From an early morning jog around Vienna to cycling along the banks of the Wachau Valley, an Avalon Waterways Danube cruise is the ideal opportunity to get active, discovers Sara Macefield.
Eyeing the stack of bikes I’m starting to feel rather apprehensive at the 12-mile ride that lies ahead of us when the guide pulls one out and wheels it over.
‘Is it electric?’ I ask hopefully, conscious that my legs are still throbbing from an arduous jogging tour two days before. He grins and shakes his head, leaving me fearing that perhaps I’ve been a tad over-ambitious in signing up for this morning’s cycling jaunt along the banks of the Danube River through Austria’s Wachau Valley.
But I’m not about to give up before I’ve even started. The jade carpet of rolling hills dotted with trees whose leaves are transforming into a rich tide of autumnal colour is too tempting, and I’m soon pedalling past rows of verdant vineyards clinging to jagged stone terraces.
There are around 20 of us and it’s clear that we’re all fairly confident on two wheels, with several accomplished speed-merchants at the head of the group.
I hang back to savour the views, especially when the impressive ruins of Kuenringer Castle at Dürnstein come into view and we stop to relish the vista and watch as our ship Avalon Impression sails by, waving at fellow guests who have taken the less energetic route upstream.
There are several miles to go, but my growing confidence propels me closer to the front of the group as we speed along the towpath alongside the water’s edge.
We’re going at a decent lick and I reflect that anyone who dismisses river cruising as slow-paced and sedentary needs, quite literally, to get on their bike – because cycling has become one of the go-to activities on these holidays.
It reflects the relatively recent trend among river cruise lines to embrace more sports and activities in order to woo a younger audience, and none more so than Avalon Waterways with its Active & Discovery sailings, which inject more varied and energetic options into the usual
line-up of daily excursions and activities.
I’ve taken numerous river cruises, but the choice of pursuits on this sailing from Budapest to Linz is impressive and easily the most varied I’ve seen.
Each day brings a choice of tours designated as active (hiking, biking or canoeing), discovery (wine-tasting and behind-the-scenes ‘insider’ tours) and classic (coach tours, museum visits and beer-tasting) – something that causes regular dilemmas for me as I agonise over what to choose.
Price isn’t even a factor either as most tours are included in the cruise fare, which is another bonus. It also means that despite having cruised the Danube four times previously, I can enjoy a new set of experiences on this sailing that give it a totally different feel and flavour.
Thus, I find myself pounding the streets of Vienna early one morning on a jogging tour through its classical streets. Having never jogged in my life, I’d been intrigued by this option and hoped my low-level fitness (from occasional tennis playing and frequent running for trains) would help me muddle through. It didn’t.
Only three of us signed up and my two running companions were both fitter and more experienced than me, but then that wasn’t difficult. As for our guide – he was in training for his fourth marathon in 12 months.
For the next 90 minutes, as we cover 3.5 miles, I use the pretence of taking photos to stop and catch my breath whenever my lungs feel fit to explode.
Yet in a masochistic sort of way, it is enjoyable as Vienna is made for exploring on foot (ideally at a slower pace) with its charming pedestrianised streets and mix of glorious Baroque architecture.
But it’s not until the following day when I’m really able to appreciate the classical splendour of this city during an early morning walking tour, which takes us through Vienna’s deserted streets before the tourist hordes begin to descend.
I’ve visited the Austrian capital on several occasions, but this time I’m seeing it with new eyes as our guide leads us Pied Piper-like into tiny winding passageways, tucked-away squares and ornate churches I never knew existed.
After an hour or so, with our stomachs rumbling, we’re led into a traditional Viennese coffee-house as part of the tour, where tables welcome us for breakfast with freshly baked bread rolls alongside slices of cheese and ham, accompanied by pots of steaming hot coffee.
With our appetites sated, we continue through the old part of the city past the stately Austrian National Library and magnificent Hofburg Palace, but my friend Pip and I break away from the group at the famous Spanish Riding School where we make a spur-of-the-moment decision to watch one of the practice sessions.
At 15 euros it’s a snip compared to the cost of seats at the grand ceremonial shows, which can exceed 200 euros, and it adds an extra frill to our two days spent in the city.
But this river cruise isn’t all about non-stop action. One of my favourite things to do on board is relax amid the very comfortable surroundings of Avalon Impression, and particularly in our Panorama Suite with its vast 11ft windows that slide back to create a French balcony.
As my bed faces the window, I spend many a blissful hour recovering from my exertions while watching a palate of ever-changing riverside scenes float by.
Mealtimes are another high point as complimentary wines flow liberally and seem a cut above the norm, with sparkling varieties served too. Buffet breakfasts and lunches are appetising, and although I would have welcomed a wider choice of dishes, the four-course dinners are good,
the grilled beef tenderloin is memorable, and the pumpkin soup is the best I’ve tasted.
Unusually for river cruises, evening dining is not at a fixed time, but usually between 7pm and 9pm, though it seems old habits die hard as most guests head determinedly for the downstairs dining room as soon as the doors open.
Large tables lend themselves to sociable occasions and are an ideal way to meet fellow cruisers, though smaller two-person tables are so close together, diners often end up chatting to their neighbours on these too.
On this voyage, most of the 139 guests are American, with Canadians making up the second-largest grouping, along with a small sprinkling from the UK and Australia. Many seem younger than your average river cruise customer and are definitely fitter.
Yet this isn’t a prerequisite for this voyage as there are enough alternative activities that don’t involve breaking out into a sweat with walking tours, museum trips and even a visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz.
Unlike other tours on this cruise, it proves to be emotionally, rather than physically, demanding as our brilliant guide brings alive the horrors of Austria’s only concentration camp known to the Nazis as the ‘Bone Mill’.
It was the last to be liberated by the Allies, on 5 May 1945, and its beautiful riverside setting along the Danube simply compounds the horror of the suffering endured by the prisoners here.
My Avalon cruise ends as it began, in energetic fashion, with my first attempt at hiking on a three-mile trek. I’m soon striding up the steep hills lining the Danube, and, having rather over-confidently joined the most experienced group, I again find myself puffing to keep up.
The reward is the magnificent vista over the river which I savour with the sweet satisfaction of knowing that despite a week of culinary indulgence, I’m feeling fitter and trimmer than I did at the beginning of this cruise. Now that’s another first to be proud of.
Avalon Waterways offers eight-night Active & Discovery on the Danube sailings between Budapest and Linz, with regular departures between April and October. A 2 July departure from Budapest costs from £3,230pp, based on two people sharing, including flights, excursions, gratuities and wine/beer with meals. For further details visit avalonwaterways.co.uk.