The scene was akin to a slim Scandinavian beauty with natural swishy hair and skilfully applied minimal makeup standing next to a perma-tanned party girl covered from head to toe in bling. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but there was no doubt in our minds which was the real head turner.
OK, we were slightly biased as we were sitting on board the Viking Odin, named after the Norse god of wisdom, watching the pleasure cruiser bedecked with flashy crystals shimmy past on the River Danube. Elegant and understated, our floating home (whose godmother is Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley) was undoubtedly a class act.
Usually it's a life on the ocean wave that conjures up a glamorous image and many seasoned cruisers love sinking pink gin as the sun rises over the yard arm and the rivalry of bagging a coveted invite to dine on the captain's table. On the marine scale of things river vessels are minnows compared to the man-made whales that can swallow 5,000 or more Jonah-like passengers inside their cavernous hulls. And at one time river cruising was regarded rather sniffily as the poor relation to the full-on seafaring experience.
But the tide has turned and river cruising is the fastest growing sector of the cruise market for European tourists. Odin, and three sibling vessels, are the pride of the Viking River Cruises' fleet. The new generation of so-called 'longships' are making metaphorical waves on European rivers with facilities and standards of service that might come as a surprise to first-time passengers.
The Luxury Travel Bible boarded Odin in the Hungarian capital of Budapest for her Romantic Danube cruise through Austria to the German city of Nuremberg.
During the ensuing days an unscientific poll of some of my 189 fellow shipmates revealed many were river cruise virgins, dipping the proverbial toe into the water with a one-week itinerary to see if they liked it. Fellow passengers were an eclectic bunch. Mostly mature American couples, many of whom dutifully wore their name badges to the end of the week (the smaller British contingent never received any, possibly because they knew they would be anarchic and refuse to wear them), a charming knight of the realm, two humorous and engaging vicars, a young couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary, a few family combos and several pairs of female chums, the latter being where we fitted in.
The first afternoon we stowed everything away in our cabin, a masterpiece of design for something measuring in at 150 sq. ft. From the comfortable bed to the excellent shower there was everything you'd expect, and sometimes more, from a hotel room including a cosy heated bathroom floor, L'Occitane goodies, big flat-screen TV, phone, fridge, hairdryer, bottled water replaced each day plus, if you ask for them at reception, a robe and slippers. We were on the main deck, the lowest of the three cabin decks, and enjoyed going to sleep with the sound of water gently lapping outside the window. But if you prefer a room with more of a view and the option of a balcony then splash out on a cabin on the middle or upper decks which all have door to ceiling sliding windows.
With the emphasis firmly on relaxation we watched the world drift by and arrived somewhere different each day with ports of call at the grand Austrian capital of Vienna, Melk with its abbey perched on a rocky outcrop, the pretty German city of Passau and Regensburg with its half-timbered medieval old town. Activities centred on daily excursions, all included in the price, and independent passengers could do their own thing or book alternative attractions through the free on-board concierge service.
Meals, from the never-ending breakfast buffet, al fresco lunches on the terrace and the full works in the restaurant every lunchtime and evening were invariably excellent, with the added bonus of complimentary wine and beer. It was just a pity the restaurant was noisy and often too hot in the evening. Still, it was a continuing source of amusement watching people circumnavigate a decorative orange tree strategically placed in a central gap at the doorway to the restaurant instead of going through the entrances to the left and right. I doubt there will be many fruit left by the end of the season.
Overall it was attention to little things and unexpected surprises, coupled with the infectious enthusiasm and helpfulness of the English speaking staff, which created a feeling of being utterly spoilt. We arrived back from excursions to be variously greeted by refreshing fruit kebabs, drinks and cold towels and different flavours of delicious home-made lemonade were a nice touch at lunchtimes. When my able-bodied pyjama-clad cabin mate returned with our essential early morning cuppa from the 24/7 complimentary tea and coffee station a member of staff would appear to see if she needed a hand.
Evenings were leisurely affairs with piano music and low-key entertainment in the lounge, with a particularly good trio of singers hitting the high notes on the last night and taking us on a musical journey through the countries we'd visited. The featured cocktail of the day usually appeared somewhere in the proceedings and expert bar tender Mila was always on hand to create something special if your tipple of choice wasn't on the menu. Afterwards we set an unsteady course to bed and any resolve to attend the early morning exercise class never became a reality.
Like one of the mean cocktails mixed by Mila, if you pick the right one a river cruise can contain the perfect ingredients to float your boat. Take a sleek new vessel, add lots of luxe details and combine this with fantastic scenery, good food, amusing company and a dash of entertainment. Then just add water and enjoy.