European river cruise

The Rhine is not like other rivers. There is a dignity and purpose about this blue ribbon of water that weaves its way through some of the most beautiful cities of Europe. It has served as the avenue for commerce since the Middle Ages and, hundreds of years later, it is still a vital link for the transportation of goods.

This river, and others, like the Moselle, and the Danube, also provides one of the most scenic and accessible pathways to tour Europe. River cruising has become one of the fastest growing segments of the cruise industry, particularly for regular seafarers who have done most of the popular routes ““ like the Mediterranean and
The Caribbean ““ and are looking for something different.

While river cruising has a long history, the pleasure ships that sail the rivers of Europe have undergone a transformation in the last few years. 

To meet the increasing demand for river cruises, and to satisfy the expectations of an increasingly sophisticated cruising clientele, new ships, like the Avalon Panorama, have been designed with all the upscale luxury and comfort of the larger cruise ships, but on a small and manageable scale. They have evolved from utilitarian and sparse to luxurious and spacious.

When I took my first river cruise in the early '90s, on the Danube Princess, I fell in love with the experience of the river cruise, but found the ship had its limitations. The cabins were small and a bit austere, and the public rooms didn't allow for great viewing of the passing scenery. 

It was still one of the best ways to see Europe, in spite of that. To be able to go up on deck as the dawn mist was rising off the river and watch the captain sail us into the heart of a great city like Budapest or Vienna was very special. And then you just stepped off the deck and into the very centre of an historic capital.

Today's river ships are a new breed, although still constrained by the technical requirements of sailing on a river. They must be narrow and low enough to pass under the many bridges on the different rivers. Thus, design wise, they remain long, slim and low slung but within those parameters, the designers have performed miracles.

I was fortunate to be a passenger on the christening cruise of the Avalon Panorama in May, to participate in the christening celebrations and to be one of the first to enjoy the brand new boat.

A christening is always a joyful celebration ““ and christening a boat is in many ways more fun than christening a baby. There is no burping involved, no crying, no diapers to change, just a really happy welcome of a beautiful new ship into service. And, of course, a party.

The ubiquitous Champagne bottle smashed on the bow perfectly, aimed with a sharp eye by the ship's glamorous godmother, Australian media star Lisa Wilkinson. Then, accompanied by more Champagne, nibbles and music, the spanking new ship began its first foray, a six day exploration of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, ending in Amsterdam.

What struck me most about the new ship was the sense of space. The cabins have French balconies where the entire riverside wall is composed of windows that slide open to provide over seven feet of open views of the river and the passing scenery. You can sit in bed in your pajamas with a cup of coffee and watch the castles slide by, if you want to. Or sit on comfortable sofas with friends in your cabin and enjoy a glass of wine as the sun sets over the water before dinner.

The rooms have the feel of a boutique hotel. Beds are king sized with high quality linens and the marble clad bathrooms, supplied with L'Occitane toiletries, are both beautiful and surprisingly spacious.

The public rooms are designed for maximum views of the landscape. Windows are large, floor to ceiling, and omnipresent and the interiors are unobstructed. On the top deck, there is complete visibility, along with comfortable deck lounge chairs, a hot tub and a casual dining area for al fresco lunches.

With only 168 passengers and 45 crew, the ship runs like clockwork, and dining is held in one sitting. As on most cruises, dining is an important element of each day. The chef on the Panorama is a Czech, Michael Zambersky, who cooks classic sophisticated cuisine with an emphasis on the local food style. We dine on perfectly grilled scallops, lobster and caviar to start, followed by roast lamb with white asparagus and German style potatoes. The pastry chef is an artist, turning out gorgeous trios of chocolate or strawberry creations that were as much pleasure to look at as to eat.  There's a good wine list, with a nice selection of German wines, of course, especially Rieslings, but other countries are represented too, and there is good German beer available. As a reminder that Avalon has thought of all the details, a bottle of lemon infused olive oil and good balsamic vinegar sit on each table every day, ready to be used as a dip for the fresh bread or to dress a salad.

For anyone with accessibility problems, there is an elevator and for those who need more exercise after the daily walking tours, there is a good though small gym. The main lobby is flooded with light from overhead skylights  It is a very pretty ship, although the exterior, like all river ships, is a bit homely in shape.

There will never be Broadway shows or flashy casinos on these river ships. It doesn't fit the space or suit the style. River cruising is somehow more aesthetic, a bit intellectual. The on-board entertainment reflects that character.

Take La Strada, for instance.

There are times when things fall perfectly into place, when you are in the right place at the right time, and everything is as it should be. It had been a very good day. Early coffee on the upper deck had been followed by a leisurely breakfast, a walking tour of historic Rudesheim and an after noon of sailing past castles and churches.

Dinner was excellent, but the night was not finished. Up in the club room on the main deck, there was moonlight outside the windows on the Moselle, chilled German Riesling in the glass, little cups of espresso and tiny frosted cakes for nibbling. 

That by itself was enough to make an evening on the river ship enjoyable. But then three young gentlemen dressed in black walked to the centre of the room and began to play ““ a violin, a guitar and a cello. This was the classical string trio La Strada. Shostakovich drifted out over the water, then Chopin, followed by haunting gypsy mazurkas. That was when the evening became perfect, a memorable time that I can't imagine could have been any better.

It is these moments that make travel irresistible for me. So often, especially in today's troubling times, travelling can be irritating, predictable or exhausting. But moments like these make all those frustrations unimportant. It is an experience that could only have had its impact in this precise place.

Shore excursions are personal and locally anchored. In each of the historic towns we stopped, it was local guides who took us on two and three hour walking tours, supplying the flavour of their area in their commentary. Panorama has individual wireless earphones for each member of the tour so you can linger to take a picture without missing the commentary or loosing your group. One of the best things about this kind of cruising is that you seldom end up on buses and the excursions feel more grounded in the locale.  Bike trips can also be arranged for those who want to cover more ground more actively.

Such is the popularity of the new ships like the Panorama that Avalon will be launching two more in the Spring of 2012. Similar ships sail on the Mekong, along the Nile, and along other busy waterways.

It is an attractive way to travel, one that is winning over converts who see the appeal of a floating boutique hotel that sails you into the heart of history, and where a guest need unpack only once.