A Rhine river cruise through the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland takes Sharon Stephenson past fairytale castles and storybook medieval towns. And then there's the food. So, so much food...
How fat can I get in eight days? Quite fat, as it happens.
We've signed up for Uniworld's Castles Along the Rhine cruise, a slow drift along Europe's second largest river. Having sailed from Amsterdam on the SS Antoinette, for eight glorious days we meander through the Netherlands, Germany and France to Switzerland.
We're in good company: around 250,000 passengers travel along European rivers a year, particularly the Rhine, Danube and the Rhone. But Europe is putting on her winter coat when we take to the water, so it rarely feels crowded.
The real reason 110 of us have travelled from the US, UK, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand is for the bit of the Rhine Valley between Koblenz and Rudesheim. Known as the Romantic Rhine, this 64km UNESCO-listed stretch features more medieval castles than any other region in the world, with each bend in the river coughing up yet another fairytale turret.
Our German tour guide tells us that most castles were originally built for protection against marauders. Many were later destroyed by fire and invasion, although several have been turned into flash hotels.
But if castles are the star of this show then the supporting actor is surely food – a bounty of riches that make me wish I had more willpower. We awake to buffet breakfasts where I consume more calories than I would in a week of breakfasts back home. After that, it's time to set sail so; by morning tea some of Europe's most stunning scenery is gently rolling past my stateroom window.
And then it's lunchtime – another groaning buffet – with wines to match. Fortunately, shore excursions help to work off some of the excesses and fill in time until dinner. In Cologne, for example, a local guide walks us through the old town and its crowning glory, the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany. We wander inside, gob-smacked at the stained glass windows and the remains of the Three Kings (yes, the ones present at the birth of Jesus).
Further down the river in Rudesheim, a cute gingerbread sort of town with cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, we take a cable car across hills studded with grapes, go wine tasting at a 14th century vineyard and consume even more calories when we stop for a local coffee, which comes laced with brandy and a mountain of whipped cream.
Dinner, however, is when the eating frenzy really goes into overdrive. Executive Chef Carlos Benedito, a Portuguese chef who's worked for Uniworld for eight years, is in charge of the below-deck galley and its 14 staff. The four course dinner is A' la carte, with a choice of four starters, two soups and four mains, as well as vegetarian and lighter options. If you have the room, there are also two dessert choices and a cheeseboard.
To ensure the freshest food, Chef Benedito picks up provisions at every stop, churning through around 1,100 eggs and 1,000 bread rolls a trip. He also tailors the menu and wine list to the region so, for example, one night German 'honeymoon soup' (consommé with vegetable and beef ravioli) is on the menu, while another night we gorge on apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream.
One morning we cram into the dining room to watch one of the ship's three pastry chefs make a German Black Forest cake. I'm torn between following the recipe and watching yet another spectacular castle glide by, but wrench myself away from the scenery when it comes time to scoff the delicious cake.
It's also hard not to get addicted to the freshly-baked cookies that are left in my room every day and at beverage stations around the ship. Which could explain why the average weight gain for most passengers on an eight day cruise is around 2.26kg.
River cruises are, of course, about more than just the scenery and food. We watch the latest movies in the on-board cinema, attend nightly lectures that provide the back-story of places we'll be visiting the next day and try to mitigate some of the calories with daily trips to the ship's gym and pool.
When we disembark in Switzerland, I feel like crying – not only because my jeans feel far too snug but because I realise that from now on, no-one will be waiting on me hand and foot, serving me delicious four-course meals.