A proposal from atop a church roof and a close call in a lock – it’s all in a week’s river cruise for Gabriella Le Breton

I’ve always been under the impression that river cruises, with their stately pace and gentle shore excursions, are aimed more towards the elderly cruiser, rather than someone of my (relative) youth.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see a number of younger passengers on board Uniworld’s luxurious River Beatrice in June for a week-long cruise I took down the Danube.

Not only did the majority of Beatrice’s 160 passengers appear to be aged below 60, but I also spotted an American couple in their twenties, a young Egyptian couple with a one- year-old daughter and two glamorous 30-something German sisters.

This was a sizeable haul of under-40s for a small ship about to embark on a sedate procession down the Danube for great dollops of rococo, baroque and Habsburg culture, and by no means what I had anticipated.

And it made me think – is river cruising changing? Will we see zip-lining and rock climbing on board next? They do say it’s 15 years behind where ocean cruising was, after all.

I was determined to find out. So that evening at dinner I joined the Americans – John and Aya – and asked what had tempted them on board.

I found out they were medical students from Boston who had won a place on the cruise after entering a competition at a travel show.

Similarly, it transpired that the beautiful German sisters, with their infectious smiles and giggles, weren’t entirely traditional cruisers either. The younger of the two had modelled for the latest Uniworld brochures and, when offered a cruise of her choice at the end of the photoshoot, she had invited her sibling to join her on the Danube.

Also, the Egyptian worked as a guide on board Uniworld ships on the Nile and had come to experience with his young family how things worked on a European river.

I believe much of the enjoyment of our experience was due to our earnest young Dutch captain, Doede Smit, who enabled us to appreciate the Danube at her best.

Smit helmed the two-year-old River Beatrice as carefully as he might have handled a toddler, easing her gently through narrow locks and floating down long sections of peaceful river, seemingly on ‘stealth’ mode. This meant we could lie back on our sun loungers and soak up the views of lush forests, terraced vineyards and lofty castles flanking the Danube to the soundtrack of birdsong and church bells rather than roaring boat engines.

Our enjoyment of Smit’s unhurried driving was reinforced by a particularly aggressive overtaking manoeuvre performed by a Spanish captain one evening while we were negotiating a lock. As the lock opened, the Spaniard roared out from behind us, the hull of his ship screeching piercingly against the walls of the lock as he shoved past. He hurtled off down the Danube, his engines grinding loudly and belching out plumes of black smoke. Although Smit remained cool and collected, we passengers shook our fists and sent angry looks at the enemy. The episode became the talking point of the ship for the next 24 hours.

High drama indeed – and it struck me that in this day and age where speed is everything, the unhurried pace of a river cruise is something which appeals across generations.

And while the ‘youth’ might not have chosen to sail with River Beatrice entirely of their own volition, they each concluded by the end of the voyage that they, like me, had fallen entirely under the spell of the river and our ship, and would jump at the chance to embark on another river cruise.

In fact – John was so moved by his surroundings that, a couple of days into the cruise, he proposed to Aya on the roof of a church in Salzburg, having conspired with River Beatrice’s cruise director to temporarily empty it of other visitors and sneak up a bottle of celebratory champagne.

So, river cruising may be catching up with ocean cruising in terms of the quality of food and accommodation and the fact that young couples and even children are now on board – but I don’t think we’ll see zip-lining on board for a while yet!