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A Close-to-perfect Vacation: The European River Cruise

I’ll be honest, I was not at all expecting to enjoy the river cruise I had scheduled with my family. I knew it would be a perfect trip for the larger group, but I tend to be a bit more adventurous and independent when I travel. On this trip I was hosting my two aunts — one who is 80 years old — my mom who has some mobility issues, along with my mother-in-law who is still always on the leaderboard with the Peloton, my uncle and two cousins. Needless to say it was a very broad-ranging group to please.

We selected this sailing, 7-nights on the Danube from Budapest to Vilshofen, for three reasons: First, it started in Budapest. My grandmother and her family are all from Budapest, yet my mom and aunts had never been. Second, the Danube (and Rhine) make a GREAT introduction or first River Cruise. Third, we took advantage of the November sailings for fewer crowds and the opportunity to visit Christmas markets.

I left the sailing so impressed with both the type of vacation (river cruising) and AmaWaterways. So, I thought I would share what I loved so much about this trip.

We really got to experience the great cities of Budapest and Vienna, as well as the smaller charming villages

A river cruise is more about the destinations than the ship — the idea is really a floating hotel. Unlike ocean cruising, where you often have to anchor adjacent to the dock and tender in to the actual port of call, river cruises pull right up to the port and you simply walk off the ship. This not only makes it very easy, it gives you tremendous flexibility for a larger group traveling together.

We got to see so much of the cities, towns and hamlets on the Danube without ever having to pack and schlep our things

On this sailing, we visited different ports of call in a single day. We departed Krems at 7 AM, docking in Weissenkirchen by 9 AM, where my mother-in-law and I did a 15 mile bike tour to Melk Abbey. The ship departed there at 1:30 PM and we continued on and docked at Grein at 5 PM in time for our castle visit that evening.

River cruises will also often stay overnight in a port, which means you can head off for dinner, explore a town or take advantage of one of the many evening activities they will have planned for you. On our cruise we had a Strauss concert in Vienna, a wine tasting at the oldest winery in Austria and an exclusive visit to the historic Burg Clam Castle dating back to 1149.

They found ways to authentically bring local culture to the ship

Entertainment is about the destination. Each evening, the ship welcomed remarkably talented local musicians that would perform onboard. No karaoke or ballads or shows that have nothing at all to do with the place you are visiting. Instead, we experienced authentic performances that helped us further appreciate the character and culture of the place. We even had a talk on Bavaria by a Bavarian — not the cruise director.

The food is also reflective of the destination. Each day our lunch and dinner menus would feature local specialties, including different local wine each evening. The variety was wonderful. I especially appreciated that the wines rotated, because for me, wine and food are a big part of exploring a new destination. Having a great steak and Joseph Phelps cabernet are enjoyable, but that’s not what I want when I’m exploring Austria.

Limited number of people

These river cruise ships only hold so many people, offering a much more intimate feeling than a giant ocean liner. The Ama ships are smaller than the Viking ships, and because our particular voyage was in low season, there were only 88 guests on a ship built for 162. You no longer feel like you are part of a large herd, and you can do as much or as little with others as is comfortable for you.

Huge array of options with a varying degree of activity levels - Something for everyone

This is what makes a river cruise, and in particular an AmaWaterways Cruise, a fantastic option for multigenerational travel or group travel. Each day we had a variety of shore excursions to choose from. The main excursions had gentle walker, regular walker and fast walker groups, which allowed those who need to move at a slower pace not to hold up those wanting to explore every street, church and castle. They also offered a biking option every day and many hiking options. These groups were all very small — the largest on our ship might have been 15 people. Bikes are put out at each port as well, should people want to explore on their own. And, with the ships docked right in the city center, some guests can be out for the whole day and others for just an hour.

Themed Cruises for Families, Bikers or Wine Enthusiasts

AmaWaterways plays host to both the Adventures by Disney trips as well as Backroads tours. Disney-hosted trips are particularly good for teenagers, while also giving families a good variety of family-focused and adult-only activities on each sailing.

Backroads trips appeal to very active groups, and they identify different sailings for families with different age children. For example, some sailings include teens and kids, others just teens and finally groups with adult children over 20 years. This gives kids a chance to make friends and share the adventure with peers while still enjoying plenty of quality family time.

Our wine-themed cruise included a wine host who was a winemaker, filled with knowledge of the wine growing regions we were visiting because he had grown up in Germany. Not only did that offer enhance the activities onboard, special wine elements were added to other excursions.

Incredible Value

While AmaWaterways is not “all inclusive,” it does include almost everything you could need for a tremendous experience. Transfers to and from the ship, the majority of your shore excursions, internet, all meals — including the option of a dinner in the chef’s restaurant, a daily cocktail hour and alcoholic beverages during meals — are all included in your cruise fare. The price does not include gratuities or alcoholic beverages outside of mealtimes or cocktail hour, but for our family, that was just perfect.

No Motion Sickness

Since you are traversing rivers, there is not the same opportunity for severe motion sickness issues.

AMA River Cruise

For me, Ama really stands out in the crowded market of river cruising. They delivered on so many dimensions:

The food was spectacular

For those who know me well, I’m a HUGE foodie. While I’ve had previous cruises that have had some great moments when it comes to food (Thomas Keller restaurants on the Seabourn Ships come to mind), I’m usually not excited by buffets, no matter what the quality. Ama’s food blew me away. Each night I was so impressed with the thoughtful approach, sensible portions, and particularly the local cuisine.

The ships (and clientele) were very comfortable

I know many people really enjoy dressing up for dinner, but what was great about Ama was that the option was yours. The ship itself and the staff are very comfortable — no formalities necessary. I felt like the ship was home for the time we were there, and I enjoyed meeting the other guests, who were all easygoing.

They do a sophisticated Wine Experience

Ama offers a number of wine themed cruises on many of the rivers in Europe. The added experiences were wonderful for our group and quite sophisticated. We have all been on cruises where you do a tasting with a sommelier who walks you through Chardonnay vs Sauvignon Blanc. This was much deeper and richer, but not in an intimidating way. The host was a winegrower from California who had spent years in Germany making wine. He hosted a number of tastings of local wine from each region we explored, and ventured out with us on wine-focused experiences as well.

It feels like a family-owned company

The owners of Ama are involved in every aspect of the company — and you can tell. This is not a giant conglomerate with countless ships. They truly, deeply care about their product and are constantly finding ways to enhance the guest experience. We never heard “no” onboard. They always did what they could to deliver on your expectations.

Of course AmaWaterways offers sailings on rivers across the globe. They also offer a new concierge golf program, where all of the world’s top courses are at your fingertips and all the details are arranged in advance.


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