Sitting on the deck of a sinking ship, drinking rosé and rearranging the deckchairs to get a better view of the sunset as the theme song to Titanic played quietly in the background, was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life.
Far from exhibiting panic, the 165 passengers were intrigued as the MS Beethoven descended at the rate of half-a-metre a minute, alongside another ship sinking at precisely the same speed.
The sun was setting over the Danube, as the 110m long, 11.4m wide French-owned ship entered Gabcikovo Lock in Slovakia – the largest of the four we negotiated on our eight-day river cruise.
Within minutes, we slipped from the warm glow of the golden pink sunset into the cool, grey gloom of the gigantic, concrete-walled shaft. Half an hour later, the lock doors opened, we emerged 20m lower, and continued our satin-smooth cruise towards Vienna, bathed in the soft light of summer dusk.
It was the last of our eight happy days on the CroisiEurope Imperial Danube Cruise through Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, beginning and ending in Vienna, with informative guided tours of Melk Abbey and Dürnstein in Austria, Bratislava and Sturovo in Slovakia, and Kalocsa, Puszta, Budapest and Esztergom in Hungary.
At the gala dinner that evening, we met up with our regular table-mates. Three Brits, two Scots and three lively girls from Picton – Marlene, Lynne and Aileen, the only other Kiwis on the ship. Marlene and Lynne had known each other for 48 years, while Aileen had joined them “quite recently”, just 20 years ago. They had travelled together since the 1990s.
Bottles of French Grenache Syrah and Merlot arrived at the table, delivered by our charming young Hungarian wine waiter Konrad, while our waitress Csilla, whose smile and sparkling blue eyes were so infectious I just wanted to hug her, served the first of four delicious, elegantly-presented courses – duck foie gras in a gingerbread case with compote of damson and brioche.
As the mouthwatering crispy fillet of quail and King Boletus mushrooms with parsley and port sauce arrived at the table, we toasted French cuisine, our brilliant chef László Kanavor, and the hard-working, earnest young men and women who had put such a huge effort into looking after us all week, and endeared themselves to all.
Portuguese purser Sonia, who ran a super-efficient operation by day, and in the evening was a star entertainer in the variety shows, deserved a special mention.
While we slept, behind the scenes our highly-competent Hungarian captain, László Hegyi, and his crew ensured we avoided the many hazards on the busy Danube waterway and delivered us to the next port of call safely and on time. I had a peek at our captain one day, purring at the controls of the MS Beethoven in the state-of-the-art bridge – a job he said he absolutely loved.
After a week, alarmed at the puzzling shrinkage of my clothes in the wardrobe, I had discovered the need for temperance to cope with the seductive nature of the French desserts – so by the time the terrine of blue cheese with heart of pear arrived, followed by baked Alaska, flambé in Grand Marnier, I decided a spoonful of each was quite sufficient… that was the theory anyway.
Meanwhile, the dinner table conversation turned to the stress-free, relaxed nature of travel on a river ship. My hyperactive husband, whose primary concern at the beginning of the cruise was whether he would get enough exercise, was spotted drinking a second or third ice-cold beer at lunchtime and snoozing on the deck in the afternoons – normal for most, unheard of for him.
By day four, relaxation also set in for me, and sleep came in gentle waves, leaving my sentences unfinished on an open iPad.
Freedom from the necessity to navigate in and around cities, find accommodation, parking and food every day was bliss. And in a floating hotel, there was no need to pack and unpack every day, which was a huge time-saver.
Marlene, Lynne and Aileen were always up for fun and joined in quizzes, dance lessons and games with great gusto. And on a cruise, like any holiday, enjoyment is often measured by the calibre of people you meet and the experiences shared.