Tampa/St. Petersburg area
Scenic Jade: Easygoing 5-star luxury on the Danube
MELK, Austria — The question is not who created the design or who executed the idea. No, what grabs your attention is how the artist reached the ceiling in the famed Melk Abbey to paint the glorious images, at once delicate, lively and even forceful.
The busy scene above the abbey’s Marble Hall includes mythical Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, being drawn across the blue heaven in a chariot pulled by lions. To one side of her is mighty Hercules, bashing a three-headed monster. Elsewhere in the clouds and sky, dozens of figures — winged angels and humans dancing together, cherubs flitting, and other gods, demigods or mortals — show exuberance, joy or fear.
The masterwork, finished in 1731 by Paul Troger, is symbolic of the artistic and historic surprises awaiting visitors such as those stepping off Scenic Jade (and other riverboats) on the Danube.
Where Scenic Jade sails
Home port: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Destinations: Scenic Jade offers the following sailings:
- "14 Night Jewels of Europe," starting in Amsterdam with stops in Cologne, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Passau, Melk, Vienna and Budapest, among others.
- "7 Night Iconic Danube," starting in Budapest, with stops in Vienna, Durnstein, Linz and Passau.
- "7 Night Gems of the Danube," starting in Budapest with stops in Vienna, Durnstein, Linz, Regensburg and Nuremberg.
- "7 Night Gems of the Danube Cycling Discovery," starting in Budapest with stops in Vienna, Durnstein, Linz, Regensburg and Nuremberg.
One smooth history lesson
Taking a riverboat cruise in Europe is one smooth history lesson.
You’ll tour splendid, even spectacular, palaces, government halls and cathedrals.
You’ll stroll or bike along cobblestone lanes laid before Columbus set sail.
You might decide to climb to the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive by a former ally in the Crusades. Or perhaps you want to stand where Adolf Hitler did when watching the carefully choreographed parades of tens of thousands of troops.
You might even wander the mountain tunnels of what was constructed to be a World War 2 hospital but under later Soviet occupation became a nuclear-bomb shelter.
All the while your floating hotel and restaurant is docked nearby, perhaps with a view of a charming, centuries-old village or a verdant vineyard — or both.
So many riverboat companies operate on the same handful of waterways that often the vessels of competing companies tie up side by side at the docks. Passengers simply walk through or across the boats to reach the shore or their own ship. That provides a brief chance to see what the competing companies offer in their reception area or open upper deck.
All-inclusive five-star luxury
That brief foray aboard neighboring ships was the only occasion when I thought Scenic Cruises came in second. That is, the reception area on Scenic Jade is a one-level, smallish lobby designed to be functional, not impressive: It provides access to the three decks of staterooms, entrance to the ship's only bar and lounge, its main dining room and top deck.
Nor does Scenic Jade’s reception area boast seating arrangements, a multi-deck atrium or chandeliers with crystals of varying colors, as I saw on other ships
Nonetheless, the 169 passengers aboard the Scenic Jade, launched in May 2014, seemed to have the best elements of a riverboat voyage — and then some.
The company promises an “all-inclusive five-star luxury’’ experience. Which means all of your alcoholic beverages are included in the fare, even those you have asked to have stocked in your cabin mini-fridge (it is restocked daily). Also included in the fare are dinners with select Italian cuisine and an elegant fixed-menu/wine-pairings meal.
Whatever your cabin grade, your butler offers complimentary drinks and valet service. If you’re staying on the Rhine Deck or above, your butler can arrange cocktail drinks and serve early morning tea or coffee in your cabin, and arrange packing and unpacking of your luggage. Danube Deck guests and Junior and Royal Suite guests can enjoy all this plus in-suite dining and pre-dinner canapés.
Innovative pre-recorded tours
On shore, Scenic Cruises provides each passenger with a third-generation radio receiver for guided tours. Not only does it receive broadcasts by tour guides, but each of these “Tailormade’’ devices contains narrations for dozens of specialized tours within each city. Select one of these tours for your own walkabout and a GPS system within the device plays 2-minute discussions of the site you have reached. The location is also shown on a map shown on the Tailormade’s screen, as is a photo of the attraction. The other river cruise lines don't have this.
Along the popular Danube route, Scenic Cruises has about 600 sites whose narration again is triggered by the GPS. If you aren’t listening but are in your cabin, the narration, as text, will be flashed across the cabin’s 32-inch flatscreen TV.
Helping passengers with the history lesson is Scenic’s own paperback travel guide, provided to each traveler to consult and then take home. The guide for the popular Amsterdam to Budapest route — with 18 ports of call and 38 pre-recorded tours — is almost 430 pages.
Appealing to seniors & active travelers
Because history is the thrust of most riverboat companies’ itineraries, the passenger demographics tend to skew to curious retirees. (Scenic Cruises will not accept passengers younger than 12.) And recognizing that many folks want more activity than a slowly paced walkabout or museum tour, Scenic Jade carries dozens of bicycles for individual or group excursions.
Again, Scenic Cruises has gone the extra measure, outfitting most of its bikes with electric-assist motors. As you pedal, you can select any of six gears to boost the power. That greatly aids on the cobblestone streets or occasional distance rides.
But you’ll be a pedestrian again as you explore the museums and palaces, or the sprawling Melk Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage site where you can marvel at the innovative museum that chronicles the abbey's five centuries and marvelous artistry in religious objects. Then there’s the multistory spiral staircase that descends into darkness.
On board a Scenic Cruises river cruise, you have a range of dining options to choose from, including the informal all-day River Café, the intimate Portobellos Italian Restaurant, the elegant Crystal Dining Restaurant and the exclusive Table La Rive for Danube Deck, Junior and Royal Suite guests.
You can find the English tradition of high tea on the ship's Riverview Terrace during the day and enjoy cocktails in the evening. While you’re on board, all cocktails, spirits, beer and wine are complimentary; however, there are a few exceptions, including vintage wines, fine champagnes and spirits. And as I mentioned at the top, you can also enjoy a mini-bar in your cabin any time, along with a large bottle of still and sparkling mineral water daily.
Roominess & public spaces
Scenic Jade is referred to as one of the line's "space ships," meaning that guests and cabin numbers are limited to ensure that staterooms and public areas aren't crowded. Highlights include the Panorama Lounge, which is larger most lounges found on river cruise ships, and the River Café, which offers great views. There are also outdoor areas, including the Sun Deck.
Staterooms & suites
Scenic Cruises ships are some of the widest and longest on Europe’s waterways, with two decks of suites with balconies, all with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to your private outdoor balcony. If the weather isn't ideal, all balconies can be transformed into a "Sun Lounge," making sure you don't miss the scenery.
All rooms come with queen-size Scenic "Slumber Beds" with Egyptian cotton linen, individual climate control and a pillow menu. Your suite or stateroom includes a 32-inch flat-screen HDTV and Mac mini system, plus complimentary mini-bar and Wi-Fi Internet access. There’s also a personal safe for your valuables and a nightly turndown service.
Comparing Scenic vs. Viking River Cruises
Scenic Cruises does charge significantly more than competitors such as the larger Viking River Cruises. Scenic, however, provides at least two tour options in every port, whereas Viking typically offers one included tour. For instance, on the standard eight-day itinerary between Nuremberg, Germany and Budapest, Hungary, Scenic offers 16 guided tours; Viking offers six.
Fares for Scenic’s cruise start at $4,180 per person based on double occupancy, while Viking’s fares start at slightly more than half that price.
However, keep in mind the items that Scenic’s higher fare covers that Viking does not:
- All tipping, including for onshore staff (in reality, gratuities are required, not optional)
- Liquor and Champagne; Viking includes only wine and beer.
- Balconies measuring roughly 33 square feet, for 84 percent of its cabins. Viking ships have far fewer true balconies.
- Butler service
- Airport transfers. Viking includes these only if airfare is purchased through the cruise line.
A final comparison
A note for those who have not taken a riverboat trip: Most of the vessels carry about the same number of passengers, 150 to 169. Those numbers are arrived at because of limitation on the length and height of the vessels, which must transit several locks and pass beneath low bridges on Europe's waterways.
Scenic Cruises does claim that its staterooms have roughly a quarter more space than its competitors. But some of that space aboard other ships is used for more or larger public areas such as bar/lounges, fitness rooms and spas than the Scenic ships offer.
Robert Jenkins sailed on Scenic Jade on a media pass as a guest of Scenic. See Cruiseable's Ethics & Disclosure policy
How about you? Have you sailed on Scenic Jade? I'd like to hear about your own experience! And how do you think it stacks up against Viking's ships?
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Top highlights on this ship
- All-inclusive cruise pricing, including tips
- Personal butler service for all staterooms and suites
- Panorama Lounge for great views