Sunday, 19 April 2015

DIY Sichuan Hot Pot Heaven


If you have read my blog you will know I have been on a mission. This mission has taken me from the hot pot tables of Chonqing, China (where I discovered food nirvana in a bubbling bowl of hot pot) back to Australia where my drive to re-create this dish so far has led to mediocre attempts that only vaguely resemble the fiery Sichuan Hot Pot of my memories.

Back when I undertook my trip to China the internet was still in it's fledgling stages. It offered me little in the way of information on how to make the hot pot broth that I so craved. My initial attempts used a basic home-made chilli oil consisting of little more than dried chilli's and garlic infused into oil and mixed with stock. Back then I didn't even have access to the sichuan peppercorns that give this dish it's unique tingling quality.

Welcome 2015...the land of the ever knowledgeable internet. Where every second Joe (myself included) has a blog that is overflowing with useful information and hidden wonders. It is in this world where I have stumbled on Hot Pot heaven. Introducing Mandy of Lady and Pups. A first rate food blog primarily of the Asian persuasion.  I can't take any credit for this amazing dish. I will admit I was way out of my league here. I needed to find myself an expert in Chinese flavours and Mandy is my meal ticket. Mandy lives in Beijing and her creative recipes and stunning photography is food porn at it's best. She has been generous enough to let me re-create and share this amazing recipe with you, my readers.

This recipe whilst not technically too difficult does require some time and effort but you will not be disappointed. This is the food of Chinese celebration. A meal best shared with friends and family, the communal nature of it's shared bowl of broth will bring you together, brows sweating in unison as you huddle around, sharing good food and hopefully good conversation.

First step is to get your butt down to the Asian grocery store with this shopping list. It is extensive, the true sign of a good recipe but it is also not entirely daunting. Bar a few optional obscure ingredients you will not have too much trouble finding any of these things. So no excuses not to get cooking.

I have changed a few ingredients from the original recipe. Not because I know better but due to availability of ingredients (for example a 4 kg turkey with innards isn't the easiest to come by so I swapped it for chicken wings). Also a desire not to suffer for days after eating this I toned down the chilli factor a little and in a dish with this much flavour, the extra chilli was not missed.

You can also choose the ingredients you want to serve to cook in your Hot Pot based on your tastes, anything goes here and you can see  Mandy's and my suggestions below. For the original genius recipe and Mandy's stunning photography check out her hot pot blog post here.

Must make this the day ahead

For the stock:

2 kg chicken wings
1 pigs trotter cut into 4 chunks
4-5 large slices of ginger
4-5 large slices of scallions (ginger and scallions are used in the blanching to remove unwanted smells and tastes from the bones)
1 large onion cut into quarters
10 (2 litres) cups of water
1 carrot chopped into large chunks


Sichuan Ma-La Hot Pot Base:

Soaking Spices
1/2 cup (20 grams) Chinese small dried chilli's, whole
3~4 (3 grams) star anise/八角
1 large (3 gram) black cardamon/草果
1 whole (3 grams) nutmeg/白蔻
7 whole cloves/丁香
1 large stick (5 grams) cinnamon/桂皮
7~8 (5 grams) dried bay leaves/香葉
1 tbsp (5 grams) fennel seeds/茴香
1 tbsp (8 grams) cumin seeds/小茴香/孜然
1 tbsp (5 grams) white peppercorns/白胡椒
5 grams zi-cao/紫草, if available ( I could not find this)
3 grams liang-jiang/良姜, if available (I did find this one, it is dried galangal)
2 grams mu-xiang/木香, if available (I could also not find this)
1 cup (240 ml) boiling water

Further Hot Pot Ingredients: 

4 cups (950ml/800 grams) total of vegetable oil and animal fat (see notes * on the ratio of different oil/fat)
1/2 cup + 3 tbsp (200 grams) sichuan douban/broad bean chili paste
1/2 cup (115 grams/ml) Chinese rice wine
12 cloves garlic, smashed
5~6 large slices (25 grams) ginger
1 stalk (20 grams) lemongrass, cut into chunks
1/2 cup (35 grams) ground red sichuan peppercorn
3/4 tsp chinese curry powder (not Indian which is readily available)
5 cups (1200ml) chicken and pork stock

To add before serving:

3 large scallions, cut into segments
8 Chinese small dried chilli's, whole
2 tbsp red sichuan peppercorn, whole
2 tbsp granulated chicken bouillon
Salt to taste

Method For the Stock:

Add the chicken wings and the pig trotter into a large pot with the slices of ginger and scallions.  Fill the pot with water until the ingredients are fully covered, then bring to a boil and let cook for 5 min skimming impurities from the surface as it boils.  Remove the all the wings and trotters, then rinse under water to clean off any scums and impurity.  Discard the pot of blanching water.

If you’re using pressure-cooker like I did add the wings and trotter to the pressure cooker with 2 litres of water. Cook for 1 hour then after the pressure’s released, open the pot and add the carrot and onions chunks and cook for another half hour.

If not using pressure-cooker, cook the stock partially covered over medium to medium-low heat (to keep the stock actively boiling) for 3 hours, until the stock turns opaque.  You can add more water along the way to keep the stock at around 9~10 cups.  When done, strain the stock and discard the bones/meats.

Method for the Hot Pot Base:

Assemble all ingredients listed under "soaking spices" and pour 1 cup of boiling water over and let sit for 30 min ~ 1 hour.  Strain and reserve the liquid.

In a large deep pot, combine 4 cups total of vegetable oil and animal (see note *), sichuan douban/broad bean chilli paste, Chinese rice wine, smashed garlic, sliced ginger and lemongrass.  Set over high heat while stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a gentle simmer, then lower the heat down to medium~medium-low to keep it bubbling, and continue to stir and cook for about 10~15 min until all the moisture/liquid has evaporated.  Add all the soaked spices and 1/2 of the soaking liquid.  Bring the mixture back to a gentle simmer, then continue to stir/cook for another 15~20 min until all the added moisture/liquid has also evaporated.  Now add the ground red sichuan peppercorn and curry powder, then stir and cook for another 1 min.  Turn off the heat and add 5 cups of turkey and pork stock.  Mix evenly then let sit overnight.

To serve, strain the mixture (press on it to extract as much liquid as you can) and discard all the solid ingredients, retaining the liquid. I found this easier to do by re-heating the mixture to liquefy it again, (the stock causes it the congeal which makes it difficult to strain).  You should now have a hot pot-base with about 50% red/chilli oil, and 50% stock.  You can now skim off some of the “red/chilli oil”, and add more stock into the pot, to adjust the heat level you desire (the more oil in the pot, the hotter it is).  I would say 4 parts red/chilli oil : 6 parts stock/liquid is a starting point.  Keep the extra red/chilli oil on the side so you can add it back later if needed.

Now you can put your broth into your hot pot vessel and add 3 large scallions, whole dried chilli's and the whole red sichuan peppercorns to the base. Season with 2 tbsp granulated chicken bouillon and salt to taste.  Bring to a boil, and we are ready to rock’n roll.  (As the hot pot cooks, liquid will evaporate, so keep adding more stock or water and re-season as needed).

Note on fat from Mandy*
Now let’s talk about the ratio of the “red/chili oil” a bit.  To be most authentic, 100% of the “red oil” is made with beef fat.  That’s right.  It’s a little crazy.  But to be more forgiving, for convenience sake and liver sake, we are going to use a combination of  animal fat (in this case, turkey/chicken fat) and vegetable oil.  I used 1 cup of turkey/chicken fat rendered from turkey skin and chicken skin, plus 3 cups of vegetable oil.  You can increase the ratio of turkey/chicken fat if you want, but I will not go lower than 1 cup.  Of course you can also use duck fat (without any flavourings from herbs such as thyme or rosemary) if you have it on hand.

Ingredients to cook in your hot pot:

There is an almost endless procession of ingredients you can cook in your hot pot. See Mandy's recipe for her fav's. Here is what we had:

  • Thinly sliced lamb and beef (best in the ready sliced frozen packs from the Asian grocery. I am yet to find a way to slice meat that thin myself)
  • Potato's peeled and sliced into 1cm thick slices
  • Enoki mushrooms
  • Noodles (a variety of noodles work here, I like very thin vermicelli style noodles)
  • Cuttle fish balls (pre-packaged frozen from the Asian grocery)
  • Frozen lotus root
  • Choi Sum cut into 10 cm lengths
You could also add:
  • Firm white fish fillets cut into large chunks
  • Squid scored and cut into chunks
  • any variety of vegetables (the firmer the vege the longer cooking time it will take in the pot)

Dipping Sauces:

Don't fall into the trap we did and take a recommendation from the Asian grocery store lady on what to put in your dipping sauce. Fermented tofu and fermented leeks are not for the Western palate blergh!!

Use this recipe instead:

Serves 4-6

180ml Sesame Oil
90 ml rice vinegar
90 ml soy sauce
5 tbs Grated Ginger
4 cloves of crushed garlic
1.2 bunch of chopped Cilantro
1 tbs white sugar
2 scallions finely sliced
2 tbs Sriracha chilli sauce

Combine all dipping sauce ingredients, stir well and divide into individual serving bowls so each dinner guest has their own. You can then dip all of your cooking ingredients into the sauce before eating for extra flavour.

We also made a broth for the other half of the divided hot pot for the less brave dinner guests. this was made with the remaining stock that didn't go into the chilli oil. At the time of serving we added some chunks of scallions, ginger and lemongrass and chicken bullion. 

How To Eat Your Hot Pot:

Set up your hot pot vessel in the centre of your table on a butane burner. Turn on the burner and set the temperature so the broth bubbles and boils. 

Lay out all of your hot pot ingredients on the table and provide each dinner guest with a bowl of dipping sauce, extra plate, chop sticks and a small wire strainer (can be purchased at an Asian grocery).

Each guest can then dip their own chosen ingredients into the broth to cook. Ingredient cooking times vary and may take some trial and error. The potato slices, lotus root and frozen fish balls take around 10 minutes so you may want to add a handful of each to the broth at the beginning for all to share. The meat, noodles, mushrooms and greens cook very quickly so each guest can individually cook their own in their own strainer or held in their chop sticks. Once cooked, dip in your bowl of sauce and eat and then head back for more!

If you want a real Chinese experience like I had at the Hot Pot House in Chonqing you can finish up with a food fight. Hot Pot can get carried away!

Ingredients in waiting...to be in my tummy

So many amazing flavours go into this dish

The feast ready and waiting


Hot Pot in Chongqing, you can see similar ingredients here to what I served in my version


Originally posted on Sunday, 19 April 2015 by

Sunday, 5 April 2015

European River Cruising: APT vs Scenic...The Definitive Guide


After taking on a river cruise with two of the top river cruise companies sailing the waterways of Europe I am now in a unique position to pitch them head to head. Who is going to win APT or Scenic? Lets see a run down of my experiences on-board The MS Amadante by APT cruising from Amsterdam to Nuremberg and the Scenic Jewel cruising from Arles to Paris.

Ship Design and Configuration


Scenic

Scenic Tours offer a very streamline product. All their ships are identical in design and layout. This makes choosing a cruise a breeze as you can solely focus on the itinerary and not getting the preferred class of ship.
The lower deck of the ship houses the restaurant as well as the E category cabins that feature a window only (no balcony). The main deck features the lead in priced balcony cabins as well as the lobby and main lounge and speciality restaurant at the front. The upper deck has your suites and more balcony cabins and then above this you have the roof deck set up for outdoor viewing and drinks.
All cabins on the middle and upper decks have full step-out balconies which is quite unique for a river cruise ship and does add to the private usable space you have in your cabin and they also boast the largest internal space inside the cabins.
The overall layout is what you would expect and does not differ greatly from APT but where I really felt Scenic are let down is that the internal spaces offered no great vantage points for sitting and watching the world float by. The main lounge has views out of the windows on each side of the room but the more panoramic views that APT offered in their main lounge are compromised on Scenic by the fact that the main lounge is situated behind Portobello's restaurant which blocks all views from the lounge area to the windows at the front of the ship. With this restaurant being a speciality restaurant that you only attend once or twice depending on the length of the cruise and only at night time it just made no sense to have it situated in the position of the best views from any internal space on the ship.
The other issue with views is that the dining room and main lounge had fairly heavy mesh-like curtaining that was always drawn not allowing for much viewing. Guests were continually opening the curtains for a better view but the staff would regularly close them again. If you had a balcony cabin you had the benefit of floor to ceiling windows and whilst is was bliss to lay back in bed and watch the world float past you did only have a view of what was happening on one side of the ship.

APT

APT offer a confusing array of ships that are not streamlined in their layout and design. I was a little confused about the product and what the Aria and Concerto class ships offered and upon trying to clarify with the rep she seemed a little confused about it all too.
So I will only comment on the Amadante as this is the ship I cruised on.
The overall layout of the three decks is very similar to Scenic. The cheaper (window only) cabins and main restaurant on the lower deck. Lobby, main lounge and lead in balcony cabins on the main deck. The suites and more balcony cabins on the upper deck and the roof top viewing deck and walking track up top.
APT do offer on some of their ships on outdoor pool and on ours we had an outdoor hot tub which despite being heated I can tell you now it was not warm enough to try out in March.
The major difference between Scenic and APT you will find is that APT offer very few full step out balconies, just a small number of their Concerto class ships. Most cabins have a French Balcony which involves a fully opening glass sliding door with a railing directly in front of this. There is a small section of teak flooring inside the cabin which has a small table and chairs on it which is meant to give the illusion of a balcony but to be honest the teak floor space is so small most people did not even notice till it was pointed out to them. Not having the step out balcony did not worry me at all. You could still enjoy the views through your floor to ceiling windows and also open the door for fresh air and that was my main interest. The balcony may have been of more interest if I had of done either of these cruises in summer. I will speak more of the cabin layout in the next criteria, this is more to point out that balconies is a notable difference between these companies.
Where APT really excel in their layout is in the main lounge. With a lot of time spent on the ship, especially on longer itineraries like Amsterdam to Budapest you will be spending considerable time on the public spaces (unless you are some kind of strange hermit). The lounge on the Amadante went all the way to the front of the ship to incorporate the floor to ceiling windows at the very front so you had panoramic views of where you were going. This allowed you to sit back with a drink and see all the river and shore had to offer. This is even more vital if you are travelling in the colder months, if the weather is not agreeable to being on the top deck or if the top deck is closed due to passing by low bridges.

Winner

The winner in my opinion for overall layout is APT. The panoramic windows in the main lounge is a feature that cannot be beat. It is a design feature that feels well thought out to maximise viewing opportunities and with so much time spent on the ship it really is a must.

Interior Design and Décor of the Public Spaces


Scenic

The interior design offered on Scenic's ships is modern and functional but lacking a little flair. The decor, design and lighting is quite generic think modernised RSL club or Novotel lobby. Not saying there is anything wrong with that as such, but in the price category of these cruises I was expecting a little more. If you were considering it on hotel standards you would say it was a fairly generic 4 star and unfortunately poorly lit which during the day when going through the many locks on the river is a major issue. For a product that touts itself as "luxury" the public spaces really did not live up to expectations. Grey lounges, grey curtains, minimal, strangely arranged down lights it really lacked any pizzazz. I was expecting some lovely floral arrangements, at least one in the lobby but there was none to be found. There was also some lighting in the dining room that was is disrepair. Disappointing to say the least. The main dining room also featured predominantly large tables which forced you into a social situation night after night with no choice for smaller groups or couples. I will give Scenic extra points for their roof deck which did have a lovely space with outdoor tables and chairs that provided a great spot to read and have a drink.

APT

APT have a less modern and far more homely feel in their public spaces and the overall feel was warm and inviting. The main lounge had an array of lounge seating situated around coffee tables with each space lit by individual lamps. The main dining room featured upholstery that was a little dated but overall had an inviting presence. A wide variety of table configurations was also great if you wanted to dine alone or in a small or large group. The roof top space was uninspired and could do with some updating. The main feature of this was an ugly brown walking track that circled most of the upper deck and inside this space were reclining deck chairs. Whilst I am sure they are convenient when going under low bridges as they do not need packing up they are not so convenient for actually sitting and viewing. I did appreciate the effort APT took in decorating the internal spaces with large floral arrangements and although the flowers were fake they did brighten things up. The artwork particularly in the lobby was also a nice touch.

Winner

The crown again goes to APT here. The warm and inviting atmosphere of the public spaces drew you out of your room and made you feel at home and comfortable.

Cabin Size and Layout

If you have been on a cruise you will know what to expect from a cruise ship cabin...small. Although they are small with both companies they do become your little haven, a home away from home. A place where you can watch the world float by.

Scenic

Don't be deceived by the marketing. The Scenic "space-ship" as they advertise may have the largest cabins on the waters but the cabins are small. I won't dwell on that fact as it is what it is and common in the cruise world. Scenic's cabins are modern and very well appointed, Their layout makes very good use of a small space and the bathrooms whilst again are "small" are well formed and offer more space than most. The ample cupboard space and shelving offers plenty of room to full unpack your suitcase which is really the big advantage of this style of travel over coach touring. The décor is modern and minimalist and the large flat screen TV mounted on the wall in front of the bed is positioned perfectly for movie watching (and they do offer latest release movies on demand) it also works as a monitor to use the free internet provided.
The beds are really the highlight of the Scenic cabins. King singles if sharing or a comfy over-sized queens the beds are luxurious. The Egyptian cotton sheets and down quilts set it all off and although the beds take up 90% of the cabins floor space they are comfortable enough to make up for the lack of space. At night you can even leave your curtains open and lie back in bed for the most amazing views of the cities and towns you float by. An absolute highlight of the trip in France was sailing out of Lyon around 11pm, laying back in the comfy beds and seeing the city float past.
The scenic bathrooms are small but well appointed. There was an odd amount of useless space in the shower, far away from where you could stand under the water and with space being a premium I thought this could be better designed. But the free L'occataine toiletries everyday made me forget all about it.
The in room free mini bar does set Scenic apart from the rest. You can empty this thing everyday and they will just keep re-filling it...and I can tell you I tested it out to the max.
On top of this you have your own private balcony (If you paid for anything but a category E cabin), quite rare on the rivers and specifically designed for the Australian market, the unique feature of these balconies is that with the press of a button a glass wall encloses it entirely to keep out any bad weather. genius.

APT

Well I thought the Scenic cabins were small, I was wrong APT's are smaller. With the outdoor furniture moved to the inside of the cabin due to the lack of balcony and a fairly poor cabin layout there is little room to move here. The décor was a little too dated for my liking and the beds were very poor. The single beds in my twin share cabin were smaller than a normal single, the mattresses were hard and the bedding cheap. Very disappointing for the price point of these cruises and I would not be surprised if it did not garner a few complaints.
The overall layout felt poorly thought out. There was decent cupboard space but the small writing desk with the small TV positioned over it with cables hanging out felt very clunky. Again you have free internet and movies but the small TV was not well positioned for two people to comfortably watch from bed (which is the only place you can really watch from ).
The bathrooms were extremely small and I am unsure how a larger or taller person would navigate in these. There was only one direction you could face in the shower and god forbid if you needed to shave your legs...travel in winter ladies. And once out of the shower the only way to dry your legs was to have your head down next to the toilet.
But hey if you wanted a spacious cabin you would not cruise you would go to the Ritz, small cabins are a given,

Winner

Scenic takes the cake here by a long shot. The well laid out cabins, amazing bedding, larger bathrooms, balconies that can be enclosed, big screen TV and free mini bar really re-enforce why you have paid the money you have to come on this trip.

Technology

Scenic

The technology offered by Scenic shows some real thought has gone into it. The free internet through the big screen TV and wifi on your own devices is a good starting point. The controllable glass balcony is impressive and the  Scenic "Tailormade" device is exceptional. Let me explain that last one in a little more detail. The Tailormade device is around the size of a GPS. It lives in a dock in your cabin and you can use it for a number of purposes. I found the most useful to be that you could turn it on and receive information about where you are and what you are seeing as you cruise down the river. I did not realise how vital this was until I went on APT and they did not have such a device. Without it you have no idea where on the river you are, what towns you are seeing and what the significance of the buildings you are passing are. Secondly you can take it ashore with you and let it take you on a tour of your location. Self guided and self paced they are an excellent alternative if you need a break from the group tours on offer.

APT

Apart from the free internet available in cabin and the free wifi there was very little usable technology to speak of. The lack of being able to access your location on the river was a major issue and I found it frustrating to not know what I was seeing as we sailed down the river.

Winner

Again the stand out was Scenic. The innovative, usable technology was outstanding.

Food and Beverages

Scenic

Being a cruise a majority of your meals are taken in a main dining room. Breakfast consists of a buffet featuring a western breakfast plus a small menu you could order additional meals from if the buffet did not appeal. Lunch is the same arrangement and then dinner is a three course a'la carte menu. I appreciated the choice on offer at all meals and the ability to eat buffet or order from a small menu was a nice touch. The food was of mixed standard. Some dishes were outstanding (they cooked a killer steak) and others were fairly average and not to the luxury standard I was expecting. The main disappointment with Scenic's menu was that being in France we were service entirely western and Eastern European food. The disconnect between where we were (one of the most culinary spectacular countries in the world) and the food we were served was really a sticking point for me. That comes from my foodie perspective though. Many passengers seemed very happy with the food on offer.
Scenic did offer an invitation to their speciality restaurant Portobello's with was a degustation menu that I thoroughly enjoyed but again it was Italian, not French.

APT

APT's dining arrangements were exactly the same as the Scenic format. Offering plenty of choice, buffets as well as menu's. Again there was little connection to what were were eating and where we were cruising but I did feel APT's food was of a higher standard. Their speciality restaurant Erlebnis was a chef's table affair. So there was on open kitchen in view of the diners and again the meal was degustation style. The food itself was modern and innovative and of a very high standard. I did think it was very amusing to have an open kitchen that wasn't actually doing any cooking. The chef was simply assembling pre-prepared elements into the dishes and keeping sauces warm in pots. I really don't think many people noticed but it did give me a good laugh, it didn't really add to the atmosphere or instil any confidence in the food to have a single chef standing behind a glass wall putting elements of a plate and not actually cooking.

Winner

This is a close call. The range of food on offer was on par with both companies but APT did just edge ahead in the quality of what was on offer so I have to give it to them.

Beverages

Scenic

Scenic offer an all inclusive drinks product which is outstanding. An extremely wide range of drinks from beer to wine to spirits and cocktails is on offer in both the main lounge and the restaurant and to top it all off the in room mini bar is all free and refreshed more than once a day. All this was served with enthusiasm by the staff. This feature really instilled the luxury status of the cruise.

APT

APT offer an all inclusive drinks product on some of their cruises so buyer be ware on what you are actually getting when you book. My cruise did have the all inclusive drinks but the range of what was included was quite limited. There was a handful of spirits and cocktails in the lower standard on offer and a small range of house wines and beers and then the rest was all at an extra charge. The surly bar staff in the main lounge certainly did not make you feel welcome and in the main dining room the staff were very reluctant to serve any other drink apart from wine. If they knew you were not drinking wine they did not ask what else you would like and if you did manage to pin them down to ask for a drink it was met with a grunt.

Winner

Scenic by a country mile. The range on offer and the service it came with was outstanding and the in-room mini bar was a complete luxury.

Service and Staff

Scenic 

High attention to detail, customer orientated service and a fun and friendly atmosphere was absolutely a highlight of the Scenic river cruise experience. Nothing was too much trouble for this crew especially the wait staff who were extremely attentive, learnt your drink and offered a new one upon an empty glass. The bar staff worked like slaves and filled every order fast and efficiently despite large crowds at the bar. The tour director was always available to assist you your needs and was highly organised. The one thing that was not so streamlined was to room servicing, the hallways on Scenic are very narrow (I assume to allow that extra in cabin space) and the trolleys used by the room staff are very large and intrusive, filling most of the hallway for large parts of the day. This may not sound like much of an issue but you were constantly squeezing past these trolleys all day and for elderly passengers this may not be so easy. A small complaint is what is otherwise a highly honed experience.

APT

The APT staff experience was unfortunately not as honed as the Scenic experience. This can very much come down to the crew you have on your particular cruise so will differ from my experience. Whilst the staff did their jobs efficiently there was very little in the way of friendly interactions, particularly with the bar staff who were disengaged with the clientèle they were serving. In the restaurant on the first day this experience carried through but after a few days of sitting in the one area our waitress did start to warm up to us and in the end was very pleasant. The room staff were the exception, they were pleasant and somehow serviced all the rooms discreetly and magically knew when you were or were not in the room. There were no trolleys taking up the hallways, it was like there were little fairies cleaning your room who appeared and disappeared almost like magic. They also went that extra step and decorated our room for my room mates birthday and came and sang Happy Birthday which was such a personal touch, very impressive.

Winner

Scenic's highly trained team win out here. The atmosphere of fun they created whilst working very busy jobs was outstanding and the extra effort they put in to get to know each customer made them a stand out.

Day Trips

All inclusive day trips is the dream of many tourists. Both Scenic and APT have banished the paid optional day trips that is the mainstay of traditional cruises and coach touring and it is a welcomed change. Yes you can view it that you have just paid for these costs upfront before departure but not having to constantly think about costs and forgo more expensive day trips is a liberating experience.

Scenic

The focus here is walking tours. Each destination you arrive at you are put into groups and met by a local guide who takes you through the city giving you insights into the local history, food, architecture and a myriad of other aspects of local life and culture. Scenic do offer choices at some locations of what tour you would like to do which is fantastic as you can pick and choose based on your own interests. Despite the choices the days were heavily geared towards walking tours and whilst they are very informative they did tend to get quite repetitive, a little more variety would be ideal. It would have also been advantageous to offer another paced tour other than "epically slow". I understand the primary clientèle is older but there was nothing paced suitably for those passengers under 60. The highlight for me was the option to have dinner with a local family. I felt it was the only tour that offered any really cultural immersion.

APT

The tours and choices offered by APT are very much in line with Scenic, walking tours interspersed with the occasional alternate experience with the ability to choose. Again I think more variety and paces could be offered. APT did offer much more in the way of evening excursions with trips to castles, brewery's and wine festivals a much needed break from ship life.

Winner

This is a close call. What the companies did offer was well executed but I do feel both companies need to offer a greater range of day trip styles and recognise that day after day of very slow paced walking tours isn't going to satisfy all clients. I think APT did stand out a little over Scenic as they offered more in the way night time experiences and variety but as I did undertake two different river cruises in totally differently locations this is likely an unfair comparison. So we may call this one a tie.

Onboard Experiences and Entertainment

Scenic

There is little to say here in regards to onboard entertainment with Scenic as very little was offered. If you read the brochure you will be led to believe you will have an array of guest performers come on-board but apparently this does not carry across from their Eastern European cruises to the French itinerary I undertook. Night after night we had the resident pianist who was a talented lady but it was just so repetitive. There were no other on-board experiences on offer.

APT

APT had a wide array of guest performers and experiences on offer. Most nights we had different performers jump on-board at the locks and sing and dance the night away. I have to be honest the entertainment was on the cheesy side with audience participation a given. At one point our entertainer, an overly tanned, early 40's George Michael wanna-be was standing on the couch straddling a guest in a highly sexual display. Disturbing. Whilst it did not appeal to all clientele some absolutely loved it and were out on the dance floor shaking their groove things. I had two highlights with APT, the first being an extremely entertaining (if somewhat drunk) glass blower who put on a laugh a minute glass blowing demonstration. The other was the Bavarian Party in which a local Bavarian music group came on-board decked out in lederhosen and accordians. So much better than the cheesy singers.

Winner

Despite the high cheese factor APT win this one easily. With a wide array of performers and a different experience everyday it was entertainment galore. Again I must point out that Scenic, on their Eastern European itineraries likely have far more on offer as these rivers have entertainers that call themselves professional lock-hoppers who make their living from jumping on and off these boats to entertain the guests. I would think that with French river cruising being quite new there is just not a big market for this type of entertainer.

Cost

Once you have your APT and Scenic brochure in hand you will see a very similarly priced product. The range of early bird deals that include free flights are also very similar. Price is not really a point you can differentiate these companies on.

Conclusion

You will see that I have completely pulled these products apart. Don't mistake my intention here, I don't want to pick apart what is essentially a great product till there is nothing but pieces left. You will actually see that the products are very similarly matched. What one does better another may not but they make up for it in other ways. I just wish there was a way to combine the best aspects of both, then it would be an unbeatable experience.
So after all that who do I think you should cruise with? I can't actually give a definitive answer to that as they both were so even in their strengths and weaknesses in their own ways. What I would recommend is like with any holiday ensuring this is the right style of trip for you. You can read more about my recommendations on travel styles here.
The river cruise experience is very unique. Compared to a coach tour of Europe it is a far easier way to travel. Only unpacking once is it's biggest draw card. Don't under estimate this aspect. It is bliss. To come back to your cabin each day, no packing and unpacking. It is essentially a floating hotel that takes you to your next destination. You also get to see places that coach tours generally miss and the small towns along the rivers are really the heart of the countries you travel through.
In saying that do be aware that it is very slow paced. It is ideal for the elderly or those who want a very relaxing holiday. The exploration and adventure factor is non existent and I would not recommend this for active people. The tours are designed and paced around the older clientèle on board and for many travellers I know they would struggle to take things this slow.
The marketing would like you to believe that these boats are full of vivacious pre-retirees taking their trip of a lifetime but a majority of passengers are elderly and rightly so. And yes it may be a trip of a lifetime but I would save it for a time in your life when long days of travel and exploration are behind you and a slower pace of life is appealing. Then you will truly be able appreciate this unique form of travel.
I would also strongly suggest you pay for the balcony or French balcony cabins. The highlight of the trip is the views that float by, it is so unique to have it all moving past your room. The lead in window only cabins are located with the main part of the cabin below the waterline and the very small window situated up high so it sits just on/above the waterline. It is not for views, just to let in a little natural light. These cabins are quite dark and lose all the aspects that make the balcony cabins so wonderful and become quite utilitarian. I would strongly recommend paying the  upgrade cost to get even the lead in balcony, you will not regret it.
I think you also need to be wary of the engine noise and vibrations. The river cruise companies do claim they addressed this issue as it was a major problem when they first began operation. And yes with noise dampeners installed it is better than it was but it does still exist. Cabins located in the back half on the ship on any deck do suffer from vibrations and noise when the ship is moving. On your longer itineraries there is considerable sailing done at night and I did enter one of these cabins whilst sailing and things were vibrating off the bedside tables. In the cabins further forward (front half of the ship) there is total silence most of the time. At times you did not even realise you were moving. The extra cost to get a forward located cabin is well worth the money.

If you would like more information about itineraries and prices do view the websites below.
Scenic Tours
APT
I would also like to recommend a Uniworld River Cruise and although I have not had the privilege of undertaking one of these cruises I love their award winning European design flair. Their ships are all unique and will transport you to another world and from client feedback the service and experiences offered are exceptional.

Now sit back and enjoy some of the images from my river cruise experiences.

The MS Amadante


Cologne

Cruising the Rhine River Gorge

The main drag of Miltenberg

Scenes of Miltenberg

The Half Timbered Houses of Miltenberg

More scenes from Miltenberg

View of the Rhine from the Castle at Miltenberg


The Castle overlooking Wurzburg

The town square in Rothenberg

Medieval Rothenberg

Walking the ramparts in Rothenberg

Bamberg

Bamberg

Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg where Nazi War Rallies were held

View over Nuremberg


Originally posted on Sunday, 5 April 2015 by