Budapest to Amsterdam aboard Tauck’s MS Swiss Jewel river ship

A single luxury riverboat cruise can win over even the most dedicated ocean cruiser. So it was for me when I traveled the Budapest-Amsterdam itinerary on Tauck’s MS Swiss Jewel. My first discovery was the loyalty many of my fellow passengers feel for the brand. Several had traveled with Tauck more than a dozen times and counting.

Later, I would discover the reasons. The Jewel carries 118 passengers and has a crew of 29, plus the tour director and the cruise director.

All suites, junior suites and cabins have plasma TVs (wall-hung in cabins, on tables that swivel in suites and junior suites), mini-bars (with complimentary water, replenished daily), safes, terrycloth robes and slippers, radios, individual air-conditioning and L’Occitane toiletries. The wood furniture is medium to dark in color; spreads and drapes are rust and gold. The twin beds can be pushed together to make a king; mattresses can be raised manually by means of a strap and the feather pillows can be replaced, on request, with hypoallergenic pillows.

The Jewel has 14 suites and seven junior suites. The 300-square-foot suites have a double set of floor-to-ceiling windows, walk-in closets, marble baths with full-size tubs, showers, sofas that open into double beds and writing desks. The bathrooms in the junior suites and cabins have semi-circular “shower rooms,” with two glass doors that open both ways.

My stateroom was on Deck One, so the window afforded only a view of the river and a tiny bit of sky; as I spent a minimal amount of time there, I could see the passing scenery upstairs in the spacious lounge on Deck Two; the lounge has a piano and a full-service bar. It was in the lounge that we had lectures and entertainment — all of a much higher standard than what is usual on many ocean cruises.

The Lido Bar on Deck Three features 180-degree glass doors opening onto the aft deck; it has a coffee machine, a small library and a desktop computer for passengers (a laptop is also available). Wireless Internet is complimentary, but reception is spotty, depending on the ship’s location. The Jewel has an elevator, which runs between Deck Three to the restaurant — but it does not service Deck One, as the space there is taken up by the Fitness Center and massage room. A hot tub on the sundeck is open 24 hours, as is the Fitness Center.  An onboard therapist trained by the Tara Asian Spa Academy, offers various massage options, ranging from a ten-minute Thai chair massage (12½ Euro) to a one-hour full-body oil massage (68 Euro).

My cruise began in Budapest, with a guided tour of the city’s major sights, including Heroes’ Square, where such movies as Evita and I Spy were filmed; the huge Neo-Gothic Parliament building; Andrassy Boulevard, Budapest’s version of the Champs-Élysées; and the so-called House of Terror, the former KGB headquarters. Our guide, like all the guides to follow, was knowledgeable and engaging; she answered questions and told us tales of Attila the Hun and described her city as a grand lady, grown old and somewhat faded. (For all tours, “quiet boxes” — individual receivers with earpieces — are distributed, along with complimentary bottled water, so that passengers can hear the narration regardless of where they are standing.)

Our first port of call was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Our guide gave us highlights of 17 centuries of history during a walking tour that included Baroque palaces from the Hapsburg era, St. Martin’s Cathedral, the splendid Opera House, Slovak Philharmonic Hall and the Old Town Hall. She livened up the historic narrative with the stories, like the one about  how Mozart came to the city just once. The trip took 14 hours by carriage, Mozart’s father said the pay was too low — and they never returned. That evening, after dinner aboard the Jewel, we had a colorful Slovakian performance.

Next came my favorite port: Vienna. So much to do and so little time. I settled for a tour of the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace, lunch at the famous Demel’s (famous for pastry, actually, but I had their superb wienerschnitzel) and a tour of the Leopold Museum, where I feasted with my eyes on paintings by Klimt and Schiele and Kokoschka.

It was the evening at the baroque Palais Pallavicini, however, that was truly unforgettable. First, we were greeted by white-gloved waiters bearing trays of champagne as an ensemble from the Vienna Opera played music by Austrian composers. Passengers oohed and aahed, but that was just the beginning. While a sumptuous multi-course meal was served in true white-glove style in the palace’s splendid ballroom, a dashing tenor from the Vienna Opera performed, as did a strikingly attractive soprano. Costumed dancers, also from the Opera, brought ballet into the ballroom.

The applause for the performances — and the dinner — was thunderous, and later, as passengers were returning to the ship, phrases like “magic,”  “unforgettable” and “once in a lifetime” were heard. “On every Tauck trip, we like to give at least one ‘Wow’ experience,”explained cruise Diector Lynn Hardcastle. “The evening at the Palais has been enormously popular.” After this particular “wow,” I understood why so many of my fellow passengers were Tauck repeaters.

Along our three-river (Danube, Main, Rhine) cruise, we stopped next at Durnstein, taking photos of the ruins of Kuenringerburg, the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held captive during the Crusades, walking through lush vineyards and stopping in Melk for a tour of its 900-year-old Benedictine Abbey. That evening, we had a tasting of local wines and a fine performance by local entertainers.

We traveled to Passau, Regensburg, Nürnberg and Bamberg before we moved on to the “treasures” of Rothenburg and Würzburg. Foremost among these was the breathtaking 18th century Residenz of the Prince Archbishop. As an added treat, we had a wine-tasting in the archbishop’s private wine cellar before returning to the ship — and a lively oompah band after dinner.

All meals aboard the Jewel were consistently of a high quality. Breakfast consists of a full buffet of fruits, juices, meats, cheeses, hot and cold cereal, breads and pastries, as well as eggs, omelets and pancakes prepared to order at the chef’s station. For lunch, there is an extensive buffet of hot and cold dishes, as well as a menu of dishes prepared in the kitchen; beer, soft drinks and juices are complimentary.

At dinner, the menu offers choices of soup, appetizer and entrees; there is a specialty dessert as well as an ice cream “buffet” featuring various flavors and toppings. Regional wines — white and red of a very good quality —  are complimentary, along with beer, soft drinks and juices. Specialty coffees with meals are also complimentary.

Alternative dining is offered at the Lido Bar: Continental breakfast, light lunch and a bistro-style (generally Italian) dinner are served (reservations are required for dinner as capacity is limited to 20).

We cruised the Main River to the ancient city of Miltenberg; on the way, a talented glassblower gave a demonstration and invited a passenger to “help” him shape one of his creations.

Leaving the Main behind, we cruised the Rhine to Rüdesheim, where we marveled over an eclectic collection of mechanical musical instruments housed in a 15th century castle. That evening, we had dinner at a local German restaurant – and joined in rollicking drinking and musical games.

The final days flew by. We walked the Old Town in Koblenz, cruised the Lorelei Valley (and snapped many pictures of the Lorelei statue in the river) and moved on to Cologne, where the highlight of the day was the lofty Kölner Dom, elaborately decorated with pinnacles and buttresses – the tallest gothic structure in the world.

Our last stop was Amsterdam, where of course, we had to see the world-renowned Rijksmuseum, home of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and many other great works. In a lighter vein was lunch aboard a sightseeing cruise along Amsterdam’s 17th century canals — an easy way to explore the streets and byways of the city.

The journey home was eased by Tauck personnel who shuttled us to the airport and informed us of our proper gates. A small service, but one of many during this luxurious and very relaxing experience.

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