Anthony Pearce joins all-inclusive luxury river line Scenic on its eight-day Iconic Danube cruise from Passau to Budapest.
As we watch pretty, red-roofed Bavarian houses, ancient fortresses and dense, emerald and spring green forests glide by from the top deck of our ship, the Scenic Pearl, a thought occurs to me that has probably occurred to every river cruise passenger: there can’t be a better way to see Europe.
Indeed, it doesn’t take us long on one of Scenic’s luxurious space ships or in the company of its excellent staff to work out why the river cruise market is in such rude health. You often hear about ocean cruise passengers moving across to river, and nearly everyone we speak to confirms this – they may be on their first or second river cruise, but in the past they sailed the oceans.
It makes sense, of course, particularly for customers who prefer small or mid-sized ships, and for those who have enjoyed the higher end of the ocean cruise market. But, at the same time, it feels like a different product altogether. I struggle to think of anyone, whether they have cruised or not, who wouldn’t enjoy this experience: an eight-day itinerary on the Danube from Passau to Budapest.
While luxury river cruises are by no means cheap, what is included is remarkable: not only are you being transported by a floating luxury hotel to some of Europe’s most incredible destinations, but all food, drink, excursions and even a butler are included in the price.
Having arrived in Munich after an early morning flight from Heathrow, my partner, Peggy, and I jump on a coach, provided by Scenic, that offers increasingly impressive views as we head toward the Danube, where we join the Pearl just outside of Passau. We are greeted with cocktails by smiling staff who welcome us “home” and before long we’re sat down to dinner, a simple but tasty buffet, which is an intentionally informal beginning to the holiday, given many of the guests – a large amount of whom are Australian and American – are unsurprisingly jet-lagged. While we eat, the ship moves a few kilometres into Passau.
After a few cocktails at the ship’s excellently stocked bar, we turn in early. Having opted for a wake up call, a knock comes at our door at 8am the next morning, our ever-helpful butler, Ilona, presenting us with tea and coffee.
Leaving the breakfast table to arriving in the centre of Passau takes a matter of moments. It’s one of river cruise’s key advantage: there are no tenders here, no long bus transfers to get from the port.
Passau itself is stunning. Found on the confluence of three rivers – the Danube, Inn and Ilz – it’s as picturesque as a city can get, and delightfully sleepy on this Monday morning. Chief among its many architectural delights is the neo-Gothic clocktower of the Old City Hall and the Cathedral of St Stephen, which contains a breathtaking baroque interior and the world’s largest pipe-organ, made of some 17,000 pipes. The pretty houses that line each of its rivers, pastels of pink, blue and green, are what give the city its real character.
On return to the ship, we’re treated to a German-themed feast and some excellent quality Bavarian beer, our poor waiters made to don Lederhosen. The next stop is Linz, over the border in Austria. Watching the world go by, the pretty houses, churches and occasional castle, lining the Danube banks and poking through the woodlands, we realise that, more than with any other type of travel, the journey is as important as the destination.