It's a dislocating experience, hearing the swelling chords of the Crusaders' theme song as the boat I'm on slides away from the dock to begin its journey along the Rhine through Germany; but I soon find that there's more than just a musical link between Canterbury and the cities we visit.
This five-day taster is the maiden voyage of Panorama, Avalon's newest river cruiser. Designed with input from those who know best what makes the ideal cruising holiday – passengers – some clever thinking has resulted not only in a Tardis-like use of space in the cabins, but also an ambience customised for the New Zealanders and Australians who make up the bulk of Avalon's clientele. Hearing this claim, I wonder facetiously, "What does that mean? A barbie on the deck?"
It actually does: it's up on the Sky Deck which runs along most of Panorama's 135-metre length, giving a 360-degree view of wooded hills, vineyards, fairy-tale castles and colourful, half-timbered houses clustered around onion-domed churches. It's an ever-changing, er, panorama that's both lovely and interesting, so how convenient that even at lunchtime there's no need to miss any scenery. Really, it's a grill rather than a DIY barbie, but no-one's complaining about having the steaks and snags cooked for us as we drink in both the views and the excellent local wines.
We have only to glance left and right to see, as we glide between precipitous slopes draped with vineyards, each proudly labelled with its name. We lazily speculate about the difficulties of working on such steep hillsides as we sip the results of all that effort, and then with the next bend in the river, forget all about it as we're presented with some new distraction: the route has been planned to dazzle us with some of the Rhine's most spectacular scenery.
Our first stop is Mainz, a university city of 200,000, where local guide Georg shows us around, breathless and eager, darting ahead in a flurry of dropped photographs and waving arms. He points out the 1000-year-old cathedral; the statue of another local man, Johannes Gutenberg, chosen as Time magazine's Man of the Millennium for inventing the printing press, but today hung with red and white by supporters of the local football team.
And he points out, too, the market square where the stalls of neatly displayed fruit and vegetables, roses and peonies, cheese and pastries are surrounded by five-storey, half-timbered houses with slate roofs. They're picturesquely medieval and we click away at them in delight, but Georg has news for us: "On February 27, 1945, 80 per cent of the city was destroyed in 20 minutes, in a daylight raid by Allied bombers. Those houses are reproduction."
We look with new interest at the buildings, their pastel-painted plaster decorated with scrolls and curlicues, the mansard roofs with their dormer windows a triumph of the slate-layer's art.
They look totally authentic 17th-century townhouses, rising up five storeys, all different and charming, but "they were rebuilt with the rubble", Georg says, extracting an old aerial photograph from his bulging file that shows their cathedral, miraculously intact, surrounded by a sea of broken buildings, hollow inside the roofless shells of their walls.
In the other towns and cities we visit along the river it's the same story: the much-loved faces of these historic places rebuilt as they were, initially as a comfort to their citizens and, in time, an attraction for tourists. Beyond are the glass and steel skyscrapers where commerce reigns, but at the emotional heart of each town are the cobbled squares surrounded by tall, old-fashioned houses jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, the roofline erratic, each building unique. There's a sense of continuity and connection with the past here that's a direct result of this reconstruction: something we decide would work for Christchurch.
There's plenty of time for discussion like this on the cruise; but the relaxing ambience of the Panorama makes it hard to keep focused on serious thoughts. On two of the three levels the cabins are actually suites with floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to the railings just outside, making the whole room into a balcony – the essence of indoor-outdoor flow – with space to loll slothfully on the sofa watching the pretty villages slide past.
That's seeing only half of the picture, however, so there's a lot of genial mixing and chatting on deck and in the comfortable lounge where, as we pass through the Rhine Gorge, cruise director Andrzej narrates the journey past 28 – count them, 28 – castles. Towered and turreted, perched on hilltops and cliffs, they lack only archers peeping over the battlements.
It's a Grimm landscape and an absolute delight, and when the Panorama moors at Rudesheim, Koblenz, Cochem, Cologne, we're shown the highlights and then let loose to explore by ourselves.
Poking through their Altstadt lanes and marketplaces, we marvel over the glory of vast cathedrals where the notes of practising choirs and organs take fully half a minute to disappear among the ribs of the vaulted ceilings. We people-watch from cafe tables over a glass of Eistee or a more sinful special coffee with a shot of warmed local brandy that shimmers as it's poured.
There are museums with unique and priceless exhibits, from a genuine Gutenberg Bible to actual thumbscrews and worse. Stalls sell pretzels, apple wine ("Nothing like cider," scoffs the waitress), sausages and doughnuts; we climb 328 steps up Frankfurt's cathedral tower and 533 at Cologne and boast about it afterwards over yet another excellent dinner back on board.
By the time we arrive in Amsterdam we're united in complaint: five days was far too short. "Take us to Budapest!" we demand – but a new complement of passengers is already waiting to board. It's just cruel.
The Avalon Waterways 15-day Magnificent Europe river cruise operates between Budapest and Amsterdam from March to November, visiting towns in Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands.
In 2012, the cruise will be offered on a number of Avalon ships.
Avalon Panorama's features include two whole decks of all-suite accommodation with wall-to-wall panoramic windows that transform the suite into an open-air balcony.
Other features include two lounges, a restaurant and bistro and complimentary wi-fi access.
Fares for 2012 Avalon Panorama cruises start from NZ$5910 per person twin share.Additional earlybird savings of up to NZ$1000 per couple are available on Avalon's 2012 programme of cruises until September 30, 2011, or until sold out.
Fares include cruise gratuities, all on-board meals, drinks at dinner and a wide range of tours and activities.For booking details see your travel agent or visit www.avalonwaterways.co.nz
Pamela Wade was a guest of Avalon Waterways.
- © Fairfax NZ News