By John and Sandra Nowlan
You have to admire the Dutch for their love of bicycles. The flat terrain of Amsterdam is ideal for bikes and the very fit residents have embraced the two wheeler. One estimate claims there are more than 840,000 bikes for its 850,000 residents. That’s almost four times the number of cars, with 57 per cent of Amsterdammers using their bikes on a daily basis, rain or shine. Exclusive bike lanes are on every street and visitors have to be very careful to avoid collisions. Bicycles have the right of way!
Amsterdam, with its easy access to the magnificent Rhine River, is also a wonderful city from which to begin a river cruise into the heart of Europe. Our ship was the Avalon Expression, one of 18 in the Swiss company’s European fleet. Like all river ships on the continent, it has strict length, width and height restrictions to navigate the many locks and low bridges. But several clever design features make Avalon stand out for its 166 guests.
More than 80 per cent of the rooms of the new class of Avalon Suite Ships are a generous 200 square feet. Most impressive are the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows (the “open air balcony”), among the best in the industry. These Panorama Suite windows slide open to allow guests to lie back on the comfortable queen size bed (angled for a perfect view outside) and enjoy the river, its busy traffic and amazing sights along the banks.
Before the river cruise begins, Avalon offers its guests a walking tour of central Amsterdam, a canal cruise along the many waterways of “The Venice of the North” and a new venture, part of the line’s Active Discovery initiative, art classes in a gallery that specializes in the work of Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh. After a brief lecture, our group was encouraged to take up brush and palette and create our own “masterpiece” in the van Gogh style. Great fun!
As we began our journey up the Rhine, we marvelled at the little touches that made this Avalon ship so special. Our spacious room (lots of storage space) included small sofa, a large screen TV with many channels and movies (including a bow camera and Fireplace Channel) a marble bathroom (larger than on most river ships) with make-up mirror, a night light, an efficient and roomy shower and high-end L’Occitane toiletries.
There’s a comfortable back lounge on the third deck with games, a small library and a high quality coffee machine available 24/7. The main lounge on Deck 2 is large enough to hold all passengers comfortably for daily excursion briefings and nightly entertainment (on several nights, guest musicians came aboard for concerts).
Each evening the front of the Deck 2 lounge becomes The Panorama Bistro, a complimentary alternate dining area for 24 guests that features a tapas-like tasting menu of exquisite small plates (like Smoked Salmon Wrap with Dill and Mustard Cream) accompanied by appropriate wine selections. It was a wonderful experience for us but the excellent servers needed more training to be knowledgeable about the wine they served.
Avalon is not totally all-inclusive (bar bills, some excursions and gratuities are extra) but the value for money is very high. At lunch and dinner, the free wine selection is excellent and there’s always a complimentary excursion in each port of call.
Cuisine is a highlight with Avalon and the dining room was bright and spacious with room for all guests. The executive chef told us the emphasis was on fresh, healthy local foods. Like on most ships, there’s a breakfast omelette station with fruit, bacon, eggs and sausage standards. The pastries were fresh (often bought in the towns we visited) and for your cereal the variety of seeds offered (flax, chia, millet, puffed quinoa and buckwheat) was remarkable. There was even honey in the comb, something we’d never seen on a river ship.
Lunch on the ship was always buffet-style with a wide variety of choices but dinners were consistently excellent. Every day we had dishes from the region we were sailing through. The galley is small but its output is extraordinary. The meat (beef, chicken, pork) was always tender and perfectly cooked and the fish was particularly good, especially since it all had to be pre-frozen. It’s rare to find that quality of seafood on ocean or river cruise ships. Vegetarian options were always available with menus and recipes coming from Michelin-starred chefs.
Our seven-day itinerary covered some of the most interesting geography in Western Europe. Sailing on the mighty Rhine (the second longest river in Central or Western Europe, after the Danube) is a study in commerce and history. Ugly industrial plants abound and there’s a constant flow of low-rise ships carrying containers and commercial goods. But the ancient castles and ruined fortifications on high cliffs along both sides of the river are reminders of the might of the Roman Empire and long-dead kings. Thousands of vineyards flow upwards from the riverbanks.
We visited Cologne, Germany, the largest city on the Rhine and one that was almost totally obliterated during the Second World War. Reconstruction has had mixed results but a walking tour took us to the older, non-tourist Belgian section with cafes, bookstores and quirky galleries. We ended at a beer hall where, instead of big steins, the brew is served in small glasses, which is a
Vineyards, especially those producing Riesling, are the main focus of Rudesheim, a charming town of 10,000 along the Rhine, first settled by the Celts. A cable car took us to a marvelous overview of the town, the endless vineyards and the river far below. As we walked back through the working vineyards, our guide produced glasses from her backpack and poured us generous samples of wine from her family’s vineyard.
Overnight we moved into the Main River (pronounced “Mine”), another major European waterway that flows through Frankfurt (we passed the city and its dazzling downtown near midnight – the panoramic windows were ideal for viewing). Early the next afternoon we arrived in Miltenberg, another storybook German town that retains its medieval charm. The picturesque Hotel Zum Riesen (Elvis ate here) dates to 1411. The climb to Miltenberg Castle is worth it, just for the view. At the end of our walk (with another superb guide, provided by Avalon) we enjoyed a blast of local, black current schnapps and some local sausages.
In another delightful Bavarian city, Wurzburg, we had an Active Discovery climb to the Fortress Marienberg, site of a former Bronze Age refuge castle. The fortress has been the home of the powerful prince/bishops for nearly five centuries and provides a stunning view of the Main River far below. By the medieval stone bridge, we visited a pastry shop and enjoyed a fall harvest tradition, fresh onion cake.
On our last day we entered the Main-Danube Canal and docked near the medieval town of Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This time we took a bike tour and loved the well-preserved buildings including the Bamberg Cathedral (founded in 1004 and consecrated in 1111) and the remarkable Rathaus (Town Hall), built in the middle of a 1455 bridge. The beer produced here (Rauchbier) is unique with the aroma of a fireplace and a dark, smoky taste.
Our cruise on Avalon Expression lasted just a week. Most other guests continued along the Danube before departing in Budapest. We’re usually quite happy to finish a river or ocean cruise and head home. This cruise, however, was so delightful we had a strong urge to stay for the full two weeks. Next time.