A luxury river cruise with a magical mix of history, myth and scenery

Mainz Cathedral

Mainz Cathedral is an architectural highlight in Germany’s wine capital.
Photo: Michele Peterson

“Keep a look out for the Mouse Tower” said our Emerald Sky Cruise Director as we glided along the Rhine River near Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany. According to local legend, the Mouse Tower (Mäuseturm), a turreted stone building set on an island in the middle of the Rhine, is where the archbishop of Mainz was devoured by a horde of hungry mice, his gruesome fate punishment for steep taxes he levied during a 10th century famine.

The moralistic tale was just one of many evocative myths, folk tales and legends that captured our imagination during our 8-Day Legendary Rhine & Moselle river cruise which includes stops in Mainz, Rüdesheim, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem, Koblenz, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and Trier.

There’s no better way to experience this storied landscape than by river ship. Not only is the journey especially scenic – the vineyard-clad hills are dotted with castles, medieval villages and vineyards — but the Middle Rhine Valley is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Emerald Sky

Built in 2014, the Emerald Sky is one of the cruise line’s six Star Ships that travel the Rhine-Main-Moselle-Danube rivers on itineraries from eight to 15 days. It holds 182 passengers in its spacious staterooms.  

Panorama Balcony Suites feature an innovative window system that maximizes space
Photo: Emerald Cruises

Designed to dock directly in the heart of the Europe’s cities and villages, it features a modern design with a soaring lobby atrium, an innovative heated swimming pool that transforms into a cinema, a fitness room, a Sun Deck with lounge chairs (and putting green) and multiple viewing decks to enjoy the scenery.

A highlight within our Panorama Balcony Suite stateroom was the full wall of windows that opened electronically with the flip of a switch to lower its upper half creating an indoor/outdoor veranda. The generous storage space included six deep drawers, a large closet, shelving, a bedside table and under-the-bed storage, making it easy to unpack once and relax.   

All-Inclusive Cruising 

wine tastings

Enjoy wine tastings of the local Riesling onboard and during excursions.
Photo: Michele Peterson

Adding to the relaxed nature of this Rhine-Moselle journey is the generous all-inclusive package with Emerald Cruises. Airport transfers to and from the ship, port taxes and charges, unlimited Wi-Fi, as well as all gratuities are included in the price of the cruise. This means no surprises at the end of the trip.

German cuisine

Learn about German cuisine in a cooking class onboard the Emerald Sky
Photo: Michele Peterson

In addition to the included onboard meals, complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks are served with lunch and dinner. Coffee, tea and water are available all day in the Horizon Bar & Lounge as well as in the Pool deck. For more flexibility, guests can choose from three upgraded drinks packages, available at an extra cost.

Included excursions are another perk with Emerald Cruises. The Emerald Sky docks in (or near) the heart of several villages along the Rhine and Moselle. You can choose to immerse yourself in the local culture independently or take one of the included guided tours hosted by experts. Bicycles are available at no extra charge.   

To help plan your time on shore, there are daily introductory port talks by the cruise director, complimentary destination maps highlighting points of interest and an Emerald Cruises guidebook detailing what to see. For those looking for even more active or in-depth excursions, there’s the option to upgrade to an EmeraldPLUS and EmeraldACTIVE excursion at an extra cost.

Rheinfels Castle

Rheinfels Castle dates to 1245 and was the largest fortress in the Middle Rhein Valley between Koblenz and Mainz
Photo: Michele Peterson

Cruising the Middle Rhine

Our itinerary began in Mainz, strategically located on the Rhine around 40 kilometres from Frankfurt. Known as Germany’s wine capital, it’s home to the 12th century Romanesque Mainz Cathedral, St. Stephen Church with its luminous stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall and quaint Old Town lined with half-timbered medieval buildings.  

Next up was Rüdesheim am Rhein where we passed the moody ruin of 13th century Castle Ehrenfels looming on a steep cliff behind the Mouse Tower. The castle served as an important defensive outpost in medieval times but is now best known for its vineyards.

Kloster Eberbach

Kloster Eberbach was the set for the film Name of the Rose.
Photo: Michele Peterson

A guided shore excursion then took our group to Kloster Eberbach. Founded in 1136, the former abbey was once one of the largest monasteries in Germany. Today, surrounded by ancient plane trees, it appears plucked from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Its soaring stone interior is so atmospheric it served as a set in the film Name of the Rose and in a trailer for the fantasy-drama series Game of Thrones. We spent a leisurely morning exploring its cloisters, wine cellars and dormitories and sampling fine Riesling and Pinot Noir wines from its vineyards.

Next up on the majestic Rhine was the fabled Lorelei cliff, where poets tell of a beautiful maiden whose song lures sailors to their death on the treacherous rapids.

Another highlight on the Rhine was Koblenz, where the Rhine joins the smaller Moselle River. The city’s strategic and military significance is marked by the presence of a towering bronze equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888) the first emperor of Germany.

Wine Villages of the Moselle

Reichsburg Castle

Reichsburg Castle in Cochem comes with its own legend.
Photo: Deposit Photos

While many river cruise itineraries continue northward to the Dutch border, our itinerary sailed westward along the lovely Moselle to Trier, founded by the Romans in 16 BC. Romans were the first to discover that the mild climate along the Rhine and Moselle Rivers was perfect for cultivating vineyards. Warmed by the sun that reflects off the mirrored waters, the grape vines grow deep into the slate drawing out minerality that provides acidity to the sweetness of the late-ripening Riesling grape.


Cat Riesling is easily recognizable by its feline-shaped bottle
Photo: Michele Peterson

The quaint wine villages along the Moselle are awash with folklore. In Bernkastel-Kues, as we strolled through narrow streets lined with 14th century half-timbered buildings, our local guide shared the tale of three wine merchants who came to the nearby village of Zell. Unable to narrow down their choice of the best wine, they approached a wine barrel being protected by a ferocious black cat. They took this as an omen that the barrel contained the best wine and marketed the wine as Zeller Schwarze Katz (Black Cat from Zell) giving rise to the cat-shaped bottles of wine found in the wine shops of Berkastel.

Another memorable day was spent at Cochem, home to the famous Reichsburg Castle. Towering 900 metres above town on a steep vineyard-clad hill, this romantic imperial castle has been fully restored and contains a fine collection of Renaissance and Baroque furniture as well as suits of armour.

While we enjoyed a tasting of sparkling white wine and panoramic views, our guide shared the legends behind the castle’s secret passageways and Hexenturm (Witches Tower), where women believed to be guilty of witchcraft were thrown from the upper window.

Ship Life Onboard

views of the Rhine and Moselle

You’ll have a front row seat to soak up the sweeping views of the Rhine and Moselle.
Photo: Michele Peterson

Ship life aboard the Emerald Sky was a memorable experience filled with delicious, locally-inspired cuisine as well as regional red, white and sparkling wines

The Reflections Restaurant on the Vista Deck was the setting for breakfast and lunch buffets and the à la carte evening meal. Its abundant windows allowed ever-evolving views of the scenery both night and day. The menu often featured a tasty regional specialty such as kalbsbraten (veal roll with mushroom sauce), spatzle or creamy Riesling potato soup paired with international and local wines. Options included Emerald classics of salmon, grilled chicken or sirloin steak as well as vegetarian choices. 

Onboard activities included performances by visiting musicians, German language lessons as well as cooking and wellness classes. There was even a disco night and a pub night out.

Trier, Germany

Founded in 16 BC, Trier is Germany’s oldest city
Photo: Heather Koroluk

Most of the enrichment activities and entertainment took place in the Horizon Lounge, a beautiful contemporary space stretching half the length of the ship. Filled with comfortable sofas, chairs and a bar where complimentary Afternoon Tea is served daily, it was the perfect place to relax, enjoy a cocktail and decompress with new found friends.

We wrapped up our itinerary in Trier, Germany’s oldest city, and the posh spa town Wiesbaden, returning to Frankfurt to fly home after an exhilarating eight days.

While our suitcases were bulging with souvenirs such as brandied mustard, Riesling wine and Moselle plum jam, it was the legends — from marauding mice to endearing cat wine – woven through our journey that will, no doubt, be our most enduring travel memories.   

Emerald Sky

The Emerald Sky in the Rhine Gorge
Photo: Emerald Cruises

Travel Planner

Emerald Cruises: Part of Australian-owned parent company Scenic Tours and based in Switzerland, Emerald Cruises offers all-inclusive, luxury cruises of rivers in Europe and Southeast Asia.

Best Pre-Cruise Hotel: The 268-room Hyatt Regency Mainz is located on the banks of the Rhine in Mainz within easy walking distance to Old Town. Portions of the historic Malakoff Fort have been incorporated into the Hyatt’s architecture so guests have a sense of being connected to history while enjoying modern amenities such as a swimming pool, sauna and fitness centre. Many guest rooms offer panoramic views of the Rhine River.

Michele Peterson is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in food, drink and sun destinations. Her work has appeared in major magazines, guidebooks and travel anthologies. Get recipes, travel tips and inspiration on her A Taste for Travel blog or via Twitter/Instagram @atastefortravel.