Heart and soul behind the metal and glass
Vienna is a city of music and culture, Strauss and Mozart, white icing Austrian architecture, apple strudel and smooth coffee — and I thought this story about a European river cruise on the new ship Scenic Jasper might have been mostly about that.
Following the River Danube leads to pretty riverside villages such as Durnstein, with an abbey that has a gilded baroque church and the ruin of a castle where England’s Richard the Lionheart was held hostage during one of the Crusades. I had thought this story might weave more heavily through those villages.
In this 50th anniversary year of the release of the film The Sound of Music, I had thought a day trip to visit Salzburg might have been at the top of this story, too.
And then the cultural goulash of Budapest, in Hungary, should have been a recipe ripe for discovery.
But I’d like to start in my room. For, on your behalf, I’m looking for faults in my deluxe balcony suite — rough edges or a lack of attention to detail. I’m going to search through the ship, scrutinise the crew for training and attitude and then pick the itinerary apart.
But let’s walk round the room first. Dominating are the very comfortable twin beds placed together, with top-quality cotton and an Austrian snow scene of puffy pillows.
To the left, clever double sliding doors conceal a surprising amount of storage (three long shelves, four short ones, half-length hanging with a dozen wooden coat hangers). There is also a safe and minibar whose comprehensive and continually replenished contents are included in the price of the cruise.
There are bedside cabinets (two big drawers each) and a small counter with a mirror.
There is a good entertainment system with movies, TV and internet. Throughout the ship, there’s also free wi-fi. It dims a bit in country areas but still works and is strong in the towns.
Four glass panels slide, turn and open, between this lovely room and a balcony with two chairs. A button allows the top half of the outer, full-length window panel to be lowered electrically.
There’s a step-out balcony and seating in every suite aboard Scenic Jasper. Picture: Stephen Scourfield
This is all floor-to-ceiling glass and so the Danube and the scenery of Austria simply parade past the room.
I look very hard at finishes, joints, details. I find nothing to fault and it’s vaguely disappointing.
Ah, the bathroom. They are so often underwhelming where space is tight. But this one has a big walk-in shower and the showerhead has an in-built disco light system. Hot water is instant and pleasantly forceful. There are quality fittings, more storage space and a vacuum- flushing WC. Tiling, perfect. Glasswork, perfect.
Suite 321 on the upper Diamond Deck is quiet (no engine noise, no vibration, no clanking, no noise from adjoining rooms). I have looked through the less-expensive balcony suites (only 2sqm smaller), still on Diamond Deck, and they are also good value.
This story of quality continues throughout the ship. The Jasper Lounge with its island bar (again, all drinks included) and coffee machine has swivel chairs which encourage easy mixing and conversations. In the Crystal Dining Room, with its tablecloths and full settings, meals are often buffet style but wines are also included in the cruise price. Italian-inspired Portobellos restaurant is surpassed only by Table La Rive, where head butler Natalia Bozhenkova steers us knowledgeably through courses matched with wines, many from Austria, some French.
There are eight people cooking in the galley under executive chef Exequiel Cruzat. Most work between 5am and 11.30pm, though one is on all night to fulfil Scenic’s promise that guests can eat any time. Fresh produce is brought on daily and not stored.
At the front of the ship is a very nice cafe area, with almost all-around views. On the sundeck, there’s a small, heated pool, soft synthetic grass, a walking track, sunshades and seating for everyone aboard.
The sundeck, with its artificial grass, seats and walking track. Picture: Stephen Scourfield
The locks on the Danube mean river cruise ships have to be no more than 135m long and 11.4m wide — so it has taken cunning, commitment and cost to develop the “extra” space inside the ship.
Jasper is Australian company Scenic’s 11th ship of this type in Europe. Sibling ship Scenic Opal, its 12th, was due to be delivered by Den Breejen Shipyard this week.
Scenic Jasper took 16 months to build and it is of note that Den Breejen Shipyard has been building Scenic “space ships” since Scenic founder and chairman Glen Moroney pioneered them in 2008. This relationship shows itself in the details of the ship. Scenic Jasper is clearly a ship that the designers, builders, fitters and trimmers care about. So this story is not just about the metal and glass but about the heart and soul behind it.
Glen founded Scenic Tours in 1987, at first with coach trips in Australia, then expanded into the river cruise scene in 2008. Jasper and Opal and the six ships to be delivered next year (one of which will cruise the Douro Valley in Portugal) are the third generation of Scenic’s “space ships”.
Glen says: “Trying to find more space inside is a very difficult thing.” With wife and design partner Karen, who has a 30-year career in travel, he set out to challenge the shipyard and fitters to do just that.
Scenic Jasper is clearly personal for Karen and I ask her for the three features she’s most proud of:
The foyer ...
The first impression is vital in setting the mood. It was a challenge to get right, Karen says. “We have opened it up and given it the feel that we wanted throughout the ship. It was very difficult, but I’m proud of it.”
The lounge ...
When guests came back from excursions, they used to turn towards the stern and head to their cabins. Now, when Karen sees them board and turn towards the lounge, it thrills her. “People want to be in the lounge, ” she says. “I love that.”
The cabins ...
“The detail and the storage.”
Scenic Jasper carries 169 guests in 42 balcony suites (19sqm), seven deluxe balcony suites (21sqm) and two royal panorama suites (44sqm). Every suite has the step-out balcony or “Scenic sunlounge”.
People ask what’s been the highlight of the voyage.
Much to my surprise, I say it’s the ship itself. Scenic Jasper carries a crew of 48, so let’s turn to them. There’s a butler service for every room, tour director, happy and willing crew and 24-hour reception.
I am on the second shakedown voyage before the season starts and the crew, under Capt. Joszef Toth and hotel manager Mladen Brus, are a new team still welding together but have five- star written on them. On their first voyage, with travel agents (experienced cruise travellers) as guests, they scored 9.9 out of 10.
And so to the itineraries, of which there are many.
An example is Scenic’s Gems of the Danube river cruise: an 11-day tour from Prague to Budapest exploring villages, towns and cities including Vienna. There are 15 included options to choose from in 10 locations, such as the choice of the day trip to Salzburg, three choices in Budapest and a concert evening by the Vienna Imperial Orchestra.
A stateroom is from $5500 per person twin share, with a number of voyages at $5800. A balcony room is between $6545 and $7195. A suite from $7000 to $8545. So, in the mid range, with economy airfares, a couple might be paying about $17,000.
That’s all inclusive — all drinks (beer, wine, spirits), meals aboard, butler, excursions, local guides, their tips, tips for the crew and wi-fi. You don’t have to put you hand in your pocket once, if you don’t want to.
But I do. As I have mentioned, gratuities are included in the price but as I’m handing my card key back, I leave an envelope with euros on the counter. “Thanks for looking after me. You all deserve this.”
OUR EXCLUSIVE VIDEO FEATURE
Walk around Scenic Jasper with Stephen Scourfield in his special video feature with commentary at thewest.com.au/travel
There are still some offers on the last available suites on 2015 Europe river cruises and Scenic has a selection of 2016 European river cruising pre-release offers. See travel agents and scenictours.com.
© The West Australian
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