It dawned sunny and glorious as our ship, the Amadeus Diamond, traveled toward Osijek, Croatia, situated a few miles away from the Danube on a tributary, the River Drava.
The city of about 115,000 had been described in our cruise handouts as an industrial center with oil refineries. I figured it didn't matter if the sun shone.
Then, the town's 18th century Tvrda (fortress) came into view, a surprising expanse of buildings and churches wrapped by walls that appeared intact, all reflected in the river in picture-perfect fashion.
Next in our line of vision, still from the Amadeus Diamond sun deck, came the town's Sts. Peter and Paul Church, commonly called the "cathedral," in the 19th century Upper Town. Then, we reached our docking space, adjacent to a pleasant residential area and riverside promenade.
In short, Osijek was a delight.
It was on the itinerary of three Danube cruises operated by Cruise West this fall. I was on the third of these cruises aboard the 148-passenger Amadeus Diamond, chartered from the Austrian firm Luftner Cruises, and so I discovered Osijek in the last days of October.
From there, we drove to the Kopacki Rit nature park, one of Europe's largest wetlands. It protects fish and mammals, but the most visible beneficiaries are the roughly 260 bird species that nest there.
We took a short glide across its waters aboard an open-sided boat. Serious bird-watchers spotted the white-tailed eagles and other indigenous birds; it was all I could do to see the ducks and the cormorants.
Lunch, with free-flowing red and white wine and beer, followed in a basement-level dining hall near Vukovar, Croatia. It was conveniently attached to a wine cellar, and after hearty dining, we were invited to a wine-tasting session.
We left the restaurant about 4 p.m. and crossed the Hungarian border to reboard the ship in Mohacs, Hungary.
The Croatia itinerary was typical of the varied and precisely timed programs that enabled passengers to see and experience a variety of what each destination had to offer. Similarly varied itineraries were part of the Cruise West program in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. In Hungary and Austria, sightseeing focused on the capital cities, Budapest and Vienna.
Variety and planning were important, but high-quality local guides really made these excursions. Besides describing the sights and providing the history, guides offered insights into their cultures and daily life in their homelands. In the countries down river from Austria, guides talked about the ups and downs of shedding communism. They did not hide cynicism about governments past and present but shared their hopes for a future with the European Union.
The sailing had its lighter and more relaxing side, too. Onboard schedules included afternoon teas; late-day social hours; movies; an evening performance by Bulgarian folk dancers; and even goofy, after-dinner entertainment staged by the crew.
On nicer days, guests tried their hand at shuffleboard and chess on the sun deck. Cruise West, which has open seating for meals, also placed a heavy emphasis on quality food and wine.
Cruise West has chartered the Amadeus Diamond for three European cruises next year. The ship, new this March, accommodates 148 passengers in 74 cabins. Sixty-two cabins feature floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows and French balconies. The cabins, ranging from 170 to 304 square feet, are crisply modern and spacious enough to accommodate ample closet and drawer space as well as a table and chairs.
Next year's Cruise West itineraries aboard the vessel will vary. The first will head upriver on the Danube, but for the next two, the ship will sail on several rivers: the Danube, Main, Rhine and Moselle.
With good maps and on-site handouts, clients should have a clear idea of how rich those itineraries really are.