Grand Circle Blue Danube River Cruise: What Happens on the Ship Stays on the Ship
The highlights of our Blue Danube River Cruise with Grand Circle Tour Company were the four European capitals we were visiting: Prague, Czech Republic, Vienna, Austria, Bratislava, Slovakia and Budapest, Hungary — all worth writing about. And I promise to do so.
But it was the many surprises surrounding the experiences on the ship that truly enhanced the trip. Because this was our first river cruise, my husband and I had many apprehensions ahead of time.
The tiny stateroom? Check. But somehow it had more drawers, shelves and hangers than I have at home and was surprisingly comfortable.
Too sedentary? Check. Being a particularly active person – the have-every-minute-programmed kind of active – although at a senior citizen level – I feared the shortish daily tour would not be sufficient. After all, the 182-passenger MS River Aria Is not one of those cruise ships boasting round-the-clock activities. However, opportunities abounded to explore every city as much – or as little – as you want.
Having primarily traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel, the much smaller, younger tour group under the auspices of Grand Circle, we also worried about traveling in a large group of older folks. And yes, GCT caters to those needs.
Grand Circle Danube River Cruise Caters to Both Active and Less Active Passengers
There is a slower-paced tour option available for those who feel they cannot keep us with the group. Portable lightweight seats are available for those unable to stand in one spot during long explanations. An eclectic chair is attached to the stairs on the ship.
Electric bikes are available onboard for very easy peddling along some of the most beautiful bike paths in Europe.
There is little that Grand Circle hasn’t thought of to accommodate a somewhat older clientele. But for the most part, that older clientele is a feisty group of fun-loving, adventurous travelers who loathe slowing down.
Worried about needing to swarm around our guide in order to hear what was being said? Check. Each person, however, has his own individual listening device so they could hear the tour guide while walking through the cities, even if the guide is only a block away. At this point, we stopped worrying.
The boat passengers are divided into four color-coded groups each led by a program director. Stefan was ours, but all four participated in the ongoing upkeep of the troops.
Everyone associated with Grand Circle and the ship is, well, friendly doesn’t do them justice: funny, accommodating, out-sized personalities all eager to please — and despite my husband’s cynicism, I don’t think it’s just because of the tip.
Most mornings we’re out and about by 9 a.m. However, one sailing day, we were on a deck chaise, bloody Marys in hand, listening to commentary about the surrounding topography — wooded treetops, rolling green countryside, rural villages, terraced vineyards and an occasional abbey or castle.
Life doesn’t get much better than that. My concern about filling every hour with activity dissipated.
I was pried from my reading revelry as my fellow passengers hustled to the sides of the ship as we went through our first of nine locks, a feat that if you haven’t experienced is worth the effort of rising from the comfort of your chaise lounge. The ship narrowly goes between barriers on both sides and is then lowered so as to access the water level on the other side. By the time we hit lock #6, no one had moved. Another bloody Mary anyone?
Because it’s lunchtime, I should pause here to talk a bit about the meals — which deserve an article of their own. From creativity to inventiveness to presentation and deliciousness, the food merits its own Michelin star.
I looked forward to every meal, knowing it was going to be surprising, lovely and scrumptious. And the service? Suffice it to say, not only are the waiters attentive and accommodating, but most of them should also be stand-up comedians.
Meals Aboard Grand Circle’s Danube River Cruise
I was finishing my soup when Vladimer walked by with a bottle of Amaretto, obviously requested by another table. “Where are you going with that?” I lustily inquired. Without skipping a beat, he poured some into my soup bowl and moved on. How can you not love that?
Afternoon options were to back to town or have a massage? Of course, I opted for the massage. And then some Learning and Discovery onboard, a philosophy Grand Circle takes very seriously. A discussion of Eastern European traditions and cultures was led by four program directors, all of whom hail from neighboring countries: Stefan from Romania, Igor from Slovakia, Jirka from the Czech Republic, and Milan from Serbia.
The Four Musketeers, or court jesters depending upon your loving point of view, explained their local costumes and then proceeded to present their own holidays, wedding or religious celebrations in their own very entertaining styles. Not much is taken seriously on board.
Entertainment Aboard Grand Circle’s Danube River Cruise Combines Both Learning and Laughter
Ah, the night-time entertainment, although corny, was fun. I usually avoid karaoke but there, it was just another excuse to laugh yourself silly. Rather than a contest to judge the best singers, it instead —intended or not — became an exercise in which group sounded the most hilariously awful.
As for the crew’s talent show, they looked like a bunch of children in their first school production. Suffice it to say that when the kitchen staff did Swan Lake, it was downhill from there, prompting the ship’s captain to implore, “Whatever happens on board, stays on board!”
And then there were the horse races. Don’t even ask what that was about. Let’s just say it involved a lot of shots. Yet another boring night aboard the M/S River Aria.
And when we weren’t laughing, we were learning something. Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, conducted by our Four Musketeers, revealed personal experiences from their teenage years and how their families were impacted by the Soviet domination of their countries until the end of Communism there in 1989.
Homes were confiscated, fortunes lost, food rationed, travel prohibited, and spies in communities and labor camps. Their schoolbooks were the same ones they had been using for several generations, and they didn’t discover until later how much misinformation they contained. Again, eye-opening.
A Budapest accountant regaled us with a tale of how he once saw a needy family on the sidewalk, stopped to help and ended up saving 6,000 refugees, with an organization of volunteers he compiled, over the next two years; that is, until they were stopped by the very hostile Hungarian government. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house. Grand Circle does not shy away from controversy.
At the trip’s end, we were told we had to be out of our stateroom by 8 a.m. because another tour was coming aboard, the communal reaction seemed to be: ‘What? Other people in our cabins? With our crew?” It seemed so wrong — but it sure says a lot about how Grand Circle makes its clients feel.
Yes, I know, I promised to tell you all about the magnificent cities we visited. Immersive history, architectural grandeur, every city an open-air museum of stunning edifices spanning multiple centuries. But I lied.
If You Go
Visit Grand Circle Travel online Danube River Cruises