There are many ways to do Europe, and thanks to Disney holiday magic, I now have a new all-time fave. Eight days, seven nights, five adventure guides, four countries, feasts worthy of the most discerning gourmand and epic holiday markets in every port — Adventures by Disney’s brand-new Holiday Danube River Cruise is an epic winter trip and pretty much the bestest family vacay, like, ever. (Photo via AmaWaterways)
During the all-inclusive adventure, my daughter and I sailed down the famed not-so-blue Danube river, hitting Germany, Austria and Slovakia before ending the whirlwind week in Hungary. We ate, slept and explored these new-to-us lands in Disney-sprinkled luxury. Before jetting off on this carefully curated adventure, I was a wee bit nervous about taking my kid overseas for the first time (and doing so solo). Any anxiety I had about gallivanting in foreign lands with a kid in tow fell by the wayside as soon as we boarded the Amaviola, our home for the week. Adventures by Disney (ABD), with its Sister Sledge-ish “we are family” vibe, was there to create magic in a way that only Disney can. ABD knows what it’s doing — since 2005, it’s offered unique experiences all over the world, from meeting pandas in China to going on safari in Africa to getting a private nighttime tour of the Vatican (yes, the Vatican). If you’re looking for meet-and-greets with Mickey or hugs with Minnie, you’ll be disappointed: For the most part, this is a Disney-free trip (in the commercial sense, that is). That all-important Disney level of service is the star, not the world-famous characters.
This Isn’t Your Grandma’s River Cruise
The folks at ABD have breathed new life into the whole drifting-down-the-river thang. In general, those who go on these types of vacations have AARP cards, non-ironic gray hair and a desire to sit and watch the world go by. This trip is NOT that (although there were seniors on board and lovin’ every minute of it), catering to a younger demographic than your average river cruise with kid-friendly dining and active adventures like hiking, biking and drinking at every port. Kids, teens, tweens, couples in their twenties and multi-generational families all happily sailed along.
The Ship, AKA Your Home Away From Home
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: The rooms on the ship are itsy-bitsy. Thankfully, due to the fact that you’re only in your stateroom to sleep, change and tidy up, it’s a non-factor. There’s ample storage, comfy beds, satellite TV, internet access and bathrooms with hot and cold running water. You’ve got it all. If you wanna just chill, there’s a large lounge area (complete with a small library and games) and a huge hangout area on the top deck. During downtime (which there isn’t much of), my girl and I played games on the velvet banquettes by the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the gorgeous scenery go by. (And OMG, the Wachau Valley is stunning.) The best thing about the whole river cruise is having a home base — as you travel from country to country, you still go to sleep in the same bed.
Epic Excursions and Unforgettable Experiences
I’m a planner. I will obsess over where to go and what to do. I was completely stunned by the selections that ABD included and how stress-free they made our trip. We didn’t have to try to score a table at the St. Peter Stiftskeller Restaurant in Salzburg (established wayyyy back in 803). We didn’t have to search out a ranch in the countryside of Hungary for a goulash cooking lesson. We didn’t have to try to happen upon the places where Julie Andrews frolicked in The Sound of Music. And if we hadn’t been with Disney, there’s no way we would have had the exclusive tours and experiences they offered. We met horses in Vienna, learned a waltz in an Austrian palace and tiptoed through the treetops in Bavaria. Without having to figure out all the logistics, we were able to just enjoy all the moments. I never thought I’d be a tour-type traveler, but Disney turned me.
Holiday Time Is the Right Time
You can head on a river cruise in any season, but braving the cold (it was literally freezing) for the holiday cruise gives particularly astounding results, especially if you have a Christmas fetish like me. At every port, from Vienna to Bratislava, holiday markets were in full swing. Hot mulled Glühwein, eggs painstakingly painted and turned into ornaments and so many delish desserts that you’ll gain two pounds just by looking at them: These are just a few of the joys of the European holiday market. While each market has certain things in common (mulled wine), there are items that are unique to each one. But ultimately, the cruise is about seeing Europe from the comfort of a deluxe river boat; whenever you go is the best time (plus, in warmer months, you can take advantage of the top-deck pool).
Thousands of hopefuls with dreams of travel apply for the coveted ABD guide gigs. With that large of a talent pool, Disney is able to hire the crème de la crème for each of their trips. They balance the team with a combination of guides from the United States and from the destinations they visit. These guides are full of knowledge, keep the excursions on track and make sure no one gets lost. At supper time, they hold court with the kiddies for the junior adventurers’ dinner. My girl opted to hang with us adults, though. While most kids live for spaghetti and pizza, she has a sophisticated palate and wanted the far-more-fancy foods served in the dining room. (Photo via Adventures by Disney)
Speaking of food, this ain’t the place for a diet. The all-inclusive nature of the trip includes three (huge) meals a day. At breakfast, you can carb-load with freshly baked bread, flaky croissants and danishes (along with a huge buffet, made-to-order eggs and really yummy eggs Benedict), and at lunch, there’s a buffet with grub for every culinary desire. Dinner’s a full-on four-course feast: You could opt for grilled fresh Norwegian salmon fillet with Chardonnay foam, sautéed Swiss chard and truffle-flavored potatoes mousseline or you could choose an entrée such as oven-roasted, herb-crusted lamb leg medallion with thyme jus, ratatouille, romanesco and potatoes gratin. Those are just the entrees — each evening we were also given scrumptious options for homey soups, fresh salads and delectable desserts. (My stomach is actually growling right now remembering the food.) What made the dishes even better is that the chefs picked up their ingredients at each port, so they were able to serve the freshest (and best) items available. At each meal they made nods to the local cuisine, which they served alongside regional (and way yummy) wines.
Buy All the Things
One of the raddest aspects of the epic stops was the shopping — ALL THE GLORIOUS European shopping. When I was there, the dollar was on the strong side, so there wasn’t any of that horrendous “I can’t buy a thing” sticker shock. A felted Austrian tote bag, a hand-woven scarf and oodles of hand-crafted ornaments all came home with me. (I was soooo tempted to bring back a dirndl, but I restrained myself.) Shopping was even sweeter on the wallet in ports like Budapest and Bratislava, where the dollar really had buying power.
ABD’s Danube River Cruise will sail again in the summer of 2017, with another of their I-can’t-believe-how-amazing-it-was holiday cruises at the end of the year. In addition to the Danube option, this summer they’ll debut an oh-so-tempting Rhine River Cruise, which will visit Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Yes, please.
Do you have dreams of going on a river cruise? Tell us @BritandCo!