HERE’S AN IRRESISTIBLE HOLIDAY recipe: charming medieval villages dusted in snow, cobbled streets decorated with festive holiday trappings, and plenty of wintertime cheer. If that sounds as heavenly to you as it does to us, a seasonal European Christmas market cruise delivers all of the necessary ingredients.
Generally available early November through December, Christmas market cruises offer a holiday experience that’s a dream come true for countless travelers. Stocked with selections of handmade ornaments, these markets — called Christkindlmarkts — are typically organized as rows of embellished booths and stalls displaying a variety of lovely gifts and trinkets that vary by region and country. You can count on a few standards, though, such as tree ornaments, toys, nutcrackers, porcelain Christmas villages, jewelry, intricately cut paper stars, slippers, hand- knit scarves and mittens, carved angels and figurines — not to mention plenty of jams, sweets and other local foods.
Whether you prefer the intimacy of a river cruise or a larger ship, you’ll find multiple sailings from luxury cruise lines including Cunard, Viking River Cruises and Crystal River Cruises. Each ensures your holiday expedition is wrapped up in festive onboard settings such as the six individually handcrafted, life-sized gingerbread houses on Crystal River Cruises’ river ships and holiday flair from Cunard in the form of carolers in the Grand Lobby, visits from Santa, a large-scale gingerbread village and a Christmas tree sparkling with tinsel and ornaments.
Guests sailing with Viking River Cruises are treated to onboard tree-trimming sessions, musical performances, cooking demonstrations and other themed activities. Viking program director Victor Cartin says a holiday cruise also offers a peaceful escape to end-of-the-year stress, with the chance to enjoy the less-crowded streets of Europe that arrive with cold weather and sparkling snowscapes.
“A river cruise is the best way to visit many different Christmas markets in the most comfortable way,” Cartin elaborated. “From an ice rink in Cologne, Germany, to a 98-foot tall Christmas tree in Strasbourg — one of the oldest markets in the heart of Europe — each market offers a special experience that draws on centuries of traditions. Along with iconic landmarks, guests can enjoy shopping amid the traditional open-air markets, where I always recommend they try the warm mulled wine, taste local sweets such as gingerbread or chocolates, and shop for handcrafted gifts made by local artisans.”
A great seasonal sailing choice with Viking River Cruises is the eight-day Rhine Getaway itinerary from Basel to Amsterdam aboard a Viking Longship. Ports include access to a variety of markets in different towns and countries including Kinderdijk, the Netherlands; Strasbourg, France; Basel, Switzerland; and Heidelberg, Breisach and Cologne, Germany.
Prefer a larger ship? Neil Kelly, entertainment director, Queen Victoria, said for him, booking a voyage with Cunard that takes place in a unique Christmas market is like receiving an early Christmas present. In December Cunard’s Queen Victoria sails round-trip to Bruges, Belgium, from Southampton, England. In Bruges, the town’s beautiful central Market Square transforms into a stunning winter wonderland, with hot cocoa and fresh, warm waffles available for snacking while you peruse the enchanting wares in a multitude of market stalls.
In the world of river ships, the 10-night Vienna round-trip Danube Christmas Markets cruise offered by Crystal River Cruises follows the romantic Danube River with stops in dreamy ports in Austria, Slovakia and Germany. Walter LittleJohn, vice president and managing director, Crystal River Cruises, explains every Crystal River Christmas Markets voyage features visits to markets in several destinations — Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, Bratislava, Rüdesheim, Mannheim, Strasbourg and others — giving guests numerous options to consider when planning their activities.
“If there are particular markets that top their lists,” said LittleJohn, “[guests] can spend time exploring the décor and music and treats in those places and plan for different experiences in other ports.”
Good advice, yes. But our best tip is to bring an empty suitcase — you’ll want to be certain all your new treasures arrive home in one piece.
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While details vary, Crystal River Cruises, Viking River Cruises and Cunard all offer cruise guests direct transportation arrangements from their international arrival airport. For cruises departing from Basel, EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg lies just outside the city, while Zürich Airport is a 1.5-hour drive or approximate one-hour train journey to Basel. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is about a half-hour drive from the city’s cruise terminal. Passengers embarking from the cruise port in Southampton, England, have multiple airport choices in London including Heathrow (LHR), Gatwick (LGW) and Stansted (STN), all just under two hours away. Vienna International Airport is a short, approximately 20-minute drive to the Vienna Cruise Port.
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