Dining on the Rhine: A Culinary River Adventure

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It’s a dreary, grey, late-December day in Michigan. Yet amid the chaos of a busy shopping week at Nino’s, I allowed myself the luxury of a few free mental moments to anticipate the vacation I’d recently planned: cruising on the Rhine River in Europe.

When I planned it, August seemed like an eternity away. But to my surprise, I was one of the last to book this cruise before it sold out. I later learned that European River cruises are very popular and often sell out nearly a year before sailing. Then again, when you consider that most of the river cruise ships in Europe take on less than 150 passengers per voyage, it’s easy to understand that it’s also a matter of supply and demand.

Now a cruise of 150 or fewer people may sound strange when you read about the new ocean-going mega ships that carry many thousands, but river cruising is everything those huge ships can’t be, and that is small, personal and extremely accommodating. Their size, or lack thereof, is also dictated by the width and depth of the rivers they sail, the low clearance of the bridges (some centuries old) and the many locks they must pass through in order to travel from one end of the continent to the other.

Yet it’s all part of the experience and the charm of traveling the river. It’s the charm of enjoying a late breakfast while passing through the majestic Rhine Gorge as you stare with wonder at storybook-like castles and sheep grazing on hillsides. It’s also the charm of sailing past quiet meadows with farmers so close to the ship you can shout hello and see their cheerful, warm faces and hear their faint greetings in the golden, afternoon sunlight. These cruises provide sights, sounds and personal enrichment beyond what the brochures promise.

Unlike many on board my river cruise who flew directly to Switzerland, I began my personal enrichment by stopping in London and Paris first. And what can I say about either of those magnificent cities that hasn’t been glorified in prose or painted by the masters? Even though I was only able to spend a full day in each, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to once again breathe their air, take in their sights and enjoy a couple of great meals. And they didn’t disappoint.

In London, it was Fish & Chips, which I will blog about in the weeks ahead. Then, the following day, after only a 2.5-hour, high-speed train ride under the English Channel, it was culinary shopping in Paris’ Les Halles and a not-to-be-missed dinner at Le Fouquet’s, right on the bustling Champs Elysees. And I also have an upcoming blog and video about my culinary shopping in Les Halles, which you’ll want to check out.

The cruise began at the foot of the southernmost navigable part of the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. Basel is Switzerland’s 3rd-largest city and is located exactly where France and Germany intersect, which makes it an international destination and a region full of enormous diversity, both cultural and culinary.

My ship, the Avalon Felicity, was built in 2010 and only took on 138 passengers. I was fortunate to have a beautiful room with a balcony on the top deck of what are only three levels of rooms. The rooms, large by cruise standards, are full of amenities, including a full bath with glass shower, queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV and sitting area. I didn’t speak with one person who didn’t love his or her accommodations.

After a welcoming reception and dinner, the Felicity set sail for Strasbourg, France, while we enjoyed our first night on board. Unlike an ocean vessel, you feel no movement of the ship on the water and no motion discomfort–nothing but a smooth, peaceful glide. And the mandatory safety meeting so common on ocean ships? Forget it–piece of cake. That’s mainly because you’re never more than steps from the shore and because if the ship ever sprang a leak, it’s likely the top deck would stay above water if it sank.

Strasbourg was wonderful, and I took the opportunity to join a group tour into the Alsatian wine area and sample some local wines before returning to the city for shopping and then heading back to the ship for a 7:00 pm dinner. It was a tough decision for me to make because one of my other choices was a trip to the Black Forest, home of the famous Black Forest cake.

Dinner, by the way, was always five courses, with all-inclusive accompanying wines and/or beers from whatever area we were cruising through. My glass, like everyone else’s all week, never seemed to be empty. They really take good care of you! The food is cooked by European-trained chefs and was very well prepared.

The menu each evening included a first course, soup or salad, intermezzo, entree and dessert. Each evening’s choices were planned to complement the wines and cuisines of the local areas, with additional standard choices for those less adventurous. Having said that, the recipes were adjusted to Western tastes, and the portions were always just right. The chefs also accommodated dietary requests.

You can see video pictures of some of the dishes I ordered and get a feel for what river cruising is all about by viewing my Dining on the Rhine video:

From Strasbourg, we continued northward to the German cities of Speyer, Heidelberg, Mainz, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Cologne and finally through the Netherlands and into Amsterdam, stopping to enjoy each city’s cultural highlights while still having free time to shop and enjoy a bite of food at various restaurants, cafes and beer gardens.

From a chef’s point of view, river cruising is one of the most satisfying and rewarding ways to enjoy a multi-city culinary journey. Just unpack your bags and enjoy a week (or more) of no worries and no reservations. I really enjoyed my cruise, and I’d highly recommend it.

At the end of the day, the only thing left on your plate is the anticipation of which dishes might tempt your appetite and a sense of adventure as you watch the world sail by.