I was a great fan of river cruises before I ever took one. There must be something to see every day. Was I right? There was only one way to find out, and the opportunity presented itself last October – a Danube River cruise with Uniworld, on which I would give talks about Vienna, City of Music, also describe how the waltz came to Vienna, and introduce a concert in an ornate Viennese palace.
I decided to combine pleasure with business. For the last decade or so, every October I have had a reunion with my oldest friends in the world, fellow students I graduated with over half a century ago. We were at university in Dundee, so in past years bottles have been opened and consumed in Scotland’s great cities. This time, why not make it extra special, and toast our friendship aboard S.S. Maria Theresa, gliding gently along the Danube, surrounded by exquisite scenery you might almost be able to reach out and touch?
It took a masterpiece of planning. Let me tell you how it began. My wife Nula and I had barely unpacked in our state room (cabins are so passé), when I received a text message: ‘We’re in the Habsburg salon.’
It got better. We went up on to the sundeck and sat round a table admiring the beautiful city of Budapest from the river. I spotted a waitress climbing the steps, one hand on the handrail, the other balancing a tray with six glasses of champagne. I wonder if she’d bring some for us, I thought. Smiling, she put the tray down and said: “I thought you might like a glass of champagne.” We hadn’t ordered any. She had read our minds.
That was a hallmark of the trip. Impeccable service on a truly beautiful ship. The captain addressed us all on the first evening, and it was evident how proud he was of her. The S.S. Maria Theresa is done out in the style of the Empress she is named after. Luxurious, splendid, glass doors and walls, gilded mirrors and chandeliers.
He acknowledged, in his welcome speech, that the state rooms were not large. How could they be on a river cruise ship which needed to negotiate some narrow passages of river and many locks? “But have you noticed the space underneath the bed?” There was a collective intake of breath. Bed coverings are so luxurious they reach the floor. It had not occurred to us to lift them up, to reveal a vast space underneath specially designed to take your suitcases. Clever.
Our cruise began in Budapest and travelled west, via Bratislava and Vienna to Passau in Germany. Over the course of a week you see more variety than you could ever predict. Big city life in Budapest and Vienna. Small city life in Bratislava and Passau. Country life as you cruise down the Wachau Valley, Austria’s wine growing area.
You want activity? Every day excursions were available – from city tours to walking tours and bike rides, from a visit to a winery to an exclusive visit to a saffron workshop. You want to stay nice and quiet? Just lounge on the sundeck or in your state room.
You might want to join some of the more energetic tours, if only to work off the weight you put on in the restaurant. The food was exceptional, and just as the ship itself reflects life in the historic Habsburg Empire, so the food brings you a taste of the area the ship is in on that particular day.
There is no doubt about it. Uniworld river cruises – from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east – are the height of luxury. Several experienced river cruisers told us they always travel Uniworld – with a knowing look and a comment along the lines of “You get what you pay for.”
Yes, they are not cheap, but everything is included, and I mean everything. That means all food and drink. Not just wine and soft drinks, but all drinks. That first tray of champagne is already paid for – so is very other drink you consume on the trip. Experienced Uniworld travellers know to pace themselves. Tips too are all included. You are not expected to tip, but several discreet handshakes were given for exceptional service. You really could leave your credit card at home.
So was I right about river cruises? In a word yes, and now I really can speak from experience. The only problem: much as I love the cities of Scotland, next year’s reunion will have a lot to live up to.