A Rhine River cruise on the Scenic Jewel of Australian tour company Scenic Tours/Scenic Cruises is a great way to see some of the most picturesque parts of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Although Scenic Tours has been in the travel business for many years, they only launched their first river cruise ship in 2008.
The Scenic Jewel is lovely and looks much like other river vessels. However, it does have two distinctive features. The first is an all-day dining area (River Cafe), which is tucked into a corner of the main observation lounge. The River Cafe serves light breakfast, lunches, and snacks until 6 pm. The ship also has a nice sun lounge on many of the cabins. This sun lounge has a huge panoramic window that opens half-way down with the flip of a switch. Like a sunroof on a car, it takes a little while to open, but this extra space in the sun lounge doubles as an open-air balcony or closed sunroom.
Embarkation in Mainz
A shuttle bus carried the Scenic Jewel river cruise passengers from Frankfurt to the Scenic Jewel, which was docked on the Rhine River at Mainz, about 45 minutes away. Scenic Cruises' ships are all-inclusive, so a shuttle to/from the airports is part of the base price. I arrived at the ship about noon and was in the cabin five minutes later. The ship provided a light lunch in the River Cafe, so I ate and then got unpacked before leaving the ship for a nice walk around the town of Mainz. The weather alternated rain and sun, so I wore my rain jacket, which got wet in a shower along with my shoes, but I walked about an hour around the town. They had an old-fashioned carnival, with bumper cars, Ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl, etc. set up on the pier, but only a few folks were riding the rides, and the carnival was shut down by 9 pm. Guess the mid-April weather was still a little cold for a summer carnival.
I enjoyed walking around Mainz on my own. Mainz is located at the junction of the Main and Rhine Rivers, so it's long been an important river town. Like many old European towns, a large cathedral is in the center of town, with a fascinating farmer's market in the square next to the church. Many will remember that Mainz is most famous as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press. The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz has one of the original Bibles he printed, and it's worth a visit just to see this famous document.
The ship was full, with most of the travelers from Australia. Not too many of us were from the USA, but it's always fun to cruise with travelers from other English-speaking countries. The Scenic Jewel featured a nice early embarkation-day dinner (5:30), followed by the shore talk for the next day, when we would be in Rudesheim, only about 20 miles away from Mainz down the river towards Amsterdam. Dinner is usually at 7 pm, but it was a good idea to have a fast buffet since most of us were about half asleep--especially those from Australia who had traveled for over 30 hours to get to Frankfurt. They had an excellent stir-fry shrimp dish in a spicy herb sauce, so I ate a double portion of the shrimp, a big salad, and ice cream. Since our next port of Rudesheim was only a few miles away, the Scenic Jewel ship didn't sail north until about 6 am.
Scenic Jewel Rhine River Cruise Itinerary
- Embarkation in Mainz
- Cruising the "Romantic Rhine"
- An Evening at Marksburg Castle
I was up at 7 am, about the time the Scenic Jewel docked in Rudesheim. The ship offered an included walking tour of the town, but I just visited Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Museum with its marvelous old musical instruments from the late 18th/early 19th century. This museum is a favorite of mine, and the musical instruments are amazing, much more than just player pianos. They have so many moving parts--almost like a whole orchestra. One instrument even has six real violins that play music, and is now worth about $300,000. It's great fun to see and hear these old instruments, and the guides are especially enthusiastic about their work.
Following the tour of the museum, I decided to take a walk up the hill overlooking the town to the giant Niederwald war monument "Germania" that overlooks the Rhine River. The walk was through grape vineyards, so was very scenic. The ship had provided cable car tickets, but I decided I needed the exercise. It was a little over two miles round-trip, but pretty steep climbing on the trail, with 325 steps at the top to get up to the monument. The cable car broke down when some of our folks were onboard, so I'm glad I didn't take it! They were only stuck on the cable car for a few minutes, but ended up having to take a taxi back to town since the cable car was shut down for most of the rest of the morning we were there, and they didn't want to walk back to the ship.
After visiting the monument and taking a bunch of nice photos of the river, I walked back down to Rudesheim and along the Drosselgasse, which is Rudesheim's "party" street. However, it was fairly quiet in the daytime, so I didn't take time to have a Rudesheim coffee or a gelato.
Back on the ship by lunchtime (of course), I enjoyed a nice buffet of salad, beef tips, wasabi mashed potatoes, and dark chocolate ice cream. I figured I had earned it with all the walking. Next, the Scenic Jewel pulled away from Rudesheim and headed north for the Rhine River Valley.
Cruising the "Romantic Rhine"
The Scenic Jewel sailed north from Rudesheim along the Rhine River after lunch, passing through the most scenic section of the river, the Rhine Gorge. This area is filled with ancient castles, whose owners used to string large chains across the river and charge ships a toll to pass. With all these castles, the ships certainly had to pay numerous fees.
Most of us used the Scenic Cruises' Tailormade GPS-enabled listening devices to follow an audio commentary about the castles and the history of the Rhine Valley. These devices work very well, and can also be used for independent walking tours in many of the river ports of call.
In addition to the castles and small towns, the ship also sailed by the famous Lorelei Rock (also spelled Loreley), where many a ship has gone aground on the river in the past. It's safe today, but still a spectacular part of the river.
By 5:30, we were docked near Marksburg Castle, one of the largest and most famous of those castles on the river.
An Evening at Marksburg Castle
Scenic Tours/Scenic Cruises arranges exclusive events on all of its European and Russian river cruise itineraries. When sailing the Rhine River between Basel and Amsterdam, dinner and a classical concert at the Rastatt Palace are on the schedule for cruises stopping over at the river ports of Speyer or Mannheim. On cruises through the "Romantic Rhine" section of the Rhine River Valley from Budapest to Amsterdam, a late afternoon tour, dinner, and a medieval show is held at Marksburg Castle, one of the Rhine's largest and most spectacular.
Built in 1117 and expanded and renovated over the next 400 years, Marksburg Castle is near the German village of Braubach. The castle was built as a fortress to protect Braubach and to reinforce the collection of duties from ships sailing on the Rhine River. It never was a royal residence. In the Napoleonic era, it was used as a prison, and the castle suffered from lack of repair before it was sold in 1900 to the German Castle Association, whose goal is to preserve castles such as Marksburg. The Association bought the castle for the symbolic price of 1000 German marks. Although heavily damaged by American artillery during World War II, today the castle is a centerpiece of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rhine Gorge. It's the only hill castle on the Rhine to never have been completely destroyed.
The Scenic Jewel guests had an hour-long tour of the restored castle, where we got to see the blacksmith's shop, canons, wine press, keeping room, knight's hall, and even an exhibit of armor and chastity belts. Plus, we had spectacular views of the Rhine River Valley and the town of Braubach below.
This tour was followed by a typical medieval dinner party with jesters, jugglers, and bibs for all of us to wear in case we got messy. I was hoping for a turkey leg to chew on since that's what I always imagine when I think about a medieval castle dinner; but alas, the turkey was already cut off the bone. We also had fresh pork, and they brought the roasted pig out to show us before it was carved. It looked much like those you see at a Hawaiian luau, but we were a long way from the South Pacific! The entertainment was funny and intentionally a little hokey. The meal was okay, but not as good as we enjoyed on the ship. However, I loved the tour of this castle, especially since I've seen it only from the river.
Sated by our heavy dinner and carrying happy spirits from the funny show and wine, the Scenic Jewel guests boarded the buses for the ride back down the mountain to the ship, arriving about 10:45 pm. The next day we were docked in Koblenz.
The next day, the Scenic Jewel was docked in Koblenz, which is at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle (also spelled Mosel) Rivers. It's at the northern end of the Rhine River gorge. I've sailed by the city of about 100,000 residents several times, but never had an opportunity to explore it.
Scenic Cruises is all-inclusive, so it's nice that they provide a choice of tours at each stop, all of which are included in the base fare. The ship docked right next to a cable car that crosses the Rhine, the only one on the river. Some people rode across the river to the huge fortress on the other side and said it was worth the fare.
Like many of my fellow passengers, I took a walking tour of the city with a local guide. The ship also had a bus to Cochem followed by a walking tour, and an e-bike tour of Koblenz. We used the Scenic Tailormade audio devices, which makes touring easier since you can hear the guides without having to stand right next to them. Scenic has debuted a new type of audio device that has a built-in GPS. This device can be used in two ways--either as a way to hear a live guide when walking around like traditional audio devices, or listening to a recorded tour that uses the GPS signals to describe what you are seeing at your location. I listened to the recorded tour when sailing down the Rhine, and it worked quite well. Some people used the recorded tour of Koblenz to wander around on their own, and they said it worked well there, too. Nice option for those who don't like to explore with a guide. Our tour was about two hours, and then we had free time, which I used to walk around on my own. No big hills to climb in this flat city like there was in Rudesheim, but loved wandering the streets and window shopping. Also, I did find time to have a late-morning bitter chocolate gelato--yummy!
I was particularly impressed with how clean the old town area was, and many of the buildings looked newly painted. Many also had very cute tiny gardens or courtyards. It's a nice place to walk around, and like many river towns, has had its share of flooding from both rivers.
One distinctive feature in Koblenz is the unusual clock face on an old town building. It's of a severed man's head, complete with beard and hat. The eyes roll back and forth continually to count the seconds, and each hour, the man sticks his tongue out to count the hours. Although this severed head is a little macabre, it's also funny and considered a good luck symbol of Koblenz. Apparently the head represents a medieval-age robber whose eyes continued to roll and tongue continued to waggle after he was beheaded. Not sure why the town decided to honor this fellow and commemorate his death, but some say it's his way of showing what he thought about the government!
Koblenz was very quiet on a Sunday morning, but people were starting to come out and sit in the cafes about the time we sailed right after lunch. The town had many squares filled with open air restaurants and bars, so I can see where it would be fun at night or on a warm day. The large number of open air venues reminded me of many Mediterranean towns.
At the confluence of the two rivers is a huge statue of German Emperor William I on a horse. The horse is almost 50 feet tall, so the statue dominates the point where the two rivers join. According to our guide, the town received a lot of flak from the French when the statue was erected in the late 19th century, because the horse's rear end is facing France and the French considered this positioning an insult. Through the ages, Koblenz has switched back and forth between France and Germany, and the tensions between the two countries over this region of Germany are still evident from this tale. Even today the statue is a symbol of German unity, with other symbols included in the park such as a piece of the Berlin wall.
Koblenz was extensively bombed during World War II because of its river location and its connection to much of Germany via the railway system. However, it was restored to the way it looked before, so you'd never know it was re-built. I thought it was a very nice place to stopover for a half-day.
We sailed after lunch and had the afternoon on the Rhine River, enjoying a chef's cooking demonstration of a yummy apple dish--not strudel.
For dinner I had a nice fresh green salad, consomme soup, and fish--all were very good. After having gelato at mid-morning and for lunch, I skipped dessert.
Sailing overnight, the Scenic Jewel arrived in Arnhem early the next morning.
Arnhem in The Netherlands
The next morning the Scenic Jewel was docked in Arnhem in the Netherlands, right next to the famous bridge in the 1977 movie, "A Bridge Too Far". The ship had tours to Nijmegen, the oldest city in The Netherlands, and to the Airborne Museum honoring the Battle of Arnhem, but I decided to just walk into Arnhem and see the downtown area. On previous stopovers in Arnhem, I had visited the Dutch Open Air Museum. It's a nice place to spend the day and learn about Dutch architecture of the past few hundred years.
Like Koblenz, the Arnhem downtown area near where the ship docked was bombed heavily during World War II, but it was not artfully restored and had a gray, institutional look. No wonder the Scenic cruise staff were encouraging people to take one of the two included tours! I walked around the city a while, checking out the Eusebius Tower that looms wers over the downtown area. It was covered in scaffolding, so I chose not to ride up to the top. I also walked down to the John Frost bridge (the "Bridge too Far") and made a few photos. World War II buffs (especially the British and Polish) will remember the Operation Market Garden where so many were killed during the battle there. The people who went to the Airborne Museum and the cemetery raved about the tour, so it's certainly recommended. Nijmegen is about an hour's ride from Arnhem, but provides an opportunity to see some of the Dutch countryside and tour another Dutch river town.
Everyone returned to the ship for lunch, and we sailed northeast towards Middelburg, our next port of call. The food continued to be good, and I enjoyed all the meals (probably too much). The ship had buffets for breakfast and lunch, plus you can order off the menu. They also have regional specialties each day. One day was raw oysters, and another day was potato pancakes. It's always a good selection, and usually they have a pasta and lots of good cheese, salad selections, etc.
I had dinner at Table La Rive (the chef's table) along with nine others. It's reserved for those guests staying on the third deck and the suites and is not offered every night. This table has a set degustation menu of seven courses, plus a different wine matched to each course. There's a window looking into the kitchen so you can see them working if you are not too engrossed in the food, wine, and your table mates. It was a delicious meal, and I liked hearing about (and tasting) the wines with each course.
It was a long dinner at Table La Rive, and I was ready for bed since I had a new destination the next day--Middelburg.
Middelburg in The Netherlands
Middelburg is a small town of about 45,000 on one of Zeeland's (a province of The Netherlands) canals that is very near the North Sea. I pictured it looking like other Dutch towns, I've visited, and was a little disappointed when I awoke and saw a modern train station and gas station across the canal! Fortunately, the picturesque old town was on the other side of the Scenic Jewel, just a 5-minute walk away.
After breakfast, we put on our Scenic Tailormade listening devices and set off with a guide to walk around the town for a couple of hours. The ship also had a tour to the Delta Works, an engineering marvel built to help keep the North Sea off the area, which used to frequently flood before this pumping system was completed. Many consider the entire Dutch system of dikes to be one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. The other tour was a biking tour of Middelburg.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, which was the time of the East India Company, this charming town was the second largest city in The Netherlands, which helped explain the huge churches, city hall, and main square. What a busy port it must have been, with the ship building industry and the import/export business. Middelburg was bombed during the Second World War and many historic buildings were destroyed. However, the city rebuilt the structures in the traditional style, so it has kept its historic appearance.
Our guide Jim had a cute personality, and he told us that one of the mottos of Zeeland was "pump or drown". He also said that the Dutch loved the flat lands of their country where you could see for miles and miles. When his grandparents first traveled to Switzerland on vacation, they came home early. When asked why, his grandpa said, "there were mountains blocking the view; we couldn't see anything". Probably a joke, but makes the point.
Middelburg and Zeeland were last flooded badly in 1953, and the floods killed about 2,000 people and the land was unusable for about a decade. Jim said Al Gore came to Middelburg when he was writing his book on global warming and warned the citizens that they were living below sea level and could be killed by the rising waters. Jim said everyone just kind of shrugged since he wasn't telling the Zeelanders anything they didn't already know.
Our tour was very interesting, and like Amsterdam, many of the old houses are very crooked, from the settling of their pole foundations into the mud. Like Amsterdam, people used to be taxed on the width of their homes, so many are very narrow on the street, but go back very far. The town had many small canals and old homes and you could see how wealthy it once was during the time of the East India Company.
After the tour, I found a small cafe and had a hot chocolate before walking around some more and returning to the ship for lunch.
Before lunch, we had a group of 12 dancers and 2 musicians who came onboard to do some traditional Dutch dances. All 14 of them wore glasses, and they looked like they ranged in age from 70 to 90. It was fun to see them dance in their costumes and hear the music and singing. The show was about 40 minutes long, which was also just enough.
We were supposed to sail after lunch for Antwerp, but the Captain and the cruise director had a meeting with us to say that we could not sail due to the high winds. So . . . we would wait at the dock and they would continue to evaluate. Although we hoped to sail to Antwerp, it wasn't looking good. By the time of the nightly briefing, they had decided the ship would stay overnight in Middelburg and then use buses for the tours to Antwerp and Bruges.
I had dinner in Portobello, the Italian specialty restaurant. It seats about 25 and is at the front of the observation lounge. It's a traditional Italian meal, with antipasti, minestrone, pasta with truffle oil, and a choice of either halibut, veal, or vegetarian main dish. You could also have a cheese tray with some delicious selections of cheese, accompanied by some delicious wasabi-flavored chutney.
Although the ship has very little motion, it was a little odd to stay overnight in Middelburg rather than sailing for Antwerp.
Biking in Antwerp, Belgium
Although we all wished we could have sailed into Antwerp, we appreciated getting to do our scheduled shore excursions from the Scenic Jewel. I had signed up for a bike riding tour of Antwerp. I've been there a couple of times and wanted to see how the bike tour differed. Many from the ship did a full day's included tour to Bruges, a wonderfully well-preserved Belgian town, while others did a walking tour of old town Antwerp.
Everyone loved the electric-assisted bikes Scenic has on its ships. They have 30 bikes, and use about 10 of them each day for touring, with the others available to use for free to do your own tour. Normally the bikes are used right from the ship, but they folded them down and put them under our bus for the ride to Antwerp. The bikes can be used just like a regular bike, but if you want assistance, you push a button and it speeds up. It has speeds 1-6; I tried 4 on a flat, quiet stretch and got going about 24 kph (about 15 mph). One guy went up to 6 and got about 35 kph. The "assistance" is especially good going up hills. You still get a workout and they were easy to learn to use. It helps to push the button down to 0 when you stop; otherwise when you touch the pedals it goes very fast. (Note: I learned that one the hard way.)
Our bike tour of Antwerp was a little different than the walking tour. We rode along the river (on cobblestones--very uncomfortable) for a ways before entering an elevator, which held all 10 of us with the bikes. The elevator went down 31 meters and we exited and rode under the Scheldt River. Very fun and not something most folks from North America have done. We rode the elevator back up on the other side and then rode along the river there, noting the nice views of the city on the other side. After riding along the river, we went into another elevator and reversed the process back across the river through a second tunnel.
We then rode through the old town of Antwerp, and ended the 2-hour tour by sitting outside at a cafe on the main square and enjoying a Belgian beer. The warm weather felt very good; luckily we could all shed our jackets and use a bungee cord to attach to the back of the e-bike. These bikes are a big hit on all the Scenic ships, and I can see why. One small issue--they need to give the guides a small tool kit to use. My seat kept slipping and a couple of other folks had minor issues where a wrench, screw driver, etc. wold have come in handy.
We met the ship near the village of Bruinisse. Those who had gone to Bruges loved their tour of the town and wished they could have stayed longer. That night was the captain's cocktail party and dinner, followed by the crew show. I had a Caesar salad, consomme, and lobster tail. Not the best lobster I've ever had, but very good. The crew show was fun for all.
Bruinisse in The Netherlands
Sometimes plans just don't work out, and cruise ships (and their passengers) have to be flexible. Those of us on the Scenic Jewel learned this in Bruinisse. We were supposed to move on to Amsterdam, but high winds kept us from entering the locks between Bruinisse and Amsterdam. This was a little weird, since we saw other river ships freely moving along the Dutch waterways, while our ship was docked about two hours (via road) south of Amsterdam.
We finally got the story. All ships sailing in the Netherlands receive a wind certificate rating from 1 to 6. The best rating is "6", which means the ship can pass through locks even when the wind is roaring at a 6 level. Most river passenger ships are rated a "6", since they are more maneuverable than some barges or older vessels. Sometimes the cold wind roaring off the North Sea can be nasty and will linger for days at a level 6, as was the case during our cruise. This is ordinarily not a problem, but all new ships are automatically rated a "3" until they pass through a month-long probationary period. Then they receive their "6". Since the Scenic Jewel was just launched the day of our cruise, the probationary period was not over and the ship was not allowed in the locks unless the wind dropped to a 3 level or less. Normally passengers wouldn't even know about this regulation since the wind probationary period only applies to waterways in The Netherlands and only lasts for about a month.
The ship's crew and guests handled the problem well. The tours to Amsterdam, Edam, and Volendam ran anyway, but the guests had to ride a bus much further than planned. Since I have been to Amsterdam many times, I stayed on the ship in Bruinisse, exploring the small town on foot and on the e-bikes.
I walked into Bruinisse the first morning, and found it was a very small, very quiet bedroom community. No one was wandering about, even though it was after 9 am, and I don't think the shops opened until 10 am. I had to walk along the top of the dike, and the wind was fierce. Glad I had my stocking cap and gloves along. After lunch, I returned to Bruinisse on the e-bike, appreciating the electric assistance feature when riding into the wind. The cute little town had several gift shops and boutiques, making shopping fun.
The next morning was disembarkation, and the Scenic Jewel bused guests to Amsterdam for their flights or hotel extensions. It had been a great cruise and the ship is a lovely way to tour the Rhine River region.
Scenic Tours/Scenic Cruises is a very nice river cruise line for any traveler who wants an all-inclusive vacation with no extra costs except for laundry or spa once you board. The company includes all tours (some of which would usually cost extra on other river cruise ships), drinks, food, e-bicycles, transfers to/from airport, tips, etc. The base Scenic price may be higher, but it appeals to anyone who likes to know how much they will be spending before they leave home. Those planning a river cruise vacation should check out the Scenic Jewel, her sister ship the Scenic Crystal that I sailed on in 2012, and the other "space ships" in the Scenic Cruises' fleet. I think you will be well pleased with the product.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.