Kerry van der Jagt finds herself in the very best of company as she cruises the Danube.
You meet all types on a river cruise.
There's Maria - fleshy-faced, tribe of kids in tow, breeds albino donkeys. Then Marie, her daughter - married young, loves to dress up, a bit of a princess.
And finally Sisi - a classic beauty, reed-thin, prone to panic attacks. Cruising the Danube River, on the maiden voyage of Avalon Waterways' latest Suite Ship, the Avalon Illumination, I get to know these women well.
From Vienna to Budapest they invite me into their rooms, to share stories about their lives, their loves and their tragedies. I first meet the trio at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria ruled the Habsburg dynasty for 40 years, from 1740 until her death in 1780.
Married to Francis Stephen of Lorraine, she had 16 children.
Sisi came a century later; married to Emperor Franz Joseph, she was the Princess Diana of her time.
It is a fine spring afternoon when we gather on the banks of the Danube for Avalon Illumination's official christening.
The gala kicks off with music by Strauss and Viennese dancers performing a waltz, before television personality Deborah Hutton, in her role as the ship's godmother, smashes a bottle of Austrian sparkling wine across the ship's bow. The 83-cabin Illumination (16 staterooms and 67 suites) is the eighth vessel introduced by Avalon since its successful Suite Ship concept made its debut three years ago with the launch of Avalon Panorama. The concept provides bigger rooms by doing away with separate verandahs. Instead, each suite has floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide back, transforming the space into an open-air balcony. This extra space provides room for a full-size sitting area, a decent-size bathroom and a queen bed angled to face the ever-changing scenery. Add a memory-foam mattress topper, Egyptian cotton linen, fresh flowers and L'Occitane bathroom products, and the Illumination really is a floating five-star hotel.
That night I sleep like a princess myself, cocooned in luxury as we cruise to Weissenkirchen, a wine village in the picturesque Wachau Valley. I've arranged room service for breakfast (I'm sure Empress Sisi would approve) so I can continue to enjoy the passing parade from my bed.
Eventually I drag myself away, lured by the prospect of a bike ride along the Danube to Durnstein, another charming hamlet with an ornate blue tower rising from its baroque abbey. The cycle trail, which follows an an old bridle path, is easy riding, leading us past small wineries, gingerbread houses and the crumbling remains of the old defence wall.
By late afternoon we've sailed to Durnstein, where we plug in our earpieces for a walking tour, before joining a cooking demonstration on the rooftop of the Hotel Schloss.
We watch as chef Alex heats sugar and butter in a copper frying pan, adds freshly squeezed orange juice, a handful of plump apricots and a splash of liquor.
"Apricot liquor is the nectar of the gods," purrs Alex, with an accent as sweet as warm treacle, spooning generous portions into each of our bowls.
Food is a highlight, from four-course meals and intimate tasting plates, to al fresco barbecues and midnight treats. With only 166 passengers and numerous public areas, including four lounges and bars, a fitness centre, library and sky deck, the ship never feels crowded. The elegant yet contemporary decor, with its splashes of scarlet and blue, add to the feeling of space and light.
Next morning we arrive in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, slipping into the heart of the city in the manner that only river cruising allows. Again Maria Theresa turns up, this time at Bratislava castle, the rectangular fortress she favoured as a summer residence.
This formidable woman, who fought two wars, was the mother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France (formerly Maria Antonia).
"And we know what happened to her," says our guide with a dramatic chopping action to her neck.
On an optional tour we visit Schloss Hof, a palace in eastern Lower Austria that Maria Theresa bought as a gift for her husband to use as a hunting lodge. We tour Maria Theresa's bedroom, the private chapel where her favourite daughter, Maria Christina, was married, and the 16 hectares of palace gardens.
Three giggling girls rush past, their white frocks billowing behind like sails as they play among the hedges. There's Maria Carolina, destined to become Queen of Naples; Maria Amalie, who will be forced to marry Duke Ferdinand of Parma; and little Maria Antonia, blissfully unaware of her ill-fated future as Queen of France. I blink and they are gone, my imagination obviously running as wild as the river itself.
From here our tour guide Jana leads us on a tour of the manor farm with its orchard, stables, cellar and vegetable gardens.
"Most Australian visitors prefer to see the farm than the palace," she says.
And it's easy to see why.
Maria Theresa loved white, so she stocked her fields with white Lipizzaner horses, white donkeys, white camels, white peacocks, and even four-horned white goats. Today, these rare animals have been reintroduced to the property as a kind of "living history".
With free time before our coach takes us back to our ship, I wander the farm, picking sweet cherry tomatoes and making friends with the donkeys. Short of stature, these gentle creatures are not albinos, but rather a special breed created in the 16th century.
Over the coming days we'll cruise to Hungary, where Godollo Palace and its stories about Empress Elisabeth of Austria await. Known as Sisi, the ravishing beauty was married to Emperor Franz Joseph, the most beloved member of the Habsburg dynasty and ruler from 1848-1916.
At the palace I will learn about Sisi's obsession with beauty, about the death of her son in a murder-suicide tragedy, and finally, about her assassination at the hands of a crazed Italian anarchist.
But for now I have other matters at hand - a white-haired lass, with big ears and Danube-blue eyes, is nudging my shoulder. Yes, you certainly meet all types on a river cruise.
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways and the Austrian National Tourist Office.
FIVE WAYS TO LIVE LIKE AN EMPRESS IN VIENNA
NIGHT AT THE OPERA
The Vienna State Opera offers performances almost 300 nights a year and never the same performance on two consecutive nights.
RIDE A FIAKER
Sunset is the best time to take a ride in one of the city's horse-drawn carriages.
Visit the Spanish Riding School -watch as Lipizzaner horses perform classic equestrian skills to music.
For a generous serve of the original Sacher-Torte head to the five-star Hotel Sacher.
STRIFE AND TIMES
Housed in the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) the Sisi museum celebrates the life of this much-misunderstood empress.
Cathay Pacific operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to more than 30 European destinations including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au.
Avalon Waterways' 2015 river cruises are priced from $2382 a person twin share for the eight-day itinerary "A Taste of the Danube" travelling between Vienna and Budapest. Highlights include two nights in Vienna, three nights cruising the Danube to destinations including Melk, Durnstein and Bratislava, and two nights in Budapest. Fares include all meals, drinks with dinner, most activities and excursions, entrance fees, transport and guides.
Phone 1300230 234; see avalonwaterways.com.au.