Family Rhine time on Uniworld ship

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Strasbourg, France, is one of the stops on Uniworld’s Castles Along the Rhine tour aboard the 130-passenger River Empress, which sails from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam.
Strasbourg, France, is one of the stops on Uniworld’s Castles Along the Rhine tour aboard the 130-passenger River Empress, which sails from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

A gaggle of kids gleefully forked warm waffles onto their plates and covered them with ice cream, chocolate sauce and sprinkles from a mini-buffet set up at one end of the ship's sun deck.

Meanwhile, the adults lined the rest of the expanse, taking pictures and sipping chardonnay and German lager as Uniworld's sleek, 130-passenger River Empress zigzagged along Germany's scenic Middle Rhine on a sunny afternoon.

Temporarily sated, the kids soon scrambled back down to the playroom in the converted library to resume their board games and soccer tournaments on the PlayStation. The boat's weak WiFi connection ostensibly shut down gaming on smartphones and laptops, pushing the kids to socialize the old-fashioned way.

In all, there were 39 children under age 18 on the family cruise I did in July with my husband and 13-year-old twin sons.

"At first glance, river cruising doesn't seem well-suited to family cruises, but we've been doing family river cruises for six years, and we've had great feedback," said Guy Young, until recently president and CEO of Uniworld and now global brand engagement officer at the Travel Corp., Uniworld's parent company.

The River Empress carries bicycles for use on the paths that flank the river.
The River Empress carries bicycles for use on the paths that flank the river. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

In 2016 Uniworld offered 16 family voyages, up from five in 2015, and there will be 22 in 2017. Two extra crew members are brought onboard to supervise special activities, such as a strudel-making demo and face painting, and there is a kids' table at dinner. There are no connecting cabins or triples so families must book multiple cabins.

Underlining the trend, Disney launched its first series of river cruise charters for families this summer on the Danube River and plans more for summer 2017. Families are a welcome demographic, especially as supply on Europe's rivers continues to swell and continuing terrorist incidents in Europe keep some travelers away.

"It's a crowded market," Young said.

Maybe so, but on our Castles Along the Rhine cruise from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, the only major crowds we encountered were around that PlayStation and the jars of marshmallows and gummy bears in the lounge.

It was a week of continuous visits to lovely medieval towns and cities in Germany, such as Speyer, and a few on the French side of the river, such as Strasbourg, to stroll amid charming, half-timbered buildings; towering Gothic cathedrals; and wending old canals lined with flowers. In family-friendly Rudesheim, Germany, we took a cable car ride above a hillock carpeted in emerald-green vineyards, and later in the day went on a tour of the Rheinstein Castle, built in the 14th century, then rebuilt in the 19th century.

Nearly every day, we used the boat's sturdy, Swiss-made bicycles for family rides along the bike paths flanking the river, including a 12-mile group pedal one morning between two ports. All but two excursion options were included in the fares, with a visit to a forest adventure-climbing park and an interactive transportation museum among the offerings geared toward children.

The highlight of the week was two days spent on the gorgeous Middle Rhine, from Rudesheim to Koblenz, Germany, the classic region where medieval castles seem to grow one after another out of the steep, rocky slopes above the river, in between quiltlike patches of vineyards that earned the area Unesco World Heritage status.

Not all of the 766-mile Rhine is so scenic, including the southern part between Basel and Strasbourg that was canalized in the 1930s and '40s to improve navigability. Industrial complexes with belching smokestacks, especially around Ludwigshafen, Cologne and Dusseldorf, Germany, dot other sections of the Rhine.

During those parts, most people were happy to hit the small gym or spa or chill in the comfortable cabins watching movies on the TV. Four suites measure 214 square feet, and the rest of the rooms go 151 square feet, all with smart fabric wall treatments, marble-clad bathrooms and large windows or sliding doors (French balconies) just a few feet above the river. Enveloping Savoir beds handcrafted in England are covered in plush European-style duvets and huge pillows.

All suites onboard feature Savoir beds, marble bathrooms and either large windows or French balconies.
All suites onboard feature Savoir beds, marble bathrooms and either large windows or French balconies.

The elegant windowed lounge, with richly upholstered banquets and impressionist-style paintings, was another place to relax at any time of the day. It was the venue for daily port talks, occasional expert lectures and drinks from the bar while listening to the talented Cezar sing and play the piano.

We all looked forward to mealtime in the stylish restaurant, with its red leather upholstery and olive-green water glasses. At the lunch buffet, my boys gravitated to the pasta, carving station and sandwiches, while Mom and Dad hit the salad bar and sampled the German options, from Wiener schnitzel and potato salad to sauerkraut and sausages. At dinner, when jackets weren't required but many wore them anyway, the menus featured several options for every course, including a regional dish; a delicious roasted chicken with mushroom gravy; escargot Alsace style with a splash of riesling wine; and Black Forest cake. Kids received their own menu.

A fitting end to each busy day exploring on shore was a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the sun set behind the Rhine, pampered by excellent service, delicious food and generously poured wine.

Seven-night Castles Along the Rhine fares for the two family cruises scheduled for July started at $3,649 per adult (and $1,825 per child), double occupancy, and include meals, shore excursions, tips and wine, spirits and soft drinks.

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