Published by The Australian | By Jane Nicholls
I’ve run back from the morning canoe expedition to pull on bike shorts for a 30km cycle from Durnstein, through villages and vineyards and up and over a bridge that crosses the Danube to Melk.
When I dismount, I will again play quick-change artist for the afternoon visit to wondrous Melk Abbey, which peers down on the town from its twin turrets.
What is this, the Austrian leg of Amazing Race? No, it’s a European river cruise, which usually comes with a reputation for being easy on the knees and gentle on the heart rate. Some companies even post step counts for shore excursions. But for cruisers who would go loopy if their days were measured in pre-counted paces, Avalon Waterways is launching Active Discovery, a tributary program to the company’s traditional Danube sailings.
The Avalon team has spent two years devising and tweaking the Active Discovery excursions, and now I’m aboard a Danube cruise to take them for a spin — and a paddle, hike, knead, flambee and cycle — on a journey from Vienna, Austria, to Passau, Germany.
But first, a quick twirl around the comfort and cuisine on call for all Avalon cruisers (Active Discoverers may feel more schnitzel-entitled because there’s real exercise on their itinerary).
Your cabin bathroom is as spacious as the average hotel ensuite, so you won’t have to manoeuvre into the shower, even if the Austrian potato salad has been too more-ish. Floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows are another feature of Avalon’s Suite Ships, such as my vessel, MS Visionary. The glass slides wide open to turn the cabin into a private covered balcony, with a queen-sized bed (fussy critic’s mattress report: firm and excellent) sensibly positioned facing the view.
Girth jokes aside, Avalon has introduced Avalon Fresh, a range of healthy menu options that focus on
small farms and local produce. The vegetarian dishes have been developed by Vienna’s Leo and Karl Wrenkh, sons of the creators of Austria’s first high-end vegetarian restaurant. We visit the Wrenkh brothers’ cooking school in the heart of Vienna to hear about their ethos and to take a fast-paced class. Making the group feel as if we are doing the chopping and sauteeing, but deftly doing most of it himself, Leo leads us in whipping up a scrumptious lunch, including caramelised stir-fried teriyaki pumpkin, pan-seared lemon brook trout from the Austrian mountain lakes region, wok-tossed Mediterranean prawns (my flambeeing provides entertainment for the mob), and carpaccio of dry-aged Austrian beef (so melt-in-the-mouth, it could almost be vegetarian).
Avalon designs all its menus to recognise the region through which its river ships are cruising. Hearty local darlings such as wiener schnitzel, spaetzle (Austria’s answer to macaroni and cheese) and kaiserschmarrn (a shredded-pancake favoured by Emperor Franz Joseph I) pop up on lunch menus aboard. Dinner is described as fine cuisine, and while the dress code is relaxed, the food definitely deserves that moniker, with an option to book into the Panorama Bistro on the main deck and enjoy regional degustation dining via a parade of small plates. And there are jars of Vegemite and Marmite at breakfast, recognising that, for many Australian and British cruisers, this is comfort food.
Active Discovery aims to offer experiences that will leave passengers with special memories. You can gather golden moments watching the passing scenery from the sun deck and taking walking tours of the historic towns along the way, but this thoughtful program takes it up a few gears. I don’t have room for all the activities we packed in, but here are selected highlights, in order of our westbound cruise direction.
VIENNA AWAKES AND BAKES: We drive through the early-morning empty streets to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s fruit and vegetable market since the 16th century. It’s Saturday, so the flea market is in full swing, offering objects you might find on an Australian trash ‘n’ treasure stall, but also swords, steins, stuffed stoats and assorted antlers. Our guide Robert’s walking tour of the city is full of facts and gossip; at the glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum he shares stories behind some of the treasures of the Habsburg Empire. That family really knew how to collect. Active Discovery also offers jogging and cycling tours and a waltz class (my two left feet decree that I should instead visit the Spanish Riding School).
The cycling tour promises three hours to view what took the Habsburgs 600 years to build, but heavy rain parks that plan, and I join the baking excursion.
Our carb-creating crowd descends on Atelier Andante to bake bread for the ship’s lunch service. The mission includes mohnflesserl, handsemmel, salzstangerl (a braided poppy-seed bun), a crusty roll that we know as a vienna or kaiser roll, and salty bread sticks. Instructor Nabiel Elissi has all of the ingredients measured and arranged before our arrival, so we scrub up like bread surgeons, don aprons and follow his directions to mix, knead and shape our crusty creations. It’s fabulous fun over a few hours and when we take those warm rolls back to the ship, we’re puffed with pride. They taste terrific.
PASS THE BATON: If I am permitted a favourite Active Discovery interlude, indulge me on this one. As the Vienna Supreme Orchestra finishes rehearsals before its evening concert, we are ushered into a wood-panelled hall at Palais Eschenbach, near Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Stadttheater Baden resident conductor Michael Zehetner has been charged with teaching us to lead this orchestra, even though we are well aware they will play beautifully without watching the batons of buffoons.
After a few breathing exercises and baton directions, we are let loose with these sweet-natured musicians. They make it feel real, intently watching my baton rise and drop as they play. Music flows from the instruments, sweeping through my body. We L-plate conductors stick with Strauss to close out our concert, conducting Blue Danube Waltz in a pass-the-baton relay. After our conducting lessons we break for dinner and chat with Zehetner and some of “our” orchestra. And then the Vienna Supreme Orchestra, joined by opera and ballet performers, takes the stage again and entertains a rapt audience, most of whom are our fellow passengers, but only four of us clasp souvenir batons from a unique afternoon.
ADRIFT ON THE DANUBE: From our dock in historic Durnstein we take a minibus trip upriver, past the tightly tiered riesling vineyards of the Wachau Valley, to meet the gang from Kanu Wachau. At Avalon’s request, they’ve made idiot-proof canoe rigs. (I doubt Avalon put it so crudely, but even I couldn’t capsize one of these.)
Four Active Discoverers paddle and steer while Indolent Discoverers laze atop a platform that joins the canoes. In truth, we paddlers have an easy time of it. The river does most of the work as our stand-up paddle-board guide leads us in a go-with-the-flow down the Danube, back past the hill-crawling vineyards and ancient ruins atop the crags.
PUMPED UP FOR CYCLING: Fresh from our canoe caper, we change into cycling clobber and get ready to race Avalon Visionary from Durnstein to Melk. It’s 30km along the river and we pass through tiny cobblestoned villages, with honesty stalls selling apricot jam, and signs tempting cyclists with schnapps and beer; past vineyards and across apple orchards; and finally crossing the Danube to reach Melk, where our ship will dock (it ends up passing us as we stop for lunch on the banks, the picnic boxes having hitched a ride with the support vehicle).
This is by far the most popular of the Active Discovery excursions, with 28 cyclists pedalling along after Pieter, our granite-thighed Dutch guide. For a compact chap, he has a foghorn voice to shout warnings of oncoming bikes. It’s a relaxing ride — even more so if you don’t ignore a shooshing sound on the outskirts of Durnstein.
I ride more than half the journey on a flat front tyre, wondering why every other Active Discoverer is gliding past. When I finally think to ask about it, the guides are agape, and I get a replacement at the next available access point. The bikes are excellent; just check that your tyre doesn’t resemble a wheel from The Flintstones.
OUT OF THIS WORLD: It’s strangely hard to explain Ars Electronica, so you might be inclined to skip the private evening tour and join the Linz pub crawl that’s also on offer. Do not do that — this is a house of hi-tech wonders. Museum director Andreas Bauer escorts us on the short walk across the bridge from our ship to his museum, welcomes us with a few stories over a glass of prosecco, and then takes us inside the Deep Space 8K facility.
HIKE THE HILLS: On our final morning, before sailing from Engelhartszell to Passau, we are bussed up a hill with our guide Sebastian (who the day before took us on a hike to Postlingberg, overlooking Linz). We begin our walk near a farm, across storybook meadows and through woods to finally gaze out at Schlogener Schlinge, a languidly looping section of the Danube. The Passau to Vienna cycle trail, pedalled by about 40,000 people a year, runs near here, too. The end of our walk involves steep downhill sections that challenge some intrepid Active Discoverers, but we all make it back intact and Sebastian gives us the stats from his Apple Watch: 49m up, 251m down, 5.6km in two hours … and 2257kj.
These are most respectable results to close our Active Discovery trial. Pass the apricot schnapps, please.
Jane Nicholls was a guest of Avalon Waterways.
Avalon Waterways operates river cruises throughout Europe, including on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Rhone and Seine rivers. Its nine-day Active Discovery itineraries will be available on Avalon Luminary between Budapest and Linz between July and October 2017, from $5219 a person twin-share. Each is available with an optional three-day extension to Prague (from $6124 including cruise and extension) or to Salzburg and Munich (from $6932).