A river cruise is a far sail from ocean ship excursions. Forget the big top atmosphere and thousands of passengers on large cruise ships. On a typical river cruise, you may be joined by 150 fellow explorers who also dislike pricey margaritas, massive crowds, and costumed extravaganzas.  

We boarded our first wine cruise in November to sail the Rhine and Main Rivers with luxury line AMA Waterways. This sailing caught our eye because a guitar-playing, exceptional winemaker from my home wine region of Livermore Valley near San Francisco was featured for the week-long cruise. Our expectations on the wine, food, and fun were exceeded as we marveled at the beauty of Germany and France.

Here are the top 5 reasons we recommend river cruising.

1  Smooth sailing

River ships glide along at a calm, leisurely pace. We sailed by castles and docked at darling hamlets where we could walk to the town center. From the comfort of our cabin, we snapped photos of famous monuments, gaped at the storybook chateaux and steep vineyards, saw families walk along the river path. We never felt seasick with the ship maintaining slow speeds and without ocean storms.  

Our stateroom offered a comfortable sitting area by our floor-to-ceiling French balcony, a spacious bathroom, and plenty of storage. Many ships have suites and balcony rooms. Twin balcony rooms offer an outside balcony and a French balcony with doors to open for fresh air and photography. Free Internet was available throughout the ship.

2  Bountiful Food and Drink

Our positive impression of the food began on the first dinner and continued during the cruise. The baked shrimp cake with pea mash, wakame, and sriracha sour cream was a colorful, savory blend of crunchy and soft. We liked the palate-cleansing lemon sorbet with peppermint and sparkling wine before the main course of slow roasted beef tenderloin. Throughout the cruise my healthy-eating husband’s request for simply grilled fish and vegetables with non-sauced or buttered vegetables was graciously filled.

Unlike the big cruise ships where the specialty restaurants and dining experiences entail extra charges, the Chef’s Table experience at the back of the ship was inclusive. We enjoyed each course from the amuse-bouche of feta cheese panna cotta with matcha-dill sauce and cucumber to the desserts of nougat gateau dessert with green apple sorbet.

But the most memorable dinner was the winemaker dinner with winemaker Mark Clarin of Livermore Valley’s McGrail Vineyards. I sat next to Clarin who was happily surprised at how well the McGrail Peyton Paige Sauvignon Blanc paired with appetizer of salmon-shrimp tartare with broccoli crème, egg, and sabayon.

Several meals matched the itinerary such as the German brunch and lunch. I sampled the multiple styles of sausage—paying attention to pairings of traditional mustards with specific sausages with sauerkraut, potato and radish salads accompanied by fresh pretzels.

I often started the day with coffee in the front lobby watching the ship nose into port. I then went to the dining room to dive into the seafood plateau and custom eggs station with all the fixings and sides. My healthy-eating husband chose the healthy seeds and nuts with muesli and cereals accompanied by fresh smoothies. Lunch offers rotating offering such as beef Stroganoff to porcini ravioli. But I often chose the hot cooking station which served up items from roast meats to Thai curries and more. True confessions: I couldn’t resist the daily homemade ice cream and petits fours at afternoon tea.

The mostly German, Austrian and French wines were well-chosen for pairing. But there were also two California wines for every meal. A daily happy place was the “Sip and Sail” Happy Hour at the bar.

3  Stress-Free Touring

On AMA Waterways, you can easily choose the best style of exploring from the all-inclusive list. Active tours featured bike rides and rigorous hikes. The regular and gentle land tour guides were well organized with knowledgeable guides with excellent personal audio systems. With my husband’s arm in a sling, we appreciated the gentle tours with no climbing and easily negotiated routes.  

Our cruise director gave an outstanding overview of German history and culture before we disembarked to the initial stop in Würzburg. The small town has 55 churches—conveniently one for almost every week, said our guide. In the evening we visited Juliusspital Winery, a state-owned venue producing fine Riesling wine, founded in 1576 and located under a palace.

In Wertheim we enjoyed visiting a 13-generation pretzel baker who handed out generous samples. Rüdesheim charmed us with its narrow streets and Rüdesheimer coffee spiked with brandy and whipped cream and drunk with a straw. A walk around Heidelberg Castle and strolling through Strasbourg were other tour highlights.

4  Wellness and Entertainment

Our onboard Wellness Host offered core and resistance band classes, and morning stretch as well as circuit training in the lounge or upstairs sun deck. The walking track provided a convenient aerobics workout. The wellness host offers personal training and accommodated my husband’s shoulder rehab.

Entertainment was varied, informative, low-key, and fun. Visiting guests arrived at various ports. A glass blower demonstrated his craft the morning before we docked in Wertheim, a small town world famous for its glass making facilities. Musicians offered a variety of musical for listening and singing. As an extra treat, our resident winemaker Clarin played rock-n-roll guitar songs with his wine club friend.

A benefit of wine cruises is learning and tasting wines in a relaxed setting. Clarin led a tasting on the characteristics of old and new world wines. He also presented a fascinating program on the impact of oak aging on wines.  

Our vacation days floated by peacefully as we sipped high-caliber wines, chatted with the McGrail Vineyards owners and winemaker, sampled fine food and immersed ourselves in the culture of Europe. River cruising, we decided, is a most relaxing get-away.

Extras

  • Themed river cruises such as wine or food and European Christmas market cruises are especially interesting. Cruise lines such as AMA Waterways also sail Southeast Asia and Africa.
  • The pre and post-cruise options are worth pursuing as value add-ons. On the post-cruise tour to Zurich, we explored the many city neighborhoods and attractions from centrally located, high-end accommodations.

AMA Waterways   https://www.amawaterways.com/

McGrail Vineyards https://www.mcgrailvineyards.com/