We spent the last 12 days sailing the magnificent Danube from Budapest to Prague abaord Tauck’s Swiss Jewel. Here’s the recap from our day-by-day voyage, along with the appropriate links.
It seems like a lifetime since I flew to Budapest via Frankfurt 13 days ago to board Tauck’s Swiss Jewel – and that’s a good thing. In 12 days, I saw, did and experienced more than I would have thought possible as I sailed from Budapest through Slovakia, Austria, and Germany before arriving in the Czech capital of Prague.
In fact, for the first time ever, I had to re-read my notes before writing this recap to go over everything that we did!
There really is nothing like a river cruise, and based on my experience over the past 12 days, Tauck takes it to an entirely new level. They do this by offering voyages that are coupled with pre-and-post cruise stays, and conducted by friendly, knowledgeable Tauck Directors who are there to guide you through the experience every step of the way.
But I also discovered that it’s about the little things with Tauck. You’ll never have to reach into your pocket to pay for public washrooms when you tour with Tauck – they have it covered. Pay toilets are a common occurrence throughout Europe, and while they aren’t expensive, it is nice to not have to fish through your change to sort out the proper amount.
Other little niceties included breakfast with each hotel stay, and even discounted offers for the very few meals that weren’t included during these pre-and-post stays. In Budapest, I took advantage of the offer of a free half-liter of red or white wine for Tauck guests who elected to dine in the restaurant at the Budapest Marriott. While I paid for my meal, the inclusion of wine saved me roughly $15. And every little penny – or Forint, as the case may have been – helped.
Along the way, there were opportunities to experience things that typically carry an extra charge on most river cruise lines. Keep in mind that river cruising is remarkably inclusive compared to deep-ocean cruising, but Tauck took things to another level by offering up additional options at no extra charge.
When we docked in Linz, Austria, guests were given the choice between touring beautiful Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, or visiting the home of the Sound of Music, Salzburg – both at no extra cost, bit with a 90-minute to 120-minute motorcoach ride each way.
What struck me was just how effortlessly this entire trip was orchestrated. Once I wheeled my luggage out of Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport on September 27, I didn’t need to wheel, lift, push or pull it anywhere else. It was delivered to my room at the Budapest Marriott; taken from the hotel two days later to the Swiss Jewel; and taken from the ship in Regensburg and trucked four hours north to Prague, where it was waiting in my room at the Prague Marriott.
Onboard the beautiful Swiss Jewel, things were just as simple and relaxed. While Tauck doesn’t own the ship outright, the company has entered into a long-term partnership with the Scylla shipping company. Each ship – including Swiss Jewel’s three nearly-identical sister ships – has been designed and arranged in conjunction with Tauck.
Elegance is the word of the day aboard Swiss Jewel, which boasts attractive wood panelling throughout, coupled with old-world European touches like decorative lighting wall sconces, black-and-gold patterned carpeting and draperies; and wrought-iron railings.
But there’s plenty of decidedly new-world touches onboard Swiss Jewel, including large flat-panel televisions, free Wi-Fi internet access, and even eight flat-panel televisions in the Lounge that pop out of panels cleverly hidden in the sides of the walls. These can be used for presentations when appropriate, then hidden out of sight for the remainder of the time. The perfect blend of form and function.
I should point out that, like every single river cruise ship afloat (and even deep-ocean cruise ship), internet can be spotty at times. For the average guest, this should pose no issues at all. Besides, the whole purpose of sailing along the Danube – particularly in the scenic Wachau Valley – is to relax and enjoy the show. So turn the iPhone off and leave the BlackBerry at home; half the pleasure of the river cruise is enjoying the Swiss Jewel and her friendly crew.
Everything onboard the ship seems to be painstakingly well thought-out, including the Molton Brown toiletries, the 400-thread-count bedding and the wonderfully relaxing beds. Vibration onboard is minimal – even in my location as the last stateroom on Deck 2, I barely felt or heard anything above a dull mechanical hum. That is particularly impressive, because the engines are just a few feet away.
I have had many readers ask me to compare my time aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra with my time with Tauck, and I’ll be honest: I find it very difficult to do, simply because they’re two different products.
AmaWaterways offers what I feel is a spectacular river cruising experience, but Tauck really takes things up a notch, in terms of its offerings ashore and onboard. I have never, ever, had any cruise company say, “Here’s €20 for lunch,” while on tour before, but on Tauck, it happened during my tour to Cesky Krumlov. Tauck’s rationale was that since meals were included on the ship – and we wouldn’t be there – we should be treated to lunch.
But it was our special dinners in Budapest, Vienna and Prague that took my breath away and really illustrated the depth of the Tauck product. I have been fortunate to have had some great dinners in some amazing cities around the world, but these three occasions brought a tear to my eye.
In Budapest, we dined in opulence at the private Akademia Club, within sight of the magnificent Chain Bridge. In Vienna, I ate with silverware that is probably worth more than I am while two operatic singers and a team of six classical music performers serenaded us at a Viennese palace.
These are the kinds of experiences that you can’t replicate easily. In many cases, you can’t just waltz in as a private citizen and plop yourself down, much less have the experience we did in Prague, where William Lobkowicz himself invited us on a private tour of the family palace that bears the same name. By the way, he says: Don’t forget to stop by and look at the original, annotated score book signed by Beethoven himself for his Symphony No. 4, which was premiered at Lobkowicz palace in 1807. I did, and to see that manuscript there, scribbled with Beethoven’s signature and with visible corrections by the composer himself was astonishing. No amount of history, television or literature can prepare you for the sight of the real thing in the flesh.
Our evening, like the rest of this Blue Danube voyage with Tauck, was truly about making the past come alive. It’s the kind of experience where you pinch yourself every day.
I’m a huge supporter of river cruising. If you haven’t taken one, plan to; it is the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry. If you’re looking for one that is truly unique, special, and life-changing, have a look at Tauck. The company has been in business since the 1920’s, and this past week showed me its long-standing reputation for quality is very well earned, indeed.