Luxury cruise lines are now targeting a much younger clientele. A voyage along the Rhine combines culture with child-friendly activities.
It’s all elegance aboard the River Empress as we bob sedately on the Rhine in sight of the hilltop fortress of Koblenz. While we sip champagne and G&Ts on squishy sofas in the bar, a talented trio of two violinists and one guitarist serenade us in style.
But step away from the chink of glasses and the sound of the strings and you will hear something a little more discordant — the noise of a fierce battle being waged. Some of the 40 or so children on board, inspired by our earlier tour of Marksburg Castle, are play-fighting with swords and shields in the library, which has temporarily been converted into a games room.
Welcome to the family river cruise — still a rarity on the world’s waterways. Although ocean cruising for families has taken off on giant behemoths that offer everything from ice skating to water slides, river cruising has until recently been the preserve of an older clientele seeking a slower form of travel.
A handful of upmarket cruise companies is looking to change all that, including Uniworld, which this year is adding a number of voyages in the British school holidays. Among them is the week-long Castles along the Rhine itinerary from Basle to Amsterdam that we are on, accompanied by mostly American passengers,including the Uniworld head honcho, Guy Young, and his family.
So what makes Guy believe he can introduce children to a world of chandeliers and tinkling ivories, of lectures and classical music? “We think it’s a winning formula for multigenerational families who want to expose their children to culture,” he tells me.
At first sight, anyone who has been on an ocean cruise might think he’s wrong. “Where’s the pool?” asks my ten-year-old son as we arrive on a sweltering day. “Where’s the cinema?” asks my almost-octogenarian father, somewhat bemused to be told that he and my mother will be playing one of a stash of board games instead. With no pool, cinema or kids’ club, this small ship caters for 130 guests (although its size means there is some truly excellent service from the attentive staff).
It’s not a promising start when my parents — used to the structured excursion format of ocean cruising, with signs and announcements rather than the relaxed river cruise approach — climb aboard the wrong tour bus. They end up getting a drenching in the medieval village of Kaysersberg rather than enjoying the dry weather in Colmar, described as the prettiest town in the world. Meanwhile, my son and I find the town of Breisach not particularly suited to the organised cycle ride we join using the fleet of ship bicycles.
By Strasbourg, we begin to relax, heading off on a canal cruise around this pretty city that has changed hands between France and Germany several times over the centuries. We celebrate France’s eventual victory with a fine selection of French cheeses at lunch. That evening there are escargots and french onion soup in the restaurant (the excellent food on board is particularly strong on local produce).
It’s not until we reach Speyer though, that we really understand the value of the packed programme of excursions, with several choices each day (and which, like all drinks and tips, are included in the price). Here, my parents try vinegar tasting at the Doktorenhof estate, while my son and I opt for a treetop obstacle course, which might not be anything close to the health and safety regulations we’re used to, but does prove to be excellent fun. There’s plenty to chat about when we reconvene at lunch, before heading off together to the Speyer technology museum, with the added attraction of a slide down from a jumbo jet.
There’s a similar choice of activities back on board. So while there’s Pilates, a lecture on Martin Luther, and an amazingly good opera singer for the adults, there’s also a programme of events for the children, including tasting German sweets (a huge hit), a water balloon fight (a bit of a damp squib, probably because the organisers don’t exactly inspire fun) and storytelling and face-painting for the younger kids.
So we float down the Rhine, and the living gets easier. As we go, there are constant reminders that this is one of Germany’s main transport arteries, with a stream of cargo-carrying barges heading both ways, and a surprising amount of industry along the riverbanks. There are 15 locks to negotiate, when the children (and I) rush out to touch the emerging lock walls and stand mesmerised as the wheelhouse is lowered and the 11.4m-wide ship squeezes into a space only 12m wide.
It was guarding this important trade route, the ownership of which was much disputed between the French and Germans, that gave rise to the famous castles, most of these are concentrated along a 65km stretch, from Bingen to Koblenz, known as the Rhine Gorge. On one glorious afternoon, as the children organise their own giant chess tournament, we adults happily snap castle after castle, tuning in to a commentary on special headsets and perhaps sipping the odd glass of riesling.
There are ruined castles and restored castles (some converted into youth hostels or hotels), castles named Katz and Maus, one on an island and another two separated by a high wall (local legend tells of two warring brothers who owned them). Some tower over pretty villages with pastel houses, and everywhere they are surrounded by fields of tumbling vines grown at seemingly impossible angles on the slopes.
One of the most impressive is Marksburg castle, which was never destroyed — possibly owing to the impossibly steep Rider’s Stairway to reach it — and which is by far the most interesting of the two castles and one fortress we visit. I’ve seen plenty of castles, but not one with a toilet with an open door just off the great hall (so you could carry on your conversation with others who were still dining), botanical gardens with hemlock and belladonna, and an interesting selection of punishment masks. The kids love it.
As they do our last excursion, in Cologne. Here, in the perfume shop Farina 1709, a costumed actor fills us in on stenches of the past, explains how cologne once cost the equivalent of £1,700 a bottle, and has us playing a sniff-and-guess game with some of his perfumes.
Back on board the children go wild on their last afternoon, with a massive hide and seek game, enjoying the independence a small ship gives them to roam, as well as raiding the huge jars of sweets present on all Uniworld cruises (they work their way through 12kg of gummy bears alone during our week).
My son, who until now hadn’t wanted to sit on the kids’ tables at mealtimes, decides he wants to be with his new-found friends, particularly Wiley, who has joined us for the last couple of excursions. His grandmother, who is travelling alone with him, joins my parents and me as we tuck into an amazing meal of lobster bisque, scallops and beef tournedos.
We agree that it has been a fantastic week, despite some niggles with the kids’ programme (which needs more motivational hosts) and with the older generation (with more information needed on how much walking each excursion involves and perhaps the option of easier transfers to the buses). It’s far from cheap, but the quality is top-notch, and I can see the formula working well for British families, although probably in more adventurous destinations.
Is it worth doing again? Ask Wiley — he’s already begging his grandmother to book another cruise.
Need to know
Jane Knight was a guest of Uniworld (0808 1689231, uniworld.com) which has an eight-day river cruise from Basle to Amsterdam from £2,879pp on the River Empress. Children aged 4 to 18 cruise for half-price (cruise-fare only) when travelling with an adult. The price includes all meals and drinks, excursions and transfers, but not flights. Meet-and-greet parking at Stansted is from £60 for eight days (holidayextras.com).
More river cruises for the whole family
Cowboy shows in the Camargue
New this year to Tauck’s family-friendly sailings (tauck.co.uk) is a voyage on the Rhône after a two-night stay in Paris. Take the TGV to Lyons and embark on the ship for a five-night sailing to Provence, where children practise their cookery skills at a culinary school and whoop with excitement at a Wild West-style cowboy show in the Camargue. This year’s departures include July 17, 22 and 27, plus August 1, with prices from £2,995pp. Children aged 12 and under qualify for a £320pp saving. The price includes flights, excursions, drinks and gratuities.
Pasta-making in Bologna
Get the kids to try making pasta in Bologna, train like a gladiator in Rome and take a ghost walk through Venice on this 14-day Splendours of Northern Italy trip with Uniworld (0808 1689231, uniworld.com). It includes hotel stays in Milan, Florence and Rome as well as a one-week cruise through Venice. Departures in 2017 include July 7, July 28 and August 4. Adult prices start at £2,899pp with children’s prices (4 to 19 years old) starting at £1,599pp. Hotel stays are B&B, while the river cruise is full board and includes drinks, gratuities and shore excursions. Flights cost extra.
Buddhists on the Mekong
Families can take advantage of the free kids offer from Aqua Expeditions (07956 414147, aquaexpeditions.com), which, on certain dates between May 5 and August 11, offers complimentary sailings for 7 to 12-year-olds when sharing a cabin with one or two parents. The line takes children from seven years upwards on Mekong sailings through Vietnam and Cambodia where activities range from bike trips to visiting temples and experiencing a blessing ceremony performed by Buddhist monks. A one-week sailing between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap costs from £14,838 for two adults and a child sharing a cabin under the free kids offer. The sailing is all-inclusive, but flights cost extra.
While it doesn’t offer specific family-friendly cruises, AmaWaterways (0800 3202335, amawaterways.co.uk) has child discounts on regular sailings. Youngsters aged up to 11 qualify for a 75 per cent reduction on the adult fare and 12 to 18-year-olds get a 25 per cent discount. A seven-night Danube sailing from Budapest to Vilshofen in Germany, with stops including Bratislava, Vienna, Linz and Passau, costs from £2,599 for an adult, £649.75 for children under 12, and £2,021 for children aged 12 to 18 years. This price is for all departures in July and August 2017 and includes flights, wine and soft drinks with meals, and excursions.