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June 2016: Passau to Budapest. Our First River Cruise... Glorious!


Well, I said I would take a stab at writing about our river cruise. Here goes...
When asked to write an article for Premier River Cruises about our river cruise, we really didn’t want to. After all, we’re not writers, just avid cruisers. I finally told Rick Kaplan (Premier's President at the time), “I’ll take a stab at it.” I decided to write about just a single day of our cruise... collectively, a cruise that may have been one of the most memorable that my wife, Charlene, and I’ve ever experienced in our many international travel experiences. It was just that perfect blend of weather, new friends, and an exhilarating adventure on the Danube River.

You should know that Charlie and I are big-time ocean cruisers — you know: major brand, big ship ocean cruises. We had never taken a river cruise before; honestly don’t think we would have if it weren’t for a friend who had just returned from a recent cruise on the Rhine. Charlie was intrigued by what her friend described as a “unique, sensational vacation.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, there have been some changes in our lives as we’ve both aged a bit — neither of us has the patience we used to have, our children are grown and out on their own. You probably know what I mean. We also realized we’re tired of the mob scenes, and the large number of children from babies to teenagers, that seem to be a growing part of the lifestyle on ocean-going cruises. Bigger is NOT always better.

What I’m really saying is: our preferences have evolved. We are now looking at cruising differently. We want new places, more in depth experiences, more self-enrichment, and ships and venues with no mob scenes. Now, that does not mean  by any stretch of the imagination that we’re ready to go “camping” or even "glamping!" We both still want to be pampered (We’ve earned it.); we want good, comfortable well-appointed accommodations; great food, wines and beers (I’m a foodie.); a casual, informal atmosphere; and to be with our kind of travelers meaning like-minded shipmates that have similar desires and want immersive enrichment from our destinations — we want to explore our landings, not just be a tourist for 2 hours then get back on a ship. Oh, yes, and the cruise needs to be priced right. Hmmm... guess we do still want it all.

Let me set up our “most perfect” day by saying that the day before we had enjoyed a marvelous, full-day guided excursion to and through the incredible city of Heidelberg — just a sensational day. And the day after our “most perfect” day we were in Vienna, again enjoying an “included” full-day of sightseeing with our marvelous, English-speaking guide.

So, what makes the day I chose so “perfect?” Let me tell you about it...

6:00 am. I love the fact that there’s an early-riser continental breakfast up on the sun deck. It’s just the right start to a beautiful day. We got our “java” fix to hold us till breakfast, and watched the world float by.

7:00 am. Prior to breakfast, we enjoyed the sounds that only being on a river can provide. On big ocean cruises you’re high above the water, but our balconied stateroom was literally just 20 feet above the river. The sights, sounds, and best of all the fragrances drifted in with the warm morning sunlight; we were relaxed and connected to the river in every sense.

Just before heading to the dining room, our ship glided into one of the seemingly hundreds of locks located on our route. It was really cool as day became night; we stood at our balcony doors, only a foot from the slimy walls of this 100-year-old granite lock. We watched as the ship sank with the water level about 60 feet into the abyss — Charlene got great shots from the balcony doors to share with friends.

7:30 am. Entered the dining room to see yet another delightful buffet breakfast display. They had everything you could ever want: fresh juices, hot/cold items, great fresh cheeses, lox, bagels and, of course, waffles — my favorite! One of the nice things about the dining room was the view — glass on all sides — so we didn’t miss a thing. As it was a particularly warm (75°F) morning, we filled our plates and headed up to the Sun Deck, breakfasting al fresco... life is good.

8:30 am. We grabbed a freshly made cappuccino before leaving the ship by stepping on to the little dock in Melk (we never once rushed for anything — no waits, no lines) where we assembled for our “included” morning tour to extraordinary Melk Abbey. This is the most ornate Abbey we’ve ever seen. The place goes back to the late 11th-century, and is so remarkable it would take two pages to tell you about it. You’ve got to see it. By the way, another great thing about river cruising — we docked right at the edge of this medieval village and only had a short walk to the Abbey. No bus, no crowds, just a comfortable walk with our shipmates.

11:00 am. After leaving the Abbey, we walked back to the ship to begin the next facet of our “Best Day Ever.” We had a light lunch onboard, checked out our bicycles and helmets (some ships now have electric bikes), and met up onshore with our guide and about 30 shipmates for something I never thought I would do: a 20-mile bike ride through a part of the Wachau Valley from Melk to Durnstein along the banks of the beautiful Danube. This is an area many say is the most picturesque region on the Danube — stay tuned.

12:00 pm. Off we went, a pack of Americans on bicycles heading down a lane beside the Danube. It’s a riding/walking path along the river, so no cars. I was told it is over 200 miles long, and mostly used by locals who picnic (We did that, too!) or just have an outing to a nearby village/town. The ride was flat, easy and glorious to say the least.

Along the way we would stop to listen to our guide talk about a place’s history, local flowers or a landmark of special interest. Our path rambled along the river and through a portion of the indescribable Wachau Valley. They were right on. This wine-producing valley is beyond words and I’m glad that Charlie is an avid photo bug because now we have the images in our minds and the digital images to remind us of this incredible place.

We also stopped in some medieval villages so small and quaint they’re not on any map, all surrounded by the lush green hillside vineyards flowing up and across the hills. We also caught glimpses of numerous, intact or ruined, really impressive and colorful castles tucked in among the hillsides. In addition to stopping at places of interest, we also managed to stop at many local cheese shops (3 to be exact) for a brief rest, an ice-cold German beer (Belgium beers were actually better) and to sample the local cheeses and fresh breads, most of which were like nothing we get in Minnesota — no dinner tonight — not!

Unfortunately, I don’t really have the words to express how truly incredible the journey was. It was not about the castles, the Abbey, or even the Wachau Valley, although they were impressive. For me, it was more intangible than that. It was about my wife, and the ear-to-ear smile on her face for the entire bike ride, actually for the entire day. It was about leisurely pedaling down a scenic lane, seeing the local people, talking with them (many spoke English), walking among them and imagining what it would be like to live in a place “like this” (we’re from Minneapolis). It was about taking it all in: the sights, sounds, smells and views experienced along the incredible path and river — watching our ship sail by on its way to Durnstein. Yes, we did get great shots of the ship, the places and views, and of our new friends enjoying the day probably as much as we did. As the MasterCard® commercial says, it was “Priceless!”

5:00 pm. At Durnstein, we met up with the ship docked just beyond the bike path. Durnstein is another fascinating medieval town, and one of the most picturesque places we’ve ever encountered. Our visit there was like stepping back in time. For history buffs: Durnstein is the place where Richard the Lion Heart was imprisoned at the end of the Crusades.

Back at the ship, we were greeted at the gangway with a cold refreshing towel and chilled bottle of water. I briefly thought about going to the gym for a light workout, but figured I just had one. Instead, we decided to head to our cabin to clean up, relax for a bit, and then go to an interesting pre-dinner port talk (they did a great job) on Vienna.

6:30 pm. Attended the port talk which proved to be not only a talk, but included a wonderful video on Vienna and the choice of complimentary ship’s tours we could select. Afterwards, it was off to the main lounge for a drink or two with our “biker” friends and then to dinner. The lounge was great, very pleasant live music provided by excellent local entertainers created a nice touch, and the floor-to-ceiling windows provided a great view of Durnstein as the sun slowly began to set.

8:00 pm. Strolled into the dining room with some of our new friends, were seated without a wait (only 148 people aboard), and gazed starry-eyed at the evening’s menu. I can’t remember what we chose, but I can tell you each dinner was a gourmet’s delight from start to finish. Best of all we were able to partake of many local wines that the chef had paired with each course (wine and beer was included in our price). Don’t want to spend too much time on the meals, but let’s just say the selection ranged from American-cut grilled steaks to incredibly fresh fish dishes. We even had an al fresco seafood BBQ one warm evening on the Sun Deck, replete with fresh lobster and a variety of fresh shellfish along with an incredible bouillabaisse.

Needless to say, we didn’t lack for anything when it came to meals and we would both describe the onboard service as splendid, but not pretentious in any way. Everyone spoke perfect English, knew our names, and were always warm and welcoming.

10:15 pm. After enjoying a nice after dinner espresso, we and our tablemates headed back to the lounge to listen to the music and hook up with other shipmates to plan our next exciting day.

11:00 pm. Turning in. Great cabin with all the amenities, a super shower and comfortable, firm king bed with European, hotel-style linens. Watched some (satellite) TV, opened the sliding door to let the fragrant aromas of the river and flowers in, turned off the light and quickly fell asleep. Such sweet dreams.

I hope you enjoyed reading about just one day in our river cruise down the Danube. Please read the other in-depth articles on the Premier website to find out more about river cruising. I think you'll discover — as Charlie and I did — that a vacation of this type is the best vacation you could possibly choose. And, there are so many river cruise regions and rivers to discover. Needless to say.... we are going to be taking another river cruise soon! We cant wait!

— Dan and Charlene, Minneapolis, MN

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