I have just completed a 7 night river cruise along the Danube from Vilshofen to Budapest and it has been interesting to note that you still have to pay admission charges for museums and WCs along the way – unless you are travelling with Tauck that is!
The strap line on their personalised coaches is ‘How You See The World Matters’ and attention to detail like the above, provides an endearingly seamless and stress free holiday. The breadth and depth of my cruise experience is what puts Tauck into the very upper echelons of the luxury river cruise market, for me.
I am not going to overly elaborate on the hard ware of the ship – MS Savor, as it is very similar to MS Grace as described in my blog http://www.gocruise.co.uk/blogs/the-tauck-difference.phtml
But the software, both actual and literal is equally impressive:
Tauck have recently launched the Tauck App – to be rolled out across all their holidays in the future. Once you have downloaded it and signed in, you have a portable history of your Tauck experience(s). This starts with the itinerary – tap on the day in question and open up to a brochure esque description of the day, followed by a Daily Agenda (added closer to the actual date). Alternatively you can Explore Destinations along the route, with separate sections listing Tauck Favourites, Arts & Entertainment, Dining, Nightlife and Sights. Within each section, in conjunction with Fodors, are suggestions of places to visit and things to do in your free time ashore, complete with maps. Those of particular importance or included on shore excursions are noted. There are other useful sections for calculating currency exchange, weather reports and a world clock, as well as a Messenger type area for notifications by Tauck Directors. The concept of ‘family’ is one that has been central to Tauck throughout their history and along with a Guest List, the App is a concept destined to draw travellers together on their shared adventure.
Choice and Tauck go hand in hand and I am sure the patience of the Cruise Director and Tauck Directors was tested at times by guests changing their minds due to too many options!! The format for most days included an orientation tour either by foot or coach, followed by different options +/- free time. All had been meticulously researched to offer as in depth an experience as possible.
Each tour was led by local guides, some of whom had worked for Tauck for 15 years and indeed in Bratislava, we were first treated to a talk on recent Slovakian history by Martin Sloboda a Bratislava-based author, guide, photographer, lecturer, travel consultant and event coordinator. He also runs Martin Sloboda Expert Private Tours and it was his guides that then escorted us around the city. It was a rather sobering experience to be shown pictures of our guide, as a young girl, amidst ruined buildings before the fall of communism during the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
In several cities, Tour Directors popped up unexpectedly to offer traditional gingerbread and local liqueurs (Cescky Krumlov) or coffee and pastries (Bratislava). The size of groups with Tauck is rarely more than 25 (as compared to other river cruise operators where numbers can be twice as many) and the Vox sound system worked exceptionally well, even if you were momentarily separated from the rest of the group. During all tours, admission to museums or palaces en route (for example in Cesky Krumlov and Bratislava) were included (again not necessarily the case with all other river cruise companies) with the very word ‘Tauck’ seemingly gaining entrance to them, as well as all the WCs!
I am sure that there was a Director in the background smoothing our way, made possible with Tauck, due to the high ratio of Directors to guests. In all ports of call, the buses operated a shuttle service to take guests back to the ship for lunch (or a chill), apart from Cesky Krumlov (and Salzburg which were the two different options on Day 5) as they were 90 minutes drive away from the ship. Here we were given €20 each for lunch : at a traditional Czech restaurant I had roast pork, dumplings and cabbage, washed down with local beer, well within my budget.
Every day is sensitively choreographed with Tauck – and I don’t just mean with different ports of call! We travelled to Cesky Krumlov via the scenic route, giving us an insight into the surrounding geography and passing lots of small villages. Our return route was a faster, more direct route on the autobahn (typically taken in both directions by other river cruise operators). Attention is also paid to offering time for scenic cruising – during the afternoon on Day 4 (having left Engelhartzsell) and from lunchtime on Day 6 as we went through the lock near Melk Abbey and entered the 18 mile stretch of the Wachau Valley to Durnstein.
It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The weather was fantastic and it really is the essence of serenity and what river cruising is all about to be sat up on the top deck with a glass of something to drink, just watching the world go by. Eating was slightly altered on Day 6 as well, to allow us to enjoy the best views of the Wachau Valley by offering a champagne brunch at 10.30 am, rather than the usual buffet lunch at 12pm.
A proportion of our actual cruising was done at night and whilst we traversed 16 locks along our river cruise route, I don’t remember going through them all! We moored overnight in Vienna, allowing guests to go back into the city and attend musical events under their own steam, departing late from there a day later after our Tauck Exclusive Event at the Palais Pallavicini. We also left Linz later on in the evening, so we could take the tram to the top of the Postlingberg for panoramic views over the whole city, before a late dinner (the beauty of the restaurant Open Seating policy).
The evening entertainment on board also varied – the stalwart was an excellent musician who sang and played a wide range of musical genres but in a totally unobtrusive style. To my mind he was so good that you couldn’t just treat him as background music. There was a ‘Reception to Remember’ (party night), a string group – The Donau Klang Trio (playing a range of appetite wetting Viennese music) and a session from a Slovakian Folk group with dancing and much foot stamping.
However, one thing that never varied in the Panorama Lounge was Social Hour – typically around the time of the briefing for the following day’s activities and a short introduction to the evening’s wines, straddling the start of dinner, we were plied with drink and a wide and plentiful waiter served range of hors d’oeuvres. On the first night this included helping yourself from a large display of local sausage, cheese and pork lard on rye bread (a lot tastier than it sounds) and culminating in a large tray of oysters with accompaniments on the last night.
One of the many plus points of river cruising is the small size of the ship, thus the number of guests on board and as this is significantly fewer than on ocean cruise ships, allows a good Cruise Director to demonstrate exactly how proactive and creative they can be at adapting the programme to suit individual requests and desires.
For example, an evening stop in Passau allowed an impromptu stroll round the city at night with two of the Tauck Directors, a request to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna resulted in complementary seats in the ground level box for as many guests as wanted to go and the on board evening ‘Reception to Remember’, complete with photo booth, will be remembered by the photo postcards generously mailed home via TouchNote. Even our luggage was conveniently taken to a city centre hotel in Budapest, for a later pick up time, although we had officially left the tour at the start of the day.
In line with many river cruise lines, Tauck also offers TAUCKFit Options, usually in the form of bike rides. Three were offered during the week: 28 miles (complete with granola bars, fruit and water snacks) along the Danube from Engelhartszell to Aschach, for hardened bikers, a shorter 5 mile trip from Durnstein to Weissenkirchen and back, a pleasant ride through the vineyards alongside the Danube for less ardent cyclists and the inaugural bike ride from the ship to the city centre in Vienna.
Riding in city centres is not my idea of fun, but as Vienna has over 1000 miles of dedicated cycle paths, much in evidence during our coach journey into the city, it would actually have been quite a pleasant experience. Each ride had a back up van on hand, in case of incidents to either bikes or riders. There was also a hike organised in Durnstein, up to the ruins of the Kuenringerburg Castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned and a ransom of 30 tonnes of silver paid. Such activities typically attracted the support of two Tauck Directors.
The culinary experience on MS Savor was equally extensive. All meals were Open Seating, meaning you could eat at a time to please yourself, within the opening hours of either the Compass Rose restaurant or Arthur’s (a more informal, smaller venue at the back of the ship, also with a bar) and served on Villeroy & Bosch crockery. Open for a light continental breakfast, Arthur’s was then available for a limited but casual lunch and dinner menu from 11am- 11pm. It also houses a 24 hour coffee machine with fresh fruit, assorted cookies, cold drinks and other snacks.
Lunchtime dishes included River Boat flat breads with toppings of your choice (I can recommend the bacon & mushroom), club sandwiches accompanied by a bowl of chips, a selection of soups and salads, mac & cheese, chilli, hot dogs and burgers, cheesecake and a choice of ice creams or fresh fruit. Arthur’s also offered a smoked tofu skewer with quinoa and salsa as a vegan choice at lunchtime. All in all, 14 dietary constituents were advised on the menus on board, indicating dishes containing fish, seafood, wheat, several nut types, egg and soy, for example.
It was also possible to meet with the Maitre D on the first evening on board, to discuss individual dietary requirements. Similar items were available at night in Arthur’s with the substitution of a different pasta dish along with grilled chicken breast, swordfish steak or an 8oz New York beef strip loin. In a similar vein in the Compass Rose, grilled steak tenderloin, salmon and chicken were always available, along with a jacket potato or chips and assorted vegetables.
The buffet breakfast in the Compass Rose set you up for the day – a wide selection of juices, fresh fruit (both whole and sliced), dried fruit, seeds and nuts, cereals including Bircher muesli and porridge (topped with brown sugar and cinnamon if desired), cold cuts, cheese and fish items, eggs Benedict, bacon and sausage, bread rolls, croissants, toast, Danish pastries and a changing assortment of muffin flavours was complemented by items to order like fresh smoothies, and eggs (cooked any way you liked with an array of omelette fillings). Pancakes and waffles similarly came with accompaniments of choice. There was also cinnamon toast, hash browns and corned beef hash, a choice of five (non cows) milk flavours as well as soft cheeses & other smoked meats.
Lunch was also buffet style offering a range of hot and cold dishes, including soups, salads, hot and cold sandwiches and at least 3 cooked dishes. There was also an assortment of lighter mousse/fruit type desserts and always cheese and a cake. My stand out lunch dish was spaghetti carbonara, made to order and finished off in a huge wheel of Parmesan cheese, from where cheese had seconds previously, been melted by blow torch and added to the pasta. Apparently the wheel lasts a month!
Evening meals could be as sumptuous as you wanted to make them with a choice of 3 starters, 2 soups, 4 entrees, 4 desserts and a different cheese board (many of them locally produced) every night. The menu also highlighted regional suggestions like wienershcneitzel, spätzle and Salzburger nockerl, as well as the chef’s suggestions and a few sentences termed ‘Gourmet Chat’ – giving a bit of history to the regional specialities of the day.
Again, evening meals weren’t all the same format – the Chef’s Signature Dinner, served at 7pm on the 2nd night was 6 courses long and one evening the dessert of Cherries Jubilee was served in the Panorama Lounge, by one of the chefs and the Cruise Director (suitably attired) in a light hearted manner complete with a wide choice of ice cream, different toppings and a musical accompaniment. However, the piece de resistance was the private Imperial Evening – dinner and entertainment at the Palais Pallavicini (but more of that later).
If you were still hungry after all that, you could also order a ‘Bite To Eat’ from the bar. Served between 10am and 12am there was a choice of nachos and guacamole, hot pretzels, cheese & crackers/bread and nuts, hot dogs (with or without mustard), ice cream and fresh fruit. Alternatively, Arthur’s served ‘Small Plates’ of prawn cocktail, trout mouse, salmon tempura, cheese & olives, curried chicken and home made pralines, each with a different wine or port, between 9 and 11pm.
It is quite easy to get blasé about the standard of the food on board, but there were a few exceptional offerings from the pastry chef including the best sacher torte I have ever tried. Not that I am an expert, but it was so good I decided to opt for an alternate pastry when we visited the cafes in Vienna, to avoid disappointment. The Lychee Royal tart as part of the Champagne Brunch was also memorable.
The bar in the Panorama Lounge opened at 9am and for the next 14 hours or so, the bar staff diligently plied us with alcohol in the bar, during meals, in Arthur’s or on deck. They were so generous with the Moet et Chandon, a selection of 20 cocktails and typically double measures of spirits, that it was easy to forget that it was all inclusive. Nothing was too much trouble: they made cocktails from ingredients of your choice, welcomed us back from excursions with something refreshing (and alcoholic) in the reception area and soon got to know your favourite drink, including my nightly fresh squeezed orange juice.
A trip with Tauck, to my mind, is one of contrasts and comparisons, again drawing on the strap line ‘How You See The World Matters’:
I did not partake in the first and last two days of the tour, which were land based and spent in 5* city centre hotels in Prague (InterContinental Hotel) and Budapest (Ritz Carlton Hotel) respectively, but I am sure that they would have both compared favourably with our river based, touring ‘hotel’ MS Savor with a level of attentive service similar in all three.
Tauck offer genuine tastes of regional specialities both on land and on their ships and we visited two homes during the itinerary: The first, a modern, private home in Engelhartszell where we sampled home made preserves and liqueurs and then of course the stunningly neoclassical styled Palais Pallavicini, situated opposite the Hofburg Palace in Josefplatz.
A wide staircase took us up to the second floor reception rooms, complete with elaborately-inlaid parquet floors. Redesigned in 1850, the Banqueting Hall retains its original ornamental chandeliers, along with splendid stuccos on the ceilings and walls and the mirror effects belong to a bygone baroque age. The Palace is still lived in today and opens for occasions such as we experienced (as well as appearing as Harry Lime’s apartment in Orson Wells’ film ‘The Third Man’ and Virgin Oldman's apartment in ‘The Best Offer’ in 2013).
We were treated to a champagne reception followed by a sumptuous 4 course dinner with flowing wine and classical entertainment of the highest standard: a small (principally stringed) orchestra, made up of members of the Vienna Opera, a tenor and mezzo soprano and two dancers, who performed several genres of dance. It is hard to know where else in the world you could experience such a concert for 80 people and whilst some reviews have suggested a cost of minimally $250/head, I think that this was a truly unique Tauck Exclusive Event.
As we were sailing through the Wachau Valley (famed for apricots and peaches as well as wine), a wine tasting was held in Durnstein at an Austrian Tavern. I had opted to take a bike tour through the vineyards, authentically seeing the grapes at an earlier stage of production and heard second hand about the wine tasting of one rose wine, three whites and one red types. I opted instead for the Wine Talk offered by the Maitre D in Arthur’s one afternoon.
It turned into a full blown wine tasting for about 12 people, of nine or so red wines from around the world, all washed down with crackers, bread and cheese. One of my favourites was Oude Kaap, a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, reputedly retailing at $50 a bottle, which we had liberally drunk during several evenings meals.
All in all, I felt thoroughly spoilt during my week with Tauck.
Nothing was too much trouble and all the staff strove to offer a personalised, caring service. There was plenty of time to sightsee on an excursion or explore yourself (with or without freely offered help and advice from the Cruise Director or Tauck Directors), a wide range of food and drink to savour (on Savor!) and comfortably welcoming cabins and public areas.
The only question left to answer is, when will I be back?