Black Sea Explorer

The 1,785-mile-long Danube River commences in Germany’s Black Forest and flows through 10 countries—more than any other river on Earth—before emptying into the Black Sea by way of Romania. Its upper reaches, long hailed as one of the most photogenic and popular routes on the river cruise circuit, pass through the best of Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary, where bucolic towns and medieval castles enchant at every turn. Beyond northern Hungary, however, the undeveloped and unpolished Lower Danube lacked the touristic value of its upper sibling, branding Budapest—and all its Art Nouveau and Gothic Revival riverside grandeur—the ideal Danube terminus. Cruise over. Roll credits.

View of Budapest from the boat

But due to a growing interest in authentic experiences off the beaten path as well as ease in accessing Eastern Europe’s once forbidden lands, luxury travelers began demanding a Danube sequel. And now they’re finally getting it.

Introducing the Scenic Black Sea Explorer, an 11-day voyage by Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours from Budapest, Hungary, down to Bucharest, Romania, and vice versa—with three land-based overnights in the aforementioned capital cities and a seven-day cruise on the Scenic Jade to lesser-known Danube port cities in eastern Croatia (Osijek), Serbia (Belgrade), Romania (Giurgiu), and Bulgaria (Silistra and Russe). The Scenic Jade, the cruise line’s premier five-star ship, hosts 169 passengers, max. Through a handful of annual departures in October, April, May, and June, Scenic paves the way for maximum Lower Danube pursuits in just one week, all done in high style.

Decebalus sculpture at the Serbia-Romania border

Thanks to a comprehensive pricing structure that includes all shore excursions, transfers, WiFi, gratuities, alcohol, and meals, passengers are unrestricted when it comes to choosing their Scenic adventure. During the port day in Belgrade, for example, four excursions are offered, including a city tour with local guides, a cycling trip along quiet river paths, and a morning of tasting and shopping in the street markets with the cruise culinary team. An endless glass of Champagne waits upon return, as does an impressive lunch spread featuring locally influenced dishes such as Serbian burek, the national version of the Balkan phyllo dough creation, filled with cheese or minced meat. Come afternoon, the cruise team whisks you to the sixth-century Belgrade Fortress for a private cocktail ceremony and sunset viewing in a magical, history steeped setting, after which you’ll return on board for a gourmet, multicourse, wine-paired dinner. It’s up to you to decide how much or little to partake in; sunbathing, sleeping, and room service are always options.

Romanian Athenaeum in
Bucharest

One spectacle not to miss, however, is the actual passage from Serbia to Romania through the Iron Gates gorge, which takes place mid-sailing. Wake up by 7 a.m. and edge over to your private balcony (every room has one) or head up to the expansive, ship-long top deck for panoramic views. The morning begins with the Lower Danube’s most inspiring scenery: tree-lined, limestone cliffs defining Serbia’s Carpathian Mountains on the right bank, medieval castles punctuating Romania’s Balkan Mountains on the left. Prior to the border crossing, arrive at the 140-foot rock sculpture of Decebalus, the final king of Dacia (modern-day Romania) before losing to Roman rule in the second century. Finally, over several hours, squeeze through the series of navigation locks that comprise the Iron Gates before landing on the next frontier: Bulgaria and Romania.

To be sure, this river route less traveled exposes the good, the bad, and even the ugly of this formerly isolated region. While there’s plenty of beauty and culture to be had, the region’s communist-era legacy—from stacks of abandoned concrete monoliths to lessthan-trusting locals—remains. If you’re looking for the kind of European fairy-tale charm that recalls Disney’s “It’s a Small World” or The Sound of Music, stick to the predictably picturesque Upper Danube. But if you have a penchant for exploring the unknown, can handle a bit of grit, and love to embrace out of-the-ordinary experiences, the Lower Danube rewards handsomely. Only the adventurous need embark.

Aria Hotel

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