‘Born to rock, drink and f**k,’ read the graffiti in the bus shelter in St Goar, a quaint riverside town on the prettiest stretch of the Rhine. I looked both ways, along the quayside, hoping for further signs of hedonism and rebellion. Fat chance. St Goar was deserted. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Never in the field of luxury cruising, as Churchill might have put it, have the brash boasts of bored teenagers sounded so tame and trite.
I’d crossed the Rhine that evening, the only foot passenger on the car ferry, looking for something more lively than the entertainment on my cruise ship, the Johann Strauss. Here, the nightlife followed a familiar pattern: pre-dinner drinks in the Panorama Salon with Louis, our Bulgarian pianist, then dinner (with more drinks), then post-dinner drinks (chez Louis), then bed. It was a very pleasant way to spend an evening, but it was entirely predictable, and the sleepy village where we’d moored, St Goarhausen, was even more hushed and lifeless than St Goar, across the Rhine. Hence my impromptu excursion in search of — well, what exactly? Not sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, which was just as well (like the graffiti artist in the bus shelter, I would surely have been sorely disappointed), just something — anything — unexpected. For, as I’d already found, after just 24 hours on board, cruising along the Rhine means always knowing exactly what will happen next.
Every hour aboard the Johann Strauss is meticulously organised. A Daily Programme for the next day is delivered to your cabin every night. Of course if you’re used to travelling independently, this can feel claustrophobic, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it. It reminded me of being back at boarding school, but with no prep and far better food (the staff were nicer, too). Before you know it, you’re completely institutionalised. This boat has become your home, and standing here in St Goar at dusk, watching the bright lights of the Johann Strauss winking across the water, I felt suddenly bereft, like a baby duckling who has lost its mother.
I’d come aboard the night before in Cologne, joining Noble Caledonia’s Rhine Cruise, which had set sail from Amsterdam a few days earlier, stopping off in Bruges and Arnhem en route. Some passengers were due to disembark in Mannheim and fly home from Frankfurt. Some would be sailing on, along the Main, down the Danube and into the Black Sea. I’d been along the Rhine several times before, by car and train and bicycle, but although I’d even swum in it, I’d never done the trip by boat. I’d always envied those sleek cruise ships full of bon viveurs quaffing Sekt and Riesling, watching this glorious scenery sail past. Finally, at 45, I was the right age to join them — or so I thought. As it turned out I was probably the youngest passenger aboard, at least a generation younger than most of the other guests.
For Noble Caledonia, it seems to me, the advanced age of its Rhine cruisers is the elephant in the room. Nobody talks about it. It feels like a guilty secret. If I was in their shoes, I’d shout it from the rooftops. Unless you’re looking for a young lover — and you’d be mad to look for one on a Rhine cruise — then, whether you’re young or old, the seniority of the other passengers is great news. Older people are far more fun. They’re less uptight and more broadminded. Young people take themselves far too seriously. After the initial shock, I didn’t miss them for a moment. At the age of 45, it felt great to be, for the first time in ages, the youngest person in the room. There were no children onboard, but my seven year-old daughter would have loved it. It’s like living in a floating doll’s house, with a view from your bedroom window that’s forever changing, from urban to rural and back again.
The best thing about the Rhine is that it’s a working river, not a theme park. By sailing along it, you’re seeing it as proper sailors have always seen it, and still see it today. There are more tugs than pleasure boats, more travellers than tourists. By turns it’s industrial then picturesque, bustling and then tranquil. It’s not always pretty, but that’s part of its appeal.
The secret of successful river cruising, I soon discovered, is to escape from the group excursions. These shore trips inevitably proceed at the pace of the oldest, slowest passenger, but there’s nothing to stop you heading off on your own. While my fellow passengers boarded the ‘Disney’ train to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Museum in Rüdesheim, I hiked up the hill, through lush vineyards, to the bombastic statue of Germania. While my fellow passengers trekked around Heidelberg castle, I walked along the Philosopher’s Way, with its wonderful views over the Old Town. In an old curiosity shop in these cobbled backstreets, I bought a box of antique postcards for a few euros, and the shopkeeper handed me a bundle of old Spectators. ‘How much?’ I asked him, but he merely smiled and shook his head and said, ‘Just bring me some more next time you come.’
Fourteen nights from £2,795pp, including international flights or train fares and transfers (020 7752 0000; www.noble-caledonia.co.uk).