Down the Danube by boat
From page 4 The Beatrice will undergo refurbishment again in the next year.
The rivers of Europe have become much sought after for cruise vacations, with strong competition between operators who offer varying levels of luxury. Some research puts cruising itself as the fastest growing travel sector across the globe, and not only for the postretirement set. Increasingly it is seen as a family vacation option, as many operators offer a range of onboard entertainments for all ages.
The river cruises are more niched than their ocean counterparts, targeting travellers who are interested in getting to experience several places in a short space of time. On the rivers of Europe this means most travellers will be those who have an interest in gaining at least a little understanding of the history of the places where the ship docks.
And, of course, European rivers have more recorded history associated with their every loop and turn than you could ever absorb in a single week’s adventuring.
This is something that Uniworld builds into its offerings, hiring local guides at every stop. A nice touch is that the group is always divided into several smaller groups, each with its own guide, thus affording travellers the chance to ask questions and to feel less as if they are simply being herded along. Additionally, the outings offer a guide for a “gentle walkers” outing, accommodating those who would not manage the quicker pace of the other groups.
The local tour guides were excel- lent but those expecting serious exposure to the history of the region and the context of current socio-political interplay would have found the onboard lectures somewhat under-pitched. The passenger cohort seemed mostly to love what was delivered, in a highly anecdotal fashion, and with speakers even dressed in fancy-dress to reflect the era being explained, but some passengers were clearly expecting something with more substance.
Apart from the most obvious benefit of cruises being that your costs are pretty much predetermined (although here a word of warning: remember that when the cruise is done you will be expected to pay a sizable gratuity to the staff – something to include in your budget), a great joy of river cruising has to be that having chosen your destination, all you have to do is make choices according to your whim of the day. Because the itinerary is preset, you will probably get to places you would not otherwise have chosen and you are almost guaranteed to discover things about the world that you did not know. It is holidaying without stress. But for those who want more, there are formally organised optional extra excursions, or the adventurous traveller can choose to forego arranged outings to be able to do their own exploring. Mostly the passenger set is over the age of 50, and most elect to go with the flow of planned excursions.
On the trip I was fortunate enough to enjoy, I found myself able to do a great deal of walking -my favourite way of exploring new places. Some of it involved real exertion such as climbing a hill outside the little town of Durnstein to the ruins of Durnstein Castle where Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lionheart, was held captive in 1192.
Some of it simply involved meandering alongside the Danube or criss-crossing the grid of the bigger cities where cafes, shops, museums, galleries, new smells and new sounds were a thrill for the senses.
The Uniworld brand prides itself on its gourmet cuisine and each day the restaurant manager teams up a red and a white wine with the evening meal. Most of these are local, from the region where you are sailing, but on at least two occasions the wines on offer were from South African label Bouchard Finlayson, in which the Tollmans also have an interest.
On the whole the food was very good indeed, but at times the volume that had to come out of the tiny galley simultaneously appeared to put pressure on the chefs. That said, I had an outstanding fillet on one evening and on another had one of the best racks of lamb I have tasted.
Having been fortunate to receive an invitation to the captain’s table for the traditional Captain’s Welcome Dinner, the experience is worth noting for the precision of the service. A line of waiters stood behind the chairs of each diner, and at a slight nod of the head from the maitre d’, a beautifully plated dish landed in front of each of us, each covered by a silver dome which was swept away at a second nod. We were treated to a quick explanation for each of the five courses, along with a rationale for the choice of wine.
It was a similar experience for the epicurean dinner midway through the week, but we were not served in quite the same style, being back at our own table. The food on this occasion was superb, easily meeting the gourmet standard that the operators claim.
My only disappointment on the trip food-wise was that I wasn’t sold on the pastries and cakes served each afternoon. I admit to being something of a pastry snob and I am very particular, but travelling in one of the countries for which a reputation for pastries is so often cited, I was a little underwhelmed.
However, my fellow travellers polished off the plates, every single day. So perhaps I was over critical.
It’s not cheap, but next to the cost of a week-long hotel stay with meals, outings and transport to be paid for, it’s a competitive offering. And if you have the money to spend on 5-star luxury, it is a very tempting holiday option.
Barker’s trip on the River Beatrice Enchanting Danube Cruise was undertaken as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, www.uniworld.com.
Cruise costs start at R16 350 (2011 prices) for the cheapest stateroom but the owner’s suite can set you back more than double that.
The cruise operates between Passau and Budapest, and extensions can be arranged for a trip to Prague or a few extra days in Budapest, at extra cost.
Flights to Munich or Budapest are not included.
FOR THE BESPOKE TRAVELLER: Bicycles on the River Beatrice, available to passengers for use at all mooring points.