Cruise Sale Finder's Niche Product and Groups Manager, Sam Corlett-Wood, went all the way to Europe last year to check out one of the products on our books - river cruises. Boarding the Emerald Sky in Nuremberg, she experienced the "Delights of the Danube" itinerary by Evergreen Tours and spent eight days cruising through Germany, Austria and Hungary to disembark in Budapest. These scenic river cruises are a great for history lovers and those who enjoy exploring new cities - here's what Sam thought of the various aspects.
The cruise line - Evergreen Tours
Evergreen is a part of the Scenic Tours river cruising family, and is also branded as Emerald River Cruises. Most things on the ship referred to Emerald rather than Evergreen - it's just a naming quirk and it doesn't make a difference which one you choose. The onboard currency is of course the Euro.
The check-in process is your first impression of a cruise line, so it's great for both you and them when they make it fast and easy. Once we got onboard the Emerald Sky, it was very quick - we handed over our passports to the reception desk (they held them for an hour) and then were taken straight to our cabin by one of the stewards. We didn't have to set up an onboard account as these were settled at the end of the cruise, and we didn't need a cruise card either as we had room keys and everything else was just billed back to the room.
This good impression continued through the rest of the cruise as I found the service to be very attentive and very personal. The dinner service was that of an upmarket restaurant, and the crew would call you by name.
It can be tricky to time disembarkation with your onward travel plans, and Evergreen was very accommodating in this regard. One lady in our group had a flight at 6am on the day of disembarkation and she left the ship at 4am with no issues from Evergreen or the transfer company. I had a late flight and was able to leave everything on the ship and come and go around Budapest until 5pm when I had to collect my baggage- this made for an easy day of sightseeing!
Evergreen offers shore excursions which cost extra, and they are called "Discover More". There are also exclusive local experience trips called "You're Invited" as part of the cruise fare, and they offer something a little more in-depth than just sightseeing. More on these later.
The ship - Emerald Sky
Our ship was the oldest in the Evergreen fleet but you really couldn't tell, it was very nice and modern! We were in a Balcony Suite cabin, and although the balcony wasn't much of a balcony (more like a sitting area with a wind down window, kind of like a Paris hotel room 'balcony'), we were happy with the amount of space provided for storage. We got a peek into the Owner's Suite too which was very spacious with a separate lounge area and its own coffee machine! The cabin was serviced twice daily with an evening turn-down service and we were given sparkling and still bottled water which was replenished each day.
It might interest some single cruisers to know that the Emerald Sky did offer that rare unicorn, a single-occupancy cabin!
There weren't very many public areas, which was fine for this port-heavy style of cruising. There was the Sky Deck, for which availability is dependent on weather and bridge height, the Horizon Lounge for relaxing and socializing, and the Pool area. The indoor, heated swimming pool turned into a cinema in the evenings.
River cruising is all about the views and the ports, so the entertainment offered on board is very low-key. Guest entertainers came on board at 2 of our ports for a glass blowing presentation and a tasting of apricot products - liqueurs, chutneys etc.
Every afternoon, there was a port talk during which the cruise director explained what was happening the following day, and there was a pianist in the Horizon Lounge every evening. Laid-back quiz nights and games like "Name that Tune" also took place in the Horizon Lounge on a few evenings, and one night there was a very popular "Oldies but Goldies" dance party.
The cinema in the pool area was a nice touch - it had 19 seats with wireless headphones and operated on a first come, first served basis. The TV cabins also had a good selection of movies to watch if you missed out.
Dining and drinking
Always a very important aspect of any cruise! The food was fantastic, as to be expected when you are in Europe. There were days which were themed around certain culture and cuisines of the places we passed through - we had a Bavarian and a Hungarian day.
Breakfast and lunch were offered as a buffet in the reflections Restaurant or as lighter options in the Horizon Lounge - I mostly ate in the Horizons Lounge which was quieter and I appreciated the reduced selections in my efforts to avoid overindulging!
Dinner is served each evening at around 7pm in the Reflections Restaurant and this was a real dining experience, not the rushed eating time it can be on other ships. The European influence is evident in the four-course dinner which takes roughly two hours from start to finish. As mentioned before, service is impeccable and it felt like a classy restaurant.
Alcohol prices reflected the setting, with beers and wine ranging from 2.60€ and 5€ each, and cocktails from 6.20€ and 8.70€ each. Beverage packages were also available and pretty reasonably priced in comparison to familiar lines Down Under: 9€ per person per day for all soft drinks, wines and beers and then 19€ per person per day for everything except champagne.
The nature of river cruises are that the ports take centre stage, and there's no better place for this than amongst the amazing cities of Europe.
I went on three different "Discover More" excursions - one which included a visit to Weltenburg Abbey and a Danube Gorge Cruise, and one to a Viennese concert in the evening with classical music. The walking tours by passionate local guides are perfect for history buffs, and very informative. Some of the places where the ship docked were not very close to the city centres, and I think that in those ports booking a tour was very helpful to save making your own arrangements.
It's also a great option to be able to explore on your own - who wouldn't want to be set loose in Vienna or Budapest to see what's on offer? My favourite ports were Nuremberg which looked just like something out of a wartime-era movie, and Durnstein which is just a small Austrian village but very quaint and fun to wander around. This was what I really enjoyed about river cruising: the scenery, and also the fact that every day meant a new port to explore.
My favourite experience was the "You're Invited" tour that I did in Bratislava. There were several options, and I joined a bus that headed forty minutes out of the city to visit a family of wine-makers. Our group of fifteen was welcomed into their home and to see the 1/2 acre vineyard where they grew their grapes (as a hobby). We tasted the wines and heard about the process which was very interesting. It was very cool to experience a slice of normal Slovakian life.
Who's it for?
It's worth noting that I was one of the youngest on my cruise. The average age was probably somewhere in the 60s, so these cruises obviously appeal to the slightly older generation who are no longer enamoured by the thought of backpacking or a contiki tour. If you want a party atmosphere, a Europe river cruise is probably not for you. If you love history, art and architecture, it probably is!
Does it sound like cruising Europe's rivers is something you'd enjoy? Take a look at the Scenic river cruise and Evergreen river cruise deals available on Cruise Sale Finder and you could find yourself watching history pass by your window in no time. Cruise Sale Finder have all of the cheap cruises for your river cruising adventure, so you can save those pennies!