Cinderella Cruising along the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers

“In my own little corner in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be,” sang Lesley Ann Warren in the 1965 television production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. She knew romance is seeded with the eyes and fertilized by the heart.

My love affair with Scenic Cruises started when I looked at their web site, and it blossomed onboard the Jade “Space Ship” as we sailed along the Rhine, the Main and the Danube rivers.Scenic-Jade-River2

And just in case you’re one of those savvy travelers who speculates television overplays the hype of European river cruising, let me assure you the commercials are if anything, understated.

In fact, Scenic Cruises elevates the concept of river cruising to the five-star category with their “Ultimate Luxury Experience.”

For starters, it is a fully-inclusive experience (repeat that phrase over and over if you travel with or are married to a receipt collector) where the only extra costs are for spa services and personal items such as gifts.

“All inclusive” also means a magical level of luxury that includes personal butler service for every guest. There’s even a pillow menu to help make your dreamy sleep sweeter.

On top of that, stack on multiple five-star dining choices – the most of any European river cruise ship.

Scenic-Jade-foodThe Crystal Dining Room, for instance, features a variety of menu choices – from-the-buffet plus from-the-menu, including options for those passengers with dietary preferences – accompanied by high-end wines selected by the company’s sommelier.

Alternatively, Portabello Restaurant provides Italian-themed dining in an intimate setting toward the bow of the ship by reservation only.

As an exclusive dining experience, Table La Rive is a chef’s degustation table for 10 where all six courses are paired with wines chosen by the head chef.Scenic-sommelier

On the casual side, lighter fare – including an assortment of breakfast foods, sandwiches, soups, burgers, fish, custom pizzas, delicate pastries and rich gelatos – are available at the River Café.

Sometimes, the Sun Deck is converted to open-air dining space for a cruising-style picnic, complete with moving scenery that includes everything from flowers to forests, cows to castles, monuments to mountains.

Prefer a quiet night for solo dining on your balcony or breakfast in bed? Yes, room service is available, 24 hours a day.

In every case, Scenic’s “all inclusive” program includes all drinks, all day. For passengers like me who don’t drink alcohol, there’s a high-end coffee machine that is so spectacularly specialized, it shouldn’t even be called a machine. I kept looking for a hidden human barista behind the mirror!

It also includes all gratuities – not only for dining services, but also for butlers and cabin stewards. In fact, 85 percent of Scenic passengers end their cruises with a zero balance on their bills, so your nervous partner can bring a passport and forget about the wallet once you’re onboard!

Scenic Space Ship StateroomWorried about being cramped in a tiny stateroom? The roomy cabins and suites on Scenic’s “Space Ships” offer walk-out glassed-in balconies that convert to fully enclosed, all-weather Space-Lounges with the touch of button. And the same push-button technology that opens your room to the balcony also enables you to lower the top half of the glass enclosure for unobstructed views of the riverbank. (One night at dinner, I joked that next time, I should pack travel rod to take advantage of early morning casting opportunities from my cabin balcony. From the corner of my eye, I saw the sommelier smile ever so slightly.)

And to balance the walk-out balcony, each room features a glass walk-in shower outfitted with what has to be the coolest touch of all: a colored lighting system that sometimes inspires more than singing. Bowl sinks, lighted makeup mirrors and French brand L’Occitane amenities round out the luxury amenities.

Beyond the obvious benefits of having to unpack only once to settle into one of 169 rooms aboard a floating five-star luxury boutique hotel, you’ll enjoy a variety of exclusive events designed to give Scenic passenger privileged access to some of Europe’s historic and cultural highlights: from private ballet, opera and classical music performances in historic palaces and castles to artisan classes and home-hosted meals.Scenic-al-fresco

Apparently I’m not the only one who has been blown away by a Scenic Cruises experience. Recently named “Top Luxury Cruise Line” by the New York Travel Writers Association, Scenic also received an “Award of Excellence” from renowned guidebook author Steven B. Stern after achieving the highest rank of any river cruise company in his book, Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges.

Scenic Tours, parent company of Scenic Cruises, offers all-inclusive escorted tours in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and elsewhere.

Now, whenever I sit in my own little corner in my own little chair, I dream I am back on the Scenic Jade, cruising the “Jewels of Europe.”

Scenic Jade

Snowmobiling under the Northern Lights

Hurtigruten is a world leader in expedition cruising – ferrying freight and passengers up and down the Norwegian coast 365 days a year. One of the fleet’s 11 ships departs Bergen every day, sailing to Kirkenes and back in 12 days at an average speed of 15 knots.


Northern Lights of Norway (photo by Elliot Gillies)

I made my maiden winter voyage in 2012 aboard Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord, a 13-year old vessel with a maximum passenger capacity of 822. Decorated extensively with Norwegian wood and stone, the ship features panoramic lounges, roomy suites and original paintings by Lofoten artist Kaare Espolin Johnsen.

Food aboard the Trollfjord reflects Norwegian traditions and her coastal beauty – characterized by “cleanliness, individuality and variation,” according to Coastal Flavours brochure posted outside the ship’s dining room. IMG_2646

“Our idea was to create a menu that reflects historical events, unique places and everyday moments that have shaped our culture and culinary traditions,” said Trollfjord’s executive chef Roy Kristensen. “And because Hurtigruten ships bring new and exciting ingredients from distant places to our communities, the dishes are often a combination of the known and unknown, familiar with unfamiliar.”

Norway - Dried Cod

Norway – Dried Cod

One evening, our dinner featured clipfish – the name given to cod originally dried on a sailing clipper.

Another night, our first-course salad was crowned with delicate Selbu Bla, a Norwegian blue cheese made from cow’s milk. The tanginess of the cheese was balanced with a not-too-sweet syrup made from Scandinavian cloudberries.

Throughout the week, the real culinary highlight – at least in my estimation – was fresh seafood brought on board from ports along our route.

Interestingly, despite the abundance of delectable food, I lost two pounds during my Hurtigruten cruise. I guess it’s not hard to figure, considering that most excursions available on the winter voyages require a moderate amount of exercise. But I can hardly think of more fun ways to work off a few meals!

In Alesund, for instance, we ate Norwegian sandwiches at Fjellstua, a quaint restaurant on top of Mount Aksla. Afterwards, we walked down 418 steps to meander streets lined with a generous collection of Art Deco buildings.

In Trondheim, a city founded by a Viking king in 997, we buried our heads to walk against a wind so strong it blew snow parallel to the ground. Our reward was a visit to the historic Nidaros Cathedral, where Norwegian royalty is crowned and thousands of brides are married each year.

In Tromso, we bonded with strong huskies that eventually pulled our sleds across the Norwegian wilderness in a wild ride similar to the feel of a wooden roller coaster. I’m pretty sure my heart used up most of the calories on this adventure – which, by the way, I would do again in another heartbeat!

Midway through our voyage, we sailed above the Arctic Circle, where the sun hangs low on the horizon and casts a blue glow across the landscape. And even though I’m known among my friends as a cold-weather wimp, I soon felt my heart melting with love for a country that had previously existed only as a memory from my fourth-grade geography class.

Rebecca with King Crab

Rebecca with King Crab

Near Kirkenes, we bundled up for a daytime sledge ride across a frozen fjord to harvest king crab. Originally from the northern Pacific Ocean near Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, king crab was introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s. These crabs can weigh up to 22 pounds and span up to three feet, toe to toe.

Pounding the ices with hatchets, our guides hauled in monster-sized king crabs, which were quickly hoisted back onto the sledge for a quick trip to a pot of boiling salt water back at our wilderness camp. Eighteen minutes later, our hosts plated up succulent claws and served them with melted butter, hearty Norwegian bread and thick hot chocolate. Thank goodness for a hefty hike on snowshoes later that afternoon!

On a trip like this one, it’s hard to choose a favorite experience. But seeing the Northern Lights will forever remain one of my all-time most memorable events.

First of all, I almost didn’t do the excursion at all because I had never driven a snow mobile, much less at night! Secondly, because it was night, it was cold as blue blazes.

Some of my fears dissipated when I realized the snowmobile folks provide outdoor wear created to keep ordinary people like me warm in sub-freezing temperatures.

Another chunk of my fears evaporated when I found out I could be a rider on a two-seater snowmobile.

But every last vestige of fear faded in the light of Aurora Borealis, the spectacular nightlights of heaven. Our vision comprised a triple-braided cord of dancing green light which arched the sky from horizon to horizon.

Standing in a valley of freshly fallen show, where the only sound was the clicking of cameras and the breathing of a dozen people, I couldn’t help but weep with gratitude for the privilege of such a sight.

“It’s the dream we carry in secret – that something miraculous will happen, that must happen, that time will open, that the heart will open, that doors will open, that mountain will open, that springs will gush, that the dream will open, that one morning we will glide into some harbor we didn’t know was there,” said the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge nearly a half-century ago.

For me, the dream is no longer secret. It happened. I was there. And I’ll go back, again and again.

Hurtigruten MS Trollfjord

Hurtigruten MS Trollfjord