Intriguing history, music and plenty of fine food – a river cruise is an idyllic way to explore the Netherlands, Germany and France, discovers Victoria Gavin

Houses and houseboats on Amstel river in Amsterdam

It’s a balmy afternoon in Amsterdam and I’m relaxing with new friends and a glass of perfectly chilled Champagne on the deck of Tranquility II. Only a few hours earlier I was whisked to Heathrow in a complimentary chauffeur-driven car in plenty of time to catch my flight; and since boarding this rather splendid ship I’ve already met the Captain and now I’m being plied with canapés. Oh yes, I think I am going to really enjoy my first river cruise.

My fabulous Panorama suite has floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, which means I can watch the view from my bed if I so choose; but of course there’s far too much to see and do outside this haven of relaxation (tempting though it is to remain reclining on my super comfy bed, with its Egyptian cotton linens). We’re docked within walking distance of the Dutch capital’s city centre, close to the impressive central station, and we have a full evening and day to explore before setting sail on our Romantic Rhine cruise to Basel.

Before dinner the cruise director gives a welcome talk. I’m pleased to discover that the dress code on board Avalon Waterways’ ships is incredibly relaxed. There’s just one simple request: no shorts, sandals or slippers for dinner (clearly someone has taken the relaxed vibe a little too far). It’s free seating, which means you can choose to dine alone or with friends, and table sizes vary.

The food on this, and every night, is a gastronomic delight, with plenty of choice as well as always available dishes such as the grilled tenderloin, cooked to perfection. If you prefer a lighter meal and a slightly more relaxed atmosphere, you can opt for a buffet style dinner in the lounge with a wide range of choices available. As if this wasn’t enough, all drinks with meals are included and a selection of fine wines, a white, red and rosé, are chosen to accompany dinner each evening, and the bar operates a happy hour each day, timed to fit in with excursions, with all drinks (which are reasonably priced anyway) half price.

Cologne, Germany

Our first full day in Amsterdam includes a canal tour of the city, a fantastic way to see the quirky, leaning gabled houses and picturesque streets, followed by either a guided walk, a tour of the famous Gassan Diamonds factory, or time to explore at your own pace. The afternoon includes a choice of three additional tours: the medieval Muiden Castle, cycling in the countryside or a foodie walk in Jordaan, one of the hipster neighbourhoods of Amsterdam.  I chose the foodie walk and was treated to delights such as bitterballen, those tasty meat and potato croquettes designed to soak up the beer on a night out (and the beer to go with it to get the full experience), Dutch cheese, handmade chocolate, stroopwafels and the absolutely amazing poffertjes (small, fluffy pancakes doused in butter and icing sugar… completely moreish). At least one excursion is included in each day’s itinerary and on most days there is also a choice of additional excursions available at a reasonable cost of 37 to 49 euros.

Back on board Tranquility II we glide out of Amsterdam and begin our Rhine sailing. I’ve always enjoyed the drama of ocean cruising, but I’m instantly enchanted by the gentle pace of river cruising. The scenery floats by and the only sound is the water lapping against the ship as we sit and drink in the view (and the very good wine).

Tranquility II, like all the Avalon Waterways fleet, is all about the views. My bed faces a full wall of windows, with sliding doors that turn the seating area in to a balcony. The bathroom has a full-size shower, marble tiles and a spacious vanity unit with L’Occitane toiletries. And it’s not just tranquil by name; as this is a “silent ship”, a daily newsletter, detailing everything I need to know for the following day, was left in my stateroom each evening and this, accompanied by the port talk from the cruise director each evening, means there are no unnecessary announcements to listen to.

The historic castle Eltz in the Eifel, Germany

This was our longest period of sailing of the week, overnight to the German city of Cologne where we arrived at about 2pm the next day. Steeped in history, here we were offered a guided tour of the city or a Jewish heritage tour, and I opted for the latter. Our guide was compelling, giving us a poignant insight into the city’s dramatic past. We also visited the cathedral where we had time to explore the imposing cathedral, the Dom, and the city at our leisure.

Another overnight sailing (and a superb night’s sleep in that amazing bed) took us to the pretty city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet. The name originates from the Latin cōnfluentēs meaning “at the confluence” and the point where the two rivers meet is known as German Corner. It features a statue of the first German Emperor, William 1, and is a symbol of the reunification of Germany. The afternoon was spent sailing through the romantic Rhine Gorge from Koblenz to Rüdesheim, surrounded on both sides by magnificent castles and passing the famous Lorelei rock, an imposing 132 metre slate rock standing high above the river. 

The next day we were in Mainz, with an included guided tour of the city, including the Gutenberg museum and the opportunity to see the original Gutenberg press in action. Again, our guide was excellent and brought the history of the city to life. For all the guided tours we were provided with headsets, which were tuned to our guide, meaning there was no straining to hear. We could take in the sights and take photographs without missing a thing.

Back on the ship a musical trio performed a set of classical and not-so-classical pieces, with some truly impressive virtuoso violin solos, and an incredible guitar performance. We were then on to our second included excursion of the day, a trip to Heidelberg. While most of the excursions on Avalon Waterways’ river cruises are included, of course they’re not compulsory and at any of the stops along the way you can choose to explore the city independently or, as I did on this occasion, stay on the ship as we sailed from Nierstein to Mannheim, with only a handful of passengers on board. Intending to read a book, I’m not sure that I read more than about five words as I gazed at the passing scenery… and then just gazed into space, as the wonderful ship’s pianist (a feature during the late afternoon and every night after dinner), played soothing melodies in the background.

In Strasbourg we were treated to another canal boat trip, by far the best way to see the huge variety of stunning architecture and get a real feel for the city. This was followed by a tour around the cathedral and free time to explore the historic streets of half-timbered buildings, and lovely quaint shops and boutiques, filled with interesting trinkets and treasures.

Heidelberg, Germany

The warm and peaceful afternoon brought a choice of either a tour to the Maginot Line (described as tough due to the 130 plus steps down and, more importantly, back up) or a tour out in to the Alsace countryside to visit a vineyard for a wine tasting. For me, the vineyard was the winner, because frankly, no contest.

Our last full day brought us to the tiny town of Breisach in southwestern Germany, from where our included excursion was a trip to the unmissable Black Forest and a chance to enjoy the traditional cherry gateau, as well as the beautiful views and charming wooden houses of this scenic region. Once again, the afternoon offered yet another optional excursion, this time to Colmar, knows as the “Little Venice” of France with its pretty houses, crooked lanes, painted facades and charming narrow canals. It was the perfect ending to our truly superb week cruising along the wonderful river Rhine. 

Hunawihr, Alsace, France

GETTING THERE

An 8-day Romantic Rhine cruise departing on 4 May 2019 starts from £2,667pp, including return flights from London, complimentary wifi, gratuities, shore excursions at every port of call led by certified local guides and private home pick-up. To book, call 0330 058 8291 or visit avaloncruises.co.uk.

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