Courtesy of Tauck
It was in the early morning hours, still and silent, when I slipped out of bed and drew back the curtains on our balcony window. In the darkness, the ship's hull lights cast a yellow glow on the dark, rushing river, betraying just how fast we were skimming through Austria's historic Wachau Valley. Inside, snug and warm, I lay back down and was rocked back to sleep by the gentle rolling motions of the ship. A few hours later, I opened my eyes to see the 12th-century Schönbühel Castle appearing out of the mist like a mirage.
Just another day on the Danube, the second-longest river in Europe and street address for dozens of historical towns and villages along its banks. The Danube flows from the highlands of western Germany to the Black Sea, nurturing cultures, cuisines and civilizations along some 1,800 miles. And what better way to sample these offerings—or those of the other mighty rivers of the world—than to sail on big, specially designed vessels that move you from port to port with no fuss and hardly a bump?
River cruising is one of the great travel-industry brainstorms of the past two decades, says Richard Turen, owner and managing director of vacation planners Churchill & Turen Ltd., and the market is growing about 16 percent a year. There are river cruises in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, led by 20 or so companies large and small, each of which offers specific charms and peculiarities.
Last October, my wife, Nichol, and I—first-timers to any type of maritime vacation—spent seven days on the Danube. We set sail from Vienna; headed east to Bratislava, Slovakia; and then traveled upriver, making stops in towns and villages in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. Our home for the week, the newly commissioned Savor, is part of a nine-ship luxury river-cruise line started by Tauck, a well-regarded Connecticut-based touring company that's celebrating its 90th year of providing all-inclusive tours. The vessel, nearly as long as one-and-a-half football fields, was designed for comfort—outfitted with a gym, massage room, hair salon and lots of convenient touches, including Nespresso machines and U.S.-style 110-volt electrical outlets in each cabin, to charge phones and iPads. On the top deck, an outdoor hot tub and putting green beckoned those willing to brave the cold European fall.
Our tour began on land, in Vienna, where Nichol, I and 128 of our fellow travelers spent our first evening together at the Palais Pallavicini, a baroque 18th-century palace where Mozart and Beethoven flattered their wealthy patrons. During a wine-soaked five-course dinner beneath magnificent gilt-and-crystal chandeliers in the Great Ballroom, a local chamber orchestra presented a buffet of kultur Viennese-style: string pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss; a few operatic duets; and a ballet pas de deux or two to boot. Judging from the whoops, we were an appreciative bunch of culture-vultures. I surveyed the room. It seemed to be largely populated by energetic retirees, mostly experienced travelers, whose average age I would guess to be in the mid-60s. Arnon Reichers, 65, a willowy retired college professor and veteran traveler from Columbus, Ohio, summed up the evening for all the revelers in a single word: "Spectacular."
Following a couple of days of motor coach touring in the Vienna Woods, Baden and other destinations, we were eager to set sail. The Savor's 47-person crew welcomed us aboard for an ambitious first-night dinner, including a memorable mushroom cappuccino soup beneath a cloud of creamy white froth. My wife has food allergies, and the staff made every effort to keep her well-fed and healthy and was successful close to 95 percent of the time.
Then the river beckoned. Our first stop was Bratislava, a lovely 10th-century town with more "Original Slovakian" restaurants than is likely to be true. It was a Saturday, and even in the chilly weather, riverboats were double- and triple-parked at the riverbank. Bratislava is a popular port for most of the river-cruise lines, and it can get crowded by midmorning. We passed up the guided tour and did our own walk around Old Town, quirky and charming, with lots of public art, including a statue of one of conqueror Napoleon's soldiers in the main square; according to area lore, he fell in love with a local girl and stayed behind.
Thus began a week of romantic castles and stately abbeys, history and myth, interspersed with wine tastings and palace tours, hilly cobblestoned streets and a succession of guides who filled us with facts as they led us around. Other first-timers should know that river cruises involve quite a bit of walking—almost every day is spent off the boat—and more than a few hours in motor coaches. A new friend from the cruise, Cinda Wells, 72, of Westerville, Ohio, said she didn't mind the buses because "the destinations were worth it." She was glad she'd brought her cane and appreciated that the Tauck guides kept an eye on her as she was traversing all those ancient cobblestones. "They tried to estimate the amount of walking, but I could have used more information in that regard," she said. Other passengers might have appreciated a caveat about the number of historic fortresses each day's tour included. One confessed that he'd grown bored of keeping track of the noble family names. " It's A-B-C, as the British say: another bloody castle!
The weather was cold and rainy nearly the entire time (note to self: Book European tours no later than September), but the three guides who were with us every day and the tour director who manned her station on the boat never lost their sunny dispositions. Most of the passengers took advantage of the plentiful land excursions—everything from the preserved Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg to a tour of a modern BMW plant—all included in the cost.
That's more or less true of all riverboats, says Turen, who's also a journalist and the editor of RiverboatRatings.com, a subsidiary of his company. "The question is, what kind of shore excursions? These are basically walking tours or bus tours into town. There are cooking schools, special events and concerts that some riverboat companies charge extra for. Tauck is usually 15 to 20 percent more expensive because it is truly inclusive and doesn't sell extra-cost tours."
It turns out my neighbor in Nyack, N.Y., Edie Hanley, had recently returned from a late-summer mother-daughter cruise on the Rhone with her fit 85-year-old mother. She chose Viking and wasn't disappointed. The boat was "stunning," she said, and "the service was great—very personal, flexible and accommodating. At the end, we tipped everybody and their mother and their dog, but it was not a turnoff to me. I don't mind tipping for great service."
The rhythm of a river cruise: By day you leave the ship for excursions, then repair to your refreshed cabin in the afternoon. This is river cruising's killer app, according to Mike and Nona Feathers, mid-60s retirees from Coopersburg, Pa., who were on their 10th Tauck tour. "You unpack once and don't have to repack until the tour is nearly over," says Mike. "And they handle everything—tips, luggage, transportation, etc.—so I just get to sit back and enjoy it." The Featherses have taken land tours, too, to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, but another river cruise is in their future. Nona likes the guided part of the tour. "Safety is important to me," she says.
Our cruise ended the way it started, on land, with our arrival in Prague after a four-hour bus ride from our final port, Regensburg, Germany. Once again, Nichol and I chose to explore on our own. We ate a traditional Czech meal (duck and dumplings) and, with new friends, stopped to ogle the 600-year-old astronomical clock in Old Town Square and headed for the Mucha Museum. By the time we tumbled into bed that night, we were bone-tired.
But I can't say I wasn't warned. As vacation planner Turen told me, a European river cruise can be enlightening, invigorating, inspiring … but it won't necessarily be restorative. "One of the things I tell people about going on a riverboat is, we'll make it the best experience you can have," says Turen with a knowing laugh, "But I think we'd better plan a vacation for when it's over.
Cruise Saver Tip:
Consider a Travel Agent. A cruise specialist will know which lines have deals.
Holland America's Maasdam
One to two weeks
From $3,000 per person, double occupancy