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River cruising on the Danube

The Vancouver Sun, June 8, 2022

Gen-Xers are climbing aboard for active onshore adventures

The lights of the illuminated, gothic revival-style Parliament of Budapest danced on the Danube’s inky surface. We sailed on, past Fisherman’s Bastion fortress and the gleaming Buda Castle. Like the golden-hour view of a 13th-century castle just past Visegrád earlier that evening, it was a sight only attainable from a river ship.

 

This was the end of a pattern – start the day with land-based adventures followed by languorous evenings where we sipped cocktails in the Panorama Lounge, lingered over three-course dinners, or simply watched the sun set from the ship’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

 

On this evening Captain Ambrose guided the Avalon View, the new 166-passenger ship from Avalon Waterways, into the Pearl of the Danube after our dinner – perfectly timed to see the city lights with a glass of Hungarian sparkling wine in hand.

In 2020 river cruising was the fastest growing segment of the cruise market. Now, there is pent-up demand from cruisers who have been dry-docked for two years. Forty- and 50-something Gen-Xers are climbing aboard. The typical first-timer river cruise guest is someone who’s been ocean cruising and wants a more intimate experience on a small ship, where wifi, wine and activities are included.

“We see a huge range of travellers,” said Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “River cruising had this image that it was for older baby boomers and that’s really changing.”

Propelling that change is a shift from passive to active excursions, like the e-bike tour that took me 14 km and 700 metres up in the Pilis Mountains where we could overlook the Danube River as it snaked past the village of Dobogókö, with it’s red roofed houses. The tour was just one of the shore excursions offered during the maiden voyage of  the Avalon View.

Some of my shipmates opted to hike, others chose to learn a traditional Hungarian dance in town, and the oenophiles on board toured the imposing basilica before sampling wines inside the church’s cellar.

This wedge of the country, just across the Danube from Slovakia, is off the beaten bike path for most travellers, who focus their explorations in Budapest. But on a four-night river cruise between Vienna and Budapest, we stopped in Esztergom, home of the country’s largest Roman Catholic church.

 

Afterwards I soaked my tired legs in the ship’s hot tub, beer in hand, and enjoyed views of the blue Danube and the diminishing dome of Esztergom Basilica as we sailed away.

Don’t book a river cruise expecting onboard casinos, variety shows and karaoke by night, or you will be disappointed, cautioned Hoffee. She explained the biggest obstacle they have in winning new sailors is the notion passengers might be “bored” on a smaller ship.

But once they try it they realize, “River cruising is an exciting way to see another country,” said second-time river cruiser Steve Wollak, 40, who lives in Minneapolis.

On Wollak’s first cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers in Germany, he wasn’t expecting the wow factor of sailing past vineyards where grapes were being harvested in October.

On the Danube cruise in April, he was impressed with the variety of activities on offer, and the opportunities to try local dishes and spirits, such as Szilva (plum brandy) and Borovicka (Slovakian gin) at a distillery in Bratislava. He also loved the intimacy on both ships: “There’s not 3,000 people on it, there’s 150.”

In Vienna, I made red pepper barley risotto, mushroom stroganoff, and a smoked tofu and veggie medley during a cooking class with Karl Wrenkh, who opened the vegetarian restaurant, Wrenkh, in 2009 with his brother Leo.

 

After, I wandered the city’s grand Ringstrasse and ogled the museums, palaces and parks before enjoying a generous slice of Sachertorte (rich chocolate cake with apricot jam) at a Viennese café.

On a historical walking tour in Bratislava, our local guide Zuzana regaled us with stories of what it was like living through the former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the country staged a nationwide protest that ended more than 40 years of Soviet rule (Slovakia and the Czech Republic split in 1993). Near the city’s baroque castle she pointed out a Communist-era statue—a woman whose feet are far larger than her head, because “worker strength was more highly valued than intellect.”

The fact we were sailing through two countries that border Ukraine was never far from my thoughts, either. There were signs of support for Ukraine everywhere, from local markets raising relief funds, to the now-ubiquitous blue and yellow flag flying above buildings.

“Tourism creates jobs,” said Hoffee. “It helps these countries support the refugees and keeps their economies strong.”

 

If you go

My room was a 200-square-foot panorama suite, one of 65 on board. The spacious staterooms, complete with sitting areas, are the cornerstone of the company’s “Suite Ships” concept. A comfortable bed faces floor-to-ceiling windows so there’s always a view. What’s more, the glass slides open to create an open-air balcony.

During the 2022 season the The Avalon View sails several itineraires on the Danube River, from the four-day Taste of the Danube to the eight-day Active & Discovery on the Danube.

Avalon Waterways also sails other rivers in Europe including the Rhine, Rhône, Saone, Moselle, Seine and Main.

River cruising on the Danube