~ Reviewed by Emma, Editor of Into the Blue ~
I’d heard so many great things about river cruising that when AmaWaterways invited me to experience their Melodies of the Danube cruise, I jumped at the chance! My home-from-home for the week was AmaSonata, just one of the cruise line’s purpose-built river ships. So many people I know have raved about river cruising that I couldn’t wait to find out for myself whether it really did live up to the hype.
Here’s my day-by-day account.
Day 1 – Arrival in Budapest
We’re so lucky to have so many iconic rivers just a short trip from the UK – and the Danube is no exception. It took a little over two hours to fly to Budapest and, on arrival at the airport, I was met by one of AmaWaterways’ friendly representatives who pointed me in the direction of my private transfer to the ship, which was docked a little further up the river. As I hopped in the immaculate Mercedes-Benz taxi and was handed a bottle of water to rehydrate following my flight, I knew this would be an extra-special trip.
That feeling continued as I first caught a glimpse of AmaSonata. With a maximum capacity of 162 passengers, this was far smaller than anything I had sailed on previously. The friendly crew welcomed me on board with broad smiles, and the check-in process couldn’t have been easier. I was shown to my stateroom and headed to the main restaurant for a much-needed meal after the journey.
A note on the staterooms: I was assigned a cabin on Piano Deck, which had two fixed windows. One thing AmaWaterways ships are famous for are their twin balconies; staterooms on the higher decks benefit from a French and an outside balcony so you can really make the most of the incredible scenery. I also took a look at the suites – apparently also a popular choice with guests – and I could see why. Sweeping spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows make for the most luxurious accommodation on board.
An early night beckoned. But with a belly full of good food (and a glass of wine), I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the trip had in store.
Day 2 – Bratislava, Slovakia
One of the things that excited me most about this river cruise was the opportunity to explore countries I had never visited before. The first was Slovakia, and we were docked right in the heart of its capital, Bratislava. I can’t over-emphasise just how centrally we docked; I stepped off the ship and was right in the heart of not only a city, but a capital city. Incredible!
But more on that shortly. I headed straight for breakfast that morning, which was served in the main restaurant. If you’re up especially early – or late – on AmaSonata, pastries were also available in the Lounge outside of these times. There was a selection of fresh fruits, pastries and yoghurts available on a self-service basis, or I could order items from the menu. A hearty plateful of eggs benedict later, I was ready to tackle Bratislava.
After spending the previous day travelling, I was keen to explore the city and stretch my legs. This is one of the biggest advantages of river cruises; AmaWaterways includes shore excursions in the cruise fare, but it’s up to you whether you want to participate. I took a stroll to The Blue Church with Google Maps as my guide, before scaling the city’s hill to reach Bratislava Castle. Here, I was greeted by amazing views of the city below, as well as the stunning Baroque Gardens. It was great to explore the city at leisure, knowing that later on in the day I had arranged one of the included tours.
I booked the Tastes of Slovakia Tour, which involved a short walk around the city with a local guide, followed by a beer tasting paired with local snacks. The excursion tour took us to the Main Square – among other locations – before stopping at The House of Beer to taste three beers, all of which had been brewed on site. These were served with a selection of local snacks, including cheeses, meats and fresh bread. The perfect way to spend a sunny day in Slovakia.
Day 3 – Vienna, Austria
The following morning, I woke up to find myself in beautiful Vienna. Austria is another country I’d never visited before, so, once again, I couldn’t wait to see what it had to offer.
I had booked the Imperial Vienna Tour with AmaWaterways; other options included bike tours, hikes – there really is pretty much something for everyone depending on your fitness levels and interests. The tour took us on a 45-minute bus tour of the city. The first thing that struck me was how much bigger the area was than Bratislava; we saw the famous Mozart Statue and Stadtpark, a sprawling area twice as big as Central Park. The guide explained how the city centre is protected by UNESCO, so there are no hi-rise buildings as you’d expect in other capitals.
After the bus tour, we set off on foot. The first stop was Volksgarten, a lovely park with plenty of stunning rose bushes and perfectly manicured gardens. We then found ourselves in Heroes’ Square, outside the Hofburg and marvelling and the world-famous Spanish Riding School – locations I have heard so much about but have never had the opportunity to visit. The tour came to an end outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where we were given the option to return to the ship or explore the city at our leisure.
The local guide gave us personal recommendations of where to go, including Sluka, a palace-esque coffee shop that’s a deceptively large rabbit hole of many different rooms. After stopping for refreshments, I headed up to Naschmarkt, which, as the name would suggest, is the city’s marketplace. After making a photo stop close at the city’s Opera House, I spent an hour or two exploring the stalls, and even stopped for a slice of apple strudel (which apparently originated in Turkey, not Austria, but tasted great nevertheless!)
A free shuttle ran all afternoon back to AmaSonata, so there was no need for me to find a taxi, or negotiate the public transport system. A great touch was that the ship didn’t depart Vienna until 11pm, so many guests used the opportunity to book tickets to one of the world-famous operas. A late-night shuttle ran throughout the evening, so there was chance to see the city as night started to fall.
Day 4 – Weissenkirchen and Grein, Austria
My first double-port day! This was something else I hadn’t considered about river cruising – that it’s possible to visit more than one location in the same day. Still in Austria, today we arrived in Weissenkirchen, which is where the morning tours ran from.
I chose the Dürnstein Walking Tour, Wine Tasting with Apricots and Sweets Tasting, which took us on an hour’s walk through the quaint village of Dürnstein, famous for its vineyards and apricots. Again, under the expert guidance of a local guide, we made our way through the village, learning plenty about its rich wine-making heritage. We then stopped for a tasting at an independently-owned winery, where everything is produced using grapes from the family’s vineyards.
Most of the wine produced in the region is white – we sampled two white wines and one red, which were accompanied by a local bread made at the adjoining bakery. This was followed by an apricot tasting, where we were given an apricot brandy and schnapps to try, as well as a locally-made jam (the only one that’s allowed to be used in an authentic sacher torte), and some chocolate with … you guessed it… apricots! It was a really enjoyable way to spend a morning and, with an afternoon on board as we sailed to the next port, there was plenty of opportunity to relax and let the effects of the alcohol tasting wear off!
Our next port of the day was Grein. We arrived at around 5pm and shortly afterwards, an extra-special experience awaited. AmaWaterways had organised a private reception at Castle Greinburg, which is accessible by invitation only. A short walk saw us once again treated with amazing views, before we were given a guided tour of the castle itself. It’s still owned by German royals today and has very close links to the British monarchy; the most impressive room was the Sala Terrena adorned with 22 million stones from the Danube, each embedded in the walls to create a mosaic-type effect. Just amazing.
At the end of the tour, a group of local school children performed a selection of traditional dances. It was a great evening that was only topped off with the incredible meal we had back on board. AmaWaterways was the first cruise line to have been inducted with the prestigious gastronomic society, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. All the food on board was amazing, but this evening was a real treat. Every night on board, there is a choice of appetisers, soups, main courses and desserts (and a cheese selection). But during this special evening, the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs menu included some amazing French dishes; I opted for the onion soup, mustard-crusted leg of lamb and crepes suzette. Each course was beautifully presented and tasted incredible – it’s fair to say that river cruising fare was a big hit with me.
Day 5 – Linz, Austria
Our final port in Austria. There was the option to embark on a short walking tour in the morning, but I had booked a longer tour in the afternoon, so spent an hour or two enjoying the scenery out on deck, cup of tea in hand. On that note, complimentary hot drinks are available throughout the cruise, day and night. These are self-service in the Lounge and you’re free to take them back to your stateroom, or sit up on the Sun Deck, which is what I did on this particular morning.
The late-morning tour I booked visited Český Krumlov, a small town in the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic. It was around a 90-minute journey from the ship, which took us through dense forest, river rapids (which seemed popular with the locals) and a border crossing. The town itself was like something out of a fairytale, with winding cobbled streets, local artisans selling their crafts and more places to grab a beer than you would think possible in an area of its size.
The local guide took us around the main sights, showing us the best vantage points from which to grab a decent photograph. Throughout the cruise, it really did make a difference having local guides showing us around.
Once back on board, it was the Captain’s Cocktail Reception. Captain Marcel made an appearance, and all the crew paraded through the Lounge to rapturous applause. This seems like the perfect time to mention Sip and Sail – a cocktail hour that AmaWaterways host on their ship just before dinner each night. You can choose from a selection of cocktails, spirits and wines, all of which are complimentary.
Day 6 and 7 – Passau and Vilshofen, Germany
Our final ports of call were in Germany, and AmaSonata docked in Passau early this morning. This was another city where we hopped off the ship right into the centre; The City of Three Rivers tour showcased the main sights in this quaint area, where the Danube is joined by both the Inn and Ilz Rivers.
On the two-hour guided walk, the quiet streets were brought to life through our guide’s tales; she explained how the coloured facades had, in years gone by, acted as an indication of what business was inside. Blue for baker, yellow for brewer – you get the idea. We also stopped at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which is home to the largest cathedral organ in the world.
A short jaunt along the Danube saw us finish up in Vilshofen, the final port on our cruise. We docked early in the evening, so I spent an hour or so wandering the streets and taking in the atmosphere. There were so many picture-perfect bars and cafes that choosing the one for my final-night pilsner was no easy task. Cold glass of beer in hand, I watched the world go by and soaked up the summer sun.
As it was our final night. AmaWaterways had arranged for an exclusive Oktoberfest to be put on by the locals. Despite it being a warm summer’s evening – and certainly not October – there was a great atmosphere. Plenty of beer on tap, as well as local dancers, singers and dignitaries who apparently enjoy being invited along every time an AmaWaterways ship is in port. Fresh pretzels provided the ideal accompaniment to the German beer and it was, quite honestly, the perfect end to the river cruise.
And the verdict is…
The biggest thing that struck me about this river cruise was how effectively AmaWaterways brought the destinations to life. From the entertainment to the food, locally-sourced wines to expert guides, there is a real focus on making sure we truly made the most of each and every destination we visited along the Danube.
I must say, I enjoyed the slower pace of travel much more than I ever thought I would; watching the scenery roll by so close to the shore was a real novelty for me, and the experience of going through a lock for the first time really appealed to my inner cruising fanatic. Everything from the dress code to the pace of the tours was really relaxed, and I came home feeling refreshed for it.
So, the real question is … am I now a river cruising convert? Absolutely!