The Rhine Revisited

It’s been a long time since I flew Air NZ to Europe, so this was a good experience to have. Everything was fine. On the first leg from Auckland to Los Angeles I was lucky enough to secure a row of 3 seats which happened to be a 'sky couch'.  As I hadn't paid extra I wasn't supplied with the big pillows and the mattress but I could still put the footrests up and use the extended seatbelt which you can put on when you’re lying down.  It was very nice to be able to lean against the window and stretch my legs right up across the seats.  This would be ideal for one adult with one or two very small children.  On arrival in Heathrow we connected to a British Airways flight to Amsterdam – man, any walk between terminals in Heathrow seems to go on forever when you are tired off a long flight!

Amavenita docked in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam late afternoon and our APT transfer took us directly to board the Amavenita, for the first half of the Magnificent Europe itinerary.  The ship had been docked since the morning, so most other passengers were already on board.

The Amavenita is one of the newer APT ships with very stylish décor. This is an important element as ships on the central European rivers are near identical in terms of size to cope with the lock systems. How the various cruise companies choose to use the space they have makes the difference. My cabin, twin share, was a category P+, twin balcony on the top deck.  It was very nice, but compact, especially the bathroom.  It possibly wouldn’t have felt so small if made up as a double rather than a twin. The twin balcony allowing an indoor and outdoor option is a nice idea catering for all weathers. However it does compromise on space. We viewed a window cabin on the lower deck, very small but perfectly formed, along with a suite to contrast. Spacious and very nice as you would expect.

Main lounge on board Amavenita.

The first dinner, along with the other meals on board, were of a good standard.  There was always plenty of choice, with a nod towards the traditional foods of the country you happened to be in that day.  If you weren't feeling too adventurous mainstream options were also available at every meal – steak & chips, omelettes, chicken, etc ... Four courses for dinner are standard with red and white wine. APT offers an open bar with most drinks, apart from a very few premium spirits and a few premium cocktails, being included.

Twin balcony.

I was very much looking forward to a day in Amsterdam, I hadn’t been there for many years.  I was a little bit surprised to find that we actually only had half a day before we had to board a bus to catch up with our ship, which had moved on while we were sightseeing.  If an in depth visit to Amsterdam is on your bucket list definately arrive a day or two earlier. There were 2 included sightseeing options to choose from, a canal cruise followed by free time in the city, or a visit to the village of Zaanse Schans to experience traditional cheeses, wear some clogs and generally get closer to the Dutch countryside. I chose the canal cruise, always a great way to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with Amsterdam.  We had an hour of free time then we were on the bus.  It was a pleasant journey through the Dutch countryside, with a photo stop at a restored windmill.  We re-boarded the ship about 1.5 hrs later, for a late lunch, and the remainder of the afternoon was cruising. Our first evenings “Gala Welcome Dinner” had an additional course as a treat along with an introduction to the Captain, Tour Director, Hotel Manager and Maitre’d, with a welcome cocktail before dinner. Some guests dressed up for the occasion, but most settled for smart casual.

We literally cruised through breakfast, and arrived into Cologne around 0900.  The ship dropped us off for sightseeing in Cologne before sailing on to Bonn.  Sightseeing in Cologne consisted of a very slow walk from the dock to the Cathedral. APT offer two paces of tour 'slow walking' and 'regular'. I was a disappointed that on this occasion both groups were combined, especially with only two hours to spend in the city. We had time for a quick look at the Cathedral, which is quite spectacular as cathedrals go, and a bit of a walk around the shops, before boarding a bus for 45 minutes to re-board the ship at Bonn.  We sailed that afternoon taking in some nice scenery. This is really a relaxing time but I was starting to feel a bit frustrated by the lack of time we had experienced on shore so far….

This evening we had a stop in Andernach, to attend dinner at Namedy Castle, as “special guests” of the Princess Heidi, who still lives in the castle as her family home.  We were free to wander the castle at our leisure, which was pretty cool (with a glass of bubbly waiting in almost every room). The dinner gong sounded and we made our way to the ballroom.  A very talented classical pianist performed between courses.  The local teenagers were employed as waiting staff, and they were fantastic, some of the best service you would experience anywhere!  The Princess’s pug dog who was cruising around the room during dinner was pretty cute too! We were back on board after dinner, and cruised through the night.

The following day was a bit of a headache for the cruise director as very low river levels meant the entire program needed to be re-arranged.  I suspect she worked on this for much of the night. We should have cruised the Rhine gorge with a stop in Rudesheim, but the ship was not able to dock with the river being so low.   The alternative that was arranged was actually a bonus for me, and I think most passengers enjoyed it. We were docked in Mainz in the morning, then taken by bus to Rudesheim.  This is one of those picturesque little towns that is generally full of tourists.  Today reinforced to me that this time of year is a fantastic time to visit Europe.  It was pleasantly uncrowded!   We had lots of time in Rudesheim, courtesy of those low river levels.  As we were staying in town for lunch, we were all given cash to pay for our lunch, EUR25, in lieu of the included lunch we would have had on board.  For me this was definitely a bonus to have lunch in a charming little local restaurant, and also one of the local specialty coffees, which features a large hit of the local Asbach brandy. Included sightseeing was a musical instrument museum, which really didn’t thrill me. I figured I might as well go with the flow, and was very glad I did.  It was actually very cool,  and there was plenty of free time after to look around the town and have lunch.

Rudesheim – not too many tourists.

We then boarded a “day boat” to cruise the Rhine gorge, so APT made sure we didn’t miss that most spectacular part of the river with a castle everywhere you look.  The day boat took us down as far as St Goar,  and from there we were bused to our ship waiting in Mainz where it was able to dock without running aground!

Entertainment on board this evening, a local duo of singers, were pretty good.  The local entertainers hop on board at a lock, and then hop off at the next one, so the shows tend to be short and sweet, around an hour – this was enough for me!

Next morning we were able to stick with the regular program, as we were now on the Main River rather than the Rhine, and the river levels were no longer too low.  This was a bonus, as Miltenberg is another of those gorgeous villages.  The local guide today was fantastic – everything one of these guides should be, entertaining, knowledgeable etc.  There was a guided walk, followed by a bit of free time.  Back on board for lunch, we sailed through the afternoon and through the night to Wurzburg. 

I was a bit surprised the ship didn’t dock right in Wurzburg.  There were other ships docked, so I’m not quite sure why ours didn’t, but we ended up a bus ride away. It’s a pity as one of the best things about river cruising is being right amongst it and being able to walk through the towns and back to your ship at your leisure. We had some included choices again, the Wurzburg Residenz palace, or a trip to Rothenburg, both are highly recommended.  I plumped for Rothenburg.  There was a guided walk, followed by an hour of free time, then back on the bus to board the ship for lunch.  Another afternoon of cruising followed.   By now I was a little bit “over” the afternoons of cruising.  While it’s pleasant, the landscape is not hugely scenic, and there isn’t an awful lot happening on board.  I would much prefer to have more time in each destination.

A rare view of Rothenburg without hordes of tourists

Cruising for the morning on the Main-Danube canal we didn’t arrive in Bamberg until around 2.30pm, so again a “too short” amount of time in what is a really charming medieval town.  We had a choice of “walking tour” or “beer tasting tour”.  Having previously tasted the local beer, which is “smoky flavoured” – smells like bacon, disgusting! I decided to just go with the walking tour.  It was followed by an hour of free time, then back on board for the rest of the passengers.  For our group of agents, we were put on a mini-bus to be driven to Frankfurt for a hosted dinner and then overnight stay at the Sheraton at Frankfurt airport. Unfortunately a couple of major accidents on the autobahn caused our 2 hour drive to become a nightmare of almost 6 hours.  We didn’t move for a couple of hours at least, then a slow crawl until we finally got moving again. We missed our hosted dinner, they all went home, fair enough! We arrived very late, hungry, thirsty, tired and grumpy.  So in this state we had a few hours in what were pretty nice hotel rooms, before flying out early the next morning. The Sheraton Frankfurt airport hotel was super convenient, just a covered walkway to the airport.  Would definitely recommend if it was within budget and an overnight at Frankfurt Airport was required.

Overall this was a good experience, the guests on board enjoyed their trip. It was nice to have drinks and excursions included but I would have preferred more time in the destinations.  Having traveled on Avalon previously I preferred the Panorama Suite on Avalon to the twin balcony on APT.  The ships are basically built the same, the food was very similar.  The main difference on board was the APT ship had a “fine dining” restaurant, seating 20 guests at the rear of the ship, where the Avalon ship has an extra lounge which has the coffee machine/library etc.  My feeling is the extra restaurant is a bit of a waste, as most of the time it sits empty, whereas when used as an extra lounge that space was a great asset, used by lots of people throughout the whole day. APT had their free coffee machine and “library” (a couple of newspapers) squeezed into a kind of corridor space between reception and the main lounge.