As 11-year-old schoolgirls, Jacquie Elliott and I went on our first Christmas shopping trip to the local Woolworth’s to buy Lily of the Valley bath cubes and soap for our favourite aunts. Once we had Saturday jobs our finances improved so we progressed to choosing vinyl records and Brut aftershave for our boyfriends.
We pounded along Oxford Street after starting full-time work and over the years of hatches, matches and dispatches we have tried to buy our Christmas gifts somewhere different every year – from Oxford to Edinburgh, Paris and New York, we’ve hit the shops.
To celebrate our 50 years of friendship, the European Christmas markets were at the top of our shopping list and we opted for a Uniworld river cruise on the Rhine.
After the flight from London Gatwick to Basel, in Switzerland, a chauffeur was waiting at the airport and within 15 minutes we were at the quayside watching the crew carrying our cases onto SS Antoinette.
With the captain and cruise director among the welcoming party, we stepped straight into Christmas – a foyer dressed in festive decorations complete with a gingerbread house and vases of giant white amaryllis lilies, set off by a twinkling 10-foot Strauss Baccarat chandelier dripping with sapphire blue crystals.
Our stateroom was equally inviting, decked out in classic blue and white Lazy Sunday Toile de Jouy fabric on the walls with matching curtains, twin handcrafted Savoir beds with white embroidered linen adding more comfort and a decent-sized white marble shower room with Asprey amenities.
We opened the welcoming bottle of Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal red wine and sat by the French balcony to toast our arrival in style.
At dinner we were joined by Paula and Mary, well-travelled professionals from Louisiana, USA. They had also always promised themselves a trip to the Christmas markets and flew in early for an additional self-drive tour of Switzerland.
“We chose this ship because we love the butler service – having breakfast in our suite is so relaxing,” said Paula. “SS Antoinette gives us flexibility to go on tours or visit towns independently and we find it’s a safe way to travel.”
Judy, from Texas, one of many solo-travelling women on the ship, joined us saying she was combining the markets with meeting her family in Heidelberg and Frankfurt.
Elaine and Keith Rogers, from Loughton in Essex, had been waiting two years to get on SS Antoinette.“We saw the TV programme Cruising with Jane McDonald in 2017 and wanted to do exactly the same Rhine markets cruise,” said Elaine. “The 2018 sailings were booked so this was our first opportunity to get on board. We love it!”
In Basel, Jacquie and I walked along the riverside into the pedestrianised city. It’s clean, relatively quiet, but expensive so our first outing saw us browsing, more than buying, in the Christmas market and the Johann Wanner Christmas decorations shop, a grotto of every hand-blown glass bauble imaginable, even the faces of Donald Trump and Dracula.
The Swiss were out in numbers buying bread and cakes for the evening’s St Nicholas Day celebrations and queues from Gilgen, a bakery where bread is made to the same recipe as when the shop opened in 1937, stretched along Spalenberg 6. We just had to join the queue.
Back on board SS Antoinette we spent the evening at the cinema scoffing popcorn, yes, after a four-course meal and wine. The calories were mounting.
Next stop, Strasbourg, where our guide revealed everyone in the French city crosses to Germany to buy their shopping. We ignored his advice and walked into the old town of timbered houses, stopped for tea and treated ourselves to hand-made wooden decorations in the marketplace next to the imposing red sandstone Notre Dame Cathedral.
While some guests chose to visit Lucerne in the afternoon, Jacquie and I opted to swim in the ship’s gorgeous pool, a lovely glass-panelled space with cushioned loungers. In our fluffy robes we relaxed and watched passing ships on the Rhine but found ourselves in the dark when we awoke.
A quick change for dinner, chats with new shipmates and a performance by a local accordionist and singer topped another day but we still hadn’t bought much – although presents arrived on our beds each day; sweets and chocolates to biscuit cutters and a recipe book, courtesy of Uniworld.
In fact, throughout the cruise all guests were completely spoilt, nothing was too much trouble for the crew and everyone could enjoy 24-hour room service and all-inclusive drinks.
We were so comfortable that we reluctantly got off the ship to visit Heidelberg for a full day’s tour but the romantic Rhine excursion to Heidelberg Castle, where Elizabeth Stuart ‘The Winter Queen’ delighted in a happy marriage to Frederick V, was the right decision. We learned how the 17-year-olds met only 24 hours before their engagement, about their love at first sight and bringing up 13 children.
Our hearts were warmed and more so after a trip down the funicular railway into the markets where the knockout aroma of gluhwein, star anise and cinnamon put us in the mood for spending.
Twinkling lights, colourful stars, merry-go-rounds alongside stalls with irresistible hand-made ornaments and angel decorations brought our picture of the German markets alive. We staggered back to the ship laden with gingerbread, glass and sweet-smelling decorations to be greeted at the doorway with warm towels and hot spicy tea.
After such a busy day we opted for a 90-minute spa session, including a massage and aromatherapy (£135), before dinner and glided along to join the ship’s Christmas carols concert. Life on board SS Antoinette, we declared, was equally enjoyable as the markets and we came to realise this trip wasn’t really about the shopping but spending quality time together.
Where next in 2020?
Lesley Bellew travelled with Uniworld on SS Antoinette’s eight-day Rhine Christmas markets cruise. A similar sailing starts from £3,099 pp departing on December 5, 2020 (uniworld.com; 0808 301 2561).