Nathaniel Cramp joins A-Rosa on Europe’s waterways to see whether the line has what it takes to keep the whole family content on a week-long voyage
After a hasty departure, and with a heady cocktail to hand, we speed against the flow of the Danube and into the inky blackness of the Austrian countryside, the bright lights of Vienna gradually dimming with each passing minute. It’s the penultimate night of seven on A-Rosa Donna, and the wet weather that greets us the following morning at our final stop of Melk seems to reflect our miserable mood, because our first week on a river cruise is all but over.
It could have been so different. The previous weekend, along with my wife and nine-year-old son, I board the A-Rosa Donna in Engelhartszell, a short bus ride across the border from the German town of Passau. We are welcomed on board with a rose (naturally) and, in the cabin, is a bottle of champagne, chocolates and a bowl of fresh fruit. Then comes the announcement that the Danube Classics itinerary has been changed due to low water levels in Europe’s second-longest river. In fact, the week before our trip, a record low of just 0.61m had been recorded in Budapest, meaning some cruise passengers had to complete their holidays by coach. We count ourselves lucky as we are reassured we will reach the Hungarian capital on water and marvel at the sylvan delights of the Danube Loop slowly passing by. A few welcoming drinks and a lovely Bavarian-inspired meal later and we are already relaxing into our new home.
The cabin is a decent size, with a good use of space across the window for the extra bed, and the bathroom is surprisingly roomy. The decor might feel a little outdated, but A-Rosa is aiming to be more affordable than the marble-lined luxury of the likes of Uniworld. Launched for the German-speaking market in 2001, it was bought in January 2018 by a British private-equity firm and is quietly expanding into other areas, including new itineraries on the Douro in 2019. Our cruise is an international sailing that contains a mixture of British, Spanish and German passengers (on-board announcements and signage are in the three languages). Unlike other river cruise lines, A-Rosa sells itself as family-friendly – kids under the age of 15 travel free – and there are a handful of other children and teenagers on board. In truth, there isn’t a great deal going on inside for younger people, but we are lucky with the weather for the majority of the week and so the small rooftop pool and the giant chess set are well used.
Other than breakfast, the food served in the informal buffet-style restaurant, while always very tasty, is quite heavy and Mittel-European – often themed around the day’s port of call – and not particularly child-friendly; hence the appearance of sausage and chips one lunchtime is greeted with unbridled enthusiasm. In Bratislava an emergency slice of pizza is consumed as we explore the pristine old town in the Slovakian capital.
Back on board, we sail overnight and wake up in Hungary for a leisurely sail into Budapest. It’s definitely preferable arriving on the river rather than by road – there is beauty in every bridge and every building, with Pest to our left, and Buda rising up to the right, bathed in sunshine. We eschew the all-inclusive on-board lunch for once to eat gorgeous goulash at the ornate New York Café with my son’s school friend and his mum, who grew up here. Over the next 28 hours we cram as much as possible in from our mooring right next to the Liberty Bridge: the views from Buda castle, the Great Market Hall, Heroes’ Square and, in the evening, the impressive musical fountain on Margaret Island. Exhausted, we sail away to the strains of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman singing Time To Say Goodbye, and all three of us have a new favourite city.
However, just 24 hours later, Vienna is already rivalling it for our affections. We miss the scheduled stop in Esztergom completely (“Don’t worry, there’s nothing there apart from the Basilica,” reassures Josef, our genial cruise manager) and head on upstream to the Austrian capital. The mooring is not quite as scenic or as central as it is in Budapest, but there’s a U-Bahn station next door, so it’s easy to explore the city’s innumerable attractions. There are excursions available to classical music concerts, or a candlelit dinner on the Riesenrad, the giant ferris wheel immortalised in The Third Man, but we opt to spend our time with some friends, making sure we sample some käsekrainer (cheese-filled hot dogs) as well as seeing as many sights as time will allow, including the incredible St Stephen’s Cathedral and the forbidding World War Two flak tower in Augarten.
All too quickly we are back to where we started. Following the rainy departure from Melk, Josef treats us to a fun and informative tour of the 16-year-old ship, including the noisy engine room and the clever retractable bridge. Then it’s time to say goodbye to the incredibly kind and attentive staff, all of whom make this first river cruise so wonderfully memorable and fun for all three of us (especially the waiter who keeps my son updated with the latest football scores). The Danube and the countryside and cities to be found along it are so beautiful that nothing – not even rain or low water levels – can ruin them.