Christkindlmarkte in Germany

Three Decembers ago I traveled with a small group to Munich, Dresden, and Berlin. In between tours of meeting venues, we were encouraged to go out and soak up the special atmosphere of the cities' traditional Christkindlmarkte, or Christmas markets. I left Germany dazzled by so much holiday magic, and determined to go back for more as soon as possible. So when I heard that Viking River Cruises offered Christmas market cruises on the Danube between Vienna and Nuremberg, I lost no time in booking.

Upon arrival I stayed, acclimating for two nights, at le Meridien Vienna, one of the brand's stylish Art + Tech hotels. Ideally located on the Ringstrasse and an easy walk to Vienna's manifold attractions, the property also featured 11,840 square feet of meeting space.

Boarding the Viking Pride, I learned that just about all of my fellow passengers were American and British, so the official shipboard language was English. The ship has 75 double, outside cabins, a restaurant, a large lounge, a bar, and a sun deck that I understand is quite delightful when the weather is warm. The staff was cordial and efficient, the accommodations shipshape, and the food very good indeed (though I confess, I frequently chose to sample the local cuisine while in port).

For me, the cruise offered a wonderful combination of the familiar and the unknown. Had I not embarked, I know I would never have seen Melk Abbey, a masterpiece of baroque architecture, extravagantly embellished with gold and marble and frescoed ceilings. Nor would I have experienced the intimate Christmas market in the castle courtyard of the princely Thurn und Taxis family in the charming city of Regensburg.

I knew that Salzburg—of Sound of Music fame—which I'd previously visited and loved as a summer destination, would be equally enchanting during the Christmas season and was not disappointed. I was particularly keen to see Nuremberg's Christkindlmarkt–Ger-many's largest. But first we stopped at the site of the Nazi-era Nuremberg rallies—much more disturbing than I'd expected—and saw the complex where the war trials were held. In the medieval city, the market crowds were daunting, but a candlelight carol concert in the cathedral and a festive dinner at a communal table with a convivial group of strangers—so German!—transformed my mood and I left with pleasant memories.

I had asked Lyn Casey, Viking Pride's cruise manager, about groups meeting on board. "Everything's possible," she said. "Groups can do their own excursions and there's really total flexibility." There are at least two full-ship charters every season, but smaller groups can book blocks of cabins as well.

Viking Pride's itinerary varies throughout the year: April in the Netherlands for tulip time; after that, she (and three of her identical sisters) cruise from Amsterdam to the Black Sea along the Rhine, Moselle, and Danube. Christmas market cruises round out the year's cruise calendar. During the winter months the ships are docked at Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, and Cologne to provide accommodation to delegates at international trade fairs.

I flew home from Munich, having been treated like a queen at the regal Bayerischer Hof—a hotel with the perfect location and a new, spectacular spa.