Richard Turen
Richard Turen

There are no slight bends in the oceans or the seas. There are prescribed routes the ships sail to populated dots of civilization along the water's edge. These are places blessed or cursed by their proximity to the sea and the intent of the seafarers who landed on their shores.

The cruise ships sail the narrow shipping lanes of the oceans, normally far from land where "port" or "starboard" are meaningless labels as passengers look out at water, lots of water, until they are dropped off at a port of call large enough to feed the ravenous water, electrical, sewage and custodial needs of the ship.

I've sailed on more than 130 of these vessels, as a cruise consultant, a writer, a cruise website editor and, on one of the largest lines, as an employee. There have been good and not-so-good experiences, many of which I've shared with you over the years.

What none of those 130 voyages provided was a large measure of serenity. I was seeing Europe, for example, but I was not connecting to it by feeling, somehow, a part of it. That all changed when I started experiencing European river cruising.

Last year, an estimated 23 million people sailed on cruise ships worldwide. Fewer than 1 million have sailed the world's great rivers. The opportunities and the uniqueness of the river cruise experience have made it the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry.

I've just returned from another week on the river, this time on the Danube from Passau, Germany, to Budapest. For those of you who know ocean cruises better than river ships, let me offer some impressions that might help the first-timer understand some of the allure of this alternative sailing vacation.

This is some of what I observed on my recent cruise aboard the Scenic Amber, based on some of my notes, to give you a sense of how things work on the better river ships and why the river cruise industry is undergoing such a determined expansion.

• The captain and the cruise director met each arriving guest. We were shown to our room by our tuxedoed butler. Every cabin in every category includes a butler.

• The doors to the cabins were black lacquer with large, commissioned, modern art hanging in the hallway. There was marble in the entranceway, and there was an infinity swimming pool on the upper deck. There was also the largest outdoor barbecue kitchen I've ever seen for warm- evening cookouts along the river. The ship was truly contemporary, sleek and it reeked of modernity. How perfect, I thought, for millennial cruisers who might prefer this to something more traditional.

• Cabins have a full-size balcony that converts to a sun lounge at the press of a button. Every cabin on the ship had a private balcony. There were no inside cabins.

• When we boarded, the front desk greeted us warmly, but they never asked for a credit card. They don't need to; everything is included. There was no need to ever take the wallet out of the wall safe. In fact, I never did.

• The shore excursions were included. Not a shore excursion but a choice of excursions. I did not purchase any extra-cost excursions, because there were none to buy. I'll just single out Vienna. We had a choice of four tours. We could have visited the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace, taken a Vienna overview tour of the leading sights or gone to a market with the ship's chef to shop for ingredients to be used in portions of the evening meal. I chose the fourth option: a visit to the famed Spanish Riding School, where we were allowed entry to the ground floor, VIP seating section to watch the stallions as they were led through their training exercises.

• No one onboard the ship ever tried to sell me anything. It was as though this vacation included freedom from the thought of money. Nothing had a price tag, there were no art sales, no roaming photographers. I was relaxed on this river by the second day. Actually relaxed.

• A surprising number of our fellow guests were seemingly fit and they demanded exercise, much like the stallions in Vienna. The ship had a collection of new bicycles, most electric-assisted, so that guests who wished to work less hard at pedaling along the roads from village to village could do so. The best riding was in the Wachau Valley, a picture-perfect landscape in lower Austria parked between Melk, home to a huge ancient monastery that towers over a lovely village, and Krems, where those in the know have been discovering wines of surprising quality.

• Meals were excellent. The breakfast buffet might be the best I've ever experienced on any ship. Freshly made lattes and cappuccinos arrived quickly, and the well-trained waiters made certain that guests knew that they could order virtually anything they might want from the kitchen.

Few felt the need. There were bowls of fruit, and I noticed that the apricots were fresh and had been soaked in an orange marinade. The smoked salmon was sliced from the whole fillet, no bits and pieces. Then something I've never seen displayed on a ship's buffet (and perhaps emblematic of the attention to details I encountered): There were two kinds of bacon. I asked the chef why this was done, and he replied, "There are two kinds of people in the world I think, the crispy people and the ones who like things soft." Right.

• The waters were not just calm, they were silent as the ship slid slowly from its berth. We didn't sail each evening, instead overnighting in places where it made sense, such as Vienna and Budapest. But when we sailed, I heard nothing, and in my cabin, surrounded by glass, the lights twinkled ashore, the castles loomed in the distance and you could see figures on the walking paths along the shore.

• We had a stocked, complimentary minibar as did every cabin on the ship. We had the latest big-screen television, too, though I got a sense that no one on the river watches TV. You never heard the audio as you passed by the cabins in the hallway. Those who wanted real entertainment, the kind they would never forget, simply sat on their balcony or looked out the window.

There was more. So much more. My notebook was full, and I never talked about the dinners, the fact that you could order room service off the menu and have it served on your balcony. Or the way guests would be greeted when they returned from touring, with drinks by the nicely dressed wait staff.

I didn't tell you about the concert in the palace one evening or our day in Bratislava, Slovakia, where the average age is 33 and Kia builds cars not far from the old town along the river.

But I will go again, and this time I will bring 40 clients because I want them to experience the alternative to hard-charging cruising. I want them to feel the peace I feel that sailing this river that connects towns in central Europe like a necklace of authentic charms. I was off the ship every day. I was always in the center of town or within an easy walk to it. I saw more in a week than I would ever see on a megaship, off on my own or choosing the excursion that best fit my mood.

But best of all, I relaxed. That is river boating's secret: the ease of discovery and a pace that matches the silky smoothness of the water as the ship glides silently along.

The finish was an overnight in Budapest, a city that deserves several pages of impressions. But here is just one: It is a city of wonderful, historic bridges. In the late afternoon of my last day on the Amber it had been announced that an air show would take place. My cabin was on the back of the boat, and I had a large window facing the rear of the ship.

As I packed for the next morning's departure, the air show started, and it ended with fighter jets flying literally under the bridge just a few thousand feet from my window, skimming the water, and pulling up suddenly over our vessel.

To be fair to Scenic, that doesn't happen on every sailing.


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