River cruise in Germany: A fairytale journey along the Rhine

Behind me in the coach taking us from Zurich to Basel to pick up our Rhine River cruise ship, two Americans are discussing Switzerland.

"I thought it would be a lot more yodeling and goats … and more mountains," says one in the sort of accent that you'd expect from a cabbie in Brooklyn.

"But those french fries were to die for," replies her companion. "To. Die. For."

Outside, a weak autumn sun is trying to break through tattered grey clouds onto a forested landscape of green, brown, russet, yellow, red and orange. It's essentially a Ralph Lauren Fall collection out there – all ochre corduroy and sienna flannel foliage.

For a moment, I am a little afraid for Germany and the Rhine. What if it doesn't live up to expectations? Not watery enough? Not enough castles, cuckoo clocks, sausages, beer or … goats?

I needn't have worried; if there's one truism about Germany it's that it's heartily Germanic. There are medieval towns and villages along the Rhine that look as if the Brothers Grimm have just left, and Wurst und Bier are staples (something you might need for your stomach after a week stuffing your face on the Avalon Imagery II). That said, don't go if it's goats you're after.

We are on day one of an eight-day journey along the Rhine with Avalon Waterways, starting from Basel in Switzerland and ending in Amsterdam.

On the way we will be taking in towns known and unknown such as Breisach, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Rudesheim and Koblenz as well as navigating the Rhine Gorge and visiting the city of Cologne.

The stretch of the river that we join in Basel, not far from the wonderfully named dreilandereck (three country corner) where Germany, France and Switzerland meet, is known as the Rhine Knee. It is here where the High Rhine hits a major bend, changes direction (from west to north) and becomes the Upper Rhine.


The Rhine starts in Switzerland and makes its way through six countries before emptying into the North Sea 1230 kilometres later. It is the second longest river in Central and Western Europe after the Danube but beats it hands down in terms of names. After all, the Danube is called the Danube from woe-to-go while there is an Anterior Rhine and a Posterior Rhine, an Alpine Rhine, a High Rhine, an Upper Rhine, Middle Rhine and Lower Rhine.

This lower section of the Upper Rhine (stay with me) forms the border between France (on the port side, ladies and gentlemen) and Germany (to starboard). It's not the prettiest of stretches to begin with, it must be said; there's a lot of industry down here, and the flat Alsatian plains have an almost American Midwest wheat field feel about them, all empty space and sky.

Luckily, the first part of our journey takes place after dark. After a welcome reception and safety briefing in the lounge we repair to the lower deck restaurant for dinner, by which time the sun has set and the view is pretty much just ourselves reflected blackly back in the windows. By gosh, we're a handsome bunch of Baby Boomers.

In the morning, thanks to the joys of jet lag, I'm up bright and early and head to the top deck to photograph the river and the struggle of a low-slung sun as it tries to penetrate clouds the colour of dirty washing-up water.

As a result I have a photograph of what looks like a gathering of giant grain silos, all shiny and golden in the dawn glow, followed immediately by a medieval pile on a tall granite outcrop that hints at the romantische scenery to come.

The town below what we later discover is St Stephan's Minster is Breisach and it turns out that the original medieval pile was destroyed in World War II. This replica was only finished in 1956.

It's a pretty little brown-roofed, cobblestoned town that, like the church, feels historic even if it isn't – 85 per cent of it was destroyed during the war – and it's a great way to ease into the country, especially given it's Sunday morning and most of the shops are shut.

In the afternoon, after a buffet lunch on the boat, there are three included coach excursions available: to the unexpectedly stunning French town of Colmar in Alsace, the Black Forest for cuckoo clocks, eponymous cake or an open-air "living" museum.

It's a rhythm we settle into quite happily over the next week: buffet breakfast, guided tours, lunch, more excursions, happy hour, formal sit-down dinner and a drink or two before bed.

At pretty much every stop there is an included or optional (extra cost) excursion with a local guide. There's a canal cruise and a walking tour in Strasbourg, a coach trip out to the Maginot Line, wine tasting in Alsace, walking tours of Heidelberg and Mainz, a Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum and complimentary liqueur coffee in Rudesheim (the cable-car ride to the lookout above the town is a must), walking tours of Koblenz and Koln and, finally, in Amsterdam there's a canal cruise followed by a short walking tour, a trip to a Dutch windmill-cum-clog-cum-cheese making village (no, seriously) and a late-night tour of the red light district.

And it all goes off without a hitch, which is a miracle in itself. With 128 passengers – some a little unsteady on their pins and one person in a wheelchair – it's an impressively trouble-free process.

To keep us informed and out of trouble, there's a daily newsletter outlining the next day's activities in every cabin and a short Port Talk in the lounge every night by indefatigable Romanian-born cruise director Hans Beckert. At every port there's a local map available and most tours employ a radio receiver and earphones so you can more easily hear the patter of the various guides.

The Avalon Imagery II has three floors of cabins but has done away with the traditional balcony in favour of extra space for the interior. It makes a difference and the floor-to-ceiling windows slide open if you still want to sit in your stateroom and watch the world slide by au naturel.

There's a large lounge at the pointy end of the ship, a swish restaurant one floor below that and a comfortable coffee lounge at the rear, replete with board games. The open top deck – cunningly named the Sky Deck – boasts an oversized chess board and a small hot tub, but the late autumn chill means both go undisturbed.

The most beautiful section of the trip is the stretch that takes in the Rhine Gorge and the Lorelei rock. Here, soaring granite outcrops dwarf the ship and then open out to gentle hillsides covered in the ordered, soldierly rows of the vines for which the region is so famous.

Despite the chill we take to the Sky Deck and listen to cruise director Beckert telling tales about the various fortresses that we pass, including the legend of the Lorelei siren who, at the deepest and most dangerous of the passes, is said to lure sailors to their deaths with her song.

As we saunter past yet another impossibly pulchritudinous fairytale castle perched on yet another vertiginous rock, it seems a small price to pay.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways.






Cathay Pacific Airways flies from all the major Australian cities to Zurich via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com


Avalon Waterways' Romantic Rhine cruise from Basel to Amsterdam runs between April and November, in both northbound and southbound directions. From $3705 a person double occupancy. Price includes all meals, daily excursions and beer and wine at lunch and dinner. See avalonwaterways.com.au