Barclay McBain

I’M not the jealous type but I felt the pull of envy as, with Scots Kiwi friends, we set off to cycle along the River Danube from Passau near the German-Austrian border to Vienna. It was June but the weather was atrocious. The rain came down in sheets and it was cold and dreich. As we splashed through puddles I recall looking out at one of the river cruises on the Danube and thinking how nice it would be to be aboard, dry and warm in a cosy cabin.

I hadn’t appreciated how special that experience could be until my wife and I joined the AmaMagna cruise ship for a late-autumn sail along the Danube from Vilshoven, some two hours’ drive from Munich, to Spitz. Magna by name (great), magna by nature. Launched in May last year, she is twice the width of the typical European river vessel and the biggest luxury ship to ply these waterways. Yet there is only a 20 per cent increase in guest capacity, so there is generous personal space for guests throughout the ship. We had a room of the standard expected in a five-star hotel or ocean liner, complete with a balcony offering views of the river.

On our first night we ate in the family-style Jimmy’s Restaurant, named for the late Jimmy Murphy, co-founder of the United States-based AmaWaterways, and shared a table, food and fine wine with fellow guests. We set off for Passau the next morning and arrived after a Bavarian-themed lunch in one of the AmaMagna’s four restaurants. Tours are available in each of the destinations and we chose to join our friendly and informative guide on an uphill walk to Paulanenkloster Marianhilf monastery. It offered lovely views of the city and its charming old town. In the gloaming we walked along the bank of the River Inn towards the confluence where it joins the Danube and the Ilz to form the mighty Danube.

History is never far behind in these parts and we passed a stark yet evocative memorial to the victims of Nazism. Hitler’s family moved to Passau when he was a toddler and it is said that he was rescued after falling into the water, perhaps by a priest who regretted his act of heroism for the rest of his life.

Back on board ship, we felt it would be impolite not to take up the offer of a pre-prandial drink during the nightly sip-and-sail cocktail hour. A culinary treat was in store in the chef’s table restaurant: a seven-course tasting menu, the highlights of which for me were the lemon pepper salmon, skin-grilled pike perch and green pea velouté, wild broccoli, guacamole, beetroot and Nebraska beef (yes, all the way from the States), washed down with complimentary, delicious Austrian wines. Serving up a quality culinary experience is a priority and it is no surprise to learn that AmaWaterways is a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs gastronomy association. Food is available from 6.30am to midnight daily and, conscious of the risk of piling on the pounds, we chose to join the walking tour of Linz in Austria, our next destination after an overnight sail from Passau.

Linz’s industries on the Danube were heavily bombed during the Second World War and the area has reinvented itself as a centre of modern manufacturing. The old town is a delight to walk through and was the focus of much activity as stalls were being assembled for the Christmas market. Brunch was served back on board and timed to enable us take the coach trip to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. We could have gone to Salzburg instead but I am so pleased that we opted to cross a friction-less border into another country and a magical destination. We drove through pretty countryside, skirting the River Moldau and listening, of course, to Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s famous symphonic poem Ma Vlast, inspired by the river, on the bus speakers.

Each village we passed had at least one billboard for a cosmetic dentist but what surprised me was the number of Vietnamese family-run clothing outlets, a throwback to the Communist era when North Vietnamese people could holiday with the comrades in the former Czechoslovakia. Some chose to stay on; what we might call internal Iron-Curtain tourism. Cesky Krumlov is not quite the hidden gem it once was when neglected under Communism. Since being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site it has become a magnet for Japanese and Chinese tourists in particular, second only to Prague as the most visited attraction in the Czech Republic.

The castle, which dominates the town, dates back to the 13th century and is something of a hybrid in architectural terms, with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features. Approaching the old town from the coach park, the eye is drawn to the three-tiered, arched passageways that bridge the gap in the promontory upon which the castle and its many parts are built. It has a moat, not filled by water but policed in a desultory fashion by two quite depressed looking bears, keeping up a questionable tradition that dates back to the time when the castle’s former rulers modelled themselves on the powerful Orsini (“bear-like”) Roman princely families.

The castle and its gardens offer panoramic views of Cezky Krumlov old town and its bisection by the River Vltava. A 20-minute stroll through the cobbled streets reveals the town’s many charms and we had time for a well-earned, locally brewed beer before rendezvousing with our guide in the main square. On our way back to Linz a group of us (mainly Scots, unsurprisingly) decided to have a soak in the AmaMagna’s heated pool and super-heated whirlpool on the top deck. It was cold, damp and dark as we took the plunge but it prove to be a most relaxing experience.

Some 50% of AmaWaterways’ mainly American customers are in the 65-plus age bracket, with 46% aged between 35 and 65 but it would be wrong to infer that the company’s cruises are intended for strictly sedentary sorts. The top deck has a walking/jogging track around its perimeter and I counted the distance at about 400 paces, an impressive circuit for a river cruiser. In addition, there is a wellness studio run by a fitness instructor who offers a range of activities from morning stretches and pilates to line dancing, yoga flow and digestive walks.

It transpired that we had exceeded the World Health Organisation physical activity guidelines for moderate exercise for a week in that day alone so we arrived largely guilt-free for what turned out to be another excellent meal (light, Mediterranean food and lovely wines) in the Al Fresco restaurant. The AmaMagna left Linz at 4am for the Wachau Valley but there was no sense of movement during that sail, or on any other. In fact, a lasting memory is of sitting on the balcony (not during the night, obviously) and watching life on the riverbank slip by, the only sound being the burbling of water as the low-draft cruise ship glided along the Danube at 15 kilometres (nine miles) an hour, powered by quieter, more fuel-efficient engines.

We cruised through what the daily programme guide described as the beautiful Strudengau and Nibelungengau on the way to our destination of Melk. Unfortunately the mist that had cleared from the Danube on previous days remained obstinately stuck at water level but we knew the adjective was apt as, on our earlier summer cycle trip, the weather had cleared and we had been able to take in the splendours of the Wachau Valley – its vineyards, abbeys, castles and ruins - as we followed the Danube on its many twists and turns on the way to Vienna. On that trip we had visited Melk Abbey but I must confess that I found its gilded opulence overwhelming so we decided this time to pass on the tour and, for old times’ sake, opt instead to take a two-hour bicycle ride along the Danube.

The AmaMagna carries more than 50 bikes and also provides helmets and gloves, the latter essential on what turned out to be a cold and wet afternoon. Our lovely guides helped us make the most of the weather and we arrived back at the ship soaked but feeling virtuous. The whirlpool worked its magic and we arrived for sip and sail hour confident that we had earned a cocktail or two before another exceptional meal, followed by entertainment in the lounge and a post-prandial nightcap.

We sailed to Spitz in the morning, situated on “the hill of the thousand buckets”, named after the many containers used to carry grapes down he valley to the village for processing into wine. The AmaMagna had two more stops on her itinerary – Vienna and Budapest – but our party left at Spitz for Vienna Airport and the journey home, carrying with us fond memories of life in the lap of luxury on a magical river.