Down the Danube by boat

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2011 -

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.

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