River cruising is now a widely popular travel option for exploring Europe’s quaint villages and historic treasures. There are many companies that offer competitively priced escape packages, but only a few that will truly deliver an enriching and intimate experience.

“All cruises, especially river cruises, are not equal” – is a relevant cautionary call-out reminding us that a little research will keep us clear of any cruise catastrophes.

As with hotel and resort properties, I have learned that there is a level of service and amenities that one just can’t live without.

AmaWaterways, among the newest river cruise lines, was designed for the discerning American traveler in mind. The cruise line operates 20 vessels and is best known for European destination cruises on the Rhine, Main, Danube and Mosel rivers. Given the company’s outstanding industry reputation and accolades, I gave several AmaWaterways’ winter cruises serious consideration during my planning. The many culture-rich river cruise programs, from Castles to Christmas markets, made it hard to choose.

After much deliberation, the French Wine Country itinerary featuring a pre-cruise port stop in Barcelona, made the grade. The season was just right. No crowds and cooler temps. Yet, it was AmaWaterways’ all-inclusive wine served during lunch and dinner, always top on my travel wish list, that sealed the deal.

Luxury travel and free-flowing fine wine – who could resist!

The Amadagio, a 150 passenger cruiser, was to be my floating luxury base camp for my seven day European adventure. The vessel would travel the waterways of France’s legendary wine country navigating the Saône and Rhône rivers visiting ancient cities and towns. Avignon, Pont du Guard, and Lyon, UNESCO World Heritage sites, were my destination discoveries. Not unlike Paris, these charming countryside gems have unique colorful histories and amazing architecture that keep Southern France a tourist hot spot with visitation increasing year after year.

Soaking in the scenery and sights was effortless. Amadagio’s Cruise Director, Abel Ramos, outlined a robust schedule of complimentary shore excursions in our daily cruise printed program and kindly briefed us on the details of options each evening prior to departure.

Far from ordinary – in content and creativity. The tours exceeded my expectations on every level!

Personal comfort and courtesy are priorities. The AmaWaterways’ team, recognizing and respecting the physical limitations and needs of individuals, provides guests with several special tour program perks. Every passenger is provided an audio headset to easily follow the guide’s commentary. And, you won’t experience the “cattle call”; groups are small and engaging.  AmaWaterways also offers four touring levels: a Gentle Walkers group that explores at a leisurely pace; a Regular Walkers group; an Active Walkers Group that covers more ground; and a Late Starters group for those who like to sleep in or for those still recovering from a little too much vino the night before.

Local culture and history themed tours are core to every cruise. But AmaWaterways leads the way in creative outings that focus on fun, education and full immersion. My Amadagio cruise excursions included:  a visit to a Truffle farm showcasing the art of canine truffle hunting, a special late night ghost walking tour of the tiny town of Viviers, an Olive Farm tour with tasting and an Impressionistic Art light show in a local rock quarry.

Even a lazy afternoon on deck offered excitement and endless photo opportunities, as the Amadagio’s Captain and crew masterfully maneuvered the lines as we entered the rising water of a river lock. The locks are like small dams that harness the power of the river to produce hydro-electricity for the region. The sight and touch, a finger-length distance and less, of the lock walls closing in on the Amadagio left onlookers awestruck. The day’s navigation drama lived on well after the event into the evening fueling great cocktail hour and dinner conversation.

The onboard cuisine and menus were just as memorable. I was left in a heavenly foodie fog every day after my fill of flavorful gourmet dishes. Each dining experience features destination-inspired menu selections with a focus on regional wine-pairings and locally-sourced fresh food and ingredients.

Seating is open but a reservation is preferred for dinner. Main courses ranged from seafood to steak. Breast of Guinea Fowl on Provencal Sauce, Grilled Fillet of River Char “Grenoble Style” and Tranche of Whole Roast Beef Tenderloin with Bordeaux Sauce were among the countless culinary delights. Vegan and special dietary meal options were also available.

The appetizers and decadent desserts were definitely not diet-friendly…but oh so deliciously divine.

But, call me “Mademoiselle Mouse “- for it was the amazing cheese board buffet that did me in.

So many cheeses…so little time!

When docked for the evening, the cruise kicked into high gear with dynamic entertainment after dinner, ranging from a classic guitar ensemble to a DJ dance-infused party.

My favorite was talented diva and French jazz songstress, Adele Bracco. Bracco graced the lounge with her sultry voice and love ballads. Her passionate renditions of La Vie en Rose and La Mer were magical.  I cherish her music CD, a constant reminder of that wonderful performance.

Discovering the art of river cruising has been enlightening.

AmaWaterways’ recent Facebook posting sums it up nicely: “It’s not just about where you go. It’s how you get there that matters.”

A recount of my amazing river cruise adventure – the countless treasured memories, new found friends and the whirlwind of wines – would take more pages that this post will allow.

So, I will close with a few lessons learned, hoping to inspire:

Take time to slow down; let go and flow like a river.

Think French: “la joie de vivre”; embrace life as you would each travel experience.

And, remember that it is never too early to start planning a European dream river cruise vacation. A New Year’s resolution worth keeping.

À la prochaine!
(Until next time)

Happy New Year.

Fast Facts/Highlights:
• Amadagio: Built in 2006
• Staterooms: 74; Crew: 44
• Stateroom Size: 170-255 sq.ft. (Violin & Cello Decks with French Balconies)
• All Inclusive – meals with unlimited wine/beer/soft drinks
• Complimentary Excursions
• Complimentary Tea & Coffee Station
• Elevator
• Complimentary In-Room Internet
• Complimentary Bottled Water
• Fitness Room/ Salon/ Whirlpool
• Sundeck/ Walking Track/Outdoor patio
• Flat screen TVs with on demand movies and music
• Main Dining Room; Lounge; Chef’s Table Specialty Restaurant
• Complimentary Bicycles
• Air, Transfer and Pre/Post Cruise Services
• Crew tips not included

Special Offer: Select 2015 Spring Cruises include FREE airfare from several U.S. gateway cities.
To learn more about AmaWaterways’ ships and 2015 destinations, contact your travel agent or visit AmaWaterways online.