I leaned back on my pillows and looked out our window, watching as we glided past deep forests interspersed with half-timbered houses. We sometimes passed so close I could almost reach out and snatch a blade of grass from the river’s bank.
We hiked, biked and walked for miles, touring impossibly scenic German villages. Yet I’ve never felt as relaxed on a trip as I did on this river cruise with Emerald Waterways, a lesser known cruise company in the US. Read more about life on board, and watch our video, best viewed with a pretzel and German beer.
You know how sometimes you come home and think, I need a vacation from my vacation? As much as I love the adrenaline-packed days of seeing new destinations, some trips can wear me out.
I could count on the fact that the first day back at work after a trip I would be as grumpy as Snow White’s dwarf. I figured out it was only partially from the letdown of a much-anticipated trip being over. It was also the fact I was usually exhausted.
Taking a riverboat cruise isn’t like that. I think it’s a combination of only unpacking once and not having to worry about the logistics of travel and meals. Most couples have one person who does all the trip research, planning, booking and logistics management while the other person waits until it’s time to pack and asks as they are pulling out the suitcase, “Where are we going again?” I typically fulfill the role of the planner.
Although we were really active every day of our seven-night trip, and I had no trouble meeting my 10,000-step quota, I felt relaxed during the entire time and returned home rested. And full of local wines, chef-prepared meals and ice cream made inhouse. A lot of ice cream.
You may be more familiar with other cruise lines that sail on European rivers because Emerald Waterways is a relative newcomer to the riverboat world, launched in 2014. It’s part of The Scenic Group, an Australian company, which began as a coach tour company in Australia in 1986.
The company started with two ships – the Sky and the Star. Two more were added the following year, and three more in 2017, including the ship we sailed on, The Destiny. The Harmony is launching this year.
In addition to a relaxing journey, there was plenty more I loved about our week on board the Emerald Destiny as we cruised the Moselle, Main and Rhine rivers in Germany. Check out what life is like on board, and off, with Emerald Waterways. I’ve also included travel tips for river cruising.
What is Included with Emerald Waterways river cruises?
I may suffer from tip anxiety. I feel uncomfortable in situations where I’m unsure about the tipping policy. And then if I do want to tip, how much is appropriate? We went to Unicoi State Park cabins in North Georgia last year and were halfway home when I realized I forgot to tip the housekeeper. Waves of guilt ensued until I could call and arrange a tip for her.
Another issue is when I’ve traveled to another country, someone shows me to my room and helps me with my luggage and I realize I don’t have any local currency for a tip.
One thing we really loved with Emerald Waterways is that tips are included. If you’ve cruised before then you know that often gratuities are automatically added at the end of your trip. The crew members work so hard, daily for months at a time, and they all deserve generous tips. But Emerald includes the cost of those tips in the price so you aren’t presented with a large bill at the end of your trip. Tips for the excursion guides are also included so no need to worry about taking the right amount with you on the trip.
While it may work out to the same amount of money in the end, psychologically I prefer to have already paid for the tips before taking the trip.
All meals onboard are included as are wine and beer at lunch and dinner. I’m generally not much of a day drinker, but I made several exceptions to my policy. The type of wine changed periodically so I had to taste each one, right?
If you’re interested in drinks outside of mealtimes, Emerald Waterways offers various drink packages for beer, wine, Champagne or any drink offered by the glass. We opted to not get a drinks package as drinks with meals was sufficient for us. And after full days of exploring German towns, we were tired and not up for hanging out in the bar late at night.
We also found that if we did want to order a drink, the prices were very reasonable. I really enjoyed the house rosé, and ordered a few glasses before dinner. The price was around 4 euros. Other drinks, like martinis, margaritas and Manhattans were less than 8 euros.
I drink water all day long and bottled water was replenished daily in our cabins. And every time we walked off the ship for an excursion a friendly crew member was there passing out bottles to take with us to ensure we stayed well hydrated.
Another big bonus is that almost all excursions are included on Emerald Waterways, including all the ones we took. Read more about those below.
Wifi is also included. Like with any ship, sometimes the signal is stronger than other times depending on location, but we had pretty good luck with it. Rather than turn off my email completely when I travel, I feel less stress if I can marginally keep up with it.
Another big plus is that transfers to and from the airport are included on the day of embarkation and disembarkation – one less logistical challenge to deal with. If you come early or leave late on your own, you do have to work out the transportation for yourself.
For our Germany cruise we flew into Frankfort and out of Munich. An Emerald Waterways representative met us at the airport and got us on the bus to take us to where the ship was docked in Bernkastel. Although we were a bit bleary-eyed from the overnight flight, we really enjoyed seeing the German countryside during the bus ride. At least the one of us who stayed awake.
Emerald spoils you even before you begin the cruise! A few weeks prior to our cruise documents we received our documents, which came with two really nice gray padded backpacks with turquoise trim, two side pockets and a small Emerald logo. While I’m spatially challenged and don’t generally carry a backpack, my husband Chris was thrilled and it was the perfect size to carry all his camera equipment.
The documents included a booklet with our flight information, itinerary and a transfer voucher for the airport. They came in a nice gray zip-up folder along with luggage tags.[Related story: River or Ocean Cruise in Europe: Which is Right For You?]
Travel tip: When booking a river cruise, find out exactly what is included in the price. Specific things to note are alcohol, tips, wifi, airport transfers and excursions.[See related story: Why a Russia River Cruise Should Be Your Next Trip]
What are the cabins like?
I loved our bright, light-filled cabin, which was one of the Panorama Balcony Suites. Other cabin types include a one-bedroom Owner’s Suite with a bedroom that can be closed off from the rest of the cabin, a lounge area and larger closets and bathrooms. Additional amenities include an espresso bar and complimentary minibar.[Take a tour of a cabin and see how the windows work in our video, Tour of an Emerald Waterways Ship]
The Grand Balcony suites include the espresso machine, room service and a curtain across the sitting area. The Emerald Staterooms have a small picture window rather than the balcony views. For solo travelers, there are two single cabins on each ship (except for Emerald Radiance). These have picture windows and a single bed.
My favorite feature of our Panorama Balcony Suite was the floor-to-ceiling window that opened from the top. Our views were magnificent, and while the design of the ship doesn’t allow you to walk out on a balcony like on a cruise ship, there are two chairs and a table by the window so you can open it and almost feel like you’re on a balcony. We loved getting the fresh air and the ability to take photos unobscured by glass.
Our first night we saw a swan swimming close by as we were docked at Bernkastel. He/she swam so close to our window we could have reached out and touched her white-feathered head.
Like with most ships, cabins are small. But the storage space was designed so we could unpack all our clothes. We rarely this do this, as my husband prefers an ever-growing stack of clothes flung around the floor next to his suitcase. No neatnik myself, I usually put my suitcase on a luggage rack and pile clothes on top.
The small size of the room and the fact we’d be there for a week meant unpacking made for a much more enjoyable experience. We hung clothes in the closet, folded others to go in the dresser and were then able to shove our suitcases under the beds to get them out of the way.
The bathroom had shelves by the sink and on the wall for storage. And unlike on some ocean cruises, where you may encounter rough seas, the waters are calm on a riverboat so nothing is going to fly off the shelves.
The beds and pillow were really comfortable and there was a desk area if we had wanted to use it. There’s a sizable flat-screen TV, which we turned on one night to watch a movie. There are 28 channels available, with four of them showing ship-specific broadcasts, including a bow camera, ship position, safety movie and lounge cam. So if you didn’t want to go to trivia night you could play along in your room where the competition is less fierce. And one station showed a crackling fireplace 24/7 to enhance the ambiance of your cabin should you desire.
Our room had a minifridge. Always a nice feature even if we only used it to keep our water bottles cold.
Travel tip: River cruises can be expensive. Check with the cruise lines for deals or specials. And booking a year in advance can mean big discounts. Once you do book, consider purchasing travel insurance for the trip.
What is dining like? Do I have to sit with strangers?
I was watching an episode of “The Simpsons” one time and Marge was in jail. “It’s so nice to not have to cook,” she said.
I could relate. While I don’t mind cooking, it’s not my passion. So not having to deal with planning, shopping for and preparing meals is a treat for me. Yes, we may have missed dining in some amazing restaurants in some of the destinations we visited, but not having to deal with the logistics of it all, and knowing we had amazing meals waiting for us each day was well worth potentially missing out on the best sauerbraten in the world.
The food on Emerald Destiny was fabulous. All meals are served in Reflections Restaurant, a large inviting space with plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. The white chairs, white tablecloths and napkins made for a bright space during the day.
All meals are open seating in Reflections Restaurant with tables of various sizes to seat groups large and small.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, although you also have the option to order off the menu. You could find anything you wanted for breakfast, including fresh fruit.
My husband has been on a fresh pineapple kick, and thinks it aids his digestion. Prior to our trip I told him I didn’t think he’d find it on the ship, but they had it and he piled his plate every day.
The lunch buffet included soup every day. Soup is my favorite lunch and I eat it almost daily so I was delighted with that option. You can also order items like grilled salmon off the menu.
One corner of the buffet is reserved for regional foods so you don’t miss out on local cuisine. With its emphasis on carbs and hearty meats, German food is not my favorite cuisine, yet I don’t want to spend a week in a country without tasting local favorites. For me the option to try a small portion of bratwurst, spätzle, potato pancakes or sausages was perfect.
And then there was the ice cream. Emerald Waterways makes its own ice cream and serves a choice of two flavors for lunch and dinner. You can ask for a scoop of your choice and then add to it from the array of yummy toppings.
Although I love it, I rarely indulge in ice cream. But I happily made an exception and ate it twice a day on this trip – it was that good.
Dinner was served every night at 7:00, always four courses and again, open seating. That night’s menu is published in the Daily Programme you receive in your room every night for the next day, so you could select your appetizer, soup, main course and dessert prior to dinner if you wished.
Appetizers option included items like veal meatballs, salad, or black pudding. Soups included chicken velouté, onion soup or cheese soup. A choice of three entrée selections included items like halibut, roast beef, fish filet and pork loin. A vegetarian option like cannelloni with spinach and ricotta or leek tarte were always on the menu.
If you didn’t want one of the main courses, you had the option of one of the Emerald Waterways Classics, which included grilled salmon, grilled chicken breast, sirloin steak and Caesar salad.
One guest raved about how good the steak was, so I had to order it. Twice. I vouch it was perfectly cooked and had great flavor.
Dessert, in addition to the aforementioned and raved-over ice cream, included fruit salad, chocolate-chili mousse and brownies. An international cheese selection was always one of the choices, and I opted for that a few times. When I did, I thought of an ocean cruise I took years ago. I ordered the international cheese plate, which turned out to be a few lumps of Swiss cheese and saltines. Never again.
We are lucky enough to have no food restrictions, other than I can’t eat as much as I want and still fit in my pants. Or as a man told me once. “Yeah, I have an eating disorder. If I don’t eat, I get disorderly.”
But if you do have dietary restrictions or needs, items are marked if they have ingredients like gluten, eggs, fish, peanuts, dairy and even mustard.
It was miraculous to me that the kitchen on Emerald Waterways could serve up to 182 passengers all at one time. I learned a bit more about that when we took the galley tour offered one day.
As guests gathered in the small kitchen area downstairs, Chef Stefan Berger told us he has nine kitchen staff, 10 waiters and two dishwashers. Only two for all those dishes – wow! Somehow they are able to serve all the guests four courses in just 55 minutes.
The breakfast cook starts at 3:30 a.m. making the crew breakfast then makes omelets for the guests when breakfast begins. At night he makes the ice cream.
And yes, this kitchen has to feed the crew as well, no small challenge when you consider they come from countries as diverse as India, Germany, Indonesia and Russia. “If I serve the same thing every day they will kill me in two months,” Stefan said.
The Emerald Destiny goes through 200 liters of soup a day. More when I was on board. Everything is cooked fresh daily, which requires a lot of organization, planning and inventory control.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, guests can enjoy afternoon tea, finger sandwiches and tiny desserts, served in Horizon Bar & Lounge, where they can also enjoy a late-night snack of canapes.
What are some of the activities on board?
While we enjoy our share of time at home sitting on the couch watching Netflix, my husband and I are pretty active people and were a little concerned about getting exercise on board during the time we weren’t on excursions.
No need to worry. The sun deck runs almost the entire length of the ship, with a small space at the back reserved for the crew. You can do laps around the ship, with 6.5 laps being equal to a mile.
There are also bicycles on board that you can request any time there’s a suitable place to ride.
Then there are the organized activities. Emerald Waterways made a major change on all the ships in Europe by replacing the position of musician with an Activities Manager to focus more on the activities.
Ray Muehlbauer is Corporate Cruise Director of Emerald Waterways and told me the position change was in response to requests from the guests, who wanted more activities and more entertainment in the evenings. “We decided to add the position of Activity Manager and that helped us massively,” he said.
“We have onboard activities like yoga, meditation and Pilates and off the ship we’ve added extra hikes, extra bike tours.”
Another element I loved about Emerald is the Emerald Active program for guests who want a higher level of fitness activities. These may include bike rides and hikes, both of which we did. The 12-mile bike ride along the Moselle River was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Another day we hiked up a mountain to a castle, experiencing glorious scenery as well as an elevated heartbeat. On other ships an Emerald Active activity may involve bicycling from one town to the next or a canoe trip.
“The activity manager is part of every Emerald Active program so now we have a professional tour guide who leads the tour and someone from the boat along as well,” Ray told us.
Harry Jordan was the Activity Manager during our trip on Emerald Destiny and I interviewed him during our stay. He told me activities include exercise classes, bocce, gulf putting, trivia nights and dancing. “Our most popular activity is the golf putting tournaments. We have a few of those during the cruise and they tend to get fairly competitive,” he said. “I also teach a lot of dance classes, including line dancing and ballroom.”
Speaking of competitive. I attended part of one of the trivia nights and the competition was heated, with some teams accusing others of Googling the answers. All in good fun of course.
A note about the sun deck. Sometimes it does have to be closed, either for bad weather or because the ship is sailing in an area with low bridges. But you can still be active. “Everything we do on the deck can be moved to the lounge,” he said.
Harry teaches yoga, Pilates and aqua aerobics in the pool area.
I am not really a big fan of yoga. For me, it’s like oatmeal. I know it’s good for me and I want to like it, but despite repeated attempts, it’s still not my favorite. But I attended a yoga session held by the pool. And those awkward positions were much more enjoyable with views of small villages, groups of camper vans and miles of trees.
Travel tip: One thing to know about river cruising is sometimes you are the only ship at port. But other times you may be one of many, particularly in the summer. Ships often dock parallel to each other, so you may exit by walking through other cruise ships, sometimes those with other cruise lines.
What are the other public spaces like on Emerald Waterways?
One of my favorite features on Emerald Waterways is the pool at the back of the ship. The space is surrounded by glass with fantastic views during the day, so it’s a wonderful place to lounge.
It you want to ramp up your activity, jump in the pool and push the button that starts a powerful jet so you can swim “laps’ while staying in place as you work against the resistance of the water. You can even adjust the flow according to how hard you want to swim.
A tea station at the back of the ship is always stocked along with a jar of shortbread cookies. And on select nights, the pool is covered over, like in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a screen is set up and movies are shown. Guests enjoy free popcorn while watching a film.
There’s a small fitness room at the back of the ship with a stationary bike, rowing machine and a few weights. A small porthole keeps the space from feeling too claustrophobic. It’s enough to keep in shape and get your cardio activity on the days the deck is closed.
Horizon Bar and Lounge
The lounge is the heart of the ship, busy most hours of the day. An early morning breakfast, light lunch, high tea and late-night snack are served here. A 24-hour tea and coffee station, board games and puzzles are available. And of course, here’s where you can get your drinks when the bar opens at 11:00 a.m.
Port talks, trivia nights and dance nights all take place here. The room is large enough that if you just want to hang and not be part of the sometimes-heated competitions you can grab a couch at the back of the lounge.
One of the most fun evenings was Disco Night. The crew was invited to join guests as everyone hit the dance floor to popular tunes like “YMCA.” Dancers even formed a conga line for “Love Train.”
The Horizon is also where guests gather if they get onboard the ship prior to embarkation time the first day, and where they can wait for their shuttle on disembarkation day. Pass through to the back of the lounge and there’s an outdoor seating area at the front of the ship.
What are shore excursions like on Emerald Waterways?
We took part in all of the offered excursions and found them to be informative and fun. But if you want to take off on your own you can do that as well. The reception desk has maps of every destination so you can wander on your own.
We liked the opportunity to follow a local tour guide and learn about the area first, which was followed by free time for us to explore on our own.
With most excursions we could scan our badges and walk off the boat to meet our group just outside to begin the tour. A few excursions required a short bus ride on really nice buses – no old, repainted school buses here.
We were split into small groups for our excursions, which made it easier to keep together and hear the tour guide. Although that part was greatly aided by the Quietvox® rechargeable devices we would sync with our guides so we could hear the tour even if we fell behind.
Or if we started following the wrong guide by mistake. On one of our tours we stopped at a church and I saw Chris following the wrong guide away from the church. I figured when he lost reception on his headset he’d figure it out and come back. He did. Our stateroom had a Quietvox for each of us, which stayed in the charging station when we weren’t using them.
Every excursion had the option for Gentle Walkers for people with impaired mobility or maybe just the desire for a more relaxed pace.
We found the local guides to be knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about their destination. We saw a lot and also enjoyed the free time to explore on our own. They all spoke English very well and we had no trouble understanding them.
Please note that while you will have an itinerary for your trip, sometimes circumstances may cause a change in your itinerary. For example, if water levels are too high or too low, the ships may have some trouble navigating some areas. A delay may also occur if there is traffic on the river or a delay at a lock.
We spoke to Balaz Varga, Cruise Director, about what happens in that case. “The biggest challenge is when you have to come up with a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C when there are changes in the schedule,” he said.
So whatever happens you will have a good experience, even if it means taking a bus instead of sailing to a destination.
What is the dress code? What do I need to pack?
Ever since an unfortunate lost-luggage situation in the Bahamas years ago, we try to carry on luggage when we travel internationally or for a long trip. It just eases the stress of possible lost luggage. But it does require a certain skill in packing, which I’ve been trying desperately to master. I’m proud to say I did it for this trip and wore just about everything I took.
I took one carry-on suitcase, my Away tote and this Travelon bag stuffed inside my suitcase for use during the trip. This purse was the perfect size for daytime use and has two side pockets. I used one for my umbrella and one for my water bottle. It has a cut-proof shoulder strap and locking zippered pockets so you don’t have to worry about pickpockets.
A benefit of Emerald Waterways, and other river cruises I’ve been on, is the relaxed dress code. While I typically like to dress up a bit more for dinner when I travel, it’s an option here, not a requirement. Men should wear long pants to dinner, but other than that it’s a casual scene. One night I wore my white jeans, but changed out of my T-shirt into a dressy top and nice flats.
I took one dress that I wore to the “Gala” night, when people did dress up a bit more. Many women were in nice dresses while others opted for nice pants. Men were wearing nice slacks, many with button-down shirts and jackets. A few had on ties, but the majority did not.
My cruise packing list included one pair of nice black pants that I wore 2-3 times, sometimes with a dressy top. I also took jeans, a pair of white pants and several tops, two sweaters and a lightweight windbreaker jacket, which I needed for the cooler days. Layering is always a good idea for excursions as the mornings may start out cooler. Of course we were traveling in the summer; a fall or winter packing list would be different.
For activities like cycling and hiking I took my hiking pants and good walking shoes. Some tours will involve a lot of walking and in Europe you may often find yourself on lopsided stairs and cobblestones so comfortable walking shoes are mandatory. I took these two pairs of shoes with me and they worked for all activities.
I travel with a small umbrella I could easily slip in my bag. The crew will hand out umbrellas if rain is in the forecast, but they are the full-size umbrellas and I prefer to have a small one. We had plenty of outlets in our cabin, but I still recommend a power strip. We always take one on our trips and it has saved us from crawling around on the floor looking for outlets.
Travel irons aren’t allowed onboard but you can have all your clothes ironed for you for a small fee, less than $20. While it’s best to travel with clothes that don’t wrinkle, the option to have all your clothes pressed for you is nice.
What do guests like about cruising with Emerald Waterways?
If you want to meet people on a river cruise, it’s easy enough. Strike up a conversation at dinner, in the bar or on an excursion. I met Charlie Lampach at the coffee machine one morning and we started chatting. He agreed to let us interview him and his wife, Vivian, to find out what they like about river cruising. [See our video, Tour of an Emerald Waterways Ship]
Like many riverboat cruisers I’ve talked to, Vivian and Charlie are well traveled. They have been to more than 100 countries and on more than 40 ocean cruises.
“We like to go on a cruise, see a place and determine if we like it and then go back. I picked this cruise because of a combination of weather, price, itinerary and the age of the boat,” Charlie said. “It all came together with Emerald.”
The ships of the Emerald Waterways have a more modern décor than you find on some cruise lines and Charlie says he loves that. “I think the design is really clean and comfortable,” he said. “The crew is amazing – they are doing a wonderful job. They are extremely friendly and bend over backwards to handle any request. I have zero complaints as they have really been wonderful.”
One thing Vivian mentioned is that she likes the opportunity to meet people. “I’m a very outgoing person. Charlie has learned to be more outgoing. We typically like to go by ourselves, we don’t go with other people because we like meeting people from different countries. We also immerse ourselves in a lot of the activities.”
Those activities include the tours. “The tours have been fantastic,” Charlie said. The guides have been excellent.
“Often when we go on ocean cruises, the tours are not included, Vivian said. “So instead of going on the tours the ships offer we hire our own private guides. Comparing the people we’ve hired to the ones we’ve had on this cruise, they are very high level.”
“They are better In many cases,” Charlie said. “Emerald does this itinerary over and over so they know the professional guides. When we hire guides on our own we can read reviews, but you don’t really know if they are honest
Charlie pointed out the advantage of not having to pack and repack on a river cruise. “Packing over and over takes some energy and takes away from the amount of time you have to explore. When you stay in hotels you have to check out by 10 and can’t check into the next one until 4, so you’re always feeling the pressure of time.”
Vivian and Charlie also love the all-inclusive aspect of a river cruise. “You’re not paying anything extra. You know what your costs will be. And that allows us to take 2-3 trips a year, Vivian said.
“We are not gazillionaires and we’re trying to see as much of the world as possible,” Charlie said.
Where does Emerald Waterways sail?
Emerald Waterways has ships that cruise the rivers in France, Portugal, Germany, and Southeast Asia. Next up on my list are the Douro River in Portugal and the Mekong, which flows through Vietnam and Cambodia.
Emerald Waterways also operates some charter vessels in Russia, Croatia and on the Nile.
Travel tip: If you’re like me you take hundreds, if not thousands of photos on cruises. Sometimes when you get home it might be a challenge to remember where you were. There are castles everywhere in Germany! Each morning take a photo of your ship’s daily newsletter with that day’s port in it. That way you’ll know that all the photos after that photo were taken that day.
Please view our video for scenes from the ship, a tour of our cabin and some of the most stunning scenery you’ve ever seen.
Thanks to Emerald Waterways for hosting me. My opinions, as always are my own.
– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief, loves river cruises. When she first stepped foot on one in 2008, she felt she had found her favorite way to travel and loves sharing the experience with readers.