Wa­ter world

Euro­pean river cruis­ing of­fers con­ve­nience, good value and great fun

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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.

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