A shift­ing panorama

It’s smooth sail­ing on a river-cruise ship’s maiden jour­ney along the Rhine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - PETER NEED­HAM

IT is rain­ing in Basel, Switzer­land, with more wet weather fore­cast. But that’s j ust fine with our group of Aus­tralians aboard the brand new river-cruise ship Avalon Panorama.

We have boarded in Frank­furt in fair weather and are wait­ing for the ves­sel to sail down the Rhine on its maiden voy­age. This is a hot, dry sum­mer in Europe and river lev­els are low. Rain up­stream in Basel falls at the right time, lift­ing the river level so Panorama can sail ef­fort­lessly to Am­s­ter­dam.

Cham­pagne flows as we cast off, glid­ing to­wards Mainz ( where Panorama will be of­fi­cially launched by Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Lisa Wilkin­son) to the stir­ring strains of Con­quest of Par­adise by Van­ge­lis.

The folk­lore-rich Rhine is es­pe­cially sub­lime when viewed from a gleam­ing new ship. The aroma of fresh­ness, a rare and ephemeral scent akin to that of a fac­tory-new car, is a sub­tle bonus. Panorama boasts a fit­ness cen­tre, hair sa­lon, bar, whirlpool spa, a putting green and even a gi­ant chess set on the top deck.

One of the sim­plest and most in­dul­gent plea­sures, how­ever, is j ust watch­ing the river pass by from the van­tage point of your suite, per­haps ly­ing on your bed.

The ves­sel of­fers two decks of suite ac­com­mo­da­tion, with wallto-wall slid­ing win­dows fac­ing the river. This in­door-out­door feel trans­forms the ac­com­mo­da­tion into what Avalon Wa­ter­ways calls an ‘‘open-air bal­cony’’. The river is at your doorstep, so close that swans swim by at arm’s length — I spy one with a fetch­ing dash of pink to its feath­ers — and you can hear the wa­ter lap­ping.

On the river­bank, swal­lows flit above metic­u­lously tended vine­yards of ries­ling grapes. Mid­stream, barges and freighters from across Europe chug past, cars perched aboard for their crew’s con­ve­nience. Some have di­vert­ing names, such as In­som­nia, a barge from Mo­er­beke in East Flan­ders.

Rhine cruise ships are the right size for all sorts of ac­tiv­i­ties and ac­cess. The rea­son is the river it­self, as pas­sen­ger ves­sels ply­ing the Rhine and Danube must be com­pact enough to fit through the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Panorama is built to the max­i­mum per­mis­si­ble di­men­sions: 135m long by 11.45m wide, with four decks (height is con­strained by the bridges that cross the Rhine).

De­part­ing and re­join­ing a river­cruise ves­sel is a breeze, akin to step­ping out of a ho­tel. It’s cer­tainly noth­ing like disem­bark­ing the av­er­age ocean liner. And be­cause Panorama car­ries no more than 164 pas­sen­gers (in 81 suites), it’s easy for the crew to keep an eye on who’s board­ing.

Com­pact size also helps keep ship­board ac­tiv­i­ties man­age­able and has­sle-free. Din­ner is served in one sitting, with open seat­ing, so whether you want to make up a ta­ble for two or for a dozen, it’s easy. Lo­cal pro­duce is used where pos­si­ble and soups are a par­tic­u­lar marvel: va­ri­eties in­clude cold cherry yo­ghurt with al­monds, potato with fresh mar­jo­ram, ap­ple and curry, cold pina co­lada, and cream of white as­para­gus with chervil. For some­thing more sub­stan­tial, you could tuck into rheinis­ches ochsen­fleisch, or brisket of beef with mus­tard sauce. Favourites such as cae­sar salad, minute steak and BLT sand­wiches are al­ways avail­able; Beck’s beer and se­lected wines are served at din­ner at no ex­tra cost.

At ev­ery turn of the river, op­por­tu­ni­ties abound to walk off all that food. Vil­lages wait to be ex­plored, as do the cas­tles above, full of an­cient ar­mour, se­cret pas­sages and ghosts. Plen­ti­ful shore time is a fea­ture of river cruis­ing, so guides need to be good, and on this cruise they live up to ex­pec­ta­tions. Au­thor and sto­ry­teller Detlev Linde keeps us en­ter­tained in Cologne with his­toric and lo­cal tales. The minu­tiae he im­parts to us range from the av­er­age height of the Ro­man le­gion­naires who oc­cu­pied the city to the rea­son why medieval burghers were for­bid­den to feed their ser­vants salmon more than three times a week.

Avalon Wa­ter­ways sup­plies an ear­piece that you plug into a mo­bile re­ceiver unit be­fore walk­ing ashore. You can then hear the com­men­tary even when the guide is out of sight, al­low­ing you to pause to take pho­tos or win­dow­shop. There’s spare time in vil­lages and cities to do your own thing.

Afew stal­wart souls climb to the top of Cologne Cathe­dral’s spire, the tallest struc­ture in Europe un­til beaten by the Eif­fel Tower, Linde tells us. Great views of the Rhine greet you af­ter 555 steps, but try to avoid pass­ing the gi­ant bells when they strike the hour; it takes 10 min­utes for my head to stop re­ver­ber­at­ing.

Of course you could stay on board dur­ing shore ex­cur­sions, but that would mean miss­ing half the fun. In Rudesheim we stroll Drossel­gasse (Thrush Al­ley), a nar­row, cob­bled thor­ough­fare full of restau­rants, sou­venir shops and wine gar­dens.

The big at­trac­tion here is Siegfried’s Me­chan­i­cal In­stru­ment Mu­seum, an ex­tra­or­di­nary as­sem­blage of self-play­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments col­lected over the years by lo­cal en­thu­si­ast Siegfried Wen­del.

We wan­der among banjo and vi­o­lin-play­ing ma­chines, wind-up sym­pho­nions with chimes and bells, and fair­ground bar­rel or­gans adorned with tur­baned fig­urines in emer­ald green and gold.

These ma­chines pro­lif­er­ated about 100 years ago, of­fer­ing mu­sic with­out mu­si­cians in an age

that ended with the in­ven­tion of ra­dio. Many in­stru­ments have no vol­ume con­trol and are de­signed to play as loudly as pos­si­ble.

The whole place is full of in­no­cent won­der, broad smiles and loud tin­kles, war­bles, whoomps and beeps. Our mu­seum guide, in lace cra­vat and coat of blue-andgold bro­cade, has an 18th-cen­tury air about her. Even the mu­seum shop is in a class of its own. As well as post­cards, it sells ex­quis­ite sil­ver mu­si­cal boxes fea­tur­ing tiny birds that spin and sing.

Back aboard Panorama, a bar­be­cue lunch is served al fresco on the top deck un­der a sun awning. The bar­be­cue is an op­tional change from the din­ing room and needs to be booked. The top-deck grill area seats 60 and, like the rest of the ship, was de­signed with the Aus­tralasian mar­ket in mind. Dur­ing the ship’s cre­ation, Avalon Wa­ter­ways took into ac­count feed­back from Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders. This com­bined mar­ket will make up more than half the book­ings on Panorama’s first sea­son of cruises.

The ship flies the Swiss flag from the stern and the decor has a con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean feel, all smart, light and airy. Flower ar­range­ments com­ple­ment gleam­ing stain­less-steel and pol- ished sur­faces. Cab­ins fea­ture mar­ble-topped wash­basins and L’Oc­c­i­tane toi­letries. Wi-Fi in­ter­net is free; the large Club Lounge pro­vides cof­fee at all hours and is a great place to greet the dawn, which ar­rives as­ton­ish­ingly early in Europe in sum­mer.

You don’t have to go ashore to ap­pre­ci­ate the Rhine’s in­com­pa­ra­ble cas­tles. Klopp, Katz, Maus, Drachen­fels and oth­ers pass in stately ar­ray. I head for the top deck, the best van­tage point, for about an hour of cas­tle-spot­ting in the Rhine Gorge, but the lounge is warmer and its huge win­dows make the view­ing al­most as good. If you opt for the lounge, you can toast the cas­tles with a glass of Kostritzer Schwarz­bier, the favourite tip­ple of Ger­man ge­nius Jo­hann Wolf­gang von Goethe. It costs about $5.50, prob­a­bly a bet­ter deal than in the 18th cen­tury when Goethe drank it.

To make his­tory-view­ing easy, pick up a list of cas­tles and ru­ins from the desk in Panorama’s foyer. It gives cas­tle names, near­est town and whether the ed­i­fices stand on the left or right bank. Kilo­me­tre mark­ers, painted on the river­bank and mea­sur­ing the dis­tance from the Rhine Falls, serve as an easy cross-ref­er­ence.

As with all the best cruises, there’s no short­age of spare time to read, or to con­tem­plate mys­ter­ies such as whether you are aboard a ship or, heaven for­bid, a boat. Op­er­a­tors of mod­ern river­cruise ves­sels in­vari­ably call them ships, yet some purists de­fine them as boats; it’s a fine line. What­ever the tech­ni­cal def­i­ni­tion, river-cruise ves­sels are pur­pose-de­signed for the wa­ter­ways on which they op­er­ate.

Cruise lines are adding to their in­ven­to­ries at an un­prece­dented rate. River cruis­ing has be­come so tremen­dously pop­u­lar that at some ports ves­sels are obliged to par­al­lel-park. Panorama does just that in Koblenz. A Rhine cruise pas­sen­ger on an­other ves­sel, so the story goes, flung open his cabin cur­tains one morn­ing to en- joy the glo­ries of the river. To his sur­prise, he found he was stand­ing about 3m from an el­derly cou­ple hav­ing break­fast in the din­ing room of an­other river cruiser moored along­side.

The hap­less pas­sen­ger’s state of dress at the time de­pends on who is telling the story.

And there’s plenty of time to tell sto­ries on the river. Peter Need­ham was a guest of Avalon Wa­ter­ways.

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Avalon Panorama glides along the Rhine; Cologne Cathe­dral is a repos­i­tory of his­tory; ev­ery suite fea­tures wall-to-wall win­dows

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