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