Amsterdam to Budapest on a River Cruise
Words Franki Black, pics Franki Black and Genia Nowicki
In the 1800s young travellers from England made Rhine River travel popular. Back in those days, the idea of voluntarily removing yourself from the comforts of home for the sake of “adventure” was almost unfathomable. The English gentlemen (often aristocrats) who could afford such... frivolities… were drawn to the new horizons, the inspirational beauty and the ancient history found along Europe’s rivers. Local Germans at the time referred to these travelling lads as, “crazy Englishmen!”
Be that as it may, these adventurers were onto something. Today, river cruising is big business in Europe, attracting travellers from all over the world. Itineraries on offer are as varied as the choices in ships and cruise companies. Of all the cruise companies out there, none are as luxurious and sought-after as Uniworld’s Boutique River Cruises. Established in 1976, Uniworld offers all-inclusive river cruising experiences and itineraries range from eight to 30-day cruises across Europe, Russia, Egypt or China.
I signed up for a two-week river cruise that would take me from Amsterdam to Budapest. It included one day in Holland, nine days in Germany, two days in Austria and two days in Hungary’s spectacular capital, Budapest. Some of the highlights on my chosen itinerary were a scenic sail past the oldest castles on the Rhine, vineyard hikes, a visit to the World War Two Documentation Centre, a cycling trip along the Danube, a classical concert in Vienna and a visit to Budapest’s Central Market Hall.
As soon as I stepped aboard the S.S. Maria Theresa - Uniworld’s newest and most modern ship - I was transported to another world. Marble floors, gold trimmings and a mirrored hallway paved the way to the ship’s reception area where a massive oil painting of Queen Maria Theresa of Austria loomed large. To top off the grandeur, a crystal chandelier sparkled above us. My assigned butler took me on an orientation walk of the ship. We started at the Bar du Leopard (and deck), situated at the rear. Tastefully designed in soft leopard prints and creams, this bar doubles up as a private dining room - in which sumptuous 5-course private dinners can be enjoyed - and as a reading room
Next up was the Habsburg Salon and bar where we’d be gathering in the evenings for live music performances, topical lectures and briefings for land excursions. From there, we walked to the Baroque Restaurant, a 24-hour coffee bar, a fully-equipped fitness centre, a cinema, the guest laundry area, an indoor pool and the rooftop Durer Sun Deck (complete with life-sized chess board).
My stateroom was fit for a queen. As a category 1 suite, it included a balcony, an en-suite bathroom, a king-sized bed, ample wardrobe space, a flat-screen TV and a large window that opened at the click of a button. All the finer details of a 5-star stateroom were met: towels and linen of the best quality; L’Occitane en Provence bath products; a jar filled with nougat; slippers; a gown, and evening turndowns.
I unpacked and quickly settled into the idea of having every meal and excursion prepared for me. Besides the obvious perk of seeing four countries whilst only having to unpack once, the joys of river cruising proved to be endless.
Ever-changing Views: For starters, river cruising offers a much wider range of scenery and land excursions than ocean cruising. The ship’s close proximity to land ensures excellent views all along the way and the relatively short distances between European towns and cities mean that land excursions are more frequent and varied. I’d wake up every morning with the excitement of opening my curtains to a new view of a medieval town or a field filled with flowers.
Flexibility: One of Uniworld’s greatest drawcards is the flexibility it offers passengers. You can choose to stay active all day long, or you can opt for a much more leisurely voyage. One pair of friends on my cruise approached their journeys very differently. The one signed up for all the land excursions, whilst the other chose to watch the world go by from the comforts of her bed. Besides the great range of land excursions on offer, Uniworld also offers onboard activities such as yoga classes, history lectures, musical concerts and cooking demonstrations. Guests were able to customize their journeys to suit personal preferences.
New Friends: As a boutique river ship, the S.S. Maria Theresa can accommodate up to 150 guests (and 57 staff members). This intimate setting lends itself to guests mingling and easily making new friends. When I started my journey, I was a rather nervous solo traveller, but by the end of it, I felt part of a big family. On board there were couples of all ages, mother-and-daughter duos, groups of friends and grandparents accompanied by grandchildren. I got to know people from all over the world, which added to the exotic flavour of the river cruising experience.
Service and Staff: Uniworld’s philosophy is based on the idea that there is no request too big and no detail too small. Chad Briggs, our charismatic and hands-on Cruise Manager, summed it up perfectly, “The word, no, is not in Uniworld’s vocabulary – nothing is impossible.”
From the moment I stepped aboard the S.S. Maria Theresa, I was treated like royalty. Everyone from the barmen to the stewardesses addressed me by first name. Most impressive was the level of passion demonstrated by staff members. Chad loved his job, evident in how he engaged with guests, coordinated excursions and shared his knowledge on regional history. The chefs, who amazed everyone with an endless supply of delicious food, would keenly recommend daily dishes inspired by the region we were sailing through. The waiters treated us like valued guests in their family home, whilst each barman knew our drink of choice off by heart. When I asked Chad about the work ethos on board, he told me that employees are largely appointed based on their drive to make guests happy. “Skills can be taught, but true hospitality comes from the heart,” he said.
Culinary Check: Mrs. Beatrice Tollman, the leading lady behind the Uniworld brand, is a keen chef and the author of a cookbook, A Life in Food. To her, good food is a celebration of life and a great way of uniting and pleasing others. This culinary approach was reflected throughout my cruise. Only the freshest and most local ingredients were used and along the route, we feasted on regional specialities, classic comfort food and everything in between. Each day started with a delectable breakfast menu and buffet. Omelettes, Belgian waffles, cold meats and fresh pastries were some of the goodies on offer.
Lunch was an equally delectable affair of gourmet salads, roasted meats, craft hamburgers and local delicacies. In Germany we were served bratwurst; in Vienna we had Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel; and in Hungary beef goulash was the pick of the day. For dessert, we could choose between irresistible treats such as homemade ice-cream, cheesecake and Pavlova.
The prize for culinary highlights however would have to go to S.S. Maria Theresa’s four-course dinners. These started with a fresh soup or salad of your choice, followed by an entrée of prime-cut meats, a choice of seafood or a vegetarian choice. Each dinner concluded with decadent desserts such as Mrs. Tollman’s signature Baked Alaskas or rich chocolate delights. Each menu also offered calorie-reduced dishes for health-conscious passengers. The selection of drinks onboard was as varied as the food. The ship’s sommelier would pair every course with a recommended regional wine or beer. In Cologne we sipped Kolsch - a local beer only brewed in that area - and in Rudesheim, we could choose the region’s Rheingau Riesling, with dinner.
Land Excursions: Part of what makes Uniworld such a desirable option is that it is a truly all-inclusive deal. Everything from food to alcohol to entertainment to land excursions is included. And, I can confirm, the daily land excursions are plentiful and exciting. Each excursion was led by a regional guide who would meet us at the relevant port. We could then choose between “Go Active” or “Gentle Walking” excursions. In this way, we saw some of Germany’s most renowned cathedrals, we cycled along the Danube in Vienna and we hiked to ancient monasteries.
We also walked along a 2000-year old Roman footpath in Miltenberg; drank beer at Europe’s oldest pub; visited a traditional Franconian farm and explored Heidelberg and Bamberg – two of Germany’s most beautiful cities - on foot. In Nuremberg, we felt sobered when we visited the World War Two Documentation Centre and Courtroom 600 where the 1945/6 Nuremberg trials took place. In Regensberg, we explored the robotic wonders of the BMW manufacturing plant and in Vienna we were shown the city’s top art galleries and treated to an orchestral performance of Mozart’s and Strauss’s best. Our cruise ended in the heart of majestic Budapest with a wondrous evening cruise along the Danube. All our guides shared a wealth of knowledge on local history, architecture, culture and food.
I returned to South Africa with a slightly expanded waistline, new friends from all over the world, new-found knowledge on Europe and an unquenchable desire to learn more. My cruise reminded me that travelling - especially when crafted by the passionate experts and professionals of Uniworld – remains the ultimate classroom… albeit in 5-star luxury.
Choose to Cruise
Recommended Airline: Spend a few days exploring London, before embarking on your European cruise. British Airways operates 9 weekly flights from Cape Town to London during our winter and double-daily flights during our summer. Double-daily flights are available from Johannesburg to London throughout the year. From London, British Airways operates flights to 32 European destinations. Call British Airways at +27 (0)10 34 40130 or visit www.britishairways.co.za
Source: Travel Ideas