Where y'all from? That friendly Texan drawl is the icebreaker to meeting fellow travellers on our river cruise on the Rhine and Moselle waters.
We are sitting in the MS Avalon Visionary's formal dining room, at a table for two, crisp white linen with more cutlery than we know what to do with.
Our fellow travellers have had a head start, doing the "walking tours of Paris" option a few days before we board in the Luxembourg riverside village of Remich.
We ponder whether we may have "missed the boat" for forming friendships as the others already had three days to mix and mingle.
No such thing. "Where y'all from" is followed by an invitation to join a table of four Americans the next night.
As cruise newbies we had been a little nervous about whether this way of travelling would be our thing. We tend to think of ourselves more as independent rather than group travellers, and we are a decade plus a country short of the average Avalon traveller, who is over 60 and American.
Again, we needn't worry. The week on board this sleek floating hotel meets and surpasses all expectations. Lots of friendly fellow travellers want to know where we're from. And we always ask the Americans who they'll be voting for.
Travelling with a river cruise is like having our five-star accommodation following us as we make our way through picturesque parts of Europe. Floating through the Moselle and Rhine valleys. Waking every morning to a different view. Mooring at picture postcard pretty towns to either take a guided tour (sometimes we do) or explore on your own.
Usually there is a riverside track if we want to walk, run or cycle (using bikes on board) while the boat is tied up for a few hours.
It is usually easy to walk back to the boat from the town or city centre after a tour if you need a loo stop or simply want a rest in your 18.5sq m stateroom, for the mid-afternoon coffee and cake or the popular happy hour in the bar before dinner.
And gradually our waistbands become a little tighter as we indulge in the restaurant meals and the wines the late snack of cheeses and crackers 24/7 tea, coffee, water, juices and hot chocolates plus cookies or freshly cooked pastries or doughnuts. Yes, there are lots of healthy eating options, too, but what the hell, this is our holiday and I don't have to cook.
Our route follows the Moselle from Remich in Luxembourg to Trier, Germany's oldest town, then the delightful wine villages of Bernkastel and Cochem. We walk through the cobblestoned streets and past the half-timbered houses in Trier.
In the petite village of Bernkastel-Kues we follow a guide whose laugh and smiling eyes remind us of our own Tim Shadbolt, and climb the steps in the narrow streets up to the area where vineyards border the handsome buildings, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Later we taste wines in a huge, barrelled cellar on the other side of the river, choosing from a grand selection of local wines. And as luck has it, there is a wine festival on with wine stalls and great (think contemporary rather than oompah) music where we dance until it is time to join the boat for its night sailing.
In Cochem we visited Reichsburg Castle with its Renaissance and Baroque furnishings, and then look out over the steeply planted vineyards and down to the river.
The next day the boat motors to where the Moselle and Rhine rivers converge.
The much bigger Rhine brings increased water traffic and a wider passage as the boat manoeuvres locks up through the valleys and we gaze in wonder at castle after castle after castle, from the top deck where sun loungers, tables and chairs and even a spa pool are all available as great vantage points. (Point of interest: Everything on the top deck, including the captains' watchtower can fold down for the lowest of bridges.)
In the Rhine Gorge we stop at Rudesheim, its attractive historic town centre right by the river and easy to walk to from the boat. The highlight here is a visit to Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum, which is a mouthful to say but also a visit I recommend. This houses a large collection of 18th to early 20th century self-playing calliopes and music boxes. The intricate movements and quality of sound increase as we move through the museum dateline, and appreciate the time and expertise it took to make these instruments.
We take the chairlift to view the hillside 32 tonne bronze Niederwald monument celebrating mid-1800s German unification, and walk one of the many trails in this peaceful forest park overlooking Rudesheim.
Leaving the hillside vineyards we move along the Rhine towards the sea, through locks (a highlight is watching the water levels change at each of the 14 locks we passed through on the trip) to industrial and more populated Dusseldorf (we ditch the tour to go sales shopping) and then into the Dutch canals and Amsterdam.
Here the itinerary included walking and canal tours. And we took the boat's bikes to sample the craziness of cycling in this vibrant city with more bikes than people by the time I watch for other bike riders, ambling tourists and the occasional car, plus make sure I don't end up in the drink, I hardly have time to take in the sights, but when we turn into quieter side streets we can look around.
The amazing part of doing a river cruise is going to sleep each night, leaving our ranchslider wide open if we are on the move and waking each morning to a different view. And I sleep like a log; again the joy of having the same comfortable bed night after night rather than getting used to a new bed every time you change cities.
And the convenience of being able to move between cities without having to pack and unpack bags, or check in and out of hotel receptions and carry luggage between city and village stops.
Sure, a tour might seem a lot of money all up, but when you break down the cost and realise it includes hotel equivalent accommodation, five-star restaurant meals from fresh local produce, snacks, wine and beer with meals, tours, bus transfers, L'Occitane bathroom products, use of the bikes and books in the rear lounge library, and your room serviced every day with a log fire left playing on the TV screen, it becomes an affordable and also a stress-free way to travel. The pianist playing through happy hour each day, the formal concert on board at Rudesheim, the crew's show
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