A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. ~ John A. Shedd
Sailing on board a ship has always been a celebrated method of travel. Early pioneers discovered new lands and migrated to different countries by ship. Today, sailing has become an ideal way to visit many ports of call without packing and unpacking and having to move between cities every few days. It’s also easier to budget for a vacation since so many meals, amenities, and activities are often included in the price. While ocean going mega cruise ships continue to get larger and larger in size, taking on thousands of passengers each voyage, a completely different way of traveling on board a ship is river cruising.
River cruise offerings are predicted to double in the next few years, with many lines enlarging their fleets by as much as 50%. With this current trend in travel, particularly in Europe, we were interested in discovering what all the excitement was about. Many river cruises have a distinct culinary focus on the food, wine, and craft beer specialties in the regions where they sail, with menus characteristic of the dining you would experience in some of the cities and towns you visit during the cruise. With this in mind, we chose a cruise with the Epicurean Adventure Program on board Uniworld Boutique River Cruises that sailed along the Rhine River from Switzerland to The Netherlands.
The history of the region is combined with spectacular scenery and great food and wine while experiencing Uniworld’s Castles Along the Rhine itinerary. This cruise, on board one of their newest ships, the elegant S.S. Antoinette, stops in picturesque medieval villages (such as Keyersberg in France and Rüdesheim in Germany) as well as sophisticated European cities (like Basel in Switzerland and Amsterdam in The Netherlands). The “S.S” stands for Super Ship and at 443 feet in length it is one of the largest river cruise ships afloat. Known as the “most luxurious river cruise ship in the world,” this beautiful ship pays homage in its design and decor to Versailles in France. The stunning blue Strauss 10-foot Baccarat chandelier, which graces the ship’s two-story lobby, originally hung in New York’s Tavern on the Green. After a week on board this intimate luxury ship, I can understand what all the fuss is about.
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Uniworld was just named the #2 River Cruise Line in Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List for 2014. They are also on Travel & Leisure’s Gold List (2013) for Best Service and Best Cruises. They are consistently ranked as one of the top river cruise lines and offer what they call their “Six Star Service.” Partnering with their sister company, Red Carnation Hotels, they combine over 50 years of experience in the luxury hospitality and hotel industry, which is evident throughout the ship from their talented culinary staff to ship’s crew and captain. The ship’s nine suites also offer butler service, which is a real treat and includes additional special amenities that will make your journey even more memorable while on board.
Cruising along the river is a very unique experience, especially if you have only been on board an ocean going vessel. The ships are much smaller in capacity (150 passengers and 60 crew members). While there is a sense of formality on board the ship, due to its elegant interior, it also has a casual and very comfortable feel. While smaller in scale, there are still traditional cruise offerings such as pools, a spa, and a theater. Getting on and off the ship is so much simpler than it is with a large cruise ship, and because the ships are navigating the rivers through small towns and villages in Europe and other countries, many ports of call are right in the center of town, so you can disembark quickly and immediately begin sightseeing.
What was very surprising is how busy we were for the cruise. I wasn’t sure what to expect on board a smaller ship, but we had very full days and evenings. Each day we were docked in port (for at least part of the time) and most days there were several included excursions offered, so there was something to do in the morning as well as the afternoon. We also opted for a few excursions that were not included, wanting to see and learn as much as we could about each of these villages and cities. We were always in search of the unique local food specialties, wines, and beers. Each port provided just that as we sailed northward on the Rhine River. Each evening the Cruise Manager, Wouter, would discuss the available excursions in the upcoming ports, offering additional information to what was in the brochure. I found this to be helpful in the planning of our trip.
While still a vacation, river cruising also offers many opportunities for an education and learning about the region: its history, customs, and the food, wine and distilled spirits that the area is known for. It was a complete package and a more cohesive cruise than just stopping in a number of different ports to visit the cities. With this particular cruise offering the Epicurean Adventure Program, we were able to focus on the culinary aspects of the Rhine region.
River cruise itineraries have an overall theme from the food to the music and the excursions. One example of this is that we had a Black Forest Cake making demonstration several days following our trip to the Black Forest. You really want to choose a river cruise based on the type of interests you have and what type of cuisine and wines you enjoy. Our goal for this trip was to see the stunning castles along the Rhine and enjoy Alsatian and German food, wines, and beer on board and off the ship in the towns we visited.
Riesling is the king of wine of this region and as we traveled through Alsace in France and Germany, we tasted many and very different Rieslings. Most Americans think of Riesling as a sweet wine, however the Riesling grape can produce a wine that is everything from bone dry to dessert sweet, depending on where it is grown and when it is harvested. We enjoyed several tastings at wineries in the town of Riquewihr in France. In Rüdesheim, Germany we toured the beautiful 14th-century Schloss Vollrads (Castle Vollrads), which, until recently, had been in the same family for 800 years. Here we tasted three very different white wines at this vineyard, beginning with a very dry Riesling to a late harvest dessert wine. A few bottles of their delightful wines came back with us to the states to enjoy in the new year.
In the charming towns and cities we visited, stunning window displays of beautiful foods, cheeses, breads, and pastries beckon you at every turn. Of course, we gave in and sampled the local specialties in every port. Our first evening in Basel included an impressive table side preparation of Weiner Schnitzel. In Kaysersberg we sampled Kougelhopf, a slightly sweet and molded yeast bread dotted with whole almonds. Similar to a pizza, but made with lardons and Gruyère, we enjoyed the rich Alsatian Tarte Flambée in Strasbourg. Heidelberg gave us an opportunity to try Schnelleeballen, a ball of pastry dough that’s wrapped and fried and then topped with chocolate or numerous other glazes or sugars. Cologne introduced us to Gingerbread Boy shaped soft pretzels and the Berliner (similar to a jelly filled doughnut). In Amsterdam, we had the most memorable cheese fondue and a slice of their version of apple pie, which is unlike any apple pie I’ve ever had before. Every port also afforded us an opportunity to try the local wines (which are always reasonably priced and very good) and the local craft beers. Drinking beer in a German pub in Heidelberg certainly seemed the fitting thing to do before heading back to the ship.
Meals on board the ship also focus on the wines and foods of the region. Restaurant de Versailles is the main dining room and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lunch and dinner are served with local wines and beers and on several evenings,we had special theme menus that featured specialty dishes, primarily of German origin, prepared by Executive Chef Claudio and his culinary team. There was also a more formal evening where an elegant dinner service was offered in the L’Orangerie, which is located on top level of the ship.
We noticed that every few days, while in port, the ship took on fresh supplies, which was unique from other cruises we had been on. Larger ships load once at the beginning of the cruise and have most everything required for that cruise. Of course, fresher is always better, so we were excited to see the staff bring on board fresh ingredients several times during the week. Meeting with Chef Claudio during the cruise, we learned that while the menus are planned in advance for the season and are created along with their Culinary Director, Global Master Chef Bernard Zorn, Chef Claudio can still be somewhat flexible. When certain products come into season or Chef Claudio is able to source better, but different fish or other ingredients, he will make some adjustments to the menus.
A visit to the galley showed us a small, but very efficient kitchen. Ninety-eight percent of the food served on the ship is prepared on board and serving 150 passengers three meals a day can be a challenge, but after opening the S.S. Antoinette in 2011, Chef Claudio and his team of approximately 18 people, have it mastered. At the beginning of each season, the chef and his crew train together before the ship sets sail to learn the new menus. Chef Claudio also trained for a full week with Mrs. Beatrice Tollman, one of the owners of Uniworld and founder and president of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. Ms. Tollman’s cookbook, A Life in Food, is also the inspiration for many of the recipes served on board the ship.
After a full day of excursions and sightseeing followed by our evening’s dinner with wine pairings, we were usually pretty tired, but did stay awake a few nights to enjoy some of the on board entertainment. Our favorite spot was the Leopard Bar on the top level of the ship. One of the musicians who played in that venue was particularly good and it was a nice way to unwind at the end of a busy day. It was also a good time to regroup with fellow passengers and chat about the places we had visited.
Traveling to Europe in late fall was a very different experience from our previous trips. We generally prefer months when it’s warmer (late spring or early fall) and I can only imagine that river cruising those times of year would be lovely. Sightseeing from the sun deck, taking in the scenery at every turn as you cruise through the rivers of Europe, Russia, Asia, or Egypt while sipping a glass of wine…what could be more perfect? However, cuddling up in the blankets offered on the top deck on a chilly day while sharing a bottle of champagne (as one couple did) was not a bad option either. Next time I would like to wait for December, bundle up, and head for the Christmas Markets! I am no longer deterred by the season because each offers a different experience.
Traveling by cruise ship has become a favorite way for us to see parts of Europe and the Caribbean. We love waking up to an exciting new destination every day without having to move, we enjoy the company of fellow shipmates who appreciate fine food, wine, and travel as much as we do, and we enjoy the on board experiences and education that you gain while traveling.
We can understand why the appeal of river cruising has increased exponentially in the last few years and why this line in particular has excelled at the overall on board experience that is offered. We appreciated the intimacy of the ship, the level of service and attention to detail from our cabin to the service in the dining room and the ship’s entire crew.
Select a destination and book a river cruise for your next adventure in the New Year!
There will be two more articles about our trip covering Basel and Amsterdam. Until then, Happy New Year!
Black Forest Cake
Yield: 1 10-inch cake
There are many versions of Black Forest Cake (also known as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). This recipe for Black Forest Cake is the one that was served on board the S.S. Antoinette. We like the subtle sweetness and pronounced flavor of the Kirschwasser in the cake. Once the cake is assembled, it is best refrigerated overnight and then garnished with more whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and fresh cherries and then served immediately.
For chocolate spongecake:
90 grams all-purpose flour
50 grams pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
30 grams coca powder (unsweetened)
170 grams sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
For cherry filling:
1 ounce (3 cl) cherry juice
20 grams cornstarch
20 grams sugar
2000 grams fresh sour cherries, pitted
3 cinnamon sticks
For the cherry cream:
2 teaspoons (1 cl) Kirschwasser
15 grams powdered sugar
200 grams heavy cream
Additional Whipped Cream
Dark chocolate shavings
Fresh Sour Cherries, pitted
For chocolate spongecake:
1. Grease a 10-inch springform pan (or use nonstick spray). Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
2. Sift together flour, baking soda, and cocoa powder.
3. Combine eggs, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Place the bowl over hot water bath and whisk constantly until the temperature reaches about 110 degrees F (44 degrees C).
4. Whisk on high speed until the mixture has cooled, is foamy, and has turned pale yellow.
5. Incorporate cocoa-flour mixture, being careful to deflate the foam as little as possible.
6. Incorporate the melted butter. Pout mixture into springform pan. Bake at 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) until done, usually about 20 minutes.
7. Let cool on a wire rack and then careful remove from pan.
For cherry filling:
1. In a medium pan, melt the sugar without any caramelization. Add the juice, cherries, and cinnamon sticks and slowly bring to a boil.
2. Let simmer for a few minutes and then use the cornstarch for thickening. Once the mixture has thickened, remove from the heat and let cool.
For cherry cream:
1. Whip the cream until stiff peaks form.
2. Mix the Kirschwasser together with the powdered sugar and carefully fold into the whipped cream.
To assemble cake:
1. Cut the spongecake into three layers and prepare 1st layer by soaking the spongecake with Kirschwasser. Fill one layer with 1/3 cherry cream and then top with 1/3 cherry filling and cover with 2nd layer of spongecake. Soak the 2nd layer again with Kirschwasser and repeat layer of 1/3 cherry cream and 1/3 cherry filling. Top with 3rd layer and again soak with Kirschwasser. Top with remaining cherry cream and cherry filling. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Garnish with addition whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and fresh sour cherries.
Chef Claudio and the culinary team
S. S. Antoinette
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Disclosure – We received a media package from Uniworld Boutique River Cruises to experience their Epicurean Adventure Cruise with the Castles Along the Rhine itinerary. We were not compensated in any way for any articles written about the trip and the opinions expressed are our own.
* Some photographs in the article and video have been used with the express permission of Uniworld River Cruises.
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