Christmas will be here again before you know it so now’s the time to plan your next festive escape
In that spirit, a ‘part-time’ Christmas scrooge from Australia rediscovers the joy of the season on a Yuletide Markets cruise with Riviera Travel from Hungary to Slovakia and Austria.
By Andrew Mevissen
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. But like the Olympics, I just think Christmas should be celebrated every four years. There’s so much rushing, stressing and preparing that the storybook magic of the season dwindles – for me anyway – and it all comes around so quickly each year.
But last Christmas this part-time Scrooge rediscovered the joy of the season when I boarded one of Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Markets cruises in Europe. How could I not be swept up in festive traditions and breathless anticipation when I’m in a riverside town’s medieval square festooned with twinkling lights and colourful decorations and brimming with jolly carollers and enchanting timber stalls selling cuckoo clocks, wooden toys, artisan gifts and every type of Christmas treat and trinket you could imagine. Ice skaters glide around glittering fir trees and the sweet scents of cinnamon, honey cookies, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts fill the frosty air.
It feels like I’ve been embedded in a Christmas card. In under 24 hours I’ve been transported from a sizzling Sydney summer in Australia to a winter wonderland in Europe, celebrating our happiest season of all.
‘Our festive cruise had begun’
Our six-day cruise in mid-December started in Budapest when we boarded Riviera Travel’s five-star river ship, MS Thomas Hardy, a modern, gleaming, elegant vessel more akin to a floating, boutique hotel. An impressive line of staff welcomed us onboard in the sparkling, marble-floored lobby. Complimentary bon voyage drinks were offered, our baggage was delivered to cabins in a flash and our festive cruise had begun.
Named after the famous British writer, MS Thomas Hardy is a beautiful and spacious ship boasting an ambience that is stylishly casual and charmingly mellow. There are rich hardwoods, gleaming brass, polished copper, expansive glass and intricate wrought iron – all creating a harmonious atmosphere of understated elegance and all designed to make guests as relaxed as the flow of the Danube. With only 169 passengers onboard, the friendly and personable crew quickly remember your face and name and you get to know your fellow passengers quickly as well.
As soon as you board the ship you feel the yuletide spirit, thanks to colourful Christmas trees and decorations, traditional Christmas delicacies on the restaurant’s menus, nostalgic Christmas movies on your cabin TV and favourite carols performed by the lounge pianist. But the best part is we don’t need to cook, wash dishes or clean – a perfect Christmas celebration in my book!
Our lovely stateroom sported a French balcony – a panoramic, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that, when opened, turns our suite into an alfresco sunroom. All cabins enjoy a river view and it was joyfully mesmerising to lie on our big, comfy bed and watch the gentle pastoral landscapes floating by, listening to the gentle, lapping water through our open glass door. Our stateroom offered a sitting area, ample space under the bed for luggage, flat screen TV with a bridge camera channel, individually controlled air-conditioning, phone, hairdryer, handy USB ports for phone charging, bathrobes/slippers and tea and coffee-making facilities including a small coffee pod machine – a nice and unusual touch. The marble bathroom boasted Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries. There’s an evening turn-down service too with chocolates on the pillows.
Flanked by panoramic windows, the tables in the main restaurant were beautifully laid out with crisp linen. A second, smaller bistro at the rear of the ship offered an alternative, casual dining venue overlooking the wake and back along the river. And unlike specialty restaurants on ocean ships, the bistro was complimentary. But like on all ships, there seems to be an unwritten rule in seafaring law that all passengers are never allowed to have more than a few hours between meals. That was certainly the case aboard Thomas Hardy where the tireless chefs were eager to please our palates around the clock. A highlight was a festive, eight-course degustation dinner – a delectable and veritable feast featuring seared prawns, rillette of duck, winter bisque, pan-fried halibut and rum balls.
The River Journey
Our five-night journey aboard Thomas Hardy took us along the storied Danube River from the gilded palaces of Budapest to the romantic old town of Bratislava in Slovakia and the baroque splendour of Vienna. In each port there was a free excursion which typically included a guided coach and walking tour for half a day or so, leaving the rest of the day to explore on your own – including the stunning Christmas markets of each port. My wife and I were like excited little children, following mazes of cobblestoned streets leading to town squares soaked in sensory-filling Christmas magic. We sampled local delicacies and bought Christmas decorations back home for our grown-up children.
I thought Australia showcased Christmas pretty well in the decoration department but Europe wins the prize hands down, with spectacular displays everywhere – and I mean everywhere – especially in front of the Vienna Town Hall where one of Europe’s biggest Yuletide markets unfolds every season. After all, the traditions which we now love about Christmas originated in Europe so it was an eye-opening, bucket list experience for a Down Under summer worshipper like me to finally experience a winter Christmas.
Immersing in the local culture
But as wonderful as the Christmas celebrations were, my wife and I always like to steal away from the crowds and join locals in places that help us authentically experience the cultural fabric of a destination. In beautiful Budapest we immersed ourselves in the huge, steamy, outdoor thermal pools of the historic Szechenyi Baths, wandered the cavernous halls of the giant Central Market Hall, savoured hearty goulash soup in the glorious surrounds of the Central Café for lunch and stood in awe at the magnificent Parliament Building, brilliantly lit at night.
In picture-book-lovely Bratislava, we borrowed two of our ship’s complimentary bicycles and cycled along the river and through backstreets, stopping for hot chocolate. And in magnificent, wintry Vienna, we picked the cosiest, warmest café we could find to indulge in traditional apple strudel and Vienna coffee! In every place, we walked, wandered, watched and wrapped up during the short, cold days, returning always to the luxury and warmth of the Thomas Hardy at the end of the day. And how delightful, before leaving Vienna, for the passengers to be serenaded by an Austrian string quartet which came aboard the ship to perform a spine-tingling concert featuring composers who loved Vienna, such as Mozart, Bach and Strauss.
Our favourite experience
But as appealing as advent markets and grand, historic cities were, our absolute best memory of our short river sojourn was soaking in the ship’s top-deck, open-air plunge pool, heated to toasty jacuzzi temperatures in winter. We were in there at dawn and at dusk and after dinner under the stars, coffee or wine in hand, soaking in the majestic splendours of Europe all around us. Just bliss! It was, indeed, beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Returning home to a hot summer in Australia, just three days before Christmas, I was now, finally, in the mood to celebrate the joy of the season!
To find out more about Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Market Cruises in Europe for December 2020, call us at Cruise Express on 1300 766 537 or visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au
There’s more to it than meets the eye!
Those who have never been on a river cruise may have preset views of what it entails. We are here to bust some myths so it becomes a holiday considered by everyone!
River cruising is for older people only
You probably already know this but cruising (in all its forms) is booming globally. Things are changing too, especially when it comes to river cruising. The average age for cruising is falling and cruise lines are providing more choices and activities including long-walking shore tours, hiking, kayaking, cycling, yoga and gym sessions. River cruising really has a place for everyone – the young and the old, singles, couples or families. There are even river cruise lines that specialise in family travel or travel for the under 45’s. For those content with the non-active kind of holiday, you can still do as little or as much as you like on a river cruise. It’s really all about options.
River cruises are prohibitively expensive
With any holiday (as with pretty much most things in life), some are expensive and some are not. There are so many river cruise companies with some offering budget and others luxurious options. You just need to ask our team of Cruise Travel Specialists to find out the range of holidays available and what’s included. Those on a budget can find great deals that might surprise and many of the more traditionally ‘expensive’ luxury cruises also offer great value packages so don’t dismiss them.
If you compare cruising with a ‘non-cruising’ holiday, we urge you to factor in the actual costs and time taken to arrange flights, transfers, car hire, accommodation, meals, drinks, tours etc. If you really do the maths, you’ll find that river cruises are actually great value, particularly as many include gratuities, entertainment, shore tours, airport transfers, sometimes flights and even drink packages!
If you only think of the Rhine or the Danube when it comes to river cruising – we are here to let you know that there are many, many more options!
River cruising is possible throughout most of the world but if we’re staying in Europe, we suggest considering checking out river cruising in Spain, Hungary, Ukraine, Portugal or the many rivers throughout Russia.
Further afield you could consider these too – the Mississippi, the Nile, the Mekong, the Amazon, the Chobe, the Irrawaddy, the Yangtze and the Ganges – so exciting just thinking about the possibilities!
Similarly to larger ocean cruise ships, no two river ships are the same, no destinations or experience is the same, no history, entertainment, food, culture, flora and fauna… the list goes on. River cruising is so diverse.
The reality of river cruising is that you can do as much or as little as you like. Many passengers find they have more to do than imagined, including onboard immersion and educational seminars. What you won’t be doing is the grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking and cleaning!
While you can certainly stay onboard while docked, many of the river ports you’ll visit will have sights and activities including markets and shopping, museums and monuments, castles and cathedrals, as well as great dining options and watering holes at your ‘boat step’.
Depending on the destination you can immerse yourself in the culture, history and nature on a shore tour – one is sure to tickle your fancy!
River cruising isn’t for families
This may have traditionally been a reality, but the industry has transformed with some river cruise lines offering multi-generational holidays, especially during school holiday peak periods. Catering to all generations, many now have interconnecting cabins and appropriate onboard activities and shore excursions.
This is such a wonderful way for children to experience travel, but keep in mind at the end of the day, the size of river cruise ships. It’s still not for those children who have excessive energy needing vast spaces to climb and run!
Good news though is that if holidaying with children isn’t your ‘cuppa tea’ – there are still a lot of journeys to choose from (and don’t go in school holidays), just ask one of our cruise travel specialists!
You’re always on tour
If you think river cruising is all about large tourist groups being guided around crowded markets, museums and cathedrals sends shivers down your spine, then we have good news! While that can be the case, it isn’t necessarily the norm. Onshore tours are always optional, they don’t run all day for the most part, and small group guided walks are often an alternative.
Remember you never HAVE to join an organised tour, it’s free choice. When river ships are docked, often for the day, you can join part of the tour or explore the town and surrounds by yourself – just don’t miss your transfer and/or ships departure as they won’t wait for you!
So now is the time to investigate river cruising! We’re here to help you with any query or booking. Just call 1300 766 537 or check out our latest river cruise delights!