Above: The Scenic Jade is docked across the Danube from Hungary’s spectacular Parliament buildings, in Budapest.
MELK, Austria – The question is not who created the design. Perhaps not even who executed the idea. No, what grabs your attention is HOW the artist reached the ceiling in the famed Melk Abbey to paint the glorious images, at once delicate, lively and even forceful.
The busy scene above the abbey’s Marble Hall includes mythical Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, being drawn across the blue heaven in a chariot pulled by lions. To one side of her is mighty Hercules, bashing a three-headed monster.
Elsewhere in the clouds and sky, dozens of figures — winged angels and humans dancing together, cherubs flitting, and other gods, demigods or mortals — show exuberance, joy or fear.
The masterwork, finished in 1731 by Paul Troger, is symbolic of the artistic and historic surprises awaiting visitors such as those stepping off the riverboats on the Danube.
Indeed, taking a riverboat cruise in Europe is one smooth history lesson.
You’ll tour splendid, even spectacular, palaces, government halls and cathedrals.
You’ll stroll or bike along cobblestone lanes laid before Columbus set sail.
You might decide to climb to the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive by a former ally in the Crusades. Or perhaps you want to stand where Adolph Hitler did when watching the carefully choreographed parades of tens of thousands of troops.
You might even wander the mountain tunnels of what was constructed to be a WW II hospital but under later Soviet occupation became a nuclear-bomb shelter.
All the while your floating hotel and restaurant is docked nearby, perhaps with a view of a charming, centuries-old, village or a verdant vineyard – or both.
So many riverboat companies operate on the same handful of waterways that often the vessels of competing companies tie up side-by-side at the docks. Passengers simply walk through or across the boats to reach the shore or their own ship.
That provides a brief chance to see what the competing companies offer in their reception area or open upper deck.
And this was the only occasion when I thought my boat company, Scenic Cruises, came in second. That is, the reception area on the Scenic Jade is a one-level, smallish lobby designed to be functional, not impressive: It provides access to the three decks of staterooms, entrance to the boat’s only bar and lounge, its main dining room and top deck.
Nor does Scenic Jade’s reception area boast seating arrangements, a multi-deck atrium or chandeliers with crystals of varying colors, as I saw on other boats.
Nonetheless, the 169 passengers aboard the Scenic Jade, launched in May 2014, seemed to have the best elements of a riverboat voyage – and then some.
The company promises an “all inclusive, five-star, luxury’’ experience. Which means all of your alcoholic beverages are included in the fare, even those you have asked to have stocked in your cabin mini-fridge (it is re-stocked daily). There is butler service for every cabin, on a sliding scale, so that passengers in the most-expensive cabins can have their luggage unpacked and re-packed.
Also included in the fare are dinners with a select Italian cuisine and an elegant fixed-menu/wine-pairings meal.
Ashore, such as in this classic shopping street in Salzburg, Scenic Cruises provides each passenger with a third-generation radio receiver for guided tours:
Not only does it receive broadcasts by tour guides, but each of these “Tailormade’’ devices contains narrations for dozens of specialized tours within each city.
Select one of these tours for your own walkabout and a GPS system within the Tailormade plays 2-minute discussions of the sight you have reached. The place is also located on a map shown on the Tailormade’s screen, as is a photo of the attraction.
Along the popular Danube route, Scenic Cruises has about 600 sights whose narration again is triggered by the GPS. If you aren’t listening but are in your cabin, the narration, as text, will be flashed across the cabin’s 32-inch flatscreen TV.
Helping passengers with the history lesson is Scenic’s own paperback travel guide, provided to each traveler to consult and then take home. The guide for the popular Amsterdam-Budapest route – 18 ports of call, 38 Tailormade pre-recorded tours — is almost 430 pages.
Because history is the thrust of most riverboat companies’ itineraries, the passenger demographics tend to skew to curious retirees. (Scenic Cruises will not accept passengers younger than 12.) And recognizing that many folks want more activity than a slowly paced walkabout or museum tour, riverboats carry dozens of bicycles for individual or group excursions.
Again, Scenic Cruises has gone the extra measure, outfitting most of its bikes with electric-assist motors. As you pedal, you can select any of six gears to boost the power. That greatly aids on the cobblestone streets or occasional distance rides.
But you’ll be a pedestrian again as you explore the museums and palaces, or the sprawling Melk Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage where you can marvel at the innovative museum that discusses its centuries of existence and presents marvelous artisanry in religious objects. Then there’s the multistory spiral staircase that descends into darkness.
The history lesson goes on and on …
If You Go
Scenic Cruises does charge significantly more than such major competitors as Viking, which has 50 ships to Scenic’s nine (each line plans to launch more ships in 2015). Scenic, however, provides at least two tour options in every port, whereas Viking typically offers one tour.
For instance, on the standard eight-day itinerary between Nuremberg, Germany, Budapest, Hungary, Scenic offers 16 guided tours; Viking offers six.
Fares for Scenic’s cruise start at $3,625 per person, while Viking’s fare start at $1,856.
Among other items Scenic’s higher fare covers that Viking does not:
/ All tipping, including for onshore staff.
/ Liquor and Champagne; Viking includes only wine and beer.
/ Butler service.
/ Balconies measuring roughly 33 square feet, for 84 percent of its cabins. Viking ships have far fewer true balconies.
/ Airport transfers. Viking includes these only if airfare is purchased through the cruise line.
Many passengers figure they can do without all these inclusions, so they fill the cabins aboard Viking and several other less-expensive lines. Recognizing this, Scenic Cruises spun off a less-inclusive/less-costly brand, Emerald Cruises, with two ships in 2014.
A note for those who have not taken a riverboat trip: Most of the vessels carry about the same number of passengers, 150-169. Those numbers are arrived at because of limitation on the length and height of the vessels, which must transit several locks and pass beneath low bridges.
Scenic Cruises does claim that its staterooms have roughly a quarter more space than its competitors. But some of that space aboard other ships is used for more or larger public areas such as bar/lounges, fitness rooms and spas than the Scenic ships offer.
For more information, go to:
Or type into a search engine, European riverboat cruises.
Robert N. Jenkins has sailed aboard about 70 ships to write about them.