Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Epilogue

Looking back at a wonderful 11-day voyage along the Danube with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises...

So, we finally had to say farewell to our water-borne 'home' for the best part of the last two weeks. The flight connection from Vienna back to London on the final morning went extremely well and the return home wasn't too severe (it wasn't raining, for a change!).

It was our first full river-cruise, and it couldn't have been any smoother or more memorable. Uniworld (with arrangements by UK tour experts Titan Travel) were ideal hosts and we were hugely impressed by the gracious onboard style, service and cuisine.

Nothing was ever rushed but everything was accomplished with ease, and the overall feeling of travelling in such elegant fashion with a large number of new-found friends was almost overwhelming. 

And, while the River Duchess didn't boast anything overtly flashy in terms of the onboard entertainment, there was always something to enjoy, from good conversation at the 24-hour coffee station to some amazing musical and folkloric shows in the main lounge.

Every meal was memorable and every crew member seemed to go out of their way to make things as seamless and enjoyable as possible. And, if the weather wasn't quite ideal at this time of year (just a bit too much rain, notably in Bulgaria and on our transit of the Iron Gates), it was certainly never cold and unpleasant (as it was back in the UK!).

If there was one mild criticism, perhaps we did spent a bit too long on the coaches on some days as we toured Bulgaria and Croatia, while more time in the surprise Hungarian city of Pecs would probably have been a good idea.

But, overall, the itinerary was extremely well balanced, superbly organised and highly educational, and we never lacked for information, history or just a good place to stop for a coffee!

Of the countries we visited, we probably saw enough of Romania and Bulgaria, but all of Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia proved surprisingly beguiling and worthy of a return trip at some stage, while the journey through the Iron Gates gorge (below) was a real visual highlight.

Food-wise, we were wowed by the big Captain's Gala dinners at the start and end of the cruise; by the wonderful al fresco dining experience one evening; and by the superb array of fresh, local produce and signature national dishes offered throughout.

Complimentary wine or beer with lunch and dinner is an excellent selling point and we never had to think about what we might like at any given point, as our needs and wishes always seemed to be met as soon as we thought of them - right down to the wonderful late-night snacks that awaited us when we returned from evening excursions.

And, while we were impressed by every aspect of the service on board, we also need to single out several real stars, who all helped to make the whole cruise go with that perfect combination of personable and efficient:

Captain Michael Hofmann: the German master, now resident in Romania (and owner of his own watermelon farm!), was a huge hit with all concerned, especially for his rare sense of humour and ability to convey the real sense of fun in sailing along the Danube. I have rarely encountered a ship's captain with more natural bonhomie.

Cruise Manager Christine Bremberger: every river-cruise clearly needs a Master Planner to make sure all the shoreside arrangement go off without a hitch, as the importance of good daily excursions is paramount here. Christine must be one of the hardest-working people in the company as she was always either organising, conducting, narrating or explaining what we were seeing and doing at any given point. No request was too small or too complicated for her to handle.

Hotel Manager Jaroslav Veselka: our Slovakian cruise host was a master of quiet organisation, smooth efficiency and genuine friendliness. Once again, no request was ever met with a negative and everything seemed right at his fingertips in terms of ensuring the onboard operation ran like amiable clockwork. Our surprise wedding anniversary celebration was a great case in point, but, again, it was handled with effortless aplomb.

Maitre D' Dimitar and his restaurant team were always spot on with their service and ability to provide a great dining experience, and no meal went by without one highlight or another - although the soups were an amazingly consistent highlight and dessert was always a rare pleasure.

All in all, it is hard to imagine what more the Duchess could have done to make our cruise more enjoyable - except, perhaps, to have halted the space-time continuum, allowing us to stay on board for a lot longer. Perhaps next time...!

Oh, and after our wonderful trip to the Croatian school in Laslovo, I need to do a quick shout-out to my youngest 'follower,' Dalton from Plainfield Elementary School, Illinois, and my big Super Bowl pen-pal from earlier this year. Study hard, Dalton!

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.