We are reasonably experienced cruisers (Silversea, Regent, Oceania, Princess) but this was our first river cruise. We chose Scenic based on their all inclusive 5 star claim and the advice of friends who had sailed with Scenic before. The Danube itinerary suited our interest in visiting both Budapest and Prague and the Scenic Amber was reported to have the kind of amenities we were looking for. We were quite looking forward to this cruise but unfortunately Scenic seemed intent on failing to meet even the most basic expectations.
First the Ship. Sadly we never got to experience the Amber. A couple of days before our departure for Budapest we were advised by Scenic that we would be traveling on the Pearl not the Amber. No explanation or apology offered. Had the Pearl been the same class of ship as the Amber it would have been a non issue but as the Pearl does not have a pool, which my wife was looking forward to using for daily exercise it was a major disappointment. We understand the vagaries of river travel but this switch did not seem to be justified other than as a scheduling error by Scenic as the Amber was in the same stretch of the Danube as we were and indeed we actually met her heading for Budapest on our way to Vienna. As we had no prior experience with Scenic or river cruises we were not aware of some of the other amenity losses; including no separate dining room for the Table Rive and (hearsay) some people were very upset that the class of cabin they had booked on the Amber was not available on the Pearl. The lack of prior notification of the change did not leave them an opportunity to change plans.
Cabin: We were booked on the Diamond deck with butler service and while small the room was more or less as expected. The Pearl is designed with a "separate" balcony area with a window that can be lowered if you wish the outdoor experience or raised in inclement weather. It provided me with an opportunity to get out of my wife's way but being separated from the rest of the cabin reduced the flexibility that the additional space could have afforded. We noticed that some of the other lines incorporated the balcony area into the cabin proper allowing some space for sitting.
Service; We cannot fault the staff aboard. Hotel staff worked their butts off trying to keep up but the Pearl is so grossly understaffed (Pax/crew ratio 3.3) that is impossible for the staff to meet the advertised 5 star standard. Our butler was doing double duty as a dining room waiter (on call it would seem). It may seem like a small thing to some but the bean counters at Scenic seem to require the servers to limit a pour of wine to no more than 3 ounces (champagne 1 oz). This would be ok if you could find a waiter to top up your glass but they were usually too busy. At a table of four where we were all drinking the same wine they refused to leave the bottle implying this was against policy.
Food: It is hard to find words. First impressions are important and for our first dinner I ordered the Sea Bass. When it arrived, it looked like a sardine on the plate. I have never seen such a small portion. I'm not a big eater and don't tell me I could have ordered more, I know! But as this is a five star ship I shouldn’t have to order two meals to get one! The quality of food was poor to average. Anyone who wishes a balanced meal is out of luck. I ordered extra vegetables every meal. My specific request resulted in a second broccoli floret being added to my dinner. Given the huge amount of wonderful vegetables available in the local markets the lack of vegetables was very disappointing. My wife has an allergy to asparagus and this was made known to the manager. In one instance she wished to order a wrap and asked if there was any asparagus in it. The waiter acknowledged the request but brought the wrap anyway without comment. a close call!
Interestingly the quality of the food improved a bit a few days into the cruise after a re-provisioning. Makes one wonder why they didn't start that way.
Again, the staffing issue was a problem. Dinners were rushed events, more typical of chain restaurants than a five star dining experience.
Due to river level issues were not able to sail to Nuremberg as planned but had to turn around at Regensburg and return to Passau.
The extension visit to Prague was a highlight. Great hotel, tour director that was the best ever.
All in all we were quite disappointed both with Scenic, the Pearl and river cruising in general. River cruising has too many uncertainties if our experience is typical.
I've seen it written that river cruising is like a package bus tour without the unpacking. this is certainly true so if that style of travel is not your preference stay away.
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