Gently Down the Stream
Cruise ships are now larger--and have more attractions--than some small nations. But there's also a subtler way to sail: river cruising. Marilyn Holstein explores Germany, Austria, and Hungary while drifting slowly along the Danube.
The big trend in cruising is bigness: Cruise lines are launching massive ships that can carry as many as 3,600 passengers. Everything you need for an exciting vacation is right onboard--spas, casinos, discos, specialty restaurants, even rock-climbing walls and surfing pools. It's a lot like going to Vegas.
But the second-biggest trend is the polar opposite--which may not be a coincidence. River cruising is all about slowness and intimacy: Ships holding 150 to 300 passengers drift their way along the world's most scenic rivers, including the Rhone, the Rhine, the Yangtze, and the Nile.
I've cruised all over--the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Great Barrier Reef--on large ships, on upscale ships, even on sailboats. But I'd never been on a river cruise, and I'd never been anywhere near the Danube.
Booking the Cruise
Many cruise lines--including Viking River Cruises, Uniworld Grand River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, Grand Circle Travel, and Peter Deilmann Cruises--have sailings on the Danube. I chose Viking's Romantic Danube itinerary (although I wasn't sure it'd be all that romantic, considering my mother would be joining me), mostly because it was short, eight days compared to 10 to 14 days on other lines. The cruise began in Nürnberg, Germany, and ended in Budapest, Hungary.
The cruise was also relatively inexpensive, at least compared to the options on other lines. We paid $8,608 for two people for a Category B cabin, which included round-trip flights (via Frankfurt) from New York City, seven tours, all meals, port charges, and airline taxes. It was higher than it might've been because I booked late: Only Category B cabins were available, and I missed the early-booking discount.
I investigated booking our own flights; since we were taking a one-way cruise and flying into one city and out of another, however, we were definitely better off letting Viking handle it. When my mother had to cancel, my boyfriend, Richard, came to the rescue. Changing the air reservations proved a hassle; it took six phone calls to get us on the same flight.
A month before departure, Viking sent a nifty gray carton with a magnetic closure. It felt like Christmas Day as we went through the box: It held our tickets for the flights, the cruise, and airport-to-ship transfers; information on the ship and itinerary; booklets describing Eastern Europe and offering packing tips; a cloth pouch for carrying travel documents; and a suggested reading list.
We learned the hard way, however, that we should've confirmed our seat assignments with the airline as soon as we received our tickets. When we realized we didn't have assigned seats, we went to the airport early and tried for the exit row, to no avail.
Aboard the Ship
My embarkations have been limited to big terminals and large piers, so I was pleasantly surprised to find our vessel docked along a grassy expanse. During the hour we had to wait for our cabin to be ready, I investigated the riverbank. We were right by a path, with the occasional rollerblader zipping by. A beer garden was across the way.
The Viking Europe, built in 2001, has three decks and 75 cabins; it can hold 150 passengers and sails with a crew of 40. There are two main common areas: the dining room back at the stern where three meals are served daily, and the Observation Lounge in the bow, home to a small cocktail bar and the site for briefings, entertainment, and light snacks. Just off the Observation Lounge is a small library with books and games. The outdoor Sun Deck, atop the ship, has lounge chairs and several small tables and chairs.
Otherwise, there are no frills--no room service, no hot tubs, no in-room refrigerators, no exercise facilities. Our cabin had two twin beds and no toiletries in the bathroom. (Viking now says there should've been some, but all I know is that I had to purchase shampoo from the front desk.) The storage space, however, was deluxe: eight drawers and a full-size closet. While frequent cruisers often request a cabin in the front of the ship, because it tends to be quieter, we were in the very back of the Viking Europe and didn't experience any discomfort. The service was very responsive: Requests for extra pillows, a hairdryer, and more hangers were met within five minutes.
Each day we visited a different city, but with the same routine. First, there were two hours for breakfast, a lavish buffet of juices, breads, sliced meats and cheeses, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, pastries, yogurt, cereal, and fruit; in addition, omelets and blueberry pancakes were cooked to order. Then cruise director Casey Lyn started making announcements about when to board the tour buses.