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The allure of river cruising

Travel writer Marcus Adams swaps his boat shoes for walking shoes as he travels on his first river cruise along the Danube, from Passau to Budapest.

I’ve been an ocean cruiser for over 25-years. It’s taken me all over the world and introduced me to people and places I could never have dreamt of. But in all that time I’ve never once stepped foot on a river cruise. It’s something that’s been playing on my mind for the last few years – partly to see if it’s anything like an ocean cruise, but also to visit new destinations and have new experiences.

Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated by the rivers of Europe – the arteries that feed some of the most famous and intriguing places and the crucial role they’ve played throughout history. The Danube has always particularly intrigued me and when an opportunity came along to find out more, I jumped at the chance. After a short flight from London and a simple transfer, we joined the Longship Viking Vilhjalm in warm and sunny Passau to experience the Danube River in all its glory.

I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect, and actually that was really exciting in itself. Stepping on board we were warmly greeted by the ship manager, Thomas, and his friendly staff and we were encouraged to head straight to the sunny Aquavit Terrace for a wine and cheese tasting. We were immediately thrown into the local culture of the Danube – sampling local wines, cheeses and delicacies. It was a great way to relax into the journey, have a taste of what was to come and to get to know fellow guests and staff.

The ships

I know Viking ocean cruises very well, having sailed with them in both the Caribbean and through Norway. I love their approach to cruising – providing an effortless and comfortable way to see the world. And their ships are beautiful, too. Scandi-styling and bright, airy, outward-facing spaces invite you to connect with the world around you. It was exciting to see how this would translate to river. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The design of the river ships echoes that of their ocean-going cousins. And I love them. Radiating Viking’s unique Scandi-style, the whole ship is spacious and elegant, with large windows which let light flood inside. From the gorgeous atrium to the comfortable lounge, it has a boutique hotel feel.

The first thing that struck me was how the clever design makes the ship feel cosy as well as open and inviting. This is repeated in the rooms on board. While they are typically smaller than what I’ve experienced on ocean ships, they are very comfortable, with plush beds and bedding, plenty of storage, heated bathroom floors and premium bath products.

While I knew the ships would of course be smaller, I had not anticipated the intimacy of the whole experience. There is a true family feel, with guests coming together over dinner and drinks every night to share their
experiences. It is a very relaxed and communal affair. Staff also provide a level of personalised service I have never experienced on an ocean cruise. They really took the time to get to know us all, as well as our preferences, to genuinely provide the best trip possible.

The destinations

Whenever I’ve pictured river cruising, particularly in Europe, I’ve seen it as a great way to ‘destination hop’. And this was definitely the case. Each day you wake up in another place to explore. I love this concept and
while the ships are beautiful, to me, river cruising is all about embracing the destinations you are visiting.

And the ships themselves make the possibilities endless. Due to their design, the river ships can dock right in the middle of a destination – something I hadn’t truly appreciated before getting on board. Budapest is a great example of this – you literally dock next to the famous Chain Bridge in the middle of all the sights and sounds of the city. It’s the perfect chance
to get off the ship after dinner for a walk along the Danube, a drink in a local bar or a taste of the vibrant nightlife on offer in the city.

Days typically consist of a morning or afternoon of cruising, excursions in a port for half or a whole day, and overnights in places such as Passau and Budapest. This definitely keeps you busy – more so than when on an ocean cruise. With all the enriching excursions, ever-changing scenery and activities on board the ship, there’s no lack of opportunities to keep occupied – if that’s what you want to do.

Viking includes an excursion in almost every port of call. From the art and music of Vienna to the culture of Bratislava and the history of Budapest, I learnt something new every day. It all provides a truly inspirational experience and you come away feeling richer for it. This is no mean feat to achieve, and our very talented Programme Director, Terry, did an amazing job of ensuring guests got as much as they could from each experience while having fun along the way. An included highlight had to be spending the day visiting Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. A true fairy tale destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famed for its 14th to 17th century architecture in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles – it’s really something to behold.

The food

I’ve always loved the food on board Viking ocean ships, and this also translates well to the river fleet. Expect breakfasts with a wide variety of freshly made choices and (at least) three-course lunches served in the restaurant. If you fancy something a little more casual, head to the Aquavit Terrace to enjoy an al fresco meal (or even a barbecue). At dinner, expect fare inspired by regional specialities, featuring local ingredients wherever possible. This is another way Viking connects guests to the destinations they are sailing through.

While a river cruise can cost the same or more than other holidays, you have to remember that everything is pretty much included. With Viking, expect inclusive return flights from the UK, accommodation, all onboard meals (and wine and beer with lunch and dinner), transfers, enrichment programmes and, of course, daily excursions, including visits to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. When it comes down to it, it’s incredibly good value and, as a bonus, it takes the stress out of having to budget while you’re away.

Being a long-time ocean traveller, I was expecting river cruising to be very similar, but coming away from my first experience, I’m happy to say I was wrong. There are clear similarities between the two in terms of how days are typically structured, and, well, that you’re sailing from destination to destination, but that’s where the similarities end.

I often say that cruising has something for everyone. In my view, there is a ship and an itinerary to suit you, no matter who you are, and river cruising opens up a whole new world of destinations. River is perfect for those who don’t necessarily want to share space with a lot of people and, in particular, those who love city breaks. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of city getaways, mostly because I’m restless and like to explore multiple places so, actually, river cruising, for me, is the perfect way to see the cities of the world.

It’s also a great way to immerse yourself in a culture and elevate your experience of many different destinations without ever having to pack or unpack between each new place or face the uncertainty of what your hotel will be like when you turn up. While I can see how this principle has been translated to Viking ocean cruises, it’s a hugely effective part of river cruising and a real selling point.

If you are considering your first river cruise, the Danube is a great place to start. It honestly has something for everyone, whether it is the dramatic sights of Budapest, the culture of Vienna or perhaps wine tasting in the famous Wachau Valley. I loved and appreciated the history of this part of the world and it was incredible to learn how the countries and cities I visited have changed and been influenced so dramatically over the years.

I knew I’d like river cruising, but it has exceeded my expectations and has opened up a new world of destinations I’d like to visit. I don’t know what my next adventure will be, but the fact it could be sailing through Vietnam along the Mekong or embracing ancient Egypt on the Nile or perhaps even enjoying the local cuisine and wine in Portugal’s Douro region has me filled with excitement. Doesn’t it all sound so alluring?

Our eight-day Danube Waltz river cruise from Passau to Budapest, or the reverse, starts at £1,195pp

Read Marcus’ blog here

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