A DIF­FER­ENT KIND OF DANUBE CRUISE

Ottawa Citizen - - TRAVEL - AARON SAUN­DERS Visit port­sand­bows.com, spon­sored by Ex­pe­dia CruiseShipCen­ters, 1-800-707-7327, www.cruiseshipcen­ters.com, for daily up­dates on the lat­est cruise news, best deals and be­hind-the-scenes sto­ries from the in­dus­try. You can also sign up for an

You could call it “the other Danube,” or the river less trav­elled. While river cruis­ing is syn­ony­mous with ships sail­ing the River Danube, most of us pic­ture pass­ing through small Bavar­ian towns or sip­ping cof­fee in ma­jor cities like Vi­enna.

I’ve just re­turned from a very dif­fer­ent kind of Danube river cruise: Vik­ing River Cruises’ (vikingriver­cruis­es­canada.com) 10-night Pas­sage to East­ern Europe. One of Vik­ing’s most im­mer­sive Euro­pean itin­er­ar­ies, it be­gins with a one-night stay in Bucharest, Ro­ma­nia, and in­cludes a two-night ho­tel stay in Budapest, Hun­gary. In be­tween is an eight-day river cruise aboard one of the line’s sparkling new Vik­ing Long­ships.

Af­ter get­ting on the beau­ti­ful, 190-guest Vik­ing Em­bla just out­side of Bucharest, we sailed for the Bul­gar­ian towns of Russe and Vidin; Bel­grade, Ser­bia; Osi­jek, Croa­tia; and Kalocsa, Hun­gary, be­fore ar­riv­ing in one of my favourite cities in Europe — Budapest.

We also spent a day of scenic cruis­ing through a stretch of the Danube known as the Iron Gates. With tem­per­a­tures soar­ing above 35 C, cold drinks on the Sun Deck were a must as we sailed through this moun­tain­ous, nar­row pas­sage that in many ways is al­most rem­i­nis­cent of Alaska’s In­side Pas­sage — with fewer trees, of course.

Vik­ing is all about im­mer­sive, authen­tic ex­pe­ri­ences ashore, and this itin­er­ary re­ally gave the com­pany lat­i­tude to go all-out. In each port of call, Vik­ing in­cludes one or two com­pli­men­tary shore ex­cur­sions, sup­ple­mented by a small list of op­tional (and ad­di­tional fee) tours.

Our first in­cluded tour was an all-day ex­plo­ration of Bucharest that in­cluded a visit to the mas­sive Palace of Par­lia­ment (the largest civil­ian build­ing in the world), lunch at a lo­cal restau­rant and time to ex­plore the quaint Peas­ant’s Mu­seum that high­lights his­tor­i­cal life in ru­ral Ro­ma­nia.

Un­like the mod­ern­ized West­ern Danube, this is Europe at its most raw. From war-torn Osi­jek — which still bears the scars of the hard-fought bat­tle for Croa­t­ian in­de­pen­dence that be­gan in 1991 — to Bul­garia, the poor­est mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union, the ports of call on Vik­ing’s Pas­sage to East­ern Europe itin­er­ary bring to life the events that we’ve all heard about, but rarely un­der­stand.

In Osi­jek, Vik­ing pulls out all the stops with a half-day tour that in­cludes small-group in­vi­ta­tions to have cof­fee and cake with a lo­cal fam­ily at their home. Th­ese Home Hosted Vis­its are, in my opin­ion, one of Vik­ing’s best and most authen­tic shore of­fer­ings. We were wel­comed with cof­fee, cake and plenty of Croa­t­ian slivovitz, a plum brandy that’s sure to hit the throt­tle on your af­ter­noon.

The other sleeper hit of this trip: Bel­grade, Ser­bia. As fas­ci­nat­ing as Budapest or Vi­enna, Bel­grade is an in­cred­i­ble city filled with kind and gen­er­ous peo­ple. I ori­ented my­self with Vik­ing’s City Tour (in­cluded) that struck a great bal­ance be­tween guided events and free time. I also took part in the line’s op­tional Be­hind the Scenes at the Ser­bian Opera tour which, for €39 per per­son, show­cased Ser­bia’s vi­brant, and af­ford­able, arts scene. Front-row tick­ets for lo­cal per­for­mances start at just €6.

Of course, when I wasn’t ashore, I was very happy to be on board Vik­ing Em­bla, one of Vik­ing’s first Long­ships, built back in 2012.

Af­ter four years of ser­vice, she still sparkles, with brand-new car­pet­ing through­out that only serves to high­light how well th­ese Scan­di­na­vian-in­spired ships have aged.

On board, you’ll find riverview, French-bal­cony and full stepout-bal­cony state­rooms, along with a huge as­sort­ment of suites and mini-suites. My full bal­cony, Cat­e­gory B state­room was per­fect for a week, with plenty of stor­age space, heated bath­room floors and anti-fog mir­rors, com­fort­able beds and new Freyja toi­letries. I half-joke that Vik­ing’s Long­ships are my home away from home.

If you’ve got more time, Vik­ing also of­fers this jour­ney as part of a longer, 23-day Euro­pean So­journ voy­age that sails all the way to Am­s­ter­dam or re­verse.

Happy cruis­ing.

AARON SAUN­DERS

Vik­ing's Pas­sage to East­ern Europe, a river cruise, calls on off-the-beat­en­path ports of call like Bel­grade, Ser­bia.

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