Waltz on the water
The delights of the Danube on newly launched Scenic Jasper
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.