The Danube with AmaWaterways

AmaCerto’s handsomely appointed reception area.
AmaCerto’s handsomely appointed reception area.

River cruising’s on a roll, as cruise lines continue to register double-digit growth rates, while expanding their fleets of new-build ships to accommodate the surge in European river travel. You have to wonder just what this booming travel segment is all about. We had a chance to find out last May, thanks to an invitation from AmaWaterways to join the christening cruise of the 164-passenger AmaCerto, sailing on its 7-night Melodies of the Danube cruise through four countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany.

And yes, now that I’ve been there, done that, it’s perfectly clear why river cruising is, to quote AmaWaterways’ executive v.p. and co-owner Kristin Karst, “The fastest growing segment of the cruise industry.” During the cruise, she also noted that, “The Danube is the number one destination travelers select when they take a river cruise.” And with good reason. While decidedly not a very “Blue” Danube, it is indeed a beautiful waterway, all the more enchanting when you remember its historic role as a major artery of commerce, culture and conquest. No matter where you are aboard AmaCerto—on sun deck, in your stateroom, in the dining room or the glass-enclosed lounge—the riverscape is always in view: fields, forests and picturesque villages slip by at a gentle pace; medieval castles, baroque churches and rococo palaces command the high ground; and a succession of charming towns and great cities fringe the banks.

Our cruise started with a welcome aboard in Budapest, where there was ample time to sightsee; then docked for a walking tour of Bratislava; spent two days and nights in Vienna, with an evening of wine and music at a traditional tavern; sailed on to Durnstein (our favorite port of call) for a walking tour and wine tasting and an afternoon tour of Melk Abbey; called on to make a choice of day excursions from Linz to Salzburg, Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, or the Austrian Lakes district; woke up in Passau (a beauty of a town) with a choice of bike or walking tours; and docked for the final night at Vilshofen where town notables and other costumed local folk joined in a gala Oktoberfest-style celebration in honor of the christening of AmaCerto and of AmaWaterways’ 10th anniversary.

it’s all about the destinations
Karst points out that river cruising is indeed more destination-oriented than ocean cruising, catering to its experienced (a.k.a. older) passenger who wants to travel in comfort while enjoying more enriching cultural experiences. It’s pretty impressive that a relatively small ship like the AmaCerto accommodates passengers with four excursion levels, each with its own guide: “gentle walkers” who tour at a leisurely pace (with an occasional lift from an open-air trolley); “regular” walkers; “active” walkers who cover more ground; and a “late starters” tour for those who prefer to sleep in. Additionally, today’s increasingly active passengers have use of the more than 24 bikes on board, brought into service for escorted bike tours.

On the longest (3-hour) ride—Durnstein to Melk—passengers (ages 30 to 70) headed out on a rigorous 19-mile run along the Danube, with bike-tour guides front and back, linked together by love of the right-chilly great outdoors, a cafe stop or two, and those state-of-the-art headsets that let you hear the guide’s lively commentary en-route. All passengers have these headsets for all tours, and they are worth turning on: the local guides on every tour were nonstop interesting.

Making its debut on the cruise was the new touring category: Bites & Sights, a delightful culinary feature designed for foodies who want a new experience in a place already visited. In Budapest, we had a hands-on go at the basics of Hungarian goulash, held in the stylish premises of the local Sofitel; and in Vienna the city’s signature dessert, sachertorte—served up in a traditional coffee cafe—was first up on the tasting menu, followed by a guided tour of the vast cellars and tasting at the Schlumberger winery, one of dozens surprisingly located within city perimeters.

Among the optional tours offered was an iconic and delightful Mozart & Strauss concert at the historic Hofburg Palace, which left no doubt that waltz is alive and well in Vienna. “Often what happens off ship,” says Karst, “is what passengers remember most, despite all our new upgraded details on board.”

life on board
The new-build AmaCerto indeed puts on the ritz with a bevy of cruise ship enhancements—amazing for a vessel that, unlike ocean-going vessels, is limited in size and shape because of the bridges to sail under and locks to sail through.

Our handsomely appointed stateroom (235 sq. ft.) came with a big comfy bed, marble bathroom, complimentary Internet and WiFi, infotainment system and flat-panel TV. The signature amenity was “twin balconies”—a full step-out balcony adjacent to a glass-walled French balcony (49 cabins have this feature); combined they provide a nonstop Danube panorama. Well, not quite nonstop. With the increase in river cruisers there is a decrease in parking spaces, resulting in vessels tying up side-by-side, two or three deep. Yes, from time-to-time dockside, clients will want to keep their drapes closed.

Other spiffy ship specials include a heated pool with swim-up bar on the broad sun deck, a library, a fitness center, massage and beauty salon. Pride of place goes to choices of venues in which to wine and dine deliciously: the main dining room (with smart and excellent service), a Wine Bar, a casual al fresco bistro, and the Erlebrin, an intimate chef’s table restaurant (requiring reservations) with a tasting menu. We’ll long remember the Baltic salmon tartare with lime creme-fraiche and avocado, paired with a crisp, not-too-fruity Selbach Riesling.

One of the pleasures of this particular Danube River experience was the classy and friendly crew, with a special salute to the cruise manager, Debbie Asayag de Albrecht, a Renaissance woman in the art of hospitality. We’d follow her anywhere. And with AmaWaterways, that could be anywhere along the great rivers in Europe, Russia, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia.