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Rhine journey makes the case that this is the way to travel

Castles come in all sizes, but this is the smallest one we saw along the Rhine.

It seemed that every person I knew who had been on a river cruise raved about it. They would extol the experi­ence in a different way than their ocean voyages, neither more nor less enthusiastically, just differently.
So, I approached my first river cruise on the Rhine as an opportunity to share in an exceptional itinerary with my fellow passengers aboard the new Avalon Tapestry, but also as a chance to compare notes against my previous ocean cruises.

Many of the castles on the Rhine, like this one, have been converted to hotel properties.

The gothic-style cathedral in Cologne was one of the few structures that remained standing after the bombings in the Second World War.

Just a couple of days later, as I sat and watched the waters of the famous Rhine River flow by my cabin window, it hit home: To compare a river cruise to an ocean cruise is like comparing Toronto to Tokyo, downhill to cross-country skiing, or a NASCAR race to the 100-metre dash.

There are obvious commonalities but to take it further than that is to do both an injustice. They must be judged on their separate merits.

River cruising especially is a highly social experience.

The vessels are small, sharing river space with commercial barges that use the waterways as a major transportation route between the cities and countries that lay claim to the waters passing them by. At points, most rivers can also get fairly narrow.

As a result, most river cruise vessels will carry only about 200 guests. With only one large dining room in an open seating environment, you find yourself with different table-mates at almost every meal. Although by the middle of the journey, guests tend to pick friends and start gravitating to the same tables for many of the dinners.

A single lounge and entertainment area serves as the congregation area between tours and meals. Accordingly, sociability spills over from dinner into the evening, as guests intermingle in a come-and-go fashion, depending upon their interest in partying, or in the performances being presented.

Scenery on a river cruise is a kaleidoscope of change. And while it may move from the spectacular to the ordinary, it is always a documentary of current and past history that is unfolding before you.

This emerging style of cruising has increased in popularity in most of the great rivers of the world, like the Amazon, the Yangtze and the Danube. River-cruise itineraries will take you through some of the most popular countries and regions in the world, including China, Egypt, Russia and South America.

Many of these rivers start inland and meander through the centre of the nations where cities have been built along their banks. Occasionally they are the borders between nations, with different cultures to experience on each side of the river. It is because the rivers often wind through the heart of countries that makes travelling along them such a unique experience.

While river cruising creates its own definition, I found the closest comparison to this style of travel may be motorcoach touring. The similarity ends when you realize you don’t have the daily packing and unpacking, as most coach tours pull up to a different hotel property where you must stay, almost every night.

There really is no end to the variety of river-cruise options. Each cruise can be as short or long as your time and pocketbook allow. The rivers on which most of these vessels operate are lengthy. In Europe, the Rhine winds its way through 1,320 kilometres, while the Danube is more than twice as long at 2,850 km.

The Yangtze River is twice as long as the Danube at 6,380 km, with the Amazon slightly longer than even that at 6437 km.

Just these four rivers alone create dozens of itineraries, through places we often only dream of seeing.

But in the end it is the destinations you visit that create the memories. And for me the Rhine was a superb baptism to the river-cruise experience.

It proved to be a beginning-to-end photo opportunity, punctuated by some memorable visits that have been etched indelibly into my mind.

Anne Frank, whose diary has been read by millions throughout the world, would have been 80 years old this year. No photos can be taken in the house and attic where she and her family hid until turned over to the Nazis by a still-unknown informant. A camera is not required to record the emotion evident on the faces passing by the exhibits or walking through the cramped apartment where she was hidden.

It is a poignant footnote of the tour to realize that had she been able to escape the determination of her captors for only a few weeks longer, she could have been reunited with her father, who survived the concentration camps.

Holland is known as the tulip capital of the world. It is a major export of the country and it is tulips from the Netherlands that most often line the greenhouses every spring right here in Manitoba.

The Keukenhof Tulip Festival is a photographers dream.

Every spring tulips from Holland are shipped around the world

To visit the country during the famous Keukenhoff Tulip Festival is to be greeted by a sea of colour. Fifty thousand tourists and locals visit the site each day. Faces from around the world pose in the centre of one of the multitude of floral arrangements, to have their images captured by videos and photos.

On another day, you can relax on the upper deck with a beverage in hand enjoying the sight of Castles on the Rhine, as one of the itineraries is named.

Many have been converted into hotels or homes for the wealthy, while others stand as testament to centuries of German history.

Heidelberg is known as a university centre, where its own magnificent castle stands watch over students from around the world in the city below.
Views looking up at the castle or down from the castle are equally breathtaking.

From above, the city, and the river that runs through it, are encased by majestic green treed hillsides. From below, the castle owns the landscape.

Both Goethe and a young Mark Twain are said to have gained inspiration on what is called the “philosopher’s walk” along the hillsides in Heidelberg.

Perhaps because it has been a university city for centuries, there is a vibrancy that often can be felt in similar centres of learning around the world. And, as in most places where young academics gather, all work and no play can dull the sharp mind.

So in Heidelberg it became a badge of pride to have spent time carving graffiti on the walls of the Studentenkarzer, or student prison. Unruly partygoers could find themselves housed there for two to three days, or longer, while still being allowed to exit to attend classes before returning for the night.

Now, just a few steps away from the university museum, it is a popular tourist attraction.

Founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, Cologne stands as one of Germany’s oldest cities. Cologne, too, is a famous and historical university city.

However, its gothic-style cathedral, which was one of the few buildings to survive the bombings of the Second World War, and the worldwide appeal of the perfume that carries its name, have overshadowed its academic and historical significance.

The Cologne Cathedral, the biggest in Germany, was declared a World Heritage site in 1996. Situated in a large open square near the centre of the city, it creates an imposing presence beside the modern buildings that grew up around it after the Second World War.

For most people a vacation is a blend between good shopping, great food, and majestic sights or scenery. Most river cruises satisfy them all. My first experience was aboard the new Avalon Tapestry. Globus, perhaps better known for its motorcoach tours, has moved into this sector of travel in a big way with a number of ships sailing along the rivers of the world.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the newness of the vessel, or the freshness of a team that wanted to impress its guests on its early voyages, but the continuing feedback from guests on other ships and other lines suggest otherwise. The growth of river cruising is no accident, and it will continue to expand for many years to come.

Now I understand why others extol its virtues, as I have begun to harmonize my voice with theirs.

If you go:

What to do:
Outdoor patio dining was popular in Europe long before we ever thought of taking our restaurants to the sunny side of the street. Sipping coffee or wine in the sun or under the shade of an umbrella is a European tradition. Take the time to people-watch or enjoy a sweet during any of your tours.

What to see:
Most river cruises offer optional tours to a wine-producing region. You learn about the process, see some beautiful countryside, and have access to brands you likely can’t get here. In Rudesheim, a common stop on many river itineraries, a visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum is well worth it. Here you not only see 300 years of mechanical instruments, but most of them are in working