Gently Down the Stream
Cruise ships are now larger--and have more attractions--than some small nations. But there's also a subtler way to sail: river cruising. Marilyn Holstein explores Germany, Austria, and Hungary while drifting slowly along the Danube.
When we docked overnight at Vilshofen, Germany, Richard and I left the ship around 9 p.m. for a stroll through town, where we discovered IO Expressio, a lively wine and coffee bar owned by a hip couple. No one knew where we'd gone--we felt like kids sneaking out of the house.
Cruising on the River
Unlike on Caribbean cruises, with stretches where all you can see is vast open water, there was always something historic in view along the riverbank. It was mesmerizing to watch the progression from farmland to villages to cities, then back again. When we sailed through a particularly notable or scenic area (such as when we entered Budapest at dawn, passing under the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Liberty Bridge), cruise director Casey gave us interesting commentary over the loudspeakers around the ship.
For all of the rigidness of the trip, and the occasions when it could feel a bit stifling, there was a big upside to the small-ship experience: Namely, we met some fantastic people. It's the kind of thing that you certainly can't take for granted on a ship with 3,000 passengers; even though there are so many more people around, you have to make much more of an effort to actually engage. It's the difference between a small town and a big city, or between going away to a college of 700 students versus one of 10,000 students.
My fondest memory of the trip is of an afternoon we spent aboard the ship. It was a beautiful, sunny day as we left Melk, Austria, then cruised through the glorious Wachau Valley toward Vienna. Fred, Suzanne, Jeanne, and Brant joined Richard and me out on the top deck. We had purchased wine, cheese, sausages, crackers, and bread while in Melk, and we had a makeshift picnic.
As the hillsides dotted with castles, country roads, and vineyards glided by, we ate, drank, and talked about nothing, the way friends do, discussing which of the cheeses was the most delicious and figuring out who bought the least expensive bottle of wine (it was Brant, for E1.20). And despite the fact that we weren't dining on china or drinking from crystal--in fact, we were using water glasses for the wine and a corkscrew as a knife--we felt a little like European royalty.
Booking a Cruise
It's possible to book a Viking River Cruise through a travel agent or directly through the cruise line (877/668-4546, vikingrivercruises.com). Other lines that run sailings on the Danube and other rivers include Avalon Waterways (877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com), Grand Circle Travel (800/959-0405, gct.com), Peter Deilmann Cruises (800/348-8287, deilmann-cruises.com), and Uniworld (800/360-9550, uniworld.com).