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The wide AmaMagna

Danube River Cruise on the New AmaMagna.

By Gene Sloan.

Like other passengers who have traveled before on European river ships, I am stunned when I first walk onto AmaMagna.

The lobby of the new AmaWaterways vessel on the Danube seems to go on forever, and it’s not the only space that is improbably large.

The wide and spacious AmaMagna lobby area

The AmaMagna lobby is BIG! * Photo: Gene Sloan

As a steward leads me and my wife, Nicole, up the main stairway toward our room, we encounter a cabin hallway so ridiculously wide that it almost seems like a deliberate poke at the competition: Look at what we can do.

The hallway is just the appetizer. When the steward swings open the door to our room, the true magnitude of AmaMagna’s differences with other river ships becomes evident. At 355 square feet, the cabin is as spacious and inviting as any you’ll see at a fine hotel on land. It boasts a sumptuous queen-size bed, large seating area, oodles of storage space and a full step-out balcony.

Spacious Ama Magna balcony cabin

An Outside Balcony cabin, the most common category of cabin on the vessel. * Photo: Gene Sloan

This is not a one-off suite, mind you. I am staying in an Outside Balcony, the most common category of cabin on the vessel. More than half of AmaMagna’s 96 cabins are as big or bigger.

At 72 feet, AmaMagna is nearly twice as wide as most other European river vessels.

AmaMagna is wider than other river boats

The massiveness of AmaMagna’s extra width becomes evident when it docks stern-to-stern with a “normal” size AmaWaterways ship, the one-year-old AmaLea, in Passau, Germany. AmaMagna is roughly 34 feet wider. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Its size allows for far bigger cabins than is typical on European river ships, far more dining venues (there are four in all), more lounge areas, a larger gym and spa zone, an enormous sun deck, and such unusual-for-a-river-ship amenities as a cinema that doubles as a gaming room.

In short, AmaMagna is all about abundance, including — and this is key — an abundance of total space per person. While it is far bigger than most river ships in Europe, AmaMagna doesn’t sail with all that many more people.

Aimed at an upscale crowd, it’s designed to carry just 196 passengers at the most. That’s just six more than Viking Cruises puts on river vessels half its size.

The result: A space-to-passenger ratio so high that AmaMagna is now an instant outlier among the river ships of Europe.

As far as European river cruising goes, it is, indeed, a quirky vessel.

Boutique on board AmaMagna Danube River Cruise

The AmaMagna’s spacious boutique sells Bavarian-style Dirndl dresses for those who like a classic look! * Photo: Gene Sloan

Aiming at the Small-Ship Ocean Cruiser 

With its bigger cabins and multiple eateries and lounges, AmaMagna feels more like one of the small, upscale ocean ships operated by the likes of Windstar Cruises or Ponant than a traditional river ship, and that’s by design. AmaWaterways co-founder Rudi Schreiner is hoping to lure more small-ship ocean cruisers to river cruising with the vessel.

In doing so, he is making a bold bet. There’s a reason few river lines have deployed a ship this wide and spacious in Europe (only Crystal Cruises has operated a similarly sized vessel in recent years, but it will be leaving the line’s fleet later this year).

AmaMagna is so thick at its middle that it can’t fit through many of the locks on Europe’s main waterways, some of which measure just 12 meters wide — about 39.4 feet.

The wide AmaMagna

The 72-foot wide AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

That means its range of travel is greatly limited.

AmaMagna essentially is forever trapped on the Danube below Vilshofen, Germany. Because of its size, it never will be able to transit the Main-Danube Canal to the Main, Rhine and Moselle rivers as many smaller river ships do. Extended voyages that take in parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland and the north of Germany are beyond its capabilities.

On the flipside, it is now the undisputed new Queen of the Danube. Under development for nearly a decade, it offers an elegance and spaciousness that is unique on the rivers of Europe.

A Boutique Hotel-Like Feel  

Walking into my room (cabin 313), I am struck by its enormous depth. Just inside the doorway, there is a front hall-like entryway that connects to two separate bathrooms: One with a large, walk-in shower and double sinks; the other with a toilet. It’s the sort of space-gobbling indulgence you generally only see at a boutique hotel on land.

Ama Magna's large cabin bathroom

The very spacious bathroom with double sinks and a large shower. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the entry and bathroom area, you walk through closable doors into the heart of the room, which alone would be bigger than many river-ship cabins. The room is filled with high-tech (and presumably expensive) touches, some more useful than others. I love the USB ports next to the bed and the large, flat-screen television that offers free on-demand movies.

But the iPad on the desk that is configured to serve as a remote control for the room’s lights and air conditioning system seems a little superfluous. I’m also a little puzzled by the super-low bed-side tables (Nicole literally fell out of bed one night reaching for her iPhone on one of them).

The Main Lounge with its centrally located bar and plush seating serves as a central meeting point for daily briefings, a nightly “Sip & Sail” happy hour where cocktails and other drinks are available at no extra charge, and evening entertainment from an on-board piano player. But there also are two smaller lounge rooms just a few steps away, with the ship’s cinema in between them.

The Ama Magna's Main Lounge & Bar

The comfy Main Lounge with its centrally located bar. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the back of the vessel, a “Zen Wellness Studio” includes a relaxing, glass-walled lounge with a bar where you’ll find a fruit-spiked “detox water of the day” as well as fresh juices. Its primary function is as a waiting area for the two massage rooms, located just behind a partition.

The Zen Wellness Studio is also home to the fitness room, which has two running machines, two sit-down bikes, a rowing machine, free weights and — just outside on the balcony — four spinning machines. This is quite a respectable spread for a river ship in Europe, where fitness rooms often are afterthoughts (the biggest river cruise operator, Viking, doesn’t even have fitness rooms on its ships).

The Ama Magna gym faces the Danube River

The impressive gym. * Photo: Gene Sloan

No Shortage of Eateries

Just below the Main Lounge, the 140-seat Main Restaurant is the primary venue for meals. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, poached eggs and waffles; lunch brings burgers and specialty pizza).

The Main Restaurant aboard AmaMagna

The 140-seat Main Restaurant aboard AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Dinner in the Main Restaurant is a sit-down affair with changing four-course menus. Diners have a choice of three entrees each night, mostly Continental dishes such as pan-fried Atlantic sea bream with a prawn caviar sauce, baby spinach and quinoa; or slow-roasted beef “Rossini” with duck pate, truffle jus, glazed vegetables and pumpkin mash.

Pan-fried Atlantic sea bream on the Ana Magna

The pan-fried Atlantic sea bream with a prawn caviar sauce, baby spinach and quinoa. * Photo: Gene Sloan

One deck down from the Main Restaurant is The Chef’s Table, an intimate, 36 seater open for dinner only that offers an elegant, seven-course tasting menu that chefs partially prepare in front of patrons. With unchanging dishes, it’s meant to be done once per cruise.

The Chef’s Table restaurant on AmaMagna

Lovely presentation in the The Chef’s Table. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The Chef’s Table aboard the AmaMagna

The Chef’s Table. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The Chef’s Table sits side-by-side with Jimmy’s Wine Bar & Restaurant, a 60-seat, dinner-only eatery that serves the same dishes as the Main Restaurant each night but in a casual, family-style format. It features large, communal tables where each course is delivered on large platters for everyone to share.

Rounding out the options is Al Fresco, a casual venue at the front of the vessel that offers some of the best views on board. With just two dozen seats at six tables, it offers an extended light breakfast each day for early and late risers, a light lunch service, afternoon tapas, and a reservation-only dinner with a six-course tasting menu.

Ice cream on Ama Magna deck

An ice cream social on AmaMagna’s Sundeck is among the deck-top activities during an afternoon on the river. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In general, the food on AmaMagna is at its best when it ties to the Bavarian and Austrian regions where the ship is based. Our favorite meal during a week on board was one of the simplest: A feast-like “Bavarian Lunch” in the Main Restaurant on the day we crossed into Germany that offered up all the classics of the region including Bavarian bratwurst, sausage, spaetzle and sauerkraut.

A Classic Itinerary  

While it’s capable of sailing all the way down river to Romania, AmaMagna this year is sticking to the most popular stretch of the Danube between Vilshofen and Budapest, Hungary. As is typical for river ships in this segment of the waterway, it’s offering one-way, seven-night sailings between the two destinations that include stops in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

Budapest sights on a Danube River Cruise

A visit to Budapest’s iconic Matthias Church, which dates to the 13th century, is among the highlights of an AmaMagna cruise on the Danube. All of the vessel’s voyages either begin or end in the historic city. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Come next year, AmaMagna also will operate occasional seven-night trips on the lower part of the Danube between Budapest and Giurgiu, Romania — a segment of the river that sees far fewer vessels. The trips will include stops in Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

In broad strokes, the itineraries are like those offered by other lines on the Danube. But every line does the river a little differently.

Here, a day-by-day look at what we experienced on our AmaMagna sailing, a westbound “Melodies of the Danube” voyage starting in Budapest:

DAYS 1 & 2: BUDAPEST, HUNGARY 

With its double-wide size, AmaMagna is easy to spot among the rows of river ships docked along the waterfront of Budapest. “Just look for the big one,” I tell the driver of the taxi taking us to the vessel from the city’s bus station, and he finds it straightaway. Since we already have been in Europe for several days, we are arriving on our own. But for the many passengers landing in Budapest on flights booked through AmaWaterways, a transfer from the airport is included in the package, making things easy.

As is typical for the many Danube cruises departing out of Budapest, check-in for the vessel is at 3:00pm. But AmaMagna staff graciously welcome early arrivals like us on board for coffee, tea or even a light lunch in the ship’s forward-facing Al Fresco eatery while we wait for our rooms to be ready. They also happily pull out some of the ship’s dozens of bikes for a group of particularly adventurous early arrivers who want to get their touring started with a cycle into town.

Fleet of bikes aboard the Ama Magna

There are a LOT of bikes aboard the AmaMagna. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Often called one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with a riverfront lined with grand palaces, churches and other historic structures, Budapest is one of the highlights of any Danube cruise, and vessels such as AmaMagna usually spend at least a full night and a day in the city, with a significant amount of included-in-the-fare touring on the agenda.

Our sightseeing begins even before the initial welcome dinner with a nearly hour-long cruise through the heart of the former co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly everyone on board flocks to AmaMagna’s open-air Sundeck to take in such magnificent sites as the 117-year-old Hungarian Parliament Building — a 691-room, neo-Gothic confection that dominates the waterfront of the city — and the massive Baroque palace of the Hungarian kings known as Buda Castle. All the while, the vessel’s enthusiastic cruise manager, Maddy Caldaruse, offers commentary.

Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building

All eyes are on the Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The touring continues the next morning with guided outings. As is typical for AmaWaterways sailings, passengers have several choices for exploring, including a standard half-day city tour by bus that includes a brief stroll on foot and an all-on-foot “hike” through the city that hits many of its main site.

Statue in Budapest on a Danube River Cruise

Gene & Nicole meet an “old” friend along the way! * Photo: Gene Sloan

Eager for a bit of exercise, we choose the latter and are not disappointed, although we find its description as a hike a bit of a stretch. Call it a long walk — one that, no doubt, would be strenuous for some travelers. Our pedometers tally a bit over four miles in total as we wander around the Parliament area of Budapest (where AmaMagna is docked) before crossing the city’s iconic Chain Bridge over the Danube to Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.

Budapest's Chain Bridge on a Danube River cruise

In case you were tempted … there’s no climbing on Budapest’s Chain Bridge. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Reaching the latter sites requires an uphill climb of more than 500 feet, but it’s well worth it for the views. High-atop-a-hill Buda Castle is the definitive place to snap the perfect Budapest selfie with the winding Danube, Chain Bridge and Parliament in the background.

Buda Castle Budapest on a Danube River Cruise

Getting to the Buda Castle requires an uphill climb of more than 500 feet, and the views are well worth it. * Photo: Gene Sloan.

By the time we are back on board, we are exhausted. But in a scene that will repeat itself many times over the coming days, we soon are up in the Main Lounge enjoying the included “Sip & Sail” pre-dinner cocktails, making and mingling with new friends in advance of a multi-course dinner.

DAY 3: BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA

Reading through the schedule for this day, we had grand plans to wake early for a bit of top-side exercise. AmaWaterways has developed an extensive wellness program over the past two years, and the wellness host on AmaMagna, the ever-energetic Tiago, is offering two morning spinning classes, a Pilates class and an introduction to yoga — all before 8:00am.

Alas, our healthful ambitions are no match for the luscious comfort of our AmaMagna cabin bed, and we end up rising just minutes before we pull into Bratislava around breakfast time.

That said, we are sure to be ready in time for the morning tours of the small Slovakian capital, which lies along a pastoral stretch of the Danube just a few miles from the Austrian border. Sandwiched between the two most iconic destinations on the river (Budapest and Vienna), lesser-known Bratislava is a little gem of a town with a medieval and Gothic center that is not to be missed.

If it’s your first time in Bratislava, you’ll want to sign up for the walking tour that AmaWaterways (and every other river line that visits here) offers through the city’s pedestrian-only core.

Bratislava street art

Be careful! * Photo: Gene Sloan

In just an hour or two, you’ll ramble past all the main attractions including St. Martin’s Cathedral (where the kings of Hungary were crowned for centuries), onion-dome-topped Michael’s Gate and the Old Town Hall.

Bratislava's cute old town.

Bratislava’s medieval and Gothic center is super charming. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For a bit more adventure, AmaWaterways also offers a hike up to Bratislava Castle, which towers above the city on a riverfront hill. But since we have explored the town center and the castle quite a bit on past trips, we sign up for the third of three touring options: A three-hour “Taste of Slovakia” walking tour.

Billed as a chance to experience Bratislava’s growing craft beer scene, this latter outing is, alas, a bit of a disappointment. In just the last few years, Bratislava has emerged as a significant destination for craft beer fans with more than a dozen start-up breweries and brewpubs, and numerous craft beer-serving bars. But we get little of this history during what essentially is a standard walking tour with just a rushed few minutes of tasting at a single brewpub thrown in at the end.

If you’re serious about your craft beer tasting, I’d say skip the guided tour and just go off on your own. Within a few streets of the main square, you’ll find plenty of craft beer-selling outlets, including my favorite Bratislava brewpub — Bratislava Mestiansky Pivovar. It’s a good place to try some traditional Slovakian bar snacks, too, including bryndza (a type of sheep’s cheese).

READ Gene’s “Exploring Bratislava’s Booming Brewpub Scene” article about the 3 days he spent there before the cruise soaking up the suds!

Bratislava beer put on a Danube River Cruise

Bratislava is a great city for beer lovers. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Bratislava also is a great place to take out one of the bikes that AmaMagna carries on its top deck. You’ll find a biking trail lining the Danube that’s perfect for a scenic ride. If you’re super ambitious, you might even attempt the 7.5-mile ride to Devin Castle, a substantial ruin that commands a high cliff overlooking the point where the Morava river spills into the Danube.

Just be sure to be back at AmaMagna in time for sailaway to Vienna (usually around noon). AmaMagna sails early from Bratislava so it can reach the grand Austrian capital during dinnertime. This allows for an after-dinner outing into the city, which is exactly what we do with some friends on board. We order up an Uber on a whim to take us to a nearby bar (yes, you’ll find Uber in Vienna and Bratislava, too — but not in Budapest).

DAY 4: VIENNA, AUSTRIA

After our late-night foray into one of Vienna’s drinking districts, we decide to sleep in today, skipping the morning tours of the city the line has scheduled. For those who do go, there are two options, both lasting about three hours: A traditional bus tour (with some walking) to such iconic sites as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and The Hofburg, and a more active biking tour through the city center.

We’re not the only ones playing hooky from the morning tours. Like many other lines operating on the Danube, AmaWaterways includes daily guided tours of the places its ships visit in its fares. But passengers are under no obligation to stick with the group. On any given day, you’re free to stay on board (where you’ll sometimes find additional activities) or go off on your own.

We skip the morning touring in part because we have signed up for a big afternoon outing: An optional, guided trip to Schönbrunn Palace, the spectacular summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy that is just outside Vienna’s city center. At 56 euro, this is one of just two extra-charge tours on this cruise (the other an evening Mozart and Strauss concert). In our opinion, it’s well worth the extra cost.

Schönbrunn Palace, on a Danube River Cruise

Schönbrunn Palace, the spectacular summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy. * Photo: Gene Sloan

With 1,441 rooms, Schönbrunn Palace is a stunning testament to the one-time wealth and power of the Habsburgs, who once ruled large chunks of Europe including Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania and the Austrian Netherlands. We marvel at its opulent, gold leaf-covered Great Gallery — a masterpiece of European Rococo décor — and its soaring, painting-lined Hall of Ceremonies. Smaller spaces such as the blue-and-white Porcelain Room and rosewood-covered Millions Room are equally jaw-dropping (you’ll have to trust us, as photos within the palace’s interior are forbidden).

The formal gardens surrounding Schönbrunn Palace are just as over-the-top. We skip an optional visit with our guide to the palace’s carriage museum to wander alone through the maze-like grounds, discovering hidden fountains, statue-lined corridors and even a pigeon-filled aviary. Strolling down the broad avenue of its perfectly symmetrical, flower-filled Great Parterre, we imagine ourselves courtiers to that legendary Habsburg queen, Maria Theresa, accompanying her on a long walk to the colonnaded Gloriette that serves as a focal point. On a sunny summer day, it is a dreamy experience.

cone of gelato

Nicole caps a walk through Schönbrunn Palace’s glorious gardens with a cool gelato. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Back on board just in time for dinner, I sneak away to the Sundeck for a moment to watch as AmaMagna departs Vienna for Pochlarn, Austria, in the picturesque Wachau Valley. Arriving up top, I find that all the Sundeck’s taller structures including a bike-storage pavilion, dividers around the pool and lounge-area shades have been folded down for what turns out to be a very tight squeeze under several of Vienna’s bridges.

This sort of top-deck disassembly for bridges is a common site on European river ships, but it never ceases to amaze me. I am allowed to stay up top only after promising to remain safely seated while we quietly glide under the bridges with just feet to spare.

DAY 5: WACHAU VALLEY, AUSTRIA

I have been on quite a few Danube cruises over the years, and I always look forward to the day the ship reaches the Wachau Valley. Located about 50 miles west of Vienna, it’s a postcard-perfect, UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated region filled with vineyard-covered hills, apricot orchards, storybook villages, castles and monasteries.

If you’re like me, the problem you’ll have on this day is choosing which one of the included tours to do. AmaWaterways offers four options and, having tried all of them in some form over the years on various Danube trips, I can say there isn’t a bad one in the bunch.

If this is your first time to the area, you’ll probably want to sign on for the visit to Melk Abbey — a magnificent, hill-top Baroque structure that is the crown jewel of the Wachau area. You won’t be alone, as about two-thirds of AmaMagna passengers choose this tour.

For the adventurous, AmaWaterways also offers a 15-mile biking trip through the valley along a path that winds along the Danube and through adjacent towns and vineyards. If you’re going to bike at all on your Danube cruise, this is the place to do it. The scenery is spectacular, and the riding easy. I’ve biked this stretch twice before and loved it both times.

If, like Nicole, you’ve had enough of Baroque architecture by this point in your trip, and you’re not a biking fan, you can chose one of the two more-low-key tours that AmaWaterways offers to the delightful little town of Durnstein.

Durnstein on a Danube River cruise.

The delightful little town of Durnstein. * Photo: Gene Sloan

One takes you on a hike up to its fortress-like castle; the other on a walking tour of the town and a wine tasting. Along with just nine other passengers, we chose the latter and have a blast trying out three local wines in the private tasting room of small local vintner Leopold Böhmer (whose grandson, also named Leopold Böhmer, led our tasting).

vineyards of Durnstein on a Danube River Cruise

Checking out the local vines. * Photo: Gene Sloan

During a few minutes of free time in Durnstein, we also stop in the bakery next door to the tasting room for pastries made with fresh-picked apricots (a local specialty).

Fresh pastries in Durnstein.

Fresh pastries in Durnstein. * Photo: Gene Sloan.

Returning to the ship just before lunch, we get a treat of another sort: The chance to watch AmaMagna make a daylight passage through one of the 12 giant locks that it must navigate during this trip. Pretty much everyone on board heads to the Sundeck to watch the vessel’s captain and his assistants ever-so-carefully maneuver the extra-wide vessel into the narrow chamber. It barely fits.

lock on the Danube River

One of the 12 locks the AmaMagna passed through. * Photo: Gene Sloan

DAY 6: LINZ, AUSTRIA

Today is the day that our river cruise turns into a bus tour.

The main reason that river ships stop in Linz, which isn’t particularly charming, is that it’s near Salzburg, Austria — a bucket-list destination for many visitors to this region. Alas, “near” is a relative term. AmaWaterways offers two tours from the ship to Salzburg on this day, one slightly shorter than the other, that each involve four or more hours of busing. There’s also a third tour from Linz to the Austrian Lake District near Salzburg that involves more than five hours of sitting on a bus.

Wary of so much time in a bus, Nicole and I opt for a fourth option that only involves three hours on the road: A trip to Cesky Krumlov in the nearby Czech Republic. We’re quickly thrilled with our choice.

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic on a Danube River Cruise

Charming Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. * Photo: Gene Sloan

With commentary from a wonderful Austrian guide who recounts the “Iron Curtain” days when it was difficult to travel the winding, mountainous route to the town, the 85-minute time in transit passes quickly. We particularly enjoy the views of the still-relatively-undeveloped, forested borderland between the two countries.

The town itself is a charmer. Led by our guide, we amble through its medieval, cobblestone-lined core, which is nearly encircled by the bubbling waters of the Moldau River, on the way to its towering castle complex.

The Moldau River in the Czech Republic

The bubbling waters of the Moldau River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The visit also includes a stop to see Maria Theresa, the bear that lives in the dry moat protecting the castle. It’s a tradition that dates to the 1500s.

Afterwards, Nicole and I head off on our own in search of a trdelink, the warm and sugary pastry often filled with chocolate (yum!) that is a local specialty. We’re also on the lookout for a local Czech beer. Finding one, we get it to go and sit by the banks of the Moldau across from the castle, toasting a day that has turned into one of the best of the entire cruise.

Beers by the Moldau River

Toasting a great day by the banks of the Moldau River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

DAY 7: PASSAU, GERMANY

It’s pouring rain as the final day of the trip begins, which is a problem. We have signed up for a 14-mile-long guided biking tour along the banks of the Danube, and we haven’t packed any rain gear.

The good news is the bike trip is just one of three tour options this morning, and at least one of the others — a guided walk through the cozy Bavarian town where we are docked, Passau — seems somewhat doable in the rain even without gear, thanks to the large blue umbrellas that come as standard amenities in our cabin.

rainy day in Passau

Puddle jumping in Passau. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We make a last-minute switch and soon are hopping puddles with a guide on the way to Passau’s 14th-century Gothic Town Hall and Italian-designed St. Stephen’s Cathedral (which, as our guide Chris is eager to point out, has the biggest cathedral organ in the world).

Passau fountain

The Wittelsbacher Fountain at the center of Passau features three little angels representing the three rivers that merge at the town: the Danube, Inn and Ilz. Just behind the fountain is the town’s crown jewel, the Italian-designed St. Stephen’s Cathedral. * Photo Gene Sloan

Just over the border with Austria, Passau sits on a strategic but very flood-prone spit of land at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. Chris the guide pauses several times — maybe one too many — to show off flood markers that are well up the sides of the town’s buildings.

I’ve always found Passau adorable. But it’s not nearly as adorable on a wet and chilly day. The Danube-facing cafe in front of town hall with views of the centuries-old castle across the river doesn’t even bother to open. Its outdoor tables and chairs are soaked. Nor is there much of a buzz at the Saturday market on the main square. After barely an hour out-and-about, we retreat to the ship.

Thankfully, the rain lets up by the afternoon, when we are off on one last adventure: An “Oktoberfest” celebration. Manufactured just for it us, it takes place in a tent at a Benedictine abbey up the river in Vilshofen and features local beer, an “oompah band” (as our cruise director calls it), and a demonstration of Bavarian dancing.

beer on a Danube River cruise

A little “Oktoberfest” celebration! * Photo: Gene Sloan

It is during the latter event that I make the biggest mistake of the cruise. I stand to take a picture of the band for this story just as a cheery German woman in traditional dress is calling for volunteers.

Apparently, it appears to all that I am volunteering, and suddenly I find myself shunted into a line with two other passengers, tasked with mimicking a lederhosen-wearing instructor’s knee slaps and foot kicks in tune with the music.

Gene Sloan at Oktoberfest

Ya ya ya! Gene and his two left (in blue). * Photo: Nicole Edmund

Let’s just say it doesn’t go well.

The trip itself, on the other hand, is a resounding success.

What It Costs

Seven-night “Melodies of the Danube” sailings on AmaMagna from Budapest to Vilshofen start at $2,549 per person, based on double occupancy. Similar seven-night “Romantic Danube” sailings in the opposite direction, from Vilshofen to Budapest, start at $2,449 per person, based on double occupancy. In addition to a room, fares include all meals, tours during every port stop, beer and wine with dinner, and cocktails during “Sip & Sail” happy hours.

The “Melodies of the Danube” itinerary can be extended with a two-night pre-cruise stay in Budapest and three-night post-cruise stay in Prague, Czech Republic, that is sold as a package for $1,360 per person. Passengers on a “Romantic Danube” sailing can extend the trip with either a two-night pre-cruise stay in Munich or three-night pre-cruise stay in Prague. The two extensions cost $740 and $840 per person, respectively.

Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Gene Sloan on a Danube River Cruise

Gene Sloan takes a rest. It’s a tough job …!

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About AmaWaterways

Founded in 2002 as Amadeus Waterways, the company changed its name in 2008 to AmaWaterways. It is generally regarded as one of the world’s top river cruise lines and operates a large fleet of beautifully designed ships in Europe and others in Asia and Africa. Most river cruise itineraries should be paired with a land package including at least one hotel stay. As the riverboats are similar, they will be described as a class and grouped under the destination they frequentThe line offers the utmost flexibility with guided tours at three different paces (gentle, regular & active), a late risers tour, guided bike and hiking tours as well as optional Limited Edition Tours.

For Spanish-speaking passengers, a guide accompanies designated departures. See With a Latin Touch.

EUROPEAN RIVERS

Ships & Years Delivered

Europe – AmaBella (built 2010 & 161 passengers), AmaCello (b. 2008 & 148 p), AmaCerto (b. 2012 & 164 p), AmaDante (b. 2008 & 146 p), AmaDolce (b. 2009 & 146 p), AmaLyra (b. 2009 & 146 p), AmaPrima (b.2013 & 164 p), AmaReina (b. 2014 & 164 p), AmaSerena (b. 2015 & 164 p), AmaSonata (b. 2015 & 164 p), AmaStella (b 2016. & 158 p), AmaVerde (b. 2011 & 174p), AmaViola (b. 2016 & 158 p), AmaKristina (b. 2017 & 158 p), and AmaVida (b. 2013 & 106 p), AmaLea (b. 2018 & 156 p), *AmaMagna (b. 2018 & 194 p), AmaMora (b. 2019 & 196 p) , AmaDouro (b. 2019 & 102 p) and AmaSiena (b. 2020 & 158 p).

*AmaMagna deserves special note as the boat is twice as wide as standard riverboats and this allows for much larger cabins, expanded restaurant offerings (4), larger spa and wellness facilities and water-sports platform. The thrust here is to attract more deep-sea cruisers who might feel that riverboats are too small and limited in their amenities. The vessel sticks to the Danube where it does not face locks that would be to narrow to enter. Some cruises sail as far downriver as Giurgiu for access to Bulgaria’s capital of Bucharest.

RELATED: Read Gene Sloan’s AmaMagna review here.

Passengers

146 to 196 (except smaller Douro River ships AmaVida (106 p) and AmaDouro  (102 p).

Passenger Decks

4 with most ships having elevators between the two main cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$$

NOTE:

Solo passengers may have the single supplement waived on selected sailings. On others, special discounts are applied after the supplement is added.

Included Features

Free Wi-Fi in the cabins, unlimited wines, beers, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, bottled water, Chef’s Table specialty restaurant, shore excursion in every port, bicycles (Europe), transfers between hotel and ship when buying a land package, airport transfers if buying AmaWaterways’ airfare. These extras upfront keep the final bill in check.

Cruising the Douro River in Portugal is a new offering. * Photo: AamaWaterways

Cruising the Douro River in Portugal is a new offering. * Photo: AmaWaterways

Itineraries (through 2020)

European river cruises operate from March to December. Popular itineraries are:

  • Prague hotel stay then sail between Nuremburg along the Danube and Main-Danube Canal and taking in a Benedictine Abbey, wines of the Wachau Valley, Vienna and Budapest. Lots of itinerary variations.
  • The Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel stopping at cathedral cities and picturesque castles and towns. Continue by train to Zurich.
  • Paris and the Seine to Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny, cathedral city of Rouen and WWII Normandy beaches.
  • Paris and TGV (high-speed train) to Lyon (gastronomic capital) then cruise the Rhone south to medieval and Roman antiquities, Avignon and Arles, and ending with a hotel stay in Lyon (settled across two rivers with a peninsula in between.) or Marseille (multi-ethnic city has risen in popularity) or Barcelona (for some, the favorite city).
  • Something newer and different along Portugal’s Douro River from Oporto with visits to castles, palaces and museums, and a stay in Lisbon.
  • Bordeaux along the Dordogne and Garonne to Pauillac (Medoc) and St. Emilion for vineyard visits, plus castles, biking and hiking. Add stays in Bilbao and/or San Sebastian and linger with lots to see in Bordeaux.
  • New for 2020 are 7-night Rhine and Moselle cruises concentrating on Vineyards and sailing between Amsterdam and Luxembourg, and 7-night Main and Rhine cruises linking Amsterdam and Nuremberg via the Main-Danube Canal.
  • Note: Not currently operating: Russian itineraries between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and Moscow via the Volga River to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).
Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny. * Photo: Ted Scull

Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny. * Photo: Ted Scull

Many river itineraries are seven nights with extended ones first cruising the Danube and then connecting to the Main and Rhine. Cruise-tours include hotel stays in Amsterdam, Paris, Marseille, Barcelona, Lucerne, Zurich, Munich, Prague, Budapest or Istanbul.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. * Photo: Ted Scull

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. * Photo: Ted Scull

European themed cruises include a highlighted focus such as art, wine (expanding considerably), culinary, wellness, tulip time, and Christmas markets. Adventure by Disney departures appeal to families.

Why Go?

River cruising is arguably the easiest and most relaxing way to see a lot of Europe with a choice of a dozen different rivers to access cities, small towns, historic sites, wine regions and enchanting scenery. AmaWaterways gives you a vast choice and provides some of the best accommodations aboard in Europe. As the riverboats in this fleet are somewhat similar, with a couple of exceptions, they will be described as a class.

When to Go?

Some itineraries are specifically geared to the best seasons or offer a special theme appropriate to the season, such as tulip time, vineyard visits, and Christmas markets.

German rivers such as the Moselle and Rhine provide spectacular secenery. * Photo: Ted Scull

German rivers such as the Moselle and Rhine provide spectacular scenery. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

160 to 350 square feet (170-235 the average range) with most having full balconies and/or French step-to-the railing balconies with fixed windows on the lowest deck. Amenities are desk and sitting area, multi-jet showerhead, complimentary Internet access and Wi-Fi, TV, music and movies on demand, bottled water, safe and some cabins with mini-fridge.

Public Rooms

Main lounge and bar (all drinks and snacks included throughout the day) with a forward viewing/seating area; Sun Deck seating open and under a canopy, walking track, small pool or whirlpool; massage and hair salon, fitness room.

Dining

The line includes higher grade wines, plus beer and sodas with lunch and dinner, and sparkling wine at breakfast. The European ships belong to the culinary organization La Chaine des Rotisseurs. Breakfast and lunch may be taken in the main restaurant from a menu or buffet, and lighter choices are available in the main lounge. Dinner is open seating with menus reflecting the cruising area. Some ships have a second specialty restaurant, the Chef’s Table, with limited seating and reservations, but at no extra cost.

Activities & Entertainment

Musicians come aboard nightly in ports; take advantage of a dip in the pool or whirlpool, fitness room and massage services. Tours ashore are on foot and in vehicles, with headsets for the guide’s commentary. Some tours allow you to chose your own pace. Bicycles are available and particularily useful for independent touring along a path between Durnstein and Melk in the Danube’s beautiful Wachau Valley; along the Rhine in/near Cologne; paralleling the canals and waterways in Belgium and the Netherlands, to highlight just a few locations. Inquire about the options when boarding. Small group tours by bicycle and longer hikes are also offered.

Special Notes

While AmaWaterways’ European riverboats share many of the same amenities, the Asian and African vessels are considerably different, but no less comfortable. See below for details. Single fares without a supplement are available for all cruises, though dependent on the category available,

Along the Same Lines

Other European operators.

MEKONG RIVER IN CAMBODIA & VIETNAM

AmaWaterways operates two somewhat similar high-standard ships that are smaller than the European riverboats, yet offer most of the same amenities. The Mekong (Cambodia and Vietnam) and Irrawaddy (Myanmar) are ideal for river travel as so much activity is river-focused. Note:  Irrawaddy Cruises are not currently operating.

RELATED: Anne Kalosh’s AmaWaterways’ Mekong River adventure.

Ships & Years Delivered

AmaDara (built 2015 & 124 passengers).

Passengers

Mainly North Americans 50 and up.

Passenger Decks

4 decks, no elevator.

Price

$$$

Included Features

During a 7-night cruise, all excursions, wine, local beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner; all house-brand spirits, local beer, soft drinks from the bar; bottled water; all transfers with an air package. Cruise tours include hotel stays in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) with buffet breakfasts, transfers between hotels and ship and Hanoi to Siem Reap flight.

Itineraries

The 7-night cruise portion operates August to April in both directions on Tonle Sap Lake (except during low-water season) and along the Mekong between Siem Reap (Cambodia) and My Tho (near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). Calls are made to small river villages to observe daily life, local crafts production, floating markets, a Buddhist Monastery, Cambodia capital at Phnom Penh, and the ever-fascinating river traffic.

Hotel stays include sightseeing. Nearly everyone who books a river cruise adds at least a couple of nights at Siem Reap for the Angkor Archaeological Park and its temples, terraces and stone sculptures.

Why Go?

Southeast Asia is a culturally and historically rich part of the world, and Mekong River cruises has opened up easy access to life in the big cities, small towns and archaeological sites that previously involved long bus rides on congested roads. The Mekong is full of commercial activity linked industrial and farm production and to the inhabitants who live along the river banks.

Most add the Siem Reap extension for archaeological sites, Vietnam’s two major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and maybe the Laotian cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the latter the country’s capital. All flights within Southeast Asia are short and well-operated.

Flower market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). * Photo: Ted Scull

Flower market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

Cruises operate between August and April; the rains are heavier in the summer months matched with slightly lower fares.

Cabins

The majority of the wood-trimmed cabins are a roomy 226 square feet, and all have French or outside balconies, apart from six with portholes on AmaLotus lowest deck. Beds are twins or queen-size. Top deck suites are larger, and two on each ship are huge (452 sq. ft. on AmaDara and 624 sq. ft. on AmaLotus). Cabins open to a traditional central corridor. Amenities are: sitting area with writing desk, mini-bar, safe, in-house phone, flat-screen monitor and hairdryer. Suites have bathtubs.

Public Rooms

AmaDara has main lounge forward while AmaLotus has it aft with a small forward-facing lounge. Both vessels have covered top decks with seating and a small pool with AmaDara’s forward and AmaLotus’ aft. Both vessels have a fitness room, hair salon and spa.

Dining

Both have open-seating restaurants (AmaDara forward and AmaLotus aft) with North American menu choices as well as flavorful local Southeast Asian cooking. AmaDara has a small specialty eatery aft called the Tarantula Grill — and as a personal injection and recommendation, I have eaten grilled tarantula legs, but I did not and would not touch the body.

Activities & Entertainment

Cultural entertainment aboard features musical groups in costume, plus films, and a small pool, an ideal way to relax after a hot day ashore. Excursions are on foot, by boat, trishaw, oxcart and in buses to villages, palaces, museums, temples, schools, markets and workshops making handcrafts in silk, wood, rattan and paper.

IRRAWADDY RIVER IN MYANMAR (BURMA)

(Note: Not currently operating)

AmaWaterways operates one vessel, the high-standard 56-passenger AmaPura built in 2014, on 14-night cruise tours that feature hotel stays in Yangon (Rangoon) and a 10-night cruise on the Irrawaddy (also Ayeyarwady) on roughly monthly sailings, except from mid-April to mid-September. The cruise is accessed at Pyay, north of Yangon or Mandalay, with a flight to or from Yangon.

The sights are villages, craft-making, monasteries, scenic vistas, and temples, with the highlight spending a full day amongst the huge collection of stupas, pagodas and temples at Pagan and a full day touring Mandalay.

Accommodations aboard are designated all-suites measuring from 285 sq. ft. to 420 sq. ft. with either two balconies or one sitting balcony and one French balcony. Although a smaller vessel, the amenities, public spaces, dining, what’s included, the entertainment and activities are similar to the two Mekong River vessels.

SOUTHERN AFRICA: ZAMBEZI RIVER IN BOTSWANA

In Brief

Between mid-March and mid-November, AmaWaterways offers a cruise-tour that includes four nights aboard the 28-passenger ZAMBEZI QUEEN, built in the early 1990s and refitted for its current role in 2009. Accommodations are 10 large cabins and four suites, all with private balconies, a light-filled lounge and bar, dining room and pool. Every enclosed space has floor to ceiling windows with open decks fore and aft to watch for game.

The cruise follows the Chobe River embarking at Kasane, Botswana with additional close-up sightseeing in smaller boats to look for wildlife on land, in the river and flying above, plus trips ashore to visit African villages. The land portions that bracket the cruise can include hotel stays in Cape Town, Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls. Add a 3-night journey aboard the luxurious, vintage Rovos Rail between the falls and Pretoria, South Africa.

Giraffes in Nambia

Giraffes in Nambia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Contact Info

26010 Mureau Road, Calabasas, CA 91302; www.AmaWaterways.com; 800-626-0126.

— TWS

 

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Viking River Cruises

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Viking (was Viking River Cruises)

Viking River Cruises (now Viking), established by former officials of the old Royal Viking Line, has grown by leaps and bounds, including introducing more ships in one year than has ever occurred before. More than a score of itineraries covers the European waterway network from Portugal’s Douro River that empties into the Atlantic eastward to Russia’s and Ukraine’s canals and rivers, and from the Dutch and Belgian waterways bordering on the North Sea across Europe to the mouth of the Danube as it flows into the Black Sea.

Viking goes most everywhere the other lines go and offers more choices of itineraries, length of cruises and land and air packages. Simply, Viking dominates the European river cruise market because it operates more boats (presently 72) than any other line, by far, and still growing.  In Asia, riverboats explore the Yangtze in China, and the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. Egypt is again offered with cruises on the Upper Nile and Lake Nassar. Viking also operates well-received deep-sea cruise ships to establish Viking Ocean Cruises (now just Viking) but their passenger capacities exceeding 900 are well beyond our small-ship passenger limit. More are under construction and under option along with expedition ships.

Note: In 2020, four 168-passenger Viking Longships (similar features but smaller in size for operations on the Seine) will be delivered and then actively participate on 8-day Paris and the Heart of Normandy cruises. Passengers will embark alongside the Eiffel Tower.

Note: Viking has also long made hints about entering the river cruise market along the Mississippi and its tributaries with a fleet of European-style riverboats. Now, an official announcement was made in April 2020 in New Orleans that the first of a fleet of large riverboats will be built for the Upper and Lower Mississippi. The first five-deck vessel will take up to 386 passengers and appear in August 2022. While the capacity exceeds our 300-passenger limit, all other American Cruise Lines riverboats have been covered by Quirky Cruise, hence this one, the first of several, will be covered too. By law, the vessels must be built in the U.S. to sail along American inland waterways. Stay tuned for the location and progress while construction gets underway.

Note: Without missing a beat, Viking will also enter the expedition market when the VIKING OCTANTIS enters service in January 2022 with a program in Antarctica and the Great Lakes. While the passenger complement of 378 exceeds the QuirkyCruise limit of 300, we will include the most important features on this page.

Viking River Cruises

RELATED:  New Viking Einar Impresses a First Timer … by Judi Cohen.

Passengers

Most passengers are 50+ and American or at least English-speaking who are looking for a relaxed and convenient way to see the regions of Europe. Children under are not permitted.

Price

$ to $$$  Moderate/Expensive/Very Pricey. Huge variations in rates occur, especially when 2 for 1 promotions are offered.

Included Features

Shore excursion in every port; wine, beer, soft drinks at lunch & dinner; bottled water, cappuccino, coffee & tea at a 24-hour beverage bar; Cabin TVs with movies on demand, CNBC, CNN, National Geographic, and other channels, Internet/Wi-Fi (connection speed varies widely); cruise tours include hotel stays and transfers between hotel and ship; airport transfers included when air travel is purchased from Viking.

Itineraries

Europe, Russia, Egypt, Southeast Asia and China, most 8 to 15 days; some cruise tours in Asia extend to 18 days; the granddaddy of all European river journeys stretches from Amsterdam to Bucharest, lasting 23 days. All cruises operate in both directions. See details below when discussing the ships.

Why Go?

Years ago before river cruising took hold in a big way, many travelers desirous of seeing several countries in one trip booked a bus tour and that meant multiple one and two-night hotel stays in a half-dozen, maybe more, cities. With the rivers and canals already in place to move cargo on barges between ocean ports and inland cities, long-distance river travel was a natural outgrowth. Then in 1992 a construction project linked the Rhine and Main to the Danube, and it became possible to embark in a Viking Longship in Amsterdam located just in from the North Sea and sail more less southeast all the way to the Danube Delta on Black Sea coast of Romania.

Riverboats once seen as merely comfy conveyances with mostly picture window cabins, an observation lounge and a windowed dining room, now boast suites, French balconies, true verandas, and alternate dining venues and more activities off the boats than bus and walking tours with such diversions as cycling (independently or in a small group) and hiking.

The bottom line for river cruising is convenience, as in many cases, the riverboat ties up next to the heart of the city and you simply walk ashore. In between, instead of driving along a busy highway, the getting there is via scenic river cruising with some of the intercity travel taking place as you sleep. Sun decks provide 360-degree views while underway.

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

Most European itineraries are seasonal with April to October the norm though some cruises begin as early as March and run as late as December for the Christmas markets. Summer months will find many riverboats following roughly the same popular itineraries with busy, and sometime crowded, sites ashore. The fringe seasons have the advantage of fewer boats sharing the same docking facilities and disadvantage, for some, of cooler and less predictable weather. Beyond Europe, the itineraries may be almost year-round, and note that the Yangtze River Valley can feel like a furnace from June through August.

Activities & Entertainment

Applies to all ships. Onboard, the offerings are daytime lectures, demonstrations, cooking classes, wine tasting and light entertainment such as a pianist and/or local musicians in port. Included shore excursions using audio headsets allow participants to hear the guide out-of-doors and inside museums and churches while  speaking in a normal voice. On board, a concierge can arrange ballet and theater tickets, restaurant reservations and help you plan an independent day ashore.

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships & Years delivered

The number of passengers; number of passenger decks; layouts; special features; and cabin details will be outlined for each class of riverboat under the cruising regions that begin below.

European Rivers

The Viking Longships class number almost four score at present dating from a building spree that began in 2012 and continues into the present with six new ships added in 2016 and six more in 2018. In spring 2019, another seven were launched on a single day at different shipyards, with seven more under construction. The list of names runs from Viking Aegir to Viking Vili. These spiffy new riverboats carry 190 passengers on four decks in a bright and airy, understated Scandinavian atmosphere using big picture windows, light fabrics and colors, skylights, atriums and indoor/outdoor lounges, restaurants, and bars.

Cabins number 95 of which nine are 2-room suites with veranda & French balconies*; 39 verandas; 22 French balconies*; and 25 standard (located on the lowest deck and with smaller windows). Note here and for some other Viking vessels that *French balconies are not balconies at all but with the cabins having sliding doors that open to a railing.

The Observation Lounge, located behind the indoor/outdoor terrace, has a sit-up bar, for drinks, daytime activities, lectures, and light entertainment. A library corner and Internet access are located just aft of that and share the second level of the atrium, with the reception and shop below. The Sun Deck has covered and open lounge space spanning nearly the vessel’s full length, plus an oval walking track and putting green. An herb garden is located aft. The elevator connects only the Upper and Middle decks, and not cabins on Main Deck nor the Sun Deck.

Viking has upgraded its menus following the introduction of the new ships, and as the line caters to mostly middle American tastes, don’t expect gourmet meals or rich sauces as one would experience on an ocean-going luxury line or a truly upscale river fleet. The Longships have two dining venues, the main restaurant (buffet & served meals) and the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace (light meals and an alfresco grill). It’s open seating and you dine with whom you wish. Chances are you will be sailing on a Longship in Europe on most all itineraries but the Douro in Portugal and the Elbe in Germany and the Czech Republic where smaller purpose-built ships operate.

RELATED: Viking River Cruise in the Ukraine … by Gene Sloan.

DSC_6134

Viking Longships Deck Plan * Photo: Viking

The following preceded the Viking Longships on European itineraries, plus one trio specifically designed for the confines of the Douro in Portugal and a pair to sail under low bridges for the Elbe.

*Viking Fontaine, *Viking Schumann (older ships/refurbished 2010/2011) carry 112 passengers on three decks with observation lounge forward and restaurant on the deck below. Cabins are all outside with eight having French balconies, while the Upper Deck cabins have picture windows that open while Main Deck windows are fixed.

*Viking Astrild, *Viking Beyla (2015) carry 98 passengers, have three decks and operate the Elbe cruises with low bridge clearances in Germany and the Czech Republic. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the deck below. Cabins include 2 suites, 19 veranda cabins and 14 with French balconies, all located on the Upper deck. Main Deck cabins have windows.

*Viking Hemming,*Viking Torgil, *Viking Osfrid (2014 & 2016) carry 106 passengers, have four decks and sail exclusively on the Douro Rover in Portugal. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the Middle Deck below along with an adjacent Al Fresco Restaurant. The Sun Deck has tables for outdoor meals, a small pool, golf putting range, and loungers with covered and open sections. Cabins include 11 veranda suites, 23 verandas, 3 French balcony cabins and 16 window cabins on Main Deck. An elevator connects cabin and public room decks.

Europe note: With such a large fleet, riverboats assigned to specific itineraries are subject to change.

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Below is a healthy sampling of nearly two dozen European itineraries combining hotel stays bracketing a river cruise. If you are a first time river cruiser, good luck deciding which one to take. If a veteran cruise maven, most of Europe is your oyster.

  • Grand European Tour (15-day cruise, April to October) from Amsterdam, Netherlands via the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers and sailing through Germany, Austria, Slovakia to Budapest in Hungary.
  • Romantic Danube (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Nuremburg, Germany via Main-Danube Canal and Danube River through Austria to Budapest, Hungary.
  • Danube Waltz (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Passau, Germany via the Danube through Austria to Budapest.
  • Rhine Getaway (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Amsterdam in the Netherlands via the Rhine, calling at Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, south through to Basel, Switzerland.
  • Tulips & Windmills (10-day cruise, March and April) from Amsterdam including 2.5 days sightseeing via Dutch and Belgian rivers and canals to the Islemeer at Hoorn, Arnhem, Ghent, Rotterdam and more then back to Amsterdam. Additional itineraries include calls at Antwerp and Nijmegen (SE Netherlands)
  • Cities of Light (12-day cruise-tour, April to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer via Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mosel, Rhine and Main rivers to Bamburg, Germany and coach transfer via Nuremburg to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Paris to the Swiss Alps (12-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mossel past vineyards to the Rhine and Mainz, Speyer, and Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland with a transfer to Zurich (2 hotel nights).
  • Passage to Eastern Europe (11-day cruise-tour, late March to late October) from Budapest, Hungary (2 hotel nights) then riverboat down the Danube through Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and coach transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • European Sojourn (23-day cruise, mid-March to late October) from Amsterdam via the Waal, Rhine, Main-Danube Canal and Danube through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • Elegant Elbe (10-day cruise-tour, mid-March to October) from Berlin (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to the riverboat at Wittenberg and via the Elbe and Vltava rivers through Germany (Saxon Switzerland) and Czech Republic to Decin and coach transfer to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Portugal’s River of Gold (10-day cruise-tour, late March to October) from Lisbon (2 hotel nights) via coach transfer to Coimbra and the riverboat at Porto, then along the Douro River with a full-day coach excursion to Salamanca, Spain and back along the Douro with port calls for lunch and wine tasting, a castle and religious site to Porto, Portugal.
  • Paris & the Heart of Normandy (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Paris via the Seine to Claude Monet’s Giverny, Rouen (for the cathedral and Normandy Beaches) then upstream with port calls to visit chateaux back to Paris. New itineraries along the Seine also include WWII sites and D-Day beaches.
  • Lyon & Provence (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Marseille to the Rhone at Arles, then Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Vienne, Lyon and along the Soane to Macon, Cluny Abbey and Beaujolais wine country, ending at Lyon Airport.
  • Chateaux, Rivers & Wine (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Bordeaux along both the Dordogne and Garonne rivers to Sauternes, St. Emilion, Médoc, and Margaux wine regions, two UNESCO sites and Cadillac, returning to Bordeaux.
Russia & Ukraine
Visiting Moscow's Red Square at the end of Viking River cruise along the Russian waterways.

Visiting Moscow’s Red Square at the end of Viking river cruise along the Russian waterways. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Akun, Viking Helgi, Viking Ingvar, Viking Truvor (older ships refurbished 2013/2014) carry 204 passengers on five decks and operate the 13-day St. Petersburg-Moscow Waterways of the Tsars itineraries. The Panorama Bar looks forward on the Upper Deck with a large restaurant aft on the Middle Deck below. A windowless library with Internet is on Main Deck. Cabins include 2 suites, 2 junior suites, 67 verandas, and the remaining with windows that open facing the side wraparound promenade. Elevators link the cabin and public room decks. A similar vessel, Viking Sineus, plies Ukraine’s Dnieper River between the capital at Kiev and Odessa facing the Black Sea, and 11-day cruise tour.

Waterways of the Czars (13-day cruise, early May to mid-October) from St. Petersburg (3-day stay on riverboat) via the Neva and Svir rivers, Lake Onega, Volga-Baltic Waterway, Rybinsk Resevoir, Volga River, and Moscow Canal to Moscow (3-stay stay on the riverboat). Ashore, attend dance and music performances, and aboard the guides share Russian and Soviet history and current affairs, cooking and Russian language classes.

Egypt

Mayfair (150p) and Omar El Kayam (160p) form the 4-night and 3-night cruise portions of a 12-day itinerary that includes Cairo for the Pyramids, Sphinx and Cairo Museum, a cruise along the Upper Nile for Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, and Kom Ombo and another cruise just above the Aswan Dam on Lake Nassar for Abu Simbel and other temples. Viking Ra, Viking-owned and operated (52p), made its debut in 2018 as a completely rebuilt riverboat offering all two-room suites (291 sq. ft.), making it one of the most luxurious vessels on the Nile. To follow in September 2020, Viking will begin operating the 82-passenger Viking Osiris , the first European built, owned and operated Nile cruiser, if that is all important to some seeking an Egyptian cruise.

Southeast & East Asia

Viking Mandalay (2012 & 56p) had operated Irrawaddy Cruises in Myanmar (Burma). However, four-deck Viking Mekong (b. 2012 & 56p) plies the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam. The replica-style riverboats evoke an appealing colonial atmosphere with lots of wood paneling and airy public spaces. The indoor lounge is forward and the Sun Deck lounge and bar is sheltered from the sun by a canvas awning. With floor to ceiling French doors that open during cool weather, the restaurant serves Vietnamese and Western dishes at breakfast and luncheon buffets plus served dishes and a served dinner. All cabins are outside, with two of the three cabin decks offering sliding French doors that open to side promenade equipped with rattan style chairs and decorative potted palms.

Mekong River: Cambodia & Vietnam
A Cambodian food market along the Mekong.

A Cambodian food market along the Mekong. * Photo: Ted Scull

Magnificent Mekong (15-day cruise-tour, early January to March then July to October) from Hanoi, Vietnam (2 hotel nights), fly to Siam Reap, Cambodia (3 hotel nights), coach transfer to riverboat at Kampong Cham then 8 days along the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam to My Tho and coach transfer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam for 2 hotel nights. Viking Mekong.

Irrawaddy River: Myanmar (Burma) 

*This itinerary is not now operating. However, details are included for reference in case these trips resume.

Myanmar Explorer (15-day cruise-tour, September to December) from Bangkok, Thailand (3 hotel nights) then fly to Yangon, Myanmar (4 nights) and fly to Mandalay embark in the riverboat for 8 nights along the Irrawaddy back to Mandalay and fly to Bangkok (1 night). Viking Mandalay.

Yangtze River: China
Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze.

Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Emerald (2011) carries 256 passengers on five decks while operating the Yangtze River cruises. The Sun Deck houses the Emerald Bar with high-up views, a reading room, massage room, sauna, gym and outdoor deck space aft. The observation Lounge with a bar is on the deck below and the restaurant resides on Main Deck aft. The menus include Chinese and Western dishes. Cabin accommodations include 2 suites, 14 partitioned suites, 4 junior (one-room) suites and the rest, 108 with verandas. An elevator serves all decks.

Imperial Jewels of China (14-day cruise-tour, February to October) from Shanghai (2 nights) then fly to Wuhan to join the riverboat for a 7-day cruise along the Yangtze River via the Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Chongqing then fly to Xian (2 hotel nights) and fly to Beijing (3 hotel nights).

Roof of the World (17-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), fly to Lhasa (3 hotel nights), fly to Chongqing , join riverboat for a 7-day cruise down the Yangtze via Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Undiscovered China  (19-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), Chengdu (2 hotel nights}, Lijiang (2 nights) and Chongqing to join the riverboat for 7 days along the Yangtze via the Three Gorges, Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Special Notes

Water levels along European rivers rise and fall with the seasons and/or heavy rain falls and long dry periods. Occasionally, if the waters rise to flood stage, the riverboats may not be able to pass under low bridges, or the reverse, insufficient water to proceed without possible grounding. In that case, you may be bused to another vessel on the far side of the blockage and/or put up in hotels.

Along the Same Lines

The stable of river cruise lines is ever expanding, and Viking happens offer the largest fleet.

Contact Info

Viking, 5700 Canoga Avenue, Suite 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367;  www.viking.com; 877-668-4546

— TWS

Avalon Impression

Avalon Waterways

Avalon entered the fast-growing river cruise market in 2004 and is owned by the Swiss-based Globus family of brands that also includes Cosmos. The line aims for the upper end of the river cruise market and is adding new ships with suite features that are unique to the line. Avalon operates a large number of riverboats on a vast range of European itineraries (nearly three dozen) as well as relatively new programs in the Galapagos and along the Peruvian Amazon, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy (not 2019),  Ganges (began 2019) and the Nile (2020).

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Visionary on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

European Rivers
Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

AVALON IMAGERY II (built 2016 & 128 passengers); AVALON PASSION (b. 2016 & 166p); AVALON TAPESTRY II & AVALON TRANQUILITY II (b. 2015 & 128 p); AVALON IMPRESSION (b. 2014 & 166p); AVALON POETRY II (b. 2014 & 128 p); AVALON ARTISTRY II (b. 2013 & 128 p); AVALON VISTA (b. 2012 & 166p); AVALON VISIONARY (b. 2012 & 128 p); AVALON LUMINARY & AVALON FELICITY (b. 2010 & 138 p); AVALON PANORAMA (b. 2011 & 166p); AVALON AFFINITY (b. 2009 & 138p); AVALON CREATIVITY( b. 2009 & 128p) and AVALON SCENERY (b. 2008 & 216 p). An addition to the fleet in 2019 will be AVALON ENVISION (b. 2019 & 166 passengers).

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Artistry II on the Rhine. * Photo: Avalon

Passenger Profile

Most, age 50 and above, hail from the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia with some younger passengers on the shorter itineraries.

Passenger Decks

All riverboats have four decks, and an elevator connects the two main cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

Most shore excursions, WiFi (including in cabins), minibar with bottled water, regional wines and beers with dinner, sparkling wine at breakfast, coffees, teas and hot chocolate throughout the day, cabin TV with English-speaking channels and 100 movie options.

Itineraries

The huge variety offers cruise tours lasting from 5 to 22 nights, generally adding a land portion at one or both ends of the river cruise. Land travel may be by high-speed train such as TGV, Thalys, and Eurostar or coach.

Springtime tulip bulb season cruises along the intricate waterways of Belgium and Holland; French rivers include the Seine, Rhone and Soane; the Rhine with or without the Moselle; combine the Rhine and Rhone between Amsterdam and Cote D’Azur; the Upper and/or Lower Danube, the latter including, on some cruises, sailing all the way to the Danube Delta just in from the Black Sea.

Longer itineraries may cover, for instance, the Upper Rhine and then via the Main, Main-Danube Canal and the Danube all the way to Vienna; with the granddaddy of all from the North Sea to the Black Sea (22 nights).

Avalon Waterways

The Avalon Expression on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon

Why Go?

River cruising conveniently takes you in one conveyance to a vast array of cultural, historic and scenic sites with so many of Europe’s major capitals (Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade) and most picturesque towns growing up along the banks.

When to Go?

Most cruises operate from April through October, while some begin in March and end in November. Christmas markets cruises have increasing appeal.

Cabins

All riverboats, except the five built between 2008 and 2010, are designated Avalon Suite Ships and come with larger cabins and substantially different configuration – for example the 200 sq. ft. Panorama Suites and 300 sq. ft. Royal Suites in which the beds face a large 11-foot glass expanse that slides open to the outside railing, rather than arranging the beds, as most do, parallel to the windows. The sensation gives your entire cabin a feeling of a cozy, protected balcony with a clear view to the outside. The remaining five boats offer four 258 sq. ft. Royal Suites with a similar layout but where the TV interrupts the continuous glass window, and 172 sq. ft. Avalon Deluxe Suites. All Indigo Deck (lowest) deck cabins have small rectangular windows set high in the wall as they are located just above the waterline.

A 200 square-foot Panorama Suite. * Avalon Waterways

Public Rooms

All riverboats share a forward Observation Lounge, forward Panorama Lounge and bar, aft facing Club Lounge, and main dining room. The Sky Deck is laid out stem to stern with open and covered deck space for lounge chairs, whirlpool, Sky Bistro for light meals and navigation bridge.

Dining

The pattern for meals is pretty much the same throughout the fleet of European riverboats, though the boats built in the last few years have more sophisticated alternative meal set ups. The food is geared for those who would like to branch out and taste regional offerings or stick with what one likes to eat at home.

Breakfast has an open window of times to cater to early risers or those who want to sleep in. Breakfast and lunch are buffet with the latter available at the top deck Sky Bistro (a grill), inside the Panorama Lounge (light fare) or in the big-windowed main dining room.

Dinner is served here as well, while those wanting something lighter than a served three-course, can frequent the Panorama Lounge’s more informal setting.

An Avalon meal on a southeast Asia river cruise. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

Activities & Entertainment

Excursions ashore may be on foot when the dock is convenient to the destination or otherwise via bus. On board entertainment will showcase local musicians and singers after dinner and special interest talks while underway. All vessels have a top deck whirlpool and small fitness centers on the lowest decks. Newish are Active Discovery cruises on the Danube that offer hiking, biking and canoeing and opportunities to explore an ice cave or salt mine and take archery lessons.

Avalon Waterways

Entertainment in the Panorama Lounge of the Avalon Artistry II. * Photo: Avalon

Special Notes

While this high-quality fleet is of basically a similar design, and the itinerary likely the deciding factor, having a bed configuration that allows you to wake up and linger between the sheets while watching the river scene pass above your toes just may dictate an Avalon Suite Ship.

Along the Same Lines

Many other European river cruise lines.

 

Avalon’s cruise tour programs to South America, Asia and Eqypt are briefly outlined below.

GALAPAGOS & AMAZON

Avalon Waterways charters the TREASURE OF GALAPAGOS, a catamaran with accommodations for 18 (b. 2009 and refurbished 2017) for a 4-night Galapagos cruise that adds up to a 8-day cruise-tour with the inclusion of sights in and around Quito, Ecuador. It also does a 12-day cruise tour that adds a 3-night Amazon River lodge stay; a 15-day cruise tour that combines the 4-night Galapagos cruise with a land tour to Cusco and Machu Picchu (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador); and a 20-day cruise tour with the addition of the Amazon River lodge including day cruises on the river.

Treasure of Galapagos, Avalonn Waterways

Avalon Waterways, Treasure of Galapagos

Another option includes a 3-night Amazon River cruise aboard the 44-passenger DELFIN III (formerly AMAZON DISCOVERY; b.2015), which Avalon charters. The ship’s cabins are all outside and consists of staterooms measuring 237 sq. ft. , corner staterooms 253 sq. ft. and the owner’s at 537 sq. ft. Departures are January to July and September to November.

There are also 3-night cruises of the Peruvian Amazon from Iquitos, to look for wildlife in the river and the surrounding rain forest landscapes plus village visits both combined with 11- and 13-day land tours that include Lima, the capital of Peru, Cusco and Machu Picchu and the longest, the Nazca Lines.

Avalon Waterways

The Delfin III, seen here when still called Amazon Discovery. * Photo: Steve Cukrov for Globlus/Avalon.

A selection of 18- and 20-day cruise tours combine the Amazon River cruise with the land destinations in Peru and Ecuador plus a Galapagos cruise. The river boat’s 237- and 253-sq. ft. cabins with huge floor-to-ceiling picture windows are spread over two of the three decks. Beds may be configured as twins or king-size. In addition, there is one single and a 597-sq. ft. suite that faces forward. Public spaces are an indoor and covered outdoor lounge, aft dining room with large view windows, a spa, small gym and plunge pool. A 24-hour medic is aboard. Departures are January-June and September to November.

Avalon Waterways

The silt-laden waters of the Upper Amazon. * Photo: Ted Scull

EGYPT
The Nile

(Note: Nile cruises begin in 2020).

Avalon Waterways

A camel watches over its territory, the site of the pyramids at Giza. * Photo: Ted Scull

10-day Egyptian cruise tours, operating year-round, include hotel stays in Cairo for the museum and the Pyramids, Sphinx, Memphis and more that bracket a 4-night Nile cruise to Luxor, Karnak, Aswan, Edfu and Kom Ombo. The MS FARAH, built in 2011, provides the cruise. 58 cabins and two suites provide large picture windows, Internet and bathrooms have bathtubs.

INDIA

Ganges River

Avalon Cruise began Ganges River cruises in 2019, operating the 56-passenger GANGES VOYAGER in the cooler months of January and February and September to November. The shortest 13-day cruise-tour begins in New Delhi or Kolkata and includes a 6-night cruise plus hotel stays in Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. 16-day cruise tours add Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, and 18-days add Mumbai and Kochi (Cochin) but not Kathmandu. The riverboat decorated in colonial-era style has cabins measuring 260, 280, 360, and 400 square feet, offer Indian and western menus and includes beer, wine and soft drinks with meals.

GANGES VOYAGER, Avalonn Cruises

GANGES VOYAGER, Heritage Suite Avalon Cruises

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA & CHINA
Mekong River

The mighty Mekong rises in China and passes through three Southeast Asian countries. * Photo: Ted Scull

Avalon Waterways operates the 2015-built, 36-passenger AVALON SIEM REAP and 2018-built sistership AVALON SAIGON cruising on 7-night voyages between Ho Chi Minh City’s waterfront, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The riverboats’ 245 sq. ft. cabins, located in two decks, all open to the outside with 14-foot sliding glass doors and windows. A forward-facing covered lounge give a 180-degree and connects to an interior air-conditioned panorama lounge with bar. The aft dining room seats all at once for buffet breakfasts and lunches and served dinners. The menus offer both Asian and western dishes.

The monumental archaeological site at Angkor Wat, Cambodia is often the first stop on a SoutheastAsia/ Mekong River itinerary.* Ted Scull

The monumental archaeological site at Angkor Wat, Cambodia is often the first stop on a SoutheastAsia/ Mekong River itinerary.* Ted Scull

The wide-ranging itineraries, in time and places visited, combine a 7-night cruise with a hotel stay and sightseeing at both ends that can add up to 13- to 21-day cruise tours to include — your choice of  extensions — Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Halong Bay in Vietnam; Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Laos; and Bangkok, Thailand. Departures are January to April and July to December.

Myanmar and the Irrawaddy River – N.B. THIS CRUISE IS NOT OPERATING IN 2020.

Avalon operates its own riverboat some 1,300 miles along the Upper Irrawaddy River between Yangon and Bhamo (northern limit if navigation) with a hotel stay in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital adding up to 14 days and an extension to Bangkok that creates a 17-day cruise tour.

The 36-passenger AVALON MYANMAR was completed in 2015 and takes up to 36 passengers. Sights visited along the river are pagodas, Buddhist monasteries, and riverside villages where the local activities produce candy made from palm trees, pottery, and food from adjacent farms. Note: These itineraries operated September-December in 2018, and none are scheduled for 2019.

The well-fitted out riverboat offers 245-sq.ft. Avalon Suites spread over two decks where the twin or king-size beds face a 14-foot-wide wall of glass that opens to a railing and the world outside, similar in layout to many of the line’s European riverboat fleet. A forward open-air covered lounge shares the Mandalay Deck with an adjacent enclosed lounge and an aft dining room. The Sky Deck’s lounge is covered and next to the spa treatment room and gym.

China and the Yangtze River: N.B. THESE CRUISES ARE IS NOT OPERATING IN 2020.

Avalon takes space for up 20 passengers on two Yangtze River vessels that combine a 3- or 4-night, 650-mile cruise between Yichang and Chongqing into 11- and up to 17-day cruise tours that include major sights in China such as Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, and Hong Kong on the longer cruise tours. The 7-deck riverboat CENTURY LEGEND, completed in 2013, handles up to 392 passengers (oops, higher than QC’s 300-pax max!).

To personalize the cruise portion, all meals, apart from the farewell banquet, take place in the Sun Deck VIP restaurant. Meals feature Chinese buffets and a la carte Western dishes. Wine, beer, and soda are complimentary at dinner. Cabins (266 sq. ft.) are all outside with balconies and separate bathtubs and 24-hour access to an Executive Lounge. The boat’s amenities include an indoor swimming pool (unusual feature), library, game room, cinema, and gym.

All land tours are private to Avalon and land extensions do not exceed 20. Itineraries extend from April to October, though some specific tours do not include the searingly hot months of mid-June to mid-August.

Contact

Avalon Waterways, P.O. Box 3219, Highland Park, MI 48203;  Avalonwaterways.com; 877-380-1540

TWS

 

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Emerald Waterways

Emerald Waterways.

Emerald Waterways is one of the newest river cruise line in Europe having started up in 2014 and now operating a fleet of seven similar riverboats. Known as Evergreen Waterways in Australia, the line is a division of Scenic, a multifaceted travel company. The price point is mid-range and the boats’ decor would fall into the modern minimalist style.

Emerald Waterways is a real gem, offering good-value river cruises mostly in Europe, and in Russia and on the Mekong; it’s owned by the same firm that operates Scenic, a higher-end line.

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

EMERALD STAR (built 2014 & 182 passengers), EMERALD SKY (b. 2014 & 182p), EMERALD DAWN (b. 2015 & 182p), EMERALD SUN (b. 2015 & 182p) and EMERALD DESTINY (b.2017 & 182p). Recent additions are EMERALD LIBERTE (b.2017 & 138p) on the Rhone and Soane and EMERALD RADIANCE (b.2017 & 112 p) on the Douro River in Portugal. For 2018, the ROSSIA (b. 1978, refitted 2007, 224p) 12 days between St. Petersburg & Moscow with, however, just three departures. See below for S.E. Asian river cruise-tours on the Mekong and Irrawaddy (latter suspended). For 2019, the MS SWALLOW (36 passengers) will begin cruising Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast (8 days or 16 days), the latter with a land portion April to October and in 2020, the MS LASTAVICA will join the fleet, also taking up to 36 passengers. A new program for Cairo, Ancient Egypt and the Nile lasts 11 days, 15 days with Jordan added (Amman, Petra and Dead Sea), and 16 days with Ancient and modern Egypt, including a Nile cruise, and Israel.

N.B. A brand-new luxury yacht, EMERALD AZZURRA will join the fleet in the Mediterranean in summer 2021. The 100-passenger vessel will accommodate up to 100 passengers in six categories with only 6 lacking a private balcony. Decks are tiered both fore and aft thus giving easy access to the outside. The ship will mainly cruise the Mediterranean with varied eastern and western itineraries and ports of embarkation, while in the colder months she is based at Aqaba, Jordan for Red Sea cruises. The line’s website reveals the ship’s layout in detail. Emerald Waterways

Emerald Sky cruising the Rhine. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Passenger Profile

For the most part English-speaking from Australia, North American, and Britain.

Passenger Decks

River boats: four decks, three of them with cabins, and two more public rooms. An elevator connects the three cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$  Expensive but good value and lots included in the fares.

Included Features

Most excursions (at least one for every port) including all gratuities, biking and hiking tours, independent use of bicycles, plus transfers, pre-paid on-board gratuities, beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee and tea with lunch and dinner,  bottled water in cabins, WiFi, transfers, port charges, and some on-shore meals. More in-depth excursions are available at an extra cost through the Discover more program focusing on art, local history, culture and food.

Cologne Cathedral, seen on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cologne Cathedral, seen on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

Thus far the 8- to 11-day Europe River itineraries cover the Rhine, Moselle, Main and the upper and/or lower Danube, Dutch and Belgian waterways with the EMERALD SKY and EMERALD STAR and EMERALD DAWN and EMERALD SUN; and  morerecently added, the French combination of the Rhone and Soane with the EMERALD LIBERTE and Portugal’s Douro with the EMERALD RADIANCE. Some cruises include an initial hotel stay and others not. Cruises Amsterdam-Budapest or v.v. last 15 days. The cruising season may begin as early as April for some itineraries and ends in October, while the final 15-day Amsterdam-Budapest cruise sails in December. Consider either combing two river cruises for a longer European stay, or if feeling independent, add city stays before and/or after the river portion in Amsterdam, Paris, Nice, Lisbon, Madrid, Budapest or Munich.

If booked through the line, transfers will be included. St. Petersburg-Moscow 12 days  aboard the ROSSIA. Emerald offers 16- and 19-day cruise tours for Vietnam, Cambodia, 7 nights on the Mekong River (MEKONG NAVIGATOR & EMERALD HARMONY) and 2 nights cruising on Halong Bay. EMERALD HARMONY is nimble enough to tie up along the capital of Ho Chi Minh rather along a Mekong tributary to then be bused to and from the city.

Ancient and modern Egyptian 10-day itineraries include a four-day Upper Nile cruise, while longer land portions add Amman and Jordan’s sights (15 days) and Israel (16 days).

N.B. Suspended. Also, in Myanmar beginning in 2019, 14-day cruise tours operate between Mandalay (2 nights) and Yangon (2 nights) spend 9 nights on the Irrawaddy aboard the IRRAWADDY EXPLORER.

Adriatic cruises for 2019 will feature 8-nighters along Croatia’s North Dalmatian coast round trip from Trogir. and in 2020, a second 8-nighter offering will depart from Trogir or Dubrovnik to call at the Dalmatian islands, plus Egypt (11 days) aboard MS HAMEES with Jordan added if desired (15 days).

Amsterdam's Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Amsterdam’s Central Station. The riverboats leave from the river just behind. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

A European river cruise introduces you in the space of a week or so to several different cultures, long histories, and scenic delights with one unpacking and one packing chore. Asian river cruising is the least stressful way to see diverse culturally-rich countries.

When to Go?

Summer in Europe can be a bit hectic ashore at the most popular port calls, while May and October are less crowded months, and March/April, also times of fewer tourists, may have more unsettled weather.

Cabins

With all European vessels currently having the same layouts, the cabins, all outside, measure 117 sq. ft. for the two single cabins and from 162 to 315 sq. ft. for the others. The lowest Riviera Deck has fixed small windows while the others have large expanses of glass that open at the top with the push of a button. All cabins on Horizon and Vista Decks have an inside balcony, that is, they do not jut out, rather at the push of a button, they become an integral part of the bedroom/sitting room. Cabins come equipped with mini-fridge, TV, safe, bottled water and free WiFi. Beds may be arranged as twins or queen-size.

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A spacious, light-filled balcony cabin. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Public Rooms

A forward lounge with bar is connected to the covered terrace at the bow. The Sun Deck has canvas-covered and open sections, a barbecue, areas for games and a walking track that encircles almost the entire length of the deck. And how about this inventive use of space — drain the heated swimming pool with its retractable roof and presto, a cinema magically morfs, complete with a bar.

Dining

Breakfast and lunch are buffet, with additional a la carte menu selections, while dinner is a four-course served meal served with beer, wine and soft drinks in Reflections dining room. Breakfast and lunch may also be enjoyed on The Terrace, located on the covered deck at the bow. In fine weather, barbecues take place on the Sun Deck.

Activities & Entertainment

While most activities take place ashore, the line has added yoga classes and smartphone photo workshops on board. Also, there is a small swimming pool during the day and a cinema at night, deck games such chess with giant pieces, putting green, and shuffleboard, walking track, a gym, steam sauna and Finnish sauna. Musical entertainment comes aboard on selected evenings. The cruise director provides the commentary. An Activities Manager leads guide cycling tours, rural and urban hikes, athletic walks as well as helping passenger plan their own activities ashore on foot and with a bicycle.

EmeraldACTIVE offers reasonably fit passengers the chance, for instance, to take a hike in Germany’s Black Forest on a Rhine cruise and on the Danube, tour by bicycle (also available for independent touring) in the scenic areas around Melk, Austria and glide along the streets of Belgrade, Serbia. The list of bike tours now includes Amsterdam, Hoorn, and Veere in the Netherlands; to Roche-de-Glun in southern France, and Melk to Durnstein along the Danube in Austria, and hikes through a vineyard in Tournon, France and a climb up to Durnstein Castle in Austria and expanding to more locations. Caloeing is also a new feature in quiet waters.

Additionally, take to a single or double kayak and paddle close to Portugal’s Douro Valley’s vineyards. During a lower Danube cruise, hike up to Belogradchik Fortress, a Roman-era surveillance tower built into a natural wonder. The aim is broaden the interest to appeal to a more active clientele.

Emerald riverboat moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Ted Scull

Emerald riverboat moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

*Asian Riverboat Cruises

N.B. This riverboat is not currently operating for Emerald on the Mekong. MEKONG NAVIGATOR: (built 2014 & 68 passengers). The 4-deck boat (no elevator), designed with colonial decor, has a top deck bar/lounge, separate small library, fitness and wellness areas, windowed dining room, and Sun Deck. Three categories of suites generously measure from 256 to 291 sq. ft., while the top four suites 387 and 584 sq. ft.  All, except 4 Superior Suites with portholes, have floor-to-ceiling windows and French or private balconies. The 16- and 19-day cruise-tours include Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh City, a 7-day cruise and Siem Reap for the Angkor temples. EMERALD HARMONY will be able to sail up the river to the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. See below.

EMERALD WATERWAYS

An illustration for the new EMERALD HARMONY that enters Mekong River service in August 2019.

N.B. EMERALD HARMONY (built 2019 & 84 passengers) will join the fleet in August 2019 for Southeast Asia cruises in Vietnam and Cambodia and has the ability to sail into and out of the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, eliminating the coach transfer to and from the Mekong Delta. The five-deck riverboat has most cabins tiered in the forward part of the ship and public rooms aft with a full partly open and partly sheltered top deck. 7-day Mekong River cruise will be bracketed by land arrangements and hotel stays in both Cambodia and Vietnam extending to cruise tours of 13, 17, and 21 nights.  N.B. The Irrawaddy itinerary has been suspended for now. IRRAWADDY EXPLORER (b. 2014 & 56p) makes 14-day cruise tours between Mandalay and Yangon with a 9-day Irrawaddy River cruise.

Mekong Navigator cruises Cambodia and Vietnam. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Mekong Navigator cruises Cambodia and Vietnam. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

 

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. * Photo: Ted Scull

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. * Photo: Ted Scull

Along the Same Lines

Other European and Asian river lines with moderate rates.

Contact: Emerald Waterways

20 Park Plaza, Suite 903, Boston, MA 02116; EmeraldWaterways.com; 884-428-8339.

 

TWS

 

 

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Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

By John Roberts.

It’s just after sunrise in the town of Durnstein, Austria, a place known for the castle ruins looming high above the village that served as the prison for Richard the Lionhearted in the late 12th century.

For myself and three dozen other cruisers on Scenic Jasper, it also is known as the port where we will begin our biking tour through the Wachau Valley.

I’m traveling on this 7-night Scenic cruise with my wife, and we join a small group that wants to hike up to the ruins before breakfast and our bike ride. So, we hustle up the path to get to the top and enjoy the most amazing panoramic view of the rooftops, valley and winding river below. Now, I’m sufficiently energized for the 22-mile bike ride to Melk.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Durnstein ruins hike; victorious author on the left.

Many onboard have been looking forward to this excursion all week, and we head out from Durnstein, snaking along the narrow trails that traces the banks of the Danube.

The matriarch of a family of seven from Toronto cruising to celebrate her 80th birthday is leading the way, up front with the guide. I had met her in the pool on Scenic Jasper earlier in the cruise, and she asked whether I thought she could do it. I explained that the bikes have an e-assist setting (which allows you to engage a motor to push you along) and the cycling wouldn’t have to be too arduous as long as she felt comfortable in a bike seat.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Wachau Valley biking. * Photo: John Roberts

It appears she is plenty comfortable and has taken full advantage of that e-assist.

The route takes us up into the hills occasionally, through vineyards and villages. We also follow the path close to the river for many miles. We stop frequently, and people are having a great time under perfectly sunny skies. We take a break in the town of Spitz, just in time to watch our ship sail by on the way to Melk. Cruisers who stayed onboard to delight in the scenic cruising are eating a barbecue lunch on the sun deck and waving and shouting to us.

We all line up on the banks to shout back and take plenty of photos.

It’s the middle of summer, and we’re cruising on Europe’s second longest river, the majestic Danube. The water levels are low, but spirits are high.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Spitz stop to see the ship. * Photo: John Roberts

I’m among more than 150 passengers who joined Scenic Jasper in Budapest. (The ship carries a maximum of 169.) Our cruisers hail from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada, with a few Germans, as well. The vessel was supposed to be sister ship Scenic Amber, but dry, hot conditions mean necessary tweaks to river cruise itineraries throughout Europe when parts of the waterway become un-navigable.

Our weeklong cruise sailed from Budapest, Hungary, to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed for two days, then a day docked in Durnstein, Austria, another in Linz, Austria (for Salzburg), and two days in Passau, Germany.

Beautiful Budapest

Leaving from Budapest, we know that more adjustments might be necessary as we go. But six days fly by with ideal sailing conditions before we learn that we won’t be able to make it to our original destination, Nuremberg. Instead, we’ll go to Passau, which is fine by me.

The historic city of three rivers is a lovely place to explore, too.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The ship in Budapest. * Photo: John Roberts

The best parts of the Scenic river cruise experience are the availability of fantastic shore excursions.

For embarkations in Budapest, the cruise kicks off with a “Grand Illumination” sailing. This is a quintessential Budapest experience — to see the city lit up at night, with the Parliament Building, Fisherman’s Bastian and all the bridges in stunning golden hues.

The next day, we venture to Szentendre, an artists’ commune outside the city, while many others choose historic tours of Budapest.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Charming Szentendre. * Photo: John Roberts

First Stop: Vienna

We arrive in late afternoon and will spend a night and the next day here. It’s an early dinner before we all go to Liechtenstein Palace to enjoy an evening of opera, which is included in the fares. Afterward, we arrive back to the ship, and crew has set up a delicious late-night snack of sausages, breads and goulash.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Vienna Opera. * Photo: John Roberts

Passengers head off to bed satisfied after a full day of cultural experiences. I should say that some head off to bed sooner than others. There is a big contingent of Canadians and Aussies who routinely stay up late, taking full advantage of the free-flowing drinks that come with the all-inclusive Scenic journey.

The following morning arrives in Vienna, and we pick a morning trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we immediately set out to get to the observation deck of the aptly named “UFO Restaurant” on top of the new bridge.

After enjoying the best views (from 311 feet high) of this capital city and a couple cold beers 🍺, we go back across the bridge to wander Old Town before heading back in our coach for lunch onboard Scenic Jasper. Others go to Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, or to Belvedere Palace to see the collection of Klimpt paintings.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Other-worldly UFO bar beers. * Photo: John Roberts

That’s Right, Danube Island

For the afternoon, we sign out a couple of the ship bikes and ride to the Danube Island. Yes, it’s an island in the middle of the Danube River that is a hot spot for residents who come here for beach time in the river and to attend festivals and other activities.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

When in Rome. The author takes a swim in the Danube at Vienna.

 

We take a spin around before needing to cool off. It’s about 92 degrees, and I am ready for my first swim in the Danube. It’s not blue at all, but the water is refreshing.

Wachau Valley Ride

The main event of our next day is the bike ride in the Wachau Valley; part of a busy and rewarding schedule that also includes options to tour Melk Abbey or a visit to a winery. Later, we all meet at the Aggstein Castle ruins site for 🍺 beers, Gruner Veltliner wines and — you guessed it — amazing views of a sunset from high in the hills above the ever-present Danube.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Aggstein views. * Photo: John Roberts

Salzburg, Doe a Deer

At our next port, we had to make the grueling choice of whether to go see the fairytale UNESCO Heritage village of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic or Salzburg, the home of Mozart and a favorite for aficionados of the film classic “Sound of Music.” We pick Salzburg.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Mozart statue. * Photo: John Roberts

Passau Endings

The final stop is Passau, and we go for a jog into town (about four miles total out and back from our berth at the edge of town) to do exploring on our own, wandering the cobbled streets and town squares during the morning as the city begins to waken. This was my sixth voyage on the Danube, and I’ve been on several other river cruises in Europe and elsewhere.

I love to stay active and have discovered that river cruises offer much greater opportunities than ocean sailings to hop right off your ship when in port and go for a run, hike or bike ride.  

St. Stephen’s Cathedral looms above the city, and we take a quick peek into the church. We also go past the town hall to spot the historic high-water marks enshrined on the front of the building as a badge of honor for a city that sits at the confluence of the three rivers and endures flooding as an annual rite.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Passau Veste Oberhaus. * Photo: John Roberts

Food, Entertainment and More

Because a Scenic cruise is all-inclusive, passengers won’t pay extra for drinks, meals, excursions, transfers and gratuities.

The ship has plenty of other features that I like, too. I mentioned the onboard bikes and small swimming pool. The pool is a popular spot during my sailing, as it is the height of the summer season, and each day is a scorcher. You also can find plenty of shaded areas on the sun deck, which has a small walking track around an attractive turf lawn.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The Jasper even has a small pool that the author is sampling! 💦

Cruisers gather in the lounge for nightly entertainment that includes everything from casual dancing to music from the ship’s pianist Enzo, to trivia contests and Disco Night dance parties. We also are wowed by the Hungarian folk dancers who come aboard for a show in Budapest.

Rooms are spacious enough, with butler service and one bag of laundry included per cruise. Scenic Jasper also features cabins with a flexible balcony space that converts from indoor to outdoor by lowering the large window down to a railing.

You never want for a meal, either. In fact, you have six ways to eat. Crystal Dining is the main venue, with open seating for buffet breakfasts and lunches, as well as plated dinners. My favorite meals are the Chef’s Special cheeseburger and the wiener schnitzel on the menu once we reach Vienna.

Portobellos is an Italian eatery that sits at the front of the lounge, and cruisers get to experience this upscale meal with views once per cruise. Our table asks for seconds on the charcuterie plate that has flavorful meats, cheeses, olives, peppers and chutney.

Table La Rive is a wine-pairing gourmet meal available once per sailing for passengers staying in suites on Deck 3. I hear passengers raving about the wines throughout the cruise, and this meal stands out for the varieties of reds and whites offered, as well as a not-too-sweet dessert wine. The scallops, soups and beef tenderloin are fine, but the best part of this meal is the desserts. I choose the molten chocolate cake.

River Café adjacent to the bar serves light bites all day, such as small sandwiches, fruit cups and ice cream; and Riverview Terrace is open for breakfast and lunch (it’s the same space used for Portobellos at night). Riverview Terrace offerings are a small sample of the buffet items you find in the main dining room. You also can order in-suite meals from your butler.

When it comes to the onboard brew, beer options included bottles of Pilsner Urquell, a Czech beer, as well as Erdinger Weissbier (a German wheat beer), plus beer on draft — Duckstein, a typical flavorful German beer that I liked because it was cold and smooth, perfect for the hot conditions and refreshing after our biking, jogging and trekking.

All in all, this was a deliciously wonderful river cruise from start to finish. And did I mention the beer 🍺 was good?

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Taking it easy on deck with a 🍺. * Photo: John Roberts

John Roberts is owner of InTheLoopTravel.com, where he writes about cruise travel, fitness and adventure, with a focus on how to help people enjoy their journeys in a fun and affordable way.

Click here to read more about Scenic.

 

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Eastern Europe Danube River

By Randy Mink.

In Part 2 of Randy Mink’s Eastern Europe river cruise odyssey, the story continues on board the 169-passenger Scenic Crystal as it plies the Danube River toward Bucharest, calling in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. The 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” itinerary comprises a 7-night cruise and two hotels nights before and one after.  

(Click here to read  Part 1 of Randy’s story.) 

Eastern Europe Danube River

Scenic’s 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” doesn’t actually cruise all the way to the Black Sea. * Photo: Scenic

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, with 1.6 million residents in the metro area, is home to a quarter of Serbia’s population. From my short visit I found the city to be a bit funky; having been ravaged and rebuilt so many times, it’s not exactly attractive. Yet people on the street were engaging, there’s a lively cafe and bar culture, and I liked the university students who guided the two-hour walking tour from the ship, which had deposited us in the heart of town.

Eastern Europe River Cruise

A Belgrade market. * Photo: Randy Mink

Much of our morning walk was spent at Kalemegdan Fortress, where, from lookout points atop the stone ramparts, we snapped away at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Actually a city park, the sprawling citadel has everything from tennis courts and an archery range to dinosaur displays, historical monuments and a military museum. Then we explored Knez Mihailova, the main-drag pedestrian street full of boutiques, restaurants and banks, plus souvenir kiosks selling items like Serbian army caps, Vladimir Putin T-shirts and Tito magnets.

Eastern European River Cruise

Belgrade’s Kalmegdan Fortress. * Photo: Ranky Mink

During free time that afternoon, some of us visited St. Sava, the biggest Eastern Orthodox church in the world, and Belgrade’s festive bohemian quarter, Skadarska, where traditional restaurants draw in tourists with the aromas of roasted meats and zingy sounds of strolling musicians. Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so the street signs are a challenge to tourists, but a semester of college Russian helped me figure out certain words. Rounding out the Belgrade visit was Scenic’s Sundowners event, a happy hour with a band at one of the Sava River’s many floating restaurants.

The Iron Gates, between Serbia & Romania

Part of the next day was spent on the Scenic Crystal’s Sun Deck as we sailed through the Iron Gates area, Europe’s longest and deepest series of gorges. Everyone came out to take in the rock-walled shores of Serbia and Romania — the most dramatic scenery of the cruise — and watch the ship pass through locks. By mid-afternoon we had left Serbia behind and entered the 372-mile stretch of the Danube that forms much of the Romania-Bulgaria border.

Eastern Europe Danube River

The Iron Gates Gorge. * Photo: Randy Mink

Ruse, Bulgaria

From Ruse (sometimes written Rousse), our first all-day excursion in Bulgaria went to the medieval town of Veliko Tarnovo, which flourished as the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire from the 12th to 14th centuries. Spilling across an amphitheater of wooded hills high above the Yantra River, it commands a stunning setting dominated by the Tsarevets Fortress. One stop was a store selling rose-oil cosmetics and foods. (Bulgaria boasts the best quality rose oil in the world — one ounce of perfume sells for $40 an ounce.) We helped ourselves to samples of rose-petal jam, rose liqueur and rose-flavored candy. In the sleepy village of Arbanasi, the excursion featured two 16th-century Orthodox churches with lavishly frescoed interiors. A choir sang a Gregorian chant for us at the church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel. (Bulgaria is 85 percent Orthodox.)

Eastern Europe Danube River

Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Arbanasi, Bulgaria. * Photo: Randy Mink

Varna, Bulgaria

In the seaside city of Varna the following day, we saw some of mankind’s first gold jewelry in the vast Archaeological Museum and then had time to shop or dip our toes in the Black Sea. Lunch was at a replica pirate ship right on the beach. (Though an excursion from Silistra goes to Varna on the coast, Scenic Crystal does not sail as far east as the Black Sea, despite the name of the itinerary.)

Local Guides & Their Stories

Just as fascinating as the snippets of local life looming outside the bus window were our guides’ comparisons between Bulgaria today and in Communist times. On the way to Varna, our guide, Clemena, talked of limited goods for sale in the stores (one kind of yogurt, two kinds of cheese) and “ugly” clothes and shoes. But in some ways, she said, life was better under totalitarian rule—everyone had a job because factories were working full force to supply ready markets in other Soviet-bloc countries, and all the news was positive because there was no voice other than the government’s propaganda machine. Many older people, she added, yearn for a past when big-brother control lent a sense of security.

For ease in following the guides’ remarks on shore excursions, each Scenic passenger gets a high-tech audio device, called Tailormade. Touch “Voice Guide” and through the ear piece you can hear the guide loud and clear, even if you’ve drifted to the back of the pack. Tailormade’s “Self-Guided Tours” option, meanwhile, becomes the best friend of those who want to roam independently in cities on the cruise route, with brief descriptions of select sights and a digital map. (Happily, in every port of call we had chances to wander, shop or sit down at a cafe, and even many excursions included free time.)

Besides being enlightened by local guides, we learned much about the region from Scenic Crystal crew members, many of whom are Serbs. During a cocktail-hour session on “Growing up in Eastern Europe,” staff members told their stories and took questions from the audience. They talked of their childhoods and discussed their countrymen’s current hopes and dreams. Cultural programming also included Serbian dancers and Croatian singers who came on board.

Lunches and dinners in the dining room featured a wide variety of international cuisine, including Eastern European specialties. Every passenger is invited to have one dinner at Portobello’s, a sectioned-off area where 32 guests each night enjoy an Italian meal with wines from Tuscany.

Eastern Europe Danube River

Scenic Crystal’s restaurant. * Photo: Scenic

Giurgiu, Romania

In Giurgiu, Romania, alas, it was time to say farewell to all the good eating on the Scenic Crystal and board buses for Bucharest, where we had a choice of two tours before checking in to the hotel. Some passengers opted to see inside the Palace of Parliament, the gargantuan creation of Communist strong man Nicolae Ceausescu (the world’s second largest building after the Pentagon).

Eastern Europe Danube River

Bucharest’s humongous parliament palace. * Photo: Scenic

I chose the National Village Museum, an open-air collection of homesteads relocated from rural Romania, to get a taste of the country as a whole. At night we explored Bucharest’s Old Town, a happening scene where hip bars and eateries are rejuvenating the historic city core.

Eastern Europe River Cruise

Bucharest Old Town. * Photo: Randy Mink

From Budapest and Bucharest to Belgrade, Bulgaria and the Black Sea, Eastern Europe is the place to “B” for curiosity-seekers eager to chart a course through lands a bit off the beaten track. The eastern frontier beckons.

Read Part 1 of Randy Mink’s Eastern Europe Danube River cruise story.

Scenic’s 2018 “Black Sea Explorer” cruises are scheduled for April 14 and 22, May 26 and June 3. The first and third sailings are Budapest-Bucharest; the second and fourth operate in reverse. Fares start at $4,895 USD per person, based on double occupancy, plus airfare. Included are all meals, drinks, shore excursions and tips. For more info, go to www.scenicusa.com.

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

By Randy Mink.

An Eastern Europe Danube River cruise with Scenic peeks into Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.

On a shore excursion in northern Bulgaria, I constantly had my nose pressed to the bus window, not wanting to miss a thing as we rolled through the fertile fields of the Danubian Plain and rural towns bursting with scenes reminiscent of an earlier time. Here I spotted a shepherd tending his flock, there a farmer in his horse wagon, and women dressed in traditional headscarves and aprons — vignettes right out of the 19th century.

It was springtime, and yellow canola flowers carpeted broad swaths of countryside. Our buses were headed to the Black Sea port of Varna, a big city that turned out to be less interesting than the ride getting there.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

The canola fields of Bulgaria. * Photo: Randy Mink

A Slice of Eastern Europe, from Budapest to Bucharest

The day trip was just one of many eye-opening excursions for passengers booked on Scenic Crystal’s 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” from Budapest to Bucharest — comprising a 7-night cruise and two hotel nights before in Budapest and one after in Bucharest. This river cruise was a perfect introduction to the less-visited countries of Eastern Europe, a slice of the world once closed off to mass tourism from the West. Now, nearly three decades after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, these formerly Communist-controlled societies are forging ahead, in varying degrees of success, with free-market economies. All are ripe for discovery for curiosity-seekers like me, a baby boomer who never thought he’d see the day when the Berlin Wall would fall and the enslaved satellites of Soviet Russia would be free.

Because of my fascination with 20th-century European history, I appreciated that our local guides shared their families’ experiences during those dark Communist days. In Serbia and Croatia they also commented on the 1990s wars ignited by the unhappy breakup of Yugoslavia.

Europe’s Far East: Communist-era Apartment Blocks & National Currencies

Most people don’t think of vacationing in countries like Serbia and Bulgaria — places that seem so alien and out of the mainstream. Scenery-wise, they hardly qualify as dream destinations, and there are few grand attractions. The cities, with their Communist-era apartment blocks, appear drab. The languages, much different from Romance and Germanic tongues, will throw you for a loop. If you’re accustomed to using euros or pounds in Europe, you have to adapt to currencies like the Hungarian forint, Serbian dinar and Bulgarian lev. All of this, however, just lends a sense of exoticism, and then there’s satisfaction in exploring a region not overrun with English-speaking tourists. You might call it Europe’s “Far East.”

The best way to sample these countries is an Eastern Europe Danube River cruise where everything is wrapped into one neat package. My home for this Danube adventure was one of the sleek Space-Ships in the growing fleet of luxury operator Scenic, a company based in Australia.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Scenic Crystal on the Danube in Budapest. * Photo: Randy Mink

All Aboard in Budapest, Hungary

From Budapest, where a two-night hotel stay is included in the fare (with most passengers at the Marriott), the 169-passenger Scenic Crystal took us to Kalocsa, Hungary; Osijek, Croatia; Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (and former Yugoslavia); and Ruse and Silistra, Bulgaria. (Though an excursion from Silistra goes to Varna, the Scenic Crystal does not sail as far east as the Black Sea, despite the name of the itinerary.) The Scenic package ends with a hotel night in Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

The Danube flows for about 1,800 miles from Germany’s Black Forest to the vast delta where Romania and Ukraine border the Black Sea, touching more countries (10) than any other river. Scenic’s most popular Danube itineraries operate between Nuremburg and Budapest, with stops in Germany and Austria.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Scenic’s 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” doesn’t actually cruise all the way to the Black Sea. * Photo: Scenic

Budapest, Hungary

Of all the cities visited on our Eastern Europe Danube River cruise, Budapest was the most impressive. The two days I had to explore Hungary’s capital prior to boarding the Scenic Crystal, gave me a good overview. I took a Scenic-arranged bus tour and poked around on my own.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

A Budapest panorama. * Photo: Randy Mink

The morning bus circuit took us to Castle Hill, site of skyline landmarks like the Royal Palace and Matthias Church, and to Heroes’ Square, a sweeping plaza with statues and monuments glorifying Hungary through the ages. As we rode through heavy traffic, our guide gave us a quick lesson in Hungarian culture and history, mentioning the centuries of Turkish rule, the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, how Jewish citizens suffered in the ghetto, and how thousands of people were killed and injured during the 1956 uprising quashed by Soviet tanks.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Budapest’s St. Matthias Church. * Photo: Randy Mink

I didn’t have time to visit Budapest’s ornately decorated Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second-largest synagogue in the world (after Temple Emanu-El in New York), but did peek through the gates of the memorial garden behind it. I devoted two hours to the House of Terror, a chilling and deeply moving museum in the very building where the Communist regime’s secret police interrogated and tortured ordinary citizens. Most fascinating were the propaganda films showing “happy” factory workers and eyewitness interviews (English subtitles) of those whose relatives were imprisoned or brutalized. The tiny gift shop sells Lenin and Stalin busts in the form of candles, a sly gesture to the fleeting nature of evil.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Budapest’s Great Market. * Photo: Randy Mink

During my brief visit to Budapest, I also checked out the food and craft stalls in the historic town center, where I had a chance to sample a few pastries amid the Old World trappings of Gerbaud Cafe, a traditional Hungarian restaurant and coffee house dating back to 1858. More local color surfaced at the cavernous Market Hall, a bustling farmers’ market, souvenir spot and transit station where I savored goulash soup dished up by one of the second floor’s many food vendors.

After our first-night dinner aboard the Scenic Crystal, which was moored in Budapest until morning, we enjoyed an hour-long cruise past the illuminated domes and spires of churches, the Royal Palace and grandiose Hungarian Parliament, the neo-Gothic masterpiece often shown on river cruise brochures and TV commercials.

Kalocsa, Hungary

A day after departing Budapest, our ship arrived in Kalocsa, Hungary, about 100 miles south of Budapest. This is the country’s “paprika capital,” so we had plenty of chances to buy souvenir bags of sweet and hot paprika at stops like the House of Paprika, a small museum maintained by the local growers’ cooperative. The main event in Kalocsa was the horse show at Bakod Puszta farm, where riders in traditional costumes performed stunts.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

Horse Show in Kalocsa, Hungary. * Photo: Randy Mink

Osijek, Croatia

The Danube cuts through the northeastern corner of Croatia, an agricultural area far from the country’s better-known Adriatic resorts. There we toured Osijek, the main urban center in the region of Slavonia (not to be confused with the countries of Slovenia or Slovakia). Located on the Drava River, a tributary of the Danube, Osijek is just 18 miles from the Hungarian border and 12 miles west of Serbia.

Since the Drava was low, we had to take a bus from the Danube port of Vukovar, but Maja, our 36-year-old Croatian guide, kept us enthralled with insights into her country’s past and present. Right off the bat she started talking about the 1991 war with Serbia after the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, an arrangement that had suppressed ethnic differences between the component republics during the reign of Communist leader Marshal Tito and his successors. Bullet holes still mar buildings in Osijek and Vukovar.

In Osijek, which bears traces of Hapsburg-era elegance, we enjoyed a guided walk on the cobbled streets of Tvrda, the old walled city, and an organ concert in a 1732 Franciscan church. But the day’s highlight was lunch in the village of Bilje — a home-cooked spread in the intimate setting of a bed and breakfast. It’s one of Scenic’s signature Enrich programs designed to immerse passengers in the local culture.

Lunch in a Local Home

My group of eight feasted at the home of Nada Cavic, a young mom who rents two bedrooms to tourists. Dressed in blue jeans and making easy conversation with her guests, Nada, in fluent English, talked freely about life since the war, mentioning that both her sisters were married to Serbians. She started us out with a soup made with vegetables from her garden and homemade noodles. Also on the menu: meatloaf fritters, sliced potatoes with paprika and meat drippings, cabbage salad and a creamy dish called milk rice. We washed it all down with white wine, elderberry juice, homemade cherry brandy and slivovitz, a plum brandy Nada’s father-in-law made for her wedding last year.

Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise

A meal in a local Croatian home. * Photo: Randy Mink

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of Randy Mink’s Eastern Europe Danube River Cruise — to be posted later this week! Here’s PART 2!

Scenic’s 2018 “Black Sea Explorer” cruises are scheduled for April 14 and 22, May 26 and June 3. The first and third sailings are Budapest-Bucharest; the second and fourth operate in reverse. Fares start at $4,895 USD per person, based on double occupancy, plus airfare. Included are all meals, drinks, shore excursions and tips. For more info, go to www.scenicusa.com.

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Danube River

by Ted Scull.

The Danube River has provided a river route for human migration, invasion, and trade since Celtic, Greek, Roman, Mongol, Turkish, and modern times, in effect linking the Occident and Orient, Christianity and Islam. The layers of civilization and strife that have occurred along its banks make for an incredibly complex history lesson, as we would discover on our two-week cruise. We had a look at what the Lower Danube is all about, downstream of Budapest.

Blue the Danube is not, rather some variation on muddy brown, especially in April with the river flooding. Arriving at the Danube landing on the Pest side of Budapest on my last Danube River cruise, we found a long, white Viking River Cruise boat securely tied to a floating pontoon and buffeted by an eight mile-an-hour current that carried rafts of tree trunks and floating debris thumping along the riverboat’s hull. Casting off, we sailed with the strong current to unfamiliar places that proved to be most intriguing surprises.

Map of the Danube River

Map of the Danube River

Ports Along the Danube River

We first stopped at the Hungarian market town of Mohacs for an hour’s drive inland past cattle farms and vineyards to Pecs (pronounced “Paich”), a UNESCO World Heritage site surrounded by the longest reconstructed wall in Europe. In the town center, a Christian cross rose out of a crescent moon recalling that St. Peter’s Basilica had been converted to a mosque during the long years of Ottoman Empire rule. It’s again functioning as a church, but the interior decoration is unmistakable Islamic.

Pecs, Hungary

St. Peter’s, first built as a church, then converted to a mosque, and again a church – see cross atop dome. Pecs, Hungary. * Photo: Ted Scull

On a nearby rise, Pecs’ 200-year-old cathedral includes 11th-century sections and sits atop a 5th-century crypt. During our visit, the transept was filled with high school students who, since the fall of the Communism, may again attend Roman Catholic schools.

From Europe’s second largest fortress opposite Novi Sad, our next port of call, we had a sweeping view of the river and over farmlands that extended to the horizon. Beginning at the main square we followed a curving pedestrian street to the produce and clothing markets and to a landscaped wooded park filled with school children at play.

We cruised through the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps that cross the river here. Once, to overcome the powerful and dangerous rapids, steam locomotives operating on a parallel track hauled the upriver traffic. Now the turbulent waters have been tamed by locks and a dam providing safe navigation and generating hydroelectricity. Our riverboat shared the deep lock chambers with Ukrainian and Romanian tugs and barges, loaded with coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber, and grain.

Danube River

Danube’s Iron Gates form border between Romania and Serbia. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Most riverboats and tows have pilot houses and masts that can be lowered for passage under bridges during high water when clearances are minimal. On our riverboat, the pilothouse drops into a deck cavity, and the forward and aft signal masts lower electrically. For extreme low clearances, top deck railings can be folded to the deck.

The riverboat’s hull has strength to make contact with floating objects and the hardened propellers have an extra set of blades to slice through most debris. When overtaking a slow tow, the captain radios ahead to agree on which side to pass, and the language of communication is German above Budapest and Russian below. Depending on the language, Danube appears on maps as Donau, Dunaj, Dunay, Duna, Dunav, Dunrea and Danubius.

The Danube forms the boundary between Bulgaria and Romania, and the countryside beyond is lovely, the river banks low, and springtime high water spreads into the fringing forests.

Landing at Giurgiu, we headed inland to Bucharest, which in the 1870s, became Europe’s first illuminated city and was soon referred to as the Paris of the Balkans. Since my last visit now long ago, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had demolished a huge section of the old capital, destroying 26 churches and synagogues and housing for 70,000, to build his monstrous marble House of the People, a building exceeded in size only by the Pentagon. The looming white elephant fronts on a boulevard longer than Paris’ famed Champs-Elysees. Our guide pointed out the office balcony, where in December 1989, Ceausescu made his last desperate speech before fleeing by helicopter, only to be captured and executed, along with his wife, several days later.

Bucharest Parliament, The Palace

Bucharest – Parliament, The Palace.

On the way back to the ship, we encountered donkey and horse carts hauling villagers and their goods along the narrow highway, and in the fields a few farmers tilled the soil using horse-drawn plows. Migrant Roma or Gypsies gathered by the roadside, and the guide pointed out several turreted mansions owned by rich Roma who curiously choose to live in traditional tents in the back and out of sight. She added that some Roma children go to school for the free breakfast then come home. I did not know whether to believe that or not.

Roma-built house, Romania. * Photo: Ted Scull, taken from the bus.

Our window on the Black Sea arrived at Constanta, where, besides a strip of tourist hotels primping for the upcoming season, the Romanian city exhibits layers of history dating from Greek colonization then followed by Roman, Turkish, and Communist domination. During the interval between Muslim call to prayer, I climbed a minaret for a view down to an uncovered third-century Roman mosaic promenade and out over the sprawling container port to the Black Sea, sparkling blue on this sunny day.

Now sailing back upriver, we docked at the Bulgarian port of Russe for a 90-minute drive through lovely rolling farmland devoid of residences, as landowners cluster in villages. The destination was Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s hillside capital from the 12th to 14th century that we approached through a deep gorge. The Ottoman Empire controlled the region until the last quarter of the 19th century, and a sizable minority remains Turk, mostly secular descendants of those who stayed on. The Cyrillic alphabet that we associate with Russia originated in Bulgaria in the eighth century, then spread to Serbia and Russia.

Danube River

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – The Castle, walls, and town in foreground.

After a delightful walk along cobbled streets while eyeing the produce, fashions, and local crafts, we had lunch at nearby Arbanasi, originally settled by Greeks and Macedonians and now a mountain retreat for better-off Bulgarians. The village featured an unassuming 17th-century Eastern Orthodox church, designed not to attract Ottoman wrath, but within richly painted frescos illustrating more than 3,600 religious images decorate separate-sex chambers.

Returning over rough country roads to a Danube River coal and lumber port, we cruised back through the Iron Gate as the sun set on the Romanian mountains.

On our morning arrival, Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, seemed uninviting from the river, but once we were ashore, the city exhibited majesty and importance. From the landing, we walked up through the battlements, constructed from the 15th century onward, one portion sitting atop a Roman well. Beyond, the city center is strung along by an attractive pedestrian street lined with stylish cafés and prosperous looking stores. We learned that Belgrade had witnessed 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 name changes, and served as a capital of five different states. Ruined government buildings from the 1999 bombings had been left as disturbing artifacts.

The city walls, Belgrade, Serbia

The city walls, Belgrade, Serbia. * Photo: Ted Scull

The cruise then continued to more familiar territory, ending in Vienna.

Other Lower Danube River Stops

From the Bulgarian river city at Vidin, an attractive hilly drive inland leads to the Ottoman castle at Belgradshick with terrific views from the several levels of terraces to the town below and nearby rock formations. Tying up at Orsova, an excursion visits the Romanian resort spa at Baile Herculane where the present 19th century medicinal baths were built next to the early Roman site. Heading deeper into the Transylvanian Alps, the road leads to Vlad Tepes’ (Dracula) 14th-century Bran Castle. The fantasy most of us ingested via old black and white films is somewhat shattered by reality, but none the less, most intriguing.

While the Upper Danube in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary is picture-post card Europe, with vineyards and red-tiled-roof villages, cathedrals and castles lining the banks and hillsides, the Lower Danube flows into Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, countries that saw their prosperity wither in wars and under dictatorships, leaving magnificent relics and ruined economies. However, the last two eventually joined the European Community.

Layers of Danube River history are incredibly complex, and it is well advised to study up in advance of the river cruise, otherwise much of what the guides relate will be brand-new and difficult to fathom. For centuries, East and West have collided along the Lower Danube, and the results are fascinating.

Danube River ABC’s

Upper vs Lower Danube River: The Upper Danube passes through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The Lower Danube flows into Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Season: As with most Danube River cruises, the season runs from April to October, though occasionally there may be early and late season sailings with a specific river line. Christmas Markets cruises do not operate on the Lower Danube.

Best Time to Go: Peak summer travel is less intense on the Lower Danube than the Upper, hence you can expect less crowding overall. Spring and fall daytime highs will average from upper 50s to low 60s (Fahrenheit). Summer highs are in the 80s with occasionally low 90s.

Itineraries: Most Lower Danube cruises are longer than a week, with some as long as three weeks if making the granddaddy inland waterway route from Amsterdam to Romania and the Black Sea. However, most Lower Danube cruises originate/end in Budapest, Hungary or Giurgiu, a port south of Bucharest, Romania. Upper Danube cruises may start/end in such ports as Regensburg or Passau, Germany; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary.

River lines that ply the Lower Danube

AMAWaterways

Avalon Waterway

CroisiEurope

Grand Circle

Scenic

Tauck

Uniworld

Vantage World Travel

Viking River Cruises

 

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Uniworld

Snapshot

What more could you ask for in a river cruise: luxury interiors, cushy cabins with amazing beds, all-inclusive fares and a fleet of bicycles on board for pedalling in port whenever the whim strikes.

Uniworld operates river cruises in many parts of the world with a heavy concentration on the rivers of Northern, Southern and Eastern Europe, including Russia. The river cruise line is one of the 30 brands of The Travel Corporation that operates family, youth, guided, independent, safari and adventure travel, as well as river cruising, and hotels in 70 countries on six continents. The river cruise line is considered to be at the top of the market and is known for being truly all-inclusive. A Generations Program designed for families has specific Europe river departures for children, tweens and teens. The newish “U BY UNIWORLD” program originally targeted travelers in the 18 to 40 age range, and now these river cruises are offered to all adult passengers upon two renovated ships — River Baroness and the River Ambassador — redesigned with a more contemporary look and features like communal tables for dining, creative cocktails and international DJ’s onboard while sailing on the major European rivers to exciting ports like Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest.

Uniworld Ships, Years Delivered & Passenger Profile

The European fleet takes from 118 to 159 passengers (Russia 202 passengers), and the riverboats are new or recently rebuilt to provide many of the same amenities as the newest units. S.S. MARINA THERESA (built 2015 & 150 passengers); S.S. CATHERINE (b. 2014 & 159 p); S.S. ANTOINETTE (b. 2011 & 154 p); RIVER BEATRICE (b. 2011 & 156 p); RIVER QUEEN (b. 1999/remodeled 2010 & 128 p); RIVER ROYALE (b. 2006/remodeled 2014 & 130 p) now operates at S.S. BON VOYAGE with added features such as a top deck pool, lounge and three restaurants – casual dining, the main restaurant offering a cooking demonstration area plus a bistro; RIVER COUNTESS (b. 2003/remodeled 2012 & 130 p); RIVER DUCHESS (b. 2003/remodeled 2012 & 130 p); RIVER EMPRESS (b. 2001/remodeled 2014 & 130 p); RIvER BARONESS (b. 1994/remodeled 2011 & 116 p); RIVER PRINCESS (b. 2001/remodeled 2011 &130 p); RIVER AMBASSADOR (b. 1993/remodeled 2011 & 116 p); QUEEN ISABEL (b. 2013 & 118 p); and on the Russian waterways RIVER VICTORIA (b. 2011 & 202 p). Added in 2017 is the 128-passenger S.S. JOIE DE VIVRE that will allow a greater variety of river trips along the Seine, plus excursions to Paris, Versailles and the Normandy beaches. N.B. LA VENEZIA (remodeled 2020 & 126 p) for 8- & 10-day cruises to access destinations on and near the Po River, Venice and nearby islands, and Milan.

DSC_2895 Uniworld S.S. MARIA THERESA

Passing Budapest’s Parliament. * Photo: Uniworld

Uniworld River Cruises Outside Europe are Briefly Listed Here

A 7-night Nile cruise aboard the 82-passenger RIVER TOSCA and a hotel stay in Cairo add up to a 12-day cruise tour, January through May then resuming at the end of September. A 7-night Ganges River cruise aboard the GANGES VOYAGER II and a land tour including New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Kolkata adds up to a 13-day cruise tour with departures September through March. In Southeast Asia, a 7-night Mekong River cruise aboard the French colonial-style MEKONG NAVIGATOR combines with a 7-night hotel stay in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with departures year-round except April and May. The MEKONG JEWEL will double the departures beginning in 2020. Yangtze River and China cruise tours last from 11 to 18 days year-round with a 3- or 4-night river cruise aboard the CENTURY LEGEND or SANCTUARY YANGZI EXPLORER.

N.B. Beginning in September 2020, Uniworld will be offering a Peruvian Amazon program featuring two itineraries: an 11-day cruise tour that include Lima and a cruise to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and a 15-day combination of Machu Picchu exploration and a week’s Peruvian Amazon cruise. The riverboat ARIA AMAZON offers 15-suites, all with large picture windows. Included are all excursions, wines and spirits, and gratuities.

Uniworld Passenger Profile

While most river cruisers are 50 and up, several offerings will appeal to multi-generational families who would like to vacation together. The latter are scheduled in the summer holidays and December, and extra bicycles (including child sizes) are brought on board for guided and independent pedaling in port whenever the mood strikes. Solo travelers will find that a wide selection of European river departures have a waived or low single supplement.

Uniworld Passenger Decks

The fleet has two or three cabin decks, and elevators operate between all except lowest deck on RIVER QUEEN, RIVER ROYALE and no elevator on RIVER AMBASSADOR & RIVER BARONESS. RIVER VICTORIA has 4 cabin decks and no elevator to the lowest deck. As is common on riverboats, none have elevators that rise to the Sun Deck.

Price

$$$  Super Pricey. For families, some departures offer 50% for ages 4-18, and a few even offer free accommodations when traveling with two adults.

Included Features

All shore excursions at differing levels of activity, gratuities on board and off (ie to tour guides), alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (limited to dinners in Russia), Internet and WiFi, use of bicycles.

Fisherman's Bastion, Buda section of Budapest. * Photo; Ted Scull

Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda section of Budapest. * Photo; Ted Scull

Uniworld Itineraries

Operated as both European river cruises-only and others with land and hotel extensions ranging from 8 to 15 days, with longer travel options lasting up to three and four weeks. European itineraries cover the Rhine, Moselle, Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Rhone & Saone, Gironde, Garonne & Dordogne, Douro, Po & Venice Lagoon and Russian rivers canals and waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

For example: 10-day cruise-tours in North Italy include a land portion from Milan to Venice then on Day 3 to Day 10 live aboard the River Countess docked in Venice and sailing the Po River. 15-day cruise-tours include the above then add four days to visit Florence and Rome.

Further afield are river journeys in Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and India’s Ganges River.

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Uniworld’s map of European river cruises.* Photo: Uniworld

Why Go?

Oceangoing cruises touch at coastal ports, while inland cities and scenic destinations are often a longish bus ride there and back (think Berlin, Bruges, Ghent, Paris, Avignon, etc.) while river cruises take you directly to the doorstep and to many other great cities and sights.

When to Go?

River cruises are operated seasonally, and often not at all in November, January, February and often into March. Christmas markets cruises are the exception in December. While there are fewer crowds in the spring, rain may also limit independent activities ashore, while the fall sees less tourists and often nicer weather.

Uniworld Cabins

Attractively and individually furnished with private balconies for some of the top accommodations, and French balconies with small rectangular windows high in the room on the lowest deck. Most standard cabins measure 150-160 sq. ft. with a few as small at 128 sq. ft., and suites 214 to 410 sq. ft. Cabins offer TV, telephone, bottled water, and safe, while many suites have butler service, and all suite offer room service for breakfast, daily fruit and snacks, stocked minibar, bottle of wine upon arrival, and free laundry service.

A lovely standard cabin aboard River Empress. * Credit: Uniworld Cruises

A lovely standard cabin aboard River Empress. * Credit: Uniworld Cruises

Uniworld Public Rooms

The furnishings and original artworks are lavish for riverboats, and the newer vessels have two lounges with bars, while the very newest add heated swimming pools. Nearly all but the oldest have a complimentary guest laundry room — unusual on riverboats — and all have a spa and fitness room, sun deck with open and covered lounge seating, life-size chess pieces and free Internet and WiFi (though signals can be weak).

Uniworld Dining

The main restaurants seat all at one open sitting and dinner is from a menu while breakfast (with eggs to order) and lunch are buffets. In addition, there is an early riser breakfast, and light lunch options are in the main lounge and in the Sky Lounge or on the Sun Deck when weather permits. Afternoon tea is served in the main lounge, and al fresco dinners in the Sun Lounge or on the Sun Deck, again weather permitting. The food is very good and there typically at least one local option at lunch and dinner (ie Wienerschnitzel, sausages and sauerkraut on a Rhine cruise). Beer, wine and soft drinks are complimentary at meal time and any time of day (dinner only in Russia). Family departures offer children’s menus.

Wienershnitzel (pork) for lunch on board. * Heidi Sarna

Wienershnitzel (pork) for lunch on board. * Heidi Sarna

Uniworld Activities & Entertainment

Shore excursion choices fall into several categories: Choice is Yours is either to go on a first timers excursion or one that is less visited; Go Active might mean by bicycle either with a guide (historian or naturalist) or on your own; Do As Locals Do meets with local people; Village Day may involve a visit to a small town, workshop and/or farm; Special Visits are arranged for instance to a noble’s property or an evening visit when a site is normally closed to the public; and Gentle Walking means going at a relaxed pace with a guide, or remain on board and visit the spa or simply relax. While underway or at the end of the day, onboard lectures will feature art and cultural historians. The Generations family program includes some supervised children’s activities aboard, from pastry making demos to face painting and knot tying, and ashore, with excursions to places like interactive museums and forest adventure climbing parks. Uniworld teamed up with top travel operator Butterfield & Robinson to offer special river cruise departures using bicycles for exploring much of the way along the Danube between Passau and Budapest, returning to the boat every afternoon.

Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it's time to sail. * Heidi Sarna

Biking along the Rhine in Basel before the it’s time to sail. * Heidi Sarna

Special Notes

Singles rates are reduced or waived on a wide selection of dates and itineraries. There are especially marked family departures in the summer.

Along the Same Lines

Scenic & Crystal River Cruises.

Contact

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, 17323 Venture Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 91316; Uniworld.com; 800-257-2407

— TWS & HMS

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Reviewer: Kristen from Singapore.

Cruise Line: Viking River Cruises.

Ship: Viking Prestige.

Destination: “Danube Waltz” in Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Germany and Czech Republic.

# of Nights: 7.

Departure Date & Ports:  Sept 2016, from Budapest (Hungary) to Passau (Germany).

OVERALL RATING: 4 out of 5 stars.

Have you been on a small ship cruise before? Yes, but not a river cruise.

Review: Though the Prestige was a Bit Tired, Overall a Wonderful Experience.

Doing a river cruise is a wonderful way to see cities that are close together but spread over various countries (Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Germany and Czech Republic). You can relax and enjoy the scenery (even with a glass of wine as you are not driving!) and never have to unpack/repack. Both of these are huge perks.  And you even get lots of history and facts whilst sailing. The Viking group did a great job of nailing the correct amount of time in each port and also providing a lot of good excursions. The staff is well trained and very friendly. I would make sure that you research your boat/line carefully as while many are good, they each have unique features that will appeal to different people. For example, the Prestige was one of Viking’s older boats and was a bit tired.  It also did not have a gym, but none of their boats do as that is not in their philosophy.  Other lines have small gyms and other items that might appeal to each person, such as on board bicycles for use on shore. But, with Viking being such an experienced line, they tended to attend to all the details very well. Overall it was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it!!

See more QuirkyCruise Reader Reviews here, honest feedback from real passengers!!

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QuirkyCruise reader review
Reviewer

Suvir from Singapore

Cruise Line

Viking River Cruises

Ship

Viking Prestige

Destination

Europe

# of Nights

7

Departure Date & Ports

September 2016 from Budapest, Hungary, visiting Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria and Germany.

OVERALL RATING

4 out of 5 stars

Have you been on a small ship cruise before?

Yes, many years ago

Review

A Great Europe Overview

Overall – this was a great way to cover many countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic (Optional Excursion), Austria and Germany) in a week. The ship stops at both quaint smaller towns as well as capitals like Budapest and Vienna. Upgrading to a suite was a decision well worth the extra money given the significantly larger space and amenities (like free laundry). The clientele were generally older Americans who did not have much cruising experience. Staff were personable and both the hotel manager (Zoltan) and the Cruise Director (Daniella) were excellent). The premium wine package was unnecessary so I would not pay extra for that. The ship was well laid and we spent much of the time on board in the lounge or on the upper sun deck. All in all – a worthwhile experience.

See more QuirkyCruise Reader Reviews here, honest feedback from real passengers!!

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