On a cold December morning, moored outside Nuremberg, I woke to dazzling sunshine. Snow had fallen in the night, softly covering everything: The towpath, woodlands lining the bank and the foredeck of AmaWaterways’ AmaCerto. The sky was an unfiltered cobalt blue. The branches of the trees were a frosty white, glittering in the sunlight.
The Christmas Markets in the city center were no doubt springing into life but the riverside trail beckoned. I pulled on my snow boots and set off on a long, solo hike, exchanging cheery ‘Guten Morgen’ greetings with families and dog-walking locals tramping through this wintery wonderland. There was a wonderful sense of collective high spirits that only fresh snow and brilliant sunshine can bring. I felt more energetic and alive than I had in months.
This simple but memorable wintery epiphany made me realise how transformative river cruising can be, for mind and body. I’m not alone. “More and more, people are becoming increasingly health-conscious and wellness plays a major contributor to one’s overall health,” says AmaWaterways’ corporate wellness host Selina Wank. “So, giving the opportunity to be on vacation and improving wellness is a great bonus.”
Kristin Karst, co-founder and executive vice president of AmaWaterways, sees wellness as something multidimensional. “True wellness means more than just being physically healthy,” she says. “It’s a balance of seven factors called the ‘Seven Dimensions of Wellness’ and it’s what our approach is based on.”
These seven dimensions, first mooted in 1976 by Dr Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute in the US, are, incidentally, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, environmental, social, occupational and finally, physical. Can a river cruise really cater to all these needs? Read on to find out.
Travel enriches the mind and there are many opportunities on a river voyage to engage your spiritual side. On an AmaPrima voyage with a stop in Bratislava, I walked past a church and heard the most beautiful choral music, so I went in and sat in a pew for half an hour, just taking it in. On the Zambezi Queen, on Africa’s Chobe River, simply talking to the Namibian crew about their faith, rituals and society is humbling. Sail the Mekong voyage on AmaDara and you can join a dawn excursion to watch the sun rise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, or receive a traditional Buddhist blessing on an excursion to Oudong, Cambodia’s former capital.
Cruise Critic member Gringagirlatl was particularly inspired by her Mekong voyage. “We were fortunate to have some experiences that were really life changing,” she says. “I came back wanting to return to explore more because I found the people so welcoming.”
Exercising in the fresh air is a spiritually uplifting experience, too, whether you’re joining a yoga class on deck or simply meditating quietly in the sunshine, as is this lovely moment for Samantha Brown, travel expert, Emmy Award-winning television host and Godmother of AmaWaterways' AmaMagna godmother. “A river cruise gives you the opportunity to exercise in one of the most beautiful gyms you will ever experience,” says Wank. There’s an exercise style for everybody, too. On the Mekong, there’s a chance to try Tai Chi on the deck of AmaDara, while on AmaMagna, you can join an al fresco spinning class. On any ship, though, simply walking round the top deck at sunrise, enjoying the peace of a new day is the perfect way to start the morning.
Think about the things that make you happy; small snapshots of everyday life, all the more vivid when you’re traveling and all your senses are awakened. The dreamy scent and purple haze of lavender in Provence in summer, or the light of a full moon rising over Portugal’s Douro Valley on a still, hot night, with no sound but the song of cicadas. Or the mouth-watering aroma of fresh pretzels, fresh from the oven on a cookery tour in Wertheim, Germany, or the wafting spices of mulled wine in a Christmas Market on the Danube.
Good food gives rise to emotional wellness. When it comes to dining, AmaWaterways has blazed a trail in incorporating healthy food options into every menu. If you’re following a special diet, there’s no need to compromise on a river cruise, where the chefs can accommodate anything from gluten-free to low-sodium to vegetarian. You’ll find vitamin shots and freshly baked wholegrain breads at breakfast, while hydration stations offer citrus and gemstone-infused water. A beautiful setting for dining is good for the soul, too. When you ship is in Budapest, book dinner at the Chef’s Table, the ship's no-fee specialty restaurant. Tasting one exquisite dish after another as the ship sails under the city’s bridges, each one illuminated with hundreds of lights, is as soul-satisfying as it gets.
Mind and body can be revived in the onboard spa, too. In Europe, every AmaWaterways ship has a soothing spa, although the new AmaMagna has the luxury of being extra wide, with the biggest wellness facility on the river. “On AmaMagna we have a whole Zen Wellness Studio which is a great place to either just relax and enjoy a fresh juice while sailing or join an outdoor class with the beautiful river banks passing by,” says Wank.
River cruising presents all manner of opportunity to stimulate the intellect. It would be almost impossible to come home from a river cruise without having had some kind of learning experience; there’s a chance to discover something new in every port.
On the Danube, the World War II sites in Nuremberg stand out, as well as the magnificent Art History Museum in Vienna and in Croatia, the poignant story of the resistance in Vukovar. On the Main, don’t miss the Baroque Residenz at Würzburg; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a dazzlingly opulent interior, including a grand fresco by Tiepolo.
Trier, on the pretty Moselle, is packed with Roman history, with no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage sites. On the Rhine, Strasbourg’s old town, La Petite France, is straight out of a medieval fairytale. Further north, as you sail through the Rhine Gorge, there’s a rugged castle guarding every bend, so be sure to listen to the guided narration that explains the region’s turbulent history.
If you’ve chosen the Rhône, nobody could fail to be wowed by the vast Palais des Papes in Avignon, epicenter of the medieval Christian world, or the graceful Pont du Gard, an exceptional piece of Roman engineering. And on the Douro, a highlight for many is a day across the border in Spain, visiting the golden sandstone city of Salamanca, a piece of living history and home to one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished universities.
A voyage on the Mekong is just as thought-provoking, from the chilling War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi tunnels just outside the city, to the tragic history of Cambodia, brought to life in Phnom Penh, the riverside capital. Member Lamilano sailed the Mekong on AmaDara and says, “The guides are local to the areas you visit – Saigon, Angkor Wat, Ha Long Bay and Hanoi. They are extremely knowledgeable and share their personal stories about life in these locations. Although some of what you see is very disturbing, for example, the Killing Fields, they handle it sensitively and you are truly sharing their history with them.”
Practically any form of travel raises your awareness of the natural world. Join an AmaWaterways voyage downstream on the Danube and just listen to the birdsong in the mornings, or sit on deck, reveling in the scenery as the ship cruises the magnificent Iron Gates gorge in the knowledge that wild bears and wolves thrive in the forests of the towering Carpathian Mountains.
A sojourn on the Zambezi Queen in Africa is the perfect way to commune with nature as you’re completely immersed, with hippos grunting all around the boat at night, crocs basking on sandbanks, just a couple feet from the boat, and elephants coming down to the water to drink and bathe at sunset.
In Asia, the Mekong River itself is a marvel, providing water as well as a transport and trade route for some 60 million people. Facts like this are a constant reminder of the fragility of our planet.
AmaWaterways tries to keep its environmental impact low by sourcing as many fresh, seasonal ingredients as possible locally in the regions it visits. Be sure to try goulash in Hungary, bratwurst in Germany and creamy Camembert on the Seine. Many of the complimentary wines served on board are locally sourced, from Rieslings from Austria’s Wachau Valley to a honey-like Sauternes from Bordeaux. On AmaMagna on the Danube, all the juices served in the Wellness Studio come from local farms.
A river cruise is a natural environment in which to make friends, whether you’re perched at the bar or enjoying a dawn yoga class on deck. Cruise Critic member TamKenn sailed on AmaPrima and comments: “We saw lots of other cruise companies as we traveled up the Rhine and our ship always looked the best and had active guests and crew having fun on deck all the time. Other cruise ships seemed to not have the same energy.”
On a river cruise, you can be as sociable or as private as you like. There are great opportunities to make friends, as you’re sharing so many incredible experiences together on the daily included shore excursions. Special experiences can bring you closer to loved ones, too. Cruise Critic member Mmsq arranged a renewal of vows ceremony on AmaMagna and fondly says, “With Captain Wijnand Korvemaker officiating, we renewed our wedding vows in the beautiful area in front of the bridge and were treated to a special celebration brunch, arranged by our fabulous cruise director, Mariana.”
The hope is that you’ve left thoughts of your work behind while on a cruise but you only have to look around you to see how AmaWaterways invests in the wellbeing of its crew. Cruise Critic member Hammish comments: “From the Captain right through to Ali, our housekeeping staff member, we were impressed and incredibly pleased. Wei-Ler, our cruise concierge, was everywhere all of the time, doing anything and everything to make our trip more exciting and seamless.”
GwennaB offers similar praise: “The Cruise Manager, Radostina (Radi) Markovic was fun, knowledgeable and tireless in ensuring that all the passengers had a good time and the entire staff was wonderful, including Victor, our tireless exercise guru.”
Physical activity is where AmaWaterways really stands out. “We have a Wellness Host dedicated to each ship, which means that all seasons for every sailing there is a wellness offering on board with a great variety of classes throughout the day,” says Wank. “Our Wellness Hosts’ qualifications range from sports scientists to physical education teachers to overall highly qualified gym and yoga instructors. Each Wellness Host brings their own unique set of skills with them which when matched with their great personalities, creates a relaxed, kind and yet very professional environment for exercising on the ship.”
Every day starts with two 30-minute classes followed by several more classes throughout the day. “Of course, we also have on average four or five bike tours to choose from and several hike options during the course of a cruise,” she says. “On top of this, for those who prefer to work out by themselves, every European ship has a fitness center.
“We try to encourage as many activities as possible ashore, from the guided hikes and bike tours to power walks with the Wellness Host, jogging, city gym workouts or simply doing a resistance band class in a park close to the dock.”
This effort is appreciated by AmaWaterways’ passengers. Cruise Critic member AEHoppen sailed on AmaDante and comments: “My travel agent understood that my husband and I are not ‘get on the bus and tour’ type of people (even though Ama does provide coach tours). We wanted walking, hiking, and biking opportunities and Ama provided that. We also wanted to be in ports in the evening to explore the towns after hours. The ports were amazing. We walked over 25,000 steps each day and loved every step.”
Member SRubin1957 backs this up: “It seems that a lot of the people taking the cruise were active and fit. There was a fabulous exercise director who held morning classes varying between yoga, stretching and core strength and also offered personal training for anyone interested. There were also bicycles on board for those that wanted to bike at the various ports.”
AmaWaterways works with cycling specialist Backroads to offer more intensive cycling-and-cruising tours, a combination much appreciated by Cruise Critic member Hammish, who enjoyed a sense of luxury after a long day in the saddle, commenting: “We were doing the biking/river cruise trip and felt that unpacking once on a ship and not having to think of where to get meals and such would be a good decision. Backroads and their guides were amazing and wonderful. The AMASonata and its crew were beyond our wildest dreams. I have never been more pampered, offered so much amazing food and drink, and been provided with every imaginable form of entertainment.”
Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia).
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Updated January 22, 2020