Germany’s biggest river cruise line A-Rosa is now hoping to entice British passengers. Pat Richardson finds out what’s in store for them
It’s a chilly, drizzly May morning when we step on board A-Rosa Flora to embark on our river cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, but we’re greeted with a warm, friendly atmosphere as all the women are handed a fresh, long-stemmed, crimson rose. A-Rosa’s German catchphrase, Schöne Zeit, means ‘wonderful time’, and it’s clear from the outset that this cruise line means to seduce.
A-Rosa certainly believes in capitalising on its floral namesake: big crimson roses plus a few stray petals are painted on the distinctive white hull of every ship in their fleet, and a long-stemmed rose – held in a pair of crimson lips at the prow – trails along either side. A bold colour-scheme in the ship’s corridors combines leaf-green carpeting with scattered rose-petals and doors with pale cream walls.
My stateroom featured the same colour scheme and wood furniture, with purple and green chequerboard tiles on the bathroom floor. There was a draped canopy above my bed, in the cream, green and purple striped fabric which matched my floor-to-ceiling curtains, while Venetian blinds designed for privacy and shade are a welcome addition. There’s also ample storage in the suite including a neat desk-dresser, and two chairs for relaxing and enjoying sea views.
A-Rosa Flora is the cruise line’s newest ship. There’s a restaurant and lounge with a good expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows for those who want to enjoy panoramic views. The sundeck offers the best of these, with plenty of assorted chairs, sunloungers with parasols and small side tables, pleasingly configured in groupings of varying sizes, separated by windbreaks. As well as this, there’s a good-sized swimming pool plus nearby shower, a giant chess board, shuffleboard and putting greens.
Also up here is the outdoor restaurant, set at a lower level, with low walls – not open railings – which keep breezes at bay, and a sun-shading canopy overhead. With its white chairs and cream tables, each topped with a large pot of fresh lavender, it’s the most attractive place to eat on board, as we discovered when, in glorious sunshine, we were served an excellent barbecue lunch.
Most meals downstairs are informal, too – no Captain’s Table, no need to dress for dinner or the customary welcome and farewell drinks. There’s a buffet with live cooking station linking the large restaurant and a smaller wine-and-dine area, which you have to book. A-Rosa has a knowledgeable maître d’ and an impressive wine-cellar; its suggested wines are selected to accompany every lunch and dinner menu and were unfailingly rewarding.
On many river ships, the word ‘spa’ is ambitiously conferred on a one chair, one basin hair salon or a room with weights and a treadmill. On this ship – and all its fleet-mates – the term is entirely appropriate. The SPA-ROSA features a sauna, a gym and, soothingly styled in dark wood, two treatment rooms and an inviting relaxation area. A wide range of massages and beauty rituals is available to passengers. I had a neck-and-shoulder massage that made what’s already the smoothest way to travel even more relaxing. My advice is to book a ‘sailing-stretch’ slot well ahead, or you could miss out.
Enrichment (A-Rosa calls it ‘edu-tainment’) includes port talks, destination lectures, engine-room tours, nautical Q&A sessions and cocktail-mixing classes. I opted to join the latter, and learned how to make a mean margarita. Meanwhile, mixologist Maria managed to make about nine other cocktails, mostly without measuring, sometimes seemingly without even looking and, always, without spilling a drop.
Although the onboard experience is an essential part of any river cruise, the keystone is where it takes you. As important as where you go is what’s arranged and what’s available for you there. There was a good range of optional excursions, organised for small groups (subject to minimum numbers) for a better-quality experience, and led by English-speaking professional guides. A-Rosa Flora also carries a fleet of bicycles, available free of charge for guests who want to explore ashore on two wheels. And there is always the option of doing your own thing, at your own pace.
At our first port of call, the German town of Breisach, I chose to walk up Cathedral Hill. My route took me through an ancient town gate, up a steep, cobbled street lined with colourful cottages.
The following day we docked at Kehl for Strasbourg, France, only a 15-minute trip across the border. Must-see sights here, and included on the guided tour, are the magnificent Gothic cathedral with its intricate, pink sandstone facade, beautiful stained-glass windows and animated astronomical clock. The Petite France quarter is charming with its picturesque, half-timbered houses while the medieval covered bridges, Ponts Couverts, have long lost their roofs, but not their elegance. For keen shoppers, there’s a Galeries Lafayette; for bird-watchers longing to spot something big, Orangerie Park, home to numerous storks; and for those who want to feel the pulse of this cultured city, countless pavement cafés and bars.
Our next stop was Mainz, where we had a morning to join an excursion or explore at our own pace before sailing on, through the Rhine Gorge. As if to give itself, as well as us, time to savour the sights, the river winds slowly through this succession of fairytale castles, storybook villages and picture-postcard towns, all backdropped by terraced vineyards, forested hills
and rocky crags.
By early evening, we were docked in Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle. Here, reminding us that not all sights worth seeing are as obvious as the city’s huge statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, our guided tour revealed many intriguing facts and figures from history, including a statue that rolls its eyes and sticks out its tongue.
In Cologne, you may prefer to visit the chocolate museum rather than taking a guided tour. For me, the cathedral, the Dom, is harder to resist. Built to house the relics of the Three Kings who took gifts to the infant Jesus, this High Gothic masterpiece took over 600 years to complete. Its sheer scale can only be truly appreciated from the steps of the nearby square or by having a look inside its imposing doors.
Our final port of call was Amsterdam, one of Europe’s best-loved cities. There’s no better way to view it than from the canals that weave past and present, old and new into an enchanting, living tapestry as the sun slides towards the horizon. Of course our small, glass-topped boat on this optional tour couldn’t match the comforts of our cruise ship, but like the rest of this voyage, we were certainly charmed.
GETTING THERE: Departing 28 August 2014, the 10-day The Grand Rhine Journey costs from £2,395pp, including flights, a seven-night cruise on A-ROSA Flora with all-inclusive drinks package and four excursions (additional excursions are an extra cost), two nights in a Lucerne hotel, most meals, services of a Titan tour manager and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service (0800 988 5858/titantravel.co.uk).
Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.