Recapping our week aboard Emerald Waterways Emerald Star on the Danube

Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star docked in Budapest on July 12, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star docked in Budapest on July 12, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Over the course of seven days, Emerald WaterwaysEmerald Star whisked me along the Danube from Budapest, Hungary to Nuremberg, Germany where I disembarked – reluctantly, I might add. I certainly wouldn’t have minded staying onboard for the return journey to Budapest!

Emerald Star in Durnstein, Austria. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Emerald Star in Durnstein, Austria. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The full day-by-day Live Voyage Report:

Time To Say Goodbye: our coach arrives in Nuremberg to take us to Nuremberg Airport. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Time To Say Goodbye: our coach arrives in Nuremberg to take us to Nuremberg Airport. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Owing to lock congestion, we were a little late getting in to Nuremberg, but nothing so drastic as to affect our flights. The first set of guests to disembark – which I was part of – weren’t set to leave the vessel until 8:30a.m., and we ended up leaving only 20 minutes past that time.

Disembarkation was efficient and easily handled. Breakfast was served in the main dining room and in the lounge, and guests were asked to vacate their staterooms and suites by 8:00a.m. Luggage does not have to be placed out in the evening prior to disembarkation, but in the morning, so as to keep the interior stateroom corridors free of obstructions.

My Panorma Balcony Suite at night. Staterooms aboard Emerald Star are sleek, modern, and European in styling. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My Panorma Balcony Suite at night. Staterooms aboard Emerald Star are sleek, modern, and European in styling. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

By ten to nine, the luggage for my ‘Pink’ disembarkation group was loaded onto the coach, and we were on our way to the Nuremberg Airport, just a quick 20-minute drive away, where I was able to meet a good friend of mine for coffee.

As it always does, the 15-hour journey back to Canada gave me plenty of time to think about the fantastic week we’ve had on the Danube – and to consider what makes Emerald Waterways, the newest river cruise line in Europe, tick.

Excursions - in particular, the culturally-immersive EmeraldPlus - were one of Emerald's strong suits. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Excursions – in particular, the culturally-immersive EmeraldPlus – were one of Emerald’s strong suits. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

One of my favorite Emerald Waterways features was EmeraldPlus, a selection of specially-designed shore excursions that were created to give guests an intimate, firsthand look at Europe that goes beyond the standard tourist sites. On my journey, this meant spending time with a local Slovakian family in Bratislava. Guests were split into groups of 10 and invited into local households in a countryside village; it really is the luck of the draw that determines what you’ll experience from that point on. Some guests were invited to wine tastings, while we made traditional Hungarian desserts normally enjoyed at Christmas, complimented by tea, coffee and delicious homemade cake made with berries straight from our host Ella’s garden.

It was a decidedly unique experience that would normally only be offered on luxury river cruise lines charging twice the price. You definitely don’t want to miss out on these excursions.

Free time also allowed me to take in sights that interested me, devoid (largely) of tourists. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Free time also allowed me to take in sights that interested me, devoid (largely) of tourists. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Even standard excursions, like our walking tour of Bratislava, were conducted by friendly, knowledgeable local guides. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Even standard excursions, like our walking tour of Bratislava, were conducted by friendly, knowledgeable local guides. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Dinner onboard Emerald Star, flanked by gorgeous views of the Danube. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Dinner onboard Emerald Star, flanked by gorgeous views of the Danube. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The dining room by day. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The dining room by day. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Like any line beginning operations for the first time, there are some little wrinkles that could be smoothed over. Both the 2014 and 2015 Emerald Waterways brochures list all stateroom categories as having ‘Complimentary Bathrobes and Slippers’, but omits the fact that these must be requested once onboard and are not placed in staterooms by default.

The 2015 brochure also states that beds can be positioned as Queen or twin-sized hotel beds, though I don’t see how this is technically possible – at least aboard the Emerald Star and Emerald Sky – as the bedside tables are bolted to the wall (I physically tried to push, pull and move them, without success.) The Flat-Panel TV system in each stateroom is nowhere near as complete as those on other lines: the music function picks up only French-language stations (and doesn’t work, period), and English-speaking channels are limited to the BBC, Sky News and MSNBC. The dozen or so German-language channels seem like an odd choice for a product that targets almost exclusively English-speaking guests. I might let them off the hook, but their sister-line Scenic has the onboard interactive TV thing nailed down to a science, so I know they can do better in this area.

Panorama Balcony Suite bathroom. The toilet is out of frame on the left. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Panorama Balcony Suite bathroom. The toilet is out of frame on the left. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

On the other hand, Emerald does a lot of things right in the stateroom department: the pillows and European duvets are fabulous, and the lighting is perfect in the room. The Panorama Balcony is the real selling feature, though, and I made use of it more than I do a standard French Balcony on other river cruise vessels.

The Swimming Pool aboard Emerald Star. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The Swimming Pool aboard Emerald Star. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Welcome Aboard Drinks: a nice touch! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Welcome Aboard Drinks: a nice touch! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My take on my week aboard the sleek Emerald Star:

Emerald Waterways Hits:

  • The Pool-Cinema Combo: it’s fabulous, and worth the hype.
  • Inclusive gratuities and airport transfers.
  • European styling, diverse passenger base.
  • Complimentary onboard bicycles
  • Unique, if sometimes overly-ambitious, itineraries.
  • Friendly, professional crew culled from a variety of river and ocean cruise lines.
  • EmeraldPlus Excursions are fantastic.

A Few Misses:

  • The bizarrely-designed stateroom bathrooms aren’t user-friendly at all.
  • Menus provided per-table instead of per-person at dinner creates an odd ordering experience, but does encourage conversation with your tablemates.
  • Some brochure inaccuracies.
  • No complimentary bottled water at the gangway.
Emerald Star's highly-popular outdoor seating area in front of the Horizon Lounge can be clearly seen in this photograph. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Emerald Star’s highly-popular outdoor seating area in front of the Horizon Lounge can be clearly seen in this photograph. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Where Emerald Waterways truly exceeds though is in adding value in a category of river cruising that was starting to become overlooked as more and more river lines move into the all-inclusive, luxury arena. Priced similarly to Viking River Cruises, Emerald Waterway’s ships are the same size, and carry only a few less passengers than their Longship counterparts. Yet they include complimentary transfers and all gratuities, as well as some uncommon features like a swimming pool, cinema, and even complimentary bicycles that are more common on expensive cruise lines.

Service is friendly and professional throughout. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Service is friendly and professional throughout. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Would I sail with Emerald Waterways again? Yes. They’ve got their own unique voice and brand in the river cruise industry, and much like a fine wine, I suspect Emerald will only get better with age. For them to offer the product they do now, right out of the gate, is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself.

I’ve long thought that river cruising is one of the best ways to see Europe. My week onboard Emerald Star has only reinforced that opinion.

Enjoying the onboard Cinema at night on Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Enjoying the onboard Cinema at night on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

 

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