FEATURE

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.

By Marilyn Holstein, Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007, 12:00 AM

The Danube, as seen from a bridge in Regensburg (Jessica Antola)

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.

After our morning tour, we could either go back to the ship for lunch (a soup/salad/sandwich buffet in the lounge or a more formal meal in the dining room) or eat on land. Richard and I always stayed in port, where the food far surpassed anything served on the ship. Plus, we didn't want to waste time traveling back and forth.

There was one dinner seating: Lateness was frowned upon, and the servers literally ran to feed everyone in time. Dinners usually had a theme, such as German, Hungarian, or Mozart. Most passengers agreed that the conversations at dinner were more appealing than the food.

Onboard entertainment was scheduled for a few afternoons and evenings: a demonstration by a glassblower, a Bavarian night with local dancers, a crew show. On other nights a piano player performed. Those who wanted to relax in their cabins would watch the movies piped in three times daily on the televisions.

Our Fellow Passengers
Most everyone aboard was American, and a majority were enjoying their retirement. At dinner early in the cruise, we met two couples from New Orleans, Suzanne and Fred Myers and Jeanne and Brant Houston, with whom we ended up hanging out for the rest of the cruise. The Myers had planned on taking the trip a year ago, but then Hurricane Katrina hit. (Viking River Cruises called to check on their safety, and rebooked them at no charge.)

Another foursome came all the way from Brisbane, Australia. One of the women, Ruth Copelin, said they like to go cruising because "men love boats, and this way they'll give us some peace." They were pleased that it wasn't a fancy cruise: "We couldn't come to dinner on a Celebrity cruise dressed in slacks and jeans."

The entire ship knew the Gremers. Charles and Grace Gremer were celebrating their 60th anniversary. During their last river cruise, through Russia, the Gremers noticed most everyone had brought their own social group, and they felt a little left out. This time, they invited their children, David, Dennis, and Debbie, and their children's spouses.

"You just need to realize that this isn't a Princess cruise," said Dennis. "On a larger ship you expect to be entertained by the crew. Here you're entertained by the towns and scenery."

Shore Excursions
The trip was planned around the Danube and the canals' locks--literally. Reservations for lock passage are booked years in advance. Going through the locks the first few times--seeing the opening of the gate and the swoosh of water--was exciting. Everyone was taking tons of photos. By the end of the trip, it felt like watching water boil.

Unlike most cruises, where passengers buy excursions à la carte, with many options to choose from, our package included all seven city tours. Only a few of the special excursions in Vienna and Budapest cost extra.

Each bus held about 40 passengers. We learned quickly to arrive at the bus early so we wouldn't get stuck in the back, which could smell of gas fumes and deliver a bumpier ride. Also, it would take forever to get off the bus.

The quality of the tours depended on the guide. Some were terrific; others were less experienced at giving tours or were simply difficult to understand (language issues). In Nürnberg, at Zeppelin Field where Adolf Hitler once spoke, our guide scored points by passing around photographs of Hitler orating there. After a while, though, her nonstop commentary became overwhelming. I'm not sure we really needed to know that during her former job, ordering medical equipment at a Nürnberg hospital, a third of her salary went to taxes. Returning to the ship, I tuned her out and watched the cornfields.

On the other hand, the guides shared fascinating tidbits that we'd never have learned otherwise: Outside the oldest pub in Regensburg, Germany, we heard how beer is often served to kids because it's cheaper than soda. In Vienna, we were informed that "The Blue Danube" is Austria's secret national anthem--and that blue is rumored to mean drunken.

And there were experiences that we simply never would've planned on our own. Our first night in Vienna was one of the few evenings with no scheduled activity. Neither Richard nor I had been to the city, so we took the easy way out and bought Viking's excursion to the Palais Auersperg, where the Vienna Residence Orchestra performed a beautiful concert of Strauss and Mozart.

To be honest, we really began to have fun when we went off on our own. The same night that we went to the opera, two other couples had dinner at a place called Figlmüller, and raved about it. Inspired, we skipped the next day's tour of Schönbrunn Palace and explored Vienna without a guide--and tracked down Figlmüller for lunch. We sat next to a couple from Hamburg, who laughed knowingly as the restaurant's signature Wiener schnitzel arrived. It was the size of a medium pizza. Then we stumbled across an outdoor market where I haggled lightheartedly with an elderly gentleman over antique Christmas ornaments.

When we docked overnight at Vilshofen, Germany, Richard and I left the ship around 9 p.m. for a stroll through town, where we discovered IO Expressio, a lively wine and coffee bar owned by a hip couple. No one knew where we'd gone--we felt like kids sneaking out of the house.

Cruising on the River
Unlike on Caribbean cruises, with stretches where all you can see is vast open water, there was always something historic in view along the riverbank. It was mesmerizing to watch the progression from farmland to villages to cities, then back again. When we sailed through a particularly notable or scenic area (such as when we entered Budapest at dawn, passing under the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Liberty Bridge), cruise director Casey gave us interesting commentary over the loudspeakers around the ship.

For all of the rigidness of the trip, and the occasions when it could feel a bit stifling, there was a big upside to the small-ship experience: Namely, we met some fantastic people. It's the kind of thing that you certainly can't take for granted on a ship with 3,000 passengers; even though there are so many more people around, you have to make much more of an effort to actually engage. It's the difference between a small town and a big city, or between going away to a college of 700 students versus one of 10,000 students.

My fondest memory of the trip is of an afternoon we spent aboard the ship. It was a beautiful, sunny day as we left Melk, Austria, then cruised through the glorious Wachau Valley toward Vienna. Fred, Suzanne, Jeanne, and Brant joined Richard and me out on the top deck. We had purchased wine, cheese, sausages, crackers, and bread while in Melk, and we had a makeshift picnic.

As the hillsides dotted with castles, country roads, and vineyards glided by, we ate, drank, and talked about nothing, the way friends do, discussing which of the cheeses was the most delicious and figuring out who bought the least expensive bottle of wine (it was Brant, for E1.20). And despite the fact that we weren't dining on china or drinking from crystal--in fact, we were using water glasses for the wine and a corkscrew as a knife--we felt a little like European royalty.

Booking a Cruise
It's possible to book a Viking River Cruise through a travel agent or directly through the cruise line (877/668-4546, vikingrivercruises.com). Other lines that run sailings on the Danube and other rivers include Avalon Waterways (877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com), Grand Circle Travel (800/959-0405, gct.com), Peter Deilmann Cruises (800/348-8287, deilmann-cruises.com), and Uniworld (800/360-9550, uniworld.com).


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