Waltz on the wa­ter

The de­lights of the Danube on newly launched Scenic Jasper

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Europe River Cruising - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

The advertising blitz has been quite some­thing. Turn on the tele­vi­sion and there’s another ad star­ring Scenic’s next-gen­er­a­tion Euro­pean river cruiser Scenic Jasper, with a glam­orous blonde sport­ing at least six out­fits while swan­ning from ship to shore, a crescendo of or­ches­tral strings and the slo­gan: “Won­ders never cease”.

It’s easy to be cyn­i­cal about whether these won­ders will be ap­par­ent to pas­sen­gers who aren’t stay­ing in that pho­to­genic top-tier suite. Yet on Jasper’s re­cent chris­ten­ing cruise, the first thing I say af­ter zip­ping up the gang­plank and into the lounge is, “Wow!”

I wasn’t ex­pect­ing the sleek lines, monochro­matic pal­ette, is­land bar, floor-to-ceil­ing view and re­strained vibe of a lux­ury ho­tel. Within sec­onds, cham­pagne is in my hand. I won­der no more.

Scenic has been build­ing its Space-Ships since 2008 — Jasper and sis­ter ship Scenic Opal are third-gen­er­a­tion ver­sions of the con­cept — but there’s a limit to how much de­sign­ers can play around with, given the Danube’s locks sys­tem. Jasper is 135m long, which feels spa­cious if you’ve only ever cruised Asian wa­ter­ways. Ships ply­ing the Mekong and Aye­yarwady rivers are about half the length of Jasper. The lounge’s abun­dance of glass, opaque drap­ery and low-slung fur­ni­ture com­pounds that feel­ing of ex­treme spa­cious­ness.

On the deck be­low, three restau­rants are clev­erly folded into the one area. The gen­eral din­ing room in­cor­po­rates Ta­ble La Rive, a chef’s ta­ble that serves six cour­ses with matched wines for up­per-deck pas­sen­gers, while the 32-seat Ital­ian-themed Por­to­bel­los res­tau­rant is cor­ralled to­wards the bow.

This is my first Euro­pean river cruise so I can only com­pare Jasper with what I spy through the win­dows of other ships as we rise and fall to­gether in the Danube’s locks or when we’re docked along­side each other. Some­times it’s a sur­prise to wake up, whip back the cur­tains and dis­cover neigh­bours have ar­rived in the mid­dle of the night. (Tip: al­ways dress be­fore check­ing the view.)

The cab­ins I peek into on neigh­bour­ing ships don’t ap­pear to fea­ture a sep­a­rate sun lounge — easily the best fea­ture of my bal­cony suite on the up­per Diamond Deck. With the press of a but­ton, the en­tire top half of the win­dow low­ers to let in fresh air and even more of the scenery. The sun-warmed space fea­tures cof­fee ta­ble and chairs; fold­ing glass pan­els di­vide bal­cony from bed­room. I buzz down the win­dow at dawn on the first morn­ing to un­ex­pect­edly catch sight of geese fly­ing in V-for­ma­tion. “Wow,” I say, for the sec­ond time in as many days. I re­ally must stop this.

I do cease as I try to fig­ure out how to find a cup of tea at this hour. Our first af­ter­noon aboard wasn’t at all usual: there was a chris­ten­ing cer­e­mony to wit­ness (au­thor Kathy Lette per­formed god­mother hon­ours, crack­ing the Veuve Clic­quot over the prow), a gala din­ner to at­tend, and more. I know there’s but­ler ser­vice but haven’t worked out how to make con­tact. In my still-dim cabin, I pick up Scenic’s Tai­lor­made au­dio-tour de­vice and try its num­ber pad. I take it to re­cep­tion where the clerk finds this mis­take hi­lar­i­ous. Af­ter so lit­tle sleep (be­cause of jet lag, rather than any short­com­ing in a suite that’s in­cred­i­bly sound­proof with a bed that’s ridicu­lously com­fort­able), I don’t share her amuse­ment.

The but­ler ar­rives with a pot of tea and pas­tries, and tries to brief me on the cabin fea­tures and ser­vices. My mini-bar, stocked with com­pli­men­tary beer, wine and snacks, will be re­plen­ished daily. Gar­ments can be ironed, shoes can be pol­ished. Per­haps the but­ler did say the beds are de­signed so that suit­cases slide right un­der­neath, but I can only ab­sorb so much on so lit­tle sleep. My suit­case re­mains on the floor for the en­tire cruise.

Our week-long taster itin­er­ary trav­els be­tween Bu­dapest in Hungary and Linz in Aus­tria, a dis­tance of al­most 500km, and in­cludes day trips to Salzburg and Slo­vakia’s cap­i­tal Bratislava. My favourite small-town port along this stretch is ro­man­tic Durn­stein in Aus­tria’s Wachau Val­ley. We dock right in front of the me­dieval vil­lage’s blue and white baroque clock tower, so or­nate it could be a gi­ant piece of Wedg­wood. We ar­rive back at the dock just as fel­low pas­sen­gers head off on a 33km river­bank cy­cle to­wards the abbey town of Melk. The ship car­ries elec­tric-as­sisted bikes, but by the time I make in­quiries, one can’t be guar­an­teed. The thought of ped­alling that far is too much, so in­stead I sun my­self on Jasper’s top deck and wave to the cy­clists from afar.

My most mem­o­rable lo­cal guide is dirndl-wear­ing Eva Riedler, who takes us from Linz to Salzburg for the day. Riedler’s laugh­ter is so in­fec­tious that the en­tire bus is soon join­ing in. She jol­lies us along as we scurry through driz­zle at Hellbrunn Palace Park on Salzburg’s out­skirts to the re­con­structed Von Trapp glass gazebo. From rain-dim­pled song sheets we col­lec­tively croon Six­teen Go­ing on Sev­en­teen, Liesl and Rolf’s duet from The Sound of Mu­sic. Next year, Scenic is up­ping its Sound of Mu­sic con­tent by adding a 90-minute show in Salzburg that in­cludes those sin­ga­long songs as well as folk mu­sic and Mozart com­po­si­tions.

In Salzburg, we duck out of the rain into Cafe To­maselli, once the haunt of Mozart. In a dark, tim­ber-pan­elled room in the back, we gob­ble cream cakes and cof­fee, and slide down in our seats to peer over the ta­ble, pre­tend­ing to be the ver­ti­cally chal­lenged prodigy.

It’s a mys­tery how we even find room for cake, given how well fed we are on the ship. Meals of­ten in­cor­po­rate lo­cal spe­cial­ties such as speck­kn­odel (ba­con dumplings on sauer­kraut), kasekrainer (cheese sausage), wiener schnitzel (of course), kaiser­schmarrn (a sweet pan­cake also known as em­peror’s tri­fle) and bei­gli (pop­py­seed roll). If ever there’s a peck­ish mo­ment, the all-day River Cafe serves open sand­wiches, soups, sal­ads, shakes and ice cream. We de­vour even more cake in Vi­enna. Ho­tel Sacher is the place to or­der the fa­mous sacher­torte lay­ered with apri­cot jam and glazed with glossy cho­co­late.

We make a bee­line to Ho­tel Sacher af­ter vis­it­ing the Span­ish Rid­ing School, founded in 1572, where we watch riders in their dou­ble-breasted jack­ets and bi­corn hats train­ing Lip­iz­zaner stal­lions in­doors un­der three enor­mous crys­tal chan­de­liers. No pho­to­graphs are al­lowed but it’s hard to for­get the stal­lions’ dainty steps as they trot on the spot, or the riders’ haughty ex­pres­sions. Af­ter­wards, I dis­cover rider Her­wig Rad­net­ter is much warmer in per­son than in per­for­mance. A rid­ing school vet­eran of 39 years, he re­calls fall­ing in love with the art form. “I saw it as a lit­tle kid and de­cided that’s what I want to do,” he says. He ap­plied to the rid­ing school at age 14 and was ac­cepted, even though “my mother and fa­ther wanted me to do a real job”.

It’s also in Vi­enna that I wit­ness a mo­ment of such beauty that I still re­gret not cap­tur­ing it on cam­era. We’re at the Gar­den Palais Liecht­en­stein for an evening con­cert of Strauss’s Tik-Tak Polka, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht­musik and the like. Af­ter welcome drinks in the foyer, a young woman in a scar­let gown beck­ons us up­stairs to where the or­ches­tra will play. She’s alone on that grand stair­case — ever so fleet­ingly — be­fore the crowd swarms up­wards. That’s when I re­alise mo­ments of won­der can hap­pen when you least ex­pect them.

Ka­t­rina Lob­ley was a guest of Scenic.

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