A Tauck Blue Danube river cruise treats guests to fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses of grand libraries and fairy tale palaces.
Long-standing tour operator Tauck has a slogan they like to use in their marketing materials: “Never Settle for Ordinary.” It’s a curiously effective tag-line, particularly if you’re sailing with the company on one of their river cruises.
On the first day of October, I found that phrase running through my head as I sat in Vienna’s grand Palais Pallavicini, together with the other 108 guests that were travelling as part of Tauck’s 12-day Blue Danube river cruisetour itinerary. I couldn’t be certain about everyone in the room, but to me, white-gloved waiters serving up course after course of sumptuous food in a palace constructed in 1784 while being serenaded by classically-trained Viennese performers was decidedly original.
A combination cruise and land tour, my Blue Danube journey with Tauck began with a two-night stay in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Bathed in the lights reflecting off the striking Chain Bridge that spans the Danube and joins Buda with Pest, we were welcomed with a dinner at the grand Akademia Club in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and arguably a prelude of the next eleven days to come.
At 361 feet in length, Tauck’s Swiss Jewel carries just 118 guests in 59 staterooms, most of which have floor-to-ceiling French balconies. Every stateroom features plenty of luxe touches, like Molton Brown toiletries, 400-thread count linens and goose down pillows (or a hypoallergenic alternative). There’s even some clever soft accent lighting built into the headboard of the bed.
Throughout the ship, which was built in 2009 and is operated in conjunction with Tauck’s long-standing partner Scylla A.G. of Basel, there is a wonderful feeling of informal elegance. Rich woods, marbles and vibrant soft furnishings are used to great effect. Public rooms have a classic Victorian-era ambiance about them, but with all the modern amenities cruisers have come to expect.
The Swiss Jewel would whisk us Westbound along the Danube, with stops in Bratislava, Vienna, Durnstein, Linz and Passau before our arrival and disembarkation in Regensburg, where we would set off for a two-night land stay in Prague.
As I discovered, one of the hallmarks of sailing with Tauck is what the line calls “Uncommon Access.” While this includes providing some special perks that are unique to the line, like a private tour of the Strahov Monastery library in Prague, it is also about providing guests with additional choices, both onboard and ashore.
One such choice occurred when we docked in Linz, Austria. I could have opted to amble around on my own in this historic city, or take one of Tauck’s included tours to nearby Salzburg, or north, to the small, fairytale-like Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, both of which were included in the overall price of the cruise.
I jumped at the chance to see the latter, which served as the backdrop for the 2006 film, The Illusionist and perhaps regrettably stood in for a twisted version of Bratislava in the horror film, Hostel.
Because Cesky Krumlov was largely ignored by both Nazi German and invading Russian forces, the town still retains many of its original buildings and much of its charm. The Vltava River cuts through the village in a horseshoe shape, under the shadow of the imposing Cesky Krumlov Castle dating back to 1240.
Our guide for the day was Bryce, a Floridian native who had been living in Cesky Krumlov since the early 1990’s, when he arrived to teach English to students. Like every guide we encountered, he also had a long-standing relationship with Tauck and Tauck Director Andy, who accompanied the 15 of us on this full-day excursion. Together, they guided us through the rooms and halls of the Castle and on down into the village below. They pointed out sites of interest, noted shops to avoid, and even instructed us on how to properly convert Czech Koruna to US Dollars (drop the last zero and divide by two).
Tauck’s Directors (there are three on all land tours, plus one dedicated Cruise Director who stays with the ship) are also there to help you make the most of your time ashore. I had been to Vienna a few months prior to my visit, and I was looking to do something a little different. Swiss Jewel’s Cruise Director, Steve, suggested I take one of the ship’s complimentary bicycles for a spin. I did just that, opting to spend an afternoon pedalling around the neighbouring metropolis of Donaustadt and avoiding the traffic of Vienna’s Ringstrasse.
Onboard the Swiss Jewel, the emphasis is on relaxation and enrichment. Local entertainment was routinely brought onboard during evenings spent in port, while local historian Martin Sloboda came aboard for a fascinating talk on what it was like to grow up in Bratislava, Slovakia both before and after the fall of Communism.
While the ship has the usual restaurant (where they served up one of the best Bavarian lunches I’ve ever had), my favorite onboard dining experience was taken in the Lido Restaurant located all the way aft on Deck 3. At night, this glass-walled room turns into a multi-course Italian eatery offered free of charge. If the weather holds - as it did on my sailing - the aft windows retract completely, allowing the fresh air from the Danube to come wafting in. Here, like in the main restaurant, beer, wine and soft drinks are provided complimentary.
In 2014, the line became even more inclusive by introducing unlimited complimentary beverages like regional wines and premium spirits while aboard ship. They’ve also introduced two brand-new ships, MS Savor and MS Inspire. At 443 feet in length, they’re measurably larger than the Swiss Jewel and her sisters, yet they will only carry an additional 12 guests. And of course, The Tauck Directors, both onboard and ashore will continue their tasks of ensuring that the atmosphere is as warm and inviting as it is culturally interesting.
By the time we said goodbye to the Swiss Jewel in Regensburg and had set out for Prague, I became aware that my vacation had stopped the second I got off the plane in Budapest. Instead, it had turned into an experience in its own right.
One that was anything but ordinary.
If You Go:
Connecting flights are available from Canada to both Budapest and Prague aboard Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, KLM Royal Dutch, and Lufthansa.
Full Tauck river cruise itinerary details can be found at http://www.tauck.com/river-cruises/
Written by Aaron Saunders
First published in Cruise and Travel Lifestyles Fall 2013