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What it's like to do a river cruise with Emerald Waterways

Australian-owned and value-focused Emerald Waterways debuted last year, the first new river line in Europe in six years to cater to English-speaking passengers.

Looking to up the hip factor in a market that mostly caters to the age 55-plus crowd, the line operates four sleek, 182-passenger, Dutch-built ships it calls "Star Ships" – though without specific reference to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Another sister will arrive next year. The ships cruise the Danube, Rhine, Main, Saône and Rhône rivers. Emerald Waterways also plans to launch a 68-passenger ship on the Mekong in 2016.

Onboard a sailing on the Emerald Dawn on the Lower Danube, from Bucharest to Budapest (through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary), we found there's a lot to like about cruising with Emerald Waterways. Here are some of our favorite features.

The pool/cinema: The ship's biggest "wow" feature is a glass-enclosed heated pool and lounging area with retractable roof. It's the perfect place to unwind after a day of touring – such as visiting Snagov Monastery, the supposed burial place of Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Dracula). The pool also cleverly converts at night into a movie theater, seating up to 25 for the screening of recent film releases.

Modern decor: Everything is streamlined and contemporary, with a healthy dose of cool. The black glass bar with twinkling lights and barstools in the main lounge, for instance, would work in a hip club on land ( plus the Bulgarian bartender made a mean martini). Most river cruisers are age 55-plus, but this is not your grandmother's river cruise ship.

Panorama Balcony suites: Everyone gets a view on this ship and most staterooms are in this well-designed and generously sized (180 square feet) category. The key feature in these rooms is a wall of glass, the top half of which opens with a push of a button for a balcony effect. A few fancy suites have step-out balconies and a wall separating the living room and bedroom. There are also a couple of cabins designed for solo travelers.

Affordability: A sister line to the more luxurious Scenic Tours, Emerald Waterways entered the market with a value proposition: Fares include most tours (even smartly programmed full-day tours with lunch ashore), pre-cruise hotel nights, transfers, wine, beer and soft drinks with meals and internet access (you can borrow an iPad from reception if you didn't bring your own). But what really sets this line apart is that all gratuities are also included.

Al fresco dining: As a new line, Emerald was able to adapt features already popular on competitors. So as an alternative to the main restaurant, on The Terrace you can do light breakfast or lunch from a buffet selection, and eat while catching forward-facing views from the ship's bow (just like on Viking's "longships").

Sun Deck: Up on the top deck is a cushioned jogging track, a golf-putting course and the fun feature of a giant Tic Tac Toe set, along with lounge chairs and tables both in the sun and shaded under canopies, all positioned so that you catch passing views.

Spa/fitness: There is a small fitness room equipped with two bikes, weights and a rowing machine. For those who want to head off ship for exercising and exploring, there is a fleet of 15 mountain bikes (use is complimentary). The ship also has a masseuse onboard offering massages and doubling as a hairdresser.

Enrichment: Some river lines have guest lecturers onboard but Emerald does them one better by having the Eastern European crew talk openly about their lives – the cruise director on our sailing poignantly describing life as a child during communist times in Romania during one session. Folk troupes (in our case from Bulgaria and Serbia) come onboard providing a local cultural experience. The wheelhouse is always open for those interested in navigation and the intricacies of going through locks.

Crew show: We've all seen the waiter who thinks he can sing. The thing is, our hotel director really could sing beautifully and several members of the crew also performed skits that were obviously well rehearsed and drew hoots and cheers from the crowd. Don't miss this evening event.

Nightlife. We expected a cruise full of fun-loving Australians. We got a crowd that was mostly older and British, with three Americans and about 20 Aussies onboard. Still, there was a night scene, plenty of people dancing to ABBA hits and "YMCA" on the disco floor at 11 p.m. – the line provides late-night snacks as an energy boost. When Olivia Newton John blared over the speakers, the crowd went wild.

For a deck-by-deck look inside an Emerald Waterways river cruise ship, click through the carousel below.

The 443-by-38 foot, 182-guest MV Emerald Sky is the first in a four vessel platform called the Star Ship class for newly formed Emerald Waterways, a premium division of Australian-owned deluxe operator Scenic Tours.The 443-by-38 foot, 182-guest MV Emerald Sky is the first in a four vessel platform called the “Star Ship” class for newly formed Emerald Waterways, a premium division of Australian-owned deluxe operator Scenic Tours.  Peter Knego, special to USA TODAY.

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