My wife and I recently returned from a week-long cruise down the Rhine River from Basel to Amsterdam on AmaWaterways’ AmaDolce. We also took the cruise line’s 4-night pre-cruise extension, consisting of 2 nights in Zurich and 2 nights in Lucerne; and we remained in Amsterdam for 3 additional nights in a hotel we booked on our own. The fortnight in Europe was a truly wonderful experience, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll stick to the 11-night AMA-produced land and cruise components.
For the record, this was our second river cruise in Europe, having sailed on the then new AmaCerto on the Danube in August, 2012. We were so enthralled with that experience – after having taken more than 30 ocean cruises since the mid 1990s, including 5 in Europe -- that it sold us on river cruising (see my comprehensive river of the Danube cruise in the member reviews page of this website).
Although we continue to cruise on the oceans and plan on at least several more such cruises in Europe, these are no substitute for the relatively low key, but highly active and wonderfully intimate vacation experience only a river cruise can provide. Our second river cruise certainly confirmed and reinforced the conclusions drawn during our 2012 Danube cruise; and we are already booked on a Douro River cruise in Spain and Portugal for next fall and hope to cruise the eastern Danube from Budapest to Istanbul sometime in 2017 or 2018.
Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that every river cruise is unique, but that comparisons can certainly be drawn, especially between two such experiences on the same cruise line. Taken in its broadest sense, our Rhine River cruise on AmaDolce matched up quite favorably with our previous river cruise in almost every respect. The difference is in some of the details, and I think it would be useful to set out these details according to the following categories: the ship and accommodations; the food; the activities; the staff and crew; and the itinerary and tours. Along the way I hope to draw some conclusions and insights about the general river cruise experience, as well as this particular river cruise vacation. This may take some time so I apologize in advance for the long read.
Ship and Accommodations: AmaDolce is the 5th of 6 nearly identical river ships build by AmaWaterways between 2006 and 2009. These ships are slightly smaller than the newer ships in the AmaCerto class and hold 146 passengers compared with 164 on the newer class of ship. Having sailed now on both classes of ship, the only significant difference between the two is that the AmaCerto class of ships offers staterooms with both a French balcony and a standard balcony, in addition to staterooms only with a French balcony. On AmaDolce the dual balcony stateroom is not available and so we took a Category B stateroom with a French balcony and were perfectly satisfied with that. Because it was fall and Europe tends to be cool during late October, the only times we opened the French balcony were to take photos and those times were not all that frequent. In overall layout, design and even accoutrements, AmaDolce bears a remarkably close resemblance to its slightly larger cousins. Getting around these river ships is simple enough to begin with, but our familiarity with the layout – along with our stateroom location only a few steps from the forward, public section of the ship – made negotiating our way around the ship easier than a snap of the finger.
One point I must add about the staterooms on the river cruise ships is that there is a real focus on economy of space. 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 rolling shelf under the bed. With our luggage stored under there, we still could get to everything easily. 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 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 that was, frankly, more reliable when the ship was docked than sailing down the Rhine. 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 our French balcony stateroom to be highly functional and comfortable, with plenty of extras included.
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. But I also know that the dining experience is considered by most to be an essential component of a cruise – all the more so on a river cruise, where menus usually reflect the local cuisine. Having said that, I must acknowledge I was more impressed by the quality of both the menu selections and of the food on our AmaCerto Danube cruise than on our Rhine cruise on AmaDolce. This is not to say the meals weren’t enjoyable. Most were, thanks to the excellent service and wine selections. But I found myself seeking out the standard daily options for salads and entrees on more than one occasion; that was never the case on our previous river cruise. Again, because meals are such a personal thing, it is quite possible that most passengers loved the menu selections; but I do know that our traveling companions, who were experiencing their first river cruise, came away feeling the same as us about the dinner menu options.
Other than that, there was little to complain about regarding the food on board. 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 dishes prepared fresh on the spot in the dining room. The same was 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 did not take advantage of this option on this cruise.
Unlike our first river cruise, we opted to dine at the Chefs Table restaurant located at the aft of the ship. It was the final night on board (the Captain’s Gala Dinner having been held the previous night), and the ship was docked in Amsterdam. With space for only 24 diners, this specialty restaurant offered a very small choice, but the meal was truly extraordinary, made all the more so by the extra special service, the intimacy of the dining space, and the lights of Amsterdam harbor clearly visible from the floor to ceiling aft windows. It was one of the most memorable moments during our weeklong cruise and certainly the highlight of our dining experience while on board – at no extra charge, by the way.
The Main Lounge had a constant availability of coffees and teas, iced tea and water, and cookies. 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. Meals were regularly supplemented with a variety of edibles and drinkables, most notably what amounted to a meal between breakfast and lunch served in the lounge on the last full day of the cruise and consisting of brats, potatoes, sauerkraut, and German-style pretzels all washed down with free Bitburger Pilsner beer. In this instance – as delicious as it was, the extra meal was something of overkill, as it was served about 90 minutes after breakfast and a half hour before lunch (we had an early lunch that day because of an early afternoon city tour of Amsterdam). Ugh! Talk about having plenty to walk off!!
Other examples of extras included Gluwein (warm red wine) served as we returned from a chilly tour in Strasbourg, Rudesheimer coffee served topside while sailing through the Rhine Gorge, and champagne cocktails served upon our arrival on board and during the Captain’s Gala reception, just to name a few. Also available in a free-flowing form and at no extra charge was a selection of a white wine and red wine at lunch and dinner -- a different selection each night -- as well as Bitburger beer.
In sum, although the dinner menu selections did not match the superb and unique choices we enjoyed on our Danube cruise, I was certainly satisfied with the overall quality and selection of food on AmaDolce , which would certainly have met our expectations had it not been for our previous, extraordinary dining experience on the 2012 river cruise.
Onboard 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 AmaDolce. For one thing, there were very few occasions when the ship was sailing during the day when we weren’t at a meal, and in each case that lasted only a brief 2-3 hours, and so passengers were more often sightseeing off the ship for the better part of each day. 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 often involved pretty significant walking, and two optional bicycle tours, there wasn't much need for additional aerobic exercise. During those few stretches when the ship was sailing and we weren’t eating or attending a port talk by the cruise manager, many of the passengers seemed more preoccupied with capturing the incredibly beautiful scenery on film – or socializing with each other -- than doing anything else. I know that on those few occasions when the ship was on the move, I spent as much time on a small deck forward of the lounge or on the Sun Deck waiting for the next lock or for what the next bend in the river would reveal.
On four occasions during the evening, AMA Waterways provided some form of guest entertainers who performed in the Lounge. Each act was unique and most of them were quite enjoyable, but only one or two offered a true flavor of the country and locale where the ship was docked. Performers would come aboard, do their show, and then depart the ship. Samples of entertainers who performed in the lounge included a young woman singing tunes from Broadway shows, who was probably the weakest of the acts presented; an accordion and chanteuse act called “Lizzi” who provided a full hour of wonderful French standard songs – and in the process I somehow found myself pulled up to help sing one of them, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers; there was also an outstanding string trio (La Strada) performing semi-classics, European folk songs, and famous operatic pieces; and then there was Monia & Hutch – a keyboard and singing duo playing pop and Motown numbers and working desperately to get passengers up on the dance floor. Their efforts eventually paid off, but for them it was a bit of a struggle, although as musicians they were top notch.
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 well-suited for the intimate setting and provided a sometimes excellent supplement to the cruise line's efforts to give passengers a real taste and feel of local culture and life. While I think most passengers enjoyed the guest entertainment, however, it did not succeed to the same degree as our Danube cruise as cultural enrichment and, in retrospect, left me a bit disappointed in this respect compared with our earlier river cruise experience.
One final note regarding the onboard activities: each day before dinner and later at night after dinner and the local entertainment, the resident musician -- Szoldt -- 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 several of the passengers got up to dance. These sessions never reached the full-blown dance party atmosphere we had on our Danube cruise, but that was probably a factor of the mix of passengers more than anything the cruise line did or did not do.
Staff and Crew: An intimate river cruise ship with 140 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, the Captain was almost totally accessible. The cruise – including negotiating through 14 locks between Basel and Amsterdam – proceeded smoothly without incident, even with lots of traffic on the river (although nothing like the summertime traffic we experienced on the Danube in 2012).
The other senior officer on AmaDolce is the Hotel Manager; on this cruise it was Martina. She also interacted with the passengers on any number of occasions, not only at formal gatherings, but she was almost always waiting at the gangway to welcome each person back on board after a tour – or overseeing the distribution of welcome back drinks. 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 was equally efficient, and most of them were 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 a longtime acquaintance. Of the several waiters we personally encountered on this cruise, our favorite was Marius. The team of three bartenders not only worked the bar during the afternoon and after dinner hours, but also served drinks during lunch and dinner. They were friendly and competent, especially our favorite – Dimitrar, who always went the extra mile to keep us happy in our drinking. 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; and billing matters.
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 from the moment they arrive 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, he or she moves from ship to ship rather than having 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, Frederico, was exceptional in every conceivable way. He was the person who greeted us with a friendly smile upon arrival at our hotel in Zurich for our pre-cruise extension, and the last AMA Waterways person we saw when we departed the ship in Amsterdam at the end of the cruise. In between, his winning smile and overall friendly personality, enthusiasm, professionalism, and constant attention to every detail and the interests of the passengers endeared him to just about everyone. He personally went out of his way to assist my wife and me with two important issues: in Lucerne, we had a problem with our assigned hotel room and he immediately interceded with the hotel front desk to have our room changed and luggage moved; we also hoped to meet up with a couple who live close to Koblenz, and because the ship was only there for an evening, Frederico arranged for our friends to come aboard when we docked and join us for dinner on the ship, for which we happily paid a nominal charge for their dinner.
In sum, I would have to say that the performance of the relatively small staff and crew of the AmaDolce not only exceeded our expectations for this river cruise, but ranks equally with the performance of the staff and crew on our previous river cruise as among the best we have encountered in our extensive cruising experience.
Zurich and Lucerne (4-night pre-cruise extension: Upon our arrival in Zurich, our pre-paid transfer to the hotel worked absolutely smoothly even though our flight arrived about 90 minutes late. I had emailed AMAWaterways before our departure from Washington Dulles the night before, alerting them to the delayed departure, and the cruise line representative (Judith) was waiting for us outside the baggage claim area at the Zurich airport. After a few minutes to collect 5 other members of the AMA group that arrived on our flight, we were quickly and efficiently transported by luxury coach to the Continental Hotel. The hotel turned out to be an excellent choice. Rooms were typically European – meaning cozy by American standards; but they contained all the amenities. A very extensive breakfast buffet and complimentary WiFi were included, as well as a barrel of fresh apple juice available in the lobby pretty much throughout the day. The hotel is located within reasonable walking distance of the heart of the Altstadt (Old Town) on both sides of the Limmat River, and we spent our first afternoon exploring the main shopping district from the central railroad station south on Bahnhofstrasse. The next morning we had a city tour that began with a bus tour of the university district above our hotel and the lakefront, and ended with a walking tour through the winding streets of the Altstadt between the Limmat River and the Bahnhofstrasse.
In the afternoon we took an optional tour by bus to the Rhine Falls and the medieval town of Stein Am Rhine – a UNESCO World Heritage Site with beautifully painted building facades along a pedestrian walking street. The falls were quite exciting and unique, as we were taken by a small boat within yards of the falls – upon which there is a large rock and a boat landing where those more fearless and younger than our group can climb to the top of the rock. The afternoon was all the more wonderful because we had beautiful weather. In fact, the weather was nothing short of spectacular pretty much the entire time we were in Switzerland, with brilliant sunshine and mid-afternoon temperatures in the 70s.
The next day we had perhaps an hour or so after breakfast before loading up the buses to take us to Lucerne. There wasn’t enough time to see anything we hadn’t already seen in Zurich, so most of us sat around the hotel lobby for a chunk of time chatting until the buses departed right at noon for a scenic drive from Zurich to Lake Lucerne. It was yet another beautiful day and much of the rolling countryside south of Zurich was quite picturesque, especially when we drove along one lake after another. We stopped for a late lunch in the town of Brunnen, located on the eastern end of Lake Lucerne. Because we had to drive to Viznau to catch a boat by 3 p.m., we had only about 40 minutes for 80 people to find restrooms, have some lunch, and catch a quick look at the lakefront. It was a very tight schedule, but we were able to wolf down a sandwich and get some photos of the lake before the buses brought us to Viznau. Here they left us and went on to the Radisson Blu Hotel in Lucerne, while we enjoyed an absolutely wonderful hour-long ride to Lucerne on one of the Lake ferries, which we had all to ourselves. The scenery was beyond gorgeous, as we passed several major peaks in the foothills of the Alps, including Mt. Pilatus, all the while basking in the brilliant afternoon sun. The only thing that would have made the afternoon completely perfect would have been to have departed our Zurich hotel about 45 minutes earlier (rather than sitting around the lobby), so we wouldn’t have been so rushed during our lunch stop in Brunnen.
The Radisson Blu was also a pretty good choice by AMAWaterways. Located a few steps from the Lucerne lakefront, adjacent to and behind the central railway station and rail yard, we were but a short walk to the primary areas of interest both in the new part of the city where Lake Lucerne empties into the Reuss River and on the opposite side of the river where the Altstadt is located. Although larger than our hotel in Zurich, the Radisson Blu had similar amenities and slightly larger rooms. The included breakfast buffet was, if anything, more extensive than and just as excellent as the one we enjoyed in Zurich. The following morning we had an escorted walking tour of the old and new town. After lunch we took the optional tour to Mt. Pilatus. The highlight was the half-hour ride to the top of the mountain on a cog railway – the oldest and steepest such railway in the world, with grades approaching 50 degrees. It was a Sunday, and hundreds of people lined up to take the tram up and down the mountain; fortunately we had a reservation and so there was no long wait. The views climbing and descending on the tram were only surpassed by those from the top of the mountain, where there is a hotel, restaurant, gift shop and plenty of trails to hike. Once we took our photos, however, we had a wonderful time just sitting and enjoying wine, beer, and the incredibly warm and perfectly sunny weather. That moment was a true highlight of the entire vacation.
Much as we hated leaving beautiful Lucerne behind, the next morning after breakfast we were back on the buses for our transfer to Basel and the ship. Unlike the scenic drive from Zurich to Lucerne, this drive took us mainly on major highways and through farmland and industrial areas. Upon arrival in Basel, we had a one-hour escorted tour of the central part of the city, which I found to be considerably less picturesque than either Zurich or Lucerne. We had some free time to wander around and grab some lunch before meeting the buses for our short ride to the ship and embarkation.
With respect to dining out during our 4-night pre-cruise extension, while we were on our own to find places to eat for lunch and dinner, we usually had little time or interest in major lunches and so we focused our attention primarily on dinner. In Zurich, we dined each night in different restaurants along the pedestrian-only Niederdorfstrasse, located less than a 10-minute walk directly south from our hotel. On the first night we stumbled upon a wonderful dining spot serving up local specialties at moderate prices – Café Mohrenkopf – which turned out to be a truly outstanding find. We had reserved a table for the second night at a more well-known place specializing in fondue dishes: Restaurant Swiss Chuchi, where we celebrated my birthday. The fondue -- and the huge ice cream birthday dessert served up (on the house), made for a very special dinner.
In sum, our 4-night pre-cruise extension proved to meet and even exceed expectations, with many special moments. The tours – especially factoring in the two optional excursions – were informative and reasonably thorough. The fact that we were blessed with almost perfect weather for mid-October only enhanced what turned out to be a truly outstanding four days.
Day 1 – Basel: Covered in the above section.
Day 2 – Riquevihr: After remaining docked overnight in Basel, Amadolce began its cruise down the Rhine very early the next morning, passing through a series of locks with up to 60-meter drops in the water level. After lunch the ship docked in Breisach, Germany, and we had the option of doing walking tours of this town with its hillside cathedral, plus nearby Freiburg, or taking a longer bus trip to visit the medieval village of Riquevihr in the heart of Alsatian wine-growing country. We opted for the latter, and off we went with Monika, our German guide for the nearly hour-long drive. Monika spent some time on the bus trying to explain the history of Alsace – which passed back and forth between French and German control for more than a century ending in 1945 – with very limited success. Things did not improve when I noticed a road sign indicating an approaching memorial to the Maginot Line – the famous fortification erected by the French prior to World War I to protect it from attack by Germany; a fortification that failed not once but twice during the two world wars. My wife, who speaks fluent German, asked Monika in German about this memorial and whether the bus could slow down for a photo. Monika had no idea what the memorial, or the Maginot Line, was. The bus driver, who was considerably older, did know about it, however, and slowed down so some of us could take a photo, even though the memorial was difficult to see clearly from the road. I mention this because one would think a tour guide, who is trying to explain the struggle between France and Germany over Alsace, would at least know about the Maginot Line and include that in the explanation as we passed by its memorial. After passing vineyard upon vineyard, we arrived at the medieval walled town of Riquevihr. Monika took us on a walking tour from one end of the main street to the other; the town is filled with beautifully colorful shops and wine bars. After the 45 minute tour, we had nearly two hours of free time to wander around what amounted to one long street. Many of us took advantage of the time not only to shop but to taste some of the local wines for which the area is known. We found a wine cellar overflowing with atmosphere and enjoyed a wonderful wine tasting. By the time the bus returned to the ship, however, it was almost dinner time. There were precious few moments to clean up for the evening. Although Riquevihr is definitely worth a visit, I wondered why we needed so much free time in such a small town when, had we headed back to the ship 30 minutes earlier, there would have been no need to scramble to prepare for the evening meal.
Day 3—Strasbourg: We awoke to a change of season from late summer weather to late fall weather. It was overcast with temperatures in the 40s and a strong north wind was blowing when our bus arrived at Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsatian region of France. This tour was a true highlight from the start. Our French guide, Virgina, was able to convey in mere moments what Monika had failed to do the previous day with respect to the historical struggle between France and Germany over Alsace. The city truly lived up to its star billing. Ringed by a narrow river, the island that forms the city’s center provides far more than a visitor can digest in a few hours. Despite the bone-chilling wind, our walking tour gave us a real flavor of this both historic and contemporary city, with the cathedral at its epicenter and its astronomical clock the focal point of our visit within its massive walls. During our free time after the walking tour, we had an opportunity to warm up with a glass of gluwein and sample local pastries. Serving as a political center for Europe as well as an educational center, the city projected a youthful vibe that transcended the weather. We thoroughly enjoyed this half-day visit to Strasbourg under the auspices of an outstanding tour guide.
Day 4 – Speyer: After a pleasant morning sail down the Rhine that included an early lunch, we arrived at the village of Speyer. There was an option to take a walking tour of the town, but we elected to take the full afternoon tour to Heidelberg, and that turned out to be a very wise choice. The weather had moderated from the previous day as our bus drove through the city of Heidelberg, the historic educational center of Germany, and ascended the hill upon which sits the ruins of a medieval castle. Our tour guide, Renate, had lived in Australia and so she not only spoke very lucid English, but was quite good at telling many interesting anecdotes in an informative and sometimes amusing way. From the castle grounds, there is a really nice view of the city of Heidelberg and of the historic bridge across the Neckar River (a tributary of the Rhine). Following the castle tour, we took the bus down the steep hill while Renata explained how in Germany it is required to study Hitler and the Holocaust in the schools and that in many places in the country, people have taken pains to restore synagogues and other aspects of Jewish life, even though the Jewish population in Germany remains very small compared with the time prior to World War II. Only by understanding what happened, she said, can such a thing be prevented in the future. After a brief walking tour, we had more than a full hour to wander around the mostly pedestrian main street of the Altstadt. Renate showed us the best place to purchase local pastry specialties, and off we went to explore, shop, and enjoy a glass of wine or beer while sitting outside and enjoying the balmy afternoon weather. We then lined up in droves to purchase pastries for the ride back to the ship – and these turned out to be an instant favorable reminder of a wonderful visit to a beautiful and unique city in the heart of the Rhineland.
Day 5 – Ruddesheim am Rhine: This was a busy day during our itinerary, beginning with a morning visit to this enchanting German village located on a great bend in the river just at the start of the picturesque Rhine Gorge. Our morning of sightseeing began with a mini-train ride from the pier into the heart of the town, which is literally surrounded by vineyards. We first had a tour of an interesting museum featuring early musical cabinets, ranging in size from music boxes to player pianos, to major full wall-size cabinets producing multiple instrumental sounds simultaneously. The demonstrations were entertaining – if perhaps a bit repetitive; nevertheless, it was a unique place to visit. We then went essentially next door for a wonderful wine-tasting and talk. The sponsoring vineyard’s speaker must have been an actor at some point in his life, because his presentation was truly entertaining and fun; the wine tasting itself featured several types of white Reislings that went down well and tasted quite good on the palate. We had a little extra time afterward to explore some of the shops before walking back to our ship for lunch.
Rhine Gorge: Almost immediately after lunch, the ship set sail for Koblenz through one of the few really scenic portions of the cruise, as we passed through the Rhine Gorge. The weather cooperated enough so that most of us went topside to photograph something like 20 castles – both active and ruins – along with an almost constant presence of vineyards rising above villages on both sides of the river. We sat or stood watching what the next bend in the river would unfold. During this three-hour journey, trays of “Ruddesheimer Coffee” – a local special coffee drink with something “extra” added – were passed around, and it served to warm us and fortify us from the chill as we sailed through the beautiful Rhine Gorge thinking, this is really the essence of river cruising. And so the afternoon cruise turned out to be one of the most memorable moments for most of us.
Koblenz: This small city, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers, served as an overnight stop for us. Although there was no tour included in the formal itinerary, Frederico, our Cruise Manager, organized a walking tour through the center of town after dinner. Perhaps a third of the passengers joined this impromptu walk, which I think would have been even more interesting had it not been dark and had it not been sort of cut short by an annoying light rain that began shortly after we left the ship. The Altstadt proved to be strangely deserted for a Friday evening. If people were in the bars and restaurants in any significant number, it was not apparent as we walked by. But I think we all appreciated the extra effort made by Frederico to provide a bonus to our already pretty full sightseeing agenda.
Day 6 – Cologne: After a morning sail from Koblenz, we spent the afternoon on a walking tour of the center of one of Germany’s most populous cities. Having been largely destroyed during World War II, Cologne has been rebuilt. But the massive Dom (cathedral) nearby the banks of the Rhine and the central railroad station amazingly suffered only minor damage during the war and stands as one of Cologne’s most important historic structures. It is also by far the most popular tourist attraction in the city, and so our walking tour was organized so as to get us to the church on time (our reservation time, that is). For the better part of an hour, we were led by our tour guide through busy streets and squares in central Cologne on a fairly overcast and raw day that for me held very little attraction. The old Rathaus (town hall) was worth a look, but why walk us all the way around the building to see three sides of it? It seemed to me that we were killing time until the one major attraction – the Dom which, I must add, is absolutely well worth a visit as long as you hold on to your children, because it is virtually impossible to walk any distance from someone without losing them in the mass of humanity inside. We spent some time after the tour shopping and trying the local favorite beer – Kolsch, before walking back to the ship to get ready for the Captain’s gala reception. In all, I would say our stop in Cologne was our least favorite on this cruise.
Day 7 – Amsterdam: This city has always been one of my favorites. Whether it is your first visit, or you are fortunate to have been to Amsterdam on several occasions, such as I have, the city has much to offer and much that is unique about it. The ship arrived around lunchtime, and the cruise line had arranged a pretty full afternoon of sightseeing for us on our final day of the cruise. Our tour guide, Hank, was not only supremely knowledgeable, but he was a hoot. We began with a one-hour canal boat tour of the harbor and, more importantly, some of the major and minor canals that comprise the central part of the city. It is a wonderful introduction to the city, as you pass by many historical sites and it is an excellent way to get your bearings if you are staying on after the cruise. Hank then led us on a walking tour through a small part of the inner city and turned us loose for some free time to explore on our own and catch a whiff of the city’s vibe, especially if you’re in close proximity to a “coffee house.” We met Hank at the appointed time, and continued with a bus tour of the portions of the central city we could not see during the can boat tour. By the time Hank returned us to the ship, we had covered a pretty significant part of the central city by 3 different means of transportation. It was a truly outstanding finale for our sightseeing during the cruise.
In sum, I thought AMAWaterways’ “Enchanted Rhine” itinerary proved to be a very good one. True, not every tour rated an “A” in my book; but many of them did, and the same can be said for our tour guides, who certainly formed an instrumental component when assessing the shore excursions. For the purposes of comparison, I would have to say that we were slightly more impressed by our 2012 Danube River cruise itinerary, especially when comparing what we were able to see while the ship was sailing on each of the two cruises. But let’s face it: how many places do you get to sail through at night all lit up like in Budapest? Overall, I think it’s fair to say that our itinerary was very enjoyable – and that certainly includes the 4-night pre-cruise component in Switzerland, which was well worth the additional cost.
Final Thoughts: Well, I did it again and went on far too long. For those of you still with me on this article-length journey, I think it is important to reaffirm what I articulated in the review of our 2012 Danube cruise. “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.”
Which brings me to one final point: so much of what makes a river cruise a truly wonderful experience depends largely on two factors: the first, obviously, is the cruise line, and in this case AMA Waterways consistently went 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, once again surpassed not only our past experience on some very fine cruise lines but certainly met our own highest expectations based on our 2012 river cruise. The other factor was our fellow passengers, with whom we shared this river cruise experience, and who provided the best possible companionship we could have hoped for.
Did this cruise equal or surpass the amazing experience we had on our 2012 Danube cruise? Probably not; but it came close. And I think one needs to account for the fact that it’s almost impossible to duplicate one’s reaction to their first such experience. Would I recommend AMA Waterways’ Enchanted Rhine cruise -- on AmaDolce or any of their other modern river ships? Absolutely! As I’ve said once before, if it's your first experience with a river cruise, it may change the way you think about vacations forever -- and for the good.