Rhine Valley

You can take trains, planes and automobiles to get there. But if you truly want to get a feel for Germany's famous Rhine valley, then taking a river cruise past its scenic castles and vineyard-covered mountains has an awful lot to recommend it too.

Our pre-Christmas trip began with a flight into Amsterdam, a city which will need little introduction to travellers given its status as one of the most important cultural centres in Europe. A water-based city, it has more canals than Venice and, at over 1,200, more bridges than Paris.

So it was perhaps appropriate that we met our cruise ship, which was moored at a location not far from the city's famous central station, to begin our trip there. Owned and operated by the US-based company Ama Waterways, which offers cruises in Europe, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia, our vessel's window-lined sides allowed ample opportunities to view the passing scenery.

The boat itself was relatively small in size, but its comfortable piano lounge area and well-appointed rooms meant it was to serve as an excellent base for our four-night cruise.

The bedrooms included a good selection of TV channels and free, on-demand movies, although there were difficulties connecting to the in-room internet service at times. (The free wifi available elsewhere onboard more than compensated for this however.)

The food served on board – all of which is included in the holiday package cost – was by and large excellent, with many in our travelling group taking full advantage of the unlimited complimentary wine which accompanied each themed evening meal.

Meanwhile, the upper deck offered an extensive sun deck, although this was understandably enough not in huge demand given that our trip took place in the middle of winter. At times, however, the atmosphere onboard did feel a bit like being back in school. The sound of the undoubtedly well-meaning if perhaps overly persistent (we were on holidays, after all) staff members' voices came echoing down the corridors, encouraging us to partake in various briefings and excursions, at sometimes inopportune occasions. This is but a minor quibble, however, when in truth having access to the expertise of professional tourguides during sightseeing visits is a definite bonus for anyone anxious to avoid a do-it-yourself type holiday.

Our one-night stay in Amsterdam was unfortunately all too brief. But the bars and restaurants of this most vibrant of cities, and its infamous red-light district, were definitely pumping by the time we ventured out after dinner.

Although the Dutch authorities may be planning to introduce tough new laws banning the sale of cannibas to tourists – which some estimates suggest could lead to the closure of six out of 10 such businesses – for now, at least, this appeared to have done little to dampen demand.

A trip on the city's canals the following day, complete with live commentary, was an undoubted highlight of the entire holiday and is highly recommended, serving as an excellent introduction to the city of Van Gogh, Anne Frank, Rembrandt and others.

The journey took in arguably the city's most famous bridge, the picturesque Skinny bridge – a wooden drawbridge dating back to 1670, which traverses the river Amstel.

A coach tour took in the famous Rembrandt windmill – and afforded an opportunity to photograph its somewhat bemused occupants getting into their family car for a trip to the local shops.

Later that day, we returned to our ship, which set off on the next leg of our cruise – the overnight journey to Cologne in Germany.

There, a guided walking tour through the city, stopping to look at evidence of its Roman origins, was thoroughly enjoyable, although it would have been nice to stay overnight to get a real feel for the place.

A major highlight of the Cologne visit was its Christmas markets, where 160 or so wooden pavilions sold all types of wares including artisan-produced toys, jewellery, home furnishings and food.

Later that afternoon, it was back to the boat, where we set sail for Koblenz, arriving there late in the evening.

To be honest, the town itself – which made international headlines a week or so after our visit when police discovered a large cannabis plant which had been decorated like a Christmas tree (complete with tinsel and twinkling fairy lights) – was somewhat disappointing.

Having been billed as a key attraction of our trip, it unfortunately did not live up to expectations. Although perfectly nice, it did not really stand out as having anything particularly distinctive to offer the casual tourist.

This may have had a lot to do with the fact that we were there on a quiet Sunday evening in winter, and in fairness our nighttime walk around the town did prove to be a nice counterpoint to our earlier evening meal.

Whatever minor disappointment we might have felt about Koblenz however was soon dispelled by the next morning's events.

Sailing through the magnificent Rhine gorge, it is safe to say that few of us on board will have ever seen so many castles in one place. Surrounded by steep mountains covered in rich vineyards, the experience was helped along by a guided commentary about the significance and history of the various places we passed. This included the famous Lorelei rock, located at the narrowest and deepest point of the Rhine, and a place which has led to the demise of many a ship and its cargo over the centuries.

It is also a romantic spot, and is the subject of a famous German folk tale. According to the legend, a beautiful young maiden, Lorelei, threw herself headlong into the river in despair over an unfaithful lover. When she died she was transformed into a siren and could from that time on be heard singing on her rock along the Rhine, using her hypnotic music to lure unfortunate sailors to their deaths.

Next up was the final port of call for our visit – the town of Rudesheim, which is only 90 minutes from Frankfurt airport. This was another highpoint of our trip, and a fine way to end our short break. Surrounded by some of the best wine-growing areas of the Rheingau Riesling wine region, Rüdesheim is one of the best-known tourist towns in the area.

Many of our travelling group took full advantage of the wares on offer in its market stalls, which, while similar to those for sale in Cologne, also offered a wide variety of stock from other countries.

The town itself is made up of a series of charming alleyways and streets lined with welcoming taverns and restaurants, beckoning visitors inside for a friendly gluhwein or a bite to eat away from the snow-covered streets.

Overall, the experience of a river cruise down the Rhine was a thoroughly enjoyable one. It has to be said that many of our fellow passengers on board appeared to be drawn from the ranks of American retirees, many of whom stayed onboard to continue their voyage onwards after we left. This suggests such trips are targeted at this demographic, but it is not hard to see the attraction for younger couples too.

Travelling along the Rhine in summer, spring or autumn no doubt offers a very different experience to the one we enjoyed. But it was a damn fine part of the world to visit on a cold and frosty winter weekend, too.

The essentials

The Tulip Time eight-day cruise through Holland and Germany starts from €1,549 per person including flights, transfers, half-board accommodation in a deluxe cabin, all-day sightseeing tours and guides and all taxes and charges. This itinerary is available from 28 March to 2 May on selected dates. Other itineraries are available year round. Check out sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-2886828.

Three other river cruises worth trying

Tulip Time Cruise

The Belgian and Dutch waterways are especially pretty in springtime as you will discover on this eight-day trip which departs from March to May. Tulip carpets and flower displays, the lush Kinderdinks countryside with its windmills and sampling famous local cheeses are just some of the highlights while in Belgium, you'll experience the medieval cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Brugges.

Price: from €1,549 per person

Vineyards of the Rhine & Mosel

This is an excellent way to catch a number of Europe's most vibrant cities with a seven-day cruise where you will sail the Rhine river from Amsterdam to Cologne, taking in vineyards and beautiful castles along the way. From the historic city of Koblenz, you'll travel along the Mosel River to Cochem and Bernkastel and tour Luxembourg before travelling to Paris to spend three days here. Departures are from April to November.

Price: from €1,599 per person

Provence & Spain

If you're torn between visiting France or Spain, you can do both with this fabulous 14-day trip. You'll start by spending three days in Paris before travelling by high-speed TGV train to Lyon. From there, cruise through French countryside that is home to wines such as Côte du Rhône and Beaujolais, with wine tastings, Roman ruins and medieval villages en route. After a stop off in Perpignan, the trip ends with a three-day stay in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Departures are from May to October.

Price: from €1,989 (all from Sunway.ie)