Embarking Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star in Budapest
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
After flying overnight from North America, this afternoon I boarded Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star at her berth in Budapest for a weeklong voyage along the Danube. She is docked opposite the spectacular Hungarian Parliament building on the Buda side of the Danube.
My journey to Budapest even started off on the right foot: when connecting through Frankfurt on Lufthansa, I zapped my boarding pass at the gate and, to my surprise, the machine spit out a little ticket stub. Coach must have been overbooked, because I’d been given a new seat assignment in Business Class – which, on Lufthansa, is pretty spectacular, even flying within Europe.
Once the Boeing 737 touched down in Budapest and I’d collected my luggage, I met the Emerald Waterways representative in the Arrivals area of Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport, which is still popularly known as Ferihegy Airport, its name prior to 2011. Every Emerald Waterways river cruise includes complimentary transfers to and from the airport; a nice touch that really takes the stress out of arranging transportation into town – particularly here in Budapest, where dock spaces are numerous and taxi drivers aren’t always aware of the exact location of a particular ship.
I remember coming here for the first time nearly three years ago. For whatever reason, I thought this would be the city I enjoyed least – and I quickly discovered it was one of the cities along the Danube that I enjoyed most.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest originally started out as two neighbouring cities separated by the Danube River, which serpentines across the landscape. In fact, it wasn’t until November 17, 1873, that the two sides – Buda and Pest – were united as one city: Budapest. To this day however, locals will still refer to themselves as being from one side of the city or the other, and a friendly competitive rivalry exists between those on opposing sides of the Danube.
For the next week, my home aboard Emerald Star is a Panorama Balcony Suite located on Deck 3. At 180 square feet, calling it a suite is a bit of a misnomer, but the first thing you notice when you walk in is the spectacular floor-to-ceiling window that stretches for nearly the entire width of the stateroom. It is flanked by two chairs and a small table, and features faux teak decking instead of carpeting.
Of course, the first thing I did was to head straight over to the window and push the switch located on the side of the frame. The upper half of the window dropped down (simply let go of the button to stop it at your desired position), and the fresh breeze of the Danube wafted into the room. Cleverly, if you have your window open, it disables the room’s air conditioning system so as to not unduly burden it.
When I was admiring the view of the Hungarian Parliament across the river, my luggage arrived in my room, and I set about unpacking. There’s just one problem: I couldn’t find the closet. These rooms have been cleverly and unobtrusively designed. You won’t see any handles, levers, or ledges on any of the drawers or doors.
It turns out I’d been staring at the closet without realising it: it’s next to the Panorama Balcony. Inside, there’s space for anything that needs to be hung up, but some of the available space is taken up by the mini-fridge and safe. Fortunately, for any clothes that don’t have to be hung up, plenty of storage space is available in the drawers opposite the bed. Just push in on the drawer, and it pops out. Super-easy.
The room is attractively designed, and feels very European. It has a large queen-sized bed that, interestingly, cannot separate into two twins – perhaps something to be aware of for friends travelling together. On the other hand, the bed does boast twin European-style duvets – one for each person – which I absolutely love. It’s a trend that is common in many European hotels, and one I wish would catch on in North America.
For the power-conscious, there is a single North American outlet and two European outlets available at the end of the ‘desk’ that the flat-panel television resides on. Next to this is the stateroom telephone, and your QuietVox-esque radio devices for use when on tour ashore.
Even after I had unpacked, the allure of the balcony pulled me in, and I sat down and enjoyed a glass of water while watching the other ships zip back and forth along the Danube. Bottles of still and sparking water are provided complimentary in each stateroom, though items from the mini-bar carry a small surcharge.
I definitely prefer the style of balcony that Emerald Waterways has created over the traditional French Balcony. What’s the difference, you ask? A French Balcony typically has doors that slide open, with an exterior railing acting as a barrier. With Emerald’s Panorama Balconies, the lower portion acts as a railing, complete with wooden trim. It’s an ingenious design, and one that is similar to the powered window design I enjoyed on Tauck’s ms Inspire – a ship with per diems that are far higher than Emerald Waterways.
The only thing I’m not ‘feeling the love’ with in my Panorama Balcony Suite is the bathroom. To enter the bathroom, you have to squeeze yourself between the wall and the bed nearest the wall; the door doesn’t open onto the entryway as is common on most ships. Now, since I am sailing solo, this isn’t a problem – but you can imagine the logistics of trying to use the bathroom in the middle of the night without waking up the person sleeping on that side of the bed.
Two huge positives: there is a little blue “night light” that stays on in the bathroom at all times, allowing you to use it at night without kicking the overhead lights on. The second thing I love is the shower, which is uncommonly spacious. The sink, on the other hand, is unusually small and accented with the largest faucet I’ve ever seen in my life; one that tends to splash water everywhere and makes it difficult to, say, brush your teeth because of how far out it extends over the basin. It can swivel out of the way, but it seems more ‘form’ over ‘function.’
Without any shelves or sink space, toiletries are tucked away behind two mirrors above the toilet. It’s clever, as these hidden shelves have more storage space than some other river cruise ships, but it can be a bit of an annoyance at the same time, particularly for frequently-used items. Still, I hope that Emerald will tweak the design of the bathrooms when Emerald Dawn and Emerald Sun launch next year.
Despite the shortcomings of the bathroom, I do appreciate that Emerald Waterways is trying new and different things rather than just opting to copy features introduced on other lines. Emerald Star has her own unique style that is unmistakable for any other ship, and the onboard ambiance that the line has cultivated is wonderful. I feel less like a tourist onboard Emerald Star, and more like a local staying in a swanky European hotel.
Let’s have a look around!
Here’s what’s happening today onboard Emerald Star:
- ALL DAY: Arrivals. Your cabins will be ready at 15:00.
- 12:00 – 14:00: Light Lunch available in the Horizon Lounge.
- After Lunch: Free time in Budapest. For suggestions, feel free to ask your Cruise Director, Daniela.
- 17:00 – 19:00: Buffet Dinner in the Reflections Restaurant.
- 19:15 – 19:45: Info and Safety Briefing with your Captain and Hotel Manager. We kindly ask that you attend. Horizon Lounge.
- 19:45: Port Talk with your Cruise Director Daniela. Horizon Lounge.
- 21:30 – 22:15: Scenic Evening Cruise in Budapest. Lounge and Sundeck.
- 22:30 – 23:00: Late Night Snack. Horizon Lounge.
With a few hours before dinner, I decided to stretch my legs with a walk into Budapest. When going ashore, you have to stop and pick up a shore pass from the Reception Desk, but you do not have to hand over your room key.
Speaking of, the room keys here onboard Emerald Star are quite unique: it’s a magnet attached to a keychain. You press the magnet against a small circular protrusion on your door, and the door opens. Trouble is, magnets don’t get along too well with electronic devices, so you might want to keep it away from your iPhone and camera.
Prior to World War I, Budapest was the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following Vienna. That all changed on July 28, 1914, when – just one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. At the time, it was called The Great War, but just days shy of the 100th anniversary of the conflict, we now know it as World War I.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I, and Hungary lost over two-thirds of its territory. Two decades later, World War II would not treat Budapest kindly: the city was bombed, attacked, and finally besieged. Each of the bridges spanning the Danube – including the magnificent Chain Bridge – were reduced to rubble.
Today, Budapest is a stunning mix of old and new. The Chain Bridge, along with the Margaret Bridge, was meticulously rebuilt, along with the rest of the city’s crossings. By 1964, the city had been more or less restored. Streets like The Grand Boulevard and Andrássy Avenue still retain their turn-of the century charm. Budapest is a visual feast, yet one that still clunks along at times with the baggage left behind from the post-Soviet era.
Aside from walking across the Chain Bridge – or Szechenyi lanchid in Hungarian – and buying a new hat at the local C&A, I didn’t do too much; I was eager to get back to the Emerald Star for our buffet dinner, which this evening was held unusually early for a river cruise – between 17:00 and 19:00 (5:00p.m. to 7:00p.m.). Typically, dinners aboard most river cruise ships in Europe don’t start until 19:00.
Beer, wine and soft drinks are offered complimentary at dinner, but even in the lounge, prices aren’t going to break the bank: a large pint of Bittburger is €3.60, and house wines by the glass start at €2.40 for a 1/8 lt. glass. A ¼ lt. glass goes for €4.50. As a bonus, the complimentary wines in the dining room are changed every single night, meaning a new red and white selection each day. The vast majority of wines are locally-sourced, too, which is a huge plus.
The mix of passengers onboard is pleasantly international, with guests from Australia, Canada, the United States, and the UK. The average age onboard, if I had to guess, would be 65 and up, but with a few people in their 40’s thrown in for good measure.
Tonight, we were treated to traditional Hungarian entertainment in the Horizon Lounge that was fun and engaging, with plenty of music and audience participation. It’s one of the best turnouts I’ve ever seen on embarkation day on a river cruise: the lounge was packed, and remained so until well past 22:00, or 10pm. (note: everything in Europe operates on the 24 hour clock, so almost all times will be listed here in that form!)
Earlier in the day, I was surprised that Emerald Star was docked all out on her own over on the Buda side of Budapest. Most river cruise ships in port today are docked in the shadow of the Chain Bridge or the Elizabeth Bridge, on the Pest side. Everything became clear this evening, though, as the sun went down, and we were treated to a magnificent, amber-coloured sunset directly across from the imposing Hungarian Parliament.
No other ship would have seen that spectacular sight – or have had such a magnificent view this evening.
Follow along with our entire journey.
Emerald Waterways, Budapest to Nuremberg
|Saturday, July 12, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star in Budapest; Welcome Aboard Dinner|
|Sunday, July 13||Budapest, Hungary||Guided tour of Budapest including Fisherman's Bastion and Castle Hill|
|Monday, July 14||Bratislava, Slovakia||Old Town walking tour; EmeraldPlus excursion for tea with a local Slovakian family|
|Tuesday, July 15||Vienna, Austria||Panoramic "Ringstrasse" tour of Vienna; free time and optional Schonbrunn Palace Tour and Viennese concert.|
|Wednesday, July 16||Vienna / Durnstein / Melk, Austria||Guided tour of Melk Abbey; guided tour of Durnstein|
|Thursday, July 17||Linz, Austria / Passau, Germany||Walking tours & free time in Linz and Passau; Optional full-day tour to Salzburg, Austria|
|Friday, July 18||Regensburg / Weltenburg, Germany||Guided tours of Regensburg & Weltenburg Abbey; optional traditional Bavarian entertainment excursion|
|Saturday, July 19||Nuremberg, Germany||Disembark & onward journey home.|