Off-season cruise offers few crowds, lower fares and festive Christmas markets
The Arizona Republic — January 18, 2015
WACHAU VALLEY, Austria – With instructions as simple as those uttered by the mayor of Munchkin City, an assistant at the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, told me how to bike to Durnstein, 20 miles down the Danube River.
“Follow the green signs with the number 6,” Franz said. “You won’t get lost.”
I was three days into a weeklong Danube River cruise in December on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Sky that sailed about 400 miles from Nuremberg, Germany, southeast to Budapest, Hungary.
After spending the morning exploring Melk’s abbey, I decided to take one of the Sky’s bikes and catch up to the boat later in the afternoon in Durnstein, a town best known for a 12th century castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned after returning from the Crusades.
I would be biking in Austria’s famed Wachau Valley, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its architectural and agricultural history. The area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
Within a half-mile of leaving the ship, there was a fork in the path and no green sign – or scarecrow — to point me in the right direction. I took a path toward the river. It was the wrong choice and I wound up at a dead end. After a half-hour to get back to the path, my traveling partner had to turn back to the ship because of a broken bicycle seat. I was on my own and the proverbial Oz was starting to seem unreachable.
Soon, I was at a bridge crossing the Danube that was so steep, I could barely walk the bike across. My knee started aching. The temperature was in the upper 30s and despite five layers of clothing, I was shivering. My nose started running. The path was hillier than I imagined and I worried that I wouldn’t make it to the ship before dark.
I’m not an avid cyclist. Had I bitten off more schnitzel than I could chew?
But once I crossed the bridge to the north side of the river, I realized the journey was well worth some minor discomfort. The terrain was mostly downhill and I pedaled my way through idyllic towns called Wosendorf, Spitz and Willendorf. I glided past rolling hills dotted with steep vineyards dormant for the winter, and ancient castles and monasteries. Under the afternoon sunshine, I saw why the Austrian composer Johann Strauss dubbed the river the “Blue Danube.”
Franz was right. As long as I stayed on the path with the green sign showing the number 6, I was fine. I made it to Durnstein just a few minutes after the ship docked, in time to remove my helmet and join my fellow passengers on a guided walking tour of the town before dark. It had been the most scenic and invigorating bike trip I could have imagined.
The bike trip through the Wachau Valley is the type of experience that makes European river trips one of the fastest-growing segments of the cruise industry. Seasoned cruisers are looking for more authentic and immersive experiences than they can find on huge oceanliners. A river cruise carries far fewer passengers and can dock in small towns, often within walking distance of the main sites.
“On the big ships, you can sail for a week and just see water,” said Daniela Mocanu, the Emerald Sky’s Romanian-born cruise director. “Here, you really get to see the towns along the river. That’s what our passengers love.”
And there’s plenty of elbow room to explore, particularly if you go during the off-season. The 182-passenger Emerald Sky was just over half-full during our December sailing. Eighty percent of the passengers were British; there were only about 10 Americans onboard.
During the busy summer season, the Danube can become clogged with up to 270 cruise ships on the water at the same time. At times, it gets so crowded in popular ports that ships have to triple park, forcing passengers to walk across two other ships just to get ashore. During our week on the river, Mocanu said, there were only about 30 other cruise ships on our route. Finding a parking place was never an issue.
Yes, the weather was chilly; highs most days were in the 30s and 40s. But it never snowed or rained, and after a couple of gray days in Germany, we had sunshine for most of the week. Bundled up in layers, hats, gloves and scarves, it was not uncomfortable exploring the ports on walking tours.
An added bonus of going in December is getting to see the numerous Christmas markets in central Europe. These markets feature festively decorated stalls selling everything from local handicrafts to roasted chestnuts, schnitzel, pastries and hot wine, known as glühwein. There are 12 Christmas markets in Vienna alone.
We visited Christmas markets in every country along the route – Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. And 10 of us took an optional day trip via bus from Passau, Germany, to the stunningly beautiful medieval town of Cesky Krumlov – another UNESCO World Heritage Site — in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.
In Slovakia, we were bussed to a town 45 minutes outside the capital city of Bratislava to visit the homes of villagers, who prepared homemade wine and sweets for us. It was fascinating to hear the locals recount how their lives have changed since the fall of communism a quarter-century ago.
Prices for river cruises in the offseason are up to 50 percent less than the summer high season. Cabins on our one-week sailing could be had for about $2,100 per person. River cruises tend to be more inclusive than ocean cruises. Our fare included daily sightseeing tours, airport transfers, local beers and wine with lunch and dinner, and all gratuities. Service by the ship’s mostly eastern-European staff was outstanding.
Headquartered in Australia, Emerald Waterways is a newcomer to the European river cruise market. The Sky, which made its inaugural voyage in April, was one of just two ships sailing in 2014 under the Emerald brand; two more Emerald ships will debut this spring. Mocanu said most of the company’s 2015 summer sailings already are sold out.
Although nightly entertainment on river cruises lacks the glitz and variety offered on ocean liners, the Sky’s proximity to towns enabled it to bring onboard acts showcasing local culture. A German oompah band performed and there was a Hungarian folklore show on our final night. The Sky’s passengers were dazzled by acrobatic dancers backed by a musical quintet while we were docked across the Danube from a beautifully illuminated Hungarian Parliament building. (To see a video clip shot by the author of the Hungarian dancing, click on this link: Hungarian folk dancing on the Emerald Sky.)
The next morning we were driven to the Budapest airport for the trip home. My knee was still sore from the bike ride. My mood ached as well, as I realized the week had passed way too quickly.
© 2015 Dan Fellner