I’ve just disembarked a European river cruise on a 1930s barge that took everything I thought I knew about cruising and turned it on its head.
Our cruise was a week-long and on the cruise schedule was 225km of cycling across the German countryside from Bonn to Saarburg.
I am definitely not a cyclist, so I was very nervous, I didn’t want to let anybody down. To say it was eventful would be an understatement. We had injuries, a heatwave, I smashed my camera, and I saw and did things I never thought were possible on a cruise.
You can check out the Merlijn’s website here: Bike and Barge Cruising
Why Did I Book This Cruise?
Before Coen and Cristina, the owners of the Merlijn invited me to join them on their ship I had no idea that this type of cruise existed.
My first reaction was ‘cycling? I can’t cycle!’.
At this point it had been a good 5 or more years since I’d been on a bike but I thought either it’ll go well, or it’ll be a great story for me to tell you and here we are.
I had visions of me being the person who was holding everybody else up, I didn’t know if I would be physically able to cycle that far? What would happen if I couldn’t? I had no idea what staying on a barge would be like, I didn’t know what would the food be like, what would the other guests be like? I had no idea.
What Was My First Impression of The Ship?
I’ve been cruising on ocean cruises, and the larger river cruise ships for years but when the Merlijn pulled up alongside us in Cologne I had no idea what to expect inside.
When talking about barges the Oxford English Dictionary definition is:
Which doesn’t sound particularly luxurious which might explain why I was so surprised when we first stepped onboard the ship.
When we arrived we were greeted by Coen, Cristina and our guide Lia on the front deck.
The deck area here was beautifully decorated and we would end up spending a lot of time here.
I Didn’t Know Who The Other Guests Would Be
I knew at this point that the cruise and tours were to be in English but I had no idea where the other guests would be from.
I had to admit I was also quite worried that everybody else would be massively into cycling and would be annoyed by me who up until a couple of months before the cruise, hadn’t cycled for a good 5 years.
We chatted a little to the other guests and I found out that at least half of the people taking the trip were repeat cruisers on the Merlijn, I thought that was a good sign!
Our Ship Was a 1930s Barge Called The Merlijn
Although the Merlijn was originally built as a traditional barge in the 1930s, I’m happy to say that she was converted to be a passenger barge in the early 2000s.
I did talk to quite a few people ahead of the cruise, who thought that I’d be staying under the water in some sort of industrial bunks with a vending machine in the corner for food. That wasn’t it at all.
The Merlijn has 12 passenger cabins and 2 crew cabins holding a maximum of 24 guests.
Before this cruise, the smallest cruise ship I’d been on had over 100 guests, so to go from that to the barge was a big change.
What Were My First Impressions of The Cabin?
Each cabin is the same and I was really surprised by the size. The average size of a river cruise ship cabin is 13.9 metres squares and Merlijn’s come in at a little over 11 metres squared.
It would be easy to forget that you’re on a barge and there were actually a couple of things I massively preferred about this cabin compared to cabins I’ve had on regular river cruise ships, but more about the cabin later.
We Headed to The Introductory Talk
After we had settled in a little, we went up to the main lounge for an introductory talk from captain Coen & Cristina and a welcome drink.
We each introduced ourselves to the group and it was at this point I realised how different this cruise would be from the cruises that I was used to.
When you go on a cruise with 5,000 other people, you definitely don’t sit around and introduce yourself to the group.
Where Were Our Fellow Guests From?
We had 19 guests on our cruise and the majority were from the USA. We also had some Canadians, one Dutch couple and us from England.
I was the youngest person on board at 28, with the next being 30, I’m pretty sure that the oldest person onboard was in their 80s, which is just incredible.
How Did The Merlijn Launch?
Coen and Cristina bought the Merlijn in 2019, after working on the bigger river cruise ships as captains. They sold their house, quit their jobs and bought the company.
In hindsight, 2019 was probably not the best year to do that but none of us could predict the future but they’re very happy to be sailing again now.
They live on the boat with their dog Sacha, who you can often see onboard.
The welcome talk did put me at ease a little, as everybody went around and said that they were hoping for a route without too many hills. I hadn’t even let myself think about things like hills, I was more worried about sitting on the saddle every day and whether my legs could keep up with everybody else.
I knew at this point that a heatwave was headed for most of Europe and the temperatures were expected to hit higher than I’d ever experienced before, and definitely not cycled in.
Coen and Cristina were very reassuring in their welcome talk though and said that we could stay onboard the ship at any point if we wanted to. I did do this later in the cruise and it was a very good decision.
Our First Dinner Was a Surprise!
After our welcome talk, we headed to the restaurant area of the ship for our first dinner onboard.
The restaurant always looked beautiful, there would be colour coordinated mats and serviettes and it really felt like everybody had made such an effort with the space.
Cristina, who is also 2nd captain and does a million other jobs onboard is the chef for the entire ship.
I’ve got to be honest I didn’t have particularly high expectations for the food on a bike and barge cruise, I kinda just thought that the food would be fuel and because we were such a small group we wouldn’t have any choice about anything.
I was so wrong.
On our first night, we had sweetcorn soup, Beef bourguignon, and apple strudel.
I had a tofu bourguignon instead because I’m vegetarian and was incredible. One of the best meals I’ve ever had on a cruise, ever.
The food definitely was a surprise and I hoped that it would be this good for the rest of the trip.
Our First Evening Was Spent in Cologne
Our ship was docked in Cologne overnight and we went for an explore in the evening. Our ‘all aboard’ time was 5.45 am, so if you did want to spend the night on land out partying, you definitely could.
I knew that we had a day of cycling the next day though and that there was a 45km ride on the schedule. I’d never ever cycled more than 20km in my life, so I went to bed fairly early and was excited, and nervous about the next day.
We Were Given a Detailed Schedule
Pre-cruise we were given a schedule like this which said where we would be cycling each day and how long the route was. It also included some information about each place and a few photos which I thought was lovely.
I’ve never had such a detailed schedule pre-cruise before.
This schedule was produced in advance and so things did occasionally change, I missed one of the changes on day 2 and it could have been an issue but thanks to Coen and the small group we have, it worked out well.
In each cabin too, there was a binder like this with all the information that we needed in lots of different languages.
It was so helpful for me because I was trying to remember everything and being able to just quickly check here to see it written in black and white, made things so much easier.
The binder also contained important information about the toilet but more about that later.
Breakfast Was 8-9am
Breakfast was 8-9 as it was most mornings, there was a good choice of bread and pastries, eggs, pancakes and fruit or cereal.
I’m really not a breakfast person but I knew I’d need the energy so I did always eat breakfast on this cruise.
The Merlijn was sailing as we had breakfast and we arrived around 10 am in a place called Bonn.
We Learnt How The Tours Would Work
While we were sailing, our guide Lia showed us the bikes and explained how our cycle tours would work. She explained that we would always have one person at the back with a walkie-talkie who could talk to her when she was at the front.
She also explained that if we needed to turn a corner for any reason the person behind Lia should get off to be a signpost and direct the other bikes.
I did get to be a signpost at one point, but that was the site of one of the worst injuries our group got, it wasn’t my fault though, I promise. More about that later.
What Were The Bikes Like?
When the boat docked, our bikes were taken to land and we adjusted them to suit us. Pre-cruise we sent in our leg measurements so that we could be matched with the right bike as they 4 frame sizes available onboard.
I don’t know much about bikes but the bikes were by the brand Sensa and they were so much nicer to ride than my bike at home.
Some people do like to bring their own bikes onboard and Coen told me that it’s okay, as long as they have the space of course. It is better to use your own bikes, but the possibility is there.
Coen is not only the captain of the ship and a host but he’s also the person answering all the emails and handling all of the bookings.
I attached my camera to the handlebars and it worked well for more of the cruise until it didn’t. Rest in peace camera.
We Headed Off on Our First Cycle Ride
We started our first cycle and it wasn’t too warm. We cycled along the river, stopped to eat our lunch and refill our water bottles and then stopped for ice cream in the afternoon.
Each day as well as cooking our breakfast and dinner Cristina would make us a little packed lunch in a bag with our name on it.
It would usually be a sandwich, a snack and a carton of juice.
We could of course bring more food or buy more if we wanted to as we had these yellow bags on our bikes.
The yellow bags were provided for us, as were the helmets and our water bottles.
Our journey in total took us around 5 hours and we cycled 45km.
This was over double the distance that I’d ever cycled before so I was very proud of myself and surprised that I didn’t find it more difficult.
I was definitely still getting used to cycling and my balance and control weren’t brilliant but I suppose because we stopped quite often it gave our legs and bums little breaks.
The Next Days Cycle Was Shorter
I knew that on the schedule for the next day was a shorter day so I hoped that I would at least be able to do two days in a row. I don’t think I could have done the same 45km again but I knew that I could see how I felt in the morning, I didn’t ever HAVE to do anything.
I Was Aiming For 150km…
On the schedule in total was 225km of cycling and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do all of that but I hoped that I would manage to do 150km or so, for somebody who had never cycled more than 20 though, that was an ambitious goal!
We got back to the ship with enough time to have a shower before dinner which was really good.
The Toilet Had a Surprise
The bathroom in our cabins was great and the toilet came with a little surprise.
I understand how weird that last sentence sounds but it’s true. The water in the toilet was river water not freshwater so it would often be a bit of a murky colour.
The Merlijn has to get fresh water from land so they try to preserve water whenever they can.
I think this is the best idea and they should do it everywhere, we don’t need clean water in our toilets. The water in the shower was clean of course, and the water in the tap was always drinkable, it was just the toilet that used river water and no, it didn’t smell.
Each Day The Menu Was Displayed Ahead of Time
Our second dinner was a beet and cheese starter, roasted guinea fowl main, and an Eton mess for dessert. I had a vegetable risotto which again was fantastic.
The menu for each day was displayed ahead of time on a board by the entrance, if you saw something here you didn’t like you could always speak to Cristina and she would come up with an alternative.
Cristina was already making different dishes for the vegetarians and the people with allergies so it may be that if you didn’t like the meat main, you could have the vegetarian main, for example.
We Went For an Evening Walk
Our tour guide Lia took us out for a walk in the evening and even though Lia herself wasn’t German she did speak German and knew a LOT about the places that we were visiting. Lia was Dutch.
It was so much more interesting to wander around a town with her than it would have been alone, she pointed out things to us that I would have walked right by.
I NEARLY Missed Our Cable Car Ride
It was on the next day that I forgot to check for a schedule update and NEARLY missed the included cable car ride.
Our morning started earlier than the first day and we left for our cycle ride at around 9 am. It was on the schedule as a ‘short’ day at only 25km but the temperature was rising.
We stopped to have a drink and to use the toilets in a local cafe.
My ‘Cool Towel’ Was GREAT! – Thanks For The Recommendations
It was around now that I discovered the wonder of this thing called a cool towel.
Before going on the trip I asked you for any stay cool recommendations and this towel was mentioned, again and again, it was brilliant.
You wet it and through some sort of magical science it gets very very cold, you’ll see it around my neck in most of my photos/videos going forward.
We Found Out How to Greet The Merlijn
We saw the Merlijn go by and some of us who were feeling strong greeted the ship in the traditional way. Later in the cruise when I stayed onboard, I got to see this greeting from the Merlijn, a lot of our group were feeling strong this day!
We Did Have a Few Little Accidents (Everybody is Okay)
It wasn’t long after this photo was taken that my friend Rita fell off of her bike when I was being the signpost.
Rita is a proper cyclist and she said she had never fallen off a bike before.
She hurt her wrist, shoulder and knees and Lia our guide had to ride back to the Merlijn with Ritas bike plus her own.
I was just about getting to grips with cycling on one bike, I can’t imagine having to bring along another too, but Lia did it like it was nothing!
Rita got the ferry across to the ship and we cycled the rest of the way. This 25km cycle ride bought my total to 70km.
We Headed Out For a Walk (By Mistake)
We got back to the ship quite early in the afternoon, so decided to go out for a walk. I thought that our cable car ride was in the evening but the cable car was going to be closed in the evening. so it had moved on the schedule to the afternoon.
The schedule was always displayed on a TV on the Merlijn, so it was totally my fault for not paying attention but I nearly missed the cable car ride.
Coen phoned me to say that Lia and the group had left to head to the cable car and that if we wanted to we could walk to the cable car and meet them there.
We got there at the perfect time and I think this is one of the major benefits of sailing on a small ship. If I was on a bigger river ship or an ocean ship nobody would have noticed that I wasn’t there, and they definitely wouldn’t have phoned me to try and find me.
The Cable Car Was so Much Fun (and HOT)
I’m glad we made it to the cable car, even if it was like being inside a greenhouse. We had some amazing views of the river and could see where we had cycled which was cool.
The cable car ticket was included in our cruise fare as was a wine tasting session and a few other things.
The After Dinner Talk Was Slightly Different…
Dinner was tomato soup, duck breast main and crème brûlée for dessert and after dinner, Lia talked to us about the plan for the next day.
She did this everyday but on this day the tone definitely was different, previously all of the evening talks had been about where we were going and what we would see, this time it was very much about the high temperatures we could expect.
Lia said that it might be a good idea if some people want to stay on the boat tomorrow as it would be reaching 37c (99f) and the schedule was 45km again.
We decided there that we would skip the day three cycle, partly because of the heat and partly to give our legs and bums a break.
When you’re not used to cycling a lot, sitting on the seat for hours is not the most comfortable thing. We did get used to it though.
I was interested to see what it would be like spending a day onboard the barge and other guests were staying onboard too.
What’s it Like Spending The Day on a Barge?
I did not rush to get up in the morning because I was tired and I was loving the beds in the cabins.
They were actually air beds and when I think of air beds I think of the type of beds that leave you halfway to the floor in the middle of the night but these beds were nothing like that, you wouldn’t know that they were airbeds if it wasn’t for the remote control that was in the bedside table.
They were very very comfortable and you could adjust your own firmness.
I had our room set up with the beds pushed together but you could have twins if you wanted to.
What Was Our Cabin on The Barge Like?
In the cabin there was also a kettle, a safe and 4 European plug sockets which is better than most cruise ship cabins.
There wasn’t much storage, but there was a little area with a few shelves and a hanging section down here, I don’t think anymore storage could really be added though, after all the ship is a barge but I often forget that.
On our cruise, it was just ‘which cycling shirt do I wear today’ so we mostly lived out of our packing cubes and that was totally fine.
We Headed Through a Few Locks
When I did finally get up, we were heading through a lock which is something that happens a lot on river cruises. The boat goes into a little holding area, the water level rises or falls, and the ship sails on happily.
I’ve been through locks before on bigger ships but it’s something very different to be on a ship this small going through a lock.
We saw some incredible scenery going by and we spent most of the day sat on the front deck enjoying the sunshine.
The temperatures did get pretty high but there was a breeze that was lovely and we could always go inside whenever we wanted.
The Merlijn has air conditioning everywhere and we definitely used it a lot during this cruise.
During The Day The Bar is Closed
I loved being onboard the barge when almost nobody else was. During the day the bar is closed to give the crew a break but there is still a water machine and tea/coffee machine that can be used anytime.
There was always a bowl of fruit too and biscuits on top of the coffee machine which I loved.
The Merlijn in total had 6 crew members onboard. The owners Coen and Cristina, June, Adam and Steliyan who worked on the ship and Lia who was our guide.
Everybody was fantastic, nothing was ever too much trouble.
It was interesting to see just how many jobs each person did, you’d see Adam in the bar one minute and the next day cleaning something on the front of the boat. A very talented team.
We docked a little before 1pm and spent the afternoon looking around Cochem.
On a regular cruise, it isn’t unusual to dock at 1pm so even though we had ‘missed’ the cycle, it didn’t feel like we had missed out on anything at all. The other guests didn’t get back until around 4pm and they told us stories on their day.
Their 45km cycle had turned into closer to 55km and they also hiked up to a castle on a hill. All in 37+ degree weather.
They had a great day, but I’m completely sure that I made the right decision to stay onboard.
I Was Used to Ducks Swimming by…
I was in the cabin when Jono said to me:
I was very used to ducks swimming by our cabin so I assumed he meant this, but nope. Some of our fellow guests went for a swim beside the boat to cool down!
We Had One Dinner on Land
In a seven-day cruise like this, there is one day where everybody has dinner on land and this was the day for us.
This gives us the chance to try a local restaurant and gives Cristina and Coen a well-deserved evening off!
Coen and Cristina Own and Run The Merlijn
They both live and breathe the Merlijn and it was so nice for me to get to experience a company that was family run, there isn’t a big team behind the scenes, there’s nobody behind the scenes.
Every booking is made on Merlijns website and Coen is the one who is at the other end.
With the big cruise lines I’m sure they’re happy when they get a booking but you are just another reference number in a list or a mark on a graph, cruising on a small ship like this though it’s more like you’re a person, it’s hard to describe the feeling.
We ate in a restaurant by the river and I had a veggie burger and fries, not particularly German but it’s what I wanted and after all that cycling (70km so far) I gave my body whatever I wanted.
We Got Back on The Bike
On the next days schedule was a 40km cycle from Cochem to Zell and I decided to make myself an extra sandwich for lunch which was always allowed.
If you wanted more food at lunch or dinner you could always ask Cristina and everybody was welcome to take a banana or something from breakfast out with them on their cycle ride.
I hoped that my legs and bum would have recovered enough for another day of cycling.
The temperature was dropping slightly but was still well over 30c+ which is very hot.
Here in the UK we don’t go outside if the weather hits 30c, our country basically shuts down, so us Brits aren’t used to this heat.
We Often Stopped During Our Cycle Rides
On our cycle ride, we made a stop in a beautiful place called Beilstein and it was only really on the stops when you really felt the heat.
When cycling, you create a breeze and with my cool down around my neck it wasn’t too warm but when we stopped, then you really could feel it.
My Camera Smashed…
It was on this day that my camera decided to leap to it’s death.
I cycled over a bumpy bridge and somehow my camera mount unscrewed itself and my camera threw itself under Jono’s bike.
My camera stayed perfectly in the mount, and the mount stayed perfectly on the bike but it was just that the two parts unscrewed from each other.
This camera is the main thing I used to film my videos, so of course it was sad, but the camera died for a good cause and the footage it filmed before this point was safe, which was the main thing.
If the memory card had been crushed as badly as the lens, I would have been a lot more upset.
The Merlijn Has a Resident Boat Dog!
Coming back to the ship we were greeted by the lovely beagle Sacha, she is the sweetest most well-behaved dog ever.
She would occasionally wander through the ship and we would sometimes hear her little feet above our cabin in the evenings which was very cute.
Do Barges Have Entertainment in The Evenings?
There isn’t any sort of entertainment onboard the ship in the evenings but it really isn’t needed.
Most big river cruise ships will have bands play or comedians but that’s because the ship is sailing a lot and everybody is onboard the boat.
On our cruise we would have dinner, a talk from our guide and a walk around the place where we were docked we usually had a drink or two then went to bed.
I didn’t realise pre-cruise just how long we would spend docked in each place but the ship really just sailed for a couple of hours at a time, or sailed while we were off cycling.
We Had an Evening Wine Tasting
When we boarded the ship in Zell the boat sailed to a place called Traben Trarbach while we were having dinner.
When we arrived, we went for an evening wine tasting session at the Winery of Storck, which was included in our cruise fare.
We tasted 6 wines and and learnt a little about the history of the winery and how they work with the Merlijn.
At this point we had a couple more days of cycling to go and I felt as though I had one more cycling day in me.
We decided that it would be better to stay on the next day and then to finish on a cycle ride.
I’m glad we did it that way around because it was on this day I found out what happens if somebody doesn’t want to carry on cycling.
Captain Coen Invited me to The Wheelhouse
When I woke up I found doughnuts on the bar which is always a good way to start a day.
Captain Coen invited me to the wheelhouse at the back of the ship to see him in his natural habitat and I got to see Sacha the gorgeous beagle having a dream.
I Found Out What Happens When a Guest Can’t Cycle Any Further
It was then that Coen got a call from Lia our guide saying that the winds had picked up and a couple of the passengers wanted to come back to the ship.
We were already sailing at this point but Coen and Lia worked out a good place where we could dock to pick up the other guests.
Of course the boat isn’t like a taxi you can’t just snap your fingers and have it dock wherever you’d like but there is some flexibility there and if Coen can change the schedule to help, he always will.
Were There E-Bikes Available?
The Merlijn does have e-bikes available and 6 people in our group were on e-bikes.
They described to me like having everything you do boosted, you’ve still got to cycle but if theres a hill or the wind is strong, it takes away that difficult part.
My mini cat Hudson did try out the e-bikes but his paws didn’t reach the peddles.
The funny thing was that I wasn’t the only person travelling with a toy mascot, I’ve never been on a cruise before where my fellow guests have also brought their toys to dinner but we had a spare table, so decided to set it up for the toys.
By this point we all knew each other very well so it was only right that our toys met too!
The Group Found a Train That Reminded Them of Me
It was while out that the group found a wooden train called Emma!
What a coincidence that I decided to stay on the boat for the morning and they found this.
What Were The Other Guests Like?
I was really nervous about who would be on the cruise before this but I shouldn’t have been. We had such a lovely group and it was great to get to cycle with them or to wander around in the evenings or have dinner together.
Everybody was very encouraging and friendly and I never felt like I was slowing anybody down.
The people who wanted to do extra cycles would often go off in the evenings, or in the mornings, I’m sure they found our regular cycle rides easy but there was always the opportunity to add more, just in case 45km isn’t enough.
We Had a Walking Tour With a Local Guide
The next day we had a tour in the morning in Trier with a local guide which was a welcome break from the saddle.
On the schedule was another ‘short’ day at only 25km so I hoped that would be okay. It’s funny how your perceptions change as time goes on, pre-cruise if you’d said a 25km cycle was short, I would have laughed.
Lia Always Managed to Find us Toilets!
During our cycle a couple of us needed the toilet and Lia our fabulous tour guide was always committed to finding us places to go.
She would ask in restaurants if we could use their toilets, or buy drinks in places so that we could use them there.
She somehow managed to find a hotel that was being renovated and we went in there which was cool, I got to use the toilet and also have a look around at the new swimming pool and saunas in the hotel.
We Cycled to Another Country…
At this point, we were very close to the Luxembourg border and as a group, we decided that we would like to go to Luxembourg. It isn’t a usual thing to get the chance to just pop into another country but we cycled across a bridge and there we were.
That was the great thing about these tours, we could go off schedule a little bit if we wanted to.
In Luxembourg because of the current high gas/petrol prices all trains, trams and buses are free for everybody all of the time which was amazing and in Germany during the summer it is only €9 to use the train for an entire month.
Here in the UK you’d be lucky to spend 20 minutes on a train for €9.
We Visited a Harley Davidson Shop (Which Wasn’t on The Schedule)
Our next stop on the cycle ride was a Harley Davidson shop.
A couple of my new friends Rita and Mark loved their Harley Davidson motorcycles and as we were close by we decided that this would be a good place to get a drink.
I don’t think I’ll be swapping my bike for a motorbike anytime soon but it was a great place to buy a Coke and to sit in the shade.
How Much Did The Cruise Cost?
I really didn’t spend much extra on this cruise, the odd snack or drink on land and I had some drinks in the bar onboard in the evening but I didn’t come off with a huge onboard spend which was good.
A cruise like this with the Merlijn costs around €250 per person per night, which considering that includes your room, all your food, your trips out every day, I think is pretty good.
Capacity is obviously limited as the Merlijn only has 12 cabins so some itineraries do sell out fast.
If you were to book a similar river cruise with a big cruise line it’d cost as much or more but you wouldn’t get the experience of being in a small group on a family-run ship.
This is the first cruise I’ve ever been on where towards the end of the cruise I didn’t even bother locking my cabin door because I knew and trusted everybody.
You can check out the Merlijn’s website here: Bike and Barge Cruising
Finishing The Cycle Ride Was an Amazing Feeling
Finishing the cycle ride was amazing, we all high-fived and congratulated each other and I couldn’t believe that not only had I made it, but I really enjoyed it.
It turns out that cycling is actually quite a lot of fun, who knew?
I am planning on cruising on the Merlijn again next year, so if you do fancy it, trust me, if I can do it, anybody can, maybe I’ll see you there.
To see the trip for yourself, check out this post next:
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