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European tours usually entail numerous hotels, with frequent packing and unpacking of luggage. "I did one of those 'Bags out at 7 am' coach tours and don't ever want to do it again," says Canadian Betty Hoover. "Cruising is a much more leisurely way to see Europe."

Bernkastel and Mosel River in Germany
Bernkastel and Mosel River in Germany
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hoover cruised with Jerry Van Dyke, a travel company based in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Jerry Van Dyke Travel Services charters the beautifully renovated Da Vinci for Holland and Belgium waterways, Rhine, Mosel, Main and Danube River cruises. The Da Vinci (formerly the Erasmus) has 53 double cabins and three single cabins.

Da Vinci replaced The Elegant Lady, which was sold by WT Cruises to a foreign shipping company. The non-smoking riverboat has only two decks, so passengers can remain on the sun deck even when the Da Vinci passes under low bridges.

Rhine cruise

For the 14-night Amsterdam to Basel cruise, passengers boarded the Da Vinci in Arnhem, Holland, known for Operation Market Garden during World War II.

Cruising the Rhine is endlessly fascinating. We sipped cappuccinos, on the sun deck, as Jerry Van Dyke enlightened us about the 1,320-km river's commercial importance and traffic. Barges carry not only containers, coal and crushed stone, but also cars, bicycles and baby playpens for the owners' families.

In Düsseldorf, guides led us on walking tours of the city known for its fashions and the world's longest bar. Lively beer houses line the cobblestone streets. We joined the locals at outdoor tables, sipping glasses of Alt, the light-tasting Düsseldorf dark beer.

Passengers on river cruise view Cologne Cathedral.
Passengers on river cruise view Cologne Cathedral.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cologne Germany

Soaring Gothic spires greeted us as we approached Cologne. Inside the cathedral are dazzling stained glass windows and, according to legend, the bones of the Three Wise Men.

Cologne is famous for Kölsch, a top-fermented beer, served in tall cylindrical glasses. In the Old Market Square, an accordionist entertained imbibers with polka tunes.

We shopped for bottles of fragrant cologne. Originally created as an aphrodisiac in the 18th century, the floral essence still carries the city's name today.

Koblenz Germany

The Da Vinci cruised to Andernach, the following morning, while we rode a cog railway to the mountaintop ruins of Drachenfels castle for panoramic views of the Rhine. Next on our agenda was Linz, one of Germany's prettiest towns. Crimson geraniums adorn Hansel and Gretal houses lining its crooked cobblestone streets.

Because the ship cruised only during the day, we didn't miss the sights. The policy also enabled us to spend evenings in town. In Andernach, we strolled around the medieval walls to wear off hearty dinners of sauerkraut, bratwurst and smoked pork.

The Rhine and Mosel meet at Koblenz, where we cruised by slabs of the former Berlin Wall next to a monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I. It's the world's largest equestrian statue.

Reichsburg Castle and boats on Mosel River in Cochem
Reichsburg Castle and boats on Mosel River in Cochem
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mosel River cruise

As the captain skilfully manoeuvred our river boat within a hand's width of three successive lock walls, Jerry noted: "You need eyes in the front and back of your head to see all the attractions of the Mosel."

Castle ruins dominated dizzyingly steep terraced vineyards and winemaking villages. Church bells resonated from medieval steeples. Cyclists, trout-fishermen and campers waved as we glided by.

In Cochem, we toured the 11th-century Reichsburg castle and sampled Rieslings made from the surrounding vineyards. (The cruise fare includes regional wines with dinner.) After dinner and dancing on board, we enjoyed a romantic riverside walk below the illuminated castle.

Trier Germany

Bernkastel, with its top-heavy half-timbered houses, bear fountain and outdoor cafés, was a highlight of our 200-kilometre Mosel journey. So was Trier, the oldest city Germany, with its landmark 2,000-year-old Black Gate.

Trier's UNESCO-protected baths, basilica and amphitheatre provided fascinating glimpses of Roman culture. A colourful flower market brightened the city's marketplace.

Da Vinci celebrated its passage through the picturesque Rhine gorge with lunch on the sundeck and legends about the Lorelei maiden who lured ships aground.

Rudesheim Germany

Our visit to Rüdesheim began with a private tour of the Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum. The elaborate collection plays everything from Strauss waltzes to folk tunes.

Evening oom-pa-pa music enticed us into open-air weingartens along the narrow cobblestone streets. We sipped the town's specialty — hot coffee flambéed with Asbach brandy and topped with mounds of whipped cream and grated chocolate. In stores, we found tiny chocolate bottles, filled with Asbach brandy.

Black Forest dancers with pompom hats
Black Forest dancers with pompom hats
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Black Forest

While the ship transited several Rhine locks, we visited Germany's Black Forest. In an open-air museum, we watched a woman spin wool and a waterwheel-powered mill grind grain, just as it did in 1609.

Lunch of venison, red cabbage and spatzle (egg noodles) was in the medieval dining room of Hornberg Castle. Its hilltop location offers 360-degree views of the town and valley below.

Dessert was Germany's best Black Forest torte, at Café Zum Kruz. The generous portions were thick with whipped cream and boozy cherries.

After shopping for cuckoo clocks, we returned to the ship for a performance of traditional Black Forest dances. The women's 200-year-old costumes featured 1.5 kg-hats covered with cherry-red pompoms.

Strasbourg France

With its artists, elaborate cathedral, outdoor cafés, and joie de vivre, the Petite France area of Strasbourg resembles Montmartre in Paris. Tour boats ply the Ill River. Storks feed chicks in rooftop nests.

Cobblestone street and multi-colored houses in Alsace, France
Cobblestone street and multi-colored houses in Alsace, France
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Half-timbered homes, here in Alsace, are as colourful as lemons, oranges, plums, limes and raspberries. Window boxes overflow with pink geraniums, purple petunias and yellow pansies. Add ornate wrought iron signs, turrets, drawbridges and statue-filled fountains, and you feel like you're walking though a book of fairytales.

Glasses clinked as we sampled superb Alsace Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer wines during lunch. Passengers followed the Route des Vins, with its lush vineyards, back to the Da Vinci, now docked in Basel.

Switzerland Alps

"Words can't describe what we saw today," said Gail Wilkins, from Toronto, about our cog railway trip to Kleine Scheidegg. The train climbed past jade lakes, wooden chalets and glaciers that frosted craggy peaks like meringue.

After lunch, we walked through meadows of wild yellow buttercups, soaking up the beauty. It was a postcard-pretty ending to our trip.

"I knew I'd like river cruising, but I didn't realize I'd enjoy the day trips so much," said Frank Relf, of Ottawa. "River cruises are such a luxurious and tranquil way to see Europe," added Katherine Coutts, from Calgary.

We agree.


European river cruises: www.jerryvandyke.com