In the weeks leading up to this trip, I will confess to some level of anxiety that was different from any of my previous vacations in the company of clients.
For the past 27 years, my wife and I have taken our annual vacation with never fewer than 30 clients tagging along. As you might imagine, that does involve a bit of work, but we've come to feel that the pleasure of their company far outweighs any possible negatives.
I had some concerns because the trip had grown beyond normal bounds, and we would now have a tidy little group of 62, including many of our best long-term clients. We were not going to go tasting and cooking in Asia; we were not going to take the back roads in Puglia ending up at farmhouses for dinner; and we were not going to be happily ensconced in a cocoon of five-star sailing, who cares where, aboard one of the world's great small luxury ships.
Nope, not this time. This trip we were headed for the Danube, doing a river cruise on a line that is foreign-owned and not as well known as many of its competitors.
We were taking our best clients on a trip that would depend on things that were beyond our control, particularly the mood of the river gods who determine water levels from lock to lock throughout central Europe.
The problem, perhaps, is that I have some familiarity with all that can go wrong on the rivers. I've studied the subject extensively. I know enough to know that flexibility is something you have to pack in your river-bound luggage. I edit a website that rates and reviews all of the major river cruise lines. When there are issues on the rivers, I tend to get a flood of commentary.
But I had never sailed with clients on, or personally reviewed, a Scenic ship. Scenic, is, after all, an Australian product, but we did have some very favorable reviews from our inspection team, so I was going with that and hoping for the best.
And the best is exactly what I got. I experienced surprisingly professional and caring service at virtually every level of the ship's operation. It all started on arrival day in Nuremberg, Germany.
The idea of sailing south from Nuremberg is a surprisingly recent possibility. It would have been impossible during the time of the Nazi tribunals in the city because there was a rather famous missing link in the German waterway system: There was no way to sail between Bamberg and Kelheim. When the Main-Danube Canal was opened in 1992, Europe suddenly had one continuous waterway linking Rotterdam on the North Sea and Constanta on the Black Sea.
It was a beautiful, sun-drenched early evening as I braced for our arrival cocktail party. Until the afternoon of the party, I had no idea where it would be held, since our group was simply too large to fit into any of the Scenic Amber's restaurants or public spaces. There were, after all, about 90 guests onboard who did not belong to us.
It was suggested we go upstairs. I purposely avoided watching the preparation for our cocktail party on the outdoor upper deck, deciding to leave it to ship's crew and just trust their instincts.
When I climbed the stairs, I saw white umbrellas and at least a dozen crew members serving canapes off a huge display. On the side was a chef who was manning a large caviar station. Drinks were being served under the umbrellas. The staff was helping with introductions. The sun was setting across a regal skyline as shadows danced across the buildings ashore.
And everyone said the same thing: "This is the loveliest cocktail party spread I have ever seen on any ship I have ever sailed."
You see, that was part of the reason for my concern about this trip. Forty-eight of our 62 guests had sailed more than one five-star line. How would a vessel with a small kitchen and uniquely tight quarters compete with the service levels aboard five-star lines such as Seabourn and Silversea?
Yet, amazingly, it did. The breakfast and lunch buffets were better than many we had experienced on the top luxe lines. Think two kinds of bacon, truly customized egg stations in the morning, fine quality local hams and jams. Think goulash for lunch when everyone really wanted it, along with drink service that was attentive yet never pretentious. The crew was not outsourced, as is common on many competitors. Scenic owns this product and does all of the hiring. It shows.
Dinners were surprisingly good. There was foie gras, more caviar and large lobster tails beautifully presented. It was a menu that reflected our surroundings and the concept of gently floating past small villages and footpaths in the early evening, watching people ashore living their lives.
We talked and ate alongside huge glass windows, something I looked forward to each evening. I love train travel; the scope of it makes me feel invisible riding through the lives of others. River cruising is like that but far more comfortable. The engines were virtually silent. On this cruise, there was no movement as we rushed down the river, but that lack of sound was surprising, as if we were riding on the back of the world's greatest swimmer.
The cruise director was unusual in that he was a human being to whom one could talk. He kept inviting guests to sit with him at his desk in the lobby. His presentations incorporated exactly the kind of information our guests would want to know. He wasn't selling tours, since everything on this ship except a haircut or massage was included.
There was a small glitch along the way, having to do with the ship's departure from Kelheim. When we finished touring in Regensburg, the ship had not yet arrived. Lock schedules are a matter of local authority, so many of us were sitting where the Scenic motorcoaches should have been waiting to take us to the ship. No worries, Patrick the cruise director immediately assumed control, invited everyone to go to a beer garden and a happy hour or so was spent until the ship arrived.
But there was another test -- and a tough one. Unbeknownst to us, one of our guests had awakened near Passau with what appeared to be symptoms of a heart attack. By the time we woke up, he and his wife were ashore in Passau's hospital. The hospital had no air conditioning and no screens on the windows. The food, I found out later, was of the German beer hall variety, with not a healthy thing on the menu.
It wasn't a heart attack, but the doctors did not know that for days. The wife knew no German, and she was carrying minimum funds along with a few credit cards. She had left her money and their clothes in the cabin.
I have always believed that you can gauge the true measure of a company when things don't go as scheduled. How does it react? What is its sense of customer care and service?
So here are some facts: At 6 a.m. on the second day of the cruise, Scenic had an ambulance brought to the ship. The officers also found an English-speaking doctor to ride with our guests in the ambulance in the early-morning hours. I still don't know how they accomplished that.
Scenic arranged for the wife to sleep in the nurses' quarters, where she stayed a week while her husband underwent several procedures by what the couple characterized as an "extremely young" medical staff.
Scenic had staff visit the husband and wife in the hospital three times to help with translation and to make sure everything was right. They offered me daily and nightly updates on his condition and care. Scenic arranged for the wife to be taken by their lead guide on a private tour of Passau, just to get her out of the hospital room for a morning. They packed all of her clothes and other belongings and had them shipped to the hospital and the nurses' quarters.
These very guests came to see us at our home yesterday. When the wife started describing Scenic's concern for their welfare, she started tearing up.
"Please tell everyone what a wonderful company they are," she said.
When you have been on 24 river cruise inspections, you are not easily surprised. At both the human and the delivery sides of this experience, Scenic delivered what I did not think would really be possible: a near five-star experience on the river, along with large doses of humanity and customer care.