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The Suite Life On The Rhine

By:
Joanna Hall
 

When it comes to scenic cruising on a romantic getaway, it’s hard to beat the dramatic landscapes of Germany’s middle-Rhine, writes Joanna Hall in this cruise review.

I’m relaxing on one of the world’s most luxurious river cruisers, watching the magnificent scenery of the Rhine Gorge slip slowly by. As the next curve in the river approaches, another medieval castle is revealed, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff above a 300-metre drop. Below, vineyards ascend from the water line to the base of the fortress, while goats and winemakers dotting the hillside somehow manage to avoid tumbling down its steep slope.

As we’ve discovered, this is a typical scene along the Middle Rhine, one of the great holiday destinations of Europe. A spectacular slice of German countryside between Rüdesheim and Cologne, it’s a place where daily life revolves around the river, the ancient waterway epitomising the romantic notion of what European cruising is all about.

Our home is Avalon Panorama, the first of a new breed of river cruiser for luxury operator, Avalon Waterways, which plies the famous rivers of the Rhine, Main and Danube. An elegant ship accommodating 166 guests, she has a design befitting a hip boutique hotel and created quite a buzz long before her launch in Mainz in 2011.

A key feature is her Panorama Suites. There are 64 spanning two decks, and at 18 square metres, Avalon claims they are 30 per cent larger than the industry average. Indeed they are spacious enough to afford sleeping and sitting areas, and have a stylish decor featuring chocolate coloured wood, leather-effect head boards, plush coverlets and drapes, and vibrant red splashes on soft furnishings.

A new concept in river cruising, however, is the transformation of these suites into an open-air balcony, thanks to a three-metre wall of floor-to-ceiling sliding windows. Ideal for year-round cruising, they offer sheltered panoramic views of the passing scenery when closed, or can be opened up completely without taking space away from the suite.

Hours before entering the Rhine Gorge we’d left the charming wine town of Rüdesheim, and as Panorama meanders the ancient river’s twists and turns, passing old castles, medieval villages and lush countryside en route, it’s easy to see why this great waterway has become an essential cruising experience for many travellers.

In the 62 kilometres between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, where the Mosel River joins the Rhine, there are no less than 26 castles, fortresses and palaces, each one possessing a fascinating history, some dating back to 1000 AD.

Some are perfectly preserved fairytale castles where you could easily imagine local nobility waltzing to Beethoven or Brahms, while others are the ruins of ancient fortresses, where thousands of men had lost their lives in brutal warfare trying to force their way into their enemies’ castle.

Eager to stretch my legs, I head to the top deck of Panorama braving the chilly wind sweeping up the narrow gorge of the Rhine. With a 360 degree view of spectacular scenery to savour, however, few are concerned about personal comfort.

The Sky Deck spans the full 135 metres of Panorama’s length, complete with shaded areas, sun loungers, a small whirlpool, and an al fresco bistro used for grill lunches in good weather. Views can be enjoyed everywhere, however, from the intimate rear Club Lounge, to the expansive bar and lounge forward.

The ship’s elegant dining room isn’t lacking either, with banks of large windows along both sides; thanks to an open seating policy, you can sit anywhere and to enjoy a combination of fine cuisine and views.

Panorama was designed for long-range cruising, and her regular run is a 15-day voyage between Amsterdam and Budapest or the reverse. Comfort and an alluring design aside, however, the ports of call are also key draw cards on this cruise. They are as diverse as they are uniquely European, with the grandeur of the Middle Rhine undoubtedly a highlight.

In 2002, this stretch of the Rhine was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Pfalz Castle, which sits on an island in the middle of the Rhine with Gutenberg Castle looming overhead, and was used to collect tolls from ships sailing on the river, is one of the most widely published landscape photographs in Germany.

The towns and cities dotted along the banks each have their own distinct personalities and claim to fame, and while organised tours are laid on in many ports of call, you can explore most of them independently.

Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, then step off the ship and within minutes you’re standing in one of Europe’s Old Towns with magnificent cathedrals and buildings surrounding you. The only real difficulty is trying to decide which quaint cafe to sit at, for an espresso and a spot of people watching. 

Our cruise ends in the vibrant city of Amsterdam, which lays claim to being one of the most important cultural centres in Europe, and possesses a charming canal belt, dozens of historic monuments, and some world-famous museums.

So popular have these new “Suite Ships” become since Panorama’s debut, that Avalon has since launched Avalon Vista and Avalon Visionary last year, Avalon Artistry II just last week, and Avalon Expression shortly. Three more are planned for 2014.

As river cruises go, this is one of the classics, with the unique drama of the Middle Rhine either kicking things off, or concluding your adventure or romantic getaway. And with her innovative design, views and hotel styling, Panorama is undoubtedly the new way to go.

Avalon Waterways’ 15-day Magnificent Europe river cruise operates between Budapest and Amsterdam from March to November, visiting Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Germany and Holland.

Visit www.avalonwaterways.com.au, or contact your local travel agent.

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