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How river cruise became an active holiday

Sara Macefield joins Avalon Waterways for an Active & Discovery sailing on the Danube, which proves to be more tiring – and rewarding – than the usual sedate river cruise sailing

I know onlookers are laughing at me, but I’m aching too much to care. I’ve spent the past hour pounding Vienna’s streets during a jogging tour and, on spotting a tempting patch of grass between the pretty flowerbeds of the city’s Volksgarten park, I stretch out for a few relaxing minutes.

Admittedly, I’m hamming it up for a jokey picture, but it’s a heavenly respite for my screaming muscles and I’m reluctant to move as our super-fit guide Dominic pushes on.

I’ve never jogged in my life and on several occasions during our 5.6km pre-breakfast run, I rather regret signing up. 

But I’d been intrigued by such a novel excursion, and it proves to be an ideal way to explore Vienna’s stately streets, its pristine parks and glorious Baroque architecture, which help to distract me from feeling on the verge of collapse.

I note, wryly, that my two running mates and our two guides seem to be handling this much better and are barely out of breath – but then they are all experienced joggers, so my advice to anyone wanting to get the most out of this tour is to be fit or get in training.

That had been my original intention on spotting such a fleet-footed option in the list of shore excursions on this Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery Danube sailing. I’ve been on numerous river cruises, but the choice of pursuits on this voyage from Budapest to Linz is impressive and easily the most varied I’ve seen.

Each day brings a choice of tours designated as Active (hiking, biking or canoeing) and Discovery (wine-tasting, behind-the-scenes “insider” tours), as well as Classic (coach tours, museum visits and beer-tasting).

Such a selection means that, even though I’ve cruised this section of the Danube four times (most recently just three months before), I enjoy a new set of experiences that give this sailing on Avalon Impression a completely contrasting flavour. Price isn’t an issue either as most tours are included, which is another bonus.

Having found my jogging legs, I then step out on my first hiking trip – a 5km trek up the steep hills lining the Danube. Rather over-confidently, I join the advanced group, which turns out to be an experienced bunch who make short work of the steep paths. It leaves me puffing to keep up, but the far-reaching views over the river make the effort worthwhile.

My favourite exertion is an idyllic 20km cycle ride from Krems to Spitz that takes us along deserted roads through vast vineyards and on to the cycle path that runs along the Danube’s banks.

We’re hitting a decent pace, which underlines that the clientele on this voyage are a world away from the traditional image of river cruisers. Most of the 139 guests are American or Canadian, with a handful of Brits and Australians, and many seem younger than average. They are definitely fitter and this contributes to the active feel of this voyage, although this isn’t a prerequisite as there are non-sporty activities to try. 

Such exertions also give good reason to tuck into the meals and free accompanying wine that is generously dispensed by the helpful crew.

The buffet breakfasts and lunches are appetising enough, although I would have welcomed a wider choice, and the four-course dinners are good rather than outstanding. Particular highlights are the grilled beef tenderloin and pumpkin soup, which is so good that it leaves a lasting impression.

Life on board is well organised and sociable, but I relish the haven of my Panorama Suite with its vast floor-to-ceiling windows that pull back to create a French balcony. My bed faces the windows, making it an ideal spot to rest while admiring the passing views.

There isn’t time to try everything on offer. I regret not opting for a canoeing trip and, following my jogging stint, I decline the early morning runs with the onboard “adventure host”, although his yoga sessions offer a much more soothing alternative.

Walking tours are a relaxing contrast, too, and an overnight stop in Vienna brings me into the city for a more restful exploration before the tourist hordes descend.

It’s my fourth visit, yet I see this imperial city with new eyes as our guide leads us Pied Piper-like into tiny winding passageways, hidden squares and ornate churches.

The high point comes when, with our stomachs rumbling, we’re led into a traditional Viennese coffee-house where laden breakfast tables welcome us with freshly baked bread rolls and slices of ham and cheese, accompanied by pots of steaming hot coffee.

With my aching legs a reminder of my experience 24 hours ago, I’m relishing this relaxed pace and, even better, I can tuck into this delicious spread knowing I’ve earned it.