I’m standing on the top deck of the ship, watching the water as the rolling vineyards fall away.
A waiter delivers a cold glass of white wine and swiftly returns with a vast cosy blanket and a fleece-wrapped hot water bottle.
I sink into the (now warm and fleecy) sun lounger and the ship slinks off down the Danube towards the pink sky.
Though it has all the ingredients, this is not a dream. This is real life on board the S.S. Maria Theresa, Uniworld’s floating homage to the former Austrian empress.
If you’ve never considered a river cruise before, this is the vibe in a nutshell: lounge about in a five-star hotel for the evening, enjoying gourmet food and fabulous wine, drift off in an enormous fluffy cloud of a bed and wake up to a brand new view and a different city to explore every day.
Make no mistake: this is the high life. All aboard…
Named after one of Europe’s most beloved and longest reigning monarchs, the great Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa (a portrait of her hangs in the foyer), the SS Maria Theresa is a floating palace fit for a queen.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of Maria Theresa’s birth; if she were planning a bash, this is where she’d stage it.
Up on deck you’ll find rows of luxe sun loungers, where you can take in the view over coffee or something stronger (the cocktails are to die for).
The Habsburg Salon is where all the action happens.
It begins at 6pm with Champagne, canapes and cocktails at as cruise manager Gyongyi presents her daily preview of what’s on offer in terms of trips and guided tours the next day.
On the other side of the ship you’ll find the fabulous Leopard Bar, where you can book a private dinner or unwind with quiet drinks on the quiet little deck at the back of the ship.
On the lower levels you’ll find the Serenity River Spa (complete with miniature dip pool); the Viennese Café and the intimate Lipizzan Cinema for onboard screenings of popular films.
The staterooms are plush with a capital P, with blue and white decor, thick carpet, made-to-order Savoir of England beds, 100% Egyptian cotton sheets and a menu of pillow options.
The marble-lined bathrooms are fully stocked with L’Occitane products and the TV screen appears from within the mirror.
A window sweeps down one side of the room. Touch the button on the wall and the entire upper half disappears, turning your room into your own private deck from which to watch the world go by.
This is particularly magical in the morning when you can lie in bed, watching the mist descend over the vineyards before you start your day.
Each night after turn-down service, you’ll find a full breakdown of tomorrow’s schedule on your bed, usually with a little gift (Hermès bath and body products, Bea Tollman fragrances, created by the Red Carnation Hotels President and Founder herself) to enjoy as you get ready to sink into your Egyptian cotton cloud.
If you’re up in time for yoga at 7am, the Viennese Café opens for breakfast at 6am until 10:30am, with an ever changing array of cakes and pastries to enjoy with your coffee.
If it’s a breakfast feast you’re after, however, enjoy a sleep-in and wait for the breakfast buffet in the Baroque Restaurant where, amongst the warm baked breads and countless meats you’ll find smoked salmon bellinis, an omelette station and French toast piled high with fresh cream.
If you’re not signed up for an active morning it’s a good idea to at least take a stroll before lunch, which is yet another magnificent buffet featuring fresh fish and chips, local casseroles and stews, finger sandwiches and decadent desserts.
The cocktail list is lengthy (they are strong, so consider yourself warned!) and the wine is introduced by the sommelier each evening in the Habsburg Salon.
Dinner is a big deal; there’s the Welcome and Farewell Gala dinners and menu after menu of locally inspired dishes in the Baroque Restaurant.
And dessert? Well…
If you happen to snooze through lunch (it happens) or you feel peckish after dinner, the Viennese Café is stocked with fresh cakes, juices and snacks to keep you going. There’s even a hot dog stand where you can pile a ‘dog with crispy onions, mustard and ketchup at any time of the day or night.
A laid-back little town filled with bakeries, cobbled streets and lazy wine bars with outdoor terraces, Melk is best explored in comfy shoes. The pace of life is deliciously slow so bring a book and unwind with a coffee.
The must-see is Melk Abbey, an imposing yellow building that sits on a rocky outcrop, looming above the Danube. With 497 rooms and 1365 windows, is now a school run by 30 resident monks, but its Baroque history has been wonderfully preserved. As a visitor you can walk through the courtyard in the footsteps of Mozart.
The abbey was once the home of a young Maria Theresa, long before she gave birth to her infamous daughter Marie Antoinnette, although it’s clear a penchant for going truly extra with the decor runs in the family.
Don’t miss the Marble Hall, with its vast painted ceiling featuring 3D cherubs, angels and clouds under which the family would dine to the sound of an orchestra hidden in an upper balcony.
The library, with its 12 rooms of inlaid wood, houses 100,000 volumes, medieval manuscripts, an original Baroque globe of the heavens by the cosmographer Coronelli and a number of secret doors.
At the end of the tour you’ll pass over the terrace (the view is incredible so bring your camera) and arrive in the Stiftskirche (Abbey Church), where the marble columns and frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr will blow your mind.
And the view from the top? Epic:
Oh; and the left side altar in the transept contains the skeleton of the Irish pilgrim St. Coleman in a sarcophagus, so say hello if you’re passing.
What to eat: Hit Teufner, the local bakery, for Bauernkrapfen (donuts stuffed with jam, custard or even bacon).
Neatly arranged under the ruins of Dunstein Castle, high on the rocky hill above, Durnstein is a quiet town that does wine exceptionally well.
Don’t miss the Uniworld tour and tasting at the Nikolaihof organic winery – the grapes are so pure and free of contamination that they can be used to create organic cosmetics after the wine-making process is finished.
What to eat: Carnivores should hit the Altes Presshaus to try the local blood sausage (the outdoor area is great for people watching too). Wash everything down with a cold glass of Nikolaihof’s delicious Gruner Veltliner.
Home to Austria’s second largest shopping street, Linz is your stop if you fancy a spot of retail therapy. Stop for lunch or cocktails at Skygarden, which boasts incredible views of the Postlingberg hill and the Linz cathedral.
However, music fans can climb aboard the luxury Uniworld coach bound for Salzburg, where a full day guided trip will allow you to reconnect with your inner Julie Andrews.
Sound of Music fans will delight in the Mirabell Palace gardens, where the Do-Re-Mi scene was filmed…
Naturally, Uniworld ensure the transfer to Salzburg is enjoyable by bringing along a singing tour guide so you can enjoy the best of the movie en route.
What to eat: Linz is the home of the Linzer Torte, believed to be the world’s oldest cake. A crumbly pastry made with lemon zest, cinnamon and ground nuts, it’s usually filled with redcurrant jam or plum butter, and covered by a lattice of dough strips. Delicious.
It’s worth dragging yourself out of bed before 9am for the scenic sailing into Passau; your Instagram will thank you for it. Once you’ve had your fill of awe-inspiring scenery, stroll into picturesque Passau for a coffee in the pretty square.
The ceiling of the Cathedral in the centre of town is really something so nip in for a look if you’re passing…
What to eat: The market outside the cathedral is home to all manner of foodie goodies and if it’s famous Bavarian apfelstrudel you’re after, stop by Cafe Anton.
What to pack
I travelled in March and by the time we docked in Passau, the temperature had hit a toasty 23 degrees. While the crew assured us this was unusual for that time of the year, pack sunscreen (for top deck lounging) and sunglasses just in case.
The tours offered by Uniworld are many and varied so bring active wear if cycling, hiking and walking are in your plans. Pop a swimsuit in your luggage too in case you opt for a dip in the pool (you can stroll down there in the fluffy robe supplied in your room) or a massage.
Experiences like this one do not come cheap, but keep in mind this is a floating five-star hotel, where your every whim is catered to and everything, from your cocktails to your canapes, is covered in the all-inclusive package.
This is a trip that’s all about indulgence (a young Irish man I met onboard had brought his mum – how sweet is that?) and Uniworld ensure every guest is indulged from the moment they receive their special branded travel wallet to the minute they’re waving you goodbye.
It’s truly an experience worth saving up for or splashing out on. After all; travel really is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s seven-night Enchanting Danube itinerary visits Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Germany and is priced from €2,989 per person sharing (flights not included). This price is based on a category 5 stateroom and two people sharing. Also included is: 7-night cruise in a riverview stateroom, unlimited beverages and all meals onboard (7 breakfasts, 6 lunches and 7 dinners), Welcome and Farewell Gala dinner, 6 days of excursions, including “Choice is Yours”, “Go Active”, “Do as the Locals Do”, “Village Day” and “Gentle Walking” programs, 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all transfers on arrival and departure days, all gratuities both onboard and onshore.
Uniworld has also just launched U by Uniworld, with cruises designed with the 21-45 age group in mind; think silent discos, yoga, exploring and festival stops. Check it out here.