On the maiden voyage of the Scenic Crystal, Angie Kelly is smitten by the wine country along the so-called romantic Rhine. And the technology isn't bad either.
The sun is out after five days of bitter cold and the happy gang aboard the just-christened $21-million river cruiser have rushed to the rooftop to feel the spring warmth on their skin. With France on one side of the Rhine and Germany on the other, we leave the border city of Strasbourg behind and set off down the river towards Switzerland.
Peeling off layers, we chat and settle into the just-unwrapped furniture and watch locals riding bikes along the banks and wave at people on passing cruisers. With slick bar service, cool tunes coming from the bridge and delightful company, understandably, we don't move until dark.
On the previous days, cruising along an especially enchanting stretch known as the romantic Rhine from Amsterdam through Germany, we have seen a medley of ancient bridges, hilltop castles, half-timber houses, candy coloured villages and pretty riverfront parks.
But it's the Moselle Valley - where the steepest vineyards on Earth soar from the water's edge - that rewards us with the vistas we've come across the world to see.
As if in an illustrator's fantasy, we glide silently along this major tributary and watch farmers who look more like rock climbers tending to crops that have been producing wine on these luscious hills since Roman times.
The angle is so sharp, the vineyards look as if they may tumble into the river at any moment, taking the farmers and their machines with them.
Everyone from the Romans to Napoleon wanted this area - guides regale us with war stories from a string of different conquerors who battled to get their hands on this bountiful stretch of Europe, each leaving the landmarks we are seeing every day.
With each passing hour, a magical new scene comes into view. Like flicking through images on an iPhone, this is a two-day passing parade of architectural delights. Stop-you-in-your-tracks feats of human endeavour are around every bend: castles in bafflingly perfect nick with Disney-esque princess towers, magnificent city gates, drawbridges, churches with 1000-year-old spires and ancient bridges that have supported armies of knights on horseback.
And then there's the headsets. And the giant in-cabin flat screens, plus shiny new personal GPS devices. And the free wi-fi. If you like your history to come connected, it doesn't get much better than this array of gadgets.
Each cabin comes with ingenious headset devices that you wear on shore excursions. The technology means that instead of having to hurry to stay near your guide on shore as you wander the sights of cobbled mediaeval towns, you can dawdle, lingering where you fancy while still hearing their commentary.
Or not. There's always the option of not joining shore tours and immersing yourself in your own exploration of towns like Cochem, Berncastle and Trier, where our visits are frustratingly brief and which taunt day trippers with cake-laden windows, delectable boutiques, beer taverns and cosy river-view cafes.
You won't miss out if you opt out of shore tours altogether as the devices work on the ship too, with satellite-assisted commentary on passing towns and landmarks adding an extra dimension to quiet time in your cabin or a cuppa in the lounge.
A huge smart TV in my Royal Suite meant dozens of pay movies at the ready plus BBC, CNN and email at my fingertips (though internet connection was patchy, particularly through valley stretches). A second internet-connected flat screen has been installed, presumably to short-circuit mouse envy.
With only 171 passengers, the principal feeling on this high-tech floating hotel is one of intimacy. With about 50 staff, a personal and friendly cruising experience is standard. By day two, most of the hotel and waiting staff have remembered our names and what we like to drink with dinner.
Special touches on board include water bottles in the modern and spacious gym, in-cabin canapes at sundown, all-day cakes and pastries at the River Cafe, and fresh flowers.
The cabin turn-down service, where chocolates are placed, curtains are drawn and notes left for the next day's amusements, makes for a cosy after-dinner cocoon.
I'm grateful for my spacious suite with king bed, oodles of cupboard space, full-sized bath, walk-in shower, sitting area and balcony. It's the Rolls-Royce of river-cruise cabins and it takes the experience from really great to magical.
Unlike ocean cruising, the ship's movement is barely perceptible. At night, with the curtains drawn, it's impossible to know if we are sailing or in dock. There's no engine noise where I am, in the middle of the top deck; fellow cruisers sleeping on lower decks do say there is a gentle hum, but it's not enough to disturb their rest.
Though Crystal has a Bulgarian captain, a French cruise director and a Serbian hotel manager, its Australian heritage is clearly in evidence. An Aussie-style power point is in each cabin along with local versions, there's Bundy rum behind the bar and no one is going without their Vegie on toast at breakfast.
Our meals range from pleasant to really memorable - a degustation meal with matching wines was a winner - with the breakfast buffet consistently faultless.
Portobello's is the new ship's more intimate, finer dining spot, and for anyone not in the mood for socialising, you can now order room service. This is what you call effortless cruising.
The writer was a guest of Scenic Cruises.
Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Amsterdam via Singapore. singaporeair.com.
Cabins on the 14-day Amsterdam to Basel cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers start from $6695 a person.
Jewel to join sister on Rhine cruises
When a bottle of Veuve Clicquot shattered against the bow of the week-old Scenic Crystal last April, the benchmark for luxury, mod con-laden river cruising moved up another notch.
But it won't be long before it is outdone by its own sister. Australian company boss Glen Maroney announced at the riverside christening in Rudesheim that improvements on the freshly minted ship were already under way and would be incorporated into another new ship — the Scenic Jewel — which is expected to be on the water next year.
Coming attractions include expanded satellite commentary on headsets making your own guided cycling or walking tour possible, a range of new dining options including high tea, unlimited complimentary beverages and free wi-fi. Refinements to the remote-activated balcony windows (which have made their debut on Crystal) will improve the views from the outdoor space, which can now be sealed and used in any weather.
Butler service, currently only accessible to top-level cabins, will be introduced next year to all passengers.
Two wheels a good way to take in sights
With 25 e-bikes on board seeing riverside towns on two wheels has never been easier.
Offering six different speed settings, the $2000 electrically assisted cycles whiz along at up to 25km/h, making the do-it-yourself slog uphill a thing of the past. Whether you take the gentle help option or get into top speed thrill-seeker mode, almost all stops on the Crystal itinerary are bike-friendly, with wide, flat paths along riverbank parks.
For those who would like to go further afield, Crystal's impressive new portable GPS-assisted map devices make it impossible to get lost.
Here are the best bike-friendly spots we found along the way.
With almost 500 kilometres of bike lanes around the greater city area, this historically fascinating town on the border of Germany and France is the poster child for how you get a whole population to stop driving. No cars are allowed in the old town area of Le Petit France, where you can park your bike in city-provided spots and enjoy the many outdoor restaurants, lanes and cobbled squares with not a car in sight.
It's well sign-posted for those who would like to tackle the 30-minute ride back to the river, or ask a crew member to load the bikes into the luggage hold of the coach and take off once the bus drops you in the town centre.
The streets of this gorgeous village wind their way up quite a hill — meaning only the very brave would tackle them even on these boosted two-wheelers.
But the flat pathways along the riverside park are perfect for riding. The town is famous for its Christmas markets but walking around the fairy-lit shops, you could be forgiven for thinking it was December 25 every day. Note to Christmas tragics: do not miss the wildly popular Kathe Wohlfahrt store in the old town for handmade festive homewares, tree decorations and music boxes.
Everyone's riding bikes here too, but as Switzerland's financial hub, it's a much busier place than the small villages we've been riding in previously, so you will need to remember to look right, not left, before crossing the road.
You'll also need your wits about you on the outskirts of the car-free old town, where trams criss-cross at regular intervals. Tie up your pushie and take a walk around the lively cafe and shopping squares. Leaving the ship, there's much to see riding along the wide riverfront avenue with cafes and pretty homes. Just don't forget to ask where the lift up to the bridge into town is — we missed it and had to haul the bikes up three flights.