Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Set against the backdrop of the early afternoon sun shining on the twin towers of Passau’s St Stephan’s Cathedral, waiter Mihai hands out sparkling blue cocktails as the River Beatrice glides out into the River Danube.
Within half an hour we are sailing through the German countryside, past wooded hillsides dotted with pretty villages and castles. Our final destination, Budapest, is a long way over the horizon and as the evening sets in we gather in the lounge to begin warming to our theme – The Sound of Music.
The film that immortalised the musical family’s flight from Austria in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Joining us on board one of the special commemorative sailings is Elisabeth Von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and Baron Von Trapp. Some die-hard fans have come prepared with bags made from recycled curtains – a nod to the scene where Maria runs up makeshift new clothes for the children – and another passenger is wearing a traditional dirndl dress bought in Passau. Others are simply there to go with the flow, and dip in and out of the musical additions to the special edition of Uniworld’s regular Enchanting Danube itinerary.
Uniworld operates a fleet of 13 boutique river vessels in Europe and unlike most lines, where all ships look alike, these ships have stunning individually designed interiors. The 156-passenger River Beatrice has a bright two-storey lobby topped by a glittering chandelier, sun deck filled with super squashy loungers and chairs, panoramic lounge, elegant dining room bedecked with crisp tablecloths and cosy, drawing room and library filled with navigational artefacts. There’s even a gym and spa. The gorgeous cabins boast antiques, artwork, lavish interior furnishings and silk walls that wouldn’t be out of place in the best country house hotels. For passengers that really want to push the boat out, the 15 suites come with Downton Abbey-style butlers – and Viorel and Boris are the real deal from the tip of their immaculate tailcoats, topped off with a rose, to their waistcoats with gleaming watch chains, pin-striped trousers and, of course, spotless white gloves.
Next morning we arrive in UNESCO-listed Salzburg and follow our guide to the beautifully manicured Mirabell Gardens. First stop is the private chapel, where Elisabeth shares anecdotes about her famous family before an accomplished guitar and song recital, which goes way beyond the familiar tunes from the film. Then it’s over to us for another rehearsal of Do-Re-Mi (which we’d run through rather discordantly the previous night). Although practice doesn’t make some of us entirely pitch perfect, we head out onto the steps where the namesake scene was filmed. Elisabeth counts us in and to bemused looks from other visitors we burst into song. We are living the Sound of Music moment and afterwards I can’t resist having a skip around the fountain that also featured in the film.
Part of the allure of river cruises is you arrive somewhere new each day, and there’s always plenty to see along the banks as you float to each destination at a leisurely pace. One of the week’s scenic highlights is the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley lined with vineyards. While I lazed on the sun deck, energetic passengers joined one of the optional guided bike excursions. The afternoon’s walking tour took us to the vast 18th century Benedictine abbey perched high on rocky outcrop at Melk. It resembles a palace with an imperial corridor covered with portraits of Austrian rulers, a library containing 90,000 books and huge frescoes.
The following day we reach Vienna, with the choice of a city coach excursion or ‘do as the locals do’ walking tour, travelling to the centre of the Austrian capital by subway. Another big plus with this type of holiday is that ships moor in the heart of towns and cities, so independent travellers can easily go it alone with the help of maps and sightseeing tips available from reception. Having done a Vienna city tour before, I decided to go to the Spanish Riding School that’s celebrating its 450th anniversary this year. Although it’s tricky to time visits to coincide with one of the gala performances of the magnificent Lipizzaner stallions, the morning exercise sessions in the ornate Winter Riding School are open to the public, costing €14, and there are also guided stable tours.
Back on board, days are interspersed with lavish meals. All drinks are included, starting with champagne at breakfast, and the charming crew members have an impressive knack of learning your favourite tipple, and suggesting cocktails you might like, virtually from day one. Akin to a floating gourmet restaurant, the food featured regional specialities such as local onion tart with Limburger cheese, Tyrolean air-dried cured ham, and slow-roasted Austrian beef, along with delicious contemporary dishes including wild mushroom cappuccino and lobster risotto. Desserts resembled art on a plate and looked (fleetingly) almost too good to eat. And whilst it was hard to resist so much temptation, there were plenty of healthy and vegetarian options too.
An eye for small details made a big difference to many aspects of the cruise; an easy check in and check out system to avoid log-jam queues at the reception desk during excursions, refined touches such as linen drink coasters instead of flimsy paper ones and a cup of herbal tea and foot bath before my blissful spa treatment, providing the chance to get to know the lovely therapist Elena and making the whole experience much more special and personal.
From the compact and walkable Slovakian capital Bratislava, we sailed on to Budapest to explore the city divided into two distinct halves by the Danube. After dinner we were treated to a mini-cruise along the river to admire a spectacular night-time view of the bridges, castle and parliament building.
It was yet another unexpected bonus, which continued when I returned to the cabin to find a copy of Elisabeth’s CD, Something Good, and a farewell photo of all the staff wishing us a happy journey. From sing-a-long tunes to spectacular scenery and sumptuous food, it had certainly been a week filled with some of my favourite things.