"If you need anything at all," said Marian, "just hit the butler button and I will be there."
Those were pretty much the first words I remember hearing upon boarding the Crystal line's Danube River cruise recently, and they were an instant balm. After traveling alone for weeks, besieged by missed connections, stalled trains, a few near-death rental car experiences and my own unfortunate decisions, it was a relief to hand over control of a trip to my Romanian valet and a supremely organized cruise.
Of course that's part of the appeal of any cruise, and for some travelers its downside. Cosseted traveling can feel too controlled for itchy independent travelers, and I used to be one of those. But the cruise lines, understanding their failings, have changed the rules over the past decade. Gone are the tightly wound itineraries, group dinners and the one-size-fits-all port excursions. Now sprouting a range of dining options and a dizzying choice of hands-on experiences, from cooking classes to market excursions and mountain hikes, cruising can feel like a bona fide adventure. And after resisting the siren call for years, my own first Mediterranean ocean cruise several years ago turned me into a cruising convert.
But the Danube cruise was a different beast. Though river cruises have become increasingly popular in the past few years, I had some reservations. A river boat isn't an ocean ship and it can't accommodate the same range of options. I had visions of the cruise reduced back to something claustrophobic and robotic, short on space and experiences.
Thankfully, I was wrong. The first relief was my cabin. I was dreading a cramped college dorm room, but what I got on Crystal's Ravel vessel was an airy and downright tasteful suite. The floor to ceiling windows opened the room up to all the passing scenery and the subdued green and gray color palette felt like a tonic. There was a walk-in closet, a big screen wall-mounted TV, a loaded iPad, and a two-sink bathroom stocked with Etro toiletries.
My second hesitation had to do with the food. A boat can't accommodate the sheer range of dining options that have become one of the inducements of an ocean cruise, and my last sea voyage was a culinary blowout that included a free-standing Nobu restaurant and an alphabet soup of kitchens, from Italian to pan-Asian.
Maybe the Ravel couldn't duplicate that experience. But it didn't necessarily have to. And in some ways the limited choice was a relief. That became one of my main epiphanies on the river cruise and one, in talking to my fellow passengers, that a lot of people mentioned. If the mammoth ocean cruise ships are a study in excess, the river boats are all about seamless, restrained and soothing curation. You're not going to get the Vegasy overload of casinos, souvenir shops, 24-hour buffets and all-you-can-drink bars. But in the end, freedom from that floating bacchanalia, especially at a time when we're bombarded with choice and the constant drumbeat of stimulation, can be its own kind of relief.
Executive Chef Chris Albersdorfer's menu, served in an open-seating dining room, didn't leave me wanting for more. Drawing on as much local sourcing as possible, he delivered plenty of options on his evening menus. Nods to the passing Danube regional culinary traditions were a constant feature, from pork with napkin dumplings and Hungarian fish stew to cabbage soup, Austrian bread pudding in plum sauce and Wiener schnitzel that was more buttery than any I sampled in Vienna. Plus lots of Austrian wine. But you could also dine on pure opulent classicism: sole meunière, Grand Marnier soufflé, seared scallops bathed in porcini mushroom butter and tournedos Rossini crowned by foie gras.
If the Ravel's curated menu knew how to dish up abundance without toppling into excess, so did the ship's amenities, which offered just enough but no more than you really needed. There was a swimming pool, spa, gym and a bar/lounge where the nightly entertainment (an opera singer; a Hungarian violinist) felt more organic than the antiquated chorus lines and comedians of the big ships. And for serious students of the region there was the added bonus of regular lectures by local scholars offering an overview of Austro-Hungarian history and culture.
Connecting to the landscape
In the end, though, the real test of cruise isn't what's inside the boat but what's outside, and here the cruise excelled. Compared with an ocean liner, there is an intimate connection to the passing scenery on a riverboat that hugs the land, and more cultural coherence. All those ports of call are linked in some form by the Danube's reach. So even lying in my cabin, watching the view endlessly shifting through my picture window, was its own kind of adventure.
Softly sloping green hills gave way to yellow fields of rapeseed. Then the wild grass and crags of Slovenia passed onto the Wachau Valley, where the terraced vineyards ran down to the water and the pastel washed villages and onion-domed church steeples read like a baroque salute.
Exploring beyond the boat
Then there were the ports of call. Like every savvy cruise line now, Crystal offers a range of excursions, from hands-on culinary experiences to biking and hiking tours and cultural discoveries. But the purest bonus of this and most river cruises was the sheer number of ports, some real discoveries that would have been a logistical headache to navigate on my own.
I already knew Vienna, our starting point, well enough to sample independently, heading straight for the high points: the obligatory performance at the Vienna State Opera House (a very somber staging of "Macbeth"); the pastries at Demel, where the poppy seed cake is better than the overrated Sacher torte; and dinner at the Zum Schwarzen Kameel (The Black Camel), the only restaurant that can make a good case for the local signature boiled beef dish of tafelspitz (and where the haute bourgeois crowd is its own kind of spectacle).
But I had never crossed the Austrian border into Hungary, and Budapest was a revelation. Sliding right into the center of town and parking under a bridge, the Ravel allowed easy access to all the city sights. The Crystal's branded Cultural Discovery tours offered the option here of an all-city tour or the more focused excursion I chose. We zeroed in on the Budapest Parliament Building and Great Market Hall, where vendors were variously hawking every iteration of strudel (apricot to sour cherry, dill curd to cabbage to plum) and the hand-embroidered (who knows for sure?) tablecloths, strewn with candy-colored flowers, that are a local handicraft. Along with silky hats made entirely out of mushrooms. I snapped up a shroom cap, because fortunately I'd probably never have the chance again.
I then wandered off to the Dohany Street Synagogue, aka the Great Synagogue, the largest still standing in Europe that once served the city's thriving Jewish population, all now long gone. Their ghostly memory sits on the riverside where a memorial called the Shoes on the Danube Bank splays out. The 60 iron-cast shoes look both bereft and elegant. They're a reminder of all the Budapest Jews who were marched to the water's edge by Nazi militia men, stripped of their clothes, down to those shoes, and summarily shot, their bodies tossed into the river below.
The memorial is a reminder. Anyone expecting a simple, sunny Danube waltz through history isn't going to get it but that adds the kind of gravitas that can turn a river cruise into something profound — and unexpected. Budapest was slightly familiar, if only by name; some of our other stops were pure surprises.
Bratislava, a total blank to me, offered an intact historic core crowded with baroque townhouses, a sherbet-colored huddle of pistachio, cornflower blue and dusky rose. The Austrian river port of Krems was a one-street town lined with pastry shops, including the bakery where a patented Crystal jaunt allowed us to watch the owner temper his chocolate and pull a praline rabbit out of a well-used mold. And an all-day excursion from a stop in Linz took us to Cesky Krumlov, a medieval Czech town, crowned by an epic castle, that could pass for a medieval stage set.
Given all the distractions, it wasn't until the last day of the cruise that I realized I'd never pressed the butler button at all. Mostly because I really didn't need anything and partly because only old school aristos and some nouveau oligarchs really know what to ask of a butler. But in the end it was still nice to know Marian's backup was there, offering something to count on, like the steady boat itself.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications. For the Star Tribune, he last wrote about Holland.