As easy as it is indulgent, cruising on the Rhine keeps the scenery close and the crowds at bay.
Exploring the heart of Heidelberg on a bright afternoon, my husband and I walk across the famous Old Bridge, with its dramatic view of castle ruins, to poke around in boutiques selling chocolates and beautiful bottles of hazelnut and pear liqueurs.
Ready to rest, we are grateful for the ranks of taverns in the college town (home to Germany’s oldest university) and choose one with outdoor tables ideally situated for people watching on the Marktplatz. We sip giant steins of dark beer and split a comically large pretzel while marveling at the Church of the Holy Ghost, a hulking Gothic wonder dating from the 14th century. Chatting locals walk past with their dogs, making us wish we understood German, when we suddenly tune in to the family speaking English at the next table. One of the four from Peoria, Illinois, turns out to have a job in Muleshoe, Texas. But rather than talk about home, we visit about the wonders of sailing through Europe on a river.
The romantic notion of floating through the continent had long intrigued me. Eager to gaze at fairytale castles, hopping off to sip wine and eat pastries in tiny storybook villages, we chose a Rhine River cruise. The Ruby, a luxury ship from the Australian line called Scenic, delivered on its promise of no crowds at meals or on-shore excursions. We sailed in the company of about 150 other people housed in just two decks of cabins. Best of all, we enjoyed plenty of personal attention from our butler — every cabin comes with this service — and felt special when a favorite waiter remembered things like which tea I preferred at breakfast. Morning till night, we reveled in a balance of independence and pampering.
We begin our journey with a few days on our own in Paris, after which we sail from the Swiss city of Basel, meeting fellow guests in the bar before dinner. Each guest has the chance to dine in the smaller, private Italian restaurant one night; otherwise, it’s open seating in an attractive dining room with views of passing scenery. Cuisine tends toward nouvelle presentations of classic dishes — fancy works of steak, veal, pheasant, pork and numerous kinds of fish with beautiful side dishes. Each lunch and dinner brings an impressive selection of wines, most from Germany and France.