Cruise Select

Amy and Sharon recently enjoyed four nights sailing the Danube from Passau to Vienna with Uniworld onboard the charming River Beatrice on a festive Danube Christmas Markets river cruise. Here's what Amy thought of her experience...

I should perhaps preface this with a confession: I have, on occasions, been accused of being a bit of a ‘Scrooge’ (largely because I’m not racing to put the Christmas tree up on 1st December). However, experiencing the Danube Christmas Markets with Uniworld saw me have a Grinch-like transformation (although my heart didn’t actually grow three sizes larger), as I was enchanted by the festive touches added to the stunning River Beatrice, delighted by the traditional Christmas Markets we visited, and enjoyed a few glasses of glühwein and an exclusive Bavarian Yuletide treat.

As soon as you step onboard the River Beatrice (or, from my experience, any Uniworld river ship), you’re in for a ‘wow’ moment. Uniworld’s ships are utterly unique – distinctive from each other, as well as other river cruise lines. Words such as ‘opulent’, ‘extravagant’, ‘flamboyant’, and ‘luxuriant’ are often used to describe these boutique ships, and River Beatrice did not disappoint. However, I also felt that it had a homely atmosphere, too, with warmer tones and soft, plush fabrics. It might sound strange, but it almost feels like it ‘hugs’ you at times. As well as being struck by the imposing white chandelier which hangs proudly as the centre-piece of the two-storey lobby, I also noticed that the ship had been tastefully tinselled up, ready for the Christmas season, and there was an absolutely gorgeous looking gingerbread house by the reception desk.

After a quick and efficient check-in, we were handed the keys to our room and a boarding pass for getting on and off the ship, and we headed to our category 1 cabin on deck 4 (conveniently on the same deck as the Lounge and Captain’s Club). We had a French balcony and the room was well-appointed with a decent amount of storage space, a TV with plenty of movies on offer, a jar full of sweeties, and a bathroom kitted out with some luxurious L’Occitane products.

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It was soon time for our first meal onboard, something I was really looking forward to, as I’d enjoyed some samples of Uniworld’s canapes at previous river cruise conventions, so I was anticipating a truly delicious meal. It’s fair to say I was not disappointed! There’s a real focus on the local cuisine, and the wines each night were different in order to closely reflect the specific regions through which we were sailing. This attention to detail and emphasis on local experiences extends even to sparkling wine, with a sparkling Riesling on offer, as opposed to French champagne (although champagne was available with breakfast for a Buck’s Fizz). Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style (as with practically all river cruise lines), although it was possible to order some dishes at breakfast from your waiter, and dinner was a four-course a la carte meal, available as open dining between seven and nine. All meals onboard, from eggs benedict and omelettes freshly prepared by a chef at the breakfast buffet, to the smorgasbord of local sausages on offer one day at lunch, and the delectable four course dinners at night, were absolute culinary delights. It’s hard, thinking back, to pick a favourite dish, but the bacon wrapped pheasant breast au jus, the meli-melo from beef and lobster, and the carved mustard thyme coated deer loin, may very well be top contenders! The beef and deer, in particular, were mouth-wateringly succulent. In fact, my mouth is beginning to salivate and I’m experiencing nostalgic hunger pangs as I recall these meals! The waiters were exceptionally friendly and attentive, happy to have a bit of a joke with you, and this perhaps perfectly exemplifies the extraordinary service and quality onboard: despite the plush, almost palatial surroundings, you can still feel right at home while being treated to personalised service. Throughout the ship, you'll be met by polite and friendly staff, and they'll soon get to know your favourite tipples!

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The focus on cultural immersion and local experience goes beyond the onboard gastronomy, of course. One of the advantages in general of river cruising is the ability to visit places you probably wouldn’t usually – such as smaller historic towns - and to be able to get into the hearts of cities, but with Uniworld, the quality of their tours and the unique alternatives they offer, really help you scratch beneath the surface of the area you’re visiting.

Onboard activities also offer enriching experiences and enable you to gain a deeper understanding, such as a workshop in the Lounge where we learnt all about Bavarian customs and traditions centring around the traditional dress of lederhosen for men and dirndl for women, or the wonderful lesson in the Viennese waltz we enjoyed the night before arriving into Vienna. We not only attempted to learn the steps, which was a giggle, we also gained a fascinating insight into the Austrian culture. This is, after all, a country which celebrates a New Year by waltzing into it. Elegant and traditional, the Viennese Waltz is an integral part of the Austrian cultural identity, and beyond the basic steps, we also learnt about the etiquette surrounding the dance, and got the opportunity to watch the two professional ballroom dancers show us how it’s properly done. This was easily one of the highlights of our trip for me, but it also adds a really unique and thoughtful dimension to the itinerary. We left the day we arrived in Vienna, so we were unable to attend the exclusive Mozart and Strauss Concert at Palais Ölav which the rest of the guests would have enjoyed that night, along with more Viennese waltzing. A classical concert in one of Vienna’s elegant palaces is a popular event on a Danube river cruise, but the unique Viennese waltz masterclass was an extra special touch.

During our trip, we began in the German border town of Passau, built on the confluence of three rivers (the mighty Danube, and the much smaller Ilz and Inn rivers), before visiting the charming Austrian towns of Linz and Krems, before arriving in Vienna, our final destination. We were only experiencing part of the cruise; the rest of the guests continued to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava before finally finishing with an overnight stay in Budapest on an overall seven-night cruise. In Passau, we discovered this beautiful Baroque city on foot, joined by an excellent local guide, who told us all about the city’s history, and showed us the main sights, including the stunning St Stephen’s Cathedral – which truly was both a surprise and a treasure on the inside – which boasts the world’s largest organ, and the equally strikingly Baroque-style City Hall. We finished our tour with some free time at the Christmas Market, before heading back onboard for lunch.

Later that afternoon, there was an optional excursion to experience a taste of Bavarian Christmas at Ruppert’s Bonvivant, a new feature added only since the previous cruise, but this was such an incredible highlight. We were taken by coach into the Bavarian countryside, and were greeted by an oompah band just outside a charmingly rustic converted barn. Warming ourselves up with aromatic glühwein served up by family members wearing traditional tracht, we were welcomed by Ruppert, who explained that he took the French word ‘Bonvivant’, to ‘live well’, as his ethos here. And so, we were treated to a truly memorable and enjoyable taste of a Bavarian Christmas, and even I felt festive! We were soon led inside the barn, which Ruppert and his son had worked so hard on treating the wood to convert, and once we got settled down, proceedings were soon started with a guest being invited to hammer open a keg of home-made beer (giving new meaning to the term ‘getting hammered’). As I’m the sort of person who’s open to trying new things, even if I look a fool, I volunteered to join the dirndl fashion show, along with five other women. We all had a giggle as we were getting changed, and I must say I was very pleasantly surprised by how flattering the dirndl looked on me, and how feminine I felt wearing it. What I hadn’t quite bargained for, though, was being taught a brief Bavarian dance to perform in front of everyone (needless to say, the dance quickly went into chaos), as well as a quick toast of some sort of Bavarian liquor or schnapps. Perhaps in a traditional display of Bavarian manliness, some guests were invited to try hammering nails into barrels. There was a buffet of food available, as well as the beer, and there was such a wonderful atmosphere in this beautiful, traditional setting. It really was quite quirky and very enjoyable, and definitely a memorable highlight.

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For every other destination, there was at least a choice of two excursions available; there’s always an included excursion, but there would also be a ‘choice’ excursion, which simply required a sign up, although in some destinations (Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest), further optional excursions were also available (sometimes at a supplement, although there was an included Morning Nordic Walk in Vienna). From Linz, the choices were a full-day excursion to the city of Salzburg – synonymous with both Mozart and the Sound of Music – or a festive outing to Linz and Steyr with Christmas Markets. Sharon and I opted for this latter choice, and we first visited the small village of Christkindl, renowned for its traditional Nativity scenes, which were incredibly intricate, and its pilgrimage church, which is traditionally visited by many Austrians at Christmas (some walking for many miles). From Christkindl, we headed to the charming small town of Steyr, where we were utterly delighted to visit an authentic, local Christmas Market, where we saw traditional blacksmiths still at work. Steyr’s greatest charm is that it’s off the usual tourist trail, and gives a bona fide insight into local Austrian traditions, and avoids the crowds from other river cruise lines. From Steyr, we were given a chance to explore Linz and its Christmas Market (passing by some of the sights while being given commentary on the bus by our local guide).

A morning cruising the scenic Wachau Valley (or playing Taboo and pictionary in the Captain’s Club) was the perfect chance to relax before visiting Krems, a small town not too far from the more popular Melk or Dürnstein, but equally charming. The options for Krems were a visit to Göttweig Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey first dedicated in 1072 but rebuilt in the flamboyant Baroque style in the 18th century after it had been destroyed by fire. Here, we enjoyed a private organ recital and admired the famous Imperial Staircase, where our local guide told us about the Counter Reformation movement in Austria, and Emperor Charles VI, who was depicted as the centrepiece above the staircase. Afterwards, we were taken to Krems for some free time in the Christmas Market – and by this point, I was feeling full of the festive spirit! The alternative excursion gave a more in-depth insight into Krems with a walking tour. Having already visited Dürnstein and Melk, I appreciated the chance to visit this quaint town; again, it was pleasant to experience a touch of authentic Austria, away from the crowds.

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Our final excursion with Uniworld – and each of them were guided by wonderful, friendly local experts who were passionate about their cities and had a great sense of humour – was Vienna. We were treated to a shortened combination of the ‘Do as the Locals Do’ walking tour and the special Christmas Markets walking tour (as our transfers to the airport meant we had to leave around noon). Again, our expert guide gave us a great insight into Vienna – from taking a trip on the subway and being treated to a variety of local festive snacks (that, frankly, I wouldn’t have even thought to try) – as well as seeing many of the famous landmarks, before finishing off with the wonderful Christmas Market outside the gorgeous neo-Gothic City Hall, with a warming glass of glühwein.

Our days were filled with insightful and fascinating excursions, punctuated by exceptional cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinners, while we enjoyed some of the best entertainment I’ve experienced on the rivers at night. River cruising doesn’t have the best reputation for entertainment, but this is certainly not the case with Uniworld. As well as the Viennese waltzing, we were treated to some really fabulous entertainment. The resident pianist and singer – Greg and Margaret – were fantastic, even taking requests and teaching us how to dance various different styles, but there was also special entertainment, from ‘Christmas carols and sing along’ with an acoustic guitarist and singer who took requests, and the brilliant Movida Sisters, who really added something special. Harking back to the swing era and 1940s, they were like the Austrian version of the famous Andrews Sisters, and encouraged a great rapport with the audience – all utterly wonderful experiences.

Uniworld really offer the most enchanting holiday experience, cruising serenely from the plush comforts of a floating boutique hotel, complete with exceptional service and cuisine, and taking guests into the heart of each destination, enjoying immersive experiences along with top quality and friendly guides. I was certainly sad to leave, but the Swarovski leaving gift (another nice little touch) certainly made it a little easier!

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