Cruising the blue Danube

SHARON STEPHENSON
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2014
Danube cruise

RIVER QUEEN: The Avalon Illumination is put through its paces in a postcard setting.

Danube cruise
CRUISE IN COMFORT: A royal suite on the Avalon Illumination, offering luxury trips along the Danube.

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Four years, two months and 23 days. The discovery of an expired passport showed how long it had been since I'd last stepped on a ship.

That occasion was in Fiji and, despite mirror-smooth seas and perfect sailing conditions, my stomach felt the need to introduce itself to my mouth. Repeatedly.

Eventually, my fear of ships got so bad that even the sight of the Picton Ferry would make me turn green at the gills. Cruising and I, it appeared, would never be friends. Leave dry land? I'd rather run through a plate glass window, thank you very much.

So when the invitation to join Avalon Waterways' newest river cruise ship's maiden voyage on the Danube plopped into my in-box, I wasn't exactly doing laps of the happiness pool.

"I'll spend the entire three days hanging over the side," I complained to a friend, a veteran of more than 35 river and ocean cruises.

"Don't be silly," she said, batting away my concerns as though swatting flies. "You're on a slow-moving river, not the ocean. And modern engineering means the engine is insulated from the rest of the ship, so you'll scarcely notice when the vessel is moving or the generators are switched on."

Besides, she adds, when life hands you something on a plate, you don't send it back to the kitchen. So I pack the seasickness tablets, along with my cynicism, and spend 35-plus hours getting to Vienna.

The Avalon Illumination is the latest of Swiss company Avalon Waterways' European cruise ships. Or suite ships, as they're called. That is basically Avalon speak for the luxurious 83 staterooms that are, as it happens, very sweet indeed.

Twelve journalists (three Kiwis, three Americans and six Australians, which reflects the company's customer base), along with 40 travel industry members from New Zealand and Australia, have been invited to the Illumination's christening cruise, A Taste of the Danube.

The eight-day package includes two nights in Vienna, three nights cruising the Danube - including stopovers in the impossibly bucolic Wachau Valley and Bratislava - and two nights in Budapest.

Our embarkation point is Vienna, a city I always thought I had pegged: pretty but ho-hum, where history slaps you in the face at every turn and surnames such as Freud, Mozart and Hapsburg are tossed about as casually as confetti. Visit the stunning imperial palaces, overdose on calorific sachertorte, don't pass go.

But travel should be about stomping on stereotypes, and for three days and two nights we discover that this city of 1.7 million keeps on giving when it comes to cool.

Sadly, we're a little early for next year's 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, the magnificent thoroughfare that circles the city and features Vienna's major buildings, including its city hall, parliament and the Palais Ephrussi, the neoclassical palace that appears in Edmund de Waal's novel The Hare with Amber Eyes. But that doesn't stop us from criss-crossing the Ringstrasse on foot, by tram and even in a fiaker (horse-drawn carriage).

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In between guided tours to the Jewish Museum, a traditional cooking class, bike rides along the Danube Canal and more food than is strictly necessary, we frock up for a visit to the Wiener Staatsoper, the 19th Century Vienna Opera House, for a suitably OTT performance of La Cenerentola (Cinderalla, to you and me).

We finish the night at the Bitzinger sausage stand, across the road from the opera. It's odd to be scoffing hot chips and wurst in our finery but apparently it's a Viennese tradition and we're surrounded by locals in tuxedos and ball gowns doing the same.

No wonder we're exhausted by the time we board the Illumination. Fortunately, the seamless embarkation process means our luggage has been magically whisked from our hotel to our suite, so all we have to do is unpack and enjoy a glass of wine.

The crew, meanwhile, has only just taken the bubble wrap off the Dutch-built ship. You know that delicious new car smell? Well triple it and you have some idea how good the Illumination smells.

Before we can set sail there's the all-important safety demonstration, at which the less nautical among us get to familiarise ourselves with the difference between starboard and port. It's also where we discover that Germans do indeed have a wicked sense of humour when the captain informs us there's only one lifeboat on board.

"But don't worry, I'm not Italian," he jokes, referring to the ill-fated Costa Concordia.

In Viking days, the launch of a new ship was marked with the spilling of blood and human sacrifices. Thankfully, times have changed and instead we have Australian TV personality Deborah Hutton, who has been drafted in as the Illumination Godmother. That basically means she gets to smash a bottle of sparkling Austrian wine against the Illumination's bow. And we get to toast the new ship and all who sail in her.

Avalon Australasian managing director Stewart Williams tells us that at 135 metres long and 11.4m wide, the Illumination is the maximum size permitted by the various locks along the Rhine-Main-Danube route. Apparently height is a factor too, with the 5.8m high ship having to navigate under bridges.

At least that what I think he says. I'm too busy getting comfortable on the open-air deck, watching the pretty medieval villages that drizzle down the lip of the Danube slip slowly past.

One thing that does register is the veranda versus no veranda debate, which is apparently huge in the cruising world. Williams says guests requested bigger rooms, so Avalon has replaced separate verandas with sliding doors. It means that the panorama suites (of which there are 65), are a generous 18.5 square metres, apparently 30 per cent bigger than the industry average.

I'm personally glad for the larger room and, having previously been caught out on hotel balconies in my dressing gown, am happy I won't be embarrassing myself in front of the neighbours.

For this, Avalon's third new European cruise ship this year and its eighth since 2011, they've also gone large with the decor. First impressions count - no more so than in the business of luxury travel - and when the door to my suite opens, "wow" seems the appropriate response.

There's a large comfortable bed angled to face the floor-to-ceiling windows, a couch made for lounging, a desk, flat-screen TV and a bathroom where the L'Occitane toiletries elicit a squeal of delight. When I can be bothered leaving the comfort of my suite, there's a large restaurant, another lounge-bar with live entertainment and dancing at night, a small fitness centre, hairdresser and club lounge featuring an espresso machine and addictive freshly baked cookies.

Back in 1922, when Somerset Maugham sailed the rivers of Myanmar, he proclaimed river cruising to be "monotonous and soothing". It's a shame the grumpy English writer isn't around now; he would have found the Illumination to be anything but boring. Maugham was, however, spot on about the soothing bit: nature is kind, the sailing conditions are perfect and the Illumination is, as my friend predicted, as smooth as a baby's posterior.

I adapt to the gentle rhythm of life on the river with indecent haste. Breakfast is served from 6am for those who prefer a side of sunrise with their cornflakes, whereas the rest of us wander in around 8.30am for more calories than I'd eat in a week of breakfasts (I'm looking at you, deliciously moreish Austrian pancakes).

By 10am we're usually dropping anchor for a morning's offshore excursion - a major benefit of river cruising is that ships typically moor in the heart of cities - before returning for a buffet lunch, more sailing or sightseeing and then dinner and entertainment in the lounge-bar.

One of the biggest differences between an ocean cruise and a river cruise is that the former takes you to countries, while the latter takes you through countries. Three in my case. And I never have to lug my suitcase around, change rooms or deal with airport or immigration queues.

Gliding through the waters of the Danube is also incredibly calming. Europe's second-longest river after the Volga flows 2850km through 10 countries and four capitals (more than any other river) to the Black Sea, past tiny towns bejewelled with Gothic town halls, 17th-century gingerbread houses and breath-taking Baroque churches.

No-one is surprised when our guide tells us that Austria's Wachau Valley, one of the most scenic stretches of the Danube, is listed on the Unesco World Heritage register because of its architectural history, which includes about 45 castles. We disembark at Weissenkirchen, the kind of delightful small town where time seems to have taken more than one step backwards. Wine, especially of the white variety, is the star here and we climb steep hillsides studded with vines to visit the 14th century White Church which was once used to hold plundering Turkish soldiers at bay.

A little further down the river, we pass the ruined hilltop castle at Durnstein where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated in 1192. If you like your history lessons with a happy ending then you're in luck: legend has it that the minstrel Blondel wandered through Europe singing the king's favourite songs under the battlements of every castle he passed. At last, in Durnstein, he received an answering verse from within.

Apricots are also big here - there are around 100,000 apricot trees in the Wachau Valley - so it's fitting that we finish our tour with an alfresco cooking demonstration at the Scholss Hotel Durnstein that features apricot crepes doused in apricot puree accompanied by, you guessed it, 40 per cent proof apricot schnapps.

After a night's sailing, we arrive in Bratislava, a city of both beauty and brutality. Everyone it seems, at some time or other, has come over, whacked the natives and helped themselves to large chunks of Slovakia. They've all left their mark on this gloriously mashed-up city - from the Gothic magnificence of St Martin's Cathedral, the coronation church for Hungarian kings between 1563-1830, to the communist architectural bunkers of the downtown area and the 14th-century Hrad Castle.

There's an afternoon excursion to Schlosshof, a palace near the Austrian border, but the lure of retail therapy proves too much and I escape to Aupark Shopping Centre to get familiar with Zara and H&M.

The pace of a river cruise is considerably slower than an ocean cruise, with less distance covered and more time spent in port. Even so, the end of our cruise in Budapest comes far too quickly. Under a Tiffany-blue sky, we glide beneath Budapest's famous eight bridges, with ancient Buda clinging to the hills on our right and the larger, more modern Pest to the left. The two were separate until 1873, when they were united to form Hungary's capital.

Budapest is adorned with more fine buildings than it knows what to do with, particularly clustered around Buda's Castle Hill complex, which includes the remarkable Palace, Fisherman's Bastion and 11th-century Matthias Church. We risk life and limb crossing six lanes of traffic to check out Heroes' Square, which features a fine collection of statues of kings, governors and historical figures and, later, Hungary's holiest, if slightly grotesque, relic - the mummified hand of St Stephen at the basilica that bears his name.

On a sweltering summer's day, I cross the Chain Bridge to get even hotter - at the famous Gellert Spa, one of many left behind by Ottoman rule, where thermal springs have been gushing from Budapest's limestone bedrock for 2000 years. I'm pummelled by a masseuse with arms like tree trunks and, embarrassingly, discover that the Europeans' attitude to nudity is slightly different from ours.

Back home, I'm often asked if, (a) I've been cured of my fear of cruising and, (b) if I'd do it again. To which my answers are a resounding Yes and Hell Yes. A cruise down the Danube is one of the easiest and most relaxing and ways to see Europe. And you'll never need seasickness tablets ...

FACT FILE

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Waterways' 2015 river cruises are priced from NZ$2523 per person twin share for the eight-day itinerary A Taste of the Danube travelling between Vienna and Budapest. Highlights include two nights in Vienna, three nights cruising the Danube to destinations including Melk, Durnstein and Bratislava, and two nights in Budapest.

For full details and bookings see licensed travel agents, visit avalonwaterways.co.nz or phone 0800 000 883.

Current offers

Avalon Waterways 2015 Earlybird Discount - save NZ$650 per couple on all 2015 European river cruises. Offer available to September 30, 2014, or until sold out.

The writer travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways (avalonwaterways.co.nz) and the Vienna Tourist Board (vienna.info).

- Sunday Star Times

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