After quite a bit of research, I concluded that Amawaterways/APT provided the best in European river cruising - beautiful boats, excellent reputation for customer service, great on board dining, interesting ports of call and very good included and optional tours. These cruises are advertised in Australia and New Zealand by APT which is a significant part owner of AmaWaterways. AmaWaterways is the brand known in the USA and Europe.
So, last Christmas we set off for Europe looking forward to the much anticipated Europe Christmas time cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam. We were not disappointed - we were delighted with the whole thing!
I'll start with customer service, because THE defining customer service we experienced with Amawaterways really showed us the wisdom of our decision to travel with them.
As you may know, Europe experienced an extremely cold winter last year and the Main-Danube Canal froze over around December 25th. Whilst another company with a boat preceding us by one day tried - and failed - to get through the Canal, damaging the boat, our Captain was not going to try that approach. Obviously there had been much talk in the background during the previous 24 hours about "plan B", so on December 26th we and 11 others going on to Amsterdam were briefed by the Captain and the Cruise Director about what was to happen on the following day. In short, the company had taken the decision to transport us by coach around the Main Danube Canal, stopping at Nuremberg as per the itinerary, to join their newest and most luxurious boat, MS Amabella, at Bamberg and continue to Amsterdam. You're probably thinking, "Well yes, a bit of a hassle for them, but makes sense". But when I tell you that Amabella was in dry dock, several hours away from the Rhine river, and by "dry dock" meaning totally stripped down - no curtains, furniture, glass ware, crockery, linen ... the list goes on, you perhaps begin to see the extraordinary work they went to in around 24 hours to "get the show back on the road" as they say.
By contrast some of the other tour operators sent people to Munich for 10 days (fabulous when you thought you were going up the Rhine!) others had to make the return journey back to Budapest in one of the returning boats. Rudi Schreiner, the Amawaterways President, who had been in Egypt when the possibility of not getting through the Main-Danube Canal arose, returned to Germany and helped plan the detailed logistics of who was going where and stayed with us on the Amabella until Amsterdam. The logistics must have been a nightmare, as it wasn't a simple case of everyone getting on in Budapest and going to Amsterdam. No, they had different tour groups joining and leaving the boat at several points along the way so it was, no doubt, a great moment for lots of spreadsheets!
Amalyra - We started out from Budapest on Amalyra. Built in 2009 it is a lovely boat and the staff excellent. Very friendly and helpful. It had a comforting "homey" feel. Our Captain Henk was very funny and very visible always. I don't mean his figure, rather he definitely lead by example. Rooms on this boat have French balconies and the most amazingly appointed bathrooms with 3 different types of shower, so you could choose "rain", side-pointing massage or hand shower, depending on how you were feeling. We thought they were great once we got the hang of the different control buttons, but they are a challenge for some people.
Amabella - Amabella, launched in 2010, is a larger boat (in length not width) and represents another leap in the standard of accommodation (not that there was anything wrong with Amalyra). So we had a larger room with double balconies, a French balcony and an outside one, both furnished with two chairs and a small table. The furnishings and appointments are stylish and comfortable.
We were a bit thrown by the seeming chaotic atmosphere the first night, not knowing at that point what had transpired to get the boat "ship shape" as it were. Also, we did not realise until the next day, that the entire crew of MA Amadolce (which had left Budapest one day ahead of us and of course could not get through the Canal either) had grabbed a few clothes and were bussed to meet the Amabella only a few hours before we got on board. From the following day, all returned to the normal air of tranquillity.
On board dining:
The breakfasts, served in the main restaurant, are very good - lots of choice in everything, including for those who prefer a continental breakfast or those who want a full, cooked meal. In addition there was a range of bakery items and all day tea and coffee served in the lounge, for those who took a late breakfast. Lighter option lunches plus morning and afternoon teas were also available in the lounge.
Dinner has a very good "restaurant" feel, with 4 or 5 choices in each of the four courses, and wines (included) from the area visited each day. A nice touch. The there are special snacks as well - foods typical of the area you are passing through, such as "Fruhschoppen". This is a German breakfast containing all imaginable kinds of sausages - bratwurst, weiswurst etc - along with the correct epicurean accompaniments, including a delicious potato salad. I opted for a weiswurst with potato, and the very helpful chef told me how to eat the weiswurst.
There were also special dinners for Christmas Eve and Christmas night and for New Year's Eve in Cologne, where the team of chefs and wait staff did a great job of decorating and preparing a wonderful dinner for us. People decked themselves out in appropriate finery for the occasion and the atmosphere was on of festive happiness. After dinner ... well, of course there was a New Year's Eve buffet served in the lounge, just in case your clothes were still too loose!!
Ports of call and tours:
I should mention that most of the sailing occurs overnight so you arrive in each port for the day, except where there is scenic cruising for the day, such as in the Rhine Gorge. So your chance to get out and about is maximised - but it's up to you what you want to do. Of course there are daily excursions which you can take at no extra cost, in the form of walking tours, around the various towns. We did a couple of these, but largely explored by ourselves. With information available on the internet, you can find out what you are curious about in advance and structure your own time anyway. There are optional tours too, which involve an extra cost, but I found the one I did to a concert in Vienna totally worthwhile and good value. All tours include a local and knowledgeable guide.
Ports and scenic cruising: Budapest Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Austria, Melk, Washau, Durnstein, and Linz, Austria; Passau and Salzburg, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg and Wurzburg, cruising from Wertheim, Miltenberg, through the Rhine Gorge to Koblenz, Cologne, Germany; and Amsterdam, Holland.
Scenery from boat: Whether you're in the lounge, on deck or beside your own private balcony, the scenery is absolutely stunning for the entire trip. We enjoyed the white winter, fairytale look of the Christmas time cruise, and obviously the other seasons too offer wonderful views.
Locks: The number of locks is quite staggering - 34 on the Main River and 17 on the Danube. The navigable stretch of the Main River from Bamberg to Mainz is 384km or 240 miles. The Danube is navigable some 2415km or 1767 miles and crosses 10 countries from Germany to the Black Sea.
APT provides some very handy statistics regarding rivers and the number of locks on each. An interesting thing which we don't automatically think of when talking about water is the that you go uphill (upstream) and downhill (downstream) when cruising these rivers.