CRUISING EUROPE'S HEARTLAND
by Sal Prezioso
As the economy begins to recover from one of the worst years in the recent history of the travel industry, people are looking for the best value for their money, especially given that they have held off from making any major travel purchases over the last couple of years.
I’d suggest river cruising as perhaps the best product for these difficult and interesting times. This is by no means a new product or concept of travel, but I believe this product has evolved to one of the best opportunities in today’s travel marketplace. It is simple, compact and complete. It moves you along the river and puts you in the heart of whichever country you happen to be traveling through.
There is a large portfolio of cruising destinations available to fulfill anyone’s traveling needs. In Europe alone there is a 3,000-plus-mile network of rivers, canals and waterways traversing more than a dozen countries, with a variety of long and short cruises available, including special themed cruises.
What can’t be emphasized enough is that there’s no substitute for experiencing river cruising yourself. No matter what you see in the brochures, websites or DVDs, it does not begin to convey how great and truly memorable the actual experience is.
Enchantment with the Trimmings
Last fall, I took the time to cruise on the AMA Waterways ship Amacello on their European Heartland Cruise with a small group of friends. How good was it? Allow me to fast-forward to what everyone from my group was saying at the end of the cruise. What I kept hearing was, “Where else can we go so we can do this again, and when can we do it?” I can’t think of another vacation that would evoke such near-unanimous enthusiasm.
Our cruise on the Amacello embarked at Trier, Germany’s oldest city, and disembarked at Nuremberg, with stops in between that included Bernkastel, Zell, Cochem, Koblenz, the Rhine Valley Castles, Rudesheim, Mainz, Wertheim, Wurzburg, Bamberg, the Main-Danube Canal, and more. We also decided to do pre and post cruise stays in Paris and Prague.
AMA Waterways has a fleet of brand-new ships, most built within the last four years. The Amacello joined the AMA Waterways fleet in 2008 and is one of the best-appointed river cruising ships anywhere. Imagine outside accommodations, with French balconies (there are a few cabins with only windows), hotel-style deluxe bedding, down pillows and a duvet. For my quiet, relaxing time, I had a cozy sitting area for admiring the scenic river views as well as a spacious, marble-appointed bathroom with multi-jet showerheads. A plush terry robe and slippers completed my ensemble.
A couple of other amenities I’d not expected in the room were a flat-screen TV with local and satellite channels, and an in-room “infotainment” system providing movies, English-language TV stations, and free Internet access. With the regular cabin size at 170 square feet and with individually controlled air-conditioning, the quarters were both spacious and comfortable.
The dining was fantastic, with all meals included, complimentary free-flowing red and white wines from local vintners, and local beers with every dinner onboard the ship. Tours at each of the ports were already included in the price as part of the daily sightseeing program, and bicycles were available for self-exploration. Entertainment every evening included music performances, folklore dances, lectures and more.
Cruising on an Intimate Scale
But it’s the intangibles that make the river cruise the unique travel option that it is. With only 148 to 150 passengers and 41 crew, I immediately begin to experience very personal attention once I was on board. Smiling faces and the warmth and humor of the wait staff and crew made me feel welcome and comfortable, as if part of an extended family — a feeling that simply cannot be duplicated on the larger cruise ships. From the jovial banter to the knowing nods to the hello pat on the shoulder, I was not lost in the crowd. Our morning greeting from our waiter, knowing some of us were of Italian extraction, was “Giam borno” (“Buon giorno” being the right phrase), which always got a laugh, even though we knew it was coming. With fewer passengers than the large ships, it was easy to make new traveling friends as well.
There were plenty of scheduled activities at each stop, and we were able to go out and experience the towns along and beyond the river. Some of the best local guides I’ve found anywhere were there to help us enjoy these gems, and we could always strike out on our own with a bicycle if desired.
If I was not in the mood for sightseeing at any given stop, I’d get out my book and find a spot in the spacious forward lounge, which was always well supplied with complimentary teas, coffee, cappuccino or espresso as well as the occasional baked goods or other delicacies. Espresso junkie that I am, I found this to be an extraordinary convenience. I could also opt for the more intimate and secluded aft lounge. For those inclined to work off the sumptuous meals, there was a Jacuzzi on the top deck as well as a small gym and sauna.
And the meals — well, we can fill the entire space here to praise the top-flight culinary delights. The chefs presented a variety of dishes representative of the cultures and traditions of the regions we were traveling in using local produce and fare. One day — I believe it was the Canadian Thanksgiving — as a special treat the chef had prepared a couple of the biggest turkeys I’d seen in awhile, and they were presented with great fanfare and applause.
The tours offered plenty to see and do and were included with the cost of the cruise. We traveled in small groups with outstanding local guides who provided us with all of the local cultural lore and interest we could ask for. Headsets were provided, so there was never a problem in hearing the guide from any location.
One of my favorite stops was in Rudesheim, at the Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum. We saw and heard the widest variety of musical devices, from the original German CD players with huge 20" metal discs playing familiar tunes, to chirping bird sounds coming from a device that might fit in the palm of your hand.
Zell was an example of a stop that landed us right in the center of town, where we were able to strike out on our own. If you have ever drunk any German wines labeled Schwarze Katz (Black Cat), Zell is where those vineyards are. We ended up in one of many wine shops and started tasting. About an hour and a half later, armed with several bottles and great cheer, we worked our way back to the ship, much the better for the experience.
I could devote pages to recounting all our special and unforgettable experiences at stops along this route, as well as on the Amacello itself. Whether it’s the historic sites, cozy taverns, vintage wines, gourmet delights, supreme relaxation, picturesque castles and countryside, great company, or fascinating walking tours, everyone on this cruise of Europe’s heartland had reasons to “do this again” — and the sooner the better.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on group and FIT programs on AMA Waterways River Cruises of Europe, India, China, South America, South Africa and more, contact Sky Vacations (a division of Sky Bird Travel and Tours) at 877-666-3113, ext. 2649, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit their website at www.skyvacations.net.
Arranging Your River Cruise
• Daily flights from the US to various embarkation/disembark-ation cities are available on Scandinavian Airlines and most other carriers through Sky Vacations in conjunction with your River Cruise booking at 877-666-3113, ext. 2649.
• Pre or post cruise land programs are available for each River Cruise through Sky Vacations, in conjunction with transfers to and from the ships as well as the airports.
• Multiple cruise legs may be booked so that you may stay on the ship and cruise the rivers for 7, 14 or up to 21 days on the same ship. Specials on certain sailings sometimes offer free or companion air as part of the River Cruise.
• Dining is very casual, especially when compared with typical ocean cruises. Only a jacket is needed for the Captain’s dinner, for example.