Cruising the Balkans With AmaWaterways

Cruising the Danube with AmaWaterways offers options of five to 14 nights on luxury river cruise vessels, with Budapest as the hub for the itineraries along both the Upper and the Lower Danube. Our itinerary was the seven-night “Gems of Southeast Europe” on the AmaBella, which started in the Hungarian capital and ended in Giurgiu in Romania. On this lower section of Europe’s great river, AmaBella passengers can disembark in five different Balkan countries—Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania—with the reverse journey upstream from Giurgiu to Budapest following the same itinerary. We boarded beside Margaret Island in the heart of Budapest, and our first positive impression was reinforced as the days wore on. AmaBella was "reimagined" in 2021 and we were impressed by the spacious, elegant and bright décor, the range of services that include a massage and hair salon, a fitness center and a pool on the top Sundeck, the great choice of  all-inclusive daily activities and the promise of fine dining.

The emphasis on this Lower Danube cruise is on active excursions and culinary visits and, for the most part, the sailing is through bucolic stretches of woodlands and flat landscapes. The daily stops are to visit fortresses, churches, museums and small riverside towns, as well as Serbia’s capital Belgrade, and, besides the main excursions, the alternatives include wine and culinary tasting experiences and bike tours. One of the highlights is the Danube’s most dramatic scenery, when it shrinks from over six kilometers (3.7 miles) wide at the Fortress of Golubec in Serbia, with Romania on the opposite bank, to make its way, passing through two locks, along the narrow gorge of the Iron Gates towards its mouth in the Black Sea.   

AmaBella has a total of 80 staterooms. Shown here is a Suite, which offers 350 square feet of space and comes with two balconies. (AmaWaterways)

The AmaBella has 80 staterooms that start with the E, D and C categories, which are forward on the top Cello and Violin Decks and also on the bottom Piano Deck. All measuring 170 square feet, the E and D staterooms do not have balconies, but the two horizontal portholes provide a lot of light. Our stateroom on the Cello middle deck was one of the 19 AB category and, like the 12 AAs on the top Violin Deck, they measure 235 square feet, have king or twin beds and come either with a couch, which can turn into a third bed, or two chairs. The most striking feature in most of the rooms is the balcony—or, to be more correct, the two ceiling-to-floor balconies: one a lean-on-the-railings French balcony, and the other with sliding doors, opening to an outdoor table and two deck chairs.

For A-listers who crave space, you should consider the five handsome Suites on the top Violin Deck. These measure 350 square feet, have extra-large balconies, a separate living area and a large TV that swivels for use in the bedroom and the living room, which has a comfortable couch and armchairs. All cabins and suites have wardrobes with lots of hangars and good cupboard space, as well as pristine bathrooms, bathrobes and slippers and quality bed linens.

AmaBella, which was renovated in 2021, has spacious, elegant and bright décor. The suites on the ship have separate living rooms. (AmaWaterways)

Excursions and on-board Wi-Fi are included in the rates, as are all meals both in the Main Restaurant and the gourmet tasting experience Chef’s Table, which is located at the stern and has seating for 28 passengers. Everyone on board gets to experience this, as they do the once-a-cruise Captain’s Dinner pre-dinner cocktail, while dinner at the captain’s table is for invitees only. Also included are afternoon teas, the Sip and Sail cocktail hour with champagne, wines and cocktails and the special Chaîne des Rotisseurs night. At lunch and dinner, there are free-flow wines, beers and soft drinks, while tea, coffee and soft drinks are available all day in the Lounge.

In the Main Dining Room, the tables in booths are for up to six people and, as seating cannot be reserved, guests move around. All meals are à la carte and there is a self-service cheese table. Menus offer appealing  choices with appetizers, soups, specials and entrées, a vegetarian menu and there is always a grilled salmon, steak and chicken option. The chef can accommodate special dietary needs, and the maître d' can arrange for celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.

AmaBella Lounge
The Lounge on AmaBella is the social hub on the ship. It has floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and has a pianist playing through the day. (AmaWaterways)

For those who like to keep fit, weather permitting there are daily complimentary walks, workouts and wellness classes on the Sundeck. This top deck also has a maxi chess board, canopied seating and the pool, which is heated in the cooler months. For those who prefer to take it easy (there is an elevator between the Violin and Cello floors), the AmaBella’s Library behind the Bar has couches, well-stocked bookshelves, board games and an electric fireplace. Not that we needed this, as the weather on our early-September cruise was as hot as the Mediterranean. There is also a small Gift Shop, while the Lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows forward and seating on the terrace, is the hub to which all passengers gravitate.

Throughout the day, there is a pianist in the Lounge, and on most evenings, there are local performers, folklore groups, as well as live DJ sessions. On our cruise, the guests were mostly over-50 with a mix of silvers, younger couples and solo cruisers, all of whom, we realized, were more attracted to this history-rich Balkan itinerary than families with young children would be. Regarding nationalities, the emphasis was on North Americans but there was also a strong sprinkling of guests from the U.K. and far-flung corners of the globe. The front-office, bartending, dining room and housekeeping crew—for the most part Eastern European—were as professional as they were charming. And with bonds quickly forming between them and the guests, there was a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere on board.      

Novi Sad, Serbia
Novi Sad in Serbia was the European Youth Capital in 2019 and the European Capital of Culture in 2022. (Getty Images)

Passengers taking the daily excursions could choose between joining a regular or a gentle group. These slower-paced outings avoid long walks and difficult terrain, and we were impressed by how the guides were attentive to the mobility issues of some guests without making things tedious for the rest of the group. All the guides spoke English well and provided local history and interesting anecdotes about the towns, cities and attractions we visited. Towns like Pecs in Hungary and Novi Sad in Serbia, the fortresses of Petrovaradin in Serbia and Baba Vidin in Bulgaria, and Bulgaria’s ancient capital of Veliko Tarnovo were packed with interesting visits, and the morning in Vukovar—the symbol of Croatia’s resistance during the Balkan wars—was very moving. The wine and food tours were very popular, and the younger passengers who set off daily on the guided bike tours (the boat carries 20 bicycles) pedaled anything from three to 10 miles daily.   

In 2025, AmaWaterways will launch “Imperial Danube,” a new seven-night roundtrip from Budapest with scenic cruising around the Danube Bend and visits to Bratislava in Slovakia as well as Durnstein and Vienna in Austria.

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