by Peter Knego.
A Rhine River cruise in the late fall and winter is quite different than one during other times of the year. It’s colder and windier of course (routinely dipping into the 20s and 30s °F), with snow and rain often making a show. Some shops and restaurants may also be closed in the off-season. Folks who appreciate the plusses of off-season travel, namely there being far fewer other tourists in the ports along the way (with the exception of Christmastime), will love cruising the Rhine in fall and winter. Summers, many Rhine towns and attractions are jam-packed, with two and three cruise boats often stacked next to one another at the docks in popular ports and the Middle Rhine bustling with day-tripping tour boats. Fall and winter Rhine River cruises, on the other hand, make for a serene scene, and in a sense, a more authentic taste of Europe. The passengers tend to be an international mix of seniors availing of the tranquility and lower off-peak rates.
In the spirit of the off-season traveler, here’s Peter Knego’s account of five days on AmaWaterway’s AMACERTO river cruise ship from Cologne up the Rhine to Basel last November.
Friday, November 11, 2016
After an extortive, white-knuckle ride on the autobahn from Dusseldorf Airport to Cologne, my cab driver dropped me off as close as he could to the AMACERTO’s Rhine River berth. An icy breeze whipped up the leaf-swirled promenade as I made my approach to the 2,900-gt AmaWaterways’ cruise ship with just a few minutes to spare. The AMACERTO, which had begun her seven-night journey two days prior with an overnight in Amsterdam, was preparing to sail for Koblenz.
I entered at the Reception area on Violin (3) Deck, which has an oval shaped counter area inspired by the curvaceous bows of the Italian-built Riva yachts. I would soon learn that all of the forward-situated public spaces on Violin and Cello (2) Decks are built around this Riva-inspired form. Completed in 2012, the AMACERTO takes her name from “love” (the AMA prefix) and “concerto” (CERTO). She is the first of six nearly identical ships in the fast-growing, deluxe, 21-member AmaWaterways fleet.
I was issued my shipboard ID card and led to 209, a 235-square-foot Twin Balcony stateroom on starboard Cello Deck. These spacious, innovative cabins actually have a standard outside balcony accessed via the bedroom area and a French balcony in the sitting area. After more than 24 hours spent in planes, airports and taxis, it looked especially warm and welcoming.
Even the large (especially for a river ship) Carrara marble and granite bathroom was impressive, with a roomy shower (massage and rainforest heads,) wide sink area and window (that on later ships can be switched to a “fog” setting) to allow in natural light.
With fellow guests all back on board after a morning tour of Cologne, which was celebrating its “Carnival” holiday, AMACERTO began her upriver passage. As they headed to the Restaurant for lunch, I partook of a small salad in the Panorama Lounge, where light buffet style lunch was being served.
Before heading to stateroom 209 for a quick nap, I took a short walk in the brisk but fresh air up on Sun Deck. I was impressed to see a heated wading pool with a swim-up bar and an oversized chess court among the ship’s outdoor features. Once I hit the bed, it was hard to resist going into hibernation for the next 12 hours, but a very special dinner would intervene.
By day, the Chef’s Table is a quiet, semi-circular room on aft Violin Deck with picture windows that overlook the AMACERTO’s wake. Each evening, it becomes an alternative dining room accommodating up to 24 guests.
On the port side of the Chef’s Table entrance, there is an open kitchen where guests can watch the chefs prepare each dish.
Table settings include linen napkins, Schott-Zwiesel stemware and olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a tapenade (olive dip), butter and salt crystals to accompany the spectacular fresh-baked breads.
The Chef’s Table offers a set menu with two entree choices (usually a surf and a turf), but vegetarian alternates can be fulfilled upon request. Wines are paired with each course and while there is no charge for this lovely experience, reservations are required.
Shortly after dinner, we arrived at Koblenz. I joined an included walking tour of this pretty little hamlet at the intersection of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.
Our guided walk took us into the main city square, which was largely quiet after the prior night’s Carnival celebrations.
On the way back, I diverted course with some friends for a look at the dramatically lit Deutches Eck monument to Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse (1), completed in 1900 to signify the reunification of Germany. It was damaged in World War Two but rebuilt in 1993.
AMACERTO would remain at her berth until 7:00 AM but I was oblivious, finally catching up on that much-needed rest.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Curiously, despite all of the included extras and wonderful little nuances they would provide throughout the cruise, Ama doesn’t offer room service. That said, the always available specialty coffees and tea were mere steps away from my stateroom to help bring me out of a deep, self-induced torpor.
I made quick work of breakfast before heading up on deck for the passage through the spectacular Rhine Gorge. For the next several hours, the icy breeze and the brilliant sun were in a full-out battle.
Every landmark and town in the gorge was, of course indicated on a handy little map and well described in our cruise manager’s narrative but sometimes it was nice to just take a deep breath, savor the beauty and let the imagination take over as we sailed in the wake of the Romans, the Gauls, the Franks and maybe even a few Huns.
Just as I was about to head back down and warm up, the AMACERTO’s staff began circulating with some potent Rudesheimer coffee (fortified with a dose of sugar, brandy, whipped cream and chocolate). I had already revved myself up on a pair of macchiati but when on Rhine…or something like that.
We continued past quaint river towns on a picture postcard perfect day under a panorama of vineyard-strewn hills topped with Medieval castles.
Another favorite sight on the upriver passage is the little Pfalzgrafenstein Castle on a tiny islet upriver of the famed but not terribly photogenic Lorelei rock. Dating from the 1300s, it was a toll station situated at a dangerous turn in the river that basically could not be avoided.
At 2:00 PM, we arrived at Rudesheim. On my last visit, I took the tram up to the spectacular Niederwald Monument with its huge statue of Germannia (move over, Lady Liberty) overlooking the Rhine. It was closed due to high winds, so, after lunch, with a little persuading, I joined some 24 fellow guests for a guided bike tour. AMACERTO and her sisters carry up to 25 bikes and helmets for guests to use on guided or self-guided tours for no charge.
A lack of coordination and balance, when combined with a bike and a camera, can create some challenges. I trailed the tour, taking the occasional photo and doing my best to avoid stray dogs, strollers and darting children on the promenade. But the fall colors and the golden afternoon light made it an experience I will never forget.
We turned inward and rode through the vineyards and rolling hills near Rudesheim.
By the second rest stop, the sun had left us.
Upon our return to the brightly lit ship, we surrendered our bikes. The 20-kilometer ride ended up being a wonderful way to see the local countryside and bond with fellow guests.
With just a few minutes to spare, I capped the ride off with a run along the promenade under the especially full moon. It felt good to have paid it forward for all the gourmet cuisine that lay ahead.
We were off to the Restaurant, a handsome space cleverly designed by AmaWaterways’ co-owner Rudy Schreiner, that is enhanced with a vibrant and warm color scheme courtesy of his wife and AmaWaterways’ co-owner Kirsten Karst. Like some of the family-owned cruise lines of yore, the wildly successful and highly rated Ama is a home spun operation, conceived and orchestrated by the California-based, Austrian ex-pats. It was there that they became fond of the comfortable booth-style seating framed by the Restaurant’s oval, Riva yacht-inspired infrastructure.
Not unlike the Chef’s Table, the Restaurant settings include custom Ama chargers, Schott-Zwiesel stemware and that handy tray of olive oil and other bread embellishments.
The service and locally sourced cuisine in the Restaurant were excellent and included a trio of starter courses, two soups, two salads, three entrees (meat, fish and vegetarian), three desserts, a cheese plate and a slew of “always available” options such as grilled steak, chicken breast or salmon, Caesar salad, coleslaw and fries. An included red and white wine choice are paired with each lunch and dinner, generously poured along with beers, soft drinks and bottled water.
At 8:30 PM, we were off on yet another included adventure, a trolley ride to the famed Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Cabinet Museum.
As corny as it sounds (and it is), your heart would have to be made of highly polished and carved wood, glass, bronze and steel to not fall in love with these intricately and beautifully designed instruments…and the guides who so devotedly and enthusiastically demonstrate them for you.
Back on our warm ship, a deejay was spinning oldies in the main lounge, but after a long, adventurous day capped off with a wine-drenched dinner and evening tour, I felt like an oldie and opted for some sleep, instead.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
This would be my first visit to the town of Speyer, which we reached at noon, following a pastoral, if misty morning of upriver cruising. Located in the Rhineland-Palatinate county of Germany, Speyer was a Roman settlement that rose to prominence when one of its citizens, Konrad II, became King of Germany in 1024.
On the included 1.5-hour walking tour, our first stop was the Speyer Cathedral, the largest surviving Romanesque church in the world. It was completed in 1,111.
Even with the clouds and chill, the fall colors were brilliant and ever present as we worked our way into the Speyer town center.
After circling the church, our tour guide led us to a popular pretzel stand where we were all presented a freshly baked pretzel to take on the road with us.
I would learn later that Ama had discretely “sponsored” our savory treat although they never let on to it. One of many nice touches during the course of an Ama journey.
Our next stop was the the Jewish quarter where we found the remains of the synagogue. Until the advent of the Third Reich, the Jewish community was well respected in Speyer.
For centuries, the still unchanged natural bath or Mikveh was used by the Jews, whose hygiene was far better than their Christian counterparts who were thusly far more susceptible to the plague.
After our tour, I walked with a comrade into town but most of the shops and cafes were closed. We were in between peak season and the Christmas Market season, which meant we had far fewer tourists to compete with but also that many of the local businesses were on leave.
I headed back to the ship, detouring onto a nearby bridge for some photos.
Considering that most European river cruise ships are limited to set dimensions, similar shapes and drafts that can get them through the locks and under the requisite bridges, the AMACERTO has some nice external architectural nuances.
I arrived just in time to peel off several layers of scarves and sweaters to enjoy a nice warm tea in the homey and comfortable Observation Lounge.
As I toyed with a plate of cakes and delicious homemade cookies from the bar, I enjoyed listening to fellow guests parse the results of the U.S. election.
I managed to squeeze in a quick workout in the gym, which has two stationary bikes, a treadmill, a rowing machine and free weights. After another delightful dinner, there was a group music quiz in the Lounge with the added catch that guests had to actually sing and dance to earn their points. Another glass of wine, please.
Part 2 of this story coming soon ! ….
* All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2016 unless otherwise noted.