Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Boats, Bicycles, Friends & Fast Cars

A trip for your 40th wedding anniversary has to be really something special, and ours turned out to be one heck of a great travel adventure! With the encouragement of friends, I put together a self-drive yacht cruise on the Rhine canal in the Alsace region of France with four couples. It was not easy to get 8 busy people to coordinate a trip to Europe, and commit to putting up their money for the yacht while the Iraq war was starting. However, we are talking about experienced and intrepid travelers, who probably would not let predictions of the end of the World deter them from an interesting trip. The group consisted of a Judge (me) and spouse of 40 years who is a social service program manager, a lawyer (also a graduate of West Point) and his wife a retired legal assistant, a world traveler consultant production engineer (breweries) and his wife, and a CPA/business chief executive with his wife, a medical center marketing manager. Now to get this organized we had to divide up responsibilities as you will see as the story unfolds. I became the tour director and put together the boat arrangements, meeting places etc. We also had to have a yacht captain and it was obvious the one guy who was in the Navy in the Viet Nam war was most qualified, even if he was only responsible for firing the guns from a destroyer. Thus the CPA was elected captain. He sure had fun giving orders. A frustrated officer?

Now this voyage was not your average canal barging, with crew and French chef. We had to do everything, with the limitation that our very independent wives said no cooking, except maybe continental breakfast and possibly picnic lunches. And then only if the guys behaved themselves and consumed only moderate quantities of the Alsace wines and beers. This meant dinner out, hopefully at fantastic restaurants and brasseries in the villages along the canal. Boy, this put a lot of pressure on the tour director! We traveled on an elegant 42 foot yacht (no mere barge for us!) with four staterooms, galley, two heads with showers, dining area and captain’s controls both from inside and from the top deck. Calling the sleeping areas staterooms may be a bit of an exaggeration. Mary Ann and I took the smallest stateroom because we were the smallest people. My bunk crossed over her bunk crosswise and only one of us could dress in the “stateroom” at a time. All of the arrangements for the boat and cruise were made on the internet. For information about this kind of travel take a look at www.crownblueline.com. A good website to learn about the French Alsace region is www.visit-alsace.com. The major city in the region is Strasbourg which can be found at www.strasbourg.com. The boat lease was $3200 for seven days so the cost for each couple was $800. Each couple put $100 into a common fund for purchases when boating and we all got about a $10 refund. Out of the common fund we bought all the drinks and food for on the boat, which included breakfast and lunch, mooring fees when we parked in a marina, and incidentals like shower tokens when available, when we parked for the night. I can tell you that the fund always bought daily fresh bread, cheeses, fruit and juice and all the wine, beer, and soft drinks we could drink.

So what did we know about running the boat and going through the 43 locks on the canal? Crown Blue Line told us we would get a half hour orientation on the boat and if we had ever driven a boat before we were “good-to-go.” It took about 45 minutes because it was provided by a fellow who really did not speak English. But at the end of the training we were sent on our way.

The initial problem was we got caught in the first lock at 5 p.m. which is the time canal locks were shut down for the night. This gave us an opportunity to meet the mobile lock master, who we saw often the next couple of days. Because of our timing, we just moored on the side of the canal and sent the scout (the West Point guy of course) out to check on the restaurants, on one of the two bikes we had on the boat. Naturally it was one of the numerous French holidays, so we had little hope of anything being open. We were enjoying wine and hors‘d oeuvres, laughing about calling Domino’s, when our scout Bill shows up with three pizzas on the back of the bike. So miracles do happen!

This canal cruising was not a speedy business. In the 7 days we only traveled about 125 miles from the South of Strasbourg near Colmar, through Strasbourg and into the Vosges Mountains via Saverne to the West. We only had to motor 5 hours a day to keep the batteries charged, and even with the many locks we made enough time to have a layover day in Saverne, keeping everyone happy with shopping and visiting the nearby castle. One of the challenging things about the boat was that it did not respond real well to the helm. Backing was particularly interesting. However, our captain really did know what he was doing and never ended up crosswise in the canal like other obvious rookies we saw. By spending some of the evenings in marinas we were able to regularly replenish the water supplies and use shore power for nighttime electricity. Everyone had a job on the boat. Our job assignments were: captain; navigator; tour director and ladder monkey (me); linesmen and lineswomen; bike scout; deck crew; galley slaves; and beautiful woman on the stern of the boat reading a book.

Undoubtedly, the most fun was the evening dinners. We had scouts out every afternoon looking for the best village to be in with the most interesting restaurants. We never had a bad one. In one remote village we ended up at a converted farmhouse barn restaurant where we were required to raise our hands as to whether we wanted a hot or cold dinner. Certainly a modest menu! The dinner was terrific and one which none of us will ever forget.

The four couples each did different parts of Europe before and after the cruise. As for Mary Ann and I, we flew into and out of Frankfurt. This was our first experience driving in Europe. Those silver BMW’s, Audi’s, and Mercedes sure do blow by an Opel Astra station wagon. I thought I was really moving on the autobahn at 80 to 90 mph, but little did I know the standard in the fast lane was 120 to 150 mph. You do get an appreciation that Europeans drive a lot better than folks do in the United States. Stay in the slow lane if not passing! Our before and after travels included Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, but all that fun will have to wait for the next article. Foreign travel really is fun. Driving is easy and the food is wonderful. Give it a try.

(Published in the Winter 2003 ABA Judicial Record)

No comments: