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With the launch of its newest river cruiser, Scenic has dropped the word “tour” from its vocabulary, added some wonder and injected plenty of smart technology writes Peter Lynch.

It’s early on a bright spring day and I am bowling along at 25 kilometre an hour through the wineries of the Austrian Wachau Valley on something called a Smart-e. The powder-blue and silver electric-assisted cycle may not look much, but it’s revolutionising the river experience, turning ordinary tourists into potential Tour de France champions.

A score of perfectly ordinary passengers aboard the newly launched Scenic Jasper jump on their Smart-es
and cycle 32 kilometres with hardly a sore calf muscle
– a distance most would never consider.
It is truly liberating, setting us free to roam the villages and towns along the Danube. 

As I cycle at amazing speed – the makers say they will do more than 35 kilometres an hour – I am listening to my Scenic Tailormade GPS device explaining the history of the region. It knows where I am and feeds me the correct commentary. It’s eerie.

Welcome to the world of high-tech tourism, where new devices are empowering independent travellers to explore unencumbered by tour guides carrying flags. It’s more intimate adventure, where any monument is a personal discovery. My Smart-e causes quite a stir in the small town of Dürnstein, where Americans and French can only stop and stare as I whiz up hills and down cobbled streets.

Of course, we are really here to road test – should that be river test? – the Jasper, the latest in the recently rebranded Scenic fleet of 12. This magnificent ship, designed by Australian Glen Moroney and his wife Karen, really is state-of-the-art. The wide expanses of public space and Scandinavian-look cabins are a big step away from the traditional beige-with-everything decor.

This extraordinary duo has set the pace in ship design on European waterways for a decade, much to the chagrin of local shipwrights. Karen Moroney is particularly proud to be commissioning Australian artists Waldemar Kolbusz and Peter Sharp to produce sculptures and paintings for the corridors and lounge of the Scenic Jasper.

Even though all European cruise ships have exactly the same dimensions and 135-metre length due to the size of the locks they must negotiate, that’s where the similarities end. The Jasper is a hip chrome-and-glass edifice full of modern smarts. Just step inside the shower of my 21-square-metre deluxe balcony suite and prepare to meet a Star Wars-style battery of controls for “colour therapy” that can “sweep or wave” with “fire or ice”. There is a keyboard for free Wi-Fi and the flat screen can show you the ship’s bow camera, double as a virtual fireplace, or play videos, news and music.

The cabin allows for the balcony to be incorporated into the room, or kept separate with a concertina glass door. With the window open, you can lean out and watch the Danube meander by in what is called Scenic’s “revolutionary sun lounge”. On the roof is a heated “vitality pool”, there are separate fitness and wellness centres.

Scenic has removed the word “tours” from its name and created a new ethos – offering to return “wonder” on journeys. Their product managers are now called “journey designers”. Like the Smart-e, it is all designed to bring the company into line with today’s new and more  demanding traveller, for whom the word “tour” conjures lines of Japanese following a guide with a flag.

The word may have vanished, but sadly the flag and guide are alive and well. At least, for now. On an all-day visit to Salzburg, home of The Sound of Music and Mozart (the city is still a uncertain which is the bigger draw card), we are crowded into a schnitzel restaurant with half the world – everyone led by a guide with a flag and all eating the same lunch. That said, the Jasper was winning new friends and influencing people across the world, confirming Mr Moroney’s incredible ability to innovate himself ahead of his competitors.

US travel agents – a tough bunch at the best of times – took the Jasper for a spin before us. And if Ellen Wyler of Provident Travel, Cincinnati, Ohio is anything to go by, we can expect to see hundreds of her countrymen deserting brands such as Tauck. “There is a lot of glass and chrome, which is very modern, but I loved the artwork. There is also a very warm and friendly atmosphere.”

Perhaps more importantly, she felt Scenic understood the new generation of cruise travellers, who want better food, fresh experiences and more independence. “Scenic gets it! I’ve been in the business 44 years, and I’ll definitely be promoting this to my clients.”

On the ship’s first journey, guests gave Jasper and staff a score of 98 out of 100. Under Scenic’s system of rewarding staff (the line is all-inclusive so there are no tips), that means bonuses for the crew of 53 mostly contract-hired staff; the ship has just nine direct Scenic employees, including Hungarian Joszef Toth, the youngest captain in the fleet at just 33.

Scenic promises “wow”and “wonder”. And much
of what they offer is, indeed, special – and certainly great value.

Special experiences
Scenic’s new branding is all about bringing back the wonder of travel. It’s a bold promise. Can it be brought to life? Yes, it can. The Hungarian Folklore was cheesy. The Vienna Waltz class was not for those who don’t enjoy making a fool of themselves. But our night at the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna certainly lived up to the title.

Despite a gold-enveloped invitation that promised to “deliver moments of wonder you won’t find on any other travel itinerary”, it didn’t sound too promising – an hour-long classical concert featuring the Elvis of Viennese classics, Strauss. But bubbles at the palais are something else. The building is a fabulous example of restoration, with a guilt coach in the foyer and a music room of breathtaking beauty.

Then the real revelation – the Imperial Orchestra is no pompous group of snooty classicists. Their MC is a stand-up comic with an amazing talent for the violin. The singers are brilliant and if you didn’t love the concert, the setting was reward in itself.

This is an exclusive Scenic event, and the same group will next year produce a Sound of Music show on the site of the famous movie in Salzburg.

But the Palais Liechtenstein will be a hard act to follow. Watching the Spanish Riding School work out its white stallions in its 140-year-old stables was another Scenic exclusive that produced memories.

Where we went
Our short Danube cruise took us along one of the most competitive routes on this popular river – Vienna to Budapest. History has bequeathed both cities with the most beautiful buildings in Europe – huge statement palaces, churches and forts, each trying to outdo the other with mural ceilings and marble walls. They came from an age where architects were allowed to run riot.

Budapest’s parliamentary building is the second biggest in the world – and Scenic has a mooring right in front of it. Throw open your curtains first thing in the morning and prepare to do a double take.

The city re-makes itself at night, lighting up its landmarks to create a spectacular best viewed from the railings of your ship with a glass of local wine in your hand.

Vienna’s Austro-Hungarian palaces, the Spanish stallions and the Palais Liechtenstein make it one of grandest cities in Europe. The famous Ringstrasse, with its big-brand fashion shops, is 150 years old this year.

But Budapest was a revelation. Its magnificently sorrowful tales of war and revolution, its grand statues and sweeping squares, and its trendy new pubs and restaurants are fascinating. Budapest is doing it tough, with the crowds preferring Prague. Even the gift of a Hollywood hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was really set in Germany, meaning no tourism attractions.

Dürnstein is a small town with a lovely, if hilly, walk on cobblestone streets. Try to have lunch overlooking the river on the terrace at the local hotel. The Wachau Valley is full of small wineries making delicious, fruity reisling, so grab your Smart-e and visit. 

While the ship sailed to Melk, 32 kilometres away, many used their Smart-e or ordinary bikes to follow us along the river by road. We visited Melk’s Benedictine abbey, which has a fascinating exhibition of the region’s history, including the world’s first re-usable coffin – an idea from the austere and highly unpopular emperor Joseph II in 1784, who also forbad teachers from talking to their families so they could save their voices for their pupils. The abbey library contains 84,000 books – thankfully, mostly now digitised for posterity. The church is a riot of marble and guilt, a perfect illustration of the baroque idea of trying to create heaven on earth.

At Aggstein Castle we sample a “Sundowner” drink.  The good news is the views along the valley are beautiful. The bad news is there is a yodelling accordion player.

The food
The Jasper has six food options: the main Crystal Dining room serving buffet and a la carte; The River Café, for more relaxed meals on the enclosed front deck; Portobellos Italian, which takes over the front deck at night for fine dining; and Table La Rive, specialty dining with paired local or international wines.

The Riverview Terrace serves snacks, late breakfast and cakes. And, of course, there is in-room dining from the 24-hour room service menu. The Crystal dining room staff were attentive. Light-lunch buffets were good.

What was a revelation, given the tiny space, was how executive chef Exequiel Cruzat, who hails from the Philippines and served on a German ocean cruiser for eight years, and his staff of eight were able to step up their game for its two special dining venues. Okay, so we are talking about two tables at the back of the dining room. But Table La Rive could have been a world away from the rest of the ship. Its six-course degustation, with filet with foie gras, lemongrass crème brulée, and chocolate cake with balsamic cherries, was a real specialty meal. Local wines were served with a great commentary from Ukrainian head butler Natalia Bozhenkova.

Portobellos – the River Café by day – produced a variety of Italian dishes. The Ligurian stuffed veal with mushroom risotto was elegantly presented and the tiramisu with coffee flavoured foam was a brilliant finale.

Unbuckle your belt and enjoy!

The accommodation
Accommodation ranges from one single cabin (though Scenic has special offers on single supplements that are terrific for solo travellers) to the royal suites at the rear of the ship, with panorama windows, balcony and full bathroom. And butler service.

Room 323 is a deluxe balcony suite – plenty of storage, better-than-average space for two and great contemporary fittings in light wood. The bed can be divided. The bathroom is a good space with an amazing shower fitting.

The ship features a surprisingly good gym and separate massage and hair salon. Prices ranged from €99 for a 90-minute Diamond signature facial with hand and foot massage to a manicure for €36. 

THE VERDICT
Highs: The majestic cities of Vienna and Budapest – with amazing architecture and a history lesson around every corner.
Lows: The Tailormade GPS device is a great idea – but they are clunky, heavy and the battery is about as reliable as an Eastern European car in the winter.
Who’s it for: Sophisticated travellers who want a taster of this magnificent route. You’ll be back!

FACT FILE
Cruise Line: Scenic
Vessel: Scenic Jasper
Star rating: Not yet rated
Maximum Passenger Capacity: 169
Total Crew: 51
Passenger Decks: 3
Entered Service: 2015
Facilities: Sun deck, walking track, fitness centre, vitality pool, massage and facials, gift shop, six restaurant and cafe options.
Bookings: Scenic is offering twin-share 15-day cruises from Amsterdam to Budapest from $7,295 (March 2016). The all-inclusive fare includes transfer, tips, excursions, meals, beverages, butler and laundry concierge. scenic.com.au