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LUXURY CRUISE: Emerald Sky 

Style: A lot of luxe for your lucre
Scene: Europe
Seen on Deck: Aussies, North Americans and Brits - some seasoned sailors, others river cruise virgins

In the afternoon I was sitting comfortably on a super-squishy lounger by the pool watching the world float past, and as the stars came out at night I occupied exactly the same spot with Daniel Craig.

OK, to be strictly accurate, he was on screen starring as James Bond in Skyfall, but anyone can dream. And sharing the surroundings with just a few other cinemagoers, similarly ensconced in the reclining chairs with boxes of popcorn, along with a cocktail bar in the corner, the scene was set for a memorable evening.

Welcome to the world of Emerald Waterways, a new kid on the block that has raised the bar on river cruising. With one ultra-modern vessel, another about to be launched and two more on the way, Emerald is offering deluxe and original amenities at - and here's the other best bit - prices that won't break the bank. And that's before mentioning the fact the beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, plus all tips, are included in the price. So, what's not to like?'

emerald sky
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emerald sky owners one bed suite
emerald sky pool
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emerald sky grand balcony suite

It's Europe's newest river cruise line to set sail since the Australian-owned parent company Scenic Tours launched its all-inclusive brand Scenic Cruises in 2008. Marketed under the familiar name of Evergreen Tours in its homeland, at the helm is founder and managing director Glen Moroney who set out to create the 'next generation' of river cruising. His wife Karen is responsible for much of the décor and the end result has all the trappings to tempt more people, including younger passengers, to step aboard.

Although it's the fastest growing sector of the cruise industry, river cruising has a bit of a fuddy-duddy image compared with new ocean-going ships and some people think it might not be their cup of tea.

But first impressions of Emerald Sky quickly dispel any preconceptions. In fact, the 182-passenger vessel got off to a suitably stylish start when it was launched in March 2014 by 60s supermodel and British style-icon Twiggy.

With liberal use of glass, mirrors and funky fibre-optic lights topping the atrium, this is a boutique-style ship that stands out from the crowd. The main lounge, usually a 'matchy-matchy' affair on most vessels, has a contemporary look with deliberately mismatching chairs and tables, lavish coffee table books on fashion and design and a shiny black bar with strobe lighting that wouldn't be out of place in an ultra-cool hotel.

Similarly, the artwork is not a one-size-fits-all afterthought to fill bare walls and spaces.  An innovative Dutch company called Oasegroen - green oasis - has created a floating gallery with its trademark sustainable and eco-friendly art. The striking exhibits in the lounge and public areas include Native American necklaces made from natural materials, marlin's teeth collected from seashores, non-endangered coral and petrified wood hardened to a shiny marble-like consistency. The biggest talking point, in every sense of the world, are giant plant containers made from eggshells.

The most impressive facility is the surprisingly spacious heated pool area, flanked on three sides by panoramic windows and with a retractable roof for sunny days. With the bar for ice-cream and drinks, it's Sky's standout feature and the only flexible space of its kind on any river vessel. By night the pool floor comes up to transform it into the cinema or a smaller lounge area. There are usually three film nights a week, which range from recent blockbusters to movies linked to the area - think a sing-along  to The Sound of Music in Austria. The cinema is free, you just need to put your name down in advance.

Cabins spread over the three passenger decks range from single and double cabins with fixed windows on the lower deck to four two-room Owner's Suites and eight Grand Balcony Suites on the upper deck that have sit-out balconies. In between are the Panorama Balcony Suites, which is a slight misnomer as they don't technically have balconies. However, the floor-to-ceiling window drops right down to halfway at the touch of the button and, with two chairs and a table on the wooden floor beside the window, it gives the impression of  being on a veranda. Cabins on river vessels are never huge, but Sky's pack in everything you need including a flat-screen TV, ample storage, a minibar and decent-sized shower with Italian-branded bathroom products.

Sky sails on three itineraries ranging from eight to 15 days on the Rhine, Moselle, Main and Danube, and our Amsterdam to Basel cruise took in sights such as Cologne's magnificent Gothic cathedral, the spectacular Rhine Gorge lined with vineyards, charming medieval towns such as Cochem and Rudesheim and the dense Black Forest. Rather than be a full-on cultural overload, Emerald has struck a happy medium. Daily excursions are included in the cruise price and passengers who want to discover more can pay extra to go on optional in-depth outings. For those who want to head off under their own steam there are free onboard bikes, available on first-come first-served basis.

Food is an important part of any holiday and Sky doesn't disappoint.  Buffet breakfast and lunch - with a big choice of hot and cold dishes - and a waiter service evening meal is served in the airy main dining room. Dinners include a choice of appetizer, soup, main course and dessert and there's always a veggie dish, plus steak or salmon, available daily. The captain's gala nights include a couple of extra courses. Most lunchtimes I headed to the bar, where a lighter lunch is served, and bagged myself a spot on the outdoor terrace.

Of course anything Australian wouldn't be complete without a barbie and there's a permanent one on the sun deck that's used for lunch at least once a week, weather permitting. Afterwards passengers can sleep it off on the sun loungers or work it off on the walking track and mini-golf area.

Evening entertainment is low-key, with a resident lounge crooner and pianist plus visiting entertainers who hop on and off along the way. The enthusiastic Swiss couple playing cow bells had to be seen to be believed. The bar shuts when the last man, or woman, is no longer standing, and never before midnight.

In keeping with its roots, the ship has a nice relaxed and informal atmosphere and there's no stuffy dress code, although shorts and flip-flops/thongs are not appropriate for dinner.
So if you thought river cruising isn't for you, Emerald Waterways might be just the thing to float your boat.
 

Ultimate Luxury:  Complimentary mini-bar, pre-dinner canapés and after-dinner sweet treats in the Owner's Suite.

Most Indulgent Moment: Ordering a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to go with your popcorn in the cinema.
Insider Secrets: Book an Owner's Suites or Grand Balcony Suite for a host of goodies including a pillow menu, free laundry and invite to dine on the captain's table.
The Little Things: A hair salon to tame the tresses, a small but perfectly formed massage room and a tiny gym.
Junior Luxies: Better to stay on dry land. While not actively discouraged, there are no facilities for children.
Dress code: Casual by day and smart casual by night is the way to go.
Dent in the platinum:  
Luxury Cruise Link: www.emeraldwaterways.co.uk/ www.emeraldwaterways.com
Jeannine Williamson 30/4/14
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