"Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies." John Lennon
The trees may have been green and the skies almost always were blue, but ever since my wife and I returned from a week-long Danube cruise on AMA Waterways' newest river ship, Amacerto, along with a 3-night pre-cruise extension in Prague arranged by AMA Waterways, I can't get that Beatles tune out of my head. And as a youthful product of the 1960s and a huge Beatles fan, my sentiment should be taken as a harbinger of a very positive cruise review to come.
For the record, this was our very first river cruise after more than 30 ocean cruises dating back to the mid-1990s. This was also the sixth time we have cruised in Europe since 2002, but obviously the first time the port stops included areas not accessible by ocean cruises, such as southeastern Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. Still another first for us among our Europe cruises: we did not book the travel with a group of friends (in the past ranging from 6-25 people), but just the two of us. We decided to take the cruise because we had been invited to spend a few days with a family in Germany and we thought this was an excellent opportunity to see how the other half cruises, and also to celebrate our 40th anniversary with this summer cruise. The reason I mention this here will become evident as the review progresses.
Because this was our first river cruise, many of the comparisons will inevitably be with ocean cruises. I realize, however, that it is unfair to limit the review to such comparisons because that is somewhat akin to comparing apples and oranges, and so I hope to be as straightforward as possible in assessing this cruise experience. Be forewarned that I am trying to cover this topic in some depth and so the review is not likely to be brief. [I just proofread this and it is nearly twice as long as any other review I've written. My profound apologies; hope you stick with it to the end.]
Rather than providing a chronological run-through of the vacation let me focus on several areas of analysis: overall cruise experience; the ship; accommodations; dining; onboard facilities and activities; and the staff and crew. I will then cover the itinerary -- each of the places visited (port stops do not really fit here) -- and conclude with some personal thoughts about this particular river cruise experience.
Overall Cruise Experience: Having never experienced a river cruise, my first and greatest concern prior to the cruise was that I would be bored on a ship with only one lounge and what I presumed would be very limited onboard activities -- something anathema to a person like me who spends sea days on ocean cruises with a full schedule of activities day and night. I was also concerned that we would run into the same problem that one of the few couples we know who has taken a river cruise in Europe experienced: low water levels on the river that caused half the cruise to be spent on buses and in hotels. My concerns, however, proved completely unfounded; our days and evenings on the ship were so full of activities that we found ourselves sometimes with precious little time to take a breath. It was wonderful!! We were also fortunate to be able to complete our cruise from Bavaria to Budapest without interruption due to low water levels on the river even though we experienced virtually no rain throughout the week-long cruise and our captain did a masterful job of avoiding sand bars between Bratislava and Budapest.
A second concern going in was that the price of the cruise was considerably higher than what we paid for balcony staterooms on other European cruises lasting from 12-14 nights. But then I did the calculations and realized that although this was not a completely "all inclusive" vacation (i.e., airfare and gratuities were not included in the pre-paid price), many extras ARE included -- such as at least one guided tour at each port stop, wine and beer at dinner (and, as it turns out, during so many other occasions that one had to sort of go out of their way to actually purchase a drink), and a host of small touches covered later in this review, so that when factoring in the 3-day extension at a 4-star hotel in Prague and the transfer from Prague to the cruise ship in Vilshofen (with a guided tour stop in Regensburg on the way), the cost of this vacation package certainly proved comparable to those we have taken on ocean cruises in Europe. When you add to that the many intangibles we experienced each day, this vacation turned out to be a truly excellent value in every respect.
My final concern while contemplating booking a river cruise was that with a full ship's passenger complement of 164 people, there was a risk of being "stuck" with fellow passengers who could make the experience pretty unpleasant. On our most recent ocean cruise experience -- a 12-night sailing on the beautiful Celebrity Silhouette to the Caribbean last December -- on a ship holding more than 3,000 passengers and providing some of the largest available passenger space of any cruise ship, we found examples of rude and obnoxious behavior on the part of many passengers, a problem so severe that it became the topic of heated discussion on this website! What would we do if something similar happened on a river cruise where there was literally no public place to hide? Fortunately, no such problem existed on this cruise. In fact, we discovered that it is the very nature of the intimate river cruising experience that brings passengers, staff and crew together; that fosters and promotes personal interaction so that by the end of the vacation everyone felt like part of one extended family. More than anything else, we savored the intimacy of the river cruise experience on Amacerto over the inevitably more impersonal experience on a large ocean going cruise ship.
By all accounts this was a fabulous cruise and land vacation that far exceeded our already lofty expectations in virtually every respect. In fact, although we have experienced many wonderful cruise vacations, I would say this one ranks among our top 3 all-time. Most of the credit for this goes to AMA Waterways for consistently going the extra mile not only to deliver a wonderful cruise vacation, but to ensure that every passenger was completely happy 24/7. The personal touch they provided, right down to the most minor detail, and the effort that each member of the cruise staff and crew made to accommodate the needs of each passenger, far surpassed not only our past experience on some very fine cruise lines but went beyond our own highest expectations. The rest of the credit goes to our fellow passengers, with whom we shared this unique cruise experience (at least unique for us), and who provided the best possible companionship we could have hoped for. More on this point will come later in the review.
The Ship: Amacerto is the newest in AMA Waterways' fleet of modern river ships that ply the rivers of Europe during most the year. Launched in April 2012, Amacerto introduced staterooms that have both a French balcony and a full balcony. About half the passengers opted for this new and somewhat larger than standard size stateroom; but more on that in a bit.
By any standard, Amacerto is a beautiful ship, impressive for its functionality, modern decor, and airy feel all very much reminiscent to me of the Solstice class of the Celebrity fleet. The two-deck forward section features the Main Dining Room on the lower level in a room with table configurations seating mainly 4 or 6 people. The upper level features the Main Lounge, a large room surrounded on three sides with lots of glass providing wonderful views, lots of comfortable chairs and sofas, a bar, a table for food service, and a counter for coffee service. In this room it was possible to have hot and cold drinks and cookies pretty much all the time. I like to refer to this lounge as "Cruise Central" because it was the site of virtually all the indoor activities throughout the cruise. The room included a digital piano and dance floor, which saw surprisingly extensive use during the cruise, and not only from entertainers provided by AMA Waterways.
Directly aft of this forward section is a very functional central area that includes the front desk, the main entry and exit point on the ship, a modest library and gift shop, and an elevator that saw surprisingly little use during the cruise (perhaps because folks in our group preferred the exercise, or maybe because each level serviced by the elevator was just a few steps from each other). The Hotel and Cruise Manager's desks were located on the highest passenger deck overlooking the front desk area one-half deck below.
As with many river cruise ships, the aft portion of Amacerto is primarily devoted to the passenger and crew staterooms, in this case spread over three decks, generally with the largest and priciest staterooms on the top passenger deck; staterooms with both balconies and the slightly smaller staterooms with French balconies were located on both the top and middle passengers decks; and the lowest passenger deck -- situated mostly below the water line -- contained staterooms with windows located at the top of the room, as well as the crew and staff quarters.
Directly aft of the staterooms -- virtually at the very back of the ship -- are a number of additional facilities. On the top passenger deck there is a small fitness center including a couple of recumbent bikes and a treadmill; the middle passenger deck holds a new specialty restaurant for AMA Waterways called Erlebnis with room for 28 passengers in a single seating each night but with no fee; and there is a small aft lounge outside on the lowest passenger deck.
Amacerto is one of the longest of the river ships, and the entire top deck (Sun Deck) provides a number of seating and activity options. These include a set of tables and chairs far aft for smokers; a central section of lounge chairs with retractable awning used for shade but lowered when the ship encounters a low bridge. There are also about 20 bikes stowed up here that are used by some passengers during portions of the cruise. There is a small pool and an oversized chess board and pieces up here as well just aft of the wheelhouse (the bridge on larger cruise ships). The forward section of the Sun Deck has tables and chairs for eating breakfast or lunch al fresco; this area was especially popular with the photographers, anxious to capture what the next bend in the river revealed, or what it looked like to experience one of the 14 locks encountered during the cruise. There is also a small area of tables and chairs one deck below forward of the Main Lounge that served the same purposes, but provided some shade.
Accommodations: It had been my intention to book the slightly larger combined balcony and French balcony stateroom but by the time we purchased the cruise early last March they were gone, and although we were first on the waiting list for this category of stateroom for more than 4 months, the room never came available and we took the French balcony stateroom instead.
At 170 square feet with a queen-plus sized bed, the stateroom was a little cozy compared with many of the ocean cruise ships we've sailed on, but it was eminently functional in every way, with features not usually found on mainstream ocean cruise ships -- even in the suites. Besides a double closet with 2 levels for hanging clothing, there's a third closet with floor to ceiling shelves. Even so, we took so much with us that we would have been a little cramped for space until we discovered the two rolling shelves under the bed. Even with our luggage stored under there, we could get to everything easily, and the two rolling shelves down there proved very handy. The bathroom was larger than most standard bathrooms on mainstream cruise lines, with a large and very functional shower, a full array of bath products, hair dryer, and shelving both above and below the sink. The stateroom comes equipped with a pair of bath robes and slippers, a pair of umbrellas, a safe and mini-fridge stocked with complimentary water bottles (replenished daily). There is also an infotainment system that includes a TV that can be switched to internet mode -- and an accompanying keyboard and mouse. The TV provides a satellite feed from networks in multiple languages, as well as music channels and movie options, and there is free wifi on board the ship. Each stateroom also comes equipped with "silent voice boxes" used by passengers to hear their tour guide without having to stand within earshot of the guide. With a standard adapter, one can use up to 3 electric sockets in the room to charge cameras, smart phones, and electric razors. In sum, we found the French balcony stateroom to be highly functional and comfortable, with plenty of extras included -- at a price considerably less than the larger double balcony stateroom.
Dining: Having read hundreds of reviews and comments on Cruise Critic, the subject of dining always seems to provoke great debate. Frankly, everyone's taste in food is different and so I try not to engage in value judgments or argue about favorite dishes. Having said that, I must acknowledge I was more than impressed by the quality of both the menu selections and of the food on Amacerto. We Americans have a lifestyle that often prevents us from having a good breakfast; I think Europeans are far more civilized in this respect, and I very much appreciated the onboard full breakfasts that offered a good variety of options from the buffet, plus omelets and other special egg dishes prepared fresh on the spot in the dining room. The same is true at lunchtime, where regional dishes were available both on the buffet and specially brought to you by one of the waiters. A "light" lunch consisting of mini-sandwiches, a soup, a pasta dish, salads, and desserts, was available daily in the lounge for folks who preferred to eat quickly and move on to something else. We took advantage of the light lunch on two occasions, bringing it upstairs to the Sun Deck to enjoy cruising down the river from a forward table rather than from a dining room window.
At dinner there were always three daily entree options (one of which was vegetarian), including the Chef's recommended specialty, and these were usually a local or regional specialty. There were always a couple of daily appetizers, soups, salad, and dessert options. The quality of the food, based on my own experience and what I heard from our dining companions, was quite good. If the daily choices were not appealing, there was always the option to have steak, chicken, salmon, or a dinner salad as a substitute entree. The first night welcome aboard dinner and the Captain's Farewell dinner (held on the next to last night) were a bit more special both in menu selection and in the festive atmosphere. Although I uniformly enjoyed the dinners and only chose from the "standard" entree options once, I was especially impressed with the quality of the creamed soup selection each night. One of the waiters told me that "all" of the creamed soups were good, in case I was ever undecided about the soup choice. He was right -- all 7 that I tried were delicious!
We did not opt to try Erlebnis, the specialty restaurant. One reason for that was that reservations filled up within 2 hours after everyone boarded the ship and we were placed on a wait list. We probably could have eaten there if we pursued it, but chose not to because we enjoyed eating in the dining room and saw no reason to go out of our way, even though several of the folks who ate there enjoyed the experience -- at no extra charge, by the way -- although the menu had significantly fewer choices than the Main Dining Room.
As mentioned earlier, the Main Lounge had a constant availability of coffees and teas, iced tea and water, and cookies. I particularly liked the chocolate macaroons. These snacks came in most handily during the late afternoon upon returning from a shore excursion and late at night after working up an appetite from the dancing. Also available in a free-flowing form and at no extra charge was a selection of a white wine and red wine at dinner -- a different selection each night -- as well as Bittburger Pilsner beer. For the most part I enjoyed each of the wine selections and the beer.
In sum, although I cannot speak for all river cruise lines or other cruise ships, I was more than impressed with the quality and selection of food on Amacerto. In fact, I would say that dinner, in particular, was a highlight and something I looked forward to each night, and only the fact that dining was one of so many outstanding features of the cruise experience prevents me from speaking more glowingly about it.
Onboard Facilities and Activities: One might have assumed that the general lack of activity venues on a river ship compared with the giant ocean cruise vessels would have caused passengers to be bored. Nothing was further from reality aboard Amacerto. For one thing, there were only 4 occasions when the ship was at sea during the day, and in each case that lasted only a brief 2-3 hours, and so passengers were more often sightseeing for the better part of each day. For those passengers who chose to remain on board, the modest but nicely upheld library provided a pretty good variety of reading materials, as well as games and puzzles. The fitness center, although small, was ample for this cruise, as most passengers had precious little time to compete for use of the exercise equipment. Again -- from my own experience -- with each day packed with shore excursions that involved pretty significant walking, and two optional bicycle tours, there wasn't much need for additional aerobic exercise. Likewise, although the weather was generally sunny (but sometimes on the cool side), I noted few times when I saw anyone using the pool on the Sun Deck -- again, probably from lack of available time more than anything else. During those few stretches when the ship was sailing during daylight hours, many of the passengers seemed more preoccupied with capturing the incredibly beautiful scenery on film than doing anything else. I know that I spent as much time forward on the Sun Deck waiting for what the next bend in the river would reveal!
During the evening -- mostly after dinner but sometimes before -- AMA Waterways provided some form of guest entertainers who performed mainly in the Lounge. Each act was unique, and all offered a flavor of the country and locale where the ship was docked. Performers would come aboard, do their show, and then depart the ship. One exception occurred the first evening on board; we were treated to an Oktoberfest celebration in Vilshofen just outside the ship, replete with an oompah band, folk dancing and singing, and other forms of Bavarian entertainment. And let's not forget the free flowing Bavarian brew accompanied by those delicious pretzels. The performers ranged in age from 6 to 60. It may seem a bit hokey reading this here, but I think most of us found the townspeople's enthusiasm and joie d'vive (how's that for a description of eminently German entertainers?) charming. Some of us chatted with the performers and their families who accompanied them and we found them to be engaging and friendly. It was a truly great sendoff.
Samples of entertainers who performed in the lounge included ensembles playing Austrian music and tunes from the Broadway show, Sound of Music (the movie, of course, was filmed in Salzburg); a classical ensemble; Slovakian dancers; and a folk troupe performing Hungarian music and dancing. Several of the ensembles got the audience up to join in on the dancing. The one night there was no guest entertainment was when the ship docked in Vienna. Most passengers took advantage of an optional AMA excursion to a professional performance of Mozart and Johann Strauss musical pieces performed at one of the concert venues in the city (for a fee). The venue was the former Stock Exchange -- a characteristic ballroom with an added stage -- and it was quite enjoyable, especially for me because by luck we were sitting in the front row near the steps to the stage and I was summoned to play the triangle during one of the numbers. Playing the triangle is a lot harder than it looks -- especially since the whole thing was rigged for laughs -- of which there were plenty at my expense!
My point about the activities is that it is impossible to compare the kind of Broadway or Vegas-style acts and guest headliners you see in the main theaters of ocean going cruise ships with the entertainment on a river cruise. Nor did we miss those big shows (which we usually like to see, by the way). The kind of guest entertainment provided by AMA Waterways on this river cruise was ideal for the intimate setting and provided an excellent supplement to the cruise line's efforts to give passengers a real taste and feel of local culture and life. In this the entertainment succeeded, and it certainly exceeded my pretty demanding expectations.
One final note regarding the onboard activities: each day before dinner and later at night after dinner and the local entertainment, the resident musician -- Matthias -- provided piano music for easy listening, and he was always gracious about taking requests. On several nights, the easy listening segued into dance music, and pretty soon Matthias the musician became Matthias the DJ and the ship really rocked. It shocked me to discover that I wound up leading a Conga line one night early in the cruise. Later in the cruise, many passengers got up and danced with each other as if it were a wedding reception. This, probably more than anything else, surprised me about the cruise and pleased me beyond any possible expectations that I had.
Staff and Crew: An intimate river cruise ship with 164 passengers means an intimate experience with a relatively small staff and crew. The Captain had a crew of about 8-10 officers and sailors. Unlike on most large cruise ships, Captain Jan -- the senior caption in the AMA Waterways fleet -- was almost totally accessible. He and his crew had an opportunity to demonstrate their professionalism during and after an incident in the lock shortly after we left Vienna. A small hydrofoil passenger boat occupied the space next to Amacerto in the lock. Occasionally ships bump each other or the siding of the lock a bit when entering or leaving a lock because it usually is a very tight fit. But the hydrofoil had a protruding wing and its captain exited the lock so fast that the wing bumped Amacerto quite forcefully several times near the port side forward galley and broke one of the windows in the galley. Once both ships exited the lock, they had to stop and report the incident to the local maritime authorities. Captain Jan supervised the lowering of a boat so that a crew member could take photographs of the damage. We were delayed about an hour, but even though the incident was quite minor, it was handled with the utmost professionalism by the Captain and his staff.
The other senior officer on Amacerto is the Hotel Manager, and for the first part of our sailing this was a wonderful gentleman named Radko. His opening briefing on safety was one of the most entertaining I've witnessed. Each day he was at the entrance of the ship to offer a helping hand or a wish for an enjoyable tour -- and he was waiting to welcome each person back on board after the tour. The hotel manager is responsible for virtually every non-crew member of the staff, which includes such departments as dining, bartending, housekeeping, and administration. In this regard, the housekeeping team of about 8 staff members performed their duties with the utmost competence. Staterooms were cleaned and replenished twice daily but it was a rare occasion when you saw your room steward, so efficiently and stealthily did they perform their jobs. The dining staff of a maitre d' and about 8 waiters were equally efficient, and very engaging and friendly. Although there is but one seating and no assigned tables, I felt as if each waiter treated you as if you were longtime acquaintances. Of the many waiters we personally encountered on this cruise, one in particular, Lazslo, was very special. I know that we singled him out for praise on our passenger questionnaire and so did several other passengers on this cruise. The team of three bartenders not only worked the bar during the afternoon and after dinner hours, but also served drinks during dinner. They were friendly and competent, especially Tomasz, the chief bartender. Finally, we were thoroughly impressed with the team of 3 staff members responsible for handling the front desk and all the business aspects of the cruise: paperwork; boarding passes; issuing tour group colors according to passenger's wishes and also as equitably as possible to ensure balanced-sized tour groups; billing matters; and even printing out airline boarding passes.
Unlike ocean cruise ships, where the Cruise Director is responsible for all onboard activities and entertainment and must manage a fairly sizable team of cruise staff, on river cruises there is a Cruise Manager who works virtually alone. The Cruise Manager is responsible for the passengers when they are not on board ship -- that is, from the moment a passenger arrives at a pre-cruise hotel until they leave a post-cruise hotel (when applicable). The Cruise Manager arranges and organizes all the tours, including those offered during pre-and post-cruise extensions as well as all included and optional tours during the cruise. And the Cruise Manager is responsible for the onboard local guest entertainers throughout the cruise, and for the daily program provided to the passengers. Because the Cruise Manager follows the passengers for a given sailing and extensions, they move from ship to ship rather than have postings on a particular ship -- and that is why they tend to work alone (in busy extension locations the Cruise Manager sometimes has assistance from local contractors). Our Cruise Manager, Rachel Couto, was exceptional in every conceivable way. She was the person who greeted us with a friendly smile upon arrival at our hotel in Prague for our pre-cruise extension, and the last AMA Waterways person we saw when she held open the door of the taxi she arranged to take us from the ship to our hotel in Budapest at the end of the cruise. In between, her vivacious personality, enthusiasm, professionalism, and constant attention to every detail and the interests of the passengers endeared her to just about everyone. Some of the passengers had very early flights out of Budapest the last morning of the cruise (that means they had to leave the ship before 5 a.m.) Rachel was there to bid them a safe journey come. What more could one ask for in a Cruise Manager? Happy will be those of you who are fortunate enough to sail with AMA Waterways and have Rachel as your Cruise Manager.
In sum, I would have to say that the performance of the relatively small staff and crew of the Amacerto not only far exceeded our expectations for this river cruise, but ranks among the best we have encountered on any cruise vacation. As an example of the almost inconceivable level of teamwork in which they performed their work, we noticed upon returning from a walk through the town of Vilshofen that Amacerto was taking on supplies for the voyage. On most ocean cruise ships, these are loaded by longshoremen with forklifts. On Amacerto, virtually the entire staff, including the front desk personnel and the Hotel Manger, Radko, were lined up helping each other load provisions on the ship. It was a scene I will always remember, and may have been the first of many moments during the week-long cruise that I was thankful we had decided to do this cruise vacation.
Prague (3-day pre-cruise extension): I've always wanted to visit Prague and so taking this pre-cruise extension, although not inexpensive, was a must. We were not disappointed. AMA Waterways booked us into the Intercontinental Hotel. Our room faced the river and had all the amenities; the included full breakfasts set us up wonderfully for each day of sightseeing. The hotel is perfectly situated along the river adjacent to the old town and particularly the Jewish Quarter. It is an easy walk to many of the most important sights. AMA Waterways provided a morning city tour that included a bus ride up to the Castle, a walk around (but not actually in) the Castle complex, and a guided walking tour down the hill to the Charles Bridge and across the bridge to the Old Town Square. The afternoon was free for sightseeing on your own and we chose to visit the Jewish Quarter. The second day AMA Waterways offered two optional tours (for a fee): one to a castle in town that included a concert; the other a bus trip and tour of Terezin, site of the infamous "model" concentration camp during World War Two. We took the second option. It was a little disappointing that what remains of the "model" camp is mainly a very nicely designed museum and the site of a secret synagogue, but for the most part the area that constituted the camp is basically the town of Terezin. People live there, and so it was difficult to picture conditions there during the war. Earlier in the day we spend our limited free time at the wonderful Alphonse Mucha Museum -- a gem in a city of gems. Except for breakfast, you are on your own for meals, and we enjoyed two excellent meals but did have a problem, in of all places, the hotel's own fancy rooftop restaurant, where the food was delivered partly cooked. The view from up there, however, especially at night when the city is lit up, is spectacular! My advice is to have dinner elsewhere and go up there for an after dinner drink and the view.
Transfer -- Regensburg: After breakfast on the third morning in Prague, everyone confirmed that their luggage was there, boarded their assigned bus (using the color system), and off we went to Vilshofen and the Amacerto. On the way, we had a two-hour break in Regensburg, a medieval town in the heart of Bavaria, which included a one-hour guided tour. Regensburg itself was quite interesting, with many people dressed in colorful local garb. Each busload had its own tour guide -- as we had already become accustomed -- with similar colored lollypops the tour guides held to keep the group together. I found the tour itself not especially illuminating, and I think most people felt a little pressed for time to both have lunch and explore on their own during the second hour. I would have preferred to skip the guided tour and explore on our own in this instance.
Day 1 -- Vilshofen: Upon arrival at the ship around 3:30 p.m., we were greeted on board with a welcome glass of champagne and pastries and ushered into the Lounge for introductions to the senior staff and crew (while the remaining staff delivered our luggage to our staterooms. After having a little time to unpack and settle in, we were asked to head outside to the dock for the aforementioned "Oktoberfest" welcome celebration. It was a perfect start to our first river cruise experience.
Day 2 -- Vilshofen and Passau: There was time to sleep in a little the first morning, and after breakfast we took a little walking tour of the very quaint village of Vilshofen. During lunch Amacerto departed for a very short cruise down river to Passau. There was time to photograph the experience of going through the first of 14 locks on our way to Budapest. We arrived in Passau mid-afternoon and immediately departed on a guided walking tour of the town. Parts of Passau are pretty, especially in the area where we were docked, adjacent to a bridge, directly across from a fortress high above, and located at the confluence of the Danube and another river. The tour guide provided some interesting historical information over the course of an hour, left us at the Cathedral and we were free to wander on our own. But away from the immediate location of the ship, I found Passau to be a rather ordinary medium sized Bavarian town (unlike Regensburg, which oozed with personality and a very obvious Bavarian vibe), and so we cut off our wandering and headed straight back to the ship to prepare for what turned out to be a truly fun and surprising night of dancing.
Day 3 -- Linz and Cesky Krumlov: There's no question that this was always going to be a highlight day. The early morning guided tour of Linz revealed a pretty interesting city -- very much involved in the arts (a modern art gallery was located along the river within steps of our ship). There was a Saturday morning flea market going on in the town's main square, where we saw the balcony from which Hitler addressed a crowd of 60,000 in 1938 after the Anschluss -- interesting stuff for a historian of the Second World War such as I am. AMA Waterways offered 3 long, afternoon tour options -- one to Gmunden and the Alpine Lakes; another to Salzburg; and a third to Cesky Krumlov (medieval castle town in southern Bohemia (Czech Republic). We had always planned to go to Salzburg because I had never seen it and was quite interested in going. But several colleagues had suggested that Cesky Krumlov would be more interesting. In the end we decided to take the Cesky Krumlov excursion. This trio of excursions, by the way, is usually considered optional and the listed fee is 70 euro per person; but on this sailing there was no charge for the afternoon excursions, and so off we went by bus to Cesky Krumlov. The place turned out to be striking: a massive medieval castle atop a hill, with the Vltava River winding around it and the adjacent town below. The bus left us at the top near the Castle gardens, and our tour guide walked us quickly by the gardens and down the hill to the castle, pointed out at each courtyard that there was a museum here and a gift shop there -- but relentlessly continued down the hill beyond the castle and into the town -- stopping every so often to count us like sheep. On we walked through much of the town, and the tour came to an end near the town square where we were finally set free to explore on our own for about 90 minutes. We had learned little, especially about the castle, and there was not sufficient time to climb the steep hill to visit even one of the museums on the castle grounds.
In retrospect I think it would have been better for the tour guide to show us the meeting place on the map as soon as we arrived, tell us a meeting time, and allow us to explore everything on our own. I do recommend that future tours of Cesky Krumlov be reconfigured to allow more time in the castle or at least allow passengers the option of breaking off to spend time on their own. Although the sightseeing turned out to be somewhat of a mess, our tour guide's heart was in the right place: it was packed on that Saturday, and he was concerned about losing someone in the group so far away from the ship. The afternoon, however, was still wonderful. Cesky Krumlov is a very special place not to be missed if you are in the vicinity. In the end we stopped for a beer and absolutely the best strudel I've ever tasted during our free time before leaving. For his part, the tour guide redeemed himself by playing Dvorak's New World Symphony on the bus ride to Cesky Krumlov, and Smetana's symphonic poem The Moldau (Vltava) as we drove back a different way, following the winding path of the Vltava and passing beautiful castles and other sights almost until we reached the Austrian border. In all, it was a lovely, memorable visit to Cesky Krumlov.
Day 4 -- Melk; Durnstein; Krems: The day began with a guided tour of the historic Abbey in Melk, Austria. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and our one-hour visit through the museum portion of the monstrous Abbey was very enjoyable, with great views of the surrounding countryside from the terrace of the library. We decided to walk back through the main street of the small town and through some wooded areas to the ship. We -- and many other couples -- decided to forego the formal lunch in the dining room and grab the "light" lunch and bring it up to the forward Sun Deck as the ship sailed from Melk to Krems, passing through the Wachau Valley, one of the most beautiful stretches along the famed Danube. Beyond every turn appeared one spectacular vista after another, with the hills on either side of the river laced with vineyards. We arrived in Krems after 3 p.m., and buses came by to take us on a guided tour -- mainly a walking tour of nearby Durnstein, a beautiful riverside village on a hill where for those hearty sorts with sufficient time, one can climb to the partially eroded fortress where Richard the Lionhearted was held captive. Unfortunately, our tour guide was more interested in having us visit a children's playground and couldn't quite seem to keep her comments focused. We -- and others -- decided to see the town on our own. The main street was lined with stores selling apricot products, the local specialty (didn't much care for the apricot schnapps I tasted, however). It was a lovely, short visit, and soon we returned to the ship by bus. After dinner, most of the passengers piled back on the buses for a visit to a winery and a sampling of the products. Several of us, however, preferred to chill on board and forego the bus excursion to the winery. I can't remember how we spent the 2 hours most of the passengers were gone, but I do remember enjoying a drink in the lounge when they returned.
Day 5 -- Vienna: This was at once a wonderful day -- one we had looked forward to for a long time -- and a frustrating day. Why? Because there's no way anyone can see enough of a city such as Vienna in one day; one can barely begin to see it, which just whets your appetite for more. The morning guided city tour did just that. We enjoyed a bus ride around the Ringstrasse that sets off the inner city from the Danube Canal. We passed the museum complex; historic palaces and other buildings passed by; a quick glance and they were gone. But at least we had time to see many of them. The walking portion of the tour took us to the Dom (cathedral), one entrance to the Habsburg Palace complex, and we even saw some of the Lipizzaner stallions in their stalls. Following the walking tour, we decided not to return to the ship but stay in town and take one of the ship's shuttle buses back later in the afternoon. We walked through the historic center, visited a couple of museums, had an ice coffee and Sacher Torte in lieu of lunch, and did a little shopping. There was an early dinner that night so that most of us could attend the optional (for a fee) concert in the city (described earlier), followed by a night tour of the Ringstrasse, notable only for the few number of buildings actually lit up. In the end the day was enjoyable but, as mentioned, a little frustrating because there was so much to see without the time to see it, and a little disappointing because much had been said in advance about how the Ringstrasse was so beautiful at night all lit up when the city was hardly lit up at all.
Day 6 -- Bratislava: After breakfast we enjoyed the morning sail down river from Vienna to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Of course, we did arrive about an hour behind schedule because of that minor incident with the hydrofoil in the lock outside of Vienna that I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, there was ample time after lunch to enjoy a one hour walking tour of the old town, located adjacent to the place where Amacerto was docked. Our tour guide not only had lots of information about the history of his country, but offered plenty of personal observations about life in a country that had so recently begun to enjoy freedom. There was a very upbeat vibe to the old town, almost exclusively limited to pedestrian traffic. I very much enjoyed the couple of hours we had to explore this interesting small city.
Day 7 -- Budapest: The day began with one of the most beautiful sights I have ever experienced: sailing the Danube into the historic city of Budapest. In this town almost all the most striking scenery is along the river, and many of us hurried through breakfast to get to the Sun Deck to photograph our entry into Budapest -- which in my experience compares very favorably with our entry by cruise ship into Venice in 2009. Upon arrival in Budapest we loaded into the buses and off we went on the half-day city tour, a very interesting tour that took us along the main boulevard in Pest to Heroes' Square and the museum district and then past Parliament and across the Danube to the hilly Buda side where we passed the castle on the hill, several monuments, and stopped at Fisherman's Bastion, where the cathedral was located and from which you can enjoy magnificent vistas of the city. The tour ended at the market -- a block-length, three-tiered structure housing probably thousands of stalls. There was a little too much to deal with there, and so we walked back to the ship, had some lunch, and spent the part of the afternoon walking and doing a little shopping along the pedestrian streets nearby the ship. Then we returned to the ship to begin packing.
After dinner, the Captain waited until it was dark and took us on a one-hour sailing tour of Budapest by night, sailing the Danube from Margaret Island all the way east past the Freedom Bridge. It was the perfect ending to our river cruise. Unlike Vienna, every building and bridge along the river was beautifully bathed in light. We took in this magnificent city, sipping farewell drinks provided by the staff, taking photographs of the city and river, and also of each other, because many passengers would be leaving before the crack of dawn the next morning.
All in all, our week-long cruise itinerary, with the 3-night pre-cruise extension in Prague and visit to Regensburg during the transfer to the ship, proved to meet and very often exceed our very high expectations. Was every place we visited an A? No, but certainly none was an F or even less than a C. Was every tour guide superlative? Not really; some were very good and others less so. With regard to the tour guides, it was certainly a bit of the luck of the draw, since at each stop there were probably somewhere between 4 and 7 guides and inevitably some passengers were going to have better guides than others. I thought overall we came out very well in that department. The guides didn't make or break the port stops, but the good ones certainly enhanced them. The only down side to such a busy touring itinerary is that we were almost always on the go. I sometimes missed having a sea day to just kick back and rejuvenate the aching muscles from all that walking. In any event, I thought the itinerary and sightseeing selections by AMA Waterways was very balanced with a fair amount of variety; certainly organizing so many people on so many tours was a monster responsibility for one person, and Rachel handled all of this with great skill and good cheer.
Final Thoughts: For those of you still with me on this article-length journey, I think it is important for ocean cruise enthusiasts to realize, as most of us first time river cruisers did, that taking a river cruise has very little in common with taking an ocean cruise. It may not be for everyone; for a long time I wasn't certain it would be for me. I know differently now. Getting to see parts of the world not readily accessible on ocean cruises is only the tangible outer core of all those intangibles I've recounted herein. A river cruise is more than just another cruise, it is a life style; it is an opportunity to stop and smell the flowers -- to immerse yourself in cultures only available from a distance on an ocean cruise; it is an opportunity to get to know and enjoy the company of people each day that you may not even glimpse from afar on an ocean cruise. It is an experience that I think no cruise enthusiast should deny themselves.
I think it is fair to say that we discovered a great deal about river cruising on this vacation and a lot about ourselves as well. We probably discovered our cruising cohort -- a group of passengers mostly in their mid-50s to early 70s, educated, fun-loving, each with their own story, and each with a keen interest in meeting others. In that sense I think we were all part of the Beatles generation, even if the psychedelic back story of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" never really resonated with all of us. Towards the end of the cruise one of our newly found buddies asked me what the most memorable highlight of the cruise was. I took but a nanosecond to think about it, and visions of Prague, and Cesky Krumlov, and me butchering that triangle at the concert in Vienna all flashed through my mind before I said: "it's us -- all of us getting to know each other and sharing this wonderful, intimate cruise experience; that's what I'll remember most about this cruise."
Would I recommend the AMA Waterways Romantic Danube cruise -- on Amacerto or any of their other modern river ships? Yes -- a hundred times yes! If it's your first experience with a river cruise, it may change the way you think about vacations forever -- and for the good. It did for me.