If you have never been on a river cruise, trust me – you have no idea what you are missing out on. I had the pleasure of taking one a few years back with my dad – it was a Father’s Day present – and simply cannot wait to do it again!
I recently had the pleasure of welcoming Sheila Bielich, the Business Development Manager for AmaWaterways to chat with us about all of the amazing things an AmaWaterways river cruise has to offer and am super excited because it just so happens that this was the cruise line I went on and fell in love with. And I’d be willing to bet that after this introduction to them you are going to be adding an Ama river cruise to your travel wish list!
So, let’s get started, shall we? Grab a deck chair, sit back and relax while we embark on an overview of river cruising with AmaWaterways. Ship ahoy!
Why A River Cruise? People are looking for an opportunity to be able to travel through countries. Ocean cruises take you to countries, but river cruises take you through them – meaning 24 hours a day you are immersed with the people, the culture, the atmosphere, the libation, the food and scenery that never stops. And you guys I can totally attest to this. When I went with my father, we did Nuremberg to Budapest and every single day we would open up our blinds and look out and see all the different towns along the Danube River. What an amazing experience that was, just being right smack in the middle of everything! Truly at every bend in the river is another castle or another vineyard or another fairy tale town. And to me it was an opportunity to have a new experience in practically every moment as well – to experience a language or a taste or a smell or a fabulous town. And since river cruises dock right in the middle of towns, you can easily go ashore to have a glass of wine or beer with the locals or to window shop and explore – and that’s really just a cool experience in itself.
Tell Me About AmaWaterways. There’s a lot of heritage that goes into Ama. They are a privately family-owned company founded in 2002 – actually there are three families that co-own it – however Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst are probably the co-owners that people most see often when they’re out on the ship as they frequent them very often. Now, Rudi is very special. He is a gentleman that was given the title “The Godfather of River Cruising.” He is an Austrian who has been sailing the rivers for 30 years, but the other really cool thing is that he is the architect of their vessels! Family is especially important at Ama and they offer wonderful special amenities so when you sail with them you are going to feel like family because they believe that’s the upper most thing they can do.
And That Staff! So, I had the pleasure of going up and hanging out with the captain and watching him maneuver through a lock and I was in awe – these ships are so innovative. And Sheila noted how that is a great example of how the staff is going to engage you – from the captain on down. You have the captain hosting dinners every night and the staff are out and about. She said she’s even had captains be on tours with people. The whole staff strives to make your trip so incredibly special, and they get to know you – and with only 100 guests believe me we get to know you really quickly. And that’s another one of the things that I loved is that by like the second or third night I knew everybody’s face on a seven-night cruise and literally everybody knew my dad probably by the second day! Now he has that aura where you he makes friends everywhere he goes but even if it’s not so easy to make friends everybody just wants to be your friend because it’s so amazing!
What About The Whole Port Experience? So, this is really cool – because there are a number of ships and there’s only so much port space you actually do what’s called rafting. And it’s actually done quite simply thanks to the fact that everybody in the river cruise industry are all friends. Basically, the ships will be lined up next to each other and you simply walk through no more than three vessels until you are out on the docking area. And if you think about it, it makes sense and it’s great to be able to do that because it doesn’t last for a super long time and it doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s just another part of the river cruise experience and it also gives you an opportunity to see some other ships as you can kind of peek around as you walk through them.
And “port” is actually a stop at the docks in the center of towns which means you can simply walk off the vessel – no waiting for a tender to transport you! Then as you are walking off you have the option to off grab one of the bikes available for you and do your own thing or you can do one of their incredible tours because the tours are included which makes it a great value.
Let’s Talk About Excursions. The excursions are done in small groups and are broken out. So, there are those for gentle walkers, those for regular walkers and those for you guys who are really active folks. And I really want to highlight that because these are small groups – and even though there are different groups of what your pace is you’ll never miss out on anything. Sheila pointed out that they even have a late riser tour or for people that would like to have one more mimosa in the dining room for breakfast – they’re going to have a tour. It’s going to be an hour later and they’re going to see the highlights and it may not be as intense – but do they care? Nope – they have absolutely great time. Pus you can be a gentle walker one day and an active walker another day and a later riser on another day – Sheila jokingly said they don’t put a button on you – it’s how you’re feeling that day. In addition, the cruise manager is very keen to understand your walking ability and what you can do so that if they have to find a little train or a minibus or whatever to get you to see the same sites as all the rest of the guests they will.
Now for my active guys you can get out there and see everything by bike if you want or you can do a more intense hiking tour – there are plenty of options. And Sheila noted that they have 25 bikes on board each vessel (50 on the AmaMagna because she’s bigger) which they put out every time they stop in a port (river cruise ships stop twice a day). You have the option to take a bike, go out and do your own thing or they have guided biking tours – as well as guided hiking tours. This makes it really fun for the guests and it’s just it’s all about choices with Ama – all about all the choices that you get to make. They have local guides and Sheila advised that they love to use local guides because with local guides their town is the best town and they’re going to tell you why! Like perhaps maybe their father or their great, great grandfather was the postmaster or the mayor – they have been in these towns for hundreds of years and they want to tell you all about it – so yes – they love their local guides! And not only that but because they use local guides it goes with the Book Here, Give Here mission of keeping travel sustainable and equitable. By making sure that we’re hiring local people to not only give you that amazing experience but also to keep the tourism dollars going straight to somebody locally so that they can send their kids to college – so it’s all small business owners just like myself.
Because of the people that Ama works with on a local level there are great experiences like local wine tasting or beer tasting and access to historic sites where you got your own private adventure. Shelia relayed one such instance where you first have a lovely dinner on the vessel and then they stop at an absolutely beautiful castle where you are greeted by the people that own it and they you bring you into their castle and as you’re touring the rooms, they are all lit by candlelight. And it’s because of the relationships that Rudi and Kristin have – as they’re both Europeans forever now – and that makes this just so exclusive for the guests and it’s always a wow kind of experience that’s really fun.
Tell Me About The Gastronomy Experience On Board. Well, it’s an award-winning dining experience because their chefs are amazing – they are part of this great gastronomic society called La Chaine des Rotisseurs that you have to be inducted to. La Chaine is 1200 years old and fun fact – Rudi was inducted in Austria – and so all of their ships in Europe have the designation as well. So, if you’re a foodie or a foodie / winey – this cruise line is for you! The food is all locally sourced, and everything is wonderfully fresh, and they are very keen about your dietary requirements as well. So, if you have allergies or if you are gluten free or vegetarian or vegan or low salt or low sugar – all of that is not an issue at all. And if you have a more complicated diet just tell me when we’re doing the booking if you have certain food allergies or whatever the case may be we take that to the chefs and the staff at AMA so that way everyone on the cruise that needs to know, knows because after having one conversation with one staff member the whole staff knows – their communication levels are amazing – I mean they’re just awesome. And I personally had an experience as I actually have a shellfish and seafood allergy and so while mine is not as horrible some, the staff did come out and check with me to see to how close I can be to it or can somebody next to me have seafood. For me it’s just ingestion thankfully so it’s not so bad. But it just goes to show you that we can make this cruise seamless – you just let me know ahead of time and that’s the goal of myself and Ama. Ama does an amazing job with the most unbelievable dishes and they have you try the food from the areas that you’re going through and its really fun. Plus, they do all kinds of wonderful things and on the ship – they celebrate all holidays and even have an Oktoberfest lunch.
Side Note: I have to note here that even though this doesn’t touch on food my dad uses a C-Pap machine and I when I told them in advance, they had a converter for him so that he could utilize it so there was nothing that he had to carry from the US to make sure that his C-Pap was going to work – the ship took of care of it! So just another example of how they make it seamless!
And Cuisine Off The Ship? One of the things you’ll be amazed about in Europe is the amazing quality of food no matter where you go. It’s all fresh, wonderful food and the difference between their food and ours here in America – at least for me is that there’s no GMOs. So, you automatically taste the food no matter what country you’re in, whatever you put in your mouth just melts and it makes your mouth water, and it makes you want more and it’s an experience that only you can have. I can talk about it to a certain extent but until you actually experience it – it’s just really something that needs to touch your soul. And of course, food brings people together. Food and wine make people happy, and the idea is to experience different tastes – because when you break bread with someone different from you, you realize how similar you really are.
Are There Other Options Besides Europe? With all of the countries that AMA touches within Europe obviously this is the majority of what that they do but there’s also cruises that they offer that are called Exotics and those really tickle my fancy! They include an African option and an Asian opportunity as well.
The Egypt experience is a seven-night cruise from Luxor round trip, but you will spend four nights in Cairo prior to the cruise to see all the wonderful sights there. The cruise itself takes place on a gorgeous new vessel – AmaDahlia – and she will only carry 68 guests. It features 34 cabins which are all considered half suites and run from 370 to 430 square feet. You guys that’s larger than some apartments in New York City! If Egypt is on your bucket list this is a great way to do it thanks to its wonderful, jam packed itinerary – including seeing all of the sites of the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian museum which is incredible – there’s 125,000 artifacts in it! – and more! Pre and post land packages are also available as add on’s and they actually have them all through Europe as well. However, with Egypt you can spend your pre cruise with a few nights in Dubai, Jordan, Petra or the Aman. Or you can have a post cruise opportunity in Israel with two nights in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem as well as a chance to enjoy a dip in the Dead Sea!
The other option is aboard the Zambezi Queen and she has only 14 cabins so it’s 28 guests making it a very intimate cruise. You’ll cruise up the legendary Chobe River and Sheila likes to say it’s a four-night float through the animals – because what does a river do? A river brings the animals! And they will have you both on and off the vessel doing some wonderful things like getting closer to the hippos in smaller boats and more. Then they take you to Victoria Falls for two nights – for a wonderful opportunity for you to see the world-famous falls. Plus, there is the option to also add on a safari! There is one in Kruger where you would spend three nights in Kruger National Park where you will get to see the big five. Or you can choose Tanzania for a seven-night stay. Here you will enjoy a stay in the extremely beautiful Tarangire Treetops Lodge – a tented, gorgeous a camp if you will – that is truly luxurious, and everything is included – including your laundry! Also included is a visit to the Serengeti and if you’re there during the migration you would get see that as well. You will also visit Ngorongoro Crater which is absolutely gargantuan according to Sheila. Here you will stay at the new Ngorongoro Crater Hotel which are individual little houses. You’ll spend a day in the crater, which is home to many, many animals and – fun fact – when an animal is born in the crater it can never leave. At certain time you will look out on the lake and it’s filled with so many pink flamingos it looks like a pink lily pad! Bu the pièce de résistance per Christine is if you choose to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda – how awesome is that?
Do You Love Christmas Time? Well for you guys who really love Christmas you are going to love river cruising during the Christmas season! Why? Because what is so wonderful about Christmas in Europe is that they totally immerse themselves in it and it’s just done in a different way. And you can guarantee the ship will be entirely decorated to the nines. And those Christmas markets! Since most of these cruises are on the Danube and the Rhine, you’ll find them in every town from the little, tiny towns up to the big cities. In fact, per Sheila, Vienna had 23 Christmas markets the last time she was there. And it’s not only about what you buy – which of course are beautiful handicrafts and the like – it’s about the food as well because they bring the food into the market and it is magic! Whether you’re enjoying pork hocks or funnel cakes or chimney cakes – it’s all delicious! And don’t forget Gluhwein which is famous because it’s hot mulled wine with all aromatic spices or the red and white Glühmost which is a cider. You can buy it and easily and walk around with your mug – which you do keep, and every market has its own mug so before you know it you have collected a set of mugs!
I Love Wine – Any Options There? Whether you are a wine connoisseur or really want to have that wine cruise experience you’re in luck! They have about 70 wine cruises a year and they are on the major rivers of western Europe. They will have a host on board that is from North America that brings their wines on board – so it’s that juxtaposition between old and the new world wines. Onboard they will host a dinner, give lectures and provide tastings. Then shore excursions are a bit more wine-ier per Shelia as you will be going to gorgeous vineyards, lovely tasting rooms and even castles to try new wines. As she put it “you’re in the vines!” And you guys I can tell you that even just doing the Danube in the summertime – it wasn’t a wine cruise, but we had the ability to have all these different wine tastings when we went into the lounge or we were at lunch or dinner. There were absolutely amazing opportunities that were being offered to us an and I feel like each person who came up to you – each sommelier – that had the ability would advise which wine paired well with what you were eating. Everybody knew what they were talking about and made this experience so amazing – plus the wines are included on the vessel and they change them every day in order to go with the cuisine.
How About Wellness Opportunities? Wellness for me is as you will know super huge, so I love that there’s a Wellness host on board! You can start off your mornings with a yoga class or even take one in the afternoon or evening for something that will relax you after your day. Another thing you’re going to love about the Wellness host is that they also work with you on making sure that you’re eating healthy. And they’re going to interact with you. It’s not just these people are hired, and they are certified in yoga and they do two to three classes and that’s it. Say the guests want to do some Zumba or champagne yoga or even cardio – they’ll make it happen. They also have a gorgeous gym and of course all of this is complementary, and it just lets the guest have such a great time doing what they love to do. In addition, many of their ships have either a hot tub or a beautiful, heated pool – and it’s heated entire for the entire season which is May through Christmas and New Years and per Sheila you can bet that people are in it on Christmas and New Year’s!
Castles Are My Passion. For those of you guys who are castle aficionados you will not run out of castles to enjoy if you choose to do a river cruise on the Rhine because there are so many castles to be seen. Sheila spoke of an area they cruise called the Rhine Gorge which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the cruise manager does a lovely 2 ½ hour commentary as they do this gorgeous scenic cruise where you’re going to see 43 castles. Now, you’re not stopping at them but what is so wonderful about it is that but some of them are privately owned so they’re homes, some are ruins, and some are hotels, and they are just absolutely wonderful. So, if you again if you’re a castle lover this is the cruise for you.
And What Are Some Of My Land Package Options? Oh gosh so many! And they have the option on all of their cruises in Europe for pre and post land packages that you can add at an extra cost. The beauty of it is that you can choose to have none, you can have one before, you can have one after or both! Plus, you are totally escorted by AmaWaterways so they’re not letting you just go out on your own – i.e. – they’re not just throwing you in a hotel and off you go!
There is one where you will spend a number of days in Prague, Czech Republic which is a great city. One of the things that I love about the Czech Republic is that it’s not just Prague – there’s so much more to see and you have opportunities for little things off the beaten path. And because Prague was not bombed during the war it’s this perfect city that has been there for so very long and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Another option is Nuremberg, Germany which is also lovely and filled with history – some that they are not so proud of and some that they are, and they have every right to be and it’s a beautiful old city. I personally had a great tour and history lesson while in Nuremberg and even though they talk about things they are not so proud of – they learned from them and I think it’s important especially in today’s world where we forget how history can repeat itself and so if you don’t learn we are bound to make those same mistakes again. But it’s a wonderful town and Sheila shared that it is on the ancient spice route, so she did a spice tour which was really fun, and you do learn – and taste! – along the way.
Then there is Passau, Germany which is an amazing city that is also known as Three Rivers City because – you guessed it – it connects three rivers. The way the people live here, and the level of friendliness is amazing but the quality of life here I feel like is just so different than everywhere else. It’s quite different from being in America and America is super wonderful but to be able to have the experience to see people’s different culture and how they live their lives whether it’s a holiday or it’s any old day is really wonderful. And Passau is really fun because in this area you really can do some of the Sound of Music things like a day tour that takes you to Salzburg or up in the Austrian Lake District – that’s all things Sound of Music – or to Cesky Krumlov which is in the Czech Republic which is an amazing adventure.
Then in Vienna you have the Schönbrunn Palace which is beyond amazing and I think it’s something that everybody should see. But when in Vienna you must have a slice of Sacher-Torte cake. Now I grew up on this is the cake and was pretty much in love with it as a child – and still am as an adult – and when I came back from Switzerland, I kept looking for it at every single bakery in New York City. But not very many made it and made it well.
On to Budapest – which if you don’t know – is actually two cities with a river running between them. There is the Pest side where you’ll find Parliament and it is the side that has more modernity. You’ve got the wonderful restaurants and bars and gorgeous hotels and wonderful shopping and all sorts of lovely things and it’s kind of like on the plain if you will. Then on the other side of the river is the Buda side which is the old side and filled with beautiful riches. Here you will find the Buda Palace and the Fisherman’s Bastion along with wonderful spas and other places for you to visit. But Budapest itself is so amazing and when all of these beautiful buildings and bridges are lit at night it’s just stunning – it’s a world class town. Sheila shared that she has been traveling to Hungary over 25 years – so when it was communist and now that its free – and it has turned into a beautiful lady – and even boasts six Michelin starred restaurants.
I’m A Solo Traveler – Is It Going To Cost Me A Lot More? For those of you guys who like to travel alone – and I know there’s a bunch of you always telling me how much more it is to have to pay a single supplement – well I have good news! Ama is a really great option because it’s not as expensive as some of the other lines and so not only do you get all of these amazing benefits, but you also have just the fact that it’s so affordable. How affordable? Well, it’s only 25% more as opposed to their competitors who offer 50% to 200% more. And they are delighted to be able to have single guests on board and as a single cruiser you’ll have a dinner with the captain, a private reception to meet other singles, and the cruise manager will spend a little more time with you choosing your tours. And you won’t stay a single traveler for very long because you’ll meet wonderful people!
And Safety Precautions? Ama has an amazing protocol to make travel safe and so there is a lot of confidence that they have instilled so I wanted to just kind of highlight really quickly some of those moving pieces. Obviously, we’re all going to have to wear masks when we’re not in our rooms and where social distancing isn’t possible. For example, let’s say you go into the lounge area – you would wear one in but once in the lounge they have put up wonderful Plexiglas dividers in their seating areas so when you get yourself seated you can then remove your mask – and that’s going to be true in the dining room as well which is really wonderful. And keep in mind that the tours are going to be smaller because every river cruise ship can only carry 100 guests. And they have the headset system so that you can hear the guide from 150 feet away, so you don’t have to be on top of one another. And honestly, I wanted to highlight that because even though I went pre-COVID going now, after COVID, it just means that we’ve got more things going on in terms of there’s more people are watching to make sure that it is safe. And Sheila noted that they have 23 ships and out of that ten of them have been highest rated in Europe in the Berlitz rating which they are very proud – especially considering that there are other companies that have many more ships and so in a lot of ways it is humbling, and they are very grateful for that designation.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to European countries.
As you can see AmaWaterways brings so much to the table – including itineraries that cover a large part of Europe and you know how much I love Europe! Ama has a saying, “the rivers and wine will continue to flow” and it is so absolutely true!
For more details on AmaWaterways – including full itineraries, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!