Tuning In To The Rhythm Of The Rhine
It was 7.37am and we were sailing along the Rhine Gorge, a spectacular stretch of the river blessed with vineyard-strewn hills, fairy-tale castles and the legend of the Lorelei – the large rock said once 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 was time for a strong cup of tea. And as I had a butler at my disposal, I decided to make use of her services. Within 10 minutes Andrea, a cheery soul from Hungary, appeared with a tray containing a pot of (surprisingly good) English breakfast tea and – nice touch – a croissant topped with a cherry.
I took them on my balcony and sat 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.
Scenery and ease
From the vantage point of my balcony, it was easy to see why. There was the stimulation of the constantly changing scenery (in contrast to ocean-going cruises, there is always something to look at on the river). There was the mesmerising effect of the water lapping against the bow of the ship; there was the slow, almost stately progression.
There was the sheer ease – on a trip like this you never have to unpack more than once. In the case of the Rhine, there was 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, you are travelling through its history.
As someone who generally prefers individual to group travel, I had reservations about river cruising. I feared it might be too restrictive, too organised, too superficial.
It went against my instincts that travel should be about spontaneous interaction and independent discovery. Without unduly flattering myself, I also suspected that I might still be too young.
But I was curious. Those tens of thousands of British river cruisers can't all be wrong. It was time to test the waters; time to go with the flow.
The trip I signed up for was the cruise between Amsterdam and Basel aboard Scenic Crystal, a vessel of the Australian-owned Scenic Tours operator that has consistently raised the bar in terms of what is possible on the river.
Along with the provision of a personal butler, that balcony was a case in point. Scenic pioneered the introduction to river cruising in Europe of private external spaces and now they are commonplace. The innovation here is the addition of a glass front that can be lowered (to a halfway point) in fine weather and raised to provide protection (and enable continued use of the space) when it is not so good.
Which is just as well. During my trip the weather was mixed, bursts of sunshine being 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 leading up from the Moselle, imagining how wonderful they would look bathed in sunlight and the autumn colours of the wine festival season.
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.
Portugal river cruising: Off The Beaten Track
Point of difference: Cultural Immersion On The Scenic Tsar In Russia
Wondrous waterways: Top 9 Ways To Cruise The World's Rivers
I learnt, too, much about river life and river time: about the great barges that ply the Rhine laden with coal and 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 first hand the precision required when negotiating locks and low-lying bridges; I learnt to appreciate the special allure and challenge of sailing by night. And I never tired of it.
Indoors, there were diversions aplenty as well, 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 the avant-garde architect Frank Gehry.
Scenic prides itself on being at the top end of the river-cruising experience. Its neatly designed, spacious cabins, state-of-the-art power showers (with 'rainbow' lighting effects), modern furnishings and gym and massage areas certainly lend the vessel a luxurious feel. Many of the seasoned hands on board said it was the best on the river.
Not that it was perfect. If I wanted to quibble, I would say that the table/desk in the cabin wasn't big enough; the tap water was not great; the German-themed lunch involving bratwurst, sauerkraut and lederhosen was (to mix metaphors) a bit cheesy, and that some of the songs played in the late-night bar by the resident guitarist –Sweet Caroline, Delilah, YMCA – were well past their sell-by date.
Ports of call
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 in the stretch I covered included Amsterdam (surely the perfect city from which to begin a waterborne holiday); Cochem (a picturesque German riverside town, complete with cobbled streets, vineyards, medieval castle and a guide called 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 most 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 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 (Klaus even had a wry sense of humour) – 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 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, though the cruise I sampled was not entirely representative, with an age range from the late 20s to 70s – considerably lower than the average (60 plus during the peak season).
Would I recommend it? Yes. Of course river cruises are organised, but for many stressed-out people that is the point: to let someone else worry about the arranging; to have time to think of other things. To be indulged.
One couple confided that while not the most adventurous form of travel, river cruising enabled them to see a great deal, to meet interesting, like-minded people and, most crucially of all, to slow down and have time for each other. And they were only in their mid-50s.
I lingered on the balcony enjoying the feel of the sun on my face and, for the last time, the sound of the water lapping against the ship. I was beginning to tune into the rhythm of the river. I gave my butler a quick call. It was time for a cocktail.
Set sail on a dream holiday with CruiseAbout
This article was written by Adrian Bridge from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.