Budapest is 1397 kilometres from Amsterdam. If you do the journey by plane it takes two hours. By car, if you stick to the speed limits, it is 13 hours. If trains are more your thing, getting from B to A will involve an uncomfortable sleepless overnight trip squeezed into a dirty seat, watching the hands on the clock s-l-o-w-l-y tick by. The trip took me 15 days – and I’m not complaining about that at all.
Along the way I visited five countries, had dinner with a real-life princess, attended a private concert in Vienna at City Palace, owned by the mega-wealthy Liechtenstein family, and indulged in the all-inclusive five-star luxury that is APT river cruising. The only downside was that I needed to buy an ever so slightly bigger pair of pants on my return home.
To say river cruising – the new and more updated version of coach touring – is booming would be stating the obvious. In 2014, APT had 73 Magnificent Europe departures and another 30 from the company’s sister brand, Travelmarvel.
The Magnificent Europe itinerary is how we tend to dip our toes in the waters of the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers.
I arrived in Budapest on Sunday afternoon for my cruise and was thrilled to see a man holding a pink APT sign waiting for me at the station to help me with my bags and transfer me to the ship. Fifteen minutes later I was on board AmaReina, the queen of the river, being introduced to my butler – yes, butler – and given the guided tour of my cabin while he explained the workings of my personal state-of-the-art Apple entertainment system.
If the cabins were hotel rooms, they would definitely warrant a 5-star rating. Importantly, there is plenty of room to move around, ample hanging and drawer space, and your empty bags slide easily under the bed so you’re not tripping over unwanted clutter for two weeks. Better yet, the floor-to-ceiling glass cabin doors and windows give you uninterrupted views of the countryside as you ever so gently glide down the river.
Unlike ocean cruising, you will never encounter a ‘rough sea’ day. The only slight bump you’ll feel will be when the ship is making its way through the 100-plus locks between Budapest and Amsterdam.
Most cabins have balconies with seating for two, which is perfect for enjoying the late sunsets that are on offer during the European summer. So, too, is the top deck, which boasts a swim-up pool bar, seating for all 164 guests and enough room for everyone to find a quiet spot to read a book or snap pictures of the plethora of castles along the Rhine.
Life on board AmaReina is very relaxed. The main lounge reminds me of a hotel lobby and guests mingle here from early morning until very late into the night. The main dining room is divided into Bella Cucina and Verde restaurants and has a mixture of tables, booths and two private salons.
There is almost no reason (apart from buying internet access) to open your wallet, as the all-inclusive price covers everything bar a few top-shelf drinks. You will, however, have to get used to dining at specific times, but that’s to allow chefs in the dining rooms and the exclusive Erlebnis restaurant to deliver a consistently good product.
The paddock-to-plate menus reflect the areas you visit and the produce is replenished every four days. I loved the fact that, at most times, the wine served at dinner was created in the region we were sailing through – especially when the majority of the Rhine is covered in vines that produce high-quality drops.
If you feel the urge, there is a gym on the third deck, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the afternoon snacks to test it out (perhaps that explains the need for new pants).
AmaReina was launched earlier this year by her godmother, Princess Heide von Hohenzollern of Germany, and as part of our trip we visited the princess at her Andernach castle, Burg Namedy, built in the 14th Century.
Princess Heide was standing on the front porch to welcome APT’s guests at the door and – apart from a few private rooms – she gave us the run of the castle. She even hosted a fabulous three-course dinner in the Hall of Mirrors, complete with a piano recital. This happens on every APT Royal Experience cruise and makes for a pretty special experience that comes with automatic bragging rights.
The 15-day APT itinerary includes stops in Vienna (you must try the pork knuckle at Naschmarkt); Bratislava’s Old Town; Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192; Salzburg, for the Sound of Music experience; Melk; the gingerbread town of Nuremberg; Bamberg; Rothenberg; Miltenberg; Rudesheim; Cologne, and, finally, the home of sex, drugs and windmills – Amsterdam.
For me, visiting Rothenburg was definitely a highlight. Founded in 1274, it is Germany’s best-preserved medieval town and is also where you’ll find the enchanting and captivating shop Käthe Wohlfahrt. It has every Christmas knick-knack imaginable, and they will even pack your purchases and send them back to Australia for a moderate fee. Make sure you leave time for a walk along the town’s famed wall – it’s well worth the effort!
In most cases, AmaReina stops within walking distance of the towns, which means you can opt to explore on foot or by bike (the ship has 25 bikes for guests to use at any time) or sign up to one of the many optional tours with local guides.
Don’t feel you have to stay with the group, though, as most towns on the itinerary are fairly small and it is impossible to get lost. A good tip is to stay with the local guide until you get your bearings, then head off to explore on your own. And that, in itself, is one of the reasons river cruising works so well – it allows you to be an individual in a group of like-minded travellers.
Spoilt for choice
When it comes to river cruising, it doesn’t get much better. New liners are being launched every year, rivers are navigated in search of the new and unusual, and companies are amping up their programs to stand out in a market that just keeps expanding. Here are the ones that made us look twice.
- With 20 years of river cruising experience in Europe, APT offers the ultimate experience. The Magnificent Europe journey from Budapest to Amsterdam is one of its most popular routes.
- Avalon Waterways offers a diverse range of routes and a variety of fascinating special-interest river cruising options, such as WWI and European history and Jewish heritage.
- Scenic Tours, known for its luxurious ‘Space Ship’ boats that are often regarded as some of the best on Europe’s waterways, has revamped its river cruising program for 2015.
- Part of APT Group since 1996, Travelmarvel has built a reputation for providing guests with an indulgent holiday on Europe’s best rivers.
- Tauck prides itself on the ‘Tauck difference’, which entails an intimate experience on board and unique adventures off the ship.
- Uniworld offers the ultimate in service, with one crew member for every three guests, taking the boutique experience to a whole new level.
- Viking River Cruises is a renowned award-winner, and with its consistently high rankings, first-time cruisers often become regular guests.
Visit your local Flight Centre for more advice and the latest deals on river cruising in Europe. Go to flightcentre.com.au or call 131 600 24 hours.