As we cruise past a gorgeously ornate stone fortress sitting atop a cliff along the Rhine, my wife wonders aloud if a castle like that ever comes on the market.
Unlike on our first such adventure 20 years ago, this time the riverboat fantasy life is seducing her. She's imagining wandering the parapets, waving like a storybook siren at the boats passing below. I think about snapping her out of it with a reality check. The castle's basement has probably been damp for 1,000 years and the hillside is so impossibly steep I'd need a safety harness to tend the flower gardens. But practicality be damned - this is the whole point of a river cruise.
Since that first trip on a German tour in our wayward youth, the world of river cruising has evolved. Gone are the rigid schedules, lacklustre accommodations and obedient patrons, factors that had made river cruising a staid and generally unappealing affair. Instead we are met with luxurious cabins and enticing food; it's no surprise that this new breed of river cruises is drawing a younger, more spirited crowd.
I remember that first trip - more military campaign than cruise - all too well, with its accommodations that could politely be described as snug and announcements continually repeated in four languages, while our tour leader Wolfgang barked out his demands: "You will get a wake up call at 5:30. Bags will be outside of your room by 6:15, scharf!"
Fast forward to the present. The day's activity starts at a more congenial time - 8:30 - and if you choose to sleep in, no one objects. Though part of each day is spent cruising, daily shore excursions are included, if you choose to take them. Because the boats dock in town, it's easy to step ashore and venture out on your own. And, on each tour, we're outfitted with wireless receivers and headphones that allow us to wander freely without looking like tourists, while still hearing the guide's commentary, thankfully in English only.
Sometimes, though, we explore with fellow travellers. Two Aussie couples, whose husbands had a "terrible tirst," were determined to sample all the brews in Rhineland - until they realized that meant 100 pints a day. Another passenger, an energetic English teacher and marathoner from Oregon, kept trying to get me to run around the towns with him. The older, sedate crowd I had expected never materialized. Instead, our group of 164 was surprisingly young and active, and took advantage of the late nights at clubs and beer halls ashore.
These are signs that river cruising is enjoying a renaissance. And the Rhine, taken at the leisurely pace of a cruise boat, can cast a spell on you like Lorelei, the mythical Rhine maiden who so distracted early navigators that they ended up foundering on the rocks. On this river, the artery of central Europe, every vista has a story: a ghost or two, a tragic love story, family feuds flaring from generation to generation.
Our journey aboard the Avalon Tapestry began in Amsterdam, with a tour along the city's famed canals. Later we visited the cathedral cities of Cologne and Strasbourg and the wine region's capital, Rudesheim. We ventured overland to the university town of Heidelberg, which has a vast castle that would test even the wealth of Bill Gates to carpet and drape. But for part of most days we cruise, sailing past medieval towns and landscapes that are difficult to appreciate from any perspective other than the river.
And as veteran ocean cruisers, we find that wending our way up a river is a different kind of experience altogether, and we quickly see why river cruising is becoming so popular. New river cruise boats offer luxury and space that was unheard of in the past. After activity-filled days, it is nice to retreat to a spacious and comfortable room, with ample storage and bathroom with a shower. The Tapestry has the added detail of floor-to-ceiling windows with doors you can open to better view the passing scene. As we enter narrow locks - barely wider than the boat itself - I open our cabin's door, reach out and touch a glistening stone wall.
The only regimented aspect on the Tapestry? Dinner. The one seating is at 7 p.m. My appetite perks up rapidly as the courses of German and American fare are served up by chipper wait staff who even offer second helpings. What's more, German and Austrian wines flow freely, with different selections each day.
Arriving in Basel, Switzerland, at the end of the week, I envy those who are continuing on other river cruises up the Danube or on the Elbe. Some river journeys can last as long as three weeks, taking travellers into Egypt, Ukraine, China, Istanbul, Russia, Australia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand - and, closer to home, up the Hudson, St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.
That dream of buying the castle? It faded. But if we ever do win the lottery, these castles on the Rhine - romantic battlements, soggy basements and all - are still going to be here.
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If you go
River cruising is a growth business in Europe, with dozens of boats in competition. Significant discounts are available, including two-for-one deals, if you book cruises from September through Christmas and again in April and May.
Avalon Waterways www.avalonwaterways.com. Twelve-day Rhine, Danube or Moselle River cruises start at about $2,800.
Scenic Tours www.scenictours.com. This Australian operator has launched four new European riverboats that feature the industry's first balcony suites.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises www.uniworld.com. Nine-night Rhine cruises are priced from about $2,200; discounts available for early bookings.
AMA Waterways www.amawaterways.com. The boats in this fleet specialize in cruises of two weeks and more, but week-long summer segments in ocean-view cabins are now as low as $1,506.
Viking River Cruises www.vikingrivercruises.com. A new Viking ship with electric propellers promises to be the most eco-friendly European river ship.
Tauck World Discovery www.tauck.com. A fleet of three new ships does several river itineraries. Next year, some will include extensions to see the passion play at Oberammergau.