By Diana Ballon
“The goal is to die with memories, not dreams,” said our animated British cruise director Darren Collins, speaking to us in the Panorama Lounge of Emerald Waterways’ newest ship, the Emerald Destiny.
My 85-year-old mother and I were two of 139 passengers cruising more than 550 kilometres up the Danube from Budapest to Passau. Over eight days, we travelled through Hungary, Austria and Germany (with a brief side/day trip to Bratislava in the Slovakian Republic).
European river cruises have always carried a certain mystique for me—what I would have imagined luxury train travel to have been like in my grandmother’s era, with lavish meals eaten with silver flatware on white linen tablecloths in their dining car and cocktails sipped in comfy cushioned seating while staring out at a rapidly moving landscape.
But cruising promised to be even more exotic, because we would be floating on water. The Danube is a calm river. We encountered no real waves, and only the occasional other commercial boat. But we did find beauty: quaint villages, the occasional castle on a hill, lush green countryside, and mist that casts a pale white hue in the mornings. We slept in a cabin with a floor-to-ceiling window that slid open with a simple press of a button, played mini putt on a rooftop deck at sunset, and each day, toured a different city or town with local guides to lead us along cobblestone streets to castles and medieval cathedrals.
Generally, the ship cruises at night, and your days are divided between organized tours in the mornings, and then exploring on your own, with maps provided, or returning to the ship to relax, perhaps have an afternoon nap, a three-course lunch, and a read.
Admittedly, like most holidays, eating and drinking was an important feature of the cruise. The food was delicious and plentiful. There was a buffet at lunch but with à la carte menu options also available, afternoon tea with sandwiches and desserts, a four-course dinner and a “late night snack.” The cuisine and wine that was served often reflected the places we were travelling, including a delicious goulash as late night snack one evening, and strudel that had been made during a cooking demonstration another.
I had been a bit apprehensive about what I heard were the demographics of river cruise travel. The average age tends to be about 60 to 65 (a fact that was not just visible by the grey heads, but a refreshing absence of cell phones!). At 53, I felt ”young,” if that’s possible, and worried that I might not enjoy the slower pace of cruising.
But as Darren commented, “there are too many assumptions with age. You can’t tick and put everyone in the same box…
“People want to be looked after, but also want to be independent.”
And as I was to discover, Emerald—along with many other river cruise lines— is adding active tours alongside the slower paced or “gentle” walking tours to appeal to a range of ages and energy levels. On our trip, there were three hiking tours and two biking ones: this included a beautiful 30 km cycle from Durnstein to Melk in Austria, that had us biking along the river, and through small towns; as well as hikes up to castles and abbeys.
Organized activities can also be supplemented with exercise you do on your own: for me, this included a jog along the river, and on the ship’s sun deck (four rotations equals a kilometer), my own urban explorations on bike (they have many on board for this purpose), workouts in their small fitness room and swims in the pool (which was also small but had a current for resistance).
These active options have made cruising ideal for transgenerational travel. Most guests on our cruise were elderly couples—many celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, judging by the cakes at dinner—along with some widowed women travelling together. (“It’s safe with two ladies,” says Barbara Heald.) But along with a more senior guest list was a blending of ages. This included guests travelling with grandchildren and children.
One such guest was Mary Thuss, a semi-retired nursing professor from Western University in London, ON who was travelling with her 92-year-old father, three other siblings, their partners and a niece and nephew.
After a moving private performance by eight members of the Viennese Imperial Orchestra in Vienna, Thuss remarked:
“The joy was watching my dad. He was familiar with all those songs [the Blue Danube among them]. Dad was born in Europe in 1925 and would have danced to those songs. He was singing at one point, and there were tears coming down his face.”
The cruise director Darren, who I chatted with one night at dinner, warmly described his own relationship with his 89-year-old stepfather, who he lives with in England. He imbued that same pleasure and respect in his conversations with guests.
At the closing dinner, the ship’s hotel manager Alan Andrei thanked the hardworking staff (who represent 12 different nationalities), and singled out two of the dishwashers for their special efforts.
“People ask if this is a boat or a ship. I don’t know, but I can tell you it’s a friendship,” he says.
When my mother and I left the ship in Passau to board the bus for the short drive to the Munich airport our final morning, I know for sure that we had created lasting memories on our trip together. But these memories don’t supplant dreams: there are times when I still fall asleep at night and am back on that boat, with the water sparkling all around us, and it’s just me and my mom and the long river Danube.
If You Go:
The trip this writer did was called Danube Explorer, which included visits to Budapest in Hungary; Vienna, Durnstein and Melk in Austria; and Linz and Passau in Germany. Although the writer travelled from east to west (from Budapest to Munich), the same trip is also available in the opposite direction.
Emerald Waterways launched in 2014 and is part of the Scenic Luxury River Cruise family. Although considered their four-star “premium” brand next to Scenic’s, five-star “luxury” brand, the main difference is in what is included. Although Emerald doesn’t include all bar drinks, wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner, and it has many other perks. This includes a small pool with a retractable roof that can transform into a cinema at night and a high staff-to-guest ratio (47 staff for up to 182 guests). Most cabins have an “indoor balcony” feature where the top of the floor-to-ceiling window drops down with a press of a button.
Although daily tours are also included, there are some additional ones that are available for a fee, such as the Hallein Salt Mines tour, a tour of Bratislava and a Viennese concert.