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Scenic does Amsterdam to Budapest in style

October 27, 2013

My first river cruise was in France on a barge built in 1926 as a mule-drawn freight vessel but transformed 40 years ago into a peniche, or hotel boat, with 10 bedrooms, one bath, two showers and two toilets. The captain was an engaging young Englishman who was also barman and tour guide. His girlfriend was the waitress and made the beds, while the chef doubled as the boatman which allowed him opportunities to pick up escargots strolling on shore.

As for the entertainment, it was “more wine, mon ami” although one captain, who was later to become a professor of botany, liked getting everybody up for the hokey-cokey.

Things have changed.

River cruising in Europe has grown into the hottest thing in cruising, itself the fastest-growing part of modern travel, with sleek vessels churning up and down the Rhine, Danube and Rhone, and yards struggling to keep up with demand.

It was no surprise then that the vessel I was on, the Scenic Jewel, was christened halfway down the Rhine. It was probably the yard owner’s first day off in a year.

Scenic Tours’ boats are perfect for the mighty Rhine, and the 160 passengers we had, mostly Australian and Canadian, enjoyed space and comfort formerly unimaginable. For me it was like going from DC-3 to Dreamliner, with private balconies, butlers, big flat-screen TVs and free movies. All that, and Europe outside.

We started at Amsterdam with the Rijksmuseum, home of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, just reopened after a 10-year renovation costing 375 million Euros, then our “spaceship,” as the company calls it, headed upriver in what was to be a remarkable voyage all the way down the Rhine, Main and Danube to Budapest.

Charlemagne wanted to do this in the 9th Century, but linking the Main and the Danube was beyond even him. It was not until 1992 that the Main was canalized with locks, enabling the launch of long-haul river cruising.

Indeed our Jewels of Europe was 15 days, but there was a lot to see and do, and all made easy with Scenic’s brand of inclusive tours, excellent guides, individual GPS listening devices, all stick-handled by the ever-present cruise director, genial Scotsman Patrick Doyle, who always had good advice, both for the keen crowd who did not want to miss a thing, and the selectivists, who liked to pick and choose.

Next morning we were in Dusseldorf, where some got off and would join us when we reached Cologne. Selectivists stayed in bed and disembarked in Cologne, where we saw its cathedral, which the RAF will tell you was spared only because it was a useful target marker.

Next was Rudesheim, second only to Cologne Cathedral as a magnet for foreign tourists, and described locally, presumably while well refreshed with riesling, as the world’s best-known wine town, which rules out Bordeaux and Beaune.

Nevertheless I was impressed by the politeness and good English I found ashore, such as the postmistress who thanked me for visiting. Then there was the majesty of the river itself, particularly in the Rhine Gorges with its dreamy castles, and the Scenic Jewel was an amazing platform from which to see everything, particularly when lounging in the top deck’s comfortable furniture with a waiter a nod away.

We learned that Canadian salmon were used to restock the Rhine and the reason there are so many barges is that they carry cargo seven times cheaper than road, but I could not understand why there were so few pleasure boats. It had to be the Germans are always working.

In times gone by they had a lot of problems with invaders and robber barons, including Napoleon, hence the castles, including Durnstein where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192 by Duke Leopold while on his way home from the Crusades, and held for years while a huge ransom, a king’s ransom indeed, was raised. Soon afterwards, however, Leopold fell off his horse and died.

The castle at Passau held de Gaulle as a POW during WW1, and you can be sure Churchill would have liked to have seen him there during WW2 as well.

Nuremberg was a personal highlight, with a visit to the courthouse where the Nazis were tried, the parade ground used by Hitler for his rallies, and the Documentation centre — which gave a thorough explanation, with nothing held back, of the Nazi era. It was good to see many young people there.

We had a private dinner in one castle and while in Vienna an exclusive evening of music, opera and humour in a very stately home, the kind of thing Scenic does well and explains why it is not the cheapest.

Mind you we lived well on board, with meals and wines to rival the best cruise ships. The drinks, also inclusive, included premium drinks that cost extra on top ships. Everyone could dine at least once at the cozy Italian restaurant, while big hitters in the top suites had a chefs’ table where they could compare their diamonds.

There was often entertainment such as folk dancing, a zither player, a talented glass blower, and much spirited dancing with lively lads from the Outback and the Prairies doing what appeared to be their versions of the hokey-cokey.

And if they wanted more, there were nights,such as in Budapest, where passengers could dine ashore and sample the nightlife.

We lunched at Vienna’s classic Cafe Centrale, while a couple from Winnipeg tried Budapest’s famous duck. And when it came to drinks, my friend from Calgary had only one thing to say about Scenic’s martinis, “Same again please.”

PICTURE shows Parliament buildings in Budapest with, in foreground, passengers on the Scenic Jewel playing chess on the top deck


From → Luxury Cruises

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