Cruising in Luxury on the Rhine and Moselle

Cruises, History & Heritage

A dream voyage on the Scenic Opal spotlights cozy towns in the heart of Europe. Old World romance awaits in Germany, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

With its half-timbered houses, tangle of cobbled alleyways and picture-perfect castle perched on a crag high above the market square, the German village of Cochem struck me as something plucked from a medieval fairy tale.

Almost too good to be true, the Moselle River town of 5,500 was one of several stops on “Charming Castles & Vineyards of the Rhine & Moselle,” a seven-night cruise itinerary offered by Scenic, an Australia-based company with 12 luxury river ships in Europe. My brother and I were aboard the 163-passenger Scenic Opal, our floating hotel for the week.

Happily, in Cochem and some other ports of call, the historic town center lies just steps from the ship’s gangway. I love being in the middle of everything within minutes of disembarking.

Because of my ancestry and the fact that my first trip to Europe was a summer German language program in Austria, I’ve always had an affinity for German-speaking countries. Until this cruise, however, I had never been to the Rhine or Moselle valleys. 

The 163-passenger Scenic Opal rests on the banks of the Moselle River in Bernkastel, Germany. (Randy Mink Photo)

Rhine & Moselle: The Perfect Combination

It was the Moselle’s inclusion that steered me to the itinerary, as not all Rhine cruises venture to this narrower, slower-moving, more intimate tributary, which twists and turns more than 100 picturesque miles between the German cities of Trier and Koblenz. Many Rhine journeys spend time in the more industrial stretches to the north. 

I also liked this particular circuit because it touched four countries. Besides shore excursions in Germany, Scenic offered tours in France and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The cruise ended in Basel, Switzerland, where we stayed two nights in a hotel before flying home.

Read more about Switzerland in the Switzerland Tour Guide 

The Rhine travels nearly 800 miles from the Swiss Alps to Rotterdam on the North Sea, forming the border of southwestern Germany and eastern France. From the Vosges Mountains, the Moselle flows through northeastern France and Luxembourg to Germany, joining the Rhine at Koblenz, our first port after embarking the day before at Mainz, a city of 200,000 about 40 minutes from the Frankfurt airport. 

Both waterways dish up a passing parade of vineyard-covered slopes, hilltop castles and idyllic towns with gabled houses, church steeples and leafy riverside promenades—an eye-popping feast for those of us who thronged the railings or drank it in from deck chairs. Steady streams of barges, sightseeing boats and pleasure craft also kept us engaged. One afternoon on the Moselle, the Scenic Opal went through three locks, the first one upon leaving Koblenz for the pretty Moselle Valley, my favorite part of the trip.

In the Rhine River city of Koblenz, passengers relax on the Sun Deck of the Scenic Opal as cable cars to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress pass overhead. (Randy Mink Photo)

Koblenz: Where the Rhine and Moselle Meet

In Koblenz I opted for a ship-arranged walking tour but easily could have wandered on my own. The colorful squares and alleys of Old Town, a largely pedestrianized shopping zone with plenty of cafes and bakeries, were a short walk from our berth at the beautifully landscaped Rhine Promenade. (My brother chose the e-biking excursion, exploring on one of the ship’s electrically assisted bicycles.) 

The park-like river walk led to Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, the point where the mighty Rhine meets little sister Moselle. Lording over the tip of land is a monumental equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888), first emperor of the New German Empire. Destroyed in World War II and replaced in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the statue now represents German unity. Nearby stand three concrete slabs from the infamous wall and text about life under Communism in East Germany. Overlooking the confluence is Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a massive complex reached by cable car from the promenade.

Shore Tour to Little Luxembourg

From our next stop, the Moselle Valley town of Bernkastel, we took a morning excursion to Luxembourg City, an hour-and-a-half away. Our guided ramble through the capital city’s oldest quarter, famed for the stone bastions and battlements rising above dramatic ravines, focused on the shop-filled pedestrian zone and included panoramic lookout points. 

Luxembourg City. (Photo credit: Gauven Lapetoule/LFT)

After the tour my brother and I relaxed over hot chocolate at the Chocolate House, snaring an outdoor table across from the Grand Duke’s Palace, where we earlier had snapped pictures of the soldiers on guard duty. Passengers who didn’t sign up for Luxembourg could choose to visit a Bernkastel winery and sample the valley’s renowned Rieslings.

Bernkastel & Cochem Ooze with Fairy-tale Charm

After lunch on the Scenic Opal, moored across the bridge from Bernkastel, we explored the storybook German town. Its riverfront facade didn’t look unusually quaint, but as we probed deeper into the web of little streets, the place just kept getting cuter and cuter. I wanted to photograph every square, crooked lane and antique building in my path, and slip into every wine tavern. Had we more time, I would have hiked up to Landshut Castle, frequented centuries ago by the territorial lords of Trier. Built in 1277 and in partial decay since 1692, it houses a restaurant and cafe. 

In the evening, we all boarded buses for Trier, where Scenic had arranged a private classical concert staged amid the Gothic grandeur of the 13th century Liebfrauenkirche. Riding through Germany’s oldest city to reach the church, we grabbed glimpses of the famous Porta Nigra, the best-preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps.

Reichsburg Castle and the onion-dome spire of St. Martin Church frame this view of the Moselle River town of Cochem, Germany. (Photo credit: German National Tourist Board)

In Cochem, the hub of the Middle Moselle, our excursion featured a visit to Reichsburg Castle. From its lofty vantage point we enjoyed sweeping views of the river, the steep vineyard abutting the castle grounds and a skyline dominated by the onion-dome spire of St. Martin Church. Dating from the 11th century, Reichsburg was restored in the late 1800s by a wealthy Berliner who created an idealized version of a medieval stronghold. Although not architecturally faithful, it certainly gives Cochem a photogenic landmark, and three-fourths of the main tower is original. Mounted animal heads, suits of armor and period furniture set the mood inside. Afterwards, our walking tour of Cochem showcased its compact central square, Baroque town hall and ancient town gates. 

Next we traveled the 32 miles from Cochem back to Koblenz, where our ship overnighted in order to get in position for a morning journey to Rudesheim that would spotlight the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, or Rhine Gorge, the river’s most castle-studded corridor. This would be our big day, the one we’d been waiting for. 

On the Romantic Rhine

As we looked out from the breezy top deck, it was castle after castle, many of them, romantically, in various states of ruin. Some crowned distant summits, others rose straight from the shore. Vine-ribboned hillsides and timeless villages seemed to be waiting around every bend.

Scenic Opal passengers flock to the railings to view the Rhine’s star-studded cast of castles. (Randy Mink Photo)

As we learned from the cruise director’s narration and from Tailormade (the Scenic smartphone app), some of the fortresses have been repurposed as museums, restaurants, hotels or private residences. Castle Stahlek in Bacharach, now a youth hostel, once served as a Nazi indoctrination center and military hospital during World War II.  (The app’s commentary also came in handy for exploring ashore and helped us identity the towns and landmarks we passed while cruising.)

In Rudesheim, a tourist-packed village crammed with wine taverns and souvenir shops, we hiked through vineyards to Niederwald Monument, a grandiose memorial that commemorates the 1871 founding of the German Empire after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Our uphill trek was challenging, the cable car ride down a lot more fun.

Strasbourg’s historic core abounds with Old World charm. (Randy Mink Photo)

Forays into France

Heading south on the Rhine, the Scenic Opal tied up at two more German towns. From Rastatt we were torn between a tour to the German spa town of Baden-Baden and one to Strasbourg, capital of France’s Alsace, a region that historically has flipped back and forth between German and French control. In Breisach, our last port of call before Basel, we had to weigh Colmar, Alsace’s most beautiful town, against Freiburg, a Black Forest gem renowned for its medieval Old Town. 

Since we had seen plenty of Germany, we went all in for Alsace and enjoyed walking tours of Strasbourg and Colmar, both with cozy, traffic-free historic cores chockablock with pastel, flower-laden, Hansel-and-Gretel houses. It’s just that touch of fairy-tale fantasy we needed to put a happily-ever-after ending to our trip through the enchanting heart of Europe—the Europe of our dreams.

For details on the Scenic Opal’s culinary delights and other amenities, click here for a ship profile.

For more travel ideas on Europe, be sure to Subscribe to Leisure Group Travel magazine for FREE.

By Randy Mink, Senior Editor

Latest Traveling Tribes Podcast

Download Latest Issue

Recent History & Heritage

America at 250

America at 250

The largest and most inclusive anniversary observance in the nation’s history will have a major impact on tourism

Subscribe for Free