I never imagined there could be anything easier than lying in bed at home for a week—until I went on a river cruise. Having traveled on a few large ocean liners, I wasn’t sure what to expect aboard a smaller boat. What is it like to be in the company of 190 people—rather than 1,000? The last ship I was on had 18 restaurants; how would I fare with just two options? I’d only ever cruised the sea to the Caribbean (and, well, New Jersey—but that’s another story); what draws people to travel Europe’s rivers by boat? This past fall, I set sail on one of the world’s most beautiful rivers and discovered all that I’d been missing.
Strolling on the Graben in Vienna’s city center.
Oh, the People You’ll Meet
Okay, I admit it was a little odd that I signed up to travel alone on a Viking River Cruise itinerary called Romantic Danube. The first guests I met were actually on their honeymoon—surprising since, if you’ve seen the Viking ads on PBS, you might believe that only die-hard Charlie Rose fans are on board. The Honeymooners, however, looked younger than me, and, like everyone else I met, they went out of their way to make sure I never felt like the Weird Solo Traveler.
When I sat alone in the back row of the coach (a.k.a. bus), the Honeymooners moved to sit next to me.
When I grabbed a chair in the lounge with a book, an older couple from Florida took to the nearest couch. “Are you traveling…alone?” they asked before graciously inviting me to sit with them at dinner. The scale of the longship encourages such camaraderie: Dinner for the 190-some passengers is served at one time, in one dining room, with the house wines flowing freely (a contrast from ocean cruisers, where alcohol typically costs extra).
And then there was the family of four from Colorado who basically adopted me, making sure I felt welcome to join them for every meal, card game, trivia session, and excursion until I actually wondered: Should this be my family?
The omelet master at work at the breakfast buffet aboard a Viking longship.
As welcoming as my fellow passengers were, it was the crew who made me feel as if I were being rolled down the Danube in a cocoon of cocktail nuts, beef tenderloin, and white wine. The Viking Njord’s service manual would teach even Danny Meyer some new tricks.
The staff seemed trained to anticipate my basic needs, like remembering my drink order (Campari and soda) from the previous evening—and offering it to me as soon as I was within earshot of the lounge’s piano player.
I grew so attached to the friendly crew that when we were informed that we would need to make a “ship swap” due to low water levels on the Danube, even my hardened heart sank a little. (Viking arranges for two of its ships going in opposite directions on the same itinerary to trade passengers. Everything you need is transferred from one ship to another, and you continue along your scheduled itinerary—with a new, but, of course, equally attentive crew.)
The lunch crowd awaits tafelspitz at Plachutta in Vienna.
It’s the combination of exceptional onboard comfort with immediate access to inland cities that makes river cruising so appealing. Unlike on an ocean cruise, where you’ll pay extra to go, say, ATV riding, a guided city tour is included at each stop. This usually entails traveling in a coach (never called a bus) and walking around in a small group; you’re reminded not to forget your Quietvox, a device through which commentary is offered.
Like most things in life, if you invest a little more effort (and money), you can get more out of the onshore time. Research which additional excursions are offered by the cruise line on your particular itinerary: On Viking, it might yield a visit to Mörwald, the Austrian winery that makes the cruise line’s private-label vintage, or a sojourn to Gottweig Abbey near Krems, where I watched the chef make dumplings with the region’s famous apricots.
Traditional sausages hanging out at the Great Market Hall in Budapest.
If you want to chart your own tours, you are allowed to basically treat the boat as a hotel that floats you from town to town. This is the way to go, especially in bigger destinations like Budapest and Vienna: The ship’s docking locations are usually in the heart of the city.
In Budapest you can walk off the boat and find yourself, 20 minutes later, eating spicy pickles, still-warm poppy-seed strudel, and every imaginable type of sausage at the massive Great Market Hall. Or in Vienna, you can jump on the subway and visit Zuckerl Werkstett, where a couple of Austrian hipsters are reviving age-old candy-making techniques. Afterward, you should make some friends and have tafelspitz (braised beef served in traditional copper pots) and backfleisch (like Wiener schnitzel, but with steak) at the old-school restaurant Plachutta. And then you can take a short cab ride home—because by this point, that’s what the Viking Njord is.
The Open River
For most of my fellow passengers, however, the real draw was the Danube itself. The highlights were sailing through Budapest at night and by the scenic Wachau Valley, during which the program director described the castles we passed. This commentary was also piped into guest rooms for those treating the trip like a floating waterbed. I did this before heading to the lounge, where glasses of a local Grüner Veltliner were served.
Only when I took a sip did it dawn on me that it was 9 a.m. And you know the best part? Not a soul on the Viking Njord was going to judge me.
Julia’s Danube Hit List: Local Delicacies Not to Miss
I wish I could tell you where this airy, cinnamon-y piece of heaven was from, but considering I bought a chimney cake from ever vendor I encountered in Hungary, that would be a lie.
In Budapest’s Great Market Hall, my guide Tamas led me to these intriguing meat cones, filled with mini sausages. Sounds weird; tastes weirdly delicious.
As you can tell, I spent a lot of time walking around the Great Market Hall in Budapest eating things. The highlight was eating my weight in poppy seeds. “It’s still warm!” I said to my guide, Tamas. To which he replied: “Of course it is.”
The amazing owners of Vienna’s Zuckerl Wertstatt demo’d the unbelievably laborious technique behind their exceptional candies. And of course I took about 10 jars home with me….
I made these! (Well, I helped.) They’re grapefruit candies that actually taste like grapefruit.
Kicking it old-school for lunch in Vienna at Plachutta, with the signature tafelspitz—braised beef.
Not exactly a food, per se, but I had a great visit to the winery that produces Viking’s house red and white wines, of which I consumed my fair share over the course of the voyage.
Five More Reasons to Cruise for Food in 2016
Be a Winemaker
Holland America teams up with Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle for a wine-blending program on the new ship Koningsdam.
Hang with Pépin
Jacques Pépin, legendary chef and executive culinary director of Oceania Cruises, rolls out two restaurants on the Sirena: Tuscan Steak and Jacques Bistro. Chicken fricassee, anyone?
White-tablecloth luxury never goes out of style on Regent Seven Seas Cruises, whose Seven Seas Explorer showcases the grand Chartreuse restaurant.
Follow that Chef
Windstar Cruises, along with the James Beard Foundation, is launching food-themed cruises with top chefs to Spain, France, and Morocco.
Experience A Legend
Thomas Keller debuts a new restaurant on Seabourn’s Quest this spring. It will later expand to the entire fleet. —Josie Adams