Characters come out to play as Julietta Jameson journeys along the Rhine.
Cruising on small ships is a Jungian exercise. Human nature being what it is, archetypes will float to the surface. You will, after a few days on board, find the following roles filled: the serial complainer, the know-all, the annoying frequent questioner, the straight shooter, the political foes, the dutiful son, the party animal and the collective band that kind of becomes the cruise ship version of the cool gang at high school.
All that can be as entertaining as the scenery and ports of call. You just need to avoid one, and only one, archetype. Leave the sociophobe at home. On this outing, interaction is unavoidable.
As a small-ship cruise virgin and a novice when it comes to cruising generally, not to mention being the victim of a slight phobia of group activity, the invitation to undertake a river cruise offered a frightening yet tantalising prospect.
On one hand, the cruise would take me along the Rhine River in Germany where I would see castles, villages and one of the world's most historically significant and beautiful waterways. On the other, there would be no escape. The ship I would be cruising on was Avalon's newest, Avalon Creativity. There would be fewer than 140 passengers, one bar, one dining room, one hot tub and eight nights on board.
Testing your boundaries is one of the great things about travel, though. Could I be a good cruise passenger? Apparently, yes.
This is not, however, just any old cruising. It is river cruising and as our tour director, Tony, points out at the beginning of the journey, if you've not experienced it before but have done the big-ship ocean-going variety, you need to forget all expectations set by that experience.
There are no napkin-folding classes, no on-board auctions, nightclub, casino, swimming pool, lido deck hairy-chest competitions and no days at sea. There is just your fellow passengers, along with unbelievable, up-close, ever-changing scenery. There's afternoon tea, a buffet lunch and an excellent six-course dinner with wine included. But that's pretty much it as far as onboard diversions go.
Over dinner on the first night aboard, fledgling friendships are begun, alliances are formed and the archetypes begin to emerge. I quickly nickname a gregarious, retired South Australian school teacher the prom king. He's a social butterfly and I am proven right: he'll be the centre of late-night revelry during this cruise.
Who am I in the role roll-call? Somewhere between the annoying, frequent question-asker and, happily, a nobody. That's the thing I really like. Though the ability to play well with others is essential, aboard the Avalon Creativity you can meld into the background if you desire.I learn this about myself as well: I have a very childish need to not miss out on anything. Most of the sailing is done at night and the thought of passing villages, forest, boats, locks and other scenery without seeing it is more than I can stand.
I pull the curtains open in my stateroom and lie in bed in the dark, watching the world go by. This makes for insomnia, so I finally, reluctantly, close the curtains, only to open them again when nature calls in the (ahem) wee hours and I awaken - and start the process all over again.
It's not ideal, given that most tours start early in the morning. But fatigue ceases to be an issue once the outings begin.
One advantage Avalon Waterways has is that its parent, Globus, is a land-tour company. The guides, tours, vehicles and experiences ashore are excellent. I skip the trip to Siegfried's Mechanical Music Museum in Rudesheim but a highlight is the intriguing, wonderfully narrated tour to Heidelberg's evocative castle, from which Europe's Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was launched. This is, after all, Avalon's eight-day Romantic Rhine itinerary, which takes us from Amsterdam to Basel in Switzerland.
The Avalon Creativity is decorated in neutral tones and styled with understated modernity. Floor-to-ceiling French balconies feature in all cabins, as well as individual air-conditioning and a decent-sized bathroom.
There are four common areas: the lounge and bar, a smaller library-style space with games and armchairs to the rear of the ship, the dining room and an expansive sky deck with deckchairs and shaded table settings. There's another little deck at the bow where the smokers congregate but it is also great for watching the crew in action as we pass through the locks.
The majority of passengers are from the US but there's a good showing of Australians and New Zealanders, as well as Canadians. No prizes for guessing which nationalities constitute the night owls (hint: all except the majority). Ages range from 40s to 70s, with some families, including teenagers. There's not a lot for them to do, however, outside shore visits.
Fortunately, the shore visits are frequent and great tours are included at no extra cost. We do a canal boat tour at Amsterdam, a guided tour of Cologne's cathedral and a walking tour of the town of Koblenz, which, like much of Germany, was rebuilt after World War II. And then there's that visit to Siegfried's Mechanical Music Museum in Rudesheim, which is a charming wine region.
Heidelberg is also a highlight, with its castle in ruins and charming university-town appeal. Then we are off to Strasbourg for a tour of that city's stunning pink cathedral, Notre Dame, a small boat cruise around its pretty waterways and amazingly preserved Tudor-like Petit France area. There's also plenty of free time to stroll Strasbourg's cobblestone streets.
Our last day-trip is into the Black Forest from Breisach, where cuckoo clocks and Black Forest cake are predictably on offer. I skip that one. For me, the joy comes from the water, particularly on the afternoon we sail down the Rhine Gorge with its astonishing array of castles, vertiginously slanting vineyards (who on earth picks the grapes and how?) and ridiculously picturesque villages.
There are swans by the hundred, ducks of all kinds, geese and other water birds to become acquainted with. Even the less-picturesque sights, such as power stations, shipyards and river craft, capture my attention. I could cruise the river again tomorrow.
What Jungian archetype does that make me? The reformed non-cruiser. Though next time, I may challenge the prom king for his crown.
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways and Singapore Airlines.
Singapore Airlines flies to Amsterdam via Singapore, priced from $2217. See singaporeairlines.com.
Avalon Waterways' Romantic Rhine cruise is priced from $3103 a person, twin share, based on an April 18 departure, Amsterdam to Basel, Cat E cabin. Some of Avalon's European river cruises include free flights, free upgrades and free city-stays, with savings of up to $2437 a person, for sale until March 31. See avalonwaterways.com.au or a travel agent.