On the waterfront

The Rhine route ... Cochem.
The Rhine route ... Cochem. Photo: Getty Images

Adrian Bridge cruises the Rhine Gorge, a waterway that sailors and vintners, poets and princes have long admired.

It's 7.37am and we're sailing along the Rhine Gorge, a spectacular stretch of the river blessed with vineyard-strewn hills, fairytale castles and the legend of the Lorelei - the large rock said to have been home to a beautiful maiden whose siren songs proved the downfall of many a sailor navigating these treacherous parts. In the early 19th century, romantic poets and musicians, Lord Byron among them, waxed lyrical about this part of the world. It became a place of pilgrimage; knowledge of the Lorelei maiden and her fatal attraction spread far and wide.

It's time for a strong cup of tea and as I have a butler at my disposal, I decide to make use of her services. Within 10 minutes, Andrea, a cheery soul from Hungary, appears with a tray containing a pot of surprisingly good English breakfast tea and a croissant topped with a cherry.

I take them on my balcony and sit soaking up the early morning rays and the buzz of being on one of Europe's mightiest waterways. There are worse ways to start the day.

River cruising is gaining popularity - on the waterways of Europe and on rivers further afield: from the Mekong to the Mississippi; the Yangtze to the Ganges. From the vantage point of my balcony, it's easy to see why. There's the stimulation of constantly changing scenery, the mesmerising effect of water lapping against the bow of the ship and our slow, almost stately, progression. In the case of the Rhine, there's also the sense of connection with a river that for centuries has served as a key artery for the transport of people and goods between the north and south of Europe. In addition to travelling through the continent's varied landscapes, we are travelling through its history.

As someone who generally prefers individual travel to group travel, I had reservations about river cruising. I feared it might be too restrictive, too organised, too superficial. It went against my belief that travel should be about spontaneous interaction and independent discovery. Without unduly flattering myself, I also suspected I might still be too young.

But I was curious. The trip I signed up for was between Amsterdam and Basel on the Scenic Crystal. During my trip, the weather was mixed, with bursts of sunshine interspersed with showers and cooling winds.

At times, there were just two of us - myself and a hardy Canadian called Linda - braving the outdoor deck. We walked briskly (around the running track). We talked. We admired the beautiful vineyards climbing the hills. We took photographs of half-timbered houses and castles that looked as though they came straight out of the Middle Ages (some did). I learnt a great deal about British Columbia. I learnt, too, a lot about river life and river time: about the great barges that ply the Rhine laden with coal, and the containers that serve as homes for those who drive them; I learnt about the slower rhythms on the waterways and their very specific codes, tones and shades of colour; I saw firsthand the precision required when negotiating locks and low-lying bridges; I learnt to appreciate the allure and challenge of sailing by night. And I never tired of it.

Indoors, there were diversions aplenty, many revolving around the pleasures of the table (or different tables) at which breakfasts, dinners, afternoon teas, snacks and lunches could be enjoyed, in the main in convivial company and in settings with a pleasing contemporary twist. Here, too, sometimes slightly surreally, the passing world outside made its impression: gnocchi with truffles and parmesan cheese tasted all the better for being accompanied by the sight of the receding lights of Cochem; a lunchtime conversation was enhanced by a tantalising glimpse of the shiny scales of the spectacular set of buildings on the Dusseldorf waterfront designed by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry.

Scenic Tours pride themselves on being at the top end of the river-cruising experience (and charge accordingly). Next year, they'll offer an "all-inclusive" service, including drinks, butler services, excursions and tips. The neatly designed, spacious cabins, state-of-the-art power showers (with "rainbow" lighting effects), modern furnishings and gym and massage areas certainly lend the Crystal a luxurious feel.

Not that it was perfect. If I wanted to quibble, I would say the table-desk in the cabin wasn't large enough; the tap water was not great; the German-themed lunch involving bratwurst, sauerkraut and lederhosen was (to mix metaphors) a bit cheesy; and some of the songs played in the late-night bar by the resident guitarist - Sweet Caroline, Delilah, Y.M.C.A. - were well past their sell-by date.

But there was never much time (or need) to dwell on such things. For there was always somewhere new to read up on; an excursion to plan.

Ports of call included Cochem (a picturesque German riverside town, complete with cobblestone streets, vineyards, mediaeval castle and a guide named Klaus who had a twirly moustache that could have been sported by Kaiser Wilhelm II); Cologne (magnificent Gothic cathedral, Romanesque churches and a chocolate museum); Trier (spectacular Roman ruins and a museum celebrating the life and revolutionary times of its famous son, Karl Marx); and Rudesheim (another attractive Rhine town containing a museum dedicated to self-playing music boxes, pianos and hurdy-gurdies).

It was not always ideal seeing these places as part of a group and in limited time. Some passengers chose the "self-guiding" option involving GPS devices; others took off on one of the ship's "ebikes" (motorised bicycles) to explore on their own.

I took the tours, in the main led by excellent guides, and then used whatever time was left to explore independently. It wasn't entirely satisfactory (15 minutes for the Karl Marx House was hardly long enough), but it provided a taste and a kaleidoscope of impressions.

Towards the end of my final day, shortly after we had left the bucolic simplicity of the Moselle River and turned back into the bustle of the Rhine, there was a burst of early-evening sun and a chance to return to the balcony and reflect.

So, did I feel too young for river cruising? No, I didn't. Would I recommend it? Yes. Of course, river cruises are organised, but for many stressed-out people that's the point: to let someone else worry about the arranging; to have time to think of other things; to be indulged.

FAST FACTS

Cruising there

Scenic Tours' 15-day Romantic Rhine and Moselle cruise starts at $7095 a person, twin share. Includes flights with taxes, cruise with all meals and beverages on board; butler service; all excursions, events and entertainment (including a concert at the 18th-century Rastatt Palace in the upper Rhine), transfers and tips. Phone 1300 723 642, see scenictour.com.au.

APT has a 15-day Rhine, Rhone and Moselle Treasures cruise priced from $6,995 a person, twin share.

An eight-day Rhine and Moselle Treasures cruise between Amsterdam and Basel starts at $3545 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 805 493, see aptouring.com.au.

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