A Cruise down the Danube with AmaWaterways

Writer, New Yorker, traveling mom and The Vacation Gals contributor Holly Rosen Fink recently cruised for the first time with AmaWaterways. Here’s her report:

A year or so ago, I decided that the best way to take my aging mom on a trip around Europe would be by river cruise. Not much later the opportunity to take a AmaWaterways river cruise down the Danube arose, starting in Budapest and ending in Vilshofen. I was so excited, knowing that together my mom and I would explore Europe, spending days exploring cities and towns along the Danube. We’d sail all night and take trips off the ship during the day. When we came back after a long day out, we ‘d either sit in the lounge drinking hot tea (it was cold during our visit) or take a rest in our stateroom. It was the ideal way to see and explore Europe with my mom. We could take Europe at our own speed. I had visions of a grand mother-daughter trip. Would my dream meet reality?

Our first night was pretty magical. We enjoyed a scenic illumination cruise through the heart of Budapest. That was when I knew I was in for something quite special. As we rode through Hungary, then Slovakia, then Bratislava, then Austria, then Germany, we passed villages, castles, cathedrals and simply beautiful landscape. We had great views from the restaurant, from our room, from the balcony on the main floor. In the evenings, there was live music in the lounge. We’d listen, drink wine and take in the views. It was indeed all out of a dream.

Cruising past Melk

Boarding the Ship

We boarded the AmaViola in Budapest which was quite effortless, not at all like boarding an ocean liner. The warm staff handed us a welcome cocktail, while we were greeted by the captain, hotel manager and cruise manager. It was nothing like checking into an ocean liner. There were no long lines, no long wait. We were given our key and we went right to our room to settle in and to explore the ship. The 158-passenger vessel offers spacious staterooms with twin balconies, several places to dine, a gym, heated pool (which I regretfully didn’t use), a walking track, free wi-fi and a very pleasant staff. The captain and cruise director were always accessible and eager to engage with passengers.

Our home for the week

Our Stateroom on the AmaViola

Our category BB room had two twin beds and a balcony. It wasn’t necessarily a large room, but we were very happy with our headquarters during the seven-day cruise. We had plenty of space and drawers for our belongings and two chairs by the window to relax in. The beds were very cozy. We had a safe in the closet, a substantial bathroom with a hot shower, plenty of electrical outlets, a lovely balcony with two chairs and an ample supply of bottled water, as well as chocolate on our pillow every afternoon. It was the nice touches like that which added to the more personal river-cruising experience and made us feel at home.

The TV in our room had a great selection of English-speaking films (including The Sound of Music, which we watched quite happily before our pending trip to Salzburg where much of the film was made more than 50 years ago) and English news programs, which were very important to me given it was the week of the American election. The complimentary wi-fi worked surprisingly well all throughout the cruise. Our room was cleaned daily quite thoroughly by a lovely woman from Bulgaria. She resupplied anything we ran out of immediately and brought us extra towels often.

In the afternoons, after we’d return from an outing, there would be an agenda on our bed outlining the plans for the next day, along with a recipe card for a local dish on our beds. Called “The Daily Cruiser,” the itineraries shared details about the following day’s weather, sunrise and sunset info and a complete breakdown of the next day’s activities, including information about each destination. There were also information sessions in the lounge led by the cruise director so we were always up to speed about our activity choices.

Stateroom bed on the AmaViola

Dining on the AmaViola

The dining room, situated on the lower level, was lovely with tables meant for sharing or where we could dine alone. We alternated between sitting with people and sitting on our own. We were invited to enjoy the the intimate Chef’s Table on our first night. Seating only 24 people, guests take in the view of the chef working in the open kitchen while enjoying a 6-course menu paired with regional wines. It was a good introduction to the week’s menu.

Every morning we woke up to a robust buffet with hot and cold selections, and most importantly, very good coffee. The bread table was delectable and the Bulgarian yogurt delicious. We were offered local options at every meal, which was a treat, like goulash at lunch. All the menus included locally sourced meat, fish and regional wines. AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line ever inducted into La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.

As added bonus, wine, beer and soft drinks are served on an unlimited and complimentary basis with every lunch and dinner on their European ships. And the desserts are exceptional. I really didn’t plan on eating any dessert on board but they were irresistible and the presentation unforgettable.

We dined well on the ship.

Excursions & Tours with AmaWaterways

The highlight of the river cruise for me was definitely the very well-executed tours, which are included. There would generally be a main tour to show visitors the top sights and landmarks in a city – it often involved a bus and walk tour combination, led by a more than capable local tour guide.  Honestly, all the tour guides were excellent – knowledgeable, entertaining and used to working with big groups. The walking tours are offered at a variety of paces, ranked from one to four, so my mother and I were able to walk at the speed we needed to. Very few required advance bookings and it was just all so easy and organized. We would meet our group right off the boat just minutes before the start of each tour. They also offer bike tours and a few optional excursions to sample the local culture more deeply for an additional charge. There was also time to go off on our own – either we could do our own thing or we were given small chunks of time after a tour. AmaWaterways has its own motor coaches in some cities with qualified drivers and some of the buses had free wi-fi.

Every stop had something special and worth remembering. In Budapest, we went to the Central Market, Heroes Square and took a walk in the beautiful Castle District. Our tour guide gave us a terrific orientation to the city and walked with my mother and I after the tour to tell us about the city’s Jewish life. In Vienna, we rode in a bus around the city, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. At St. Stephens Cathedral, we were given time to walk around, so my mother popped into a cafe to try Austrian cuisine and devoured a piece of meringue cake. That evening we attended a Mozart & Strauss concert (for an extra fee). The next morning, we were offered free time, during which time I explored the city’s Jewish museums with another woman from our ship. Then we went to Krems, where my mom and I took a long walk through the town.

The next day took us to several towns and villages in Austria – Durnstein, Melk and Grein. We had a wine tasting, walking tours and were able to really experience these medieval towns. We then ended up in Linz, the capital of Upper Austria and third largest city in Austria and spent a whole day in Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and where much of The Sound of Music was filmed more than 50 years ago. Salzburg was full of baroque architecture created in the 17th and 18th centuries. On our last full day, we wandered through Passau, Germany, with beautiful views, and drank beer and danced in an Octoberfest celebration.

Our stop in Salzburg was a highlight.

Tips for River Cruising with AmaWaterways

  • Book well in advance as AmaWaterways to enjoy the greatest discounts.
  • Bring $1-5 bills (U.S.) for tips for tour guides. There are many and they are very deserving.
  • There’s a heated pool on the top deck. It wasn’t warm enough for me to go on this trip but it looked very enticing and I’m sure it’s beautiful in a hotter climate.
  • Use the gym, but go during an off peak time, it can get crowded.
  • They also have an onboard salon and spa services. Massages are popular so book one as soon as you get on board as they are relatively inexpensive compared to U.S. prices.
  • Local entertainment comes onboard in the evenings, which is standard but enjoyable.
  • This cruise wasn’t kid-friendly, but AmaWaterways partnered with Adventures By Disney to offer special kid-friendly cruises. Find info her

The Verdict

I was definitely on the younger side of the patrons on the cruise, but I didn’t feel out of place. A river cruise is definitely a good way to travel with (slightly) older people. My mom’s only in her early 70s but she has difficulty walking, so it was really an easy, effortless way for us to see many European ports of call. The week before the cruise we did a lot of traveling by train, going from hotel to hotel, and not having to unpack for a whole week while onboard the ship was certainly easier for us.

The cruise staff was really helpful and the whole trip buttoned down to a tee. The captain, the cruise director, our waiters were always there when we needed something and the service was really top notch. They all seem to really enjoy their jobs, working day and night and jumping right into another seven-day voyage as soon as we got off.

As mentioned above, the food was superb. There were healthy options for me (I’m a vegetarian) and when I wanted something, the restaurant manager made sure he got it or promised to offer it another day. Complimentary wine was served at every meal – and not just any wine – really, really good wine. We enjoyed many glasses of bubbly on the boat, as well. The waiters never shied away with refills, which was a pleasure, including beer which got even better in Germany.

In all, our cruise down the Danube was a very successful mother-daughter trip!

Holly Rosen Fink is passionate about culture and travel. She’s the founder of The Culture Mom and has contributed to Findery, MiniTime, Ciao Bambino, Family Vacation Critic, Go Girlfriend, CBS.com, Savvy Source and has been featured on Huffington Post, Yahoo Travel, Parade and other travel websites. Disclosure: Holly was a guest of AmaWaterways on the AmaViola but all opinions are her own.

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