18 Feb Discovering the Danube in Active Luxury
As our sleek ship sliced its way through the steel-gray water, the rocky cliffs and bare brown hills overlooking Austria’s Wachau Valley rose on either side. The landscape looked austere in winter’s grip, but it was scenic enough to draw me to the open top deck, bundled up in a down jacket with a mug of hot chocolate to warm my hands in the frosty air. My December cruise down the Danube River was timed to coincide with the delightful Christmas markets that pop up each year during the holiday season in Europe, but I imagined the Wachau would be a lovely place to visit at any time of the year, especially with the transforming touch of spring’s warmth.
By May, the apricot orchards will be abloom in frothy white blossoms. Leaden skies will give way to a blue tableau and drifting white clouds. The vineyards will leaf out, covering the steep, terraced mountainsides in a quilt of green. Riesling and Gruner Veltliner grapes will emerge, ripening in the summer heat to produce fine white table wines.
The Wachau Valley, lying between the medieval towns of Melk and Krems, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also the scenic centerpiece along the Danube for an emerging style of adventure travel: ship-based river cruising that combines active physical pursuits with luxurious creature comforts.
If you’re like me, you tend to equate “cruise” with “sedentary”: over-indulging in too much food, basking in deck chairs, or sitting in lounges nursing drinks. That couldn’t be farther from the experience offered on Backroads’ Danube River cruise tours.
On these tours, travelers trade the ship for a bicycle each morning, drinking in fresh air and natural beauty from the Donauradweg, the world’s longest bike path that follows the banks of the Danube. Passing castles and Baroque churches, much of the path parallels the “Austrian Wine Road,” and small cycling groups make stops at local heurigen—wine taverns—to sample acclaimed vintages. Locally based tour leaders also guide guests along small side lanes that meander through bucolic farmland and villages straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. A choice of routes is offered each day for varying ability levels.
Forbes identifies both active travel and river cruising as top travel trends for 2017, and Backroads is combining them through their innovative partnership with AmaWaterways. Utilizing small luxury river ships—nothing like the monoliths that dominate ocean cruising—as a floating hotel base, travelers experience more of the region than if they were exclusively using their own pedal-power to get from place to place.
For those who’d rather walk rather than ride, Backroads offers a hiking version of the same concept: travelers explore on foot by day and relax on the ship in the evening. Though the atmosphere on board is casual, guests enjoy cocktail hour and gourmet dinners prepared by classically trained chefs, plus all the comforts of a private stateroom with a view on the passing panorama.
I’m a lover of rural landscapes, so the bucolic countryside and medieval towns were highlights of my Danube cruise, especially with the scent of snow, evergreens boughs and roasting chestnuts in the air. But the grand capitals of Vienna and Budapest were utterly captivating, too, with their palaces, boulevards and elegant coffeehouses once the province of artists and intellectuals. Guided walking tours offered an ideal introduction, despite our group having to navigate Vienna’s cobblestone streets in a downpour, taking refuge beneath a forest of umbrellas.
It may seem ironic among the din of cars, taxis, buses and trolleys, but exploring on foot or by bike generally offers the best overview of a big city. On Backroads’ summer and fall European cruise tours, travelers enjoy a bit of urban adventure via guided walks and cycling tours through the main cities along the river artery. In most settings, the ship is tied up at a centrally located pier, allowing guests to pop back in for a lavish lunch or afternoon refreshment before heading out again for more physical activity.
Clearly, adventure travel no longer means roughing it.
Explore These Active Luxury Tours from Adventure Collection Members:
In September, Backroads is offering an 8-day “Full Ship Celebration” from Prague to Budapest, exclusively for its guests—a chance to enjoy camaraderie with about 150 other like-minded travelers, all focused on active cycling and hiking adventures each day. Backroads also offers active cruises on the Rhine, Seine and Douro rivers, as well as an ocean-based Iceland hiking itinerary aboard Ponant’s small luxury cruise ships.
Natural Habitat Adventures also combines active adventures with luxurious indulgence, inviting travelers to Paddle Portugal’s River of Wine on a kayaking journey down the Douro. Kayakers spend each night at a historic quinta, or wine estate, where Port flows freely and sumptuous repasts refuel them for the next day’s paddle.
Then there’s a wilderness gourmet culinary raft trip with O.A.R.S. on the Rogue or Salmon rivers in the American West. The appetite you’ll work up tackling the whitewater is sated by locally sourced regional fare, prepared by a renowned chef and complemented by fine wines and microbrews, served on white linen by candlelight at the river’s edge.
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