While working on the second edition of the Ultimate River Cruising Handbook, I came across two stories that heightened my desire to return the rivers. I thought readers of River Cruise Advisor might also enjoy reading these stories. One took place on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. The other, in Bordeaux. Both river cruises were on high-end, all-inclusive ships operated by Uniworld and Scenic.
Cruising Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa, Würzburg To Budapest
In May of 2015, I cruised Uniworld’s 150-passenger S.S. Maria Theresa from Würzburg to Budapest. It was a brand-new ship at the time, so in order to check it out I jumped aboard for a half-voyage on the Danube. (Uniworld’s 15-day Amsterdam to Budapest sailing, “European Jewels,” was sailing along the Rhine and Main rivers in addition to the Danube.)
I chose to highlight this sailing as an opportunity to let you peek inside a vessel plying the Danube that possesses a decidedly unique river cruise personality. This cruise line offers an upscale experience (think Seabourn on the rivers), with sumptuous surrounds and the impeccable service of crew members. Butlers strut down the hallways in tux and tails, high tea is served in the lounge in the afternoon, and dinner is delivered with ceremonial flair. The stately and palace-like baroque interiors hark back to the days of the Austrian empress for whom the 443-foot vessel is named. However, there are also many flashes of modernity, such as the in-room amenities, on-board movie theater, and the popular Leopard Bar. Even more memorable about this particular sailing for me is that I nearly missed it.
I had a great flight on Lufthansa. The disappointment came when I arrived at the train station at the Frankfurt Airport. At 17:20 I made my way down to track 5, but something was odd. The platform was empty and the train directional boards were dimmed. I thought I had arrived at the wrong platform, despite it being printed on my electronic ticket. No, something else was up: Rail strike.
What to do? The ship would be leaving Würzburg at 23:00. The original train schedule would have gotten me there in plenty of time, but I had to scramble to find a new way to Würzburg. Bus? Ugh. Taxi? God forbid; it would cost a few hundred Euro. Wait until the next morning and catch the ship? But where would it be? Fortunately, I discovered that the 19:37 train was running, albeit late. If I could get on that one, I could make the ship, possibly.
That 19:37 train was running late, but at least it was running and late only by about 15 minutes. When it arrived, I boarded, relieved, and found a seat. I wasn’t sure that it would get me to Würzburg in time, but I was prepared to be flexible, stay in a hotel if necessary and find my way to the ship the next day.
Fortunately, along the way, there were no delays. I made it to Würzburg shortly before 22:00. Outside the station, I asked two rail policemen if they spoke English. “Yes,” one of them said. “Can you help me get to the Lion Bridge?” That’s where the ship was docked. They said the best way would be a taxi. As I was leaving one said to me with a smile, “Welcome to Würzburg!” Indeed it was good to have arrived.
The taxi driver spoke almost no English, but I made myself understood in German. (Thankfully, I studied it in college.) He put my bags in the trunk and we were off. Even at the late hour, the drive was gorgeous, along the Main River, with castles high on the hills on the other side. It took less than 15 minutes from the station to the gangway of the ship. Within minutes I was on board, checked into my room, and savoring a glass of champagne.
I awoke to a glorious morning in Bamberg, Germany. City tours were offered as well as an afternoon tour to a farm, both included in the cost of the cruise.
I opted for neither, needing instead to stretch my legs and breathe in the fresh air of the Bavarian countryside. There was a remedy for what I longed for: Uniworld’s fleet of fine bicycles. With 20-inch wheels and fat tires that can roll over cobblestone streets, Uniworld’s bikes were a delight to ride. Eight speeds made it easy to climb steep hills or rip along flat river bank paths. The seats and handlebars could be adjusted so that even someone 6’5” (such as myself) can fit comfortably.
My launchpad for the day’s ride was not emblematic of Europe—or of Bamberg. The S.S. Maria Theresa was required to dock in an industrial port, but just a few minutes away were treasures so beautiful that they caused my soul to soar. Bamberg, with its historic architecture and gorgeous countryside along the Main-Danube Canal, appeared before me with cinematic flair. It didn’t hurt that cotton-ball clouds were pitched against a royal blue sky. I pedaled past leafy green trees, colorful houses and the ever-present songbirds of spring. I continued out into the countryside past daffodil-hued fields of canola on roads only for pedestrians and bikes. All who I passed were in a cheerful mood. It was a Sunday morning perfect for breathing in life. Something that doesn’t happen back home: I pedaled past a nun on a bike, her black veil blowing in the wind. I contiued into the city center to see Bamberg’s marvelous sights, including the Bamberg Cathedral. While exploring the grounds at Michaelsberg Abbey, overlooking Bamberg, I had a thought that reflected my mood: Travel, and the simple act of setting myself in motion, has time and again provided me with experiences that induce euphoria. Nothing would have made me happier—more money, a leaner waistline, more love, a kiss on the cheek from Julie Andrews (well, perhaps). I was experiencing life not in the past nor in the present, but in that very moment, a moment given to me by a bike in Bamberg, Germany. This would end up being one of my all-time favorite memories on the Upper Danube thanks to my oasis on the rivers, the S.S. Maria Theresa.
My own personal oasis was stateroom 425, a category 1 stateroom measuring 194 square feet. (Suites span up to 410 square feet.) Situated on deck four, port-side aft, I was a few steps away from the Leopard Bar, which was a convenience that I appreciated whenever I was parched for a complimentary glass of champagne or a cocktail—or an afternoon tea. No noise from the corridor or slamming of doors could be heard in my abode while I drifted off in my king-sized Savoir of England bed, sandwiched between high-thread-count Egyptian linens. All staterooms feature sumptuous fabric-wall coverings combined with rich-handmade carpets, antique furnishings, original art and, behind a mirror, a flat-screen TV with infotainment center. As a River Heritage Club Member, meaning that I had cruised before with Uniworld, I also received a few extra perks in my stateroom, including a complimentary fruit platter upon boarding and free laundry, one bag per week. Should one require more than that, paid laundry service is available as well as a complimentary self-service launderette on deck 2.
My marble bathroom had a large shower and single sink with L’Occitane en Provence products, lighted magnifying mirror, hair dryer, thick towels and soft robes. Stateroom lighting and electrical features were state-of-the-art, with such features as USB charging outlets built into the receptacles, both European and North American style. My cabin featured a series four small closets, with plenty of drawers and shelves. Even cabins on deck two, in the lowest category, feature small two small closets; one being a wardrobe with a shelf at the top the other with hangers and shelves, as well as a safe.
I mention closet space, because it’s something that people ask about frequently, but my favorite feature aboard the S.S. Maria Theresa had nothing to do with confined spaces. It was the balconies. Either a French or full balcony can be found in nearly all of the rooms. Elegant sliding glass doors separate the open-air balcony from the bedroom. With the glass doors closed, you have a cozy bedroom. With the glass doors open, the room becomes a large living space with a separate sitting area. Sheer curtains and/or heavy drapes can be drawn across the doors, either closed, or open. Step across the “threshold” onto the balcony where two white antique chairs with blue upholstery awaiting you. A floor-to-ceiling window, divided horizontally, forms the exterior wall. With the push of a button, the upper section lowers so that it is flush with the lower section of glass: Voila! an open-air balcony. Most nights, I left the window open so that the sounds of the river lulled me into slumber. Mosquitoes? With the push of another button, netting lowers so that you can enjoy the breeze without the bugs. The great outdoors is a feature most will enjoy aboard this ship, since most staterooms have either French or full balconies.
There are two main dining venues on the S.S. Maria Theresa. Guests can enjoy snacks in the more casual Viennese Café and dine in a more formal atmosphere in the Baroque Restaurant—both are open seating. But, I really loved frequenting my “neighborhood” haunt a few doors down, The Leopard Bar. Throughout the day here guests may also order from a Bistro Menu, with items ranging from a “Uniworld Club Sandwich” to local specialties such as “Homemade Hungarian Style Goulash Soup” and “Regional Smoked Sausages.” On the sweet side, the menu offers choices of “White Chocolate Brownies” and a variety of ice cream desserts. There are also fruit and cheese selections, teas and coffees and more. A “Lite Lunch” is also served in the Leopard Bar and typically includes fresh salads and soups, pasta of the day and assorted sweets. The aft-situated bar transforms into a private-dining restaurant where white-gloved, tuxedoed waiters serve up to 20 guests on select evenings. Dinner in the Leopard Bar is complimentary, though reservations-only. Welcomed with a Kir Royale, I opted for the five-course “Saveur Menu, which included beef that was among the most succulent that I’ve ever tasted.
The Leopard Bar was absolutely gorgeous, with flowers and greenery, comfortable leather seating, books and games, a bar and open-air deck with four tables and chairs. It also featured one of the most unusual features I’ve ever seen on a river cruiser—an indoor pool. It’s not the only indoor pool I’ve seen on a river vessel—Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine has the same feature in its Leopard Bar, and Crystal’s river cruisers feature indoor pools, but Maria Theresa’s pool is unique in that the glass surround turns opaque upon entry (for privacy) and also the pool isn’t necessarily what you’d expect to find in a bar.
Perhaps even more unexpected: the name of the bar. It is odd isn’t it, particularly given the fact that there are no leopards on the Danube, where we’re sailing now, or on the other rivers in Europe? However, there are leopards in South Africa, home of the Tollman family, the founders of Uniworld. The Leopard Bar is a bit of a tribute to the Tollman’s homeland. And perhaps their way of saying, “Make yourself at home.”
Scenic Diamond’s Beautiful Bordeaux
During my 11-day “Beautiful Bordeaux Culinary River Cruise” aboard Scenic Diamond, I got schooled in the culinary arts. A lesson happily learned, of course. On paper, Scenic Culinaire is an onboard cooking school. In practice, it’s a lot of fun.
This Bordeaux cruise might visit similar ports to other cruise lines sailing the Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde Estuary: Libourne, with excursions to nearby Saint-Émilion; Pauillac, for outings in the Medoc region; Blaye, flaunting its impressive fortress; Bourg with its Gallo-Roman intrigue; Cadillac, the gateway to the Sauternes wine region and the historic Roquetaillade Castle; and, of course, Bordeaux, the beautiful city that serves as the hub for exploring the region’s iconic wine chateaux. However, it’s the gourmand-worthy gallivanting that truly distinguishes this journey. I’ll simply give you a little taste.
In Bordeaux I was accompanied by Scenic Diamond’s French Chef, Jerome, to the city’s most popular food market, Marché des Capucins. I’ve been to markets before but it was fun to go with Chef Jerome to learn more about the local produce, cheeses (oh, the French cheeses), seafood and meat—and to sample and learn what we were going to do with those items back on the ship. After about 45 minutes of shopping, we had a bagful of goodies to take back to Scenic Diamond, where we would prepare special dishes in the dedicated Scenic Culinaire workspace. We learned to make a Fried Camembert with a Compote of Red Onions and Mesclun. It was fresh, light, delicious and something I’d consider serving at home, but the real fun was going to the market and shopping with the chef, then coming back to create beautiful dishes on Scenic Diamond. Scenic Culinaire is free of charge but class sizes are limited.
Scenic is a foodie’s paradise. Touting five dining venues may be a little dubious in an industry where something just short of a food cart often constitutes a “venue.” However, Scenic Diamond actually has five full-fledged dining venues. If we’re splitting hairs, one of them, Table La Rive, is located within the main dining room. Still, Table La Rive, which can comfortably accommodate 10 people, is a multi-course, wine-pairing degustation dinner that is exceptionally well done. Table La Rive is by invitation only for guests on the Diamond Deck.
One deck up, in front of the lounge is L’Amour Restaurant, which serves French-inspired cuisine. L’Amour is open to all guests once per cruise. There’s also the River Cafe, which serves light snacks during the day. Then there’s the Panorama Bar and Lounge, in the heart of the ship where guests mingle over a cocktail, coffee or tea and peruse the ship’s library. Lastly, room service offers a good selection of dishes. Some of the dishes I had on Scenic Diamond were among the best I have ever had on the rivers—the tortellini in L’Amour comes to mind—while the wines were regional and of some acclaim.
Scenic bills its Scenic Enrich activity as “an exclusive and unique experience that takes guests behind the scenes to enjoy moments inaccessible to ordinary travelers.” For us, that was an evening in the Medoc countryside at Chateau Giscours, where we dined at an 18th-century farm and enjoyed classical music played by two lovely French musicians. An evening to remember, for sure. Other examples of ways that Scenic savors time ashore during the Bordeaux sailing includes a Grand Cru wine tasting at the exclusive estate of Château Franc Mayne, and sampling foie gras at a local farm in Bergerac. Sip your way through the Sauternes region, enjoy a fabulous Mademoiselle de Margaux chocolate and wine pairing event, and swirl Cognac at the acclaimed property of Rémy Martin.
Scenic is for those who welcome refined elegance with a personal touch. I found Scenic Diamond’s staff to be professional and personable. While they were always intent on providing the best experience possible, they were easy to laugh with. In fact, I felt like a guest in someone’s home, or chateau perhaps given the region where we were cruising. A home complete with your own butler, which may not be a big deal to some, but others will find the butler’s services useful. What sort of things does the butler do? Deliver early morning tea or coffee to your stateroom, shoeshine service, make appointments (hairdresser, spa, dinner reservations) and more.
Scenic boasts one of the most recently updated ships in Bordeaux following a huge refurbishment in spring of 2017. Scenic started by removing cabins to reduce the passenger count from 167 to its current capacity of 149. Following the refit, the ship now boasts the largest suites on the rivers of Bordeaux, the two super-sized Royal Owner’s Suites. I had the opportunity to peek at one of them and my favorite feature was the balcony. Occupying a large space between the living room and bedroom, the balcony was glass-enclosed, featuring Scenic’s innovative Sun Lounge system. Behind the balcony was a connecting hallway flanked by a bathroom that featured a shower and a huge soaking tub. Measuring 510 square feet, Scenic Diamond’s Royal Owner’s Suites are for those who desire space to stretch out—and then some.
In addition, the renovation also augmented the ship’s amenities with an enlarged gym with four cardio machines and a mini-trampoline. For those who prefer exercising off the ship, Scenic has a fleet of ebikes, which offer a little assistance when pedaling during guided and independent touring. Then you can return the ship and give your muscles a little TLC in the new Whirlpool on the Sundeck or in the two-bed massage treatment room along with a Salt therapy room. Built in 2009, Scenic Diamond isn’t an old ship by any means, but the updates functioned to keep it fresh and relevant to guests. Oh, and lest we not forget, the new Scenic Culinaire cooking school, which brings me back to my original sentiment that this cruise is a wonderful representation of how you can indulge both the palate and your passions during a river cruise.