Taking to the mighty Danube River in luxury and style and a bed so comfortable that the memory of it brings a tear to your eye is a marvellous way to travel, writes Sophie Barclay.
When I told a friend that I was going on a cruise, the quick-witted larrikin asked me when my hip replacement was due.
River cruises, however, are nothing like the sea-based versions; in these sleek and smaller boats (a fraction of the size of ocean cruisers) there are no octogenarians battling at the bridge table, rather the passengers are a younger, more intrepid crowd and the itinerary is packed full of local dining experiences and day trips.
On board the brand-spanking new Avalon Illumination suite ship (christened by former Australian model Deborah Hutton, who showered the boat's bow in a bottle of Austrian chardonnay), this was to be my introduction to the world of river cruising and to a slice of the blue Danube's 1400km.
Actually, it's far from blue, rather browny-green. Theories abound as to why Johann Strauss incorrectly titled Vienna's most famous waltz.
Some ideas are romantic (he was inspired by the reflection of a summer sky on the water), others tend towards the less salubrious ("blue" means tipsy in German -- perhaps Strauss' composition was aided by the inspiration of more than one generous glass of Austrian white).
Avalon's latest addition, the 83-cabin, 135m-long Illumination, has set it at the forefront of cruising innovation. The ship was designed over 13 months, using guests' feedback and the creative input of 450 designers.
It's definitely worth paying extra to upgrade to the 18.5sq m Panorama Suite. Here, beds face the river (as a cruising virgin, I expected this to be the norm but in fact it's a recent innovation pioneered by Avalon) so you can watch the Danube as it drifts past, making its way from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea.
The river forms a central part of the identity of the nine countries it traverses; on our trip from Austria to Budapest we are privy to the fertile, alluvial soils of precariously perched, terraced Austrian vineyards.
Packs of cyclists zip alongside in the latest wave of cycle tourism to hit Europe and the river cuts a neat slice as it cuts through Budapest, dividing the city into the older, castle-crowned Buda and the younger, flatter Pest.
The view is amazing from the Panorama and the more luxurious Royal suites (boasting twin sinks, a larger lounge and two flatscreen televisions). These suites offer floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows that transform cabins into an open-air balcony while providing privacy, rain cover and more spacious rooms (30 per cent larger than most competitors).
If you are docking at a busy city in the morning, by all means enjoy the starlit river view -- just remember to close the curtains before you go to sleep. Coming into Slovakia, the ship suddenly turns and we scrape up against Bratislava's busy streets. The windows are wide open, the curtains drawn and I am as naked as the day I was born.
I have just enough time to dash to the windows, duvet covering my vitals and restore my sense of dignity before the strolling, fuzzy blobs become discernible human beings.
Bathrooms are spacious and filled with L'Occitane toiletries. Storage seems limitless: plenty under the bed and cupboards galore so I can appease my neat-freak travel companion.
There's free wifi on board -- another innovation -- or you could just ignore it and make use of the many movies available on your TVs.
But the piece-de-resistance surely must be the bed. A memory foam mattress, Egyptian cotton with a ludicrous thread count and a duvet that feels like I am being hugged by a cloud. Each morning I awake encased in a soft, warm meringue and immediately feel anxious about leaving this haven.
But breakfast awaits. Going hungry is literally impossible, there's a set menu that changes daily, grill lunches up on deck, the Panorama Bistro on the bow and a midnight snack after 10.
Dinner comes with lashings of wine and beer and my room is just a short stroll away, so it's a great chance to get stuck into some of those Austrian whites.
Although not quite the domain of the ancients, cruising is definitely suited to an older crowd -- the average age is 63, but this is decreasing each year.
Given this is the target demographic, the ship and its tiny exercise room doesn't really cater for under-30 yoga freaks like me, but the plethora of off-ship exercises (including walking tours and Danube-side cycling) also helps to work up an appetite for the next helping of goulash and strudel.
One of the strengths of Avalon's operation is that you can opt into activities at the last moment.
So, if you want to miss the apricot or wine tasting and just sit and watch the mighty river pass by, you don't have to worry about "getting your money's worth".
Plus, it's a great excuse to spend more time in those delicious beds.
Dürnstein, Austria's second-smallest town which throngs with 1.5 million tourists annually. Taste its apricot delicacies including sweet, thick apricot juice and apricot schnapps. Visit Austria's only sky-blue spire at the Augustinian Abbey, recently restored from its WWII grey palette, or walk up to the castle ruins where England's Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by an Austrian duke in the late 12th century, and eventually released for 20 tonnes of silver.
Kunst Haus Wien celebrates the activism, architecture and art of Friedrich Hundertwasser. He was fascinated by the forgotten relationship between man and nature and his Gaudi-esque undulating floors emphasise his belief that the straight line is "Godless". The mosaic-clad museum was designed by Hundertwasser and it's just a short stroll to see his riotously coloured, tree-topped Hundertwasserhaus apartment block.
The Ringstrasse marks the former fortification of the city, torn down by Emperor Franz Josef in 1865 to extend the city during Vienna's hey-day of concert halls, classical music and gold-gilded opulence. Grab a bike from one of the 120 city-wide Citybike stations (free hireage for the first hour) or join a Pedal Power cycle tour and check out the sites including museums, the beautiful rose gardens (and the tiny Theseus temple exhibition space) and the Hofburg Imperial Palace, where you can see collections of the eccentric Empress Sisi. Refresh with freshly made strudel and Viennese fare at Cafe Prückel, opposite the stunning Museum of Applied Arts.
It's only a 30-minute drive from our stop at Bratislava to the Schloss Hof (located on the Western tip of Austria, near the border with Slovakia). This decadent palace was purchased by party-mad Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1726, left to his debaucherous niece, and eventually rescued by the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa, who raised sixteen children here. Wander through the huge sprawling gardens, modelled on Versailles, where Prince Eugene grew up, and visit the museum which holds royal treasures, displays recreated rooms and offers an insight into the royals' lifestyle - including their abysmal personal hygiene (although it seems all they ever drank was wine so I'm sure no one noticed). Keep an eye out for the display of various scratching implements and ivory flea traps, which were tucked into wigs or clothing. Don't miss the farm with its collection of albino animals.
Head to the harrowing House of Terror Museum for a sobering insight into Hungary's history of oppression - from Nazi occupation in 1944 (more than 400,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps) through to the Soviet reign, where many intellectuals and political dissidents were carted off to gulags and worked to their deaths smashing rocks and coal mining in the ice. The basement hides the recreated torture chambers and secret gallows that were last used in the 1980s.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific has a low-season fare from Auckland to Vienna for tickets purchased by March 31, 2015.
Further information: See avalonwaterways.co.nz.
The writer was hosted by Avalon Waterways, the Vienna Tourist Board and Cathay Pacific.