Enjoy stunning scenery, fine dining and a waltz along the Danube on a Viking river cruise
'Life doesn't get much better than this', I gushed, as I was sailing through the stunning Wachau Valley whilst sipping one of Bogdan's expertly-made Aperol Spritz cocktails.
My wife Laura agreed as we sat on the sundeck taking in the breathtaking surroundings, reveling in our decision to embark on our first-ever river cruise with Viking on their week-long Danube Waltz voyage.
With past experience cruising on ocean liners I knew there would be similarities - eat, drink and be entertained while hopping from one stunning destination to another - but I soon discovered that sailing at a lower rate of knots on a smaller vessel provides a much more sedate and intimate experience, which is only fitting when travelling along one of the most beautiful waterways in the world.
Waiting for us in the centre of Budapest, longship Viking Rinda would become our luxury home for a week, taking us over the Hungarian border into Slovakia for a stay in Bratislava, moving on to Austria with stops in Vienna, Krems and Linz before finishing its voyage in Passau, Germany.
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Sailing would begin the following day because once on board time was needed to explore the delights of Budapest. On arrival I was immediately impressed as we were relieved of our suitcases and welcomed onto the ship by the hotel manager who escorted us to our veranda stateroom.
After quickly unpacking we began to familiarise ourselves with the luxurious surroundings and could see that for a relatively small ship with a capacity of less than 200 passengers, Rinda had a surprisingly 'roomy' feel with space and comfort clearly in mind in its design.
Unlike larger cruise ships, navigating your way around a river boat is easy, with Rinda's fine dining restaurant and buffet dominating the lower floor and the spacious lounge and bar located upstairs, along with the Viking-unique Aquavit terrace where guests can enjoy their food and drinks in a stunning outside setting.
Like its fleet of sister ships, and there are many of them on the Danube, Rinda boasts what I would describe as a 'typically Scandinavian' decor, with staterooms featuring an en-suite bathroom with shower and heated floor, queen-size bed, fridge, safe and wall-mounted interactive TV on which you can view your itinerary and on-board account.
Veranda rooms provide guests with the perk of a private viewing platform, but those without are still able to watch the world go by relaxing on the spacious sundeck, which has several seating areas, tables and sun loungers along with a couple of small putting greens and the chef's herb garden.
So off we set, heading to our first stop, Bratislava, listening to the entertaining commentary of all singing and dancing programme director Paul, the only Brit among the predominantly eastern European crew and who was a fountain of knowledge when it came to providing information on river locks and beautiful scenery.
Throughout the cruise guests were left in stitches by Paul's British wit and charm, particularly during the hosted quizzes and game nights, and also through his comical double-act with talented resident musician, Angel.
Onto the Austrian capital Vienna which was a highlight for many guests, with some taking on three excursions in one day, including a classical Mozart & Strauss concert which left the ship half empty for the evening, only filling up again when concert-goers returned to enjoy a specially-prepared goulash supper.
As self-confessed foodies, our Vienna excursion was a subway trip to the historic market (Naschmarkt), guided by a local chef, which also included a cheese and wine tasting.
Along with the 'paid for' excursions, a nice perk when travelling with Viking is the offer of an 'included' guided walking tour at each destination which usually lasts around two hours, giving guests a 'taste' of their surroundings. Our favourites were in Bratislava and the cobbled streets of Linz, which were both smaller places than I had imagined and much more picturesque. The most popular 'free' tour was the coach visit to historic Gottweig Abbey near Krems, which even included an apricot dumpling demonstration.
With Viking, it's clear that wowing guests through its choice of destinations is a priority, with many other shore excursions proving to be hits, including the medicinal Budapest Thermal Baths, the Wachau Valley bicycle tour and the Bavarian Farm and Countryside excursion in Passau.
Back on board, the dining offerings exceeded expectations, with lunch and dinner menus altered daily, each featuring a choice of chef's specials, a regional tasting menu and several 'always available' classic options.
In Krems after the wonderful scenic sail through Wachau, the restaurant team ‘went to town’ for the evening's theme by decking themselves out in lederhosen for a 'Taste of Austria' night, creating a party atmosphere while serving up a variety of delights from salty baked pretzels and local sausages to 'knodel' dumplings and sauerkraut.
During lunch our preference was to sit on the terrace with a bowl of delicious pasta and obligatory glass of wine (or two), with dinner dining split between sharing a table in the more sociable restaurant or enjoying a quiet table for two on the terrace.
If you like your cocktails, spirits and sommelier-recommended wines, purchasing Viking's 'Silver Spirits' drinks package is a must. The complimentary lunch and dinner offerings are generous, but working out at just over £20 a day I doubt there is a better drinks package on water anywhere in the world.
Enter the aforementioned and brilliant 'bar chef' Bogdan who certainly had his work cut out with us as we took our regular seats at the bar post-dinner for some cocktails and cards, and it only felt right that we kept him busy as many of the other weary travellers headed off to bed.
No stone is left unturned when it comes to Viking and top level service, which was replicated by every crew member on board, none more so than our excellent room steward Svetoslav, who tended to our stateroom twice a day, each time leaving it looking like it did when we first arrived.
With the cruise nearing an end and before setting sail for Passau, we were treated to some more Mozart through a special performance by the Salzburg Sound of Music Singers, who left us feeling like we had waltzed down the Danube. And to quote the words of another famous Austrian, Arnold Swarzenegger, I can confirm to Viking, 'I'll be back!'
TRAVEL FACTS – DANUBE WALTZ
Length of itinerary: Eight days
Includes: Return flights to selected UK airports, transfers in the destination, six guided tours, eight days on board in a standard stateroom, all onboard meals including wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, Wi-Fi (connection speed may vary), and gratuities
Prices start from £2,595 per person based on March 2023 departure
To make a booking contact 0800 319 66 60 or visit www.viking.com