Just Cruisin’

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By Carrie Hampton

Great Aunt Greta would be the perfect companion on a cruise along Europe’s longest river, the Danube. She lives overlooking the river in Vienna and would only have to totter down the hill to step aboard. Elegant and flirtatious at 90 years old, she likes to travel in style. She would appreciate the stately surroundings of boutique river cruise ships—with fewer than 150 passengers and just about every imaginable comfort.

Greta’s romantic stories of following her famous orchestra conductor lover through Europe have always entranced me. She recounts vivid details while never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Favouring the dramatic and starting every sentence with, “Dahlink,” she then throws statements to the wind that need to be explained, “I vonce went to a ball at Schonbrunn Palace with the Crown Prince of Austria, not so very long after the Hapsburgs were dethroned…”  

The Royal House of Hapsburg ruled vast tracts of Europe for many hundreds of years and their legacy lives on in Gothic cathedrals, frescoes and mediaeval city walls visible from the Danube. Vienna is a good start or end to a Danube river cruise and lives up to its reputation as “Europe’s most graceful city”. Heading westward, you’d cross the German border and step ashore at Nuremberg in Bavaria—think beer, bratwurst and beautiful buildings—and finish the tour overland to Prague. Prague is an important Hapsburg city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and former capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

This meander through a complicated history of territorial acquisitions will be unravelled with the aid of talks by guest historians, who take the facts far more seriously than Greta. They certainly help give background to shore excursions visiting villages, distilleries and grandiose buildings, such as Austria’s Melk Abbey. The Abbey is a Benedictine Monastery built in 1089 and rebuilt in its current Baroque appearance between 1702 and 1736.

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If you really want to immerse yourself in the journey, take along Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book A Time of Gifts. It’s a classic travel-writing memoir of his journey on foot across Europe in 1933, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

Your version of his expedition could be a 25-night UNIWORLD GRAND EUROPEAN RIVER VOYAGE. It starts by exploring modern-day Constantinople, now Istanbul, followed by a flight to Bucharest in Romania, then a cruise up the Danube as the river wends its way through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. At some point you join the Rhine and follow it all the way to Amsterdam. It’s a path forged by crusaders, conquerors and kings to 10 countries, six capitals and 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It could be the inspiration for a book of your own—or at least a travel blog to record your journey.

Stepping firmly into the present on board a Mediterranean cruise ship, I need another companion. Someone organised, with a bit of cruising know-how. That would be Antoinette—my wheelchair-bound friend who knows no limits. She’s already been on a whirlwind seven-day, seven-port cruise starting and finishing in Barcelona and taking in Malta, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa and Nice. “A port every day is too hectic!” she states, and recommends a cruise that has some free days without excursions, for some much needed relaxation by the pool.

With all of Antoinette’s pre-planning—and subsequently arranging her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary cruise of the Greek Isles and the Adriatic—she’s read the small print and knows how to work the system. Such as paying less by booking optional excursions in advance and receiving discounts or complimentary on-board spending money for booking early. Some operators now offer ‘all-inclusive’ cruises, where the extras that can mount up to a shocking final bill are all taken care of—such as gratuities, drinks including wines and spirits, all excursions, WiFi internet, audio headsets for shore excursions, and onshore bicycles.

There’s never a dull moment on board even the smallest cruise ships, with a whole line-up of ‘enrichment and entertainment’ lectures from cultural historians, art appreciation seminars, discussing a book with its author, or studying Renaissance art with a museum curator. There’s a choice of bars, clubs and theatre performances from magicians to Las Vegas showgirls. Then there’s karaoke, quizzes, 3D-cinema, sports screens, a health club and spa, and let’s not forget the nightly disco and midnight buffet. Should you decide to take it easy and do nothing at all for a day, there’s a real chance of developing FOMO—fear of missing out.

Always thinking of ways to satisfy their customers, cruise ships go to extraordinary lengths to add whatCRYSTAL CRUISES calls “posh perks”. They supply Evian spritzes by the pool and course-by-course in-suite dining, and promise “a number of offerings that may never have crossed your mind”. My mind boggles at the thought.

But there’s one topic that supersedes all others in guest testimonials and that’s food. Cuisine is all-important on board ship, and the big boys of cruising such as P&O CRUISES and ROYAL CARIBBEANhave jumped on the celebrity chef bandwagon, hiring Marco Pierre White (of bad temper fame) and Jamie Oliver for his Italian Restaurant chain, to add a bit of magic to the culinary options. It’s also a ploy to attract a younger crowd—not the traditional target market for cruising.

MSC CRUISES mastered this when they sailed into South Africa in 2009 and hit the spot for the three Ps of marketing: Price, Product and Promotion. Hotels found themselves with empty beds as extended families and friends flocked aboard MSC’s multi-storey floating party palaces and ate themselves silly on cruises from Cape Town to Durban and into Mozambican and Madagascan waters. There’s even a popular 2-day cruise from Cape Town to nowhere—out to sea and back again. Who’d have thought?

MSC is Italian family-owned and doesn’t need Mr Oliver to tell them how to cook pasta. Feeding close to 2 200 guests and 700 staff several times a day on the 13-deck MSC SINFONIA requires precision planning. And there’s no popping down to the shops when your hotel is of no fixed location. All you really need to know is that the food and service is really good and pizzas come out of the oven all day long.

If you’d like to get to Europe by sea from South Africa, it’s not like old times, when Cunard passenger liners regularly arrived in Cape Town. QUEEN MARY 2—“the most magnificent ocean liner ever built”—may stop here on her world cruise, but for a direct route to Europe and a few zeroes off the Queen Mary 2 price tag, the best choice is MSC OPERA. Her Grand Voyage from Cape Town to Venice is a 19-night cruise departing in March.

If you haven’t been cruising yet, it’s got to be on the bucket list, because whatever you might think you are going to hate about it, there’s a cruise to change your mind. Cruising is probably the best value all-inclusive holiday in the travel industry today and South Africans are taking to it like ducks to water. It’s all about picking the right destination on the right kind of ship at a price to suit you. 

Antoinette’s 5-step plan

1. If you haven’t cruised before, try a short cruise of seven days or less.

2. If booking a large cruise liner, choose a centrally located cabin for easy access to everything.  

3. Get as much information online as you can. You’ll be surprised what discounts are on offer, such as pre-purchased drinks cards, giving you big savings.

4. Find out if there are going to be any theme nights and get into the spirit by packing something suitable.

5. Try to have the right foreign currencies to avoid the poor exchange rates offered on board. 

Antoinette’s final motivations to go cruising are quite simple: “You only have to unpack once, you wake up to a different experience every day, and you feel completely safe.” I can’t argue with that, so I’m off to pack my bags, complete with a 1920s-themed dress for the Gatsby evening. Are you coming?

Come On, Let’s Cruise

Find out more about these cruise options:

• Anything is possible
After 40 years of cruising, the Royal CaribbeanCruises International’s most popular cruise line, has learned a thing or two about innovation at sea. Their most recent innovation is “Dynamic Dining”— a completely new culinary experience that gives guests on Quantum of the Seas andAnthem of the Seas a landscape of 18 restaurant concepts as vast and varied as dining in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Now, Quantum-class ships will surprise foodies with a new, multi-sensory venue, as well as concepts from award-winning chefs, including the first-at-sea outposts of Jamie’s Italian. Go to www.cruises.co.za

• The road best travelled is a river
Welcome to the six-star experience of a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise. Unpack once, sleep on the finest sheets and bedding, dine on a parade of culinary delights and comfort foods, and find your every need unabashedly catered for. 11 of Uniworld’s ships were named in the Condé Naste 2013 top 40 River Cruise Ships, with three in particular taking the top spots. In 2014 Uniworld announced that their European cruises would operate on an all-inclusive basis. All meals onboard, entertainment, cultural enrichment, gratuities, and airport transfers are included, and the beverages are unlimited. Go to www.uniworldcruises.co.za

• The Mediterranean in winter
From December to April 2015, MSC Splendida sails between the Mediterranean’s treasures of art. The Trevi Fountain and the Sagrada Familia, the ruins of Carthage and Van Gogh’s Provence, the polychromatic mosaics of Monreale and the little houses of Portofino. You’ll enjoy comfortable and relaxing sailing even in the middle of winter, allowing you to enjoy a view of the Mediterranean, far from the summer crowds. The pace is slower, the temperature milder; strolling is more pleasant, beauty even more surprising. And on land there are countless treasures to discover or rediscover. Go to www.msccruises.co.za

• Cruising in confidence
When you book your cruise holiday with Cruiseabout, you can book with confidence. All cruise specialists have travelled the globe and are 

trained to deliver the very best in service, offering exclusive insider advice on everything from finding the right cruise line to ship features, and best-at-port sights. In addition to expert industry knowledge, you’ll have access to exclusive deals, discounts and savings. Cruiseabout can make your cruise dream a reality with expert advice and exceptional service. To find out more about offers or to book your next holiday, go to www.cruiseabout.co.za  or call 087-740-5043.