Train travel is having a moment when it comes to travelers who are interested in longer trips and bucket-list vacations as well as for those who are looking for new ways to see the world. And traveling by rail is also picking up steam when it comes to river cruising.
Cruise and rail combinations are growing in popularity, with many river cruise lines looking for a way to expand their itineraries by including a classic mode of travel. Some do it with pre- or post-cruise extensions, while others are incorporating rail into the river itinerary itself.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises falls into that latter category. It recently included a luxurious rail journey as part of a river cruise itinerary, joining AmaWaterways as one of the very few river cruise lines to do so.
The 12- and 14-day Milan, Venice and the Swiss Alps itinerary is among Uniworld's first cruise and rail trips to launch in its partnership with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.
The itinerary includes four nights traversing Western Europe aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express before ending in Venice, where guests board the S.S. La Venezia to sail the Venetian Lagoon for seven nights.
Guests get the best of both worlds with this itinerary: You get the active and adventurous aspects of a land tour -- constantly on the go, moving from city to town to village and back again -- and you get the more laid-back, do-as-much-as-you-want features of a river cruise.
A sleeper cabin onboard the train with the bed pulled out for nightly turndown service. Photo Credit: TW photo By Nicole Edenedo
The dynamic nature of this itinerary makes it different than most European river cruises on the market today. Even the cruise in the Venetian Lagoon offers an off-the-beaten-path experience, as very few river cruise lines sail in this area, let alone anywhere in Italy outside of expedition and yacht cruises along the coast. So a high-end rail experience coupled with a unique twist on a river cruise was a match made in travel heaven for me.
After years of fantasizing about what it would be like to experience a night or two aboard a luxury sleeper train, I got to experience four incredible nights aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express as a guest of Uniworld.
As someone who loves everything about trains and binge-watching classic films on Turner Classic Movies every chance I get, there's something so glamorous and romantic about this mode of transportation that's been around for ages.
What first grabbed my attention as I stepped aboard the Danube Express was that the cabins were incredibly spacious and efficiently designed -- an efficiency that did not come at the expense of comfort. When the bed wasn't pulled out for sleeping, it was neatly tucked away and unnoticeable, leaving ample space to walk around, stretch and even dance a little while the train chugged along through the Alps.
The other guests and I had a jam-packed itinerary for the four nights onboard; every day we crossed into new territory, sometimes two or three a day, while each night we remained stationary until it was time to continue on in the morning. As much as I would've liked to have been rocked to sleep every night as the train made its way across Europe, we were reminded often of how small Europe is and that traveling by night would mean missing a lot of sites while we slumbered.
Passengers enjoy a meal in the dining car. Photo Credit: TW photo By Nicole Edenedo
A moveable feast
My favorite area of the Danube Express train was the dining car. Stepping inside, I felt like I was the star of my own classic movie -- traveling great distances, shrouded in intrigue and solving matters of grave importance in the casual elegance of those velvety, emerald-green booths; aged, dark-wood panels; and spotless white tablecloths.
Somebody pinch me! Or better yet, just feed me!
The food onboard the Danube Express was as unforgettable as the dining car it was served in. It is truly hard to believe that head chef Pavel Zelenin and pastry, bread and breakfast chef Krisztian Szoke have not only the precision but the patience to craft such beautiful dishes with sharp culinary expertise onboard a moving and endlessly rocking train for weeks at a time.
Among the offerings: strawberry panna cotta by pastry, bread and breakfast created by chef Krisztian Szoke. Photo Credit: TW photo By Nicole Edenedo
"Working on the train has its pros and cons, and it definitely has its challenges," Zelenin said. "But it will really show a high level of proficiency that the person has, because if they can work on the train, they can do anything."
The food they prepared was delicious; I often felt as if I were in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
"The fruit that we use for any dessert we pick ourselves from the local shops, and we always make sure that the fruits are very clean and not too sweet," Szoke said, outlining the care that goes into sourcing ingredients.
"We are not talking about work here -- we are talking about passion," Szoke said. "We aspire to show that passengers don't just experience sightseeing, but that they also have a gastronomic experience, as well."