Rhine River Blog
on AMA Waterways ms AmaDagio
RHINE RIVER CRUISE 2011 ON AMA WATERWAYS
What a wonderful time we had on our second river cruise! Three years ago we took our first river cruise, that time on the Danube, and despite worries that it might be too slow-paced we fell in love with river cruising. So this year one of our Brooks Aehron Music at Sea cruises was on AMA Waterways for the Rhine River from Amsterdam to Basel, with two extra days each in Lucerne and Zurich.
John and I, along with our friend Linda Dunn, got to Amsterdam a day early and holed up in our very nice hotel next to the pier, where we had arranged to meet Patricia and David Hanna, who had also arrived early. Our plans for sightseeing were cancelled by the rain, but we were able to find several others in our group to talk to.
The next day the hotel’s shuttle took us the short distance to the pier where our ship was docked. It was still raining lightly when we arrived and we quickly pulled our bags to the ship, where crew helped put them onboard. For those who arrived later in heavier rain, AMA Waterways crew met them at the curb and helped with bags – our first indication of the type of helpful service we were to receive for the next eleven days. Poor guys – at least they had raincoats!
There is no cruise terminal for river boats; they dock right alongside the bank, or in Amsterdam at a long pier that will handle several ships. This makes it easy to get on and off, though sometimes you get the added benefit of “double parking” so that you walk through the lobby of another ship first. This gave us the opportunity to see what other ships were like in the public area, and to confirm that our ship was definitely the most elegant.
Our ship was the AmaDagio. She’s beautiful and elegant, with comfortable cabins that have French Balconies. No place to step outside, but you can open your sliding door for fresh air or to watch swans nibble at the algae on the bottom of the ship when you’re docked. Lots of swans on the Rhine! This ship even has an elevator, a real plus for guests who have trouble with stairs; not many ships have this amenity. River boats are small: one main corridor down the middle of the ship with cabins on each side, a nice large lounge with big windows for good views as you float along, lobby, dining room, and sometimes another small lounge, along with the all-important gift shop. The AmaDagio not only has the small lounge but a workout area, massage and hair salon, and a whirlpool for relaxing on the top deck. The dining room is beautiful, with buffets at breakfast and lunch along with the option of ordering from the menu, and with big windows so you don’t miss the scenery while dining.
The food was generally excellent, especially the “cream of…” soups. If you want something light for lunch you can either go to the buffet or to the lounge for soup or sandwiches. In the afternoon there is usually a tea time with tea, cookies, cakes, etc. And then at 10:30 each night they put out a late snack. No worries about going hungry! Dining is open seating, so our group got to move around to meet different people.
That first afternoon we got to meet the staff and crew at the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail hour. Captain Pasztor is very personable, and mostly was called by his first name, so Captain Zoltan. We also met the person who sees to it that everything for the passengers runs smoothly – our superb Cruise Manager Pili Gil. This impressive young woman, originally from South America but now living in Germany, works tremendous hours but she always smiled, always made us feel that she had all the time in the world to answer our questions or requests, and in general just lit up the ship. My guess is that she gets about 4-5 hours of sleep a night, because she’s up very early but we’d see her at her tiny desk until very late at night. With our large Music at Sea group onboard, we had many requests but Pili handled them quickly and efficiently. Many, many thanks to Pili for making this cruise and tour so easy for everyone!
The next morning most of the passengers braved the rain and took the Amsterdam sightseeing tour with a city tour and canal cruise before meeting back up with the ship later in Utrecht. Like all excursions during the cruise, this was included in the cost of our trip. John had some work to do for the group so we stayed onboard the nearly empty ship and enjoyed the river scenery. Heaven! We had the lounge almost all to ourselves, and since the ship has (usually) wi-fi connection, John was able to sit next to a window while working. At 11:00 out came nice hot broth to keep us going until our next meal, served by a budding entrepreneur who was able to convince me that I really should try this excellent broth, though I passed on the Tabasco sauce.
Brooks had also stayed onboard because this gave him a chance to practice while the lounge was empty. I’m afraid he missed the scenery; he’s not yet able to play for long periods without looking at the keys. Maybe someday, considering how talented he is.
I just enjoyed the scenery and relaxed. The Rhine is very busy – ships going past every few minutes. I tried, but could not figure out how the Captain decided which side to pass on. Sometimes he passed on to starboard, sometimes to port. Since we’re allowed on the Bridge, I figured I’d ask him at some point. A hint here: if you’re an early riser, go to the lounge and watch the sunrise. A perfect way to start your day, only lacking Brooks playing in the background.
The ship docked just long enough to pick up our passengers, happy despite the rain, and then headed to Cologne. We went through our first locks, one of thirteen on the cruise, and then had a “surprise” safety drill. Luckily the rain had stopped while we stood on the top deck. This is interesting, because the river is usually less deep than the ship is tall, so if it sank we could all stand on the top deck and wait to be “rescued”.
The next day, Tuesday, we got to Cologne, where the tour that day was a walking tour mainly to the truly awesome Cologne Cathedral. This is a UNESCO world heritage site. John and I skipped this tour but did take time with good friend Art Junge to walk over to the Cathedral and take a peek inside. I think that I would be so overwhelmed by the sheer size and ornate beauty that I’d have a hard time listening to the Priest, and wondered what it must be like to attend services here.
One very nice thing about the walking tours is that AMA has different levels – for active, regular, and gentle walkers - plus sometimes “late riser” tours that are shorter for those who don’t want to leave at 9am. They also offer bike tours on afternoons when the ship sails to the next town, which is never really very far away. So the various groups all got off and the ship sailed to Bonn to pick them up there. People were back onboard around 1pm for lunch, then our group headed off to the flower show in Koblenz before our wonderful concert that afternoon. While all the passengers were on tours that afternoon, the ship sailed to Andernach.
We had our first of two concerts that afternoon in a lovely hall with tiered seating so everyone had a good view of Brooks. This is what we came for! John and I have been exceedingly blessed to be able to attend so many of Brooks’ concerts; each one leaves us wishing we could listen all afternoon. Last year, we had the privilege of having a concert at our home after one of the Music at Sea cruises, and that is a highlight memory of our lives. Even better? Listening to Brooks practice while three of us tried to get lunch ready; not easy when we kept getting so wrapped up in the music that we forgot to work. This afternoon was another perfect hour. John and I sat off to the side, and so could watch people’s faces during the concert. Many eyes closed to better absorb the music, especially during the quieter pieces; then during the more active pieces feet would swing in time to the music, heads would bob. We had a perfect view of one of our new guests, Malicca, who obviously knows her music and who kept time with both foot and head. It was nice to see her enjoying this so much, and to see a kindred soul as I do the same thing.
We’ve seen Brooks doing classical music, then on large ships giving us jazz, ragtime, Broadway hits, etc. But we got to see a different side of him this evening. It was 60’s Night onboard! Each night local talent was brought on for us, but this evening was all ours. Pili gathered some volunteers for a game of Hula Hoop Bar – a hilarious story in which seven brave people become players. Three of our group - Linda and Bob Rogers, and the now-recognized “ham” named Brooks – took part in this. Linda was “Beer”, Bob was “Mick Jagger”, and Brooks was “Hula Hoop Bar”. As each name was mentioned in the story, that person had to get up and race around the circled chairs. Linda and Bob performed admirably. Brooks gave out partway through and slowed down, though he claims it was deliberately. Maybe it was blindness from all the flashbulbs as We the Paparazzi immortalized this unexpected spectacle. Bravo to all of them.
(An aside: Bob Rogers tells me he gets picked for these type things often and once had to go on stage in drag. Linda says she did not recognize him. I’m trying to get the mental image of Bob in drag out of my head, though I’m sure he was beautiful.)
After this was dancing to the lively 60’s music played by our onboard pianist Kalin. Some of our group can really dance!
What a great group of people were on this cruise. Judy Ross was here for her 18th Music at Sea, and we had several new group members. It’s always like a family reunion, with family you get to choose.
So, now on to Wednesday, which was a morning of cruising through an absolutely gorgeous section of the Rhine, with castles and beautiful little towns. Luckily the weather cooperated and we could go to the top deck for great views. A perfect morning, shared with so many friends. I also remember Paulina P’ng and Dave Hanna playing chess with the huge chess pieces on deck. We understand it was a very close game, and what a setting for a chess game!
By this time I had asked the Captain about how he knows which side of a ship to pass on. Apparently you just call ahead and the two captains decide. When passing a boat in front of yours you get pretty close and then swing out and around. So much traffic! Lots of river cruiseships, but also barges with everything from fuel to railroad cars, along with 1-3 cars for the people who live onboard to use when docked. They have a derrick that swings the cars off, as the boats can just pull up next to the shore. We saw one with a children’s play area complete with slide and a house for the dog. The upriver boats also signal the downriver boats which side to take but that’s done with a light that they can see from a distance.
Wednesday afternoon we spent in Rudesheim, a delightful little town with great shops, ice cream, and strudel. The town looks like what you’d see on a postcard, very picturesque. I don’t know whether this or Salzbourg was my favorite stop. The ship arranged for little “Toy Trains” to take us the fairly short distance into town or to a wine-tasting tour. Very cute! Several of us walked back, with Linda Rogers warning John not to stay too close to the closing gates for a passing train or it would hit his nose. As it’s a German nose, the train would not have dared! That evening we went to see Siegfried’s Musical Cabinet, with it’s amazing collection of self-playing musical instruments, up to calliope-size with moving figures. The guide played several of these for us. This was worth the trip out after dinner. If you go to Rudesheim, don’t miss the Asbach coffee – Asbach brandy poured into a special mug, set on fire, doused with coffee and topped with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. Those who tried it had a thoroughly enjoyable rest of the afternoon.
Thursday was a stop in Worms (pronounced Vorms) for a city tour, including a stop at the Nibelungenlied museum which called for climbing lots of stairs past some unusual paintings depicting the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried. Again, I did my own town walk but we got very mixed reviews of this museum. But that afternoon was a tour in Heidelberg to the ruins of Heidelberg Castle plus a walking tour. Cobblestone streets and steep hills make walking a bit difficult, but the ruins, sitting overlooking the town, are impressive. Heidelberg also has it’s culinary treat – the Heidelberg Kiss which is a chocolate praline nougat that young university men could give to a favored young woman as a secret “kiss”.
Ahhh! The next day we went to Strasbourg for a magical day. First, a canal cruise on an open boat with very interesting commentary plus quiet classical music in the background. Then free time, where several of us found a perfect outdoor restaurant right next to the canal for lunch, and time to wander or shop.
Our last full day was Breisach, where we could take a tour to the Black Forest or to a wine-tasting in Colmar. Both were very good tours. At the stop at Lake Titisee some of us took a lake cruise; we seem to be addicted to any type of cruising. John said that Colmar was a beautiful little town and he would have liked to have spent more time there. Unfortunately, this was our last day onboard the AmaDagio, so that evening the ship sailed over to Basel where we disembarked the next day.
Would I take AMA Waterways again? Absolutely! Other than a frustratingly quirky wi-fi connection that did not always work, and high noise levels in the dining room (which seems to be endemic to most ships), we thoroughly enjoyed our cruise and were well taken care of. We really liked having only about 150 people onboard, loved the scenery and stops, felt very pampered, and relaxed on this like we seldom do despite having a tour at least once every day.
But our trip was not over yet. Our group had added the Lucerne/Zurich package, so off we went to Lucerne, with Cruise Manager Pili along for this part as well. We had a short orientation tour with Pili that afternoon after checking into our hotel and then were on our own for the evening. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu, was very convenient to the historic part of Lucerne, with the train station as a landmark right across from where the lake cruises left and from the bridge over to the old part of town. This has to be one of the loveliest cities on earth, surrounded by beautiful mountains on a gorgeous huge lake, with all of the old buildings and with outdoor dining along the water. The original town was very small, and one of the borders was this picturesque little covered bridge lined outside with flower baskets. Fairies must come in the evenings in Germany and Switzerland to pick off the dead blossoms from the flower baskets and boxes that you see everywhere, as we only saw one wilted flower the whole time.
The next day was a Monday, and after a walking tour most of our group headed to 6982-foot-tall Mt. Pilatus, taking the cog-wheel railway to the top for spectacular views, then taking gondolas down. On this trip, their large gondola included two yodelers, who entertained them with a lovely serenade, making the trip down that side of the mountain even more special. John and I wandered Lucerne, climbed to the city wall, and took a lake cruise as we’d already been to Pilatus. I had to agree with Kathie Schweitzer that climbing the wall and tower were not fun! John and Bill liked it but if you don’t like heights or narrow walkways with sheer drops, don’t do this! Bill and Kathie went to a more difficult part of the wall than John and I, but I could not even get to the tower on our section. Just call me a wall-hugger, and as Kathie said: “Don’t ever make me do that again!”
That evening, most of us found restaurants with seating outdoors near the covered bridge, and because it happened to be a national holiday we were treated to a fireworks display at dark. Some of us ate at Phisher’s restaurant for one of the best meals I’ve ever had – a simple veal dish with Rosti potatoes but perfectly done. When you go to Lucerne, do try this restaurant.
The next morning we headed to Zurich for our two-night stay, but did we go directly? Oh, no. AMA Waterways had arranged for us to start by taking a private cruise across the lake first, then getting on a bus. Gorgeous scenery, lots of room since there were only about 90 people who added this to their 7-night cruise, including all of our Music at Sea group. By then we also knew many of the other passengers as well. We made a short stop on the way to Zurich, and finally arrived around 6pm, so a long day but very pleasant.
If you get to Zurich, be sure to go to Didis Frieden restaurant at Stampfenbachstrasse 23, where many of our group ate dinner. We heard raves, not only about the excellent meals but about the dessert plates on which the very multi-talented chef draws detailed pictures in thin lines of chocolate. Reservations are really needed here but if you go early they might be able to work you in, though if the table they give you is reserved for later you’re told in advance that you need to be out by a certain time. Somehow Patricia and David Hanna seem to find these gems, and others in our group soon learned to take their recommendations to heart!
Our last day in Zurich started with another city bus/walking tour, again in the rain, unfortunately. But that afternoon we had our second concert with Brooks. What a superb performance he put on that day! Because we had the hall for the whole afternoon, Brooks was able to take his time, both in telling about the composers or music, and in playing more numbers than he usually can. To keep out the street noise we had to close the windows, so the room got warm and stuffy, but no one wanted this concert to end. Brooks makes the music come alive, and listening to Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise we could picture the battle as the patriots fought for freedom. Then this was followed by the oh-so-peaceful “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, one of our favorite pieces. A perfect pairing, only to have Brooks then do a medley of Rogers and Hammerstein before finishing with two encores. John put in a special performance as a one-fingered-orchestral-music-starter. Unfortunately, when the music started it startled him so much that he turned it off. Brooks very graciously let John start over but it was a short-lived career.
After the concert we had time to stock up on Brooks’ CDs and have him sign them while we all stretched out our final time together as a group on this trip.
It was a perfect way to end our trip.
And so we did.
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