This extraordinary 9-day Itinerary was brilliantly executed by Emerald Cruises and the crew of Emerald Sun. From start to finish, it was a true eye-opener. To visit countries which only emerged from Soviet domination in the very recent past, to see the battle scars as these brave people fought for their independence makes for a truly unforgettable experience. And all along the way there was magnificent Architecture to see, cultural exchanges with ordinary people, wonderful regional culinary experiences aboard ship, and spectacular scenery.
OVERALL REVIEW OF AND RATINGS – 10/10 Overall
10/10 Boarding and Disembarkation Flawless transfers from Bucharest Airport to Hotel, Hotel to Ship and from Ship to Shore in Budapest
10/10 Ship Design Modern as tomorrow. Walls of glass for stunning River views
10/10 Stateroom Genius design with a place for everything And amazingly soundproofed.
5/10 Shopping A split decision: Ashore, we found very little to buy beyond Paprika!
Aboard, shoppers flocked to the offerings in jewelry and watches
10/10 Drinks Complementary wine, beer and soft drinks served with lunch and dinner.
Various packages are available to upgrade outside mealtimes and to include spirits and cocktails.
10/10 Entertainment Lots and lots of fun every evening. Resident Entertainer conducts festivities with lots of dancing, contests and hilarity ensues. Entertainers were brought on board to perform local music and dances.
10/10 Ports Perfectly executed shore excursions—typically a walk or a bus tour–are included at every stop at least one a day. Then there are three other categories as follows.
EmeraldACTIVE: For guests who want to move at a faster pace, these tours may include guided hikes, bike tours and kayaking at no extra cost.
EmeraldPLUS: Excursions offer a look into the authentic cultures the ships visit. One example: Lunch with a local host at no extra cost
DiscoverMORE: Excursions designed to take you beyond the port to provide a more in-depth experience. These are extra cost and, in our experience, worth every penny.
10/10 Staff Attitude It’s hard to imagine any crew exceeding the enthusiasm, professionalism, and execution of the crew aboard Emerald Sun… especially since Tips are included in Emerald’s fares. However, the crew’s performance was such that we saw many a white envelope being given on our last night aboard.
10/10 Unexpected Delights Almost everything about this remarkable cruise fell into this category. It is an amazing mixture of history, culture, cuisine, home visits, learning and surprises all along the way.
Introduction to Emerald River Cruises
This was not my first Emerald Cruise. That took place several years ago in the South of France. There, Emerald offered one of the few Rhone/Saône River cruises that went up the Saône. And I have been a fan ever since. Emerald is owned by the same company as Scenic Cruises. Both came out of a genius Australian couple, Glen and Karen Moroney. They started their company offering Bus Tours from Melbourne in just 1986. Now they helm a Cruise company that has 26 ships and counting. Karen is responsible for all décor aboard all their fleet. She favors very neutral color schemes that never take away from what’s outside your window. Emerald attracts passengers from all over the English-speaking world. No surprise that many of our fellow passengers were Australian. And no fewer than 28 of them were traveling the Danube aboard Emerald Sun all the way to Amsterdam for a total of 21 days aboard. Lucky them. Brits, Canadians, Americans and one lone couple from New Zealand filled the rest of the ship.
Emerald Sun’s Accommodations are first rate
Our river ship is one of 8 Emerald Ships that ply Europe’s rivers. And she is one of 5 identical ships launched from 2014 to 2017. But you would hardly think she wasn’t brand-spanking new. She is so well taken care of. With a crew of 51, most of whom come from the region where we sailed, she is 135 meters in length (that’s 442 feet) and carries 180 passengers at full capacity. There are 72 suites all of which feature an ‘all-weather’ balcony. This involves a floor-to-ceiling window which opens electronically allowing the breezes into the cabin. Meanwhile, a genuine balcony is a feature of the 4 top-of-the line Owner’s Suites which also feature a separate living room and bedroom, a walk-in wardrobe, complimentary minibar and an invitation to dine with the captain. Ordinary mortals in every category enjoy a flat-screen HDTV with an infotainment system with surprisingly good live TV reception, a stocked mini-bar, luxury toiletries and hotel-style beds that are incredibly comfortable. There are also 19 Staterooms. While these Deck 1 cabins lack the wide-open views of the 76 suites, they have all the same amenities. They’re perfect for budget-conscious travelers and for those who say they never spend any time in their staterooms anyway.
Emerald Sun’s Facilities are second to none
A stunning three-tiered Atrium greets you to the ship on Deck 2, home of the Reflections Dining Room. Above on Deck 3 is the Horizon Bar and Grill, a light-filled oasis which is the heart of the ship and used for everything from Port Talks to Cocktails to Late Riser’s Breakfast. Above the Horizon, there’s the Sun Deck. This glorious deck is an ideal place to enjoy the breeze, a good book, a friendly conversation in sunshine—or in shade, provided by the deck’s canvas roofs.
But the real surprise is all the way at the back of Emerald Sun. Here you’ll find an Indoor Swimming Pool with a retractable roof, lounges, a bar and a swimming machine for those who want to get their laps in in place. At night, the swimming pool transforms into an intimate movie theater. There’s also a Spa and Wellness Center, presided over by a Wellness Coach. Ours conducted Stretch sessions every morning that were increasingly popular as the days went by.
Dining aboard Emerald Sun
The Dining Room accommodates absolutely everyone at one seating. In the mornings, it serves a truly remarkable buffet that has just about every breakfast food you can imagine. There’s an omelet station at one end with a chef who moves at lightning speed. There’s also a menu if you’d like table service. If you miss Breakfast, the Horizon Bar will set you up for another hour.
Lunch is a panoply of sensational salads, a pasta of the day, and glorious desserts. Whether it’s gelato or ice cream, whatever is served at the Dessert end of the buffet is unforgettable.
Every night, the Chef of the whole shebang ends the Port Talk with his suggested menu for the evening. Since the Culinary staff are overwhelming from this region, this is a wonderful way to explore the culinary traditions of every stop along our itinerary. The Hungarian Goulash beat any one we tasted when we extended our stay in Budapest. For the less adventurous eaters, there are plenty of old standbys on the regular menu. And the kitchen is completely accommodating for those with special diets and/or food allergies.
Why choose this Danube Itinerary?
From personal experience, I can tell you that my “Plus 1” (which in “Travel Writerese” is what we call our Travel Companion) was rather taken aback when presented with a trip to Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. Let’s face it, these places may not be high on your list. I beg you to reconsider. If you’ve ‘done the Danube’, you haven’t seen anything yet, until you head down river. Our itinerary actually headed up the Danube from the starting point of our trip. We flew into Bucharest, Romania. And after a night in at the Radisson Blu Hotel and a surprisingly comprehensive tour of Bucharest, our tour buses drove to Giurgiu where we boarded Emerald Sun. From start to finish, this itinerary is a fascinating journey into two former members of the Soviet Bloc and two countries in what is the former Yugoslavia and finally to Hungary. This voyage is a look at past, present and a glimpse of the future for these remarkable survivors of both recent and ancient strife. And in each country, those recollections differed wildly. From a longing for Tito in Serbia—the only non EU member of the five—to the westward-facing Croats and Hungarians, every guide told a different version of the recent past.
But it’s not one continuous history lesson. There’s everything from remarkable Architecture, to encounters with ordinary folk in their homes, to the artistry of their churches. There’s even a visit to a Bulgarian Archeological site dating back to 11,000 B.C. And built into the schedule are mornings and afternoons of simply sailing the river sitting on the Sun Deck.
Why Choose Emerald?
This wonderful adventure aboard a truly fine ship went off flawlessly. I can’t think of a single thing that wasn’t ‘as advertised’. There’s a conviviality among passengers and crew that builds day-by-day. The Cruise Director and the Ship’s Entertainer are a constant presence both aboard Emerald Sun and on its stellar shore excursions. Our beautiful, streamlined suite was immaculate with twice daily visits from our steward. Reflections Dining Room consistently provided great breakfasts and lunches. And following the Chef’s nightly “Special Menu” always allowed us to enjoy the cuisine of the countries we were passing through. Desserts were always a special treat. And the selected house wines flowed freely at both lunch and dinner.
Finally, there was a great surprise awaiting us as we sailed into Budapest. Emerald Sun scheduled our arrival to coincide with the setting sun and the spectacular “light show” that Budapest’s monuments put on nightly. It was a magical ending to a truly wonderful cruise.
Photos by Monte Mathews unless credited to Emerald Cruises
Cover photo Emerald Cruises Ship, credit Emerald Cruises