This is the second river cruise the monkey has taken. The previous voyage was also on AMAWaterways and it went from Budapest to Prague on the Danube. You can read about that cruise here.
The cruise begins in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North. Kongo arrived three days early to have a chance to see some of the city on his own before joining the ship. He had flown in and out of Schiphol airport many times but had never actually seen the city and he was eager to check it out. He was so glad he did. He and Mrs.Kongo spent time visiting museums, riding the hop on-hop off bus around the city to get an overview, and spent a day in the countryside visiting windmills and quaint seaside fishing villages, which were not part of the AMA package. They also bought a pair of wooden clogs for the monkey.
Day 1 (August 29): Amsterdam
Kongo boarded the ship in the afternoon, had a welcome glass of champagne, met the captain and crew and was shown to his stateroom. The rest of the day was free time.
Day 2 (August 30): Amsterdam to Cologne.
This includes a morning tour of Amsterdam and a boat ride through the canals followed by an afternoon sail through locks to finally join the Rhine River and then sailing overnight to the city of Cologne.
Day 3 (August 31): Cologne to Koblenz
Arrive at Cologne in the morning and head out for a walking tour of the old city and the spectacular cathedral. Plenty of time for exploring on your own after the tour. In the afternoon the ship sails for Koblenz where there is a brief evening tour of the town.
Day 4 (September 1): Koblenz to Rudesheim
When you’re going upriver, Koblenz is the gateway to the Rhine Gorge. After an overnight in Koblenz, the ship departs for the village of Rudesheim, arriving in the early afternoon. Afternoon tours in the village, plenty of free time, and evening excursions occupy your time in this quaint little village. In at the morning you sail through the Rhine Gorge and see dozens of beautiful castles on either side of the river. This was a major highlight of the cruise up the Rhine River.
Day 5 (September 2): Speyer
After an early morning sail the ship arrives in Speyer. Although a tour is offered of this town known for its cathedral and beautiful churches, Kongo (and everyone else on the ship) opted for the included tour to Heidelberg.
Day 6 (September 3) Strasbourg
A morning arrival in Strasbourg, France gives you plenty of time to see the city. A bus tour gives you an overview of the entire city and then you do a detailed walking tour through the old city center and see the famous cathedral.
Day 7 (September 4) Breisach
After docking in Breisach you have the option to visit the German town of Freiburg or the French village of Riquewihr. Kongo opted for Riquewihr.
Day 8 (September 5): Basel and on to Lucerne
After a morning arrival and breakfast on board in Basel, you disembark the ship for a tour of Basel and bus trip to Lucerne, Switzerland, arriving in the afternoon where there was free time to get settled in your hotel in the old section of the city and get dinner on your own.
Day 9 (September 6): Lucerne
Walking tour of Lucerne with afternoon optional tours to the top of Mt. Pilatus. Kongo opted to remain in the city and continue exploring.
Day 10 (September 7): Lake Lucerne Cruise and Zurich
In the morning you sail across beautiful Lake Lucerne and meet your bus for travel to Zurich, arriving in the middle of the afternoon where you have time to go exploring or rest. Naturally, Kongo went exploring.
Day 11 (September 8): Zurich
Day tours of the city with an optional afternoon tour to see Rhine Falls. Kongo explored all morning and took the afternoon trip to the falls. You also stop at the medieval village of Stein am Rhein.
Day 12 (September 9) Depart Zurich and Head Home
Transfer to the Zurich airport and connections back to the States.
Kongo flew from LAX to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Naturally, he flew Delta and used miles. Layover in Atlanta with an on-time arrival in Amsterdam at 1030 in the morning. That was time for a nice sleep and breakfast on the plane before arrival. Taxi to Kongo’s hotel, the Marriott Amsterdam in the old quarter (the same hotel AMA stashes its guests) was 50 euros. There are other transportation options like buses and trams but with Mrs. Kongo’s s suitcase the size of a transoceanic shipping container it was best to just take a taxi.
Had Kongo not arrived early he would have been met at the airport by the AMA staff and taken directly to the ship but that would have only allowed about half a day for seeing Holland and the monkey wanted more time in Amsterdam. Being there two days early was a big plus and Kongo recommends you consider an early arrival to settle in, adjust to the time changes, and see your embarkation city.
AMA takes care of all your baggage on arrival at the ship and on departure. It is delivered to your stateroom quickly and efficiently.
When you arrive at the ship you are warmly welcomed by the staff, given champagne and snacks, meet the captain, get a safety brief, and are escorted to your cabin where they explain how everything works.
When you finally disembark, you just set your bags outside the room and your bags meet you at the airport. Everything works smoothly.
AMASONATA is one the newest ships in the AMAWaterways fleet and was built in 2014. The ship designers of this vessel were quite clever and built a ship with a draft of only five feet. That’s important for a river boat because late in the season when the water levels are low not all the river boats can navigate. That means a bus and you really didn’t sign up for a bus tour. Last year, when the Rhine levels were low, AMA was the only carrier operating vessels on the Rhine.
The AMASonata can handle up to 164 passengers, has multiple eating venues, a pool, gym, sun deck, outdoor lounges, bar, main lounge, gift shop and other amenities.
Bicycles are available for passengers to use at the various stops and some of the tours include bicycle tours.
The staff aboard AMASonata were simply awesome. The captain is from Germany. The rest of the crew is from Eastern Europe. They all speak excellent English (as well as several other languages) and are schooled in providing peerless service with a smile. The bar tender knows your favorite drink, the waiters learn your likes and dislikes, and everyone goes out of their way to make your trip special.
FOOD & DRINK
The food is wonderful. From the breakfast buffet to the sit down lunches and elegant dinners everything is prepared perfectly and delivered with a flourish. There is a varied menu that features local dishes from the areas you are passing through and if you don’t like that there are standard fish and steak options that are always available. Or you can mix and match you choices to get exactly what you want. Wine and beer are served during lunches and dinner and they keep your glass full until you wave them away. After dinner cocktails in the lounge are reasonably priced at about 4€ each so it’s easy to be a big spender and buy all your friends a round at the bar.
There is a single large dining room that can accommodate all guests at a single sitting. There is also a “Chef’s Table” restaurant for special meals and the stern of the ship.
During the river portion of the cruise all the tour options are included with the package price. Depending on where you are these tours include walking tours of whatever city you are in, transportation to and from the ship, and an experienced guide to show you around. The guides use headsets to describe what you’re looking at so its not necessary to crowd around. Kongo generally ranged within about 50 yards of the guide and tended to take pictures whiles listening to the narrative. In general the guides are excellent and speak fluent English. There was one guide in Basel that needed a clue, however. She had us standing the in pouring down rain talking about sites that we couldn’t see because of the clouds. Like, REALLY?!!! Mostly though the guides are terrific with a vast amount of local knowledge and a great sense of humor.
Tour are grouped by “fast movers,” “slow walkers,” and “late risers” and are made up of 10 to 15 people. This is a great way to get around and see a city since not everyone can (or even wants to) walk at the same pace and if you sleep in you can still see most of what the stop is all about. Kongo has been on previous cruises where the groups were much too large and were not segregated by physical abilities. You ended up moving at the pace of the slowest person, which can be frustrating.
It’s important to keep in mind that tours in Europe are often going over cobblestone streets, climbing uneven stairs, traipsing up and down steep paths, and generally moving over terrain that isn’t geared to the traveler used to ADA-type accommodations. AMA does the best job that Kongo has seen so far in accommodating a wide diversity of passengers.
If you scroll through Kongo’s recent blog posts you will get a very good idea of the things you will see on the tours. The AMAWaterways website gives a good overview of all the tour options.
You’re going to get your yearly dose of culture. Cathedrals, history, art, museums, music. It’s all wonderful.
This passenger list was almost entirely American with a few Canadians thrown in for diversity. Ages generally ranged from 40s to 60s but there were a few stalwarts in their “golden years.” There were no children. The makeup was pretty much couples although several single women were traveling together.
CABINS & HOTEL ROOMS
The cabins are comfortably appointed, at least for a monkey. Kongo had a spacious stateroom on the Cello Deck that included a large bath, a balcony, and a French balcony. On his previous river cruise Kongo booked a suite but this was a different ship and the staterooms were larger. The stateroom on AMASonata was roughly equivalent to the suite he had on AMADolce when he cruised the Danube. Plenty of room to unpack even Mrs. Kongo’s vast steamer trunk and empty suitcases easily slide under the bed. Staterooms come with built in hairdryers, a TV, WiFi that actually worked almost all the time (a first for Kongo), large wardrobes to store your stuff in, and a king size bed. There are plenty of electrical outlets although you will need European adapters to connect your chargers and electrical equipment.
On the Switzerland excursion you are booked into the Hotel Continental in both Lucerne and Zurich. These were both 4-star hotels located in the center of everything you wanted to see and walking distance to the city centers. Breakfast is included at the hotels and your room comes with free WiFi.
After the recent terror attacks in Europe a few passengers cancelled their trip out of security concerns. So Kongo wondered what exactly were the security precautions on this trip. Well, there aren’t any. You need a key card to board the ship after hours and to get into your room but the ship docks at little unprotected wharfs up and down the Rhine River that just about anybody has access to. Except for Strasbourg where there were military style police with machine guns there wasn’t any unusual security anywhere in Europe. The knights in armor have all moved on.
Kongo knows that many people wonder whether or not it’s safe to travel to Europe or basically travel anywhere. That’s certainly a personal decision but from the monkey’s view Europe was no more dangerous than visiting any major city in the United States. Certainly violent crime in the cities Kongo visited was generally lower that at home. There are large immigrant populations in Europe today and different cultures and styles of dress can be seen everywhere.
Bottom line: In the absence of specific State Department warnings to avoid places don’t worry about going overseas. Of course, this means that you exercise some common sense. Avoid large groups or demonstrations. Try to dress down. Have an emergency plan with your spouse or traveling companion on what to do if the worst happens and always keep an eye out for an escape route. Kongo does this pretty much everywhere he travels and life is too short to put your head in the sand when it’s stormy in the world.
Dress on the ship is casual. Very casual. You may want to put a sports jacket on for a fancy dinner (not required) but otherwise dinner is slacks and a collared shirt. Ladies, of course, are always appropriately dressed.
The currency in Netherlands, France, and Germany is Euros. In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, you will need Swiss francs. You will need Euros when you get off the plane if for nothing else you may need to tip the taxi driver. Keep Euros from your previous trip and you can get them at a major airport before you leave the country. You can also get local currency out of any ATM (and there are ATMs at the airport) and they are pretty much everywhere but they may not be in denominations that are useful. Mrs. Kongo went to get 200 Swiss francs from a machine and got two 100 franc notes. Not exactly what you want if you are looking to tip the bellman. Plan ahead.
You will need converters to operate your electrical equipment on the European 220 VAC system. Some devices (like Kongo’s Apple laptop) can plug directly into a 220 receptacle but chargers and other devices need adapters.
The water is safe everywhere in Europe. Even from public fountains!
WHEN TO GO
The last thing you want to do is go on a bucket list trip and have it pour rain the entire time. Weather, while completely unpredictable, is pretty important. Kongo consults the auguries and has his horoscope read to ensure that he has good weather on his trips. Actually, that’s not really true. He trusts his travel agent and Betty has a pretty good record for taking him on trips where the weather is fantastic.
Late August to Mid-September is a wonderful time in Europe. The weather is moderating from summer, wine harvests are about to happen, and the days are generally spectacular. At least they were for Kongo’s trip. He had one rainy day in Basel, Switzerland where a dreary drizzle and a tour guide determined to power through her itinerary regardless of weather made this stop less than memorable. Otherwise, it was day after day of cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the high 70s. Perfect.
Of course, at the end of summer there is a risk that there might not be enough water in the rivers. This evidently happened in 2015 and many river boat operators were forced to use buses to portage their passengers from one spot to the nest. The AMA ships on the Rhine are designed to operate in very low water levels.
In the Spring when the snow in the mountains is melting there is a risk that the rivers can be running too high for the long boats to fit beneath. The major river boat lines have pilot houses that move up and down to adjust to this but with enough water there is always a risk that you can’t fit under a bridge. The only option is back to the buses.
In any event, take a light rain jacket and a waterproof backpack to stash your valuables and roll with it. After all, this is an ADVENTURE!
This was a GREAT trip and Kongo would do it again. AMAWaterways, as it did on his previous river cruise, was professional, classy, and overall superb. AMA is consistently rated one of the top river cruise lines in Europe and after sailing with them twice it is easy to understand why.
Kongo rates this cruise FIVE BANANAS!
Feel free to Email me any questions or use the comment section on the blog.
Travel safe. Have fun!