European river cruise: Scenic Pearl's 15-day cruise, Amsterdam to Basel

Assessing a cruise ship is complicated. There's a lot to think about: whether the lobster is grilled to your satisfaction, your cabin shipshape, the crew helpful. Beyond the fact that we all hope the ship stays afloat, everything else is subjective. On Scenic Pearl I lift my cabin phone and, 10 minutes later, my butler appears with a steak and glass of red wine, which I eat on my balcony as Germany slides by. I count myself mighty lucky but, for all I know, the passenger next door has a butler on call 365 days of the year.

I have, however, a simple test of whether I've enjoyed a cruise ship. When all the factors have been weighed – service and food, amenities and luxury levels – it boils down to whether I'm keen to get off. And in Basel, I certainly don't want to disembark. Fifteen days can be a long time on a river ship, but I'd happily head right back to Amsterdam.

Scenic Pearl is one of Scenic's 10 European Space-Ship vessels, all very similar, carrying 167 guests and named after precious stones. Scenic Pearl was launched in 2011, though the impact of six years is hard to spot on the immaculately presented ship. Passengers are nearly all 50-plus Australians, with a smattering of British and Americans. Dress is casual, veering towards smart casual in the evenings. Some passengers dress up for specialty dining and Captain's dinners, but no one will mind if you don't.

On a 15-day journey it isn't just the ship that has to suit. For all that Scenic Pearl provides a large lounge and sociable Aussie atmosphere, everyone needs down time, so the cabin has to be agreeable too. Some cabins feel like jail cells, albeit luxury ones. Not my cabin on this vessel, however, which lives up to the Space-Ship moniker. It's larger than on most cruise ships and includes a balcony enclosed in floor-to-ceiling windows. Sliding doors separate balcony from bedroom, and a button-operated window slides down for open-air enjoyment of good weather. All but the few standard cabins have this feature, providing a flexible space that both extends the room and provides fresh air and views.

The pleasant cabin has interesting textural elements such as a padded wall behind the bed and a white, crocodile-skin feature wall. A narrow dresser provides convenience for offloading cameras, water bottles and assorted daily clutter. Considerable thought has been given to details: an iPod docking station, umbrella, bathrobes, pillow menu, complimentary minibar. Nicely angled reading lights illuminate the bed. The en-suite bathroom has two features lacking on many cruise ships: ample countertop space and a big sink to contain splashes.

Only the flat-screen television is annoying, programmed to turn on each time I enter the cabin, upon which it buzzes like an evil imp. Once I jab it into silence with the remote control, my room is a peaceful oasis. My favourite spot is on one of the balcony's wicker chairs, as water winks and vineyards and castles drift by.

Scenic bills itself as all-inclusive, and further relaxation is provided by the knowledge that alternative dining, Wi-Fi, tipping, shore excursions and room service are part of the upfront fare. So are wine and beer at mealtimes and drinks from the bar, apart from champagne and the most high-end of spirits. That's unusual on cruise ships and a big plus for many. If you aren't a big drinker, however, you might wish that the booze budget went towards lifting the food quality another notch instead.

Breakfasts and lunches are buffet style, with the option of ordering hot main courses from the menu. I find lunchtime salads particularly satisfying; fellow passengers seem universally satisfied with the soups. Forays into regional dishes such as Leberkase (corned-beef sausage) and cabbage strudel add interest. Desserts for both lunch and dinner tend to ice creams and uninventive sponge cakes, though I become addicted to the delectable walnut ice cream.

Four-course dinners open with an appetiser such as tomato and mozzarella with pesto or mini bacon-and-onion tart, then a soup, which might be chicken broth with pancake strips or cream of artichoke. Main courses provide meat, fish and vegetarian options: pan-fried butterfish with pilaf rice; saddle of beef with mustard hollandaise; polenta slices with tomato and capsicum sauce. The gala farewell dinner is a hard choice between lobster tail on saffron risotto, and chateaubriand beef tenderloin with port-wine sauce.

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No matter what the food is like, shipboard dining can get monotonous on rivers. Scenic Pearl, though, provides three alternative dining venues a well as room service. Table La Rive, a long shared table, provides a six-course degustation menu with wine pairings for guests with top-deck cabins. I don't eat there, but everyone gets a turn at Portobellos, featuring six courses of predictable but tasty Italian fare, beautifully plated. The third venue is the lounge's coffee bar, open for light breakfasts and lunches and mid-afternoon cakes. Coffee stations on river-cruise ships seldom offer more than self-serve coffee and dry biscuits, but here wedges of Black Forest cake and sinful cupcakes await.

Scenic Pearl's waiters never seem hurried or harassed. Bar and lounge staff are cheerful and engaged with guests. Each time we depart the ship for shore excursions, bottled water and good wishes are provided, mirrored by refreshing towels and hellos on return. The quality of local guides is high too. All have excellent English and are very knowledgeable. Some are eccentric – to my mind, a desirable trait in any guide.

Unlike some companies with one-fits-all shore excursions, Scenic offers Freechoice tours, a choice of various complimentary tour options in any one destination. Human guides are reinforced by Scenic's Tailormade audio system, a portable, GPS-guided handset with an earpiece that allows passengers to head off on their own on additional, self-guided exploration. I also find this a useful device on the ship's expansive open deck, as it provides commentary on passing sights. 

In the castle-strewn Rhine Gorges, the device remains glued to my ear, while other passengers ignore it. Each to their own, and everything is subjective. One thing is certain, however: we all look fairly glum in Basel when we're obliged to disembark our ship.

Scenic Pearl sails a 15-day cruise between Amsterdam and Basel (or the reverse) that visits five countries and takes in big-name river ports such as Koblenz, Antwerp and Strasbourg, as well as shore excursions to cities such as Bruges and Heidelberg.

FIVE LESSER-KNOWN PORTS OF CALL

VEERE

A shore excursion to the Netherland's massive flood-barrier Delta Works will give you a fine appreciation of the scale of engineering that has produced the watery landscapes you sail through over the first few days. Veere itself is a pretty port town of gorgeous gabled buildings, almost surrounded by water.

MAASTRICHT

The Netherland's oldest fortified city has a very agreeable old centre where heritage architecture and cobbled squares mix with contemporary shops and cafes, all a short walk from the dock. Bishop's Mill, the country's oldest working mill, has an attached bakery; don't miss out on one of its scrumptious pies.

XANTEN

Most passengers take a guided tour of this charming German town, which has Roman ruins and a medieval centre. If you have old-town overkill, however, take the optional shore excursion to Zollverein industrial site, once Europe's largest and most productive coal mines, for an interesting tour of the now disused facilities.

COCHEM

The magical little German town sits on a bend of the vineyard-flanked Moselle River and is topped by Reichsburg Castle, an industrialist's folly that provides every stereotype of pseudo-medieval romance. The town below is a cobbled tumble of lively streets between brightly painted houses and flamboyant flowerboxes.

BREISACH

​This agreeable riverside town, topped by a church, is the gateway to Germany's Black Forest. Choose between visiting the Vogtsbauernhof Open Air Museum and its old farmhouses, or taking a guided hike into misty, cow-chewed green mountains dotted with farms, chalets and pine forest.

TRIP NOTES

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CRUISE

The writer travelled on Scenic's 15-day Romantic Rhine & Moselle cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, which has frequent departures between April and October 2017. Prices from $8195 per person including meals, beverages, shore excursions and Wi-Fi. Phone 13 81 28. See scenic.com.au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Scenic.

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