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Cruising down or up the Rhine; leisurely 2- to 5-day voyages.

With good reason, the Germans call it "Father Rhine." Rising high in the Swiss Alps, it passes six countries along a roughly 800-mile course to the sea, making it a major shipping route into central Europe. But the Rhine is more than just a barge freeway. To cruise even a portion of it is to trace a scenic water road that dates back to the Roman Empire.

And cruising may be the best introduction to this historic waterway. You can drive much of its length and take daytime boat tours from a number of towns. But exploring the Rhine on a leisurely two- to fiveday voyage aboard specially designed cruise ships unfolds tbe region's marvels at the river's own pace.

Until recently, most options were for longer voyages. But this summer several shorter programs (one to two nights) have been added. Costs can average as little as $100 per person per day including shipboard meals; children age 13 and under travel for half-price.

Three different Rhines, and the Mosel

Choosing a cruise line is the easy part. Unless you are interested in week-long (or longer) cruises from neighboring countries, your choice is among vessels of the KD German Rhine Line, the only company offering regularly scheduled shorter cruises. April through October, the line runs a variety of cruises along the Rhine, and on the Mosel River.

Choosing a particular cruise depends on how much time you have, how much of the river you want to see, and how many shore stops you want to make.

The upper Rhine, from Basel to Mainz, flows mostly through a wide, flat valley bordered on the east by the woodlands of Germany's Black Forest and on the west by the Vosges Mountains of France. With nine locks above Strasbourg (an attractive overnight stop on upper river cruises), the going is slow; light industry and flat farmlands make for some of the Rhine's least interesting scenery.

The middle Rhine, from Mainz to Cologne, is by far the most scenic and most historic section. From Mainz downstream past Koblenz, practically every high outcropping is capped with an ancient castle or monastery. This is where Lohengrin, heroic knight of the swan, adventured, and where legends of the Nibelungen kings inspired Wagner's operatic tetralogy, The Ring. This is also Riesling country, and in wine villages such as Rudesheim and Lorch, narrow streets edged by leaning, halftimbered houses are filled with wine shops, boutiques, and small museums.

Below Koblenz, the river broadens and the landscape gradually flattens again. You see small manufacturing towns along the banks and, in Bonn, elegant manor houses.

The lower Rhine, below Cologne, becomes busier and more industrial as you enter the Ruhr Basin north of Dusseldorf, largely rebuilt since World War II. Blocky postwar towns and heavy industry shoulder up to long stretches of riverbank. Tankers, freighters, and long strings of barges form a lively, colorful, and constant parade beneath the 30 bridges crossing the river between Cologne and Rotterdam.

The Mosel between Koblenz and Trier combines the slow pace of the upper Rhine with the scenery and romance of the middle Rhine. Picturesque villages dot steep riverbanks that are striated with vineyards and often topped with medievel castles.

Strategies for choosing a cruise

Unless you are a diehardcruise aficionado, a Rhine voyage is best treated as a relaxing break in the middle of a longer European trip-especially if it can also serve as point-to-point transportation.

Don't expect Loveboat-style luxury. The riverboats are comfortable, but small by cruise-ship standards-not much longer than a football field. Twin-bedded staterooms (all with bath) are tight but efficient; public rooms include a generous observation lounge, bar, reading room, and dining room.

We spent much of our time on the top sun deck. Weather (in late April) was generally too brisk for a dip in the small pool, but the views were best here, especially when some chain-smoking tourists made the observation lounge hazily uninhabitable.

Meals were good, but uniformly heavy. On one ship, the headwaiter arranged soup and a delightful salad for lunch; on another ship, this was "impossible." At dinner, a sport coat and tie were more than adequate.

One commonly overlooked factor in choosing a cruise is the Rhine's powerful current. Downstream trips are faster, so usually offer either more shore stops or longer time in port. Downstream legs are also a little quieter, since the engines don't have to work so hard against the current. Prices listed are per adult, double occupancy, for standard lower-deck cabins June 1 through October 20 (April and May rates are 20 percent less); meals are included. Shore excursions cost extra. Tipping is typically 5 percent of the fare.

Rhine Cruises. Downstream: Basel to Amsterdam (five days, eight ports $845; four days, six ports $515), Strasbourg to Cologne (three days, three ports $335), Frankfurt to Cologne (three days, six ports $310; two days, two ports $160). Upstream: Amsterdam to Strasbourg or Cologne to Basel (five days, six ports $765), Amsterdam to Basel (five days, six ports $595), Cologne to Frankfurt (three days, five ports $310).

Mosel Cruises between Koblenz and Trier are either three days with four ports ($275) or four days with six ports downstream or seven ports upstream ($375). On upstream cruises, at least two port stops are only 5 minutes long, permitting tour groups to leave or board the ship. All downstream stops allow time to explore on your own. For detailed itineraries and a schedule of sailings, write to the Rhine Cruise Agency, 323 Geary St., San Francisco 94102.

For Rhine area touring information, write to the German National Tourist Office, 444 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90071.
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Title Annotation:Rhine River cruise
Date:May 1, 1989
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