Swiss Sapphire, a newly built boat that joined the Tauck World Discovery fleet in 2008, is one of the river industry's newest entrants -- and it is full of little surprises. First, modern amenities and extras normally associated with coastal cruise ships and just starting to find their way into the river cruise world, come standard here (as well as on sister ships Swiss Jewel and Swiss Emerald).
All cabins face the outside (most have French balconies). Amenities include flat-screen plasma televisions, L'Occitane toiletries and cushy bathrobes. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available from bow to stern (okay, it isn't exactly high speed -- when it works at all -- but it's a lovely gesture). An alternative dining option, a light Italian meal, is available nightly in the ship's Lido Bar with a 180-degree retractable glass wall for added ambience. There's even a Nintendo Wii console for game play onboard!
Then there's the unusual variety of itineraries offered on the Rhine, the Main and the Danube. Swiss Sapphire, which never leaves Europe, covers many of the stalwart river routes, such as Amsterdam to Brussels or Strasbourg to Prague, with opportunities to explore metropolitan cities as well as idyllic villages, on your own or with the group. Passengers can even borrow bicycles to ride along the river on some itineraries, meeting up with the boat at the next port of call. Depending on the trip you choose, the cruise experience can be almost like a land tour during which your boat is simply your floating hotel. Indeed, the company, founded in 1925, specializes in land-based touring and has been offering guided trips across the globe for decades.
One final surprise: If Swiss Sapphire sails at a bit of a languorous pace, the rest of the experience doesn't necessarily feel as laid back. Between tour-packed days in port, there are lectures (we had a lesson in the Cyrillic alphabet during which I may have finally cracked the origin of my last name), shore tours, cocktail parties and, of course, meals. Even our sole sea day was hectic (in a good way), kicked off by a 6 a.m. mimosa party as we sailed by castles on the Danube en route to the Iron Gate, a narrow gorge that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania. I was kept so busy I honestly didn't even turn my TV on until the last day of the trip -- just to see if it worked.