The undiscovered gems

Germany-based fleet's river routes reveal some charming spots

Destination Europe

February 11, 2007|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

ANTWERP, BELGIUM / / This is about an Amsterdam-to-Amsterdam river cruise, which sounds like the boat didn't go anywhere or maybe just changed neighborhoods.

But no.

Over seven days, the MV Heidelberg -- part of the Germany-based Peter Deilmann luxury fleet -- floated along various conduits to Rotterdam and Veere (Netherlands), Ghent and Antwerp (Belgium), and back into the Netherlands for a stop at Arnhem before settling back into that notorious Amsterdam haze.

Though not before getting access to some pretty cool places in addition to that list of ports: Brussels and Brugge in Belgium, and Delft and Middelburg in the Netherlands.

The itinerary has been tweaked slightly for this year: Primary tweak is Arnhem is out, Volendam -- a Dutch charmer -- is in.

The boat was wonderful. The crew was the best. The food was outstanding. The passengers -- mostly but not all Germans -- couldn't have been nicer.

So why wasn't this the River Cruise of a Lifetime?

Four words, from an American woman named Honey Kessler, three days into the cruise:

"Where are the swans?"

Maybe they were honked off by the mountains of scrap metal.

Come on aboard.

The boat

Good boat, the MV Heidelberg. Any complaints anyone had -- and if they had any, I either didn't hear them or they complained in German -- couldn't have had anything to do with the vessel.

It's essentially a luxury barge, long (360 feet) and low, with 54 passenger cabins split among two levels. There were 82 paying customers on our cruise (capacity is 110), which meant by the end of the first breakfast, we were all noddingly acquainted.

It never felt crowded.

Cabins were bigger than I would have guessed from the pictures. Plenty of space in the bathrooms and the best shower I've ever experienced on a vehicle.

There was a hair salon onboard. And a doctor onboard. And the laundry was done at rational prices. Plus there was a sauna and a small gym for the addicted.

No noise came from the engine, except while maneuvering into ports or dealing with locks, the latter kind of entertaining. The only time we knew we were moving was when the shoreline went backward.

One last point: Sometimes barges carrying billions of Volvos would motor by in the opposite direction, generating a huge wake. The Heidelberg didn't even wobble.

The atmosphere

There was no conga line at sail-away and not once did a ship's photographer snap a picture (for purchase later) of couples being cuddled by fake pirates going "arrggghhhh."

There was no belly-flop contest. No art auction. No Heinrich, Heinrich, der Bingo Herr.


Quiet time between meals. Cocktails and conversation in the lounge before dinner. Gracious, unhurried dining. No rushing people through after-dinner coffees or cognacs to make room for a second seating. There was no second seating.

Entertainment? Aside from a few merry Belgians breaking into a Charles Azvanour sing-along? Not much.

Most nights, piano music. One evening after dinner, the Crew Choir, including ship's captain Jaroslav Drozdik (who looked like he would have rather been dodging icebergs), sang rollicking sea chanteys for us, accompanied on the accordion by Our Musician Jens.

"There are no big shows on this little vessel here," said congenial Wilhelm Bahrs, hotel director aboard the Heidelberg and the most rollicking of all the choristers. "Some people like activities onboard," Bahrs said. "This is more for people interested in people, art history, music."

Which reminds me: No casino.

The crowd

Older. No question. A fair guess: Three-quarters of the passengers were at least 70. A total of two kids, both boys in their early teens, one Canadian and one Italian and neither with visible iPods -- and this was a July cruise. A few people in their 40s or 50s, maybe, but not many.

Now, I'm trying not to be smarmily ingratiating here, but: The crowd didn't seem old. OK, one woman at our table had a hearing aid that didn't quite work, but we dealt with that with elegance and grace: We shouted at her.

Other than that, this could have been a crowd of extremely polite 30-year-olds, if there is such a thing.

A solid majority spoke German, but all shipboard announcements were in German and English. Art historian Konrad Dittrich presented a Rembrandt lecture first in German, then in English. I attended both. The two groups laughed at the same funny lines. I think.

The food

The best I've had on water -- admittedly in a lifetime sampling that hasn't included some elite cruise lines, but still. ...

Sample entrees: saddle of veal on a morel cream sauce, poached salmon-trout and grilled shrimp on rice noodles and ginger sauce, roasted duck breast on grape sauce with almond croquettes. Lunches so good you almost didn't mind coming back to the boat to eat (and we'll get to that, too). All wonderful and all presented with appropriate gourmet squiggles.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.