Confessions of a virgin cruiser

HEATHER HAPETA
Last updated 05:00 05/12/2012
Rivercruise

STREAMING: Viking Njord on the Main near Bamberg.

Rivercruise
GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM: Viking Njord's route from Amsterdam to Budapest.

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Cruising

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Some individuals are just not people you want to travel with – well, not for long anyway.

I met some of them on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. Fortunately, they were not part of the 50-plus group I was with.

A virgin cruiser, I was looking forward to two weeks on a longboat. I could see myself unpacking, shoving the bag under my bed until it was time to leave, then lying on the sundeck. I imagined watching life pass by as we sailed through five European countries, exploring old cities, world heritage sites, and watching water pour into locks, or gush out of them.

It’s not often a dream trip exceeds expectations but this one did.

I loved this ‘‘Grand European Tour’’ with all the connotations the name suggests: Luxury, leisure and indulgence, such as the traditional tours of Europe undertaken by rich, upper-class young men whose grand tours served as an educational rite of passage. A grand tour could last from many months to several years and was commonly undertaken in the company of a cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.

Our cicerone came in the form of Darinka, a constant ball of energy who, as programme director, co-ordinated all excursions and our on-board activities.

When anyone lagged she reminded us: ‘‘This is a cruise, not a holiday.’’ We had places to see, things to do.

Perhaps Torstein Hagen, Viking Cruises’ chief, was right when, at the blessing of this longboat earlier this year, he defined ocean cruises as ‘‘a drinking man’s cruise’’ and river cruises as ‘‘a thinking man’s cruise’’.

Our lectures and demonstrations put old and current Europe in context. Many of the moaners did not attend these talks, or else talked throughout them.

The Viking Njord, named for the Norse god of the wind, was on its fifth trip and I savoured life on this fabulous five-star floating hotel.

Early each morning I joined a few others on deck where, with our cameras, coffee and straight-from-the-oven pre-breakfast pastries, we watched Europe come to life: Fishermen on the banks; cyclists using riverside trails; birdsong welcoming the new day. Others on board were doing the same from the balcony of their cabins.

We had walking tours daily with local guides, while others came on board to give talks, demonstrations or concerts.
Some did not value them.

‘‘We live near Las Vegas and can see better shows than this any night of the week,’’ one couple told me.

So, it seems river cruising is not for everyone, and some passengers who took regular ocean cruises said they would not do another river cruise. It’s personality-driven. If you like to be entertained all the time with movies, dances, casino and 24-hour food, river cruising may not be for you. I also heard complaints about there being no beauty shop or hairdresser, and, even, ‘‘too many cobblestones’’ on an excursion and ‘‘too many locks’’. Perhaps they had not read the website, or didn’t realise that water cannot flow uphill.

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Travelling up or down about 60 locks was, for most of us, fascinating. I often heard someone say, ‘‘There’s a boat going down ahead of us’’. Luckily it was merely being lowered into the next part of a river or canal – not sinking. The trip was some 1600 kilometres up the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, and along the Main-Danube Canal. Over the 600km that needed locks we climbed more than 400 metres.

As communities grew around rivers, and a dock was the heartbeat of the area, Europe is perfect for cruising. We usually stopped right in the centre of the old city or town. This meant we crossed the gangplank and our guided walk started immediately; sometimes we travelled by buses to fairytale castles perched on hills overlooking the river.

On tours, our guide was equipped with a microphone that brought their voice right into our ears, which meant we did not need to stay very close to hear the history, stories, and cultural or personal anecdotes along the route. Some of the fabulous places we stopped at included Wurzburg’s Bishops’ Residenz, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate Baroque palaces, and Bamberg, with its medieval city centre and picturesque city hall on a tiny island.

It’s easy to become overloaded with history but with the past balanced with other activities, the trip was not overwhelming. In Passau, with its narrow streets and Italianate architecture, we listened to a concert on Europe’s largest pipe organ. And in Vienna – well, what can I say? It’s a fabulous city: The Opera House, a concert, and, of course, a coffee with a piece of famous Austrian chocolate cake, sachertorte, at Hotel Sacher were a must.

Nightly, just before dinner, Darinka would tell us about the next day’s excursion. She peppered her language with words such as ‘‘most appealing’’, ‘‘delightful’’, ‘‘delicious’’, ‘‘divine’’, ‘‘scrumptious’’, ‘‘yummy’’, ‘‘gorgeous’’, and ‘‘delectable’’, words I used to describe the food.

The evening meal was fine dining at its finest and always started with a tasty appetiser, such as a carpaccio of salmon and caviar, to whet our appetites for the three courses that followed. And, unlike ocean cruises, wine was included with all meals. Tables seated four to eight and we were free to sit where we wanted – the moaners on the trip didn’t like that, either.

Food is essential to culture and the choice of a more informal lunch setting on the front deck appealed to me. These meals specifically focused on the local region’s food – sausage, kraut, and beer featured one day and, of course, on other days strudel or black forest cake appeared mid-afternoon. We were told: ‘‘Hungarians, Austrians and Germans do not count calories. Butter and full-fat milk rules.’’

On these eco-friendly vessels, as well as the chess set and sun loungers on the upper deck, there were solar panels and an organic herb garden where I often met one of the chefs cutting a few herbs for our next meal. The little group of grouches were also very upset that this sundeck was lowered for a few days so the boat could sail under low bridges.

As a nosy writer, just as I’d asked fellow travellers about their cruising preferences, I also asked the crew. Not one favoured the sea cruise. With low passenger numbers on the longships they got to know their guests better. They also told me that at sea there were queues for everything. They never got to talk to passengers, just dealt with an issue and then it was on to the next person in a long line.

The flat-bottomed ship was amazingly quiet and most of us did not read as much as we expected we would as we were always watching life along the river. There’s a saying, that it’s the journey not the arrival that matters, and river cruising epitomises that. This is life in the slow lane, sailing along at a gentle pace, soaking up the scenery, and learning as you go, seeing the highlights of places and meeting – mostly – great people.

So, if you fancy dawdling down the Danube, relaxing on the Rhine, or meandering along the snake-like Main, I can well-recommend this way of exploring. Perfect.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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