Neil Silver discovers the beauty of a wine-tasting river tour as he takes a trip on a European cruise
The bookcase had been pulled outwards from the wall and stood ajar like a heavy door, revealing a secret dark passage with a narrow flight of stairs ready for us to explore.
Yet this wasn’t some exciting set from a Harry Potter film, or a portal into the magical world of Narnia; and we weren’t bursting with feelings of nervous excitement, but were instead tinged with rather sad and poignant emotions.
For this was the entrance to the annexe in which Anne Frank and her family hid from Adolf Hitler’s Nazis for two years.
We were in Amsterdam, the final stop on our week-long river cruise along the Rhine, and the sights of this diverse city proved to be our highlight.
My wife, Simone, and I had been sailing on the Amacello, one of AmaWaterways’ fleet of critically acclaimed ships, with our voyage beginning in Basle, in Switzerland.
We have been cruising for more than 20 years and are used to the giant luxury liners, so a 148-capacity ship was always going to be an interesting new experience for us.
We are massive fans of cruising holidays and have always thought that ‘big is beautiful’ as the saying goes. Where else can you enjoy gourmet dining, West End-style theatre productions and a different destination every day, other than on one of the many floating hotels which grace the seven seas nowadays?
So we did wonder if such a small sailing vessel – it has to be in order to negotiate the locks of the Rhine – would hold our interest, but we needn’t have worried, as cruising AmaWaterways-style offers a charm all of its own.
Unlike the giant ships, the river cruise always offers a view either side, and as we left Switzerland and edged along the Rhine we could look at Germany on our right and France on our left, before the sight of a windmill told us we had arrived in the Netherlands towards the end of our trip.
One of the main highlights is the fact that with AmaWaterways, all your excursions are included – unlike on the big cruise liners where you can spend hundreds of pounds on some basic sightseeing.
The Amacello stopped in the heart of the various cities, and our itinerary included Cologne, Heidelberg, Speyer, Rudesheim, Riquewihr and Breisach. Each destination offered a gentle walking tour and one innovation which we particularly liked was the fact that every passenger is given their own headset for the week which is then linked to your various guides, offering a very personal tour experience for your small group.
If you are a bit more energetic, the ship offers bike tours in many of the stops – they carry the bikes on board – and the 15-mile treks are a good way to burn off the calories. Plus, in case you have been to any of the stops before, there were ‘alternative’ tours which took you to places you might not have seen before, such as the Jordaan district of Amsterdam.
Each stop had its own character, and the highlights for us were the castle in Heidelberg and Siegfried’s Music Museum in Rudesheim.
Our sailing also had a theme to it: wine tasting. I must admit that I am not a big wine drinker, but I very much enjoyed the tasting sessions and on-board lectures, and I now know a lot more about wine than before our trip – even if it meant drinking wine at 10.00am.
As for the food on board, this was excellent. The choice and quality at breakfast was among the best I have known. Lunch offered a light selection, while dinner was a real treat each night. We loved the fact that it was very informal, and we could sit wherever we wanted, with whomever we wanted, which meant we met some lovely people, mainly from USA and Canada.
We may not have had theatre-style entertainment, but that didn’t mean we were without something to enjoy each night. The ship brings on local entertainers and these were excellent, especially a classical trio on one evening and a pop-singing duo on another. All of these were introduced by Christian, our excellent and very knowledgeable cruise director from Germany who ran the cruise with just the type of efficiency you would expect from a man from that country.
As Simone and I wanted to experience more of Amsterdam, including the Jewish Museum and Portuguese Synagogue, we added on our own extra night in the city, staying at the elegant canal-side Ambassade Hotel, which was walking distance to all the main sights. It even has a unique form of relaxation called the Koan Float, a pod of warm salted water which makes you feel like you are in the Dead Sea.
So taken were we by our overall experience that we definitely want to go river cruising again. By the end of 2014, AmaWaterways will have 18 ships sailing in more than 20 countries on waterways including the Rhine, Seine, and Moselle in Europe, as well as the waterways of Russia, the Mekong in Indochina, cruise-and-touring holidays in Africa and the Ayerawady.
However, top of our list will be one of their Jewish Heritage cruises operating on the Danube and featuring special excursions in Linz, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. That’s certainly a date worth putting in our diary.
AmaWaterways’ `in celebration of wine’ river cruises travel through Europe’s best-known wine regions and feature expert wine hosts, complimentary lectures, wine tastings and excursions to historic vineyards and cellars. Departing on 17th November 2014, a week’s `Enchanting Rhine’ wine cruise can be booked from £1579pp, sailing between Amsterdam and Basel, including all meals, complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, daily tours and excursions, free wi-fi and free use of on board bicycles. Contact AmaWaterways on freephone 0808 256 8422, or visit www.amawaterways.co.uk