Having just spent two weeks on one of the largest ships currently plying its trade on the waterways of Europe, it’s no real surprise that Tauck has been named number one when it comes to river cruising, writes Alan Wooding.
I’ve always fancied a Rhine cruise from the Netherlands to Switzerland and, with our 45th wedding anniversary fast approaching, I checked out several options and tried to weigh up the pros and cons.
However, unlike some of the better publicised tour operators, by booking with Tauck (who for 2015 have branched out into the UK market), I found that everything was paid up front and that meant there would be no hidden surprises when it came to taking excursions or paying for evening drinks and gratuities.
Now I must confess that until last October I had never actually heard of Tauck but I soon learned that they are a family-owned US-based travel company who this year will celebrate a milestone 90th anniversary.
It’s a company that has won over 100 awards for quality, innovation and leadership, including being named the ‘World’s Best Tour Operator’ by a number of consumer and trade publications over the last two decades. And this year alone it has already picked up awards for ‘Best Luxury River Cruise, ‘Best Excursions’ and the ‘Best Alternate Dining’, that award going to the team aboard MS Inspire.
Established in 1915 when its salesman founder Arthur Taulk Snr took six people on a 1,100 mile, all-inclusive trip that cost each one $69 for six days. Using a rented Studebaker car, the group toured New England, visiting Connecticut, Massachusetts,Vermont, New York and Canada, more than 900 miles of the trip being on dirt roads … but the passengers didn’t seem to mind!
That bold venture led to Arthur finally purchasing several buses while the rest as they say is history and today Tauck operates in more than 70 countries across all seven continents.
Catching the 9.20am easyJet flight to Amsterdam from London-Luton, we were personally met at Schiphol Airport and transferred to what is basically a floating five star hotel in a chauffeur driver Mercedes limousine and that immediately registered that Tauck is a rather special holiday company.
Then as we boarded MS Inspire docked on the IJ River close to Amsterdam’s Centraal Railway Station, at 135 metres (443 feet) long and 11.45 metres wide, the ship is truly magnificent. Brought into service in 2014, the only restriction to its size is the fact that it has to negotiate a series of 12 metre wide locks on both the Rhine and Moselle rivers!
Along with its identical sister ship MS Savor, Inspire’s steel hull was built in Serbia’s capital Belgrade before being floated down the Danube and Rhine to Rotterdam where all the luxury fixtures and fittings were added in a Netherlands dockyard.
Scylla is a Dutch company based in Switzerland which actually own the ships while Tauck leases them fully crewed on an eight month basis each year. In fact Tauck currently leases seven ships from Scylla for its European river cruise programme while for 2016 two more brand new vessels will be added to the fleet.
Featuring three decks – Diamond, Ruby and Emerald plus a spacious sun deck complete with hot tub and four-hole putting green. There’s also a fully equipped 24-hour gym, a hairdressers, massage plus a sauna and steam room.
Registered at Valletta in Malta, MS Inspire can carry up to 130 passengers in 67 beautifully appointed cabins but as we had just 84 guests on board for the 13-day 1,060 kilometre cruise between Amsterdam and Basel.
With a truly international crew of 35 under the watchful eye of jovial Dutch skipper Captain Henrik Liemberg, they couldn’t have been more attentive while the overall service surpassed anything that I could have ever imagined.
With most Rhine cruise companies having just one tour director for up to 190 passengers, Tauck ensure that every one of their cruises has at least four. And as Tauck’s personal touch is paramount the four tour directors – Carlos Campos from Spain, Romanian Yener Ismail, Glorija Lane from Serbia and Switzerland’s Daniel Huerlimann – ensured everything ran like a precision Swiss watch.
There were also three 52-seater coaches following the ship all the way from the Netherlands down to Switzerland to take us on daily excisions … but first we had to chose which one we wished to travel on by tossing a coloured poker chip into a champagne bucket!
But it was the food that often took centre stage, cruise director Carlos joking that “People come on as guests but leave as cargo!”
While a buffet-style breakfast and luncheon could be taken in the Compass Rose restaurant, there was always an alternative at Arthur’s which also offered steaks, burgers, etc at the rear of the ship. Meanwhile for evening dinners there was always a magnificent five course choice all superbly presented along with a fabulous selection of wines from the five countries which we were to pass through on the trip.
Under Dutch head chef Fenna, there were five other chefs helping her prepare dishes of such quality and presentation that I was expecting to see MasterChef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace making an appearance!
And as Fenna was always available to have a chat, when she asked me if there was anything that I fancied for lunch one day, she went off and prepared a stunning Dutch kibbeling (fried cod nuggets with a special mayonnaise dipping sauce) which she had cooked to absolute perfection.
The ship’s Dutch hotel manager Marina van Oevelan is from Hoorn, a small town just north of Amsterdam while Captain Liemberg also lives there. Marina showed me around four different style cabins, the quaint lofts (which are strangely below the water level on the Emerald deck) have an upstairs while all categories have large flat screen televisions and plenty of cupboard and wardrobe space.
“Tauck have always listened to their guest,” she said. “If they make a suggestion, then if possible its usually acted upon. One thing that came up before this boat was built was that the bathrooms were too small, so that was rectified and today they are often as big as those in our passenger’s houses.”
Seven category cabins are on offer and we were in a 225 square foot category six which had a large bathroom and huge shower cubical plus a sumptuous bed. In fact it was so comfortable that it was often hard to guess if the ship was moving or not. And no expense had been spared when it came to quality; the sheets, duvets, pillows, toiletries and fitments were all superb.
With cabin keys cards exchanged for shore passes, we spent the first and second days in Amsterdam, the MS Inspire being moored just a stone’s throw from the old town where we paid a visit to the wonderful Rijksmuseum which finally reopened in 2013 after being closed for more than a decade as it underwent a complete renovation.
Pride of place in the massive cathedral-like museum is Holland’s most revered artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. His magnificent masterpiece ‘The Night Watch’ is found at the end of a special gallery which leaves you breathless, our expert guide bringing to life the work of the many Dutch masters.
Then a guided tour around Amsterdam’s 400-year-old canal ring by river boat gave everyone a taste of the city from a lower level. Passing below its low arched bridges, we arrived back at the museum quarter close to Rijksmuseum where the Van Gogh Museum and Royal Concertgebouw can also be found.
With mainly American guests on board – some having travelled more than 30 times with Tauck such was their loyalty – we sailed all night. Leaving Amsterdam and passing by Utrecht, the starting point for the 2015 Tour de France, while we arrived in Nijmegen during the early hours.
There was a choice of excursions on offer at the 2000-year-old Roman town of Nijmegen … and one was a trip to the impressive Kroller-Muller Museum in the De Hoge Veluwe National Park. It’s the biggest nature reserve in Holland and it houses more than 200 painting by Vincent Van Gogh along with others by the likes of Piet Mondrian, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso while there is also a huge sculpture garden with works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Fritz Wotruba on display.
I had actually visited the Kroller-Mullerm before and it really is a paradise for art lovers. It’s the work of Helene and Anton Kroller-Muller who between 1907 and 1922 collected around 11,500 works of art, making it one of the biggest private collections anywhere in the world.
However we chose the alternative trip to the Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek close to the Dutch town of Arnhem where ‘Operation Market Garden’ took place during the Second World War – remember the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’? That action alone cost the lives of thousands of men from both sides as the Allies tried to cross the Rhine and Waal rivers.
Housed in Hartenstein Villa, the Airborne Museum tells the story of the conflict in the words of the local people while there is a good selection of authentic weaponry and documents along with dramatic footage and photographs from the time. Then as you go underground there’s a real airborne experience as it puts you right in the centre of the action. We also visited the nearby Allies cemetery which is looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
We ate Dutch ‘Stroopwafels’ (wafer biscuits with a caramel centre) aboard our coach as we returned to the ship which had moved upstream to Rees in Germany … then it moved off once again to dock in Dusseldorf.
Chatting to Captain Liemberg in the wheelhouse, he told me that there is a charge of €1,000 every time you dock on the Rhine and Moselle. The Inspire’s twin engines use around 40 litres of diesel ever hour when running against the current and he said that the ship carries enough fuel for around five weeks running time.
“We usually cruise at around 8kph when we’re going upstream,” he said, “while it’s half as much again on the return journey.”
The MS Inspire also has a 250,000 freshwater tank while its toilets are the aircraft type with an instant suction flush, thus saving precious water.
When I asked him about low bridges and high water (in April the Rhine was still in partial flood), the captain said: “We flood the ballast tanks to lower ourselves in the water and then I drop the wheelhouse and all the sun deck railing. And if it’s still too tight, I can always pop my head through the special skylight hatch to see where we’re going,” he laughed.
This section of the Rhine was not really that attractive for there is so much heavy industry along its banks. The river is more like a giant highway with constant ships and coal barges making their way up and down. In fact the coal barges are the result of Germany opting to close most of its nuclear power stations following the promises made by its Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel back in 2005.
Passing Linz the scenery becomes more interesting and after leaving the city of Dusseldorf on day four we arrived in Remagen, site of the famous Ludendorff Bridge which was captured by the Americans just months before the end of the war.
There is now an interesting peace museum housed in one of the remaining towers but we were soon on the move again to reach what is known as ‘German Corner’ and the town of Koblenz, the meeting place of two mighty rivers, the Rhine and Moselle.
Prior to reaching Koblenz we passed by Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral and the former German capital city of Bonn, birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven. We also saw the Rheinhotel at Dreesen near Konigswinter where in 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain first met Adolf Hitler.
Later that same year they met again at Hitler’s hideaway at the infamous Berchtesgaden to discuss the Czechoslovakian situation and that’s where Chamberlain receive that famous ‘Peace in our Time’ slip of paper.
Taking a stroll through the town after dark and passing the mighty Wilhelm 1st statute, Koblenz was really busy with the bars overflowing out into the street, the mild weather attracting many customers.
It was late into the evening when the ship sailed on and we were soon in th pretty town of Cochem whose vineyards are so steep as they cling to the hillsides that it’s amazing that the grape harvest can ever be safely gathered in.
A tour of the town with our ‘Voxes’ (personal walkie talkies) gave us a good insight into life in this part of Germany while we also visited the imposing Reichsburg Castle. However it was at the Schlagkamp Winery that it really got interesting! Run by the same family since 1602, Andreas Schlagkamp is the 11th generation winemaker and his talk was accompanied by plenty of excellent Riesling wine!
Arriving at Bernkastel – our next destination on day six – just before breakfast, it proved to be another busy morning. We made the short drive to The Grand Dutchy of Luxembourg where we enjoyed a superb guided waking tour around one of the European Union’s most beautiful cities starting in Constitution Square.
A visit to the impressive Gothic cathedral was followed by a stroll past several government buildings, the Grand Duke’s Palace and Place d’Armes and as we didn’t return to the ship for lunch, Tauck gave everyone €20 to spend locally in this unique UNESCO Heritage city.
During the afternoon we made a trip to the American Memorial Cemetery at nearby Hamm. It’s the burial place of General George S Patton and 5,070 United States troops, the Tauck reps having thoughtfully provided everyone with a special memorial rose to lay on one of the graves.
Back on board, we stayed in Bernkastel for the night and enjoyed an interesting tour around the pretty timber-framed houses. We also made the short coach trip to Trier, one of Germany’s oldest towns with its Roman ruins. Having tasted even more wine and schnapps before returning to the ship for a 3.30pm sailing, we then headed towards Boppard.
There are 14 locks on the Moselle (four in France and 10 in Germany) and we sailed past some even steeper hillside vineyards while the evening’s on board entertain was provided by La Strada, a classical trio who played pieces by the likes of Gioacchino Rossini and Aram Khachaturian plus several Hungarian Gypsy melodies.
Sailing all night and passing Koblenz again on day eight, we arrived back on the Rhine and the popular ‘shopping town’ of Boppard. Buying a traditional decoration for our tree at the Christmas Shop, we then took the chairlift to the 1,000 metre summit of Hirschkoft with its magnificent views over the town.
Amazingly the Rhine turns almost 360 degrees in a huge horseshoe bend at this point while at a certain spot you can see what looks like four separate lakes … but really it’s just the river!
Having enjoyed a typical German lunch of sausage and sauerkraut (plus beer) in the Gedeonseek Restaurant, once back on board during the afternoon we passed the famous Lorelie (or Loreley) rock. It’s the narrowest section of the Middle Rhine Valley while a tiny statue of a mermaid-like siren is reputed to have enchanted olden day sailors, her singing causing them to maroon their boats on the rocks.
That evening we visited the fascinating Reichenstein Castle were thousands of hunting trophies adorned the walls. Meeting the owner, we enjoyed yet another excellent dinner while we were royally entertained by Reinhardt Reissner (DJ Reinhardt to his friends!) whose oompah band-style music had everyone’s feet tapping while some even got up to dance!
We docked at the towns of Gernsheim, Mannheim and Speyer the following day with a tour of Heidelberg Castle and Speyer’s 985-year-old Dom Catherdral, one of the largest in Christendom. Then on day ten we arrived in Plittersdorf and a trip to the spa town of Baden-Baden in the shadow of the Black Forest hills.
A favourite with the likes of Bill Clinton plus a host of other celebrities down the years, Baden-Baden (Bath-Bath) with its hot water springs and magnificent Louis XIV-style Casino have made it one of Germany’s most expensive places to live. There are more millionaires in the town than you can shake a stick at and while I didn’t bother playing the roulette wheel or the Black Jack tables, at least I didn’t lose any money!
Nude mixed bathing still takes place four days a week in the 17-room Friedrichsbad Spa which was opened in 1877 – it’s called the ‘Temple of Wellbeing’ – while at the new spa just along the road, the Caraellla, it’s a little more discreet with bathers expected to wear swimming costumes.
During the afternoon I borrowed one of the ship’s bicycles and rode around 25 kilometres in a circular route around Plittersdorf, passing through a huge nature reserve and spotting several storks, a cuckoo, a kingfisher plus many other species of nesting water fowl. Incidentally, the Dutch style bike had no brake levers, you simply back peddled to stop!
That evening the MS Inspire’s crew put on an excellent after dinner show with all manner of comedy routines plus a clever bottle juggling turn. But they were soon back on duty as we sailed for Kehl and the onward trip to our fourth country, France and home to the European Union Parliament, Strasbourg.
The old town is really lovely but as it was the only afternoon that it rained heavily, I didn’t get to see all that I wanted and I took shelter in the huge cathedral where they were preparing for a concert to commemorate 1000 years of the building’s history.
And so to our fifth and final country on day 12 as the MS Inspire docked at Basel in Switzerland. Choosing to visit the historic city of Lucerne and its famous lake seemed a better option as we would be able to spend the 13th and final day in Basel itself due to our late afternoon flight home.
It was certainly the best choice as we walked over the famous wooden 200 metre ‘Chapel Bridge’ before climbing up to see the twin needle spires of the Hofkirche (Hof Church). We also saw the famous ‘Dying Lion of Lucerne’ sculpture which was hewn out of the solid rock in 1821 by artist Lukas Ahorn.
Lucerne is a vibrant city. There’s the chance of taking an hour long boat ride on its lake with its panoramic views of the nearby Swiss Alps or alternatively there is another one hour train ride which takes in all the top tourist attractions in the wonderful medieval city.
Basel too is very nice – especially on a Sunday when all the shops are shut! Its fabulous mural-covered Rathuis (town hall) has just been totally renovated while the fast flowing river dissects the town in half. There is also a massive modern exhibition centre which stands close to one of the three railway stations … one for travel to France, another for Germany and the other for the Swiss locals.
After leaving the MS Inspire and saying our goodbyes at 9.15am on the Sunday morning, we were taken by coach to the five-star Swissotel in Basel where we were able to leave our luggage until it was time to be collected by another luxury Mercedes limousine some two-and-a-half hours before our return to Luton from Basel’s Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport.
It was a cruising holiday that will live long in our memory with Tauck’s amazing organisation delivering on ever possible front, its motto ‘How You See The World Matters’ being perfectly true on this occasion.
Alan Wooding’s 13-day Tauck Rhine and Moselle River Cruise was taken between 7-19 April with prices starting at £3,265 per person for a Category 1 cabin rising to £5,325 for a Category 7 suite. The price you pay includes absolutely everything: full board, all drinks and snacks, porterage, airport and hotel transfers by private limousine, plus all tips/gratuities.
However the price did not include the easyJet airfare from London-Luton Airport to Amsterdam’s Schiphol and the return trip from Basel’s Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport which added another £151 per person. However for 2016 Tauck has already promised to include all UK airfares in its brochure prices.
Special thanks to trip organiser Anja Eckervogt and David Tarsh of Tarsh Consulting, 12 Stoner Street, London W14 8RZ (www.tarsh.com), to everyone aboard MS Inspire and to Tauck (www.tauck.co.uk) for the experience. Call 0800 810 8020 or log onto their website to order a brochure.