. Cruising on the Danube River by Ben Lyons : ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine

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Cruising on the Danube River

Cruising on the Danube River

By Ben Lyons

Pausing to admire the view from the top of the hill, I took in a decidedly landlocked scene that seemed incongruous with the cruise concept. Around me were ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned, while below was the Austrian town of Durnstein stretched attractively along a winding river. In all directions I could see rolling green hills and lush farmlands in a green and bucolic scene, and right in the middle of it all, far from any oceans, was my docked ship.

Danube River Cruise - Mozart Cruiseline

Having done extensive ocean cruising but no European river cruises, I decided to try a week on the Danube River onboard Peter Deilmann's ms Mozart. River cruises have always been a popular but more hidden type of cruising, and with several options now available, I decided it was time to sample one and find out what to expect. Would I grow tired of visiting port after port, sometimes with two in one day, without a relaxing sea day and would I find the same shipboard ambiance that I relish on larger, more conventional cruise ships? Happily, I found the Mozart not only a great way to tour the countries but also a delightful way to travel with many similarities to ocean cruises.

A river cruise in Europe is just as much about the ports as about the ship, and I chose to sail roundtrip from Passau, Germany all the way to Budapest, Hungary and back. The itinerary was a pleasant mix of big cities (Budapest and Vienna) while also visiting smaller towns such as Durnstein and Estergom, Hungary that I might otherwise have missed. We passed through four countries - Germany, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia - and were able to see sharp distinctions between such geographically close countries. Other itineraries stretch throughout Europe to virtually any country you want, with cruises sailing in Spain, France, or Italy and longer itineraries stretching all the way from Holland to Romania on the Black Sea.

On my cruise, I traveled only a matter of days after Hungary and Slovakia joined the E.U and I took particular interest in the contrast between orderly and prosperous Austria with developing Hungary, which seemed poorer but yet making significant progress. Most surprising, however, was Bratislava, Slovakia, whose name conjured images in my head of a repressed and dark formerly Communist country. Despite a massive Communist housing block dominating the other side of the river, I found the city to be extremely attractive and full of vibrant life.

Because the Mozart always tied up in the center of town, all the attractions on shore were within walking distance, as is common on virtually all river cruises. (The one exception on my trip was Vienna, where a convenient subway ride or short cab ride was necessary to get to downtown.) With the ports so accessible by foot, I almost always explored the towns on my own, happily passing on the organized shore excursions in favor of seeking out hidden cafes and reveling in tangible European history.

Mozard Sun Deck

When cruising on the river, I would sit on the sun deck and watch passing farm country or charming villages where ruined castles would suddenly appear from behind a bend. Complete with comfortable deck chairs and blankets, along with a shuffleboard court and a giant-sized chessboard, the top deck was a pleasant and social spot to listen to onboard commentary about the river when cruising. Most fun was going under bridges, when the clearance between the bridge and the Mozart became so tight that the crew had everyone sit down when going underneath them to prevent a nasty knock on the head. Other bridges were so low that even the railings and the pilothouse had to be lowered to deck level in order for us to squeeze through.

Before you set sail, however, do your homework and know what you want to see - I found there was little information other than maps provided by the vessel to guide you if you wanted to explore on your own. There was little incentive for the ship, however, as approximately 85% or more of the passengers all took the shore excursions offered by Deilmann. While I wish that more information, such as slide-illustrated talks, were made available to those wishing to go ashore independently, most of Deilmann's competitors include shore excursions in their fare, giving independently-minded travelers less incentive to strike out on their own.

In many respects, the Mozart was just like other cruise ships, except significantly smaller with only 178 passengers. The flagship of the Peter Deilmann river fleet, the Mozart set new standards in comfort for riverboats when built in 1987 and today, while newer riverboats have matched or exceeded many of its facilities, the Mozart is still considered one of the most luxurious riverboats sailing and the quality of her construction and fittings is readily apparent.

Feeling much like a small European hotel, the interior manages to be both intimate as well as spacious, with a dark rosewood veneer paneling and a central staircase ringed with black leather couches and adorned with stained glass overhead. The company's late owner took a strong interest in his vessels, decorating them with numerous original paintings from his personal collection and giving the Mozart an elegant and classical feel throughout.

Mozard Cruise Cabins

With its beam almost twice as wide as the average riverboat, cabins are unusually spacious at 203 square feet- significantly larger than the 150 or 125 square feet you'll find on the competition. All are extremely attractive, with large bathrooms, ample storage space, a small sitting area, a large desk, a TV, minibar and a safe. Cabins on Tamino deck have a large window to watch the river go by, while the Dorabella deck cabins were identical except for their two, somewhat smaller windows that were literally inches above the waterline.

The roomy public rooms are equally attractive and comfortable, including a forward observation lounge with floor to ceiling windows on three sides. During the day, afternoon tea service was held here, while at night, the room would be used for local folk entertainment that was popular and well received, as well as live music for dancing by the ship's small band. There was little in terms of nightlife as almost all passengers would be in their cabins by 11 p.m. in anticipation of the morning port call.

One deck below is the fitness center with sauna and massage facilities, a Jacuzzi and a small pool with enormous windows in the bow providing a unique view overlooking the river. Lounges were mostly used for sitting and talking, as there were really no organized activities during the few times we were underway during the day and life onboard was happily low key and quiet. There were no elevators, however, and with a heavily German crowd, only the dining room was completely non-smoking.

Mozard Dining Area

The highlight of the ship experience was undoubtedly the dining. Forget the new trend of Freestyle Dining - with Deilmann, this is cruising at its most traditional with breakfast, lunch and dinner all served at the same table by the same waiter in the ship's elegant and spacious restaurant.

Breakfast and lunch were a buffet accompanied by a menu offering more extensive courses. Dinner was a splendid two-hour affair - meals were seven courses at a minimum - and artfully prepared with perfect portion sizes that left you satisfied but not stuffed. We looked forward to each meal with enthusiasm as the food was comparable to the oceangoing luxury lines and the mostly Hungarian staff and German officers were engaging and thoroughly professional. Service on the Mozart was, without exception, excellent throughout.

Amongst the passengers, most are German with English-speaking passengers usually accounting for only 15 to 25% of those onboard. While some may find the dual languages used onboard irritating, I welcomed the more Continental atmosphere when in Europe and found it somehow more authentic than traveling with only Americans. Being so clearly in the minority, there was no doubt we were Americans on a German oriented vessel, however, as opposed to sharing an American market ship with Germans. It mattered little, though, since all crew spoke good English and separate English shore excursions were arranged, thereby helping to keep tour group sizes fairly small.

While Deilmann is often considered among the most luxurious of the river companies, there are several other companies that market to Americans. Viking River Cruises operates the largest fleet of riverboats, with 23 ships sailing numerous itineraries, including trips in Russia and China. Most of Viking's ships are new and attractive, featuring all the latest amenities including sliding French Balcony doors in many of the cabins. The overall experience is somewhat more packaged than Deilmann's, with only Americans onboard and shore excursions in each port included in the fare. There is less of a European flair to Vikings ships in everything from the cuisine to the passengers, and complete with small atriums and even smaller pools, their ships are a bit jazzier in décor and more American in ambiance.

Avalon Waterways also offers river cruises and will soon be operating a total of three ships catering only to Americans. As with Viking, the onboard experience is tilted for Americans, including nonsmoking interiors, "Continental cuisine that appeals to the North American palate," lectures, included shore excursions and often packages including pre- and post-cruise hotel stays. Also sailing in Europe are the River Cloud I and II, which offer extremely luxurious and classical cruises that are on par with Deilmann, and Uniworld, which offers a similar number of itineraries and amenities as Viking does.

River cruises tend to be more expensive than the lowest fares for ocean cruises. My seven-night cruise on the Mozart was priced at $2,300 in May, not including airfare, while Viking offers a similar but smaller cabin on a similar itinerary for around $2,000 including shore excursions. Avalon's Danube itinerary features seven nights on the ship and three nights in Budapest and Prague each for $2,600 for the eleven-night package. Prices naturally vary by season, and some companies offer special Christmas sailings.

During my week on the Danube, I saw more ports in less time than I would have had I been traveling on land, all the while enjoying the ample comforts and convenience of a cruise ship. I was more than won over by this form of cruising, and when planning my next trip, I may start with a map of central Europe and its river systems rather than looking at the oceans and ports along the coast.