This was our first river cruise so we have nothing to compare it with other than luxury ocean cruising with Silversea and Regent. It was called "Great Capitals and Vintage of the Danube". It started with a 3-day land pre-extension in Prague (based in the very nice Hilton Old Town), followed by a 7-day cruise from Vilshofen to Budapest. It was a wine-themed cruise, with multiple on-board tastings of St. Frances winery (Sonoma Valley, CA) excellent wines, and opportunities to visit several Austrian wineries (not so excellent). We enjoyed our mostly stress-free easy-paced cruise and interesting shore excursions, but would not recommend it if you absolutely MUST have gourmet cuisine or stellar dining room service and fine wines when you travel.
PRAGUE 3-day pre-cruise: we met our pleasant and intelligent cruise director Uwe Nietschke (sp), who coordinated a well-organized and interesting stay which started with practical recommendations for local restaurants, ATMs, safety, etc the first post-jetlag check-in evening. We had an interesting second day sightseeing tour (bus and walk) with a stimulating local guide, then just the right amount of free time. The Hilton Old Town was centrally located with good service and comfortable rooms. The optional, extra fee private Lobkowicz Palace tour the second day was fascinating, with many old musical instruments and weapons on display, followed by a classical music performance. We did not go to Terezin, a former internment camp for Jews, as I had been there before, which was another optional sidetour (recommended if you have any interest in European Jewish history). Instead we visited the Museum of Communism on our own (Uwe helped us with details), sandwiched between a McDonalds & a casino.
We then were bussed over to the ship in Vilshofen, with a stop in the colorful old city of Regensburg on the way. We did a city walking tour with a well-spoken guide, then had free time (we opted for a tasty local cuisine lunch at Regensburger Ratskeller in the town square).
EMBARKATION was easy (walk right on), then everyone sat in the noisy lounge area for 30-45 minutes until cabins were called (it might have been particularly noisy because there was a very large lively group traveling together from Puerto Rico). It was crowded during the initial milling around with limited service and toilet access lines, but I do not know how this could be improved. A lot of time (too much) was spent introducing all staff.
CABIN: (AA violin deck) was modern, always immaculate, and spacious enough, with a beautiful bathroom (would be too small if you are a Person of Size) and two balconies (one where you could sit outside if weather would allow it). The queen-sized bed was disappointingly hard, with no option to turn the mattress over for a softer side, as we have seen on Silversea. The free in-room WIFI worked quite well most of the time (not in locks) and was a refreshing change from ocean cruising where wifi is slow and very expensive. There was an in-room fridge to use as you wished, or with the free still water (no sparkling option) provided daily. Laundry service was quick, efficient, and cheap, so I used it several times instead of struggling with in-sink rinseouts and line-drying (our clothing was only lost once, then found, with apologies).
DINING: On-board dining and waiter service were mediocre, but tolerable. Breakfast and Lunch were basic buffets, crowded but always with a place to sit on comfortable chairs, adequate enough, with fresh produce, but nothing special except for the breads, which were fresh and crispy, baked daily. Pastries and cookies were mediocre. Guests were oddly not allowed to take their (free) food on a tray into cabins, which would have helped alleviate the crowding or allowed for privacy when guests are not in a social mood at mealtime. Each day also offered a clear or creamed soup option, and the creamed misc vegetable soups I tried were quite good. The overstressed waiters not uncommonly had difficulty keeping track of any unique requests (e.g., they would rush over at dinner to pour regular water and would be put off when I would ask for sparkling instead; I usually had to ask two to three times for the sparkling, and trying to buy expensive sparkling water bottles at the bar to take into my room in between meals was met with initial resistance). If they happened to be pouring white wine to start, but I wanted red, it would not uncommonly be a long time before the red would finally appear, requiring reminders. Dinner was served at a fixed time for everyone, with an unremarkable fish, vegetarian, and meat (usually beef) option each night and a generic white and red local wine, neither of which were very good, but not horrible. The specialty restaurant option we could eat at once during the cruise that had a lot of buildup and required reservations was actually nothing special (they had beef or fish options which were ok, but accompanied by suboptimal service -- e.g., other than getting water poured, for the first 30 minutes we sat there we did not get bread, wine, or an appetizer and were basically ignored, and the bread, when it finally came, was stale). The reds poured at dinners were typically not big enough to stand up to the beef dishes. There were almost no options to order nicer wines for a fee (only a couple reds were available off-menu, none of them full-bodied). The exception was the night when St. Frances wines were allowed to be paired with the food (though the cruise-featured St. Frances wines we tasted were excellent, they were surprisingly not allowed to be sold or drunk on-board other than at the pairing or the tasting, not even in the bar, so even if you do a "wine cruise", do not count on routinely being able to drink really nice wines with your meals, as this was the only "pairing" dinner). Coffee drinks were available around the clock for self-serivce, out of a push-button instant machine, which provided mostly tasteless weak coffee that all tasted the same whether it was labeled espresso or cappuccino. Really good coffee drinks were not to be had on board, neither at meals nor from the bar for a fee.
Other than overworked and sometimes irritable waitstaff, personnel on the ship were polite and helpful and spoke English reasonably well. Personnel were mostly Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian (the captain was Dutch). Front desk girls were pleasant and helpful. When we returned from excursions, it was nice to be greeted by varying little treats offered on reembarkation, e.g., hot wine, hot tea, tasty sweet morsels, or similar.
EXCURSIONS we did while cruising are listed below. Whenever we had bus trips as part of the tours, I appreciated that the buses had on-board toilets for "emergencies", which helped allay any anxieties about drinking too much coffee or wine while touring. We did not bike, so cannot comment on bike options at ports, which a surprising number of passengers did despite cold weather.
PASSAU walking tour -- very interesting old town, awesome church, huge pipe organ, recommended
CESKY KRUMLOV -- fascinating though touristy old Czech town which has been remarkably renovated since the fall of Communism; weather was bad, so we could not appreciate outdoor dining, would be stunning to tour in warmer weather
MELK Abbey -- awesome old library with ancient books, scenic views from the hill, amazing old church
DURNSTEIN walking tour -- cute little old town, but as it was Sunday morning, most stores were closed & some guests complained about no bathroom access.
SCHLOSS GOBELSBURG wine tasting: a lovely old castle and winery; oddly, we had to do our tasting of the Gruener Veltliner wines (not my favorite) in a cold, unheated castle room, and there was not enough time allowed to actually BUY wine as multiple tour groups were going through. Interesting cellar tour, though too long, saw old bottles covered with decades of mold.
HIDDEN VIENNA WALKING TOUR -- very interesting and good exercize, followed by free time; another night in Vienna would have been good to allow more touring options without rushing or getting overly fatigued. We ate hearty Austrian cuisine at an old inn, Griechenbeisl, where Mozart and Beethoven signed the walls.
BUDAPEST CITY TOUR -- basic overview of this war-ravaged city, followed by the ship's cruising up and down the Danube in town at night to highlight the pretty illuminations of historical buildings.
We stayed an extra day after the cruise at the Budapest Hilton, which the city tour takes you right by, on the castle hill (also don't miss the "Hospital in the Rock" museum we did on our own, and note paying the fee to go into St. Stephen's Basilica is worth the price)
FINAL FAREWELL DINNER: (this followed the late afternoon/early evening Budapest city tour) -- again, there was a fixed time for all to appear, and people were hungry post-tour, but had to wait 1.5+ hours sitting around before they were able to access food, while personnel spent time reintroducing and thanking the crew for a great cruise with abundant applause, repeatedly praising themselves and solicting customer applause, followed by a somewhat lame "Hungarian" folk music presentation which delayed dinner even more (the Hungarian part was fine, with an excellent violinist, but the musicians then also tried to play modern music , apparently to something for everyone, including out of place Michael Jackson style gyrations by a young girl). This long, protracted pre-dinner thank-you session and music would not have been so bad if guests had not already had crew introductions on embarcation and had had waiters going around serving tasty appetizers and drinks.
DISEMBARKATION -- stress-free; though rooms had to be vacated by 9am, people who had later flights could comfortably hang out in the lounge for a few hours and get coffee from the machine.
SUMMARY We definitely enjoyed the itinerary, port excursions, and comfort of the modern cabins, the seamless connections, and overall had a good time. The outstanding cruise director, Uwe, was a soothing highlight of the service. The dining/food/wine/coffee selections and other culinary service (other than the St. Frances tastings) were basic and adequate, but disappointing in what I expected from a luxury-priced cruise, but I have no other river cruise experience, so perhaps they are all like this and my expectations were unreliastic.