River cruises can be surprisingly family-friendly, as Sara Macefield discovers on an AmaWaterways itinerary

“Wow – isn’t it tiny,” shrieked my 13-year-old daughters upon glimpsing the AmaWaterways river cruise ship that was to be our floating holiday home for the next week.

I’d warned them not to expect waterslides, climbing walls and all the other whizz-bang thrills they’d previously relished on large modern ocean ships that carry thousands
of holidaymakers.

So their reaction to the sleek, and much smaller, AmaSerena, which carries just 164 passengers, wasn’t surprising.

This was our first family river cruise, and I told the twins it would be a totally different experience; more intimate and more cultural, too.

“Will there be a swimming pool?” they’d chorused. Thankfully, there was, and that (along with copious amounts of ice cream) proved to be the lifesaver of our 400-mile Danube sailing from Hungary’s capital Budapest to the German town of Vilshofen. Not that other parts of this cruise weren’t enjoyable but, as far as Holly and Dani were concerned, having the pool was the deal-breaker which stopped this trip from being “boring”.

Varied excursions

Yet with daily stops in fascinating towns and cities that included Bratislava, Vienna and Passau, it was never a charge that could be levelled at this cruise. The varied choice of tours and biking excursions made it easy to explore everywhere we docked. Plus, as most outings were included in the price, it meant that as a family we didn’t have to worry about racking up costs either.

Such was the informal house party ambience of AmaSerena, we soon fell into a rather relaxed routine of exploring each destination in the morning, while spending afternoons lazing on deck.

When the sun shone, the girls spent hours in the pool; and if it didn’t, they pitted their wits against each other (and us) in drawn-out games of deck chess.

Walking tours proved to be an ideal diversion – interesting for adults, but not too dry or highbrow for the girls – and in the summer heat, not too long either.

Architectural treasures

Slovakia’s pocket-sized capital Bratislava was one of our favourite stops with its quirky character, history and ease of getting around on foot. It was also helped by AmaSerena’s docking spot, which was just a few minutes’ stroll from the main city square.

Central Vienna was a coach ride from the river, but it gave us all a chance to admire street after street packed with striking buildings lined up proudly in testament to the city’s rich heritage.

Whichever way you looked was a proverbial feast of architectural gems – neo this and classic that – Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance, telling the story of Austria’s glorious past as the powerful hub of the expansive Hapsburg empire that stretched along the Danube River.

As our coach passed through these grand streets, I positively lapped up the accompanying sights and commentary and glanced with interest to see if this had inspired similar enthusiasm in my daughters.

Alas, they’d nodded off (even though it was only 10am), but were forced to awaken as we disembarked for a walking tour of the older section of the city with its warren of tiny streets and pedestrianised zone.

Right on song

The sight of the Austrian National Library, displaying 200,000 classical works and volumes, and the magnificence of the vast Hofburg Imperial Palace failed to fire much of a spark among our young companions, though they showed a flicker of interest as two high-stepping steeds from the Spanish Riding School trotted across our path en route to the performance ring.

The girls further perked up as we neared the main shopping street, with Dani animatedly enthusing over a Mozart-themed rubber duck perched in the window of a souvenir shop.

The promise of chocolate cake, notably Vienna’s famous Sachertorte, was the temptation that led us into one of the city’s most famous coffee houses Café Sacher Wien – though the girls were more obsessed with devouring their helping as speedily as possible, rather than relishing the flavour of its heritage.

It took a day-long trip to Salzburg to finally capture Holly and Dani’s interest and imagination.

Yet, it wasn’t the Roman roots of this elegant Baroque city or legendary status as Mozart’s birthplace, but its more modern claim to fame as the bucolic backdrop for the Oscar-winning film, The Sound of Music.

The girls eagerly lapped up our visits to sites which featured in the movie; from the church in the nearby picturesque village of Mondsee where the wedding scene of Maria and Captain Von Trapp was filmed, to the fountains and flowers of Salzburg’s Mirabell Gardens, where Julie Andrews pranced with her young charges as they famously trilled “Do-Re-Mi”.

And that was the crux of this sailing. While the nature of river cruises in general meant it was far more cultural than any ocean voyages we’d taken, the girls found their own level at each place we visited.

Walking tours proved to be the flexible option that worked for us and while most of the organised cycle rides were too long for our rusty legs (and fitness levels), we could help ourselves to AmaSerena’s stock of 20 bikes and potter along the riverside cycle paths.

Unique cruise experience

Such river cruises may not be suited to young children; there aren’t any kids’ clubs for a start, but for youngsters from around 10 years and up who take more of an interest in their surroundings, it offers a different type of cruising experience.

Holly and Dani were two of just a handful of youngsters on this sailing as it wasn’t a designated family-friendly departure, but their tastes were well accommodated and the crew couldn’t have been more helpful where we or the girls were concerned.

When it came to dining, in common with other riverboats AmaSerena could not hope to match the quantity of venues on ocean ships, but it certainly triumphed on quality.

Meals were generally confined to the main dining room at fixed times, but menus were far from constrained with four-course feasts where we tucked into dishes that included
shrimp cocktail, foamy carrot and ginger soup, plus herb-crusted lamb medallions.

If dishes appeared too exotic for young palates, Holly and Dani opted for the “Always Available” section where unfussy options ranged from steak and salmon to chicken and Caesar salad, plus delicious potato wedges with sour cream.

Top cabins

Our final night proved to be a highlight when we dined in the reservation-only Chef’s Table restaurant at the vessel’s aft, which takes up to 28 diners.

Its bijou size means passengers are restricted to just one booking per sailing to savour the exclusive ambience and gourmet à la carte tasting menu.

Lunchtimes were more relaxed. We avoided the main restaurant and instead opted for the light snacks laid out in the lounge, taking them up to the top deck to eat al fresco with the benefit of beautiful riverside views.

Relaxed informality like this and the ease of going ashore lends itself to family groups, especially where multi-generational and extended families are concerned.

AmaWaterways’ newest vessels also have inter-connecting cabins, making them ideal for families, though on AmaSerena we found that having cabins across the corridor worked equally well too.

Both were beautifully appointed and with not one, but two balconies – a French balcony and a full balcony – making them my favourite cabins on Europe’s rivers.

Family appeal

Holly and Dani soon made themselves at home and on discovering the free wifi and TV film library, settled into evenings of happily watching Bond movies and other releases, while we retired to the bar to watch musical recitals or local dance groups who came aboard to provide evening entertainment.

Having the children with us meant we had to turn down some organised evening trips to concerts or wine-tastings ashore, but we relished having the boat virtually to ourselves and would retreat to the top deck to watch the sunset.

As we soaked up the peaceful atmosphere, while the girls locked horns in yet another game of deck chess, we reflected that river cruising had a family appeal all of its own.

GETTING THERE: A seven-night Melodies of the Danube sailing from Budapest to Vilshofen in Germany includes stops at Bratislava, Vienna, Linz and Passau. It costs from £2,599pp for all departures in July and August 2017, and includes flights, wine and soft drinks with meals and excursions. For more details call 0800 320 2336 or visit amawaterways.co.uk.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise with our Cruise Finder.

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