Irene and I had not been on a European riverboat cruise in many years. We were excited about embarking on Tauck’s MS Inspire, the newest boat in their fleet, for an Amsterdam to Basel Rhine River itinerary. The last time we were in Switzerland was 1966 (!) with a stay in Zermatt where we enjoyed memorable mountain hikes always in view of the majestic Matterhorn. This time, we decided to spend our post-cruise holiday in Grindelwald, a picturesque mountain village only two hours away from both Basel, where we disembarked the cruise, and the Zurich airport for our departure to Newark.July 15, 2015 – We arrived on our overnight flight from Newark early in the morning the day before the tour began to enjoy Amsterdam and to avoid any issues due to a flight delay. Tauck representatives met us outside of customs, took our luggage, and delivered us to the Pulitzer Hotel, well situated on a beautiful canal in the center of the city. After a brief nap and lunch, we headed to the Van Gogh Museum. Despite not having a reservation, the wait was only 20 minutes. Both Irene and I agreed that the audio tour in the Van Gogh museum was particularly worthwhile. Not only did it describe the paintings and the stories behind them, but it was interspersed with comments from Van Gogh’s letters, adding immeasurably to the visual experience. We dined at the Pulitzer Hotel that evening and, since the hotel is an Ensemble Preferred Hotel, we were given 100 euros towards our meal. We also received a room upgrade with a great canal view, as well as free wi-fi and full breakfast. July 16 – We slept late, had breakfast and walked around picturesque Amsterdam, passing the Anne Frank house, which was mobbed by long lines of tourists. We visited the house many years ago, and decided not to go in again. We checked out of the hotel about 1PM and took a short taxi ride to the pier. I had decided to book a suite for this voyage, and it turned out to be a good decision. It was 300 sq. ft. with a king bed, a huge walk-in closet, a beautiful marble bathroom, double sinks, and a great rain-head shower. We had two French balconies and floor to ceiling sliding doors. On a riverboat, unlike an ocean vessel, the best views are on the top deck, where you can see both shores. Irene and I took advantage of room service (available free in suites) and had breakfast in our quarters when we had to be ready for early excursions.
After unpacking, we met fellow guests in the Panorama Lounge where we were introduced to the Tauck directors and given information about the MS Inspire. The captain welcomed us with a toast and officers’ introductions. We had the first of our daily Tauck Discovery Briefings, which gave in-depth information about the following days’ programs. Many times there were multiple excursions and the briefings gave us the opportunity to ask questions and make our decisions. Dinner followed — always open seating — enabling us to eat at whatever time and with whomever we wished. Dinner this first night was followed by a delightful classical string performance.
July 17 – In the morning, we were driven in coaches to Amsterdam where we boarded canal boats for a trip through its meandering canals. Our guide told us about important sights and we enjoyed coffee and delicious apple cake with ice cream! We then met local guides for a visit to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. As usual, Tauck does a great job: in addition to splitting us up into small groups, each of us had a “whisper” headset and ear piece, which enabled us to hear the guide standing at a distance. The museum has a wealth of outstanding paintings by the Dutch masters, particularly Rembrandt and Vermeer. While we were on our excursions in Amsterdam, the boat moved downstream to Utrecht where we boarded for lunch. By the way, if guests choose not to go on an excursion, they can stay onboard and enjoy the magnificent views from the top deck. The MS Inspire is considered a “long boat” about 445 ft. long. Unlike other boats of its size which carry as many as 180 passengers, the Inspire carries only 130 which translates to larger cabins and more spacious surroundings.July 18 – Today we sailed for Cologne, Germany, arriving at 11:30 AM. We walked to a charming restaurant and enjoyed a traditional German lunch, (we had been given choices of fish, meat or vegetarian) and great beer. I don’t know why, but the beers on this trip seem so much better than anything I’ve had in the states. After lunch, we were split up into small groups for a walking tour of Cologne and its magnificent cathedral. Tauck even had a group made up of “slower” walkers, who needed more time. Back on the ship we dressed for what turned out to be a highlight of the cruise — dinner at a “real” castle, Schloss Ehreshoven. It was magnificent with its own moat and stunning grounds and gardens. It is presently a home for destitute royalty where five elderly ladies still live in style. (The castle is subsidized by events like our Tauck dinner.)
July 19 – This was a great day. We docked in Koblenz and had been given several activity options: we could bicycle along the picturesque Rhine-Lahn bicycle route, enjoy a pleasant morning stroll along the streets of Koblenz, or drive by coach along the beautiful Mosel River to the picturesque town of Alken. Irene and I decided on the coach ride since it included a visit to the ruins of Castle Thurant, affording wonderful views of the town below. We were back on the boat for lunch, after which we all went on the top deck and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the scenery as the Inspire cruised through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. This was accompanied by a running commentary by a Tauck Director as we cruised past the numerous castles and expansive vineyards. This was the best “cruising” portion of the trip. (Frankly, other than this day, there was nothing very special about the sights or scenery along the Rhine.)Tonight we enjoyed a good meal at Arthur’s, an informal venue that seats about 25. We found the food on board the Inspire was across the board very good. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style, with an a la carte dinner.
In the evening we enjoyed the music of a local band and danced to rock and roll.
July 20 – Breakfast was followed by a very interesting lecture given by one of the Tauck Directors, a German who lived in East Germany, both before the Wall and after it fell. We sailed to Speyer and docked about 1:30 PM. Again there were several choices of excursions. We could go to the impressive Speyer Technical Museum or board the coaches for a 40-minute drive to the university city of Heidelberg. We picked the latter. The coach took us up the hills to visit the Heidelberg Castle where we were split up into small groups for the tour. We wished we could have spent more time visiting the castle before we had to take the funicular down to the town and our return coach ride to the ship. Tonight’s entertainment was the “crew show” — always good for a lot of cheer.
July 21 – The Inspire docked in Kehl Germany about 8 AM. After breakfast we walked about 20 minutes to our coaches for the drive to Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg is a beautiful medieval city. Our guide walked us through Petit France, a charming neighborhood and took us on a tour of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We spent some free time meandering and picture taking. After lunch, we repeated our 20-minute walk to our coach and headed for the Caracalla Spa in Baden- Baden, Germany. We had a wonderful afternoon. The spa has a very large indoor pool of thermal waters — about 90 degrees — with waterfalls, a rock grotto with hot and cold plunge pools, and invigorating water massage areas. There were two outdoor marble pools, a water current channel and two whirlpools. On the second floor were steam rooms and hot saunas. These were for men and women, (all together) but no bathing suits allowed. Irene and I decided to pass on it, but several Tauck guests did it and enjoyed the experience.
We returned by coach and the same 20-minute walk back to the ship. We felt that Tauck could have done a better job by providing lunch in Strasbourg and transportation from Strasbourg for those guests wanting to travel to Baden-Baden rather than having to return to the ship for another bus ride and long walk.
This evening was the Captain’s Farewell Reception and dinner even though we were not disembarking the next day. This was good-planning since the following day was to be another long but memorable day in Lucerne.July 22 – Lucerne is a beautiful city on the expansive and lovely, Lake Lucerne. We could have taken a short walking tour with Tauck guides, but decided to “train”, (really a bus made up of several open cars made to look like a train) to see the highlights of Lucerne. We strolled around and saw Lucerne’s famous covered bridge — very unusual and beautiful. I thought Tauck could have provided a one-hour cruise on the Lake to better utilize the time, but they did provide cash for lunch before the next part of the day. Most of the guests boarded the cable car to ascend to Mt. Pilatus, 7,000 feet above Lucerne. Irene is afraid of the heights and swaying cars so we did not go. Tauck, very generously provided taxi fare for us and another couple to the outskirts of the city where we were able to take the cogwheel train (travelling on tracks on the ground), up to the top of Mt. Pilatus. It was quite beautiful on top with great views of the surrounding mountains and lakes. After a couple hours of sightseeing, we took the cogwheel train back down the mountain and boarded coaches to Basel Switzerland, to meet the Inspire, enjoy dinner, and pack for the next day’s disembarkation.
July 23 – After breakfast Tauck provided us with a private transfer to our rental car agency in the middle of Basel. We rented a spacious Volkswagen, and after accessing the navigation app Waze on my Iphone, set out for Grindelwald. It was an easy 2-hour trip on highways. We could not check into the Hotel Belvedere until 3 PM, so we left our luggage and walked the short distance to the center of town for lunch. We also stopped by the train station to turn in the vouchers we had bought before we left the US for the 3-day VIP Jungfrau Pass. This pass allowed us to use the Jungfrau Railways for unlimited travel on their very extensive railway lines. A stop by the Swiss Tourist office got us maps and instructions on the train and bus options we could take for the three days we would be there. The people there were extremely helpful. We returned to the Hotel Belvedere and checked into our lovely corner room with a terrace overlooking both the Eiger and Wetterhorn mountains. Dinner was in a breathtaking outdoor setting in Grindelwald looking out over the surrounding mountain
July 24 – All during our trip on the Rhine we had been checking the weather in Grindelwald. Predictions were pessimistic — rain expected all three days of our visit. So we were thrilled to wake up to see a beautiful sun filled sky, with not a cloud in sight. After breakfast, we walked the short distance to the railway station and boarded the first of two trains that would take us to the Jungfraujoch Top of Europe, 11,333 feet above sea level. It was a magnificent ride up the mountain with snow-capped peaks, streams, hikers and cows along the way. We changed trains in Kleine Scheidegg and got off at the top not really knowing what to expect. We were very surprised to see extensive tourist attractions, shops and dining venues all at the top of the Jungfraujoch. There was a 360-degree surround-sound video of the area. We walked along pathways which had slides of the history of the building of this retreat as well as stories of mountain climbers both successful and, unfortunately, unsuccessful. The most unusual display was a walk along an ice path with ice sculptures of animals. Once we explored inside, we went outside to see what it was like (other than cold.) It was gorgeous! The sun was out and we could see 360-degrees over the Jungfrau mountain range. There was snow on the ground, and it was quite slippery, so we were glad we had brought our hiking sticks. It was very crowded with Chinese and Japanese groups. Everybody was taking “selfies” with those ridiculous long sticks that poke people. Of course, each one camped out in the best place to take a photo, and after his selfie, the other five or 10 members of the group had to strike poses in the same spot like they were movie stars, making the best picture-taking spots unavailable. It was utterly ridiculous and funny at the same time. As an aside: my understanding is that Disneyworld has outlawed selfie poles, and hopefully other tourist sites will follow their lead.
After several hours at the Top of Europe, we boarded the train back to Kleine Scheidegg, had a tasty knockwurst and soda lunch at an outdoor picnic area, and headed out on our planned walk (hike) to a place called Alpiglen, where we were to pick up another train back to Grindelwald. We had been told it was an hour to an hour and a half “easy” walk. It turned out to be almost two hours. It certainly was beautiful with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, including the Eiger’s famous North Face, where so many mountain climbers had lost their lives. Clanging cow bells accompanied us like a scene from Heidi. We were very glad to reach the train station in Alpiglen and board our train back to Grindelwald.
It started to pour as we left our hotel for dinner. We planned for a traditional Swiss fondue dinner, and the rain did not stop us!July 25 – We walked back to the railway station in Grindelwald and took to train back to Kleine Schiedegg, where we boarded another train to the beautiful car-free village of Wengen. Another spot right out of picture books! We walked around for an hour and then boarded the train to Lauterbrunnen. Here we boarded a bus to our planned excursion of the day — Trummelbach Falls. We had been told by friends not to miss them and we were looking forward to it. Trummelbach Falls are actually 10 very powerful glacier water falls illuminated inside the mountain made accessible by a tunnel-lift. The falls drain the glaciers of several mountains, including the Eiger and Jungfrau. While the first part of the trip is by tunnel-lift, the rest is uphill via wet, slippery walkways. I found it interesting. Irene could have passed. Once we were back down on terra firma, we had an hour wait for the bus that took us back to the railway station, where we caught the train back to Grindelwald.
July 26 – It was our last day in Switzerland, and we wanted to get the most out of it. We got a late checkout offer from the hotel, so early in the morning we boarded another train (we were experts by this time) to Wilderswil and then changed to a historic, narrow gauge railway to Schynige Platte, where we planned to explore their Alpine Garden. This walk and tour of the gardens turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire two-week vacation. The botanical gardens were like none we had seen before. The location itself, overlooking magnificent mountain ranges, was picture-perfect. We heard cows with their cowbells grazing in the fields below. I thought Irene was going to break into song like Maria from the Sound of Music. (Thankfully she did not.) The flowers and plants were situated along the walkways and were the names of the flora were easily marked and identified. We could have spent all day here, but unfortunately we had to get back to Grindelwald to check out as we needed to travel to Zurich that afternoon.
The car ride to Zurich turned out to be more of an adventure than planned. I entered the wrong address in Waze, and after wandering around Zurich, with what seemed like days, we ended up at the hotel exhausted and cranky.
July 27 – Uneventful United flight back. Home sweet home!
The bottom line: Let me start off by saying that Tauck did its usual great job. The planning and execution was almost flawless. However, if I had never taken a river boat cruise and wanted to take a first one, I would not choose the Rhine. I think a cruise on the Danube is more exciting with its cosmopolitan ports like Budapest, Vienna, and Melk, and a pre-cruise opportunity to visit Prague. I also felt that cruising on the Danube offered views that were more picturesque. Other than the Middle Rhine, with its castles, I thought the rest of the scenery was somewhat disappointing. That being said, the Inspire was a great ship. The entire crew, from the dining room staff to housekeeping was top notch, friendly and professional. As expected, the Tauck Directors and Cruise Director were outstanding. I was surprised that we had to walk some distances to get coaches for our excursions. It seemed that Viking had much closer docking facilities. Tauck did make other arrangements for transportation for several people who had walking difficulties. Also, while I know the rivers are very crowded with more and more boats, we hated being butted up to a boat and not being able to open our balconies, as we were 2″ from another boat several times.
I think the best part of our vacation were the days we spent in Switzerland. Grindelwald was magic. The refreshing mountain air and gorgeous views were spectacular. The excursions were fabulous.
Call one of our agents at Alice Travel. We can plan a great riverboat vacation for you.