Berlin, Amsterdam and cruising the Rhine

Jessica (Alexandra) and partner Brad landed in Berlin before taking a train to Amsterdam where they spent time before embarking on an Avalon river cruise to Basle.

Travelling ZQN-AKL-LAX on Air NZ it’s fair to say we were well looked after with typical service that can only be expected from one of the top ranked airlines in the world. We travelled in economy and received dinner service not long after leaving Auckland with 2 standard choices of meals followed by a breakfast service a couple of hours before landing in LA. As always the Air NZ staff were extremely accommodating and constantly walking around checking the cabin and offering refreshments. With a wide selection of movies including new releases and sit coms we were well catered for on this long haul service. In LA we had 3 hours between flights. We needed to collect our bags and pass through immigration before re boarding the connecting flight. This includes a self service finger print scan and a one on one encounter with an immigration officer, even when transiting. 

Our next flight was with Turkish airlines from LA to Berlin via Istanbul. While I wouldn’t rave about them I would give them a 4/5 on their long haul product and a 3/5 on their short haul. There was a degree of confusion among both staff and passengers with many people being seated in double booked seats. There was considerably less room compared to Air NZ aircraft and a meal service that was mediocre.

On arrival in Berlin we took a taxi from the airport to our very central hotel (3 minutes walk to Checkpoint Charlie). The cost was approximately EUR30 (NZD55) for the 20 minute journey. Traffic flows really easy here and for convenience it was perfect for us. There is also a bus service that connects to the rail system from the airport but I would recommend and pre booked transfer or taxi on arrival.

Berlin is a stunning city, you can easily spend a couple of days here. With a long and unpleasant history at times Berlin has a lot of tales to tell. It’s central location within Europe has seen it as the capital of modern day Germany but also the Prussian empire. Berlin seems to be most famous for the Berlin Wall which divided West Germany from East Germany for almost 30 years, but it has many other reasons to visit. Much of the city was bombed and destroyed by the allies in WW2 so Berlin is a relatively modern by Europe standards. The impressive Brandenburg gate is one of the most recognised symbols in Europe.

A free walking tour of the city departs 4 x daily from the Brandenburg Gate. The walk will take about 3 hours and is presented in many different languages. It will give you a great grasp on the history of both Berlin and Germany and point out many historical sights you may otherwise walk straight past. 

The people understand the part their country played in both world wars but there is so much more to this city than just terror. Berlin has a huge monument dedicated to all who lost their lives in the concentration camps which is smack in the middle of the city, free for all to take a moment to reflect. They have accepted what happened and are doing all they can to repent for their actions from welcoming the Jewish community with open arms to encouraging people of all races and backgrounds to make Berlin their home. This is also apparent with their attitude towards the LGBT community

Insider tip

Visit ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ or ‘the wall museum’ to get stamps in your passports that would have been stamped at the time the wall was standing. There is a small fee for this, approx EUR4 (NZD7).

Berlin CC2.jpg

The rail network is excellent, an easy and affordable way to get around the city. The people are extremely friendly and will offer a helping hand to anyone that looks a little lost.  On our last day we took the train and then bus from our hotel to the airport for our flight to Amsterdam. This cost us EUR3 (NZD5) and was incredibly easy. The front desk of most hotels should be able to provide you with easy to follow directions, the trip will take about 40 minutes from the city centre. Note there are 2 airports in Berlin, the one I am referring to is Tegal.

Hello Holland!

First things first Amsterdam is not all about sex, drugs and rock n roll but of course it does play a part!

Day one we visited the world renowned Keukenhof gardens. These gardens are filled with a variety of flowers but most of the focus is on the tulips. Late March - mid May is tulip season and boy is it stunning to see. With many different arrangements it’s difficult not to be WOW’d and impressed. There are inside and outside displays and we even witnessed a wedding there. The fields are gorgeous and laid with many different coloured tulips which get shipped around the world. At the peak of tulip mania, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftworker. This is a must visit during season.

Having been to Amsterdam before I didn’t do as many ‘touristy things’ as last time. A lot of our time was spent wandering the streets, taking the local public transport (which runs seamlessly), eating, drinking and people watching. I think 2-3 days in Amsterdam is a good amount of time to recommend. While Amsterdam is very well known for its legalisation of marijuana and its red-light district there really is a lot more to this city. Obviously I can’t just glaze over these things so it’s important for you to know you will undoubtedly find yourselves wandering into the red-light district sooner or later. The little narrow streets all merge into one and another and before you know it you’re in the thick of the oldest profession in Amsterdam. It really is quite fascinating with girls posing in windows in rooms no bigger than 1m x 2m wearing very little. A red lamp lit above the window advises prospective customers the girls are ‘available’ while drawn curtains, well it's obvious! Be aware no photos are allowed. Scattered around this area are countless ‘coffee shops’ offering hash cookies, gum, brownies, pipes… you name it's available for purchase.

To paint the picture even further there are a lot of Danish bakeries offering all sorts of sweet goodies including waffles, custard cakes, fruit tarts, cheese shops, pizza bigger than anything you have ever seen before and a wide array of beverages. There are boutique shops and high street brands available galore. Don’t be fooled into thinking there is a specific age group to recommend Amsterdam to, there were kids as young as 3 wondering the streets to the older generations the cobbles, the appeal really is there for everyone.

Other things visitors come to this city for include the famous Van Gogh museum where a wide selection of his artwork is on display. Amsterdam is a city of museums, there is a museum for almost everything and they all offer something slightly different. The trading and crafting of diamonds is also famous here and clients should take 20 minutes out of their day to do a free diamond tour to see how they are shaped and to educate themselves on the different factors that determine the value of a stone. No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a canal cruise. There are many different operators and it’s a fantastic way to see this city from a different angle. 'Devil' bikes are everywhere. It’s important to look out for these maniacs. For us getting our heads around traffic being on the wrong side of the road is hard enough let along having bikers everywhere you look. There are specific bike lanes which are NOT an extension of the footpath, you will soon learn there is an area for pedestrians and an area for cyclists and the two do not mix.

Insider tip
Tickets for Anne Frank's house / museum book out months in advance so if you are interested please ask us your consultant to book in advance.

After a fabulous time in Amsterdam we now embarked on our Avalon river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel. As per the joining instructions I was advised of the docking point 24-48 hours before the cruise. This is important as there are 3 different docks in Amsterdam and the cruise line may not know which one until they are in the city if they are arriving a few days before the cruise. You will need to log onto your cruise personaliser the day before the cruise to find out specifically where you will join the cruise. If you fly in on the morning of the cruise you will have a free transfer from the airport to the ship, otherwise you will make your own way to the ship. Joining is very easy and quite different to an ocean cruise. You basically walk right up to the ship, leave your bags on the side and walk on board. No security to go through, you just check in with the front desk staff who advise you your bags will be taken to your room soon and you are given a quick run down about the ship. We were advised we could drop our bags at any time but our rooms would not be ready until 4 pm, when we got on at 11am they were already cleaned and ready for our arrival which was amazing. We were given a tour of the room and given clear instructions on how to use everything including opening the balcony door, using the safe, turning on the TV and adjusting the AC. After the tour we were offered a buffet lunch and had free time until the compulsory drill at 6pm. On this day there were no included activities for us, but there were 2 optional shore excursions which a lot of people opted to go on, they ranged from EUR50-75pp (NZD85-125). Every cruise must have a drill to prepare customers in case of emergencies. This took about 15 minutes to get through and then there was a run down about how the next 7 days would flow and what we could expect. We were introduced to the heads of each department on board and then dinner began.

Every evening (normally right before dinner) the cruise director gives a 15 minute run down on what to expect the following day. He or she will advise the breakfast times, what time the ship will dock and what time the tour will depart the ship. They will advise what might be seen from the ship if it is sailing that day or the time for lunch or any evening entertainment and dinner times. It’s well worth making sure you are present for this information because it really helps to plan what you will do the following day. A copy of ‘The Daily’ will also appear in the stateroom while you are at dinner which will give a timed itinerary for the day. You do not have to do the organised tours and are absolutely free to do your own thing if you prefer. For those less able there is always a option for ‘gentle walkers’ where the pace is much slower and buses are also provided if there is a bit of ground to cover. There really is something for everyone

A normal day will be breakfast any time from 0600 and the tours normally left between 0830 - 0900. Guests are asked to gather in the lounge about 10 minutes before the tour leaves to make sure the head sets are working and that everyone was on time for the guides. In each port there are local guides who will give an easy walking tour for about 1.5 hours, you may only cover 2-3km in that time. Generally the guides try not to overload you with too much information and they have a good idea about where you will have come from so are careful not to double up on information you may have received the day before. After your guided tour you will either be walked back to the ship or if you have had to take a bus then you will get bused back to the ship in time for lunch. The ship may then cruise for a couple of hours to the next port and another tour will be organised in this new port. If the ship is staying put you will have free time in the afternoon to keep exploring and will be advised when the ship will be leaving port for the all aboard call. Dinner is generally around 1900, with the cruise director spiel 15 minutes prior to this. Dinner is a full on affair. With Avalon drinks (beer, wine and soft drinks) are included FOC during meal times so they tend to be quite drawn out! Meals in the main dining room are al a carte with the choice of 3 entrees, 2 soups, 4 mains and 4 desserts. A waiter will take your order and the meal process flows smoothly and normally this took about 2 hours. The tables are set for either 2, 4 or 6 guests and bread rolls with 3 different dips on the table when you arrive making the dinner 5 courses, you can imagine there’s a lot of weight gained on each cruise.

The staff are unbelievable. They knew my name and room number by the end of day 2. The waiters had our drink order down pat and they kept refilling our drinks without being asked. The little cleaning fairies were in and out of the rooms lightening quick, I say that because we never actually saw them although they were cleaning at least 3 times a day from what we could tell. Front desk staff had our shore passes out ready as soon as they saw us coming which was fantastic at saving time. Each time clients leave the ship they collect a shore pass which has emergency contact details of the ship on it. This is the only way staff know if they are off the ship or have made it back on.

With the first 2 days in Amsterdam, day 3 was in Cologne, Germany. The cruise was the longest on this day, we had left Amsterdam at 1700 on day 2 and arrived in Cologne at 1500 on day 3. On arrival our guide collected our walking group for a tour of this magnificent city. Rich in history and with its easily identifiable gothic style cathedral this city is worth a visit on any river cruise or as part of a land tour, it did not disappoint. There are lots of little cafes, breweries, chocolate factories, churches, museums, you name it there is something for everyone in this amazing city.

Day 4 was a city visit of Koblenz then a cruise thought the most spectacular part of the Rhine river, the Rhine gorge and then a visit of Rudesheim. Koblenz has had a very eventful history with its castles, fortress walls, towers, town squares and monuments there is a story for every significant moment in history. 3 hours was plenty of time to see the highlights but if you were particularly interested in history and wanted to get more details they would need longer here.

The next stretch on the Rhine was spectacular. With more castles over this 40 km stretch than anywhere else is the world it easy to see why this was considered to be a highlight for many. The weather was perfect to sit outside and watch the world go by. There were castles, fortresses, vineyards, thatched roof villages, colourful buildings everywhere you looked. The famous ‘Lorelei rock’ is another bucket list tick for many.

Rudesheim is where we spent that afternoon and we also had an overnight here. Upon arrival 2 'choo choo' trains were there to pick us all up and take up to visit ‘Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Museum’. This very talented man collected old German made self playing musical instruments that were in disrepair and he fixed them all up and has since opened a very fascinating museum where visitors can appreciate these amazing instruments once again. After the museum we were treated to the local brew which was flaming brandy mixed with coffee, cream and chocolate served in specialty mugs which went down a real treat. The small town, around the same size of Clyde was easy to wonder around and each street lead you onto another which was just as spectacular as the one before. The architecture in this town was stunning with brightly coloured mismatched buildings and narrow cobbled streets. This evening on the cruise we were treated to a stunning performance of classical music, even if this isn’t up your alley it was difficult not to engage and be wow’d by the talent of this group of 3 performers.

On day 5 we visited Mainz in the morning and then Heidleberg for the afternoon. Mainz I could give or take but if your clients are particularly religious they may be interested in a visit to the Gutenberg Museum which houses one of the first printed copies of the bible. Modern day printing was invented in Mainz so it’s great to be able to see the printing machine and the first book printed was the bible. 150 copies were made and only 49 survive today. In 2015 a book came up on the market and sold for USD19 million and this museum has 3 of them!!! Back to the ship for 1130 and another couple of hours cruising before reaching Heidleberg. This city is a ‘must visit’ on any trip. It has an amazing castle in ruins on the hills overlooking the city. With a river running along side the city and the small alleyways are all unique with colourful homes and buildings leading onto more colourful houses. Chocolate and cafes are another highlight and with one mile of high street shopping what’s not to love!

The following day we were in France! Strasbourg is a very picturesque town. Although it is a French town it plays host to some of the most spectacular German architecture found anywhere because it was one of the few towns not bombed in the war. Its interesting location makes it the ideal spot to be the headquarters of the Council of Europe and location of the European Parliament. Highlights in Strasbourg include a canal cruise to really appreciate the history and architecture as well as its gothic style church in the town centre which also has an astronomical clock. Much of the beauty of this town is just wandering around its cobbled streets and taking in its mixed culture and mixed building styles. It is also a very important wine and crop region. One council rule in this town is that no building may be painted the same colour as the neighbouring house which makes for a very beautiful town.

The evening was the captains farewell dinner. What a lavish affair this was. It was recommended to dress a little more formally than previous evenings, a shirt for the blokes and a nice top / dress for the woman was fine although it was not compulsory. The captains dinner was a 6 course meal and every course was phenomenal. All the staff were involved and a lot of speeches and thank you’ s were expressed. It was a fantastic night and I can highly recommend you make sure you attend this dinner, it was a step up (if that was possible).

Our penultimate day started with an hour and a half bus ride through the country side and various villages deep into the black forest where the highlight was a cuckoo clock factory. We had been fortunate enough to have the owner and his son on board the night before to watch a short video on the production of the clocks and also see a demonstration which was fantastic. This multi generational factory let us have access to an array of shopping from Christmas decorations to toy soldiers to fridge magnets, to t-shirts to cuckoo clocks of all different sizes, and quality, and prices!! The most amazing part was the huge hand made cuckoo clock outside the shop. It's clear to see why visitors are attracted from all around the world.

The afternoon was either at your leisure or an optional excursion to Colmar (EUR45/NZD75 pp). This little town is one of the most beautiful in France and is known as the birthplace of the father of the Statue of Liberty. We had an organised 1.5 hour walking tour then free time to explore on our own. We were fortunate enough to catch the last day of the Easter markets and one can only imagine this little town would hum in the winter when the Christmas markets are in full swing.

Overall I can highly recommend Avalon to a wide range of people. There were only Kiwi’s, Aussies, Canadian’s and Americans on board which I found quite interesting. All English speaking staff were highly trained. There were another couple our age in their thirties on their honeymoon and there were around 20 under 50. Interestingly there were 12 single ladies travelling unencumbered by having to pay a single supplement. They were friends or cousins and with no single supplement this is a wonderful way to travel.