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Scenic delivers a world of wonder and plenty of smart technology, on the river and ashore.

Disembark and find yourself bowling along at 25km/h through the wineries of the Austrian Wachau Valley on  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.

Average, able-bodied passengers on the Scenic Jasper jump on their Smart-es and cycle 32km with hardly a sore calf muscle between them – a distance most would never consider back home. Truly liberating, it lets guests roam the villages and towns along the Danube at will.

While cycing at  speed – apparently it does more than 35km/h – listen to your Scenic Tailormade GPS device explaining the history of the region. It knows where you are and feeds you the relevant commentary; it’s eerie!

High-tech tourism and clever devices empower independent travellers to explore, unencumbered by tour guides carrying flags. It’s a more intimate adventure, where your discoveries in, say, the small town of Dürnstein are rendered much more personal.

Speaking of technology, the magnificent Jasper – designed by Australian Glen Moroney and his wife Karen – is state-of-the-art. The wide expanses of public space and Scandinavian-look cabins are a big step away from the traditional beige decor.

This extraordinary duo have set the pace in ship design on European waterways for a decade, much to the chagrin of local shipwrights. Karen Moroney is particularly pleased with Australian artists Waldemar Kolbusz and Peter Sharp’s sculptures and paintings for the corridors and lounge.

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. This is a hip chrome-and-glass edifice full of modern smarts.

In a 21sq m deluxe balcony suite cabin you’ll find a Star Wars-style battery of controls for the ”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 bow camera, double as a virtual fireplace or play videos, news and music.

The balcony can be incorporated into the room, or kept separate with a concertina glass door. With the window down, 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”, and separate fitness and wellness centres.

Scenic some time ago removed the word “tours” from its name and created a new ethos – offering to return “wonder” on journeys.

Like the Smart-e, it’s all designed to bring the company into line with today’s more demanding traveller, for whom the word “tour” conjures lines of Japanese following a guide with a flag.

 

Indeed, the Jasper has won friends and influenced people across the world, confirming Mr Maroney’s incredible ability to innovate himself ahead of his competitors.

 

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

A word about butlers

Anyone who has read PG Wodehouse understands the consummate butler – or valet, as Jeeves liked to be known – and the level of personal service provided. Without Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s life would’ve been a permanent tragedy.

Aboard Scenic, butlers – trained by a British company no doubt familiar with PG Wodehouse’s literary musings – don’t just “buttle”. They perform many tasks. You might encounter the head butler doubling as wine waiter and cleaning the lounge floors in surgical gloves at 6am.

Somehow, we don’t think Jeeves would be amused.

 

THE VERDICT

High: The majestic cities of Vienna and Budapest –amazing architecture and a history lesson around every corner.

Low: The Tailormade GPS device – clunky, heavy and about as reliable as an Eastern European car in the winter. Great idea, frustratingly badly executed.

Who’s it for: Sophisticated travellers who want a taster of this magnificent route. You’ll be back!

 

 

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 a sight to behold – 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 a joy.

Budapest was a revelation. It’s magnificently sorrowful tales of war and revolution, its grand statues and sweeping squares, and its trendy new pubs and restaurants are fascinating.

Salzburg could’ve been a great experience, but this tour, more like a sprint and lunch to sample traditional schnitzel, was everything that is wrong with tours: hordes of tour operators, and forgettable food. This city deserves better.

Durnstein 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 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 is attentive. Light-lunch buffets are good.

What was a revelation, given the tiny space, was how a small staff were able to step up their game for its two special dining venues. Sure, we’re 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 brulee, and chocolate cake with balsamic cherries, was a real specialty meal.

Local wines were served with generous helpings of local knowledge.

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

Unbuckle your belt and enjoy!

THE ACCOMODATION

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, full bathroom. And butler service.

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

The ship features a surprisingly good gym and separate massage and hair salon.

SPECIAL EXPERIENCES

Scenic’s new branding is all about bringing back the wonder of travel. And it delivers.

The Hungarian Folklore was cheesy. The Vienna Waltz class was not for those who don’t enjoy making a fool of themselves.

There can only be one rock star – and a night at the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna certainly lives 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. Better yet, it’s an exclusive Scenic event.

But the Palais Lichtenstein will be a hard act to follow and lived up to Scenic’s new promise. It was brilliant entertainment just for guests.

Watching the Spanish Riding School work out its white stallions in its 140-year-old stables was another Scenic exclusive that produced outstanding memories.