European river cruising offers convenience, good value and great fun
THE air is filled with bubbles. They drift into view through the glass walls of the ship’s lounge, scantly at first but gathering momentum until all we can see are shiny orbs that flash rainbow colours in the low evening sun. Cruise director Isabel Heimann is in the middle of welcoming us on board when a flash mob of Frankfurters armed with bubble blowers assembles on the bridge above us and transforms Germany’s Main River into this whimsical scene. As send-offs go, it’s quite something.
Shortly after the bubble- bath ambush, Avalon Expression departs for Koblenz on its christening voyage north through the World Heritage-listed Rhine Gorge to Cologne and Amsterdam. This is my first river cruise and my initial impressions are surprisingly pleasant and pleasantly surprising. Expression, launched last month as the fifth addition to Avalon’s new fleet of roomier Panorama-class ships, sports the latest look in river cruising. Interiors shun the faux baroque style favoured by daggier lines in favour of modern, muted interiors with not a crystal chandelier in sight.
Its 64 suites make the most of their 19sq m specs. King beds are angled off-centre to take advantage of passing scenery through almost 4m-wide glass walls that slide open to bring the outdoors in. Cabins contain everything cruisers could likely need, including a sofa and desk, a marble-clad bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries, flat-screen television with a 100-strong film library, and free WiFi. And a phalaenopsis orchid, for that homely touch.
River ships must be compact — 135m long, and less than 12m wide — given the constraints of centuries-old locks and low bridges on European waterways, so they are refreshingly boutique by cruise industry standards. Expression caters to a maximum of 166 passengers across three decks. Public areas include two lounges, a tidy gym, a smart restaurant with views from every seat and a sundeck with whirlpool. Then there’s that obligatory cruise ship accessory, the giant chess set. The space feels ample; we spend half our time off the boat anyway.
The charming and efficient Heimann is our de facto tour leader. Her nightly ‘‘love letter’’ details the next day’s adventures and usually involves a map and useful tips. Cruisers can opt in or out. Ships pull up right in the heart of cities, like floating hotels with impeccable locations, so DIY exploring is as easy as stepping ashore.
Our first morning’s itinerary reads like a list of things I had hoped never to do. Ride a toy train the short distance from our mooring into the half-timbered township of Rudesheim. Visit Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum. Drink a liqueur coffee crowned with whipped cream. At 10am.
Instead, I set off on foot along the riverbank beneath pollarded planes and blossoming chestnuts. It is a beautiful morning — bright, sunny, becoming warm and a Fahrt mit der Kabinenbahn, a cable-car ride, seems the ideal way to enjoy it.
Gliding above the riesling vines in silence and sunshine, over hillsides striped gold with wildflowers, sets off a tic at the corners of my mouth that unravels into a full-blown smile. It stays there, stuck to my face, all day.
It’s there as I’m admiring the triumphal Niederwald monument, a 32-tonne bronze figure of Germania, flanked by statues of war and peace, erected at the top of the hill above Rudesheim in 1883 to mark German unification in 1871.
It’s definitely still there in the afternoon as we sail the Upper Middle Rhine Valley with its 40 fairytale castles and fortresses and model medieval villages unfurling around every bend. I really should be paying more attention to Heimann’s broadcast commentary, but there are friendships to be forged among fellow passengers, and the staff are insisting we sip wine spritzers en route. So together we spend a blissful few hours on the sundeck as castle keeps and church spires glide by, the remarkable Rhine Valley alternately narrowing and widening, just like our eyes.
Passengers tend to dine exclusively on board, given the cruise price includes all meals and wine with dinner. Fortunately for us, chef Michel Baptiste, a Brit with Grenadan heritage, and his team of eight do a creditable job in the kitchen. Apart from one experimental evening of shared plates and matched wines that feels too much like a clumsy attempt to be trendy, the regular fourcourse dinners are standouts.
One evening, against a backdrop of ever-changing impressionistic landscapes, we feast on wild garlic soup with toasted raisin bread (an inspired pairing) and oxtail croquettes with truffle and foie gras mousse. Highlights of our final night’s dinner include an earthy ‘‘cappuccino’’ of wild mushrooms, excellent New Zealand lamb and the mandatory baked alaska parade during which the entire complement of crew does a lap of the dining room, to applause from passengers.
Each day brings new delights. At Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet, we join the locals for a Sunday session on sun-drenched terraces beside the storied rivers. On an outing to Cochem, entertaining local guide Marie-Louise Otto leads us through its cobbled ancient quarter to Reichsburg Castle, a folly of turrets and towers and pointy slate roofs that shimmers above the Moselle like a dream come true.