River Crusing on the Danube with AMA Part One

I admit it. My wife and I were were stuck in a travel rut for decades. First when I was a small child, all our summer vacations were up at the cabin on Gull Lake in Northern MN. Then post college, the family vacations were in the villa my parents built in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. After that, they were increasingly larger cruise ship vacations to the Caribbean. Then in 2012, I bought Schilling Travel Agency.

For our clients and this blog, I had to break out of the “same old – same old” situation of taking the same vacation every year. A lot of us do it. We see it in our clients. And it is easy to just say — “I’ll have another X vacation.” What my wife Karen and I have found is that we ended up having much better vacations than staying in the same place. Oh, we will go back to some of the favorites, but we knocked off a few false assumptions about some vacations we had never taken.

A collection of different vacations that we have taken is found in the blog articles on our website. And this one today, is just another. A European River Cruise. For this, we took the Black Sea Discovery tour on the Danube with AMA Waterways. The decision to do this was really a no brainer. River cruises are our fastest growing segment of travel right now. We had to see what the fuss was all about. People coming back were positively glowing about their vacation. Our travels begin with 3 full days in Istanbul, Turkey. This is on land before you ever get to the ship. The cruise manager, Sebastian, met us when we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel. We learned he will be the cruise manager during the whole tour, not just Istanbul. Nice touch.

If you have never been to Istanbul, please put this on your bucket list. There are so many places to visit. The Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus (a body of water that separates Europe from Asia), the Topkapi Palace, the Golden Horn. We visited rug merchants, a tile factory, and even a tanning factory. We spent 3 days but I think we could have stayed another day or two to catch more of the sights.

After Istanbul, AMA bussed us to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the second largest city after Sofia. It is the oldest continously occupied city in Europe, with the beginnings 8000 years ago. Plovdiv was the site of a World Exposition a few years back, but the accommodations here at the Ramada were the most spartan of our trip. We took a walking tour of the center of the city, past parks, the Roman Ampitheatre, and St. Marina’s church. Compared to Istanbul, there was not a lot to see, frankly, but it was a good place to stop for the night on the way to the ship.

The next morning we depart by bus and planned to visit a small Bulgarian village and have lunch and arrive early afternoon in Ruse (Rousse) Bulgaria, where our ship, the AMA Certo, was waiting for us on the Danube. We were on a very nice 56 passenger bus with airconditioning, and television sets, somewhat of a contrast to the Bulgarian country which is still digging out of its Communist past. About halfway from Plovdiv to Ruse, there is a loud bang. Our front left tire has gone flat. Attempting to drive a bit further to pull over from the highway, the driver turns the wheel and cracks the rim and front brake of the bus. We were stranded. The bus escort from AMA calls the company right away for a new bus while the driver looks at the possibility of fixing the wheel.  We are a block away from a gas station, so the host gathers us up and we go to the gas station. She purchases snacks for us. Amazingly, a replacement bus shows up in 3 hours. I write amazingly, because we were in the middle of rural Bulgaria and 90 minutes from Sophia. AMA found a replacement (good) bus, and a driver in 90 minutes in Sofia and got on the road to us. Can you imagine getting a bus in rural Minnesota any faster? We got on the new bus, they held a late lunch for us at the planned restaurant, and made it to the cruise ship only about two hours later than planned. This unplanned event showed us how well AMA is prepared for problems.

The AMA Certo holds 150 passengers. It has two restaurants, two bars (one swim up in the small pool), a fitness center, a lounge, and a massage/hairdresser. The majority of the cabins on this newer AMA ship have either a French balcony or a split French/standard balcony. French balcony is just a large sliding glass door that does not have an outside deck. The standard balcony has the sliding door, but also additional deck space outside the room, taken from the interior space. The end result is an outside wall with floor to ceiling glass, where half of it opens to an outside deck. The cabins with the French balcony only still had the full wall of glass, but once opening the balcony door, your whole room is exposed to the outside.

When you take a river cruise, you are subject to the changes that might occur due to the river depth. If too high, the ships cannot get under the older bridges. If too low, they might run aground. The newer ships like the AMACerto have the ability to lower their top deck and have a shallower draft, so they can continue when other ships might have to resort to busses for a portion of the trip.

We found the food to be excellent, and they added local dishes from the ports we visited. They can accommodate dietary restrictions.

The appeal of this trip is for those who would like to visit the great river cities, and therefore this trip has a large proportion of retirees. At least one tour per day is included in the fare and optional cost extra tours are available. AMA has tour groups for the active walkers, slow walkers and late risers. The slow walkers group can accommodate persons in wheelchairs or walkers.

Our cruise took us to Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia on the Danube river. In part two of this blog, I will report on the interesting cities we visited along the Danube.

Note: You can see all of the wonderful AMA trips right here on our website. Just click on this link.