Tauck World Discovery has always had an excellent reputation as a land tour operator, perhaps one of the best in the world. After all, they have been organizing tours since 1925, arguably longer than anyone else in the industry. So, when Tauck decided to jump into the ever-expanding business of river cruising, we had to find out if they planned to bring the same level of excellence to river cruising as they have to land travel.
|Rickee and me enjoying the view from the Sun Deck
Tauck currently offers river cruises on three new vessels, the newest of which is the ms Swiss Jewel, our home on the Danube for seven days. Jewel’s sister ships, Swiss Emerald and Swiss Sapphire, are virtually identical to Swiss Jewel and all three have been christened within the last four years. This makes Tauck’s riverboat fleet the newest and most spacious on Europe’s inland waterways. Unlike ocean going vessels, riverboats are limited on their physical size so that they can fit into the many locks and beneath bridges. Tauck's vessels are configured to carry only 118 guests while competitors carry as many as 140 on riverboats the same size. The result is a more spacious and relaxed environment on a Tauck river cruise.
Each Tauck riverboat boasts state-of-the-art designs and features implemented in response to feedback from guests. In actuality, Tauck charters these ships for seven months out of the year from Scylla Tours, the Swiss company that owns the ships. Therefore, the ship’s crew work for Scylla Tours while the land tour portion of the trip (pre-cruise, post-cruise and shore excursions) and onboard activities are handled by Tauck. It is an interesting arrangement, and it seems to work very well.
Most Tauck river cruises include a pre-cruise hotel/excursion package prior to boarding the vessel as well as a post-cruise package at the end of the sailing. Even though other river cruise companies offer these as optional add-ons, Tauck builds it into most of it's itineraries. Our 7-night sailing from Budapest to Prague is actually an 11-night trip which begins with two nights in Budapest and ends with two nights in Prague. Even though we were unable to join the rest of the group for the two days of excursions in Budapest and Prague, we were able to spend two nights in Budapest at the same hotel where Tauck accommodates its guests, the Hotel InterContinental.
Note: On some sailings it is possible to book only the cruise portion of the trip.
Hotel InterContinental Budapest
Widely regarded as the premier business traveler’s hotel, the InterContinental brand is working to build up its leisure business. That’s very good news for leisure travelers since these hotels are some of the finest 5-star properties in the world. When we arrived at the InterContinental Budapest, we were pleased to find that it was centrally located on the Pest side of the Danube River (Buda and Pest are actually two separate city/districts separated by the Danube). Our suite had huge picture windows with a spectacular view of the beautiful Danube River, Buda on the opposite side of the Danube and also the famous Chain Bridge, the oldest bridge in Budapest. It is easy to see why this hotel is consistently honored with the “Best View” award for its 180 degree view of the Danube.
We were informed that the 402 guest rooms and suites in the hotel had been completely refurbished within the past 12 months. A new outside terrace area overlooking the Danube has been added and can be accessed from either the bar or restaurant. The 842 sq. meter SPA InterContinental has been renovated and relocated as has Club InterContinental Lounge, the executive lounge. Our room has been updated with exceptional bedding, plush down pillows, and down comforters. New carpeting and drapes, a large flat-screen high-definition television and updated bathroom fixtures round out a very nicely-appointed and comfortable room. There is a scale, telephone, and a TV speaker in the bathroom plus a magnifying mirror attached to one wall. Each room has an electronic safe, a mini-bar/fridge, an iron and ironing board and hairdryer. Bathrobes with slippers are hanging in the closet. Another great feature is how quiet the room is. A couple with an infant was right next door, yet we never heard a peep.
For more information on our stay at Hotel InterContinental Budapest, click here
MS SWISS JEWEL
We boarded Swiss Jewel at 4:00pm on embarkation day as instructed. As soon as we stepped on board we noticed two things: One, we were cheerfully greeted by Tauck Cruise Director, Lynn Hardcastle, and two, this is not like any riverboat we have ever sailed on previously.
Swiss Jewel is clearly a step above most river cruise boats in terms of style and décor. In short, she is beautiful. She is as nice, if not nicer, than many 5-star ocean-going ships. The rich dark woods, Italian marble, stylish carpeting, fabric and leather seating surfaces combine to make Jewel's interior elegant but approachable. Crystal sconces and chandeliers are prevalent and art work and ornate mirrors grace the walls of the hallways. Swiss Jewel makes a great first impression.
Swiss Jewel’s main lounge is located forward on Deck 2 1/2, sort of in-between Decks 2 and 3. The lounge is beautifully appointed and is the main meeting place on board for drinks, socializing and entertainment. The ship’s Reception Desk is located just aft of the lounge across from which is the small boutique selling Swiss Jewel logo items, clothing and other trinkets. Downstairs from the lounge is the ship’s main dining room. The dining room can accommodate all 118 guests, if necessary. Most tables are set up for four or six guests with two tables set up for eight guests. Windows line the walls for a great view while dining.
| The elegant lobby of Swiss Jewel
Deck 3 aft is the Lido Bar which features a 180 degree view of the river. There are several tables for four and a computer terminal. This lounge is used for Early Riser breakfast each morning, light lunches and optional Italian bistro-style dining each evening. This room also houses a few books and newspapers, board games and a jigsaw puzzle in progress. Cookies, tea and coffee are available in the Lido Bar at all times.
On Deck 1 forward is a small, but well-equipped, fitness center with modern treadmills, a rowing machine, bicycles and free weights. There is even a massage room and a masseuse, something we have not seen on other riverboats.
| Anyone for a game of chess?
The Sun Deck has lots of open space carpeted with artificial turf, and replete with covered seating areas and sun loungers. Several bicycles are stored here and the crew will gladly move them to shore if a guest would like to take a bike ride. There is a putting green, a large chess board painted on the deck with oversized chess pieces, and even a hot tub! This is a great place to sit and watch the sunset as the terraced hills of the Danube slowly pass by.
Another unique feature that we appreciated was the presence of three ice machines located in different parts of the ship. No need to call and wait on room service if you need more ice, just help yourself. There is an elevator between Decks 1 and 2. However, you do have to climb a few steps to get to Deck 3 and the Sun Deck.
As with most riverboats (or ships, as her Captain would prefer), Swiss Jewel consists of three passenger decks and a sun deck. Staterooms and suites are located on Decks 1, 2 and 3 with the Sun Deck, obviously, on Deck 4. All staterooms are "river view". The staterooms on Decks 2 and 3 feature large floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors with French “step out” balconies while the staterooms on Deck 1 have large windows. The 14 lush, 300-square-foot suites are found on Deck 3. Each deck has one or more “junior suites” which measure 183 square feet.
Our stateroom on Deck 2 aft was 150 sq. ft. and, though typical in size to other riverboat accommodations, felt much larger. The design and layout of the cabin was very well executed to provide maximum storage and space. The closet was large and divided into three separate sections and included an electronic safe and a mini-bar/fridge stocked with complimentary bottled water. There were two drawers in the closet’s center section and three drawers in each nightstand on either side of the bed. One section of closet consisted of shelves only and provided lots of storage space. The other two sections of closet had hanging space. There was plenty of room under the beds to store luggage. A half-round glass table with a mirror above it is mounted to the wall opposite the bed. Two small chairs complete the decor. The only “miss” was the lack of storage shelves in the bathroom. There is only a large shelf underneath the sink/vanity. The half-circle shower with handheld shower wand is unique and quite roomy; however, the design of the shower door makes it impossible to keep water from leaking out onto the bathroom floor. L’Occitane amenities, in the form of shower gel, soap, body lotion, shampoo and conditioner are a nice touch. A hairdryer, which was the quietest I’ve ever heard, is provided. Each cabin has its own thermostat to control temperature and fan speed.
An interesting feature in each cabin is a “silent alarm” button that, when pressed, sets off an alarm in some of the officers’ cabins to alert them to a problem such as a fall or sudden illness. Electricity on board is 220, so Americans will need a converter and/or adapter in order to plug things in. A limited number of converters/adapters are available at Reception.
Our trip took place during “high season” on the Danube, which means there were lots of riverboats. At some cities where we stopped where docking facilities were limited, another riverboat would pull up next to us, tie up to us and its guests would actually exit through our lobby. Sometimes there were as many as three or four boats hooked together side-by-side. This is common nowadays with riverboat cruising as there are only so many places where the ships can dock. Be prepared to have your view of the river obscured by another riverboat if your cabin is on the "river side" when docked. Since our cabin was the next-to-last cabin aft, we experienced periods of loud engine noise. Our suggestion is to book your cruise early and request a cabin amidship or forward. Other than the periodic engine noise, our cabin was extremely quiet. Unlike most cruise ships, Swiss Jewel's designers even figured out how to create a cabin door that does not slam shut with a bang. The cabin doors require minimal pressure to "click" into place. Perfect.
| Swiss Jewel docked in Durnstein
FOOD AND DINING
Eating is no less important on a river cruise than on an ocean-going one. Guests who sail on Swiss Jewel will not be disappointed when hunger strikes. The ship offers a full hot and cold breakfast buffet each morning from 7:00am to 9:00am* in the dining room. There is an omelet station where eggs are made to order along with freshly-made pancakes. A lighter breakfast with cereals, pastries, yogurt and cheese is offered from 6am until 10am* in the Lido Bar.
For lunch, the restaurant offers a variety of hot and cold buffet selections throughout the week as well as a daily Chef’s Special, which can be ordered at the table. A light lunch of soup and sandwiches is served in the Lido Bar. Lunch is typically from 12:00pm until 1:30pm*. Dinner time is usually 7:00pm (or earlier or later depending on the day’s activities) and is the only fixed-time dining. All three meals are open-seating. Dinner in the restaurant is menu service, multi-course and includes complimentary red or white wine, usually from the region you are visiting. An optional Italian Bistro is set up in the Lido Bar each evening. Guests are requested to sign-up for the Italian Bistro in advance as seating is limited to twenty people. Vegetarians also have many options available both on the buffet and on the menu. For any other dietary requirements, just let them know when booking the trip.
In addition to the three mealtimes, there is a 6:00pm “apero” time each evening in the main lounge where waiters serve guests a selection of impressive appetizers. Coffee, tea, water, fruit and cookies are available 24 hours a day in the Lido Bar.
* Dining times may vary from day to day
The quality of meals we experienced on Swiss Jewel was well above average with a few items that really stood out. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Swiss Jewel’s dining is on par with some of the 5-star cruise ships that are known for their dining. It was definitely the best dining we have experienced on a river cruise. Part of the secret is that Head Chef, Tomás Stange, does not go overboard on radical cuisine. Quite frankly, many cruise lines try to be too exotic and creative with their menus, often times beyond the tastes of most Americans and the abilities of the galley staff. Swiss Jewel’s menus are much more approachable with dishes that you can understand and enjoy. The emphasis here is more on quality ingredients and excellent preparation than on fancy sauces and cutting-edge technique. This approach works for us. The food was very good and often represented the area in which we were cruising. For lunch one day, we had sausage and sauerkraut and German beer when we sailed through Germany. Interestingly enough, I noticed after several days that I had not needed to reach for a saltshaker once! The brigade in the galley knows how to season food expertly.
Even buffet items at lunch were very good, even though some items that were to be served hot were tepid at best, a common problem with buffet services. The appetizers served each evening in the lounge were some of the best we have found on any ship.
In addition to the ship’s dining, Tauck sometimes arranges meals at restaurants in some of the cities visited during the cruise. All meals are included in the cruise/tour fare with the exception of a couple of pre-cruise and post-cruise meals.
Here is something unique to a Tauck/Scylla river cruise. Every evening from 5pm to 6pm is “happy hour” with a selection of ½ price drinks. What a great idea! Every cruise line should offer this. We were sort of surprised that more guests did not take advantage of this very special feature. A glass of very good sparkling wine was only 1.30 Euro. That’s less than $2 US!
Entertainment on river sailings is rarely anything to get excited about. With limited space in the lounge and only 114 guests, riverboats simply don’t have the budget or the infrastructure for big shows like larger ships do. However, Swiss Jewel does have a resident pianist, Jiru, who performs in the lounge each evening before and after dinner, on a full-size piano no less. And, a few times during the cruise, we were entertained by local “step-on” entertainers. One evening featured Slovak Folk music and dance, another was a classical music trio. Both were excellent.
The entertainment highlight on this cruise was an evening in Vienna at the Palais Pallavicini, an incredibly beautiful venue where Beethoven once performed! An excellent dinner was made even more special by a spectacular performance of classical music, opera and ballet. Truly, this had to be one of the most memorable evenings we have spent on any cruise to date.
After our evening in Vienna, we understood how Tauck has achieved its reputation as a true 5-star tour operator.
Like most river cruises, the destination is the main activity. If you want to sit on a big fancy ship and play bingo or sit around a swimming pool all day, go on an ocean cruise. If, however, you want to explore a destination and its culture, a river cruise is a great option. Tauck’s included excursions are unparalleled in Europe and exemplify the signature sightseeing that has made them a leader in travel for 85 years. Included are guided walking or motorcoach tours in each of the cities or towns where Swiss Jewel docks and special evening “events” like the gala dinner and entertainment we experienced in a palace in Vienna. In some cases, the ship is within minutes of a city’s center which makes a walking tour a logical choice. Our two Tauck Directors, Lidia and Yener, were always available to answer questions or make suggestions about things to do on your own in any town or city we visited.
| Rickee models the QuietVox communication system
Tauck splits everyone into three or four smaller excursion groups (depending on the number of guests), each with their own personal local tour guide. All of the guides we had were very capable and all spoke very good English. Each guest is given a “QuietVox” (a small electronic device with an earphone that allows you to hear the tour guide) for communication purposes. The whole system is very logical and effective. There is even a “leisurely paced” group for those who want to take it a little slower. The motorcoaches used were new, clean, air-conditioned and comfortable. It seems that Tauck has been doing this so long that they have thought of just about everything.
Complimentary bottled water and umbrellas are available in the lobby prior to leaving the boat for tours. To keep track of which guests are off the boat, everyone is requested to drop off their room keys at Reception in exchange for a “boarding pass” which includes the name and phone number of the ship in case you somehow get lost. Maps of the local area are always provided and guests can mark the path the walking tour will take in case they want to explore on their own. When we return from an excursion, we are greeted by smiling crew members who offer hot or cold towels and a refreshing beverage. On one rainy, cool day, we were offered hot vegetable consommé. Delicious!
Internet service, which is offered to guests free of charge, was virtually unusable on our journey. Guests can sign up to access the Internet from the computer in the Lido Bar for twenty minutes at a time or you can use your own laptop to access wi-fi. Tauck also has a laptop available for guests to borrow. Near the end of the cruise, after not having Internet for most of the trip, we were informed that an antenna had been broken causing the Internet to be unavailable. Cruise Director, Lynn Hardcastle, was very apologetic about the lack of this service and assured the group that someone was flying in to fix the antenna in Regensburg, our last stop. It wouldn’t help us, but perhaps the next group would have Internet access. We were able to find Internet cafés in just about every city or town we visited at very reasonable rates.
Each evening, a Daily Program is placed on your bed which details all the activities for the following day, meal times, the weather forecast and a list of movies that will be available on the TV. Both historical and practical information about the next place we are visiting is also provided. Onboard activities included a Bridge visit, galley tour, movie night in the Lounge, and a version of Liars’ Club held after dinner one evening. It was not unusual to see a group playing cards in the Lido Bar. In Bratislava, a local guest lecturer came aboard to talk about the Slovak Republic. Other lectures on pertinent topics were given by the Tauck Directors, Lidia and Yener.
Pre-Cruise in Budapest (Currency: Hungarian Forint)
We were unable to join Tauck on this portion of the trip; however, Tauck offers daily local tours and meals with a spectacular “event” held on the last evening in a Hungarian palace. We overheard many guests raving about that evening.
Bratislava, Slovakia (Currency: Euro)
This is the capital city of Slovakia with baroque palaces that date back to the Hapsburg era of Maria Theresa. Here we had a walking tour which ended with a visit to a pastry shop for a treat! We happened to be here on Inauguration Day, so the city was crowded.
Vienna, Austria (Currency: Euro)
Our boat overnighted in Vienna. The first day, we had a city tour by motorcoach followed by either a tour of the famous Schonbrunn Palace or the Silver Chamber at Hofburg Palace. We were dropped off in the center of the city to explore on our own. A shuttle bus service was provided to and from the ship on both days we were in Vienna. The highlight of the trip, for us, was the Imperial Viennese evening at the Palais Pallavicini for Tauck guests only. This was a gorgeous old palace built in 1784 where we had dinner and the most incredible entertainment. There was classical music, ballet, and opera. Glorious!
Durnstein, Austria (Currency: Euro)
Durnstein is a charming wine village with cobblestone streets and the ancient Durnstein Abbey. It is located in the famous Wachau wine region and dates back to around the year 1000. Here we had a guided walk through the narrow and winding cobblestone streets and finished our visit with a wine tasting at the Alte Kloster Keller in the village. Ruins of a huge castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held captive are perched high on a hill overlooking the town. This little village was very crowded as six riverboats were here at the same time.
Linz/Salzburg, Austria (Currency: Euro)
Linz is a big city and served as our starting point for a motorcoach excursion through beautiful countryside to the magnificent city of Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart. It was raining but we pressed on with our walking tour which included Mirabelle Gardens, the Old Town, the Mozart Residence, St. Peter’s Monastery, the Cathedral, Residence Square and the Alte Market. Here Tauck gave each guest 20 Euro to purchase lunch on our own. In the past, Tauck had arranged a group lunch in Salzburg, but guests complained that the lunch took too much time out of their brief stay in this wonderful city. Salzburg is a great place to explore, even in the rain. Its rich history and musical and theatrical heritage are all beautifully preserved in its architecture and attitudes.
Passau, Germany (Currency: Euro)
This Baroque town is home to the world’s largest church organ which contains over 17,000 pipes. It is found in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We had a walking tour of Passau focusing primarily on Old Town, The Town Hall and the cathedral. Known as the “Town of Three Rivers”, Passau is located at the intersection of the rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz. After spending some free time here, we returned to the boat where specially-priced German beer and pretzels were being served on the Sun Deck.
Regensburg, Germany (Currency: Euro)
This was our final stop on our river cruise. This picturesque town is Germany’s largest surviving medieval city and is home to the ancient Old Stone Bridge, built between 1135 and 1161, which is the oldest bridge in Germany still standing. It crosses the Danube and rests on 16 arches. At one end of the bridge is the medieval “Sausage Kitchen” where we indulged in a plate of sausage and kraut. Delicious! On our walking tour, we also visited St. Peter’s Cathedral and saw the Old Town Hall which dates from around 1250.
Before we left the boat on the final morning, our luggage had to be outside our cabin. Your final bill could be paid in Euros, by credit card or a combination of the two. If you wanted to put personal items, such as breakable stuff and computers, on a seat on the motorcoach before you left for the walking tour in Regensburg, you could do so. The motorcoach would pick us up after our walking tour in Regensburg to take us on the four-hour trip to Prague. An additional luggage truck would take some of the luggage that did not fit on the two motorcoaches.
Post-Cruise in Prague, Czech Republic (Currency: Czech Koruna)
In the two days post-cruise, the Tauck guests stay at the Marriott in Old Town Prague and have both motorcoach and walking tours on the agenda. A dinner is held in the hotel on the first night in Prague and the next night, guests are given a choice of three different restaurants in which to dine. Transfers are provided to the airport on the morning of departure. Prague is an amazing city with lots of history. Don’t forget to look up when you walk around. The decorations on the building tops are incredible.
| Captain Zijlmans and Cruise Director, Lynn Hardcastle
THE TAUCK EXPERIENCE
Tauck may be relatively new to river cruising but they bring a lot of tour experience into this market segment. The partnership with Scylla Tours seemed strange at first because we are not used to having one company doing the “tour” stuff and another doing the “ship” stuff. But, it works! The Scylla Tours crews are well-known for their friendliness. The 34 multi-lingual, international crew members look after the passengers‘ well-being from morning to night. The three Tauck representatives onboard the vessel are always available to answer questions and solve any problem that may arise.
Tauck World Discovery river cruises is a product uniquely tailored and marketed to Americans. Every logistical detail of every day is perfectly choreographed so the guest can concentrate on having fun. Everyone speaks English and everything is geared toward American tastes and customs. It is a great way for someone who may hesitate to visit Europe because of language concerns to experience this vast continent with its multiple cultures.
Tauck river cruises are nearly all-inclusive. Notwithstanding bar drinks purchased onboard and a few meals during the pre-cruise and post-cruise stays, everything is included in the cruise/tour fare. This means all excursions/events, tips for guides and drivers and for the onboard Tauck staff and Scylla crew, too.
- All gratuities, even gratuities for tour guides and transfers
- All transfers to/from airport/hotel
- All hotel stays and some pre/post cruise meals
- Shipboard accommodations and meals
- All entertainment
- Admission to all museums, attractions and exhibits
- Use of QuietVox communication system
- Bottled water
- Wine with dinner
- Internet access
What’s Not included?
- Bar drinks (except at Captain’s dinners)
- Gift shop purchases
- Mini-bar purchases
- Limited laundry service/pressing
Dress onboard and on shore is casual. Most men wore a jacket to the evening dinner and concert in the palace in Vienna and some wore a jacket to the special Captain’s dinners. Neckties are not required. Women mostly wore casual slacks and tops. Take a sweater. Even in June, some of the places we visited were rainy and cool. Also, when the riverboat is moving and you are on the Sun Deck, it can be a bit nippy. Be sure to have comfortable, broken-in walking shoes. There was a lot of walking on our Blue Danube itinerary.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip with Tauck on the ms Swiss Jewel and highly recommend Tauck for European river travel. They take good care of their guests and everything is well-organized. All you have to do is show up and enjoy!