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Family Time On The Rhine

Heidi Sarna

By the end of our weeklong Rhine River cruise last July, we had forgotten that months earlier my 13-year-old twin boys had grumbled and pleaded for us to do a big ship cruise where they could play Ping-Pong, shoot hoops on a basketball court, and zip down a water slide with other teens.

Their transformation started within minutes of arriving at the 130-passenger River Empress. Turns out my experienced more-erudite-than-I-realized offspring were very impressed that a smiling crew-member (who we later realized was the captain himself!) trotted up to our taxi the moment we reached the pier to whisk our suitcases onto the vessel while we were shown to the main lounge for a drink and some snacks until our cabin was ready.

It was clear from the get-go that this river cruise was an intimate, friendly, high-quality operation; a small community that would welcome us like family for the week.

Photo Courtesy: Heidi Sarna

My boys loved their cabin across the hall from our identical 151-square-foot room, with its large windows peering out just a few feet above the river and nest-like beds covered in thick European-style duvets and huge pillows. Over the week, they enjoyed many on-demand movies on the TV, from Ant Man to Monument Men, Meet the Parents and Gandhi — welcome consolation given the weak Wifi on board ruled out playing on their phones or laptops. Though they were definitely not happy about this initially, they got over it pretty fast and it wound up being a blessing that pushed them to socialize the old-fashioned way.

Until fairly recently, river cruises in Europe were strictly a seniors-only affair — all about older couples planted on deck watching the scenery float by with a cup of tea or a glass of  Rosé. Not anymore. On our sailing there were 39 kids under age 18. Uniworld, like some other companies, including Disney Cruise Line, are offering more special family cruises than ever before, mostly during the summer. In 2017, Uniworld has scheduled 22 such cruises.

Europe river cruises work well for families for a few reasons: their small intimate size makes it easy to meet to new friends; they stop at one or two ports a day, assuring no one gets stir crazy being on board for too long; many carry bicycles on board for use in port; and rivers are serene places to sail with little chance for choppy water.

Photo Courtesy: Heidi Sarna

Our “Castles along the Rhine” itinerary was a week of back-to-back visits to medieval towns and cities along both the French and German sides of the Rhine, a total of seven ports, where we got our fill of charming timbered buildings painted in bright colors, towering Gothic cathedrals and wending old canals lined with flowers, especially loving Strasbourg, France, and Speyer, on the German side. In Rudesheim, Germany, we enjoyed a cable-car ride above the emerald-green vineyards up to Niederwald Heights for a nature walk and views of a particularly scenic section of the Rhine Valley, and the kids especially, liked tours of two castles in this region, Rheinstein and Marksburg, where they could climb inside narrow towers and learn about life in the old days. In Cologne, the massive Gothic cathedral with its towering spires and gorgeous stained glass was the draw. Walking tours and other excursions were included in the fares, including several geared to kids such as an adventure climbing park and a transportation museum where you could walk onto the wing of an old Boeing 747.


A big plus for our family was the option to use the boat’s complimentary bicycles in port. Nearly every day we hopped on one of the sturdy Swiss-made bikes for rides along the paths flanking the river. As the boat only departed Basel in the evening, after lunch on our first day we headed out along the Rhine, towards the center of Basel, pedaling past an arty industrial area, a bustling sunbathing spot and an elegant neighborhood of river-facing mansions. We got up-close views of the popular summertime pastime of “Rheinschwimmen,” when adventurous folks hop into the river for a float down a section of the cold fast-moving river clutching brightly colored backpack-like waterproof bags sold all over town to keep phones and wallets dry. Another day we signed for one of the week’s handful of guided tours, the four of us and about 20 others, getting off the boat in Boppard and riding for about 20 kilometers behind the ship’s fitness instructor, to Koblenz. It was a lovely pedal that meandered along the river, through villages and past hillside vineyards. Another day docked in Germersheim, after our excursion in Speyer, I biked solo for an hour along a quiet natural stretch of the river.

Bikes are available on every sailing, and more are on-hand for family cruises, about 40 bikes, including some in child sizes.

The highlight of the week was clearly the two days spent on the gorgeous Middle Rhine, from Rudesheim to Koblenz, the classic region where medieval castles one after another seem to grow out of the steep rocky slopes like mushrooms, in between quilt-like patches of vineyards, earning the area UNESCO World Heritage status.

Unfortunately, not all of the 1,320-kilometer Rhine is so scenic, including the southern part between Basel and Strasbourg that was canalized in the 1930s and 40s to improve navigability. Industrial complexes with belching smokestacks, especially around Ludwigshafen, Cologne and Dusseldorf, dot other sections of the Rhine.

Luckily during those bits, most people were happy to hit the small gym or spa, attend the once-or-twice-weekly expert lectures, or chill in their comfortable cabin. Four suites measure 214 square feet and the rest of the rooms 151 square feet, all with smart fabric wall treatments, marble-clad bathrooms and large windows or sliding doors (French balconies) just a few feet above the river. As there are no connecting cabins or triples (as is the case on most river boats), families must book multiple cabins.

SIDEBAR: Rhine River Primer

To delve into a bit of the history and science of the Rhine River, click here for Heidi’s Rhine primer.

While some kids stuck to their parents and others were older teens, on our cruise about 20 formed a vibrant kid community that thrived whenever they were on board, which was usually mid-afternoons onwards after the shore excursions wrapped up.  From a precocious and popular 5-year-old from England to my guys at the upper end of the age bracket, the band spent many hours in the playroom taking turns playing FIFA soccer video games and generally having a ball, trotting back and forth to the big jars of marshmallows and Gummy Bears offered for the week on an marble-topped credenza in the Main Lounge.

Two extra crewmembers were on board for the two family cruises (ours and the one the week before) to help supervise the kiddos and special activities like a story-reading session, knot tying, strudel-making class and long kids’ tables at dinner. During the big day zigzagging along the classic Middle Rhine past all those legendary medieval castles, the kids piled toppings onto still-warm waffles at a mini buffet set up at one end of the sun-drenched top deck, while the adults snapped photos, listened to short narratives on the personal tour-guide devices everyone had been issued, chatted with new friends, soaked up the scenery, and sipped glasses of chardonnay and German lager.

Photo Courtesy: Heidi Sarna

As a family, we all looked forward to mealtime in the stylish restaurant, with its red leather upholstery and olive-green water glasses, and floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed the river and its banks to be the backdrop as we ate. At the lunch buffet, my boys gravitated to the pasta with alfredo sauce, fish and chips, carving station, and sandwiches, while mom and dad hit the salad bar and sampled the German options, from Weinershnitzel and potato salad, to sauerkraut and sausages. At dinner, when jackets weren’t required but many wore them anyway, menus featured several options for every course including a regional dish, the likes of a delicious roasted chicken with mushroom gravy, escargot Alsace style with a splash of Reisling, and traditional Blackforest cake. Kids could also choose from their own menu.

For the adults, red and white wine were generously poured at dinner (and included in the rates), usually one or both were German or French from the Alsace region. Before and after dinner each day, we always hit the Main Lounge, an elegant space with rich damask banquets, enjoying a glass or two of the dry and tasty Sekt German sparkling wine, and listening to the talented Cezar sing and play piano. Pre-dinner there was a talk from the cruise director about the following day’s highlights. Several nights acts were brought on board, from a dance band to a soloist, while the kids went back to their virtual soccer tournaments or to the small Patio Lounge down on Deck 1 to play board games and drink hot chocolate from a coffee and drinks machines on call 24/7.

The small slim attractive River Empress was the most efficiently designed and expertly executed riverboat a family could hope for, and an ideal and easy way to explore some classic European gems.


7-night “Castles along the Rhine” cruise fares start at $3,649 USD per adult (and $1,825 per child), double occupancy, for the two family cruises scheduled next July 2017 (and start at $3,049 per person for regular cruises) and include meals, shore excursions, tips, and wine, spirits and soft drinks.

Basel and Amsterdam are two beautiful and historic cities that are definitely worth a few day’s stay before and after the cruise.

Bring layers, as summers temps on this itinerary can vary between the 60s in Amsterdam and the 80s and 90s in Basel.

Click here for more info on Uniworld River Cruises.

Heidi Sarna is a prolific travel writer with an expertise in small-ship cruises. Check out her site QuirkyCruise.com, an excellent resource dedicated to small ship cruises under 300 passengers.

All text and some of the photos as stated in this article are copyrighted and property of Heidi Sarna and cannot be reproduced by any process without permission from the author.