Julie Peasgood takes to the Rhine for her AmaCerto cruise ship review and enjoys an enchanting itinerary
We are cycling in convoy along a peaceful towpath bordering the Rhine. The sun is shining, the air is clear, my daughter Kate is pedalling away just ahead of me, and I haven’t felt so carefree in a long time. This could be because I’m getting fit and hopefully shedding some calories (always a bonus on a cruise). It could be that as this is a wine-themed itinerary, the bike tours are combined with a wine tasting. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve finally fulfilled my promise to myself of joining a guided cycle ride.
Whatever the reason, Kate and I are both hooked and sign up for as many two-wheeled trips as we can. They make a fun alternative to the more traditional coach tours and are a great way to see the sights, even with the occasional wine-induced wobble (joking apart, the routes taken are mostly along quiet cycle paths and safety is always a priority).
What’s also prioritised is comfort on board – this is one of the most laid-back cruises I have ever been on. Mornings are gentle with late risers catered for and excursions starting at a civilised hour, and when we are sailing our passage is so smooth it’s sometimes hard to tell we’re even moving. The crew are charming too – attentive and keen to help in any way they can.
AmaCerto is one of the new generation of vessels in AmaWaterways’ fleet, and it’s like a floating New York hotel. Staterooms are stylish, spacious and beautifully decorated in subtle greys, browns and silvers, and the dining room and lounge are spacious and inviting. Even more expansive is the sun deck, complete with heated pool and a hot tub for the brave (we choose to snuggle up under thick blankets and sip hot chocolate).
It’s a refreshing way to experience the Rhine, Europe’s most important waterway, flowing from Switzerland to the North Sea, snaking through three countries and bordering three more. Our cruise journeys from Amsterdam to Basel, taking in magnificent Cologne with its 13th-century Gothic cathedral, Koblenz with its ancient fortress, and the splendidly unpronounceable Wijk bij Duurstede.
On our fourth day we sail the most scenic stretch of the entire river, the superb Rhine Gorge, peppered with so many medieval castles (over 30 in a 40-mile stretch) that it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. No other river in the world has a greater concentration of castles and castle ruins. At the deepest, narrowest and most treacherous point of the valley lies the legendary Lorelei Rock, soaring 120 metres above the waterline, with a statue of the deadly siren surveying the passing river traffic from its top.
But it is pretty, half-timbered Rüdesheim that captures our hearts – especially Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum, waiting to enchant us at the end of the Gorge. Rüdesheim is renowned for its Riesling (which we sample in a local winery to wash down giant, chewy pretzels) and the cobbled, pedestrian-friendly Drosselgasse, crammed with souvenir shops, restaurants and wine taverns. The must-see museum is unique though, housing Germany’s greatest collection of centuries-old, self-playing musical instruments, as well as an 11th-century church boasting a spectacular painted, vaulted ceiling and tiled floor. An enormous steam organ with 27 dolls each playing a different instrument was much admired, but both Kate and I fall in love with a silver filigree musical box, exquisitely crafted and hiding a tiny enamelled nightingale tweeting at the top of its mechanical lungs.
The next morning finds me wondering how on earth I can justify spending a small fortune on a tinkly clockwork box (all I can say is the Rüdesheim Riesling is very potent). I am in my element with the German wines on this cruise – I particularly love Gewürtzraminer – and we are treated to an array of fine vintages at each mealtime on board, as well as on our excursions. We discover the joys of grey Burgundy (a heady mixture of walnuts and grapefruit) and that Kate in fact prefers the wine produced from grapes grown in volcanic soil, while I am rather partial to a racy Pinot Noir, another speciality of this region.
I am also drawn to the sensational hot chocolate served in the romantic Café Knösel in Heidelberg, our next destination. Huge, milky mugs containing at least 1,000 calories – the only thing to do is to give in gracefully and have a mountainous slab of home-made almond cake as well. Any weight gain can then be walked off along the Hauptstrasse, one of the longest shopping streets in Germany. Or soak up some culture with a visit to the ruins of Heidelberg Castle. And if, like me, you love ancient deep blue apothecary jars, then the German Pharmacy Museum, located within the castle catacombs, houses more than 20,000 chemist-related products, and is well worth a visit.
From Heidelberg it is a short sail on to another bastion of good food and wine: Strasbourg, capital of France’s Alsace region. Overflowing with Renaissance architecture, our guided walk around the city takes in the Notre Dame Cathedral (with its famous astronomical clock, one of Europe’s finest) and the picturesque medieval bridges spanning the River Ill. We also enjoy an optional tour to Klipfel, a winery in Obernai, travelling through achingly pretty, half-timbered villages and wishing I could linger in each one.
But Ama saves the best till last. Our final port of call is Breisach in Germany, gateway to the Black Forest, and home to local winery, Die Oberrotweiler. This family-run enterprise offers some of the most exceptional wines I have ever tasted, at remarkably reasonable prices too. And we’ve certainly earned this tasting, having cycled for two hours through woods, quant villages and alongside fields, with the storybook Black Forest always in the distance. It is a fitting end to an itinerary called Enchanting Rhine.
GETTING THERE: AmaWaterways has a week-long luxury river cruise on board AmaCerto, sailing between Amsterdam and Basel, from £1,699pp including return flights from London, transfers, breakfast, lunch and dinner with wine, beer and soft drinks, complimentary daily tours and excursions, free wifi and free use of bicycles available on board. Visit amawaterways.co.uk or call 0808 256 8422 for more information. APT Touring offers cruises on AmaCerto and other ships in its fleet. For more information or to book go to aptouring.co.uk/0800 012 6683.
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