Although there’s a jukebox in the corner and I’m surrounded by a colourful jazz themed decor, including novel trumpet-shaped lamp stands, I’m relishing the peace and quiet as timeless landscapes of vineyards and wine villages slip silently past the windows of the River Voyager.
Launched this March, the brand new Vantage vessel is a ‘silent ship’ so there are no intrusive ‘bing bong’ call to herald mealtimes or the departure of shore excursions. You won’t get a rude awakening during a lie-in or afternoon snooze, and during my week on the Rhine I certainly don’t go hungry or miss any outings due to the lack of announcements.
Although it’s new to Brits, US-based Vantage Deluxe World Travel began life in 1983 to offer tours – in the words of founder Henry Lewis – for “educated, energetic mature travellers, full of enthusiasm for experiencing the world”. The company, which has just broadened its market to other English-speaking nations, has six ships sailing on itineraries of varying lengths throughout Europe.
The interior of each Vantage ship is different and none more so than the 176-passenger River Voyager, where the jazz feel covers cabins, the lounge and dining areas. The 12 suites are a tribute to greats such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington, and corridor carpets are patterned with staves and notes. That said, it’s not a case of music being pumped out in public areas (although if you want to use the jukebox it’s free), so you don’t need to be a die-hard jazz fan to appreciate the rich colour tones, artwork and fun design details.
Solo passengers get a good deal as there are eight single cabins, which are non-existent on most river ships. Baths, also a rarity on rivers, are fitted in the suites and there’s a lift to all inside decks plus a chairlift to the sun deck, an area often out of bounds to guests with mobility issues.
We sail from Basel to Amsterdam, and whilst an undeniable draw is the picturesque scenery with a landscape changing from castles and craggy outcrops to cities and windmills, part of the Rhine’s fascination is that it remains an important commercial waterway. Flowing Switzerland, France, Germany and Holland, it’s been an important trade route since Roman times. In cavernous locks, up to 25ft deep, the 442ft River Voyager floats cheek by jowl alongside barges, and on the river we pass numerous commercial vessels laden with coal, gravel, tractors and other cargo.
Life on dry land is equally captivating, and one of the joys of river cruising is waking up somewhere new every day and mooring in the centre of towns and cities.
All shore excursions are included in the fare, and after docking in Kehl we board coaches to Strasbourg. Our walking tour takes in the charming Petite France neighbourhood, jam-packed with half-timbered Renaissance buildings, and personal audio headsets audio headsets make it easy to hear the guide’s commentary without having to cluster around. In the lop-sided cathedral we marvel at the 60ft astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world. Outside I pause to take photo of the distinctive cathedral with its single tower – money ran out to build the second one – before catching up with the guide.
On the drive back to River Voyager we glimpse the contemporary side of the multicultural capital of Europe. Strasbourg’s cylindrical parliament building looks incomplete and our guide explains that architects wanted it to reflect the unfinished nature of the European Union, although others claim it symbolises a modern-day Tower of Babel where people speak one language.
Each day brings more interesting snippets. The Rhine has more castles along its length than any other river in the world, and the next morning we arrive in Heidelberg, built between the 13th and 17th centuries. Our tour reveals the castle’s turbulent past which, disproving the old saying that it never happens twice, includes being struck by lightning and damaged by fire in 1537 and 1764.
The region is rich in history and in Mainz we visit the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s native son Johannes Gutenberg who invented printing with moveable type. Containing early books, presses and examples of Gutenberg’s 15th century bibles, it’s an enthralling attraction for bookworms. A far cry from today’s downloadable titles, in pre-printing days it took three years for scribes to transcribe a book. Gutenberg’s printed bibles were sold with blank spaces for artists to add colour illustrations and ornate capital letters at the beginning of paragraphs. We learn these artists couldn’t read, and spot centuries-old ‘typos’ such as a Q with its ‘tail’ on the wrong side.
The next day brings a scenic highlight as we sail through the UNESCO-listed Upper Middle Rhine Valley with its vine-covered slopes, rugged cliffs and forested hills. The Rhine is steeped in myths and folklore and the most enduring legend surrounds the towering Lorelei rock on a bend between Koblenz and Rudesheim. It’s said that a broken-hearted young maiden threw herself into the river and was transformed into a siren who lured sailors onto the rocks.
Life aboard is a restful and relaxed affair. The Blue Note lounge and bar is the heart of the vessel, large enough to accommodate all passengers comfortably for sightseeing, port talks, presentations and the all-important daily cocktail hour. Meals start with an expansive buffet breakfast, with cooked to order menu items, a served lunch with a salad buffet and sit-down dinner, with wine included. The food is imaginative and consistently good, with charming, attentive staff in the main dining room. For those who prefer lighter bites, a breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet is available each day in the airy Cotton Club lounge at the back of the ship. A nice touch is a barbecue on the rear deck. Other amenities include a library, small gym, massage room, free use of bicycles and Wi-Fi.
From Cologne, where the twin 515ft cathedral spires dominates the city skyline, we sail to Amsterdam with contrasting tours of the fabulous Rijksmuseum, the Netherland’s largest museum, and an evening stroll around the infamous red light district. After gazing at precariously leaning 17th century houses in the old port area we try not to gawp at the women advertising their wares in shop windows, including the incongruous sight of a bored looking girl eating a bag of crisps as she poses.
From ladies in red to a temptress singing hypnotic songs from a rocky outpost, landscapes that have inspired musicians and poets, and all that jazz on a lovely new vessel, it was a memorable week filled with all kinds of high notes.
Ponders Travel offers a seven-night Rhine cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, or in reverse, on River Voyager from £1,099pp, including all meals and wine with dinner, on a cruise-only basis. Packages including air or rail travel are also available on any Vantage itinerary, plus pre or post-cruise land stays.
For information on all vantage cruises visit www.vantagetravel.com.