Christmas in July
Christmas in July
It was late on a Sunday morning last December when the fluffy snowflakes started drifting down, sticking to our hair and our eyelashes. We didn't know it at the time, but those flakes were just the beginning of an all-day snowfall - nothing too unusual for this Buffalo girl, but wildly out of the ordinary for my younger sister from Arizona.
We stood on the grounds of Heidelberg Castle, looking down into the Neckar Valley at the sprawling German town below. "Is this real life?" I whispered to my sister while the local tour guide explained the history of the castle ruins to our group.
Rachel smiled and turned her face up to the falling snow. "I cannot believe this", she whispered back. "We are at a castle in Germany and it's snowing!" And then, after a moment's hesitation, she added: "But seriously though. How in the world do I tie this scarf?"
A LONG-AWAITED SISTERS TRIP
Rachel and I had been counting down the days to our European river cruise since July, when we first decided to travel together on an AmaWaterways "Christmas Markets on the Rhine" itinerary. With more than 2,000 miles separating our front doors, our time together is usually limited to just a few days every other year or so. After an emotional year that included both Rachel's wedding and the death of our father, our trip to Europe represented a chance to bond as sisters in a way that we hadn't been able to enjoy in a very long time.
Admittedly, it was hard to think about the holidays as I planned soccer tournaments and pool parties, but for travelers who want to get the best deals and selection, summer is the best time to start planning.
As the calendar closes in on the holiday season, cruise ships and hotel rooms tend to fill to capacity, said Elizabeth Carey, public affairs director for AAA Western and Central New York. By booking in the summer, travelers can ensure they get the holiday vacation they want, with plenty of room available for multiple generations to travel together. Plus, they can take advantage of early booking discounts when they don't wait until the last minute.
The truth is, for those who do wait, it might be too late. Last year, AAA predicted a record-breaking 107.3 million Americans would travel during the 2017 Christmas holiday, making it the ninth consecutive year of an increase in year-end holiday travel. Since 2005, holiday travel volume has grown by 21.6 million people, an increase of more than 25 percent. Although the 2018 holiday travel forecast won't be out for several months, it's clear that many popular destinations and cruise itineraries will be booked long before the stockings are hung by the chimney with care.
THE COUNTDOWN AND THE QUESTIONS (SO MANY QUESTIONS)
Rachel and I texted each other all day, every day, in the months and weeks leading up to our trip. Since neither of us had been to Europe before, we were overly excited and in hindsight way too nervous. Our questions ranged from the how-tos to the what-ifs, with a few what-to-packs thrown in for good measure:
- Do they speak English? (Answer: Yes.)
- How do the electrical outlets work? (Answer: Exactly like U.S. outlets, except with an adapter.)
- How does their money work? (Answer: Exactly like U.S. money, except with different pictures on the paper.)
We had a lot of questions. So many questions. Shortly before our trip, I sat down with AAA travel consultant Sarah Feldmann to put my mind at ease. Sarah walked me through the itinerary day by day and told me what to see in each city. She told me exactly what to expect during a layover by myself in the Frankfurt airport and equally important what clothes to wear and what shoes to pack. In the AAA Travel Store, I bought an RFID-blocking travel bag, packing cubes, an adapter/converter and some Euros. It was the first week of December. I was overpacked and ready to go.
MEET ME AT THE AMAPRIMA
After my flight landed in Basel, Switzerland, an AmaWaterways shuttle delivered me directly to St. Johanns-Park, where the AmaPrima was docked on the Rhine River. Rachel, who had arrived on a different flight, was waiting outside with her luggage so we could board the ship together.
We were immediately welcomed by the concierge and housekeeping crew members, who quickly escorted us down a short flight of stairs to our stateroom. Our 235-square-foot cabin featured AmaWaterways signature twin balconies (both an indoor French balcony and an outside balcony) and a spacious marble bathroom stocked with spa products, bathrobes and slippers for each of us. We opened the complimentary bottle of wine and toasted the start of an unforgettable adventure before exploring the ship.
The 162-passenger AmaPrima was decked out for the holidays, with a gingerbread house and a twostory Christmas tree at the front desk and twinkling wreaths on every stateroom door. The main lobby, the setting for most of the ship's activities, was adorned with several more Christmas trees, and festive garland lined the windows and stair rails throughout the ship from bow to stern. Because we were cruising during Hanukkah, a guest was invited to light a candle on the menorah at the entrance to the main restaurant each evening.
The ship's upper deck features a walking track, a small swimming pool and a hot tub, with bicycles available for guests to borrow. Plenty of seating makes the upper deck the ideal spot for scenic castle-gazing. On our trip, the ship passed through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its castles, vineyards and historic towns. The Rhine Gorge, as it's commonly called, was just one of many World Heritage Sites we would discover that week as we visited six Christmas markets from Basel to Amsterdam.
EUROPE'S CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Tales of the Christmas markets in Europe conjure up idyllic images of wooden stalls huddled together under strings of white lights, the spires of a Gothic cathedral looming in the background and the soft hum of foreign languages rising from the crowd. Reality did not disappoint. At each market, Rachel and I found ourselves sampling chocolate, sausage, cheese, macarons and pretzels from market booths and storefronts along bustling streets. The samples were generous, the purchases numerous. But this trip, to us, was so much more than holiday shopping.
In a span of just seven days, Rachel and I lit a candle in the Strasbourg cathedral and toured another cathedral in Cologne that dates back to 1248. We rode a gondola in the rain over vineyards in Rudesheim and visited the worldís largest Advent calendar in Gengenbach. We enjoyed wonderful meals and sang Christmas carols with new friends aboard the AmaPrima, and we walked together in silent reverence as we toured the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Back in Heidelberg, the snow was still falling as we stopped to sip gluhwein from our souvenir mugs. Gluhwein, or vin chaud, is a traditional mulled wine readily available throughout the holiday markets in France and Germany. It's served hot, and it's usually made from red wine flavored with cinnamon sticks, cloves, sugar and sometimes a shot of amaretto or brandy.
After so much planning, so many questions, and so much time apart, a toast to sisters and family warmed us from the inside out.