Guest writer Paulette Hannah files her second review for River Cruise Advisor. Her first review detailed her trip, Cruising The Mekong On AmaWaterways. This time, Paulette looks back to November of 2017, when she and her husband traveled to Europe to cruise Melodies of the Danube with AmaWaterways.
All right, let’s just cut to the chase. If you aren’t a foodie, don’t care about gourmet meals paired with superb wine – as well as delicious desserts and European culture – then you should probably skip this review.
Melodies of the Danube, Amawaterways’ seven-night river cruise (which we took in November of 2017), was an epicurean’s dream come true. Hosted by wineries from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, our cruise began in Budapest and ended in Vilshofen. For six evenings we delighted in four-course wine pairing dinners that could have easily rivaled Michelin dining experiences.
The optional pre-and post-tour included two nights in Budapest before embarkation and three nights in Prague afterward. However, as we had recently toured those areas, Steve, my husband, and I decided we would skip that option. Instead, we arrived in Budapest a couple of days early on our own to combat jet lag and search for the best wine bar and craft beer we could find.
Boarding In Budapest
After a quick taxi to the port in the afternoon, we boarded the AmaStella, built in 2016. Our Piano Deck stateroom, measuring 160 square feet, was small, but there was enough room to stow our bags under the bed, and the room included a safe, so we were satisfied. We didn’t feel the need for a balcony stateroom, as we were cruising in November, and as it turned out, we never spent enough time in our room to feel deprived of a view anyway.
As we ventured into the Main Lounge area, a self-serve espresso machine caught my eye and became one of my favorite amenities on board, feeding my café latte habit on a 24/7 basis. A first glimpse of the delicious adventure that awaited us was an abundant display of tea cakes, along with a fancy chocolate cake that displayed the ports of call slated for the journey ahead. This was my kind of ship.
In the next week, we would pass through four countries, stopping along the way to see medieval castles, cathedrals, sprawling palaces, gardens, lookout towers, market halls, abbeys, opera houses and yes, wineries.
The first evening’s dinner was hosted by Pedroncelli, a family-owned winery since 1927, known for their award-winning California Zinfandels. Julie Pedroncelli shared the family history, noting that today they are 70 percent woman-owned and have a female winemaker. After a toast to the chef, the dining experience began. As the evening proceeded, each of the four courses included a different varietal, guided by Pedroncelli’s comments about the pairing.
I’m one of those people who cannot help herself when it comes to taking pictures of food – not just ordinary food; when the dining experience achieves a state of total gastronomic bliss, well, I just have to embarrass myself by taking that photo. Already known for its award-winning cuisine, AmaWaterways is a member of La Chaine des Rotisseurs international culinary society, so there would be plenty of photo opportunities.
This was only the first night, and there would be more excellent dinners to come. The fabulous wine flowed uninterrupted until there were no more bottles to share, so we hit the dance floor with abandon until we couldn’t dance another step. When did we last have this much fun?
The next morning’s tour gave us the opportunity to see the best view of Budapest from atop Buda Castle’s Fisherman’s Bastion lookout tower, followed by a visit to the Grand Market Hall. The city walking tour also took us to Heroes’ Square with its impressive statues that include the seven chieftains of the Magyars. There’s more to explore in this great city than time allows.
More Wining & Dining
Afternoon activities onboard the AmaStella included – believe it or not – wine tasting. Never one to say “no” to an opportunity to test my palate, the tea cakes were a perfect accompaniment to the wines poured. For those passengers interested in learning more about wine production, there were seminars with the winery owners hosting this cruise. A late afternoon café latte kept me going until the evening dinner hosted by Amista Vineyards, a premier producer of Dry Creek Valley sparkling wines.
The next few days of cruising took us to the capital of Slovakia and on to Vienna for two nights. Activities included a Vienna city tour to the Ringstrasse and Schonbrunn Palace. Bicycles were available for group tours if desired. Evening options included a night at the opera or the Viennese Wine and Music excursion outside the city. The cruise director helped with metro directions when we opted to find our way to a local wine bar in Vienna.
The fantastic dinners continued each evening with perfectly paired wines from Trattore, one of my favorite wineries in Cote du Rhone style; Gustafson; Mill Creek; and Comstock, all family owned and operated. Onboard entertainment further delighted our senses with a virtuoso display of classical music and operatic vignettes that were so, so good.
We cruised along the Wachau Valley, viewing numerous small villages, vineyards, and castles lining the hillsides. One thing that is so gratifying about river cruising is the easy access to areas like Burg Clam, a family owned medieval castle. Our private tour by the owner included a visit to the castle’s interior living quarters, where we were treated to yet another wine tasting event, complete with medieval guards looking out for us.
Heading to upper Austria and on to Germany for the final days of the cruise, we would have many options – walking tours, wine and apricot sweets tasting, a bicycle tour, and a half or full day excursion to Salzburg. I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit Mondsee Abbey’s St. Michael’s parish where the wedding scene from The Sound of Music was filmed, so that was my choice.
The final evening of the cruise had a surprise for us in Vilshofen. An Oktoberfest tent had been set up for our exclusive entertainment. We sampled German beer and pretzels accompanied by lively music, an appearance by the local mayor and of course, the Vilshofen beer queen. It was the perfect ending to a perfect cruise.
The Danube was my first river cruise experience. The quality of the food was far beyond my expectations, and the California wineries showcased the best of their varietals, working with the chef to ensure a perfect pairing for each course. This dining experience, the quality of the AmaStella and the shore excursions delivered the perfect trifecta of a river cruise experience.
Did I say there was wine?