as if a swarm of bats is whooshing past in perfect synchronicity.
Basel, Switzerland’s third-largest city, is a fine place from which to embark Tauck Tours’ new 130-passenger MS Inspire for a six-night river journey. I have arrived by train from Zurich airport for a sampler cruise of a broader 13-day Rhine and Moselle itinerary, which will end in Amsterdam. It is the last voyage of the 2014 season; days are getting shorter, temperatures cooler.
Basel’s historic city centre is ideal for exploration by short-stay visitors, many of whom, like us, are cruise passengers. We stroll along walkways by the Rhine from the dock at Saint Johann. With guide Annelise setting a cracking pace, we cover the city’s medieval heart, then there’s plenty of time at leisure to venture further on foot and to be caught up in impromptu street celebrations as local hero Roger Federer smashes David Goffin to win his sixth Swiss Indoors tennis title.
All tours, escorted by local guides, are included on Tauck cruises and there is sometimes a choice of daily options (a full-day trip from Basel to Lucerne, for instance) or the flexibility to stay on board as MS Inspire moves along the river to meet returning daytrippers, which is the case as we take coaches to Heidelberg from the river port of Speyer but reboard at Mannheim.
The Rhine unfurls in a most orderly fashion via locks and across borders and, in the case of Alsace, oft-disputed territories. The Swiss-German flavour of Basel gives way to the curious melange that is Strasbourg, with its sycamore trees weighed down by immense stork’s nests; fluffy black and white likenesses of the birds are sold around the city, particularly at the battalions of souvenir stores around the 11th-century Strasbourg Cathedral, famous for its mechanical astronomical clock.
We are skirting the lands of sturdy cakes. Each of the river ports we visit yields a speciality but none is as thoroughly obsessed with baked delights as the lovely Black Forest city of Baden Baden. There are chocolate babushka dolls with smaller chocs in their tummies; it seems an odd confection until guide Valeria explains that Baden Baden has Russian heritage and that market is the major source of tourists.
At the historic pink-themed Cafe Konig, with its attached patisserie (stuffed with wonders such as bars of chocolate studded with rose petals and lemon meringue macarons), I drink Anastasia tea with bergamot and citrus and scoff a heart-shaped Linzertorte flan topped with sugared raspberries. The late-season fruit shines like rubies; inevitably, there is a pitcher of cream on call. The likes of Franz Liszt and Leo Tolstoy once took tea here. The stout of heart could try the black forest gateau washed down with a slug of Kirschwasser eau de vie.
Baden Baden is a resoundingly green city of parkland, privately owned museums with extraordinary collections, a gilded casino that makes Monte Carlo’s finest look like a church hall and, of course, bath-houses, drawing water from natural mineral springs, including the historic Friedrichsbad (be prepared to go starkers).
Mark Twain is my constant companion this northern autumn, a dog-eared copy of his 1880 classic, A Tramp Abroad, shoved in my daypack. He described Baden Baden as sitting “in the lap of the hills” and observed the “natural and artificial beauties of the surroundings are combined effectively and charmingly”. Twain admired the “handsome pleasure grounds” and “sparkling water jets” but also encountered sham and snobbery and dubbed Germany, with its “damp stone houses”, as the “home of rheumatism”. When I tell this to Valeria, who’s an Italian expat, she laughs fit to burst.
Twain and I lunch together in the lovely red-roofed university city of Heidelberg after a tour with entertaining American-born guide Charlotte who tells me there is no German word for relax. She insists I read in detail Appendix D in A Tramp Abroad, which is titled The Awful German Language and describes the long-winded tongue as “slipshod and systemless ... slippery and elusive to the grasp”. I giggle so loudly at my outdoor table, I draw attention from passers-by.
Who knows what Twain would have made of the 135m-long MS Inspire with its passenger decks named for precious stones, power showers and jazzy cocktails. He took a raft along the Neckar River from Heidelberg, through stretches so narrow that “a hatful of rain” would have made high water.
Our vessel is a superbly appointed floating home, mostly for an older American crowd, although there are a few Australians and South Africans on this sailing. The mood is convivial without being desperately chummy; most passengers team up for meals but there are tables for two in the elegant Compass Rose dining room and a limited cabin-service menu for those who might feel unsociable.
(A clue to the demographic lies in the old-fashioned provision of a recommended reading list and polite reminders to resist the urge to “call the grandchildren” on cellphones while on motorcoach excursions.)
On at least one night per cruise, most passengers opt for a casual evening meal at Arthurs grill and bistro located aft on Diamond Deck and all but encircled by the nautical lines of a retractable window-wall.
The 67 cabins are appointed with flat-screen televisions (25 channels), plenty of storage, Nespresso machine, mini-bar replenished with soft drinks and mixers, and a good-sized ensuite stocked with Molton Brown toiletries. The decor is in muted beige and thoughtful details include squares of Belgian dark chocolate popped onto snowy pillows at turndown. Wi-Fi is free and fast; passengers are offered hand towels and drinks when returning to the vessel.
Accommodation styles range from eight high and bright lofts on the lowest Emerald Deck to super-spacious Diamond Deck suites and, between, like mine (No 220 on Ruby Deck), is Category 6 with a small balcony and queen bed angled towards floor-to-ceiling windows. I leave open the curtains and wake to morning mists so thick and gauzy it feels as if MS Inspire has been wrapped in muslin overnight.
Between ports, that bed is my afternoon base camp, eyes flitting between Twain on the page and framed views of long-skirted beech trees, grey churches, high-roofed houses buttoned up against the gathering cold, trains pelting past like arrows on riverside tracks. Grimy barges flying Swiss or German flags are a sure reminder the Rhine has always been an artery of commerce, long before the luxury river ship invasion of the past two decades.
Up high is Sun Deck, with its signs warning passengers to stay seated when MS Inspire is passing under bridges. This long rooftop has lounging furniture, a small Jacuzzi and putting green; warm and salty pretzels, coloured drinks or scoops of ice cream are never more than a finger’s snap away.
Perhaps because of the demands of the predominantly American clientele, service is unwaveringly sharp. Bar attendant Felicia; the two cheeky barmen called Alex who like to be known as A1 and A2; and spa therapist (and breakfast waitress and housekeeper) Herniwati stand out for special mention. Room attendant Ain, from Lombok, is a towel-art enthusiast and soon I have a cabin full of perky white rabbits with stiffly rolled face-flannel ears.
At least on this sailing, there is a sense of gearing everything to the American passengers.
“The area of Switzerland,” we are laughably told, “is slightly smaller than twice the size of New Jersey.” France is just a bit smaller than Texas. But this is a minor concern on a cruise that is meticulously organised, clubby and thoroughly enjoyable.
With an all-inclusive tariff, there is no pressure to tip crew, host rounds of drinks or worry about buying excursions or mounting extra costs. Tauck Tours declares that a “congenial party” is the aim and in that it succeeds. We even buy into the corny language — we are Tauckettes and Taucklings; we have been Taucked.
“Where else would you want to be?” asks a lively Tauckette from San Diego as we stroll around the windy Sun Deck on Day 6, cruising the Lorelei Valley of the middle Rhine, from Rudesheim to Boppard and thence to Koblenz and the confluence of the Moselle River.
MS Inspire passes the fabled Lorelei Rock near St Goarshausen and fortresses and castles clasped like brooches on hills terraced with vineyards. Pashminas are pulled tighter; chaps hold onto their baseball caps. There is much speculation about tonight’s “medieval dinner” ashore at Castle Reichenstein. Will there be an elevator?
We are playing “castle ping-pong” announces cruise director Bridget over the PA system. My new San Diego friend laughs and says she is waiting for my answer. “There is nowhere else I’d want to be,” I tell her. It’s what she wants to hear. We share a hug. She looks at her watch. “It’s just gone 11.” Cake o’clock.
What to do in...
• BASEL In the St Alban precinct of Basel, the Swiss Museum for Paper is set in a 500-year-old riverside mill and features interactive displays, vats, stamping machines and wet presses. Paper is made here and there are workshops and a small but well-stocked shop selling paper products. More: papiermuseum.ch.
• STRASBOURG Guide Catherine recommends Patisserie Christian in a heritage building that is as least as gilded as a wedding cake. The macarons are made in-house under the guidance of third-generation chocolatier Christophe Meyer, and the pastries, crepes, salted caramel eclairs and exotic fruit sorbets are sublime. There is a tea salon above the pastry shop and pavement seating in warmer months; near the cathedral on Rue Merciere with a branch on Rue de L’Outre. More: christian.fr.
• BADEN BADEN After tea and creamy sustenance at Cafe Konig, head for the Faberge Museum on centrally located Sophienstrasse. It’s owned by a Russian collector and there are more than 700 items displayed, including two Faberge imperial Easter eggs, the 1902 Rothschild egg, and treasures once owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the Greek and British royal families. More:faberge-museum.de.
• HEIDELBERG There are year-round Christmas stores selling wooden ornaments and nutcrackers, music boxes, snow domes, glittery baubles and all manner of Santa stuff. Kathe Wohlfahrt on the Hauptstrasse shopping strip is an over-the-top wonderland. More: bestofchristmas.com.
Tauck’s full 13-day Rhine and Moselle North itinerary includes Basel, Strasbourg, Baden Baden, Heidelberg, Boppard, Cochem, Luxembourg, Bernkastel, Trier, Bonn, De Hoge Veluwe National Park and Amsterdam. Southbound cruises are available, as well as eight-day Romantic Rhine options. MS Inspire’s identical sister ship is MS Savor. traveltheworld.com.au.
Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Tauck Tours.
This article originally appeared as Tauck Tours' cruise inspired by the Rhine on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license. Susan Kurosawa is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.