As the passengers of the river cruise ship Scenic Crystal set off on tours in air-conditioned buses, I had a pang of trepidation.
I was about to take a self-guided tour on an electric bike during a port stop in Basel, Switzerland. My ride was a rather ordinary-looking black bicycle, notable mostly for an electric motor barely bigger than a hamster cage in a box behind the seat.
Would this Dutch-made Qwic e-bike have enough oomph to get up Basel's hilly cobblestone streets? Would I get enough exercise letting the motor do all the work? And, most important of all, would the pocket-sized GPS-based locator and tour narrator I was handed be able to guide me through Basel's labyrinth of streets and get me back to the dock before the ship sailed?
My concerns vaporized when I pushed the starter and with a slight buzz was accelerating steadily to a speed of about seven kilometres an hour, going uphill toward a bridge crossing the Rhine.
I wasn't travelling blind. I was wearing an earpiece connected to a prototype electronic guide being developed by the Technical University of Berlin under the trade name Cruso.
Its software includes maps of the entire Rhine River that can be enlarged to show the detail of street corners or opened up to show the entire country. It's not on the market yet, but Scenic Cruises plans to license it exclusively for its guests in 2013.
The computer beeps whenever I reach a point of interest and pushing a button starts a comprehensive narration, in a choice of English, German or French.
Basel is a bike rider's dream. Roads have dedicated bike lanes and separate signs and turn lanes for bikes and scooters. Both banks of the river have wide promenades that are open to pedestrian and bike traffic, but restrict car access by anyone other than locals.
It's a city of narrow passages, and some of the oldest and quaintest areas are open only to pedestrians and bikes. (Parking rules are strictly enforced and two-wheelers in no-parking zones are quickly impounded by cops who snip off the locks and haul offenders away on trailers.) Fortunately, there are parking garages dedicated to bikes where I could lock up for sightseeing, shopping and sampling the local coffee and chocolates.
While riding, I could choose either "pedal assistance" for a little help as I pumped, or I could twist the throttle for fully powered riding. I eventually gave up any pretense of pedalling to enjoy the ease and speed of a bike that seemed to have plenty of stored power for a day of sightseeing.
I arrived back at the dock feeling like a local. I actually beat the folks who took the bus tours back to the ship by a good 15 minutes and I experienced a lot more than they did on their guided drive and walk.
Scenic Cruises's new bike tour system worked well for me. It will be available complimentary on all the line's Europe itineraries next year.