NickoVision River Cruise on the Danube

Nicko Cruises ship Nickovision on the Danube
AD// Invite follow Cruise Addicted on a Nicko Cruises trip aboard Nickovision on the Danube

Heading off to the airport, with no idea of what lay ahead, was an unusual experience for your Cruise Addicted team! Emma and I have over a hundred Ocean cruises between us but neither of us had ever been on a river cruise, So when an invitation arrived from Nicko Cruises UK to spend a week sailing the Danube we were very excited to discover all about life on the river. Nicko are a well known German line, who are now looking to expand into the English market through a partnership with UK company Light Blue Travel who are offering dedicated dual language cruises. Our flight took us from London to Munich then we took two trains to the German riverside town of Passau, close to the Austrian border. Our boat, NickoVision, was moored slightly outside the city Lindau, where we embarked for the Blue Danube itinerary heading for Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Ybbs and Melk

Knowing that NickoVision only carried 220 passengers

we expected it to feel very small but our initial impressions of the Swiss – flagged vessel were of a light and airy ship, with plenty of areas to explore. In fact it was amazing just how much the Serbian ship builders and designers had fitted into the boat, whilst still complying with the strict ‘river vessel’ guidelines. These limit length, height and width so that boats can fit under bridges and into narrow locks so some innovative thinking is needed to achieve something a bit different. This had led to a clever split level design providing three restaurants onboard alongside other public spaces including a  bow-view bar and terrace, a panoramic lounge with entertainment space on the upper deck, a sundeck with plunge pool and then a sauna, steam room and gym tucked away on the main (lower) deck. The glass lift and marble stairs are in the circular atrium which stretches across two floors – this also houses the reception and shore excursion desks and a shop.  The light filled rooms and contemporary, stylish design were very welcoming as were the crew, who  were all lined up in the atrium to welcome us aboard and escort us to our rooms.

River cruising gave us two very different initial impressions…

Although all the cabins are the same, basically square, design Emmas was light and airy with a view of the Danube but Cathys was dark because it was against the wall of the ship next door! This was only until we set sail of course, but it is not something that ever happens on an ocean cruise so was definitely a surprise – even though we had already walked across the other ship so Cathy really should have been prepared for it! All 110 cabins onboard are all 14m² double, outside cabins – the windows on the main (lower) deck are high in the wall, basically at river level. Obviously these cannot be opened but cabins on the two decks above are all French balcony style, panoramic floor to ceiling windows that can be fully opened with a balcony rail outside for safety. Our air-conditioned cabins were on the middle deck and felt very close the the river, it was wonderful to just sit on a chair, leaning on the rail and watch the world go by. All cabins have double beds, easily separated into two singles, with reading lights on either side – suitcases fitted snugly under the bed. We found lots more storage with a well lit wardrobe as well as shelves containing a hairdryer, fridge and safe. The desk held a telephone and radio with a satellite tv over and the well lit bathroom had clever folding screens which made it feel very spacious, even though actually it was quite snug!

Surprise number two…

Came as we turned away for the dock and headed downstream. As the current took us we were amazed at just how fast the ship moved. The flow in this part of the Danube is strong and the river is wide – and being so close to the water it felt as if we shot off like a cork from a bottle! We soon learnt that this was not always the case – life on the river is not as serene as it looks, especially for a ships captain! Some of the bridges are very low and we were fascinated to learn that not only does all the upper deck structure collapse flat, but that the entire bridge can collapse down, leaving the Captain steering the boat with his head sticking out of a hatch in the ceiling! River levels were quite low so we didn’t get to witness that ourselves but Captain Ion explained how he managed the height of the ship under each bridge by manually adjusting the amount of water ballast on board – tanks hold up to 5000 litres to alter the ships position in the water. It was fascinating to visit the ships bridge, there was no radar, meaning a sharp lookout had to be kept at all times, with officers on 6 hour watches around the clock. Two things that surprised us were that speeds were measured in kilometre/ hr not knots as at sea and that communication between all boats is by radio phone – with the language of the river being German between Passau and Budapest and Russian on the next section to the Black Sea.

Never a dull moment on the river, even at night!  

Huge hydraulic locks separate the river into sections and help control its depth, they often sit alongside hydroelectric plants and are absolutely fascinating! We generally laid alongside at least one other boat on our transits – mainly a similar sized cruise boat but occasionally a much smaller vessel . Watching a small river cruiser, with four people onboard, managing the fast flowing water as it made a the twenty foot vertical drop, made me realise just how complicated these locks are! I intended to count them all but as  we reached many of them at night I soon gave up! It was amazing how quickly I got used to the sudden floodlighting and sounds of rushing water and I quickly learned to sleep through all the excitement – although Emma would disagree! I hadn’t really thought about how fascinating and varied, life along the river would be but there really was always something to see. There was a huge amount of wild camping and swimming on the banks – fishermen, canoeists and rowing boats too – as well as some astonishing scenery. We really did pass an ever-changing parade of contrasting scenes. I particularly loved the Wachau Valley with its towering castles, church spire, vineyards and apricot orchards but in other stretches we saw picturesque villages, cities, waterfalls, ruins and fascinating rock formations. When you add in the daily life we saw and all the other boats travelling on the river, it was impossible not to find it all absolutely entrancing. 

Things ran at a slower pace on board..

We soon settled into a routine, mainly arriving at our port early morning and setting off again after lunch. There were port talks most days from Alex the Cruise Director, and we had a couple of sundeck parties  – the ice cream sail-away was particularly enjoyable!  We found less entertainment and music on the sundeck than we had expected but it was explained to us that there are strict rules to reduce noise pollution on the water and that most areas discourage ships from any external music which is fair enough – sound travels so far on the water that I can see how it would disturb the peace of the riverside.  The lounge was quite quiet too, we missed the quizzes and competitions that you often have on ocean cruises. The lounge held books and games as well as a communal jigsaw table – this lead to quite a scandal onboard as Emma joked early in the cruise that she would hide a few pieces to make it more challenging – when it was found that some were, in fact, missing the finger was firmly pointed in her direction – poor Emma was completely mortified as, of course, she had done no such thing!!  At night the area became the centre of entertainment with a tiny dance floor and live music from a smiling gentleman on keyboard with rhythm tracks – music from the last few decades, with popular German tunes and more than one rendition of the “Blue Danube” waltz! One evening was very jolly with a staff karaoke performance but in the main our evening passed in conversation and over meals…

Three restaurants is not the norm on a river cruise…

And they mainly served different menus so we really appreciated the choice! The clever split level design, which puts the bar on a mezzanine level above the restaurant and beneath the lounge, means that a good section of the main ‘Vision’ restaurant has no ceiling giving it a bright and spacious feel, even iwhen you are alongside another ship. A central ‘buffet’ area was in use for breakfast and for salad options at lunch at dinner. It got very busy as, although dining times are described as flexible, basically everyone seemed to eat at the same time! The other two venues, both included in the fare, are the jazz-themed ‘Manhattan’ on the lower deck  and ‘Marios Grill’ at the stern. The clever sunken design of Manhattan meant it never felt cramped or crowded and it became our favourite place for breakfast, especially as there were plenty of tables for two. At lunchtime, it offers a buffet option and a ‘Regional’ menu in the evenings – so Austrian, German and Hungarian for two nights each. On Gala night the same menu is served in all restaurants. Mario’s Grill serves a light lunch menu featuring pasta, burgers and sandwiches and then becomes a steakhouse in the evening. This was our favourite venue as we could sit at the stern and watch the river, there was no extra charge here but it was only available to book for one evening per cruise, however we lunched there most days! The food choices everywhere were good, quite long menus with 6 or 7 smallish courses to choose from – entree, salad, soup, pasta and then a choice of main courses and deserts. The standards were high, with more seasoning that you often get at sea – we particularly liked the breakfast butter sprinkled with salt – cooked to order omelettes and pancakes at breakfast were excellent and the ever helpful staff were a bonus too!

The itinerary helped us balance all the delicious calories…

Nicko Cruises focuses on what are described as discovery-rich and immersive cruise experiences  and we had included English Guided excursions with excellent guides in four of the ports – Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Melk. I will publish some little Port Profiles in the Blog in the coming days so I will cover them briefly here to give you a feel of our days. We started gently with our first port was Ybbs – a delightful little, slightly faded, medieval town – we spent a couple of hours wandering its streets, the flood levels on a riverside wall were genuinely jaw dropping. The young Mozart played in Ybbs aged six, and this started to become a theme to the weeks, as he had apparently performed in Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and even Melk at the same age! The history of the area was quite complicated and at some points in time all the cities we visited were actually ruled by the same Emperor, so if history interests you it is worth a little background reading before your trip – otherwise the litany of rulers, battles and castles with similar but different names starts to blur a little! It was an endlessly fascinating itinerary though, and definitely just a taster for some of these cities. Apart from an overnight in Budapest and a full day in Vienna we had half day port stops and we could definitely have filled a few more hours ashore. The relentless pace of early morning starts, three hour walking tours and back onboard for lunch was not quite what I had envisioned  from the phrase ‘slow cruising’!

Another misconception shattered..

I cannot tell a lie, I always thought that River Cruising was for ‘old people’ and that it was something I would do when I felt an ocean cruise was too strenuous. It turns out that I was completely wrong, in fact these ships are much less disability friendly – a wheelchair user could not access the ship at all in some ports or get to the sundeck, bar and bow terrace. To be honest you need a reasonable level of fitness to enjoy them at all as mentioned above, most of the excursions involve walking tours in cobbled streets with lots of steps at the very least! Friends onboard thoroughly enjoyed 6 hour ebike tours in Vienna and Budapest! So if this sounds the sort of holiday you would enjoy I would definitely suggest that you book it sooner rather than later!

It really did us good to be the newbies again…

We are both so used to being on the ocean that it was refreshing to absolutely not have a clue about the simplest things – even as to whether to say we were on a ship or a boat!! There were differences and similarities between the two types of cruise but anyone who enjoys being on the water will definitely get something from a River Cruise. We were initially surprised by the practice of mooring alongside other ships, and especially of having to walk through or over them to reach your own, but we quickly got used to it all. And, of course, if you draw the short straw and have another ship blocking your view one morning, at least you always know that very shortly you will be on your way again with a beautiful river view! We enjoyed our time on NickoVision very much, although the only English people onboard there were also some Americans , most of the crew spoke English well and went out of their way to make us welcome. We were befriended by a delightful brother and sister who had worked in the old East Germany as translators – they were endlessly fascinating, jolly helpful and good company too. I really wished I had put a bit more effort into my Duolingo German course as it would have made communication with other guests easier – but we eventually thawed most of the other guests with endless smiles and laughter and it even turned out that some of them spoke English too! We really got to know the crew well, and think we saw most of the 54 staff aboard, it was a very happy boat with celebration parades by crew and officers for both the Gala night and our Farewell dinner. Another night a young deck officer had a birthday and the whole crew came up to the restaurant to celebrate with him and share his cake! NickoVision is a very happy ship with a happy and helpful crew.

Final thoughts…

So our first river cruise was a completely different experience to an ocean cruise and yet, in the end, exactly the same! A wonderful week of good food, good friends, helpful staff, sunshine, realxation, laughs, a drink or two,  interesting ports  and all this while bobbing around in a ship –  no…. BOAT! What more could you want from life?!!

Many, many thanks to Nickovision and Michelle and Jane from Nicko UK/ Light Blue Travel for the experience!

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