Scenic Jade offers the intellectually curious passenger a fine sampler of excursions along more than 700 miles of waterways, from Amsterdam to Budapest. It's a 14-night history class, taught at a gliding pace where the events took place. The Scenic philosophy is that, while life onboard the ship is relaxed, the passengers (169 maximum) book for the enrichment of shore excursions, either guided by able locals or a clever device that offers recorded, GPS-sensitive presentations. The device includes narrated tours for 18 port calls and hundreds more brief comments along the river route.
Additionally, each passenger receives an annotated route map, plus Scenic's own 430-page lavishly illustrated paperback guidebook about the itinerary.
Parent company Scenic terms voyages on its "space ships" as "luxury river cruising," and to that end, the vessel has some notable pluses:
About 85 percent of its cabins have balconies boasting a go-the-extra-mile innovation: floor-to-ceiling glass panels that can be manoeuvred to fold flat, opening the whole cabin to the balcony.
The vessel is uncommonly vibration free and quiet, largely because its twin engines are on rubber mounts. While we motored on the Danube, I couldn't hear the engine even when I could hear the conversation of two men fishing from a boat 30 yards away. There's a sliding scale of butler service to every cabin.
The vessel carries electric-power-assisted bicycles to encourage passengers to join guided shore tours or pedal off on their own. While there are other, smaller touches that live up to Scenic's luxury billing, there's also one significant shortcoming -- the food and its presentation. The menu promises more than the galley delivers, and hot items are often little more than room temperature.
But that's not a deterrent to Scenic loyalists; the company reports that nearly 50 percent of passengers book again with the company after a trip. And Scenic has also made a name for itself by offering one of river cruising's most inclusive products, with gratuities, airport transfers, shore tours and beverages built into its fares. That means not only will you learn something about Western Europe on this cruise, you won't be presented with a hefty bill at vacation's end.