I have a good 15 or so ocean cruises under my belt, but this was my first river cruise, and my first time cruising solo. The itinerary was Budapest to Nuremburg, with stops in Vienna, Melk, Passau and Regensburg. I did not take the ... Read More
I have a good 15 or so ocean cruises under my belt, but this was my first river cruise, and my first time cruising solo. The itinerary was Budapest to Nuremburg, with stops in Vienna, Melk, Passau and Regensburg. I did not take the optional 2-night pre-stay in Budapest and 3-night post-stay in Prague, but did arrive one day prior to Budapest and used Ama's air/transfer/hotel package. My driver was waiting for me after baggage claim and I was as the hotel shortly (Sofitel Chain Bridge). When I woke up from a jet-lag nap, there was an information packet tucked under my door, with instructions for meeting up for the drive to the ship the next morning. Next morning (departure day), I had breakfast in the hotel (included buffet) and went out for a walk - glad that I had packed warm! Waterproof boots were a lifesaver! Managed to get a decent picture of the Parliament building in spite of the fog. Then met the bus in the hotel lobby and headed to the ship.
Buses deposited us at the ship and we were directed into the lounge to wait for cabins to be ready (by 3 pm). But we also had the chance to take the bus back into town to visit a Christmas Market or walk around, rather than waiting in the lounge. Check-in was more like a hotel than an ocean cruise - just show your passport at the front desk and get your room key. Very casual. All-aboard was 5:30, after which the ship moved to another dock in Budapest. Several people had missed the boarding due to flight delays, and I heard later from a few that the transfers to finally get to the ship were less than efficient (transfer drivers didn't have up-to-date information, etc.).
I had an invitation to dine with the Wellness coach in one of the tasting rooms off the dining room (sort of semi-private rooms that events could be held in). I had already made dinner plans with folks I'd met earlier that day, so I didn't accept, but later found that all the solo travelers had gotten the invitation, to make sure we all had company at dinner that first night. A nice touch, I thought. After the first day, there was no chance of being lonely, as it was very easy to meet people and interact in the lounge, and by the second day I had a regular group of friends to hang out with, and plenty of other shipmates to talk to.
The Lounge -
This was the social hub of the ship, open pretty much 24/7 with a self-serve coffee station, a full-service bar (not staffed 24/7), small dance floor, souvenir shop, small buffet area where snacks were served between meals and late-night (note, late-night meant after 10 - this is not a night-life cruise!). Outside of the planned entertainment, it was a nice quiet place to watch the scenery go by. Planned entertainment for our cruise was of course Christmas themed - Christmas stories and tree decorating, Austrian singers, ginger-bread making, Christmas carol sing-along, etc. I found it all to be well-planned out, relaxing entertainment - which it needed to be, because it was the only option. That is, I think, the BIG difference to the ocean cruise - the trade-off for no crowds and more intimacy is, fewer activity options. Before dinner the Sip & Sail complementary cocktail was served (that plus wine or beer at lunch and dinner was included in the cruise fare).
Meals in the Dining Room -
Breakfast and lunch were buffet style with some menu options. Breakfast had made-to-order eggs at the buffet, and Eggs Benedict and a steak-and-eggs breakfast on the menu. Lunch always had some local dish or dishes to choose from, plus pizza and burgers on the menu daily. Plus ice cream! Dinner menu also had a local offering plus an every-day menu. We were never hungry. Even though seating was open, people tended to gravitate to the same tables with the same people for the most part, which gave the wait staff a chance to know us (our waiter Stefan made sure no broccoli found its way to my plate!).
Chef's Table - by reservation only -
This was recommended to reserve for at least one night, and I am glad I did it. 7-course meal with local (Austrian) or California wines. I believe the same menu was served each night, including Heirloom Tomato Carpaccio & Eggplant Caviar, Lemon Pepper Salmon, Skin Grilled Pike Perch with Beluga Lentil Ragout. Small portions, very well presented, served in an aft dining room (which I'm sure on a summer cruise would have had wonderful views). Delicious.
Other amenities -
On the lower deck were a tiny fitness room and a salon (which I did not use). The wellness coach, Alex, offered some sort of class each morning in the lounge and usually something in the fitness room in the afternoon. I took one circuit training class - 4 of us filled the room). Also offered "digestive walks" after some meals topside. The top deck was not used much on our cruise due to the cold and damp, but it did offer nice views and a walking/jogging track. I did see a few people enjoying the heated pool.
Except for a few optional extra tours, all the excursions were included with the cruise fare. Most were combo bus/walking tours, and all had an option for "gentle walkers" which went a little slower and/or didn't cover as much on foot. Bike tours would have been offered, weather permitting. Local guides met us at each stop, and all of us had an audio set which would be synced with the guide. I found most of the guides to be very entertaining, and happy to answer questions. One thing I wasn't really prepared for, although it make sense now, is that once you get off the ship for an excursion, the ship does not stay where it is - it moves on down the river, and your bus takes you to the new stop (there were some exceptions to this, but for the most part, I found it to be very regimented). In this case, my first solo cruise to places I was not familiar with, I was happy to be escorted everywhere, but I don't know that it would be my choice every time.
As for the ports, Vienna and Salzburg (excursion from Passau) were my favorites (Salzburg was a long day, but worth the time on the bus to get there), and I think the Thurn & Taxis "Romantic" was my favorite Christmas market.
Final impressions -
Having done the Christmas Markets cruise, I am very glad I did it, but don't need to do that itinerary again. Too much shopping for my taste. I think the structure of the river cruise is good for an itinerary which is not so familiar, but I would like the option of more independent time in most cases. The ship was comfortable and the crew friendly and professional. For a first river cruise, I think AmaWaterways did a fantastic job. Highly recommend. Read Less