Thanks to the extensive network of canals and locks interconnecting its majestic waterways, a river cruise is a fun, adventurous way to explore Europe. Colourful and multi-facetted, it blends luxury, exceptional cuisine and breathtaking scenery with culture and history. Add it to your Bucket List.

First – a confession: I was a little apprehensive about signing up for a river cruise. Decades ago, my wife and I treated ourselves to an ocean cruise and didn’t much like the crowds, or the sense of feeling trapped onboard for days on end. Monochrome memories tend to dampen anticipation.

So, I’m pleased to report I’m a convert – and no, it has nothing to do with me approaching my Biblically-allotted ‘three-score-and-ten’ milestone. The river cruise industry is broad-spectrum and caters to all ages and interests – offering voyages lasting from a week to a month.

A voyage can be as active/sedentary as you like and offers enough flexibility for indulging individual passions – whether it’s art, architecture, music, food and wine, or history. Chilling on deck with a book and cocktail is also OK. Whatever your preferences, a river cruise can be a stimulating alternative to traditional tourism.

Our Rhine Valley voyage – in June this year – was an eightday/seven-night cruise that began in Switzerland’s Basel, with stops at various towns before finishing at Nuremberg in southern Germany. The route initially runs north along the Rhine (downstream) but then turns east on to the Main River (upstream). It encompassed significant elevation changes and saw our vessel – the River Princess – transit 47 locks. ‘Downhill’ along the Rhine and ‘uphill’ along the Main.


At 110m in length, the River Princess sits midway among a fleet of 21 ships operated by the US-based Uniworld, and carries up to 132 guests in 67 staterooms. The company’s vessels can be found on rivers all over the world (South/North America, Asia and Egypt) but most are in Europe where they operate around 500 cruises per year.

It describes its voyages as ‘boutique river cruises’. And that they are – the vessels are sufficiently large to provide all the trappings of hedonistic decadence, but small enough for personalised attention-to-detail. It’s a cosy, relaxed environment, and one which lubricates the forging of new friendships. Some of our fellow guests were on their third/ fourth Uniworld cruise – always a reliable endorsement.


Our voyage presented a rich, diverse range of sights and experiences across three countries. After embarking in Basel, we docked at Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Miltenberg, Würzburg, Volkach and Bamberg, before finishing at Nuremberg.

It’s hard to fully absorb the ancient history reflected in these places (many are UNESCO Heritage sites). They’re unfailingly charming and, individually, all offer something unique. Basel, for example, celebrates its interwoven Swiss/French/German heritage through its culture, food and architecture, as does Strasbourg (a French/German hybrid straddling the border).

Some towns were painstakingly rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of WW2 and have managed to retain their original medieval character. Others, like Bamberg, escaped the destruction entirely and the narrow, cobbled streets and the half-timbered architectural style of the buildings are the real deal. Bamberg is world-famous for its beer and legend has it the Allied bomber crews were careful to spare it, knowing they’d soon be hoisting tankards of the town’s brew in celebration.


Unlike many of their ocean-going cousins, river cruises provide daily shore excursions at the various ports. These are mostly free (with Uniworld) and reflect the company’s all-inclusive-cost policy. You’re hosted by local guides who deliver an entertaining commentary during walking tours around the towns – imparting far more interesting (and relevant) information than you’d pick up from a DIY excursion.

There’s usually a choice of excursions tailored to your interest/energy level (everything is optional – no pressure). In Volkach, for example, we opted for the 25km bike tour through the lush Franconian vineyards – and stopped for a wine tasting at the halfway mark. Other guests chose the Wine & Chocolate Walking Tour, or the Meet-the-Vintners Tour (a lot more wine tasting). You could also go canoeing.

Happily, technology has come to the aid of anyone with less-than perfect hearing: everyone is equipped with a discreet receiver/headset. It’s tuned to the guide’s transmitter, so the commentary is crystal-clear. No need to arm-wrestle your way to the front.

There are also further-afield excursions for which you pay a little extra. One was a day tour (by bus) to the wonderfully photogenic Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Part of Germany’s famed ‘romantic’ road, the town’s encircled by its original protective wall and is widely regarded as the jewel in the country’s medieval heritage.

Anyone with art/architecture interests will relish the blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles reflected in the towns. As always, the detail of the craftsmanship is extraordinary – consider the opulent Würzburg Residence (another standout UNESCO site) which features the world’s largest ceiling fresco.

A Rococo masterpiece, it was completed in the mid-1700s by the Italian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Miraculously, though the Allied bombs obliterated the Residence’s roof, the fresco survived.



For me, one of the most interesting/useful features of the cruise was the ‘context’ provided by regular onboard talks and discussions – delivered by experts in their field – who often come aboard specifically for the event.

As the River Princess meandered her way across southern Germany, these presentations (again, attendance is optional) offered a fascinating historical/geographical overview of the region and in particular, the role of the rivers/canals in the unification of the Continent.

For centuries Europe’s rivers served as barriers and borders, separating warring tribes, fiefdoms and nations. But as trade and commerce superseded the insatiable quest to conquer and grab more territory, the rivers became crucial conduits – facilitating not only the exchange of products and goods but also the migration of cultures, ideas, music, literature – and technology.

Notwithstanding the devastating horror of WW1 & 2, the rivers slowly but surely changed the complexion of the continent, helping to unify rather than divide it. Today, the Rhine – along with the Rhône, Main, Elbe, Danube and others – accounts for much of Europe’s internal trade and commerce. As is evident by the thousands of flat-bottomed barges plying the rivers.

One of the most interesting talks (about the significance of Nuremberg in the German psyche) took place the day before we arrived at the port. A professor of history joined the ship (he hopped on – with his bike – while we transited a lock, delivered his presentation, hopped off at the next lock and cycled home!). Very slick.

Like many casual observers of history, my awareness of Nuremberg extended to the extravagant, mass rallies held there by the Nazi faithful during WW2, and the trial of the regime’s ringleaders after the war. But there’s so much more to this beautiful old town than that dark chapter.

It features prominently in Teutonic mythology (unblemished, chivalrous knights protecting virtuous damsels), which is why it was a central motif in the Führer’s twisted vision for a racially-pure, world-dominating 1,000-year Third Reich (it lasted 12).

On a different night we were treated to a particularly poignant musical evening – a Ukrainian violinist performing an after-dinner concert. A magnificent player, her music stirred everyone, especially as the reality of what was happening in her home country tended to colour one’s thoughts.


You might imagine a cruise that excels in style, luxury, fabulous cuisine and service would equate to a somewhat stilted, ‘stuffy’ environment. Far from it: it’s casual and super-relaxed, free from any formal dress code. That said, I made a special effort for the Captain’s Welcome dinner – and wore my one and only pair of long trousers. There was definitely nothing stilted about the dancing at the ‘seventies’ party…

Without question a highlight of the cruise was the food – not only its variety and sumptuousness but also its exquisite presentation. I freely admit to not being a foodie but even I was struck by the finesse of the dining experience – quite extraordinary.

Buffets at breakfast and lunch – and immaculately served dinners. The standout dish? The blueberry cheesecake – ultrayummy. You don’t have to overindulge (of course, everyone does) and to offset your excesses you can visit the ship’s fitness centre or attend yoga and exercise classes. There are also complementary bikes for use at the ports.

It’s worth noting that seasickness is unlikely to be an issue on a river cruise – the water’s calm and tranquil and the flatbottomed vessels are rock-solid. No rolling, even when crossing the wake from a passing barge.

One of the ways Uniworld differentiates itself from many other river cruise operators is its all-costs-included policy. This extends to most of the onshore excursions, unlimited drinks (of any description – everything and anything is available) and gratuities.

These costs are no doubt hidden and covered by the company’s slightly higher fares, but for guests it creates a much more relaxed mindset – no unwelcome surprises at the end. It also means ordering drinks from the ever-attendant butlers is super-efficient: no need to sign any chits.

The cruise was a multi-sensory experience – interesting and stimulating on so many levels. But my dominant, take-home impression was the crew’s attention-to-detail. I could provide multiple examples – one will suffice: the chef presented my wife with a surprise birthday cake at dinner. How did he know? A quiet word from the purser who’d discreetly examined every passenger’s passport during embarkation.

I am an early riser and one of my favourite ‘haunts’ on the ship was standing near the bow at dawn with a large cappuccino. Fortuitously, because the Main flows from the east, the rising sun paints the river in a glorious, ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour.

It’s quiet, calm, serene – the perfect setting for contemplating life. BNZ