Witness the fitness

Sara Macefield joins Avalon Waterways for an Active & Discovery sailing on the Danube, which proves to be a lot more exhausting – and rewarding – than the usual sedate saunter along the river.

I know onlookers are laughing at me, but I’m aching too much to care. I’ve spent the last hour pounding Vienna’s streets during a jogging tour and on spotting a tempting patch of grass between the pretty flowerbeds of the city’s Volksgarten park, I stretch out for a few relaxing minutes.

Admittedly, I’m hamming it up for a jokey picture, but it’s a heavenly respite for my screaming muscles and I’m reluctant to move as our super-fit guide Dominic pushes on.

I’ve never jogged in my life and on several occasions during our 3.5 mile pre-breakfast run, I rather regret signing up. 

But I’d been intrigued by such a novel excursion, and it proves to be an ideal way to explore Vienna’s stately streets, its pristine parks and glorious Baroque architecture, which help to distract me from feeling as though I’m about to collapse.

I note, wryly, that my two running mates and our two guides seem to be handling this much better and are barely out of breath – but then, they are all experienced joggers, so my advice to anyone wanting to get the most out of this tour is to be fit or get in training.

That had been my original intention on spotting such a fleet-footed option in the list of shore excursions on this Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery Danube sailing.

I’ve been on numerous river cruises, but the choice of pursuits on this voyage from Budapest to Linz is impressive and easily the most varied I’ve seen.

Each day brings a choice of tours designated as Active (hiking, biking or canoeing); Discovery (wine-tasting, and behind-the-scenes “insider” tours) and Classic (coach tours, museum visits and beer-tasting).

Such a selection means that even though I’ve cruised this section of the Danube four times (most recently just three months before), I enjoy a new set of experiences that give this sailing on Avalon Impression a completely contrasting flavour.

Price isn’t an issue either as most tours are included, which is another bonus.

Having found my jogging legs, I then step out on my first hiking trip on a three-mile trek up the steep hills lining the Danube.

Rather over-confidently, I join the advanced group, which turns out to be an experienced bunch who make short work of the steep paths. It leaves me puffing to keep up, but the far-reaching views over the river make the effort worthwhile.

My favourite exertion is an idyllic 12-mile cycle ride from Krems to Spitz that takes us along deserted roads through vast vineyards and on to the cycle path that runs along the Danube’s banks.

We’re hitting a decent pace, which underlines that the clientele on this voyage are a world away from the traditional image of river cruisers. 

Most of the 139 guests are American or Canadian, with a handful of Brits and Australians, and many seem younger than average. They are definitely fitter and this contributes to the more active feel of this voyage, though this isn’t a prerequisite as there are enough non-sporty activities to try. 

Such exertions leave me with a clear conscience when it comes to tucking into three meals a day and free accompanying wine that is generously dispensed by the helpful crew.

Buffet breakfasts and lunches are appetising, though I would have welcomed a wider choice, and the four-course dinners are good rather than outstanding. Particular highlights are the grilled beef tenderloin and pumpkin soup, which is so good it leaves a lasting impression.

Life onboard is well-organised and sociable, but I relish the haven of my Panorama Suite with its vast floor to ceiling windows that pull back to create a French balcony, and as my bed faces the windows, it’s an ideal spot to recover from exertions while admiring the passing views.

There isn’t time to try everything on offer. I regret not opting for a canoeing trip and, following my jogging stint, I decline the early morning runs with the onboard “adventure host”, though his yoga sessions offer a more soothing alternative.

Walking tours offer a relaxing contrast too and Avalon Impression’s overnight stop in Vienna brings me into the city for a more restful exploration on our second day there on an early-morning stroll that takes us into deserted streets before the tourist hordes descend.

It’s my fourth visit, yet I see this imperial city with new eyes as our guide leads up Pied Piper-like into tiny winding passageways, hidden squares and ornate churches.

The high point comes when, with our stomachs rumbling, we’re led into a traditional Viennese coffee-house where laden breakfast tables welcome us with freshly-baked bread rolls with slices of ham and cheese, accompanied by pots of steaming hot coffee.

With my aching legs a constant reminder of my earlier experience, just 24 hours before, I’m relishing this relaxed pace and, even better, I can tuck into this delicious spread knowing that I’ve earned it.

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