Natalie Milner reviews Avalon Waterway’s newest Suite Ship – and takes a cruise along the Rhîne

The latest addition to Avalon Waterways’ fleet, Avalon Expression, joins their collection of sleek Suite Ships and offers cruises along the Rhîne, Main and Danube rivers.

The ship has two full decks of Panorama Suites where, on a warm evening, you can open the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling French doors to unveil your own private piece of the river.

Beds are angled for a perfect view, and the marble and granite bathroom oozes elegance with power shower, extravagant L‘Occitane bath products and dark polished wood. It’s these small but significant details that make this a luxury river cruise experience.

The ship’s streamlined, panoramic windows in both the Lounge and Restaurant perfectly frame the passing landscape, or for an even better view you can relax at the front of the ship in the sheltered outdoor Observation Lounge.

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There are some surprising touches on board, including a fitness centre, giant chess board and whirlpool on the Sky Deck, hairdressing salon, flat-screen televisions in every room – including a channel tailored to the ship’s current location – and excellent complimentary wifi.

Avalon Expression has the design elements to match its elegance: from the effective soundproofing in between suites to the multi-sided shower cubicles offering maximum comfort. The restaurant is designed with a clever half divide, enabling you to enjoy an intimate dining experience while taking in views from both sides of the ship.

When it’s time to dine you’re in for a treat. A hot and cold buffet greets you at breakfast, and the chef can rustle up anything you fancy, from Eggs Benedict to a bespoke omelette. At lunchtime guests disperse between the two dining areas, for either Light Lunch in the Lounge or a generous lunch buffet in the Restaurant – and when it’s warm a barbeque Sky Bistro is provided on deck.

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As for evening meals, there are generous fine-dining menus with complimentary wine – and waiters make sure there’s never a dry glass. There’s a selection of salads and soups to start, with main meals ranging from risotto to plump steaks, and an array of cheese platters, ice cream and cakes for dessert. Later you can steal a moment to sip a complimentary tea or coffee, and try to resist the delectable cookies, in the Club Lounge overlooking the stern of the ship. And just before bed – in case you’re still peckish – a Late Fare snack is available.

You’ll have to put your name down early if you want to experience the exclusive Panorama Bistro dinner, served with views from the bow of the ship for just 25 guests. This unravels as nine sumptuous courses of taster dishes displayed as mini pieces of art, including melt-in-the-mouth scallops and cherry-chocolate cakes – a culinary delight.

If the sun is shining on the Sky Deck it’s the perfect place to settle into a premium lounge chair, sip a cool local Riesling spritzer and journey along the Romantic Rhîne. The lush forests – setting to many a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale – are interspersed with vineyards clinging to the steep hillsides.

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As the ship meanders along the river, castles and towers emerge from behind a blanket of trees and turrets cut into the sky – Sleeping Beauty eat your heart out. “Father” Rhîne puts on a parade, allowing the ship to glide between his banks while proudly displaying the castles of times gone by – it’s enchanting.

The next day the castles become tangible with a visit to Reichsburg Cochem. As the cool air of the castle envelops you it conjures a childhood world of secret passages and knights in shining armour. The tour guide brings the castle alive, and the handy headphones supplied on every tour mean that you can wander at your own pace and still hear every word.

Spiral staircases wind into elegant rooms adorned with chandeliers, towering fireplaces, engrained ceilings and extravagant dining tables. As I perched on the balcony I felt like Rapunzel. Cochem itself is worth exploring and you can sample a glass, or two, of the local Riesling wine.

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As you travel northwards the hills flatten, the castles disperse and the fairy tale adventure develops a sinister aura as you call at Cologne. The city was turned to dust in World War II, with ninety per cent of its pre-war architecture destroyed. But while this absence is prominent today, the city’s past is being constantly rediscovered, and highlights include the Roman Dionysus mosaic at the Romano-Germanic museum.

Of course the city’s most famous heritage comes in a bottle: Eau de Cologne created by John Maria Farina in 1709. But visually Cologne Cathedral dominates the city – the tallest building in the world when finally completed in 1880 – having escaped the war mostly unscathed it stands proud above the skyline.

There’s no better way to take in the captivating variety of this beautiful region than by its waterways on a ship of pure elegance. As Avalon Expression journeys towards Amsterdam, the final port of call, we don’t want our fairy tale cruise to end.

A 14-night Magnificent Europe voyage with Avalon Waterways on Avalon Expression, departing from Budapest or Amsterdam from April-October 2014, includes the Rhîne Gorge and Cologne plus destinations along the Danube and Main rivers. Prices start at £3,045pp, if booked before 30 Sept, based on two sharing, including flights and door-to-door pick up service. For more information call 0800 668 1801 or visit avaloncruises.co.uk.

Watch our video of the new ship in Avalon Expression: River Cruise Ship Features

Read Avalon Expression christened in Germany

Read Cruise Review: Dutch Waterways

Read the latest issue of Cruise International in shops now

Slideshow image: Pfalzgrafenstein Castle © Tom Uhlenberg/ Alamy

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