River cruises not for the weak and weary
For an intimate experience, AMA Viola offers passengers flexibility, freedom and fun
According to the stereotype, cruise ships are for the newly wed, over fed and nearly dead. Cruisers, you’d be led to believe, are a mix of people who won’t get up from their deck chairs unless it’s to be first in line at the buffet. If that’s the case, someone forgot to tell the passengers on the AMA Viola.
“Is that really the time?” I ask my husband after catching a fleeting glimpse of his watch as he shimmies past on the dance floor. He nods and continues to shimmy. I don’t even know him anymore. At home with our two sons, it’s a “late night” if you catch us up past nine. And even then, we’re in pyjamas hours earlier. We enjoy a good night out every so often, but are very much early to bed, early to rise people. Not here.
Here Barb, an octogenarian from Florida, is leading our ragtag group ranging in age from mid 20s to late 80s in an impromptu lesson in the Cupid Shuffle on the dance floor.
Earlier, there was a heated debate between two cruisers over the proper steps for the Electric Slide and a group of just-met-but-feel-like-I’ve-known-you-forever ladies is chair dancing at the bar with wine glasses in hand, all while shouting musical requests to the DJ.
No one here is struggling to stay awake. Instead with every stomp, clap and hip shake they seem determined to rouse those who called it quits at 10. Nearly dead my foot. River cruisers may skew older, but they aren’t old.
The evening get-togethers are only one of the reasons that this group of strangers has become fast friends.
With only 79 staterooms, getting to know fellow passengers is quick and easy. Our cruise boasts a mix of solo travellers, couples, friends and groups, but only hours in, it’s hard to tell who met yesterday and who met years ago.
The newly built (2016) ship’s wellthought-out design makes it feel like the ship is much larger than it is.
Rooms offer windows across their width so that you can watch the world go past from your bed or the sitting area, a large bathroom with ample counter space allows toiletries to be unpacked and an Apple computer (with free Wi-Fi!) on the writing desk keeps us connected to home.
Meals aren’t overstocked buffet tables but a mix of tempting salads and specialty items meant to accompany a table service menu that reflects the areas of Hungary, Austria and Germany that we are passing through.
Life aboard has a rhythm and feels much like a travelling condo building where neighbours gather regularly in the lounge or on the decks, and no one has a problem with the landlord.
On-board cruise director Peter Whitehead steers us along, explaining the places we’ve been or are heading to, cracking jokes and encouraging us to explore the tiny villages we stop in.
It’s the real perk of a river cruise: a ship that can take the waterways through town instead of sticking to the larger oceans that surround it. It’s the difference between taking the freeway or opting for the local road.
And the smaller group of passengers allows for something that’s harder to do on a big ship: treating everyone like an individual.
Every opportunity on the AMA Viola, on-board and off, is offered without expectation that we’ll all want to do the same thing at the same time with the same people.
Each day, we choose the group we’ll join for our day tours or if we’ll go at all. Among the groups there are options for people who like to move quickly and those who might need to slow it down. There are bikes at many of the port stops and the in-ear “Quiet Vox” devices on all tours mean that we can roam quite a distance from the group and still hear the guided explanations. In fact, Whitehead jokes one night, “if you do miss the ship, you could probably walk briskly and catch it at the next stop.”
Perhaps the most telling thing about the cruise is the fact that I often forget we’re cruising. Ports are close together and we spend far more time off the ship than on. It’s what you want when you’re in cities such as Vienna and Budapest — the opportunity to roam at your own pace. Tours that are a mix of tradi- tional walk-and-listen options and hands-on opportunities (including a wine-tasting at a century-old family run winery in Durnstein) round out the immersion.
Evening entertainment each night celebrates the Danube’s musical history, from a singalong with Sound of Music actors as we approach Salzburg, to a young trio of musicians playing classical music’s greatest hits.
Two things become clear as we approach disembarkation day in Vilshofen. It’s going to be very hard to say goodbye to new friends, and this group has left me emotionally and physically exhausted.
When I learn that the next set of guests to board will be young families with small children — a sailing done in collaboration with Adventures by Disney — I express my heartfelt sympathy to a crew member for the few hours of rest he’ll get ahead of what is sure to be another exhausting trip. He shakes his head. “It’s the opposite!” he says laughing. “The kids go to bed early.”