Gazing out from my balcony on board MS Emerald Sun, every curve in the river unveiled another cultural gem.

Like a living history book, a river cruise on the Rhine is a scenically blessed revelation.

Plying the Amsterdam to Basel route, it's a classic cruise destination, where leisure-seekers share one of the world's busiest shipping rivers with a floating parade of commerce, with barge after barge packed to the gunnels with freight.

You'll see gleaming new Japanese cars flowing down from Amsterdam, as sparkly German models for export head north.

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After departing Koblenz, the starring attraction of the Rhine Gorge soon beckoned, housing the river's crown jewels within a 60km section, until you reach Bingen.

An eternal blue sky and gentle spring sunshine accentuated the setting, as we glided by dozens of castles and fortresses, encrusting the steep hillsides flanking the river, like time-honoured sentinels — 46 castles in fact, many reaching back nearly a millennium, each boasting their own distinctive back-story, although many of them were informally known as robber-baron castles.

The Rhine becomes like a visual story book of history with buildings from the past.
The Rhine becomes like a visual story book of history with buildings from the past.

The Germany we know today resembled 300 independent little countries in the Middle Ages, including scores of silly little kingdoms governing the Rhine. A passing barge had to pay tolls to each robber baron castle, if they wanted to get through. Just imagine it.

Fast-forward to today and these once rapacious and palatial cash-cows spangle the skyline with timeless imperious wonder. Many were rebuilt after the notion of doing a Grand Tour of Europe became feverishly fashionable among English elites in the Victorian age.

But some have withstood the test of time unmolested, like the 900-year-old Marksburg Castle — built so high up, it was impervious to attack. Some of the Rhine castles, like glorious Stolzenfels, also served as a design inspiration for many of the 19th century Bavarian castles, including Neuschwanstein.

As we floated by this fairytale world of legends and confections, one particular story made me chuckle. The Mouse Tower is a column-like castle on a river island, which ended up as the roost of the nasty Archbishop of Mainz, in the 10th century. The story goes his tower was besieged by thousands of mice, as rapacious as he was greedy, and they ate him alive.

Equally enchanting are the soaring wine terraces that rise up from the river to spectacular heights. The vineyards date back to Roman times and the Rheingau wine region is considered as Germany's most prestigious.

Reisling is the dominant variety, although because of the slate in the soil, these delightfully wreathed terraced hillsides also produce splendid pinot noir. Suitably, over dinner later that evening, we saluted our day of gorging on the Rhine's timeless treasures with some winning vintages.

Passengers watch atmospheric villages - and stunning castles - float by while relaxing on the deck.
Passengers watch atmospheric villages - and stunning castles - float by while relaxing on the deck.

Green light for NZ office

Emerald Waterways has recently opened a New Zealand office, allowing you to book direct with their Kiwi team.

Some river cruises sell at eye-watering prices.

Emerald Waterways strives to be far more accessible to Kiwi budgets, with exceptional value deals and great flexibility.

Airport transfers, on board tips and gratuities, all on board meals, and complimentary wine and beer served with lunch and dinner are all included in the cruise price.

In deference to the evolving river cruise demographic, I noticed the ship was equipped with bikes and a range of Emerald Active excursions are tailored for guests seeking extra adrenaline when ashore.

Breakfast and lunch were lavish buffet affairs of gastronomic abundance, while dinner was the full four-course a la carte dining experience, with the accent on regional dishes, paired with complimentary wines and beers.

Cruising in early summer, the weather was radiantly warm on our cruise, which presented the option of dining al fresco on the Sun Deck at the barbecue.

On the Panorama deck of my ship, an ingenious touch is the Riverview Lounge, boasting an indoor heated pool with fully retractable roof, which transforms into a cinema at night, if you want to catch a Hollywood classic.

I gazed in awe as the floor rose through the pool's surface while a movie screen dropped from above. But the thrill of nailing a few lengths before breakfast each morning, as atmospheric villages floated by, was the biggest pinch-yourself moment.