First-time river cruising on board Scenic Jasper: Eight things learnt on my first river cruise
27 October 2015
Everyone is raving on about cruising and lately every report points to the cruising scene growing further and further. Although ocean cruising is the leading category for Aussies, the growth of river cruising isn't something to be sneered at.
The two offer vastly different experiences. Although you're on the move in both circumstances and need to unpack only once, that's where the similarities end.
Travelling a segment of Scenic's 15-day Amsterdam to Budapest Jewels of Europe cruise on board Scenic Jasper I learnt a few things along the way.
You get close and personal
A smaller vessel means fewer people, which means you're bound to have an intimate experience. Obvious stuff. Compared to their ocean counterpart, river vessels are tiny, and although Scenic Jasper is one of the biggest liners sailing the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, she can hold a maximum of only 169 passengers across 85 rooms. Within a few days I got to know many of my fellow passengers and by the end of one a week I recognised everyone on board. When I wanted a dinner companion, it was simple enough to find someone I got along with, and when I wanted space, I could easily find a nook to hide away in.
Sometimes it's really close
I didn't know how close we would occasionally get to other vessels. For most of the cruise the views are of the river and surrounding landscapes and cityscapes. Very occasionally two vessels pass each other in a lock and you can see really well into the other ship. It was a little bit odd seeing a couple unpack their luggage and I closed my blinds to maintain my privacy at the time. Sometimes vessels also have to park alongside each other and guests have to walk through the other cruiser to reach the dock. Scenic Jasper did this once and, although a tad voyeuristic, I enjoyed peeking into the other ship and comparing the two fit-outs.
All-inclusive will spoil you rotten
Scenic Europe river cruises are all-inclusive, and unless you've experienced this several times before, it's easy to go overboard (excuse the pun). Breakfasts and lunches are usually buffets and the choices on offer ... well, it's impossible to not find something you enjoy. I found the problem was that there was too much I enjoyed. Dinners are lavish affairs and span casual dining (we're still talking three-course meals) and degustations at the specialty restaurants. My highlight was having a personal butler. Natalia brought me champagne and cheese, sorted my washing, and was there whenever I needed anything.
The food is farm-gate fresh
One of the great benefits of river cruising is the accessibility chefs have to fresh food. Ocean liners are often required to store substantial quantities of food, while river vessels, on the other hand, are able to access fresh supplies daily because of frequent port stops. Not only is the food fresh, since it also comes from the places you're cruising through, the kitchen team will often prepare regional dishes using local products to showcase the areas. One of the highlights on the Jewels of Europe cruise was the Hungarian feast in Budapest. We tasted paprika chicken, cabbage rolls and stuffed crepes, to name just a few of the delicacies.
Chat to the staff
Staff members working on river cruise ships are repositories of local knowledge. On board Scenic Jasper we were provided with Scenic Tailormade devices – click-of-a-button commentary on our cruise route, shore excursions and so on. Although the device was a great tool, I also enjoyed quizzing staff about their favourite haunts. Thanks to a Slovakian team member's advice, I ate the most divine sheep cheese gnocchi at a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Bratislava. It's also worth asking the cruise director about the most scenic stretches of the cruise – that way you can ensure you're not showering/getting a massage/using the gym at the time. Frank, our cruise director, told me Austria's Wachau Valley between Melk and Durnstein would be one of the prettiest sections on our route and I made sure I was on deck taking in the panoramas.
Do your research
Shore excursions have been planned to the last detail and, consequently, they offer guests a great way to unearth a destination. Nevertheless, sometimes you may want a day to yourself or the options may not take your fancy. If you've looked up where and when, you might know of a festival that's happening, an exhibition that interests you might be on, or a friend could be in the same city. Often you have only a short time at each port, so if you want to take off and explore on your lonesome you'll get more out of it if you've got an idea of what you want to do and see. I've been to Budapest before so when Scenic Jasper pulled in, instead of going off on an excursion I caught up with a friend and had the best goulash in a suburban pub.
Plan to move
You eat a lot! Even if you don't envisage you will, you definitely consume more than you would at home. On Scenic Jasper, I took three approaches to moving. There's a gym on the ground level and, although it's small, it's fitted out with good-quality cardio machines. I'd wake up early and use the space when no one else was around. The walking track located on the top deck offers a lovely way to move your body while sailing. Of course, every shore stop is an opportunity to move outside the vessel's shapely hull. I walked around whenever I could and used the electronic bikes (all Scenic ships come with these) several times to go sightseeing.
The writer travelled as a guest of Scenic.