New river cruise line Emerald Waterways is making its mark with its impressive fleet, says Deborah Stone
From the top of Gellert Hill the whole of Budapest lay spread out before us: “You’ve probably wondered why Johann Strauss named his waltz the Blue Danube when it looks brown,” said our guide Laszlo, “well now you can see for yourselves.”
And it was blue, too, reflecting the warm autumn sunshine as it gently looped around this fascinating city, under the famous Chain Bridge and past the neo-Gothic spires of Hungary’s Parliament building. We were on the first full day of our Emerald Waterways cruise, on an included guided tour that also took us for a stroll around the back of the parliament, then up to the castle museum quarter in Buda, to walk along the fortification-like Fishermen’s Bastion and explore the medieval side of town.
The afternoon before we had arrived to find Emerald Star moored directly opposite the spires and pointed windows of the gorgeous Parliament building, one of the most picturesque starting points for a European river cruise. With time to explore independently, many headed to the famous Great Market Hall, piled with seasonal vegetables, paprika and strings of garlic.
But I set off to Heroes’ Square where one of the regular summer weekend festivals was taking place in the massive city park behind. Music played and in a fairground atmosphere I browsed among the food and craft stalls surrounding the magnificent Vajdahunyad Castle, now one of several museums in the park. I bought bags of paprika, carved wooden spoons and a hand-made wickerwork carpet beater and still had plenty of change from my £10-worth of Hungarian forint to catch the metro back to Batthyány station a few steps from our ship and my cosy balcony cabin.
If the first thing you do on a cruise ship is bounce on your cabin’s bed, inspect the bathroom toiletries and open every cupboard then you will be more than happy with an Emerald Star stateroom. They all have simple dove grey and off-white tones that are contemporary cool, and every cabin has enough deep drawers for you to bring your whole wardrobe with you, let alone clothes for a week or two on the river. Balcony cabins have a clever inside-outside set-up, with two chairs on decking beside a floor-to-ceiling window, the top half of which opens to the outside while you remain inside.
The minimalist bathroom has stripped wood-effect tiles on the floor and wall, with a large shower cubicle, neat oblong Duravit sink, cupboards behind mirrors and – very important – luxury toiletries by the Italian firm Prija.
There are free films available on the large, flat-screen television plus channels such as Sky News, and the top-grade cabins have coffee makers. But everybody can help themselves to cappuccinos and lattes from the machine in the lounge, or make a pot of tea with Twinings English Breakfast teabags. The tea pots are a big clue that Emerald Waterways, which owns Emerald Star and Emerald Sky, is an Australian-owned firm – the younger sister of Scenic Tours – and values a good cup of tea.
It certainly pleased the many British passengers on my week-long Danube Delights cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, as did the included gratuities policy and complimentary daily excursions. All meals on Emerald Star, especially breakfast and lunch buffets, offered an excellent choice. The Reflections Restaurant has a central serving area laid out each morning with cereal and fruit, every type of bread, cold cuts, bacon, sausages and eggs any way you want them.
For lunch it’s salads and hot choices, and a regional dish every day. Highlights for me were the liver dumpling soup and cheese sausages with sauerkraut. Wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary at lunch and dinner, and I enjoyed eating on the terrace at the front of the ship, with its outdoor heaters.
Dinner was always in the Reflections Restaurant. The wine and conversation flowed during the four courses, which for the gala dinner included pink roasted duck breast with spicy red cabbage and halibut under a mustard crust.
The beauty of a river cruise is being able to moor on the doorstep of fascinating places such as Slovakia’s capital Bratislava. Its old town was just a few minutes’ walk from our ship and like a scene from a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale with classic Austro-Hungarian imperial architecture.
One remaining gateway to what was a walled city is a white tower topped by a green spire while the old city hall, now a museum, is the oldest in Slovakia and showcases a mix of architectural styles. A steep walk up to the castle offers views over the old city’s red roofs, in contrast to the Soviet-built high-rise blocks on the other side of the Danube.
Like most of the new generation of river cruise ships, Emerald Star has a light, airy feel with floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere and an atrium. A feature of both ships is a pool you can swim in rather than just sit in. I enjoyed gently ploughing up and down the pool a few times, and poolside seating includes white armchairs, hot drinks and the view of the pool appearing to drain into the river. After 6pm the pool is covered and you can sign up for one of the 20 seats on film nights. I managed to slip in to see one of the films, sharing a free bucket of popcorn with my companions.
Vienna is another must-see along this stretch of the Danube, and after a guided tour near Hofburg Palace then via the Spanish Riding School to St Stephen’s Cathedral there was time to explore. Some of us stayed in the city and caught the ship’s shuttle back later in the afternoon while others took the optional excursion to Schönbrunn Palace for 40 euros with optional evening concert.
Other highlights included sailing through UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, lounging on deck as we passed vineyards, woods and castles. Alternatively you can use the free wifi for your laptop, or borrow an iPad. And the staff are superb. Nothing was too much trouble as I found when I realised my carpet beater was too big for my suitcase: the receptionist took it away and returned it three inches shorter and a perfect fit. Now that is what I call good service.
GETTING THERE: An eight-day Danube Delights cruise runs between May and December 2015. Prices start at £1,595pp*. Visit emeraldwaterways.co.uk or call 0800 270 7017 for
Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.