I'm not sure what I had imagined, but this wasn't it. I'm on my first European river cruise and I guess I had been expecting something more like a floating retirement home, a perpetual game of bridge on water perhaps. But my eyes aren't playing tricks. As I survey the crowd of passengers on board I see, gasp, young people!
It's only the first of my preconceptions about river cruising that I will end up describing as misconceptions. Even though I have been travelling full-time for more than eight years, I had never been interested in taking a river cruise in Europe. They just looked, well ... boring. I didn't have anything against travellers who took river cruises - the idea just didn't float my boat, so to speak.
But when I was invited to try a European river cruise in my role as a travel blogger, I decided it would be interesting to see what the experience was really like. That's how I've ended up on the Danube with a pack of playing cards and a few books in my bag. But, as it turns out, I don't touch any of them. There's just too much else to do!
The most important thing I learn is that not all European river cruises are the same. Perhaps if I was on a winter cruise that focussed on Christmas markets, I may find a slightly older crowd. Or if I was on one of the drag queen or tattoo-themed trips I've heard about, there would be more younger passengers. But this one is aimed at people just like me.
I'm travelling with Avalon Waterways between Budapest and Linz on one of the company's ''Active & Discovery'' itineraries. What makes it particularly different is the options of the included tours each day.
You could choose to hike up a mountain to visit a castle, go kayaking on the river, or cycle through vineyards and rejoin the ship further upstream.
These are not simply a group of pensioners shuffling around monuments listening to a guide through an earpiece. Instead, you could choose to hike up a mountain to visit a castle, go kayaking on the river, or cycle through vineyards and rejoin the ship further upstream. I meet a few families who have three generations on the cruise and there's something for each of them. One day, for example, grandma takes a tour of a monastery, the parents do some wine-tasting, and the kids go out on the river on rafts.
If you've done ocean cruising before, you'll appreciate some of the same benefits that you also find on a river. You can put all your clothes into the wardrobe at the start of the trip and not worry about constantly packing and unpacking as you move through various destinations (although somehow my shirts all still seem to have creases). There's no stress about getting to the train station to travel to the next city, or deal with airports to change countries. And you know that each meal will be excellent quality and you don't need to trek across town to find something you like.
Over the years, I've done a lot of travel in Europe and I consider myself to be pretty good at being able to get around. I had been worried that I would feel constrained on a river cruise without the independence to do what I wanted, when I wanted. And, while it's true that you're obviously limited by the timings of the cruise itinerary, there is a fair amount of independence. We have two full days in Vienna on my trip and I choose to go on tours offered by the cruise on the first day - exploring a local neighbourhood in the morning and learning about the history of absinth in the afternoon. On the second day, though, I borrow one of the ship's bikes and cycle around the city on my own, visiting historic sites at my usual pace.
For many people, the most compelling part of taking a river cruise is the convenience. But this comes at a cost. The price for the cruise I'm on changes depending on the time of year (and there are often great deals in the off-season) but the standard cost will end up being about $500 per person per night. You could argue that it's quite good value considering you get accommodation, all your meals, unlimited wine at lunch and dinner, included tours, and transport along the river. On the other hand, just think about what else you could get as a couple spending $1000 a day in Central Europe!
This may have been my first European river cruise experience - but I doubt it will be my last. It's a relaxing and stress-free journey that's still full of activities and discovery. We spend time in the big cities but also explore smaller riverside towns that I may not have visited otherwise. The food and wine are excellent and there's always enough (ok, fine, there's probably too much!). But, as mentioned, I do have concerns about the standard price of the trip. If you can find a deal, though (sometimes it's even half price), then I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Just don't bother bringing your playing cards.
Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Read more about his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com. He travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways