The Danube River flows through the heart of central Europe, coursing past Budapest, Vienna and some of the most memorable Bavarian scenery in southeastern Germany. There are opera houses, cafes and more than a few cathedrals and monasteries.
And then there’s the golf.
“In the early 90s, I’d been organizing themed trips for a company that specialized in luxury cruises,” Jim Lamont began. “One trip might have an archaeological theme, another a history theme. In 1996, a new boat, the River Cloud was launched. It was designed especially for cruising the great rivers of Europe – the Danube, the Rhine, the Moselle. I was on board with the owners during one of its inaugural cruises, and someone suggested the possibility of doing a golf-oriented cruise on the ship. At the time I thought it was a bad idea, but said I’d look into it. I did some reconnaissance in Hungary, Austria and Germany along the Danube, playing recommended courses and speaking to other players in the clubhouse after my rounds to learn what courses they liked best. A few weeks of research unearthed an interesting line-up of courses – not world-renowned, but worthwhile. It might not be the trip for younger players who only care about golf, golf, golf – but it could appeal to more seasoned golf enthusiasts who are looking for a multi-dimensional golf travel experience.”
Jim’s instincts were correct. Before the first Danube River Golf Cruise (in the fall of 1996) had launched, the 1997 cruise had sold out.
For linksters with an interest in European history and epicurean delights, the Danube River Golf Cruise may be the perfect blend of golf, sightseeing and conviviality. During the 11 days of the cruise (beginning or ending in Budapest, Hungary), the River Cloud II (sister ship to the original River Cloud) is transformed into a floating country club. This is not the casino lights flashing/all-night buffet cruise ship of the variety that haunts the Bahamas and Cancun. The River Cloud II has just 42 elegantly appointed cabins for a maximum of 84 guests, with a design that fuses 1930’s styling with all the modern amenities one could hope for. “The ship is old-style Europe, a Ritz-Carlton on the river, with European standards of service and cuisine,” Jim continued. “We customize menus and wine lists to use local foods and vintages as much as possible. We host wine tastings with local vintners who will bring their best bottles on board, wines you probably can’t find at home. Each cruise has a host from the golf world – movers and shakers like Peggy Kirk Bell (of Pine Needles fame) and Claude Brusse (director of golf at Yeamans Hall Club in Charleston). I think that part of the pleasure of the trip is traveling with a like-minded group of people. When guests sit down at dinner, they realize that there’s a connectedness. The group size is optimal – it’s good number for shotgun starts, and a good number from a social perspective, as with a group of 80, there’s always someone you haven’t met yet.”
For trips that begin in the east, players fly in to Budapest. After a day of touring the twin cities of Buda and Pest (or resting from the overnight flight), you’ll make your first golf stop at Pannonia Golf & Country Club, the finest of Hungary’s seven (as of this writing) courses. Designed by Canadian Doug Carrick, Pannonia rambles through rolling farmland in the Mariavolgy Valley outside the city and recalls an American parkland design. (This is true of most of the courses along the Danube; the links associated with the British Isles are not found here!) The grounds of Pannonia once belonged to the Hungarian branch of the Hapsburgs, and the ornate clubhouse where you’ll dine after golf once housed a greenhouse. After another day in Budapest (where one can visit Heroes Square or stroll the City Market), you’ll board the River Cloud II and begin the cruise west toward your next port, Vienna. There will be a chance to tour some of the city’s most venerable landmarks (like the 12th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral) and immerse yourself in its vibrant café culture; for those with a sweet tooth a trip to Hotel Sacher for a sampling of its namesake jam-filled chocolate torte is a must.
Over the three days in Vienna, guests enjoy two golf days. One outing is at the Fontana Golf Club, widely considered Austria’s finest track, with finely manicured fairways and mountain vistas. Fontana has been a recent stop on the PGA European Tour. The second outing is at Colony Club Gutenhof, Austria’s only 36-hole complex. Jim likes to put his guests out on Gutenhof’s East Course, which is set among bucolic century-old forests that are criss-crossed with streams. Following this round, guests are treated to uniquely Viennese spectacle – a rehearsal of the Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School.
By the time the River Cloud II pulls out of Vienna, guests have settled into a comfortable routine. Full breakfast is served beginning at 7 a.m.; a lunch buffet is also set up so you can pack a box lunch either for the course or the day’s tours. If it’s a golf day, you’ll leave the ship by 8:30—two coaches will be waiting to spirit you to the day’s course. When you arrive at the course, there’s a half hour to warm up on the range or putting green, then a shotgun start. At the round’s conclusion, there’s time to catch a drink in the clubhouse before catching the coach back to the boat. Afternoon historical or cultural tours are available, or you can grab a bicycle and go for a ride along the Danube. Cocktails are served at 6:30, sit-down dinner at 7:30. “While guests are welcome to dine in town, most opt to stay on the ship,” Jim added. “Frankly, the food is better on board.”
A favorite course on the Danube excursion comes on the second day in Germany, in the charming hamlet of Regensburg. “Sinzing am Minoritenhof is the only course on the itinerary that adjoins the river,” Jim explained. “The course has built a small ramp that they only take out when the boat arrives. The day we play Regensburg, the captain comes on the public address system and announces that the boat is having some problems, and we’ll have to pull over; this allows us to skirt German river navigation rules that might otherwise prevent our stopping.” Five of the holes skirt the Danube, allowing you the opportunity to incur a penalty by dumping a ball in one of inland Europe’s most important waterways.
One of the charms of a golf expedition on the Danube is a chance to catch a glimpse of the Europe of yesteryear. This sometimes provides logistical challenges, as Jim Lamont explained: “Most of the courses we visit don’t have golf carts, and as some of our guests like to ride, we feel it’s important to provide them. So we have a small caravan – two tractor trailers filled with golf carts, and a moving van with guest’s clubs – follow us along the route by land. When we arrive at the course, the carts are already waiting, conveyed by our drivers – big, burly fellows who work as truck drivers the rest of the year, and love this duty – with clubs already in place. In the early days, we’d be hesitant to have the carts brought into Hungary, as we weren’t sure how long customs might hold them up when it came time to head back to Austria. The management at the course we were playing outside Budapest at that time felt bad, and they’d hire kids from the neighboring villages to come and pull trolleys for our clients. We’d arrive, and there would be a rag-tag army of 50 children waiting to pull trolleys. Our guests loved getting their picture taken with the troupe of trolley pullers.”
Jim Lamont is president of Kalos Golf, which offers luxurious golf cruises to destinations in Europe and New Zealand.
IF YOU GO:
Getting There: Danube River Golf Cruises begin or end in Budapest, Hungary and conclude in Nuremberg, Germany or Salzburg, Austria. All cities are served by many major carriers, including Lufthansa (800-399-5838 ; www.lufthansa.com).
Course Information/Accommodations: The courses visited on the Danube River Golf Cruise vary, depending on the specific trip’s itinerary. Six rounds are included. All cabins on the River Cloud II have a river view, are air-conditioned and include a phone and television. All on-board meals (including wine) are included. Prices begin at $7,985 per person, based on double occupancy. For more information, contact Kalos Golf (866-942-2464; www.kalosgolf.com).
(Photo courtesy of Kalos Golf.)