Luxury ocean liners have long been the hot ticket, but what floats my boat is a river cruise that meanders through scenic, historic, culturally rich towns.
Many modern river cruises have advantages over ocean liners, such as diverse shore excursions covered in their all-inclusive rates and more time for local immersion.
A river cruise with access to central European castles, forests, centuries-old villages and deep culture sounded like the perfect getaway. This one offered a bonus: the teaming of top-rated cruise and bicycle tour operators. So I found myself sailing aboard AmaWaterways’ luxurious new AmaSonata and biking with Backroads on the Danube Cycling Sensation River Cruise.
Backroads, a global active travel company that launched in 1979, designs adventures that combine wanderlust with expert guides who keep you on track, informed and supplied with everything you need. Backroads trips accommodate nearly all fitness levels, ages and interests. Packages include guided rides, lodging, gourmet meals, high-quality bikes and creative, airtight planning.
I opted for Backroads’ standard bike — crafted of aerospace-grade titanium in Holland (where everyone bikes everywhere), boasting Shimano Ultegra components, triple chainring, ergonomic saddle and adjustable handlebars. Print maps and GPS devices allow riders to range farther on their own. Backroads also supplies electric-assist bikes at no extra charge.
“Ama” in AmaSonata comes from the Latin word for “love,” which seems right, given this vessel’s resemblance to a floating luxury boutique hotel.
Designed for a maximum of 164 guests, the vessel was able to make its staterooms spacious and sunny, and maintain an intimate feel in its restaurants and lounge. Cool features include guestroom decks — offering views from landmarks to swimming swans — and windows in the marble-walled bathrooms that you can frost with the click of a button.
The AmaSonata is earning awards and rave reviews in categories from excursions to staterooms. Attractions include a heated sun deck, pool with swim-up bar, free ship-wide Wi-Fi, in-room entertainment on demand, and bicycles carried onboard for exploring towns.
The food and drink
Temptations include regional farm-to-table feasts, Old World breads, fluffy tapenades, Indian-spiced black bean tapas, Bavarian chocolate mousse and coconut-plum cake, all made on board by talents such as executive chef Kaloyan Mitev.
AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line inducted into La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the legendary culinary society that honors the traditions of a guild chartered in the 13th century. Meticulously planned meals are served by cheerful staff in a sleek dining room and at a Chef’s Table, paired with premium reds and whites from European wine regions. Tapas and sweets appear in the lounge between meals. Dietary concerns are creatively accommodated.
Fine local Pilsner is served at welcoming parties where community members perform traditional songs and dances. You can try to work off calories on a bike and in the pool. On a healthy note, the gourmet buffet breakfast begins with gingered cucumber and other “vitamin shots.” Excursions provide opportunities to indulge in regional treats from German beers to Sacher tortes in Vienna.
If you go
The river route
AmaWaterways offers a choice of shore excursions in each port of call, all included in the fare. Those who opt for Backroads bicycling tours have daily customized experiences guided by experts.
The seven-day Danube cruise floated through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Medieval castles, storybook palaces, gorgeous gardens, lush forests, charming villages and culture capitals distinguish the tour; the fine food, coffee, wine and beer is icing on this Black Forest cake. The course along the Danube River, which flows 1,770 miles between Germany to the Black Sea, is terrific for both cruising and bicycling. Here are just a few highlights:
After bicycling along the Danube past fog-shrouded hills, farms and flower-flocked, candy-colored buildings in the area of Passau, Germany, a walking tour of this 2,000-year-old city covers its Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets and St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a must-see with three onion domes, stunning interior holding 1,000 sculpted figures and one of the world’s largest pipe organs with 17,774 pipes.
Linz, Austria, charms the eye with pastel-hued 17th- and 18th-century houses on the Old Town’s main square and the Ars Electronica Center, a futuristic glass-clad high-rise opened in 2009. Hop on a swing in the lobby before exploring the art, tech and big-idea labs. Atop a hill, Linz Castle, dating to 799, was rebuilt in 1477.
AmaWaterways excursions include a private bus to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. This central European medieval town hugs tight curves of the Vltava River. The centerpiece: a huge 13th-century castle studded with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements. The town was restored after long neglect under Communist rule. Charming shops sell locally made Eggenberg beer, gingerbread, Czech glass (always bargain instead of paying asking prices) and marionettes. Less quaint: a museum displaying torture devices. A concurrent Ama tour to historic Salzburg was also a hit.
In Wachau Valley’s happy, cultured town of Melk, Austria, cruise guests get to tour Melk Abbey, one of the world’s most beautiful man-made places. Its tapered towers soar from a bluff. Its Marble Hall ceiling frescoes hypnotize with ecstatic dancers, flying cherubs and lion-drawn chariots. In 1089, Emperor Leopold II gave the castle to Benedictine monks, who converted it into an abbey that inspired the best-seller “The Name of the Rose.” It is still used by Benedictine monks, who financed its 1980s restoration by selling a Gutenberg Bible to Yale University.
The 39-mile Backroads spin along the valley’s portion of the Donauradweg — Danube bike path — passes terraced vineyards, orchards, lovely old villages and hilltop remains of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1193. Sample the region’s exquisite wines at one of the valley’s “heurigers,” taverns at which families serve wines they make.
At night, music and tranquil river views drew us to AmaSonata’s lounge. While docked in Linz, entertainers perform songs from “The Sound of Music.” Deck seats face LED light shows illuminating the Lentos Art Museum, Ars Electronica Center and the bridge over the Danube between them. Sensational spectacles, from the ship’s dining rooms to the villages and cities edging the Danube, are standard — and nonstop — on this cruise.
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