River Princess on the Danube

We had a wonderful new experience in cruising — quite different from the ocean cruises we have taken but every bit as enjoyable — with Uniworld River Cruises (17323 Ventura Blvd., Encino, CA 91316; 800/733-7820).

Our one-week trip down the Danube River from Passau, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary, aboard the River Princess, April 22-29, 2007, cost $4,572 for both my husband and me, including an upgrade to category 3 and airport transfers but not airfare, as we used frequent-flyer miles. It was a treat in every way.

Uniworld’s River Princess docked in Budapest. Photo: Halunen

Weather is always a wild card in travel, but we had unusual summer-like temperatures and clear skies except for one day. The area had an early spring and the local people were quite amazed but a little concerned about the lack of rain. Lilacs were in full bloom all along the way, and as we toured the towns the lovely scent added another dimension to the experience.

Although the cabins on the ship all are outside and the same size, rather smallish at 151 square feet, they have large picture windows so one can enjoy the beautiful scenery passing by. Green hills, quaint villages (always punctuated with a church steeple or two), some forested areas and an occasional castle or ancient ruin atop a hill were captivating.

The ship floated down the river so smoothly and quietly, we hardly felt any sense of motion. Certainly no worries about seasickness! There was a relaxed, friendly, intimate feeling on board. This was partly due to there being only 80 passengers on this trip although the ship has a capacity of 136.

While lounging on the deck in late afternoon one day I called out to a friend, “What time is dinner?” ”I don’t know,” she replied. Two other people answered, “Seven o’clock!”

There was open seating for meals, so one could sit with new friends or find a quiet corner to dine alone. Good food, served buffet style for breakfast and lunch, and excellent service for all meals as well as throughout the ship were the norm.

The dress code was casual. For the Captain’s Dinner some, but not all, of the men wore suit jackets, and women wore dressy blouses and slacks or skirts but nothing extreme.

Entertainment after dinner consisted of a good piano player in the lounge and a small dance fl oor. On several evenings local musicians were brought on board, including a Dixieland-style band and a wonderful violinist, but there were no lavish Broadway productions as on ocean cruises.

A river cruise would be a great vacation for a working couple, as one could visit a number of places in just one week’s time. As relaxed as it was, it still offered a very busy schedule with a different port of call every day. It would not be a good fi t for a family, however. There are no facilities or activities for children or teens as there are on ocean cruises. Also, the railings on the deck are more open and not as childproof as on ships. We have taken our grandchildren on many wonderful cruises in the past but would not attempt it on a river trip.

It was fascinating to go through 11 sets of locks during this one-week trip that traversed four countries. The Danube is beautiful, but it’s not blue and never has been. It is more of a greenish tone, due to the color leaching out of the base rock, but still quite clear.

Although we chose this itinerary to visit Vienna and Budapest, which were impressive, it was the small villages of Dürnstein and Passau that charmed me. It was as though time had stopped a hundred years ago.

A guided tour was included at each port of call, therefore we chose only two optional side trips of the many offered: an all-day tour to Salzburg (the only day it rained!) and an evening concert in Vienna.

For the tours, we were split into two or three groups, with not more than 25 or so per group, each having a knowledgeable local guide who spoke good English and used a microphone tuned to transmit only to a particular group. Audio receivers were given to everyone so they could always hear the information, as far as a block away, through a small device that hooked over one ear. Even someone wearing a hearing aid could use it, as it was worn outside the ear.

In small towns the tours were mainly walking and lasted an hour or so, but the pace was easy with many stops. Often the guide made suggestions as to other points of interest one might want to explore later. Bus tours in Vienna and Budapest were much longer, with Budapest’s being about four hours and very thorough. These also included a walking portion and some free time to use at our leisure.

The fact that the ship was always docked near the center of town meant that all the time in port was usable, and the lengths of stay in port were considerably longer than most port stops on ocean cruises, even overnight occasionally. There was never any tendering in from an anchorage out in the bay as happens in some ocean ports.

It was a full and satisfying trip, and we look forward to cruising with Uniworld down another river in the future.

Livermore, CA