A Guide to River Cruises

Intro Guide to River Cruises Pin
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Imagine sailing dreamily past landscapes dotted with castles, fairy-tale villages, and vineyards. Sitting on the sundeck, drinking in new scenery every day. Docking right in the heart of a city, making it easy to explore by just strolling off the gangway. Enjoy a quiet, intimate setting with delicious local food and wine each night. River cruises are a unique way to travel, with a focus on the destination and the local culture. They offer you an almost- or all-inclusive luxury vacation, combined with easy-to-access sightseeing in the most incredible towns and cities. If you’re intrigued, here’s our mini guide to river cruising.


River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise

Ocean cruises and river cruises share a few traits. They are an easy way to see multiple destinations without having to worry about how you’re getting from place to place or having to unpack each time. You get to enjoy the gentle sense of travel on a body of water. And you can easily sign up for shore excursions and guided tours at each destination. But that is where the similarities stop.

River cruises are smaller so you don’t have such long lines or big crowds. They are far from the “floating cities” that describe the larger ocean liners. Their size contributes to many of the key differences. There’s a greater since of intimacy with only around 150 – 200 passengers. You also won’t have as many amenities and onboard activities as the ocean cruises, because the focus of a river cruise is on the destination.

Generally, this means there won’t be any casinos or large-scale production shows. But they might have a small spa, some live music, a small pool, and some onboard lectures.

Typically, they dock right in the middle of a city/ town. You’ll have no long transfers to get to the places you want to see – just stroll off the boat!

River cruises also offer more included in the upfront price. Shore excursions, drinks with dinner, and sometimes even gratuities will be included in the price.

[Photo Credit: Dima Fedorov via Unsplash]

a group of teens and kids in traditional Bulgarian dress kneel for a photo after performing a local folk dance

Because of their close connection to the ports they visit, river cruises celebrate the local culture. The lectures and live entertainment will be local experts and performers.

Each day the ingredients, wines, and beers for dinner are sourced locally. River cruises give you an in-depth experience, ensuring you get a real sense of the destination. They are a great way to explore multiple countries with local guides to give you the context and history.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

Where Do River Cruises Go?

You can find great river cruises all over the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, and the USA all boast incredible itineraries. Choosing to do a river cruise won’t limit your destinations and might even expand them. 

The Budapest parliment building lit up at night from the view of the river cruise

One of the most popular first-timer itineraries is the Upper Danube through Germany and Austria. This itinerary is a great starting place because it has a little bit of everything. You’ll get to visit famous cities like Nuremberg, Vienna, and Budapest. And also a few small fairy-tale villages, outdoorsy adventures, and UNESCO sites. It’s a great introduction to all that river cruises can offer in one trip.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel read about her Danube Adventure Here!]

Other popular routes include Amsterdam to Basel, Paris to Normandy, along the Nile in Egypt, and the Douro River in Portugal. 

Who Would Love A River Cruise?

  • Anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a “cruiser” or who dislikes the big ocean vessels. River cruises are a more intimate experience with less than 200 passengers. So they still allow you to have authentic experiences in a destination. 
  • Someone looking for the ease/ convenience of a guided motorcoach tour, but without having to pack and unpack every day or two. 
  • An independent traveler who typically does their own thing and enjoys multi-city trips. Someone who likes the idea of docking in a new place every day and heading out to explore. 

How to Choose the Right Cruise?

There are two things to consider when selecting the perfect river cruise — Cruise lines and Destinations.

Cruise Lines

Like ocean cruise lines, each river cruise line has a slightly different “personality”. An experienced travel agent can help you find the right match. Our top three lines are:

The sun deck with pool of an AMA waterways river cruise

Ama Waterways – aimed at slightly younger, more active working professionals. They have more included excursions, more “active” excursion choices like hiking and biking, as well a small gym on board. They usually include drinks not just at dinner but for happy hour each evening as well.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel read about her Danube Adventure Here!]

Viking Cruises – a popular entry-level option. Viking has a lower price point, with just the basics included. (i.e. beer/wine only at dinner; just one shore excursion included and the others are optional with added cost; etc) They’re a great starter line to test out the river cruise waters, and they do a lot of promotions and sales, so you can often catch a great rate.

the entrance staircase and chandelier of a Uniworld River Cruise

Uniworld– a slightly more upscale line. Their ships are all very uniquely decorated to emulate a boutique European hotel. The cruise fare includes all alcohol and gratuities, so there’s very little you have to add to the upfront price.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

Destinations

River cruises are destination-focused, so make sure to choose an itinerary that plays into your interests! Are you a history buff? A wine lover? Do you dream of seeing fields of tulips or picturesque castles? Each itinerary offers something a little bit different and depending on what you’re most interested in experiencing, the destinations will have a starring role.

As with any trip, you should be mindful of seasonality. European rivers can have water level issues at certain times of the year.

Some months are colder than others and whether you’d like to wear a jacket or a swimsuit on the sundeck will affect when and where you go.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

Finally, you’ll find there are often promotions/specials for 2-for-1 cruise fares or discounted airfare. You can search the internet for these deals, or keep an eye out for them in our newsletter! 


Does the adventure of visiting many ports without the hassle of re-packing, plus the intimate connection with the destinations and local customs appeal to you? Let us know! We’d love to help you find the perfect itinerary and cruise line!

Three Unique Places to See the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis ( or the Northern Lights ) is at the top of many bucket lists. And rightfully so! This amazing natural phenomenon has sparked legends of sky warriors, spirits, and far distant dawns. It has kept people looking up at the long winter night sky for centuries.

silhouette against the Aurora Northern Lights Alaska
[Photo Credit: Steve Halama via Unsplash]
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When you consider making this bucket list dream a reality, the first country that might spring to mind is Iceland. Iceland is a great place to see them! But, it’s not the only place to see these incredible lights. If you’re looking for something a little different, read on for 3 unique places to see the Northern Lights. Starting right in our own backyard!

First, a little background to prepare you to go aurora hunting:

What is the Aurora Borealis?

The short version: The particles emitted from the sun’s atmosphere break free and strike our atmosphere causing a reaction resulting in light.

The longer version: It’s so hot on the outermost surface of the sun (the Corona) that the hydrogen atoms split into protons and electrons. The gas of the charged particles is electrically conductive. The gas breaks free of the sun and blows away from the surface- sometimes called solar wind. These particles then strike our own atmosphere causing a chemical reaction that results in a release of energy in the form of light.

The Aurora from Space
Aurora from Space [Photo Credit: NASA via Unsplash]

When are they visible?

For the northern lights to be visible, you need darkness, high geomagnetic activity (storms on the surface of the sun), and clear skies (little to no cloud cover).

To increase your chances, you want to be far north, in the winter months (long, dark nights) and away from light pollution.

But the biggest factor in seeing the Northern Lights is the simple weather report. You won’t see much without clear skies, so keep a very close eye on the weather and cloud cover.

Remember: The lights are an unpredictable force of nature. So make sure the vacation you choose has other things that interest you! That way you’re guaranteed a good vacation, even if the cloud cover isn’t in your favor.

Ok, now that you’re ready to start your aurora hunt, let’s look at some unique locations!

Bright Aurora Northern lights against snow trees
[Photo Credit: Tim Motivv on Unsplash]

Fairbanks, Alaska

There’s a great Aurora spot right in our own backyard- no passport needed! If you’re looking for something a little more familiar and closer to home, then look no further than Northern Alaska.

You have a great chance of seeing the lights near Alaska’s second-largest city. With plenty of hotels, B&B’s, and its own airport, Fairbanks is easy to reach. To really see the Aurora clearly, you’ll have to travel outside the bright city lights. You can rent a car to visit Cleary Summit, Creamer’s Field, or Murphy’s Dome on nightly trips.

Aurora over Alaska
The view from Cleary Summit in Fairbanks [Photo Credit: Tommy Tang on Unsplash]

Fairbanks knows they have something special with these fantastic spirits, so many of the hotels offer aurora wake-up calls allowing you to sleep peacefully without the worry of missing anything. They also offer several Aurora tours if you’d rather not rent a car.

Best Time to Visit: The shoulder months of Late-September and Early March give you the clearest skies, but November-February will provide the longest night hours.

Places to Stay: Fairbanks has a huge selection of hotels, but you can also try staying a little outside the city at the Chena Hotsprings Resort or the Borealis Basecamp which offers geodesic igloos with 16ft windows/skylights to really improve your chances.

Other Things to Do: There are numerous outdoor activities from dogsledding to wildlife hikes, reindeer ranches, museums, and cultural sites.

northern lights behind Scottish monument
Northern Lights in Scottish Highlands [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Orkney & Shetland Archipelago, Scotland

Scotland brings to mind Castles, lochs, monsters, whisky, and haggis but the Northern Lights? Picture yourself sitting in a cozy cabin nestled in the windswept northern isles, sipping local whiskey and watching the skies for these Merrie Dancers (as they’re known locally).

 If you’d like to plan a trip to Scotland or the UK then this is definitely something to include!

The northernmost Scottish Isles offer incredibly low light pollution with some of the largest expanses of Dark Sky in Europe. Combined with their low lying landscapes, this more than makes up for their “low” latitude compared to other aurora-viewing hotspots.

galaxy and northern lights behind a castle wall
In addition to the Aurora, there are fantastic night sky views in Northern Scotland [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Reachable by ferry, Orkney & Shetland are the perfect places to make-your-own-adventure when hunting for the Aurora. The “Aurora tourism” boom hasn’t quite reached these isles yet, so there are few tours offered. Which gives you the opportunity to enjoy the lights in an intimate setting, and consider renting a camper van to be able to “chase” them across the isles.

Best Time to Visit: The winter months with the longest nights will be your friend in Scotland- aim for December- February. Visit in January- February to include one of Shetland’s famous Viking Fire Festivals on your trip!

Best Places to Stay: Any of the Islands are a good choice but try to stay away from the light pollution of Lerwick, Shetland. There are plenty of B&Bs and self-catering cabins, but the islands do have a few full-service hotels as well.

Other Things to Do: Archaeological and UNESCO sites ( Orkney has four monuments spanning five thousand years), wildlife walks & hiking, Shetland Ponies, Fire festivals and Folk Music Festivals.

Bow of a ship in icy Norwegian waters
[Photo Credit: Pascal Debrunner via Unsplash]

Cruising the Norwegian Coast

If you’re looking for something a bit more structured and with a practical guarantee of seeing the northern lights look no further than Hurtigruten Cruises!

Based in Norway, they have several options for Aurora Hunters. All the cruises head up the coast of Norway to the north-easternmost point of Kirkenes, a town that shares its border with Russia.

These cruises offer onboard guides, lectures, and presentations all about the lights and the stunning landscape. You also have to option of mini shore-excursions during the day in each of the ports! Although there is the risk that you’ll have more clouds on the coast, Hurtigruten offers a “Northern Lights Promise” which is their guarantee you’ll see the aurora or you get another cruise free! Making this option your highest chance of seeing the Aurora.

Aurora Northern Lights over water in Norway
A ribbon of light near the coast of Tromsø, Norway [Photo Credit: Sebastian Kowalski via Unsplash]

Their classic cruise starts from Bergen and heads around the coast to Kirken with options for 6-12 days and stopping at 22- 34 ports along the way! You also can choose from their Short Coastal Cruises ( 2-4 days) or Expedition Cruises (12-15 days)

Best Time to Visit: To maximize your nightly hours visit in January or February. Although the “Northern Lights Promise” is valid from October 1- March 31st.

Other Things to Do: The fact that Hurtigruten fits so many ports into their itinerary is pretty amazing. So without too much extra hassle, you can go on mountain hikes, city tours, kayaking, dogsledding and other cultural activities.

Final Tips & Tricks

Some final tips before you begin planning your incredible Aurora Vacation:

Aurora Northern Lights over Lofoton Norway
Aurora in Lofoten, Norway
[Photo Credit: Stein Egil Leiland via Pexels]
  • Avoid full moons – five days before the new moon is best
  • If you’re taking a tour, aim for the start of your trip so you have another chance
  • Use red-light flashlights and keep your eyes off screens for the best night vision
  • Bring extra camera batteries
  • Be patient
  • It’s literally FREEZING outside! Dress in layers.

If this list has sparked your imagination, send us an email and we can make it even easier to plan your Amazing Aurora Adventure!

Wine and Wienerschnitzel

I turned fifty this month, and had done a LOT of advance thinking about what I wanted to do to celebrate this milestone. The fact that it would involve travel was a given, but I just couldn’t decide where to go.  Until I received an invitation from AmaWaterways for a wine-themed cruise on the Danube, departing a few days after my birthday!  That was a no-brainer, because I’ve always wanted to try a river cruise; it visited three countries that were new to me; and…well….WINE 😊

Misconceptions About River Cruises

If you’ve not yet done a river cruise, you’ve probably got some of the same pre-conceptions that I did.  I figured I’d be the youngest person on the ship, and that it would be a fairly quiet/relaxing experience. I downloaded a half-dozen books to bring with me, because I assumed there’d be nothing to do at night. All of which was fine. And all of which turned out to be incorrect!

This “old person’s” cruise kicked my fairly-active butt.  We were seeing/doing things from dawn to dusk. With opportunities to hike, bike, and explore (independently and with a group). We ate fabulous multi-course meals, we drank lots of great wine and beer. And at the end of the very full days, all I wanted to do was fall into bed at 9:30/10:00 pm. They offered nightly entertainment, but I only made it to the lounge once to check it out!  It also bears mentioning that I was NOT the youngest person on this sailing. There were definitely some couples in their 30s and 40s, and the majority were in their 50s and 60s. True “seniors” were probably the minority.

AmaWaterways blew me away. And what I now know is that their cruises are aimed at a more active demographic. They do attract more 40- and 50-somethings, with their easy 7-night itineraries, included wine/beer/internet, and onboard gyms, and bikes. The food and the service were far better than anything I’ve experienced on an ocean cruise. Plus,the more intimate size (approx. 160 people) makes it really easy to meet interesting people. I am a total convert, and am already planning my next river cruise!

the deck of the river cruise down the danube

If you want the details of this trip, scroll down.  And if you want to skip ahead to the photos, here’s a link to the entire gallery, taken by my very talented husband.

Our cruise on the AmaSerena was a 7-day “Romantic Danube” itinerary. Sailing from Vilshofen to Budapest, with the added bonus of an onboard wine expert and a handful of special wine tasting experiences along the way. The dates (November 13 – 20) were just before the official beginning of Christmas Market season in Europe (this usually starts around the 20th). But, because of the weather, a couple of cities/towns started their markets a week early and we were able to experience that as well. A totally unexpected bonus!

Munich

We flew into Munich a day early, arriving on Sunday morning. So that we could see a little bit of that city, and adjust to the time difference.  Arrival in Munich was super easy. It’s a big, modern airport, and we had a private driver waiting for us in the arrivals hall. The ride into the city was about 45 minutes, and it would also be easy to take the train if you prefer.

Our hotel – the Sofitel Munich Bayerpost — was right next door to the main train station (the Hauptbahnhof). A very central location, walkable to just about everything you’d want to see/do.  Service was very friendly, our room was ready and we were able to check in at 10 am! The rooms are modern, spacious and light, and the bed was fantastic. We crashed for a quick one-hour power nap, and then headed out in the rain to explore.

Munich overall was a very easy city to walk around, and we felt very safe.  Because it was Sunday, a lot of things weren’t open, but we walked all through the Marienplatz and the Viktualenmarket. They were setting up for Christmas markets, but the stalls were not yet open. We stopped by the famous Hofbrauhaus beer hall. But we were overwhelmed, jet-lagged, and didn’t really want to squeeze into a table with strangers, so we ate across the plaza at an Augustiner restaurant instead. The beers were delicious (our first Hefeweizens!) and we shared a very German snack plate of sausages, cheese, brown bread, shredded horseradish and more.  We had an early bed time that night, and twelve very necessary hours of sleep!

two glasess of beer in Munich

We got up bright and early on Monday, and had breakfast at one of the little coffee shops in the train station next door. Then we checked out, stored our bags with the front desk, and wandered back through the Marienplatz for a little more sightseeing. We rode up the tower at the town hall for the views, and explored the Munich Residence museum (an unexpected gem – like a smaller and less-crowded Versailles!)

 the Munich Residence Museum - a smaller and less croweded versailles

When it was time, we collected our bags and strolled back into the train station. It was very easy to find the correct platform and our train car (they are marked on the outside to indicate 1st and 2nd class). The seats were comfy, the ride was about two hours, and it was very easy to navigate. They announce each upcoming station, and show it on a scrolling monitor as you approach. We hopped off in Vilshofen, consulted our Google maps, and walked to the river bank where the ship was docked.

Boarding the Ship

Boarding the ship was very casual and easy. There’s no real check-in; you just walk onboard, give the front desk your name, and then relax and have a snack in the lounge until they escort you to your cabin. We were in one of the least expensive cabin categories, which was below the waterline on deck one.  It’s worth noting that this deck is down a spiral staircase, with no elevator access, and it would be tough for anyone with mobility issues. The cabin was very “cozy”, but had more than enough storage space. The bathroom was modern, and the shower was bigger than on an ocean cruise. There were two small windows high on wall, right at water level, and we jokingly called it “duck view”. The cabin was stocked with bottled water, and had free wifi, and a nice Apple TV with Internet and movies. Higher level cabins have French balconies, or twin balconies (part French balcony and part full sit-down balcony), but in the cool/wet fall weather that we experienced all week, we really didn’t miss having the outdoor space.

There was time to stroll around town that afternoon, and then we were officially welcomed with a dockside Oktoberfest celebration hosted by the village of Vilshofen. We enjoyed local beer and pretzels, live music, and even some polka lessons! It could have been hokey, but was actually quite fun and festive, and was a great way to kick off the cruise.   Dinner followed, in the main restaurant, with free-flowing local wine and beer. They really did a nice job of tailoring each night’s menu to the surrounding area, and we enjoyed some very nice German and Austrian wines along the way. Meals were all open-seating, which was good for meeting people, and the food and the service were top notch.

We did not sleep all that well that night, partially due to the time difference and partially due to the noise we could hear. Our location (next to the kitchen and more or less underneath the gangway) was not ideal, and I would choose something further down the hallway next time. Because this was a turnaround night (they were clearly offloading some things from the previous cruise and taking on new provisions, etc. ) there was a lot of foot traffic overhead.

Tuesday morning we were again up bright and early, and enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the main restaurant. Breakfast and lunch onboard was always buffet, with a few additional a la carte items you could order from the waiter. Every morning, outside of the main breakfast hours, they also offered “early” and “late” continental breakfast options in the lounge. It would be impossible to go hungry!

That first morning they had an information session in the lounge to explain the shore excursion options. The cruise director walked us through all the available (included) sightseeing options in each port, and provided details about the variations (i.e. “active walkers”, “slow walkers”, etc.) He also filled us in on a couple of optional ticketed excursions (such as a night at the Vienna concert hall) that were available – at added cost – for anyone who was interested.  It was very helpful, and was a great overview of the days to come.

Passau

After that, we enjoyed a scenic sail down the river to Passau, arriving just after lunch. Although it was cold/breezy, we ventured up to the “sun deck” to see the scenery and take some photos. Unlike some river cruise lines, all AmaWaterways ships have a small pool and lounge chairs up on that deck, and it would be very inviting in the warmer months.

In Passau, we chose to do a hiking tour up to the castle that overlooks the city. The hike was really not difficult, just lots of steps, and we had some interesting commentary/history along the way.  NOTE: For all the guided tours, we had “quiet vox” ear pieces to wear, so that we could hear our guide without having to be right next to him/her. The view from the castle was fabulous, and it would be even better on a sunny day. Afterwards, we had some free time to wander around Passau on our own, and we visited their beautiful cathedral.

We ate dinner that evening at the Chefs Table, which is a lovely room at the stern of the ship, with wraparound windows. It seats about 28 people, and everyone can make reservations at least once during a one-week cruise.  The meal includes a special tasting menu, with wine pairings, great service, and some very interesting and unique dishes. They also brought me a cake and sang Happy Birthday 😊

The entertainment in the lounge that evening was a singer from the UK (she had spent several years in the West End playing Fantine, Evita, etc) and she was great. Unlike on ocean cruises, where an entertainer stays on board for the duration, the river cruises have local talent that get on and off each evening. Once she was done with her set, off she went, and we set sail down the river again.

Linz & Salzburg

Wednesday morning, we were docked in Linz, Austria. We enjoyed a morning walking tour of the city, which is a UNESCO city of “culture and music”, with lots of interesting museums, sculptures, public art installations, etc.  After returning to the ship for a quick lunch, we headed off to Salzburg (the other option would have been the medieval village of Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, which I also would have loved to have seen) 

The bus ride to Salzburg from Linz was about two hours, and we made a pitstop at Lake Mondsee for bathrooms and photos. (NOTE: those who chose the full-day Salzburg tour spent more time here to see the Sound of Music wedding chapel, which overlooks the lake). At Salzburg, the bus let us off on the edge of the city center, and we did about a 90-minute guided walking tour of Mirabell Gardens, the “Love Locks” bridge, the pedestrian-only city center, and the Cathedral, and then had about 90 minutes on our own, which was perfect. We did some Christmas shopping, and then sat and had coffee and strudel in a cute little café. I would definitely go back to Salzburg if I had the opportunity, as we did not even scratch the surface. There are museums, churches, a fortress overlooking the city, and more.

Durnstein

Thursday was a nice respite from the busy days prior. We were able to sleep in, as the morning schedule was just “scenic cruising in the Wachau Valley”, and we would not be in port until 2 pm. I appreciated that change in pace, and had my first restful night’s sleep of this trip. We had a nice breakfast and then spent some time up on the sun deck in the cold. We were the only ones up there, because it was chilly and windy, but we got to watch as we went through one of many locks, and take pictures of cute little villages, churches and castles along the river banks. The hot chocolate/latte machine in the lounge was much appreciated after that. We did later hear that some fellow passengers had braved the (heated) pool!!

Later that morning, while we cruised down the river, we enjoyed an interesting wine tasting taught by our onboard wine host, and learned about some different California blends. When we eventually docked in Weissenkirchen, we enjoyed an afternoon tour to Durnstein (a short bus ride away). This was a charming Medieval town, surrounded by vineyards, with castle ruins looming above them. Because it was so late in the season, a lot of the shops weren’t open, but we did manage to pick up some locally-made apricot liqueur!

That evening, we did a really nice winetasting tour in Weissenkirchen. We were sorted into small groups, with guides, for a scenic stroll through this wine-making village. Our group ended up at a really cool old wine cellar, where we tasted several different Austrian white wines. For me, the Gruner Veltliner was the clear winner (I didn’t really care for the Austrian Reisling or Chardonnay).

Melk

Friday morning, we were up bright and early (again) for breakfast and a 9 am departure (by bus) for Melk. This is a gorgeous baroque abbey/fortress/church overlooking the river, which has been continuously occupied by monks for 900 years.  Monks still live there now, and run a small and prestigious private school (which our guide had attended!)  We learned a lot about the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Hapsburgs.

After lunch, we enjoyed a scenic sail down past Durnstein, to leave the Wachau Valley.  When we tied up in Krems, Austria we actually decided to skip the afternoon winetasting excursion (shocking, I know!) in favor of wandering around town on our own. It turned out to be one of my favorite stops. We walked into the pedestrian-only city center, where everything was decorated for Christmas, and we window-shopped our way down every block. There were outdoor kiosks selling mulled wine, and families enjoying a late-afternoon stroll, and the whole thing was picture-postcard-perfect.

Vienna

On Saturday, we arrived in Vienna. With so much to see and do in such a big city, the cruise line had given us a lot of options, and we packed our day very full.  We started with a morning walking tour, to get an overview of the city and its history. We saw the famous Lipizzaner Stallions outside the Spanish Riding School, we marveled at St Stephen’s Cathedral, and we learned about Vienna’s café culture. When the tour was over, we stayed in town (rather than riding back to the ship for lunch) and explored a bit on our own. We ate bratwursts at an open-air kiosk, wandered down cobblestone streets, and soaked up the atmosphere. That afternoon, we met back up with the guide for a tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the grand summer residence of the Hapsburg Emperors. The Christmas Market outside the palace had already opened for the season, so we were able to sneak in some souvenir shopping (and some gluhwein sampling 😊 )

Because the Christmas Markets were open, we opted to forego the usual evening tours — a Mozart and Strauss Concert or an evening at a traditional Austrian Heuriger (tavern) — and instead took advantage of a shuttle ride back into the city to spend a few hours at the Christmas Market at the Rathausplatz. There was music, twinkling lights, an open-air skating rink, and lots and lots of stalls selling all sorts of holiday treasures. We picked up some souvenirs for the kids, and thoroughly enjoyed the festive atmosphere.

Budapest

Sunday was our last full day, and unfortunately it was not only cold but rainy. Because of the distance we needed to cover from Vienna to Budapest, the ship actually dropped us all off in Esztergom (about an hour’s drive from the city) so we could board buses and start our tour while the ship continued along the meandering river to eventually catch up with us in the late afternoon. We did a “panoramic” tour of the city. From the bus, and then a drizzly walk through Buda to the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church. We had some free time to shop and explore nearby, and then we continued our panoramic tour into the Pest side of the city. We ended up at Heroes Square, where we learned more about the  1956 Uprising, the Cold War, and the modern history of this fascinating city.

That night, the final evening of the cruise, was a definite highlight. We enjoyed the Captain’s cocktail party, and a special farewell dinner, and then the ship left the dock to do a leisurely cruise through the heart of Budapest. With amazing illuminated buildings/palaces/castles/monuments on each side. Everyone was up on the top deck, marveling at the sights. I actually had tears in my eyes, and it was only partially due to all the wine 😊

Final Thoughts

Disembarkation on Monday was handled exceptionally well. We had all been assigned to specific shuttle times, based on our onward plans. So, we were able to sleep in, have some breakfast, and relax in the lounge until called. They loaded us (and our luggage) onto a shuttle and drove us to the airport. There we were met by someone from Amawaterways to hold our hands for the airport check-in, and make sure we were safely on our way.  The whole thing, from beginning to end, was top notch.

A summer adventure to Alaska

This trip report, from a client who just did an Alaska cruise with her family of four, provides a great opportunity to compare two different viewpoints of the exact same cruise itinerary. Clare (see below) was on the 8/4/13 sailing of the Norwegian Pearl from Seattle and another client, Terry (see her review here), was on the sailing right before that — on 7/28/13.  Between the two, there are LOTS of great tips and advice for anyone considering an Alaska cruise. Enjoy!

Hi Ann,

Okay, here you go….  I am sure I will write far more detail than you ever wanted!  All excursions were booked via the cruise line.

Seattle:

The hotel (Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza) was great – staff was friendly, and the kids felt like they were in someplace really “fancy” – ha ha.  Not like the cheap hotels we usually get for soccer tournaments and swim meets!

  • Food suggestions – My brother swears by Etta’s – we missed our dinner reservations on Friday b/c of flight delays, so we never got there.  Serious Pie – best pizza and Top Pot Donuts for breakfast! 🙂
  • We did the Experience Music Project and both kids LOVED it.  Highly recommend
  • My brother suggested we take the ferry to Bainbridge Island, just to get a good view of the city.  We did that, walked around town, got some ice cream and came back.

Juneau:

  • We did one of the whale watching tours.  Allen Marine – Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest.  Apparently, we got a really good trip – we saw bubble feeding – which the naturalist was so excited for.  She said she had not seen that all summer.  We did see a ton of whales, and some sea lions.
  • Overall, we thought that it was a good trip.  Very crowded – and we had a lot of people on the boat who did not want to “share” the sights – give people turns to take photos.
  • Mark has been on a lot of whale watches – and he thought this was among the best.  The staff was excellent.
  • Town – we did some shopping (no purchases) – and ate at the Red Dog Saloon.  Very “local” – fun place – food was fine, beer was great, prices were very high for the amount of food received.  They have live music (guitar/singer) for the cruise ships – he was very fun.  A little off color, but was fine for the kids.

Skagway:

  • Grizzly Falls Zip line – The kid’s favorite excursion.  It was a lot of fun.  The staff was outstanding – from the person who drove us from the dock to the location to the two women who led our zip lines.  We laughed, saw some scenery, and enjoyed our morning.  On the way back to town, the driver even stopped for us to take some photos.
  • White Pass Railway – Unbelievable scenery – lots of good information and photos.  It was 3 hours, which was a bit long, but the train can’t go too fast.  I would have been disappointed if this was our only excursion, but we were happy with it since we zip lined in the morning.
  • Town – we did some shopping – same stores for the most part as Juneau – this time we purchased.  Brett was disappointed he did not speak up in Juneau that he saw something he liked, b/c they did not have the item in Skagway.  We ate at the Sweet Tooth Café (kids choice this time).  Basic Diner food – it was good – but the prices were high (but more food than the saloon).  We were just a little tired of the ship food, but in hind sight, would not have done this – just gotten a treat and then eaten a meal on the boat.

Ketchikan:

  • Zodiac Coastline Excursion – Mark’s & my favorite excursion – and the kids loved it ALMOST as much as the zip lines.  The staff was the best.  We drove over 30 miles in our own small zodiac boat, led by one of their staff.  He fed two eagles – so we were super close.  Also went to a sea lion sanctuary and got within 20 feet of them.  It was amazing.  And, even though it was against the rules – he did let the younger kids drive the boats once we were out in open water.  🙂  They loved that.   I HIGHLY recommend this one!
  • That was all we had time for – just made it back to the ship in time.  We actually would have liked a little more time in this port.  It seemed rushed.
  • We walked from the ship along the water into town.  Fun to see the modern construction then turn to more old style.  Enjoyed seeing the castles.
  • We ate at Earl’s – by far the best food we had all week.  Thirst quenching beer also!  🙂  They were one of the few places we found that we could have a beer and feed the kids –the pubs we walked by were 19 and older.
  • $9 cab back to the ship

We all agreed we would rather have had a longer stay in Ketchikan and skipped Victoria – though the food was really good! 🙂

Norwegian Pearl:

  • Staff was outstanding – pretty much everyone we ran into had a smile on their face and seemed focused on making our trip enjoyable.
  • Mini-Suite – SO GLAD you suggested this size room – it was fine for the 4 of us.  Mark and I said we would never go smaller, even if it is just the 2 of us.  Room was clean, well-kept, and the bathroom size was not bad at all either.
  • Pools – the kids would have liked a larger pool to swim in.  There was an “Adult only” pool that was the same size as the kids and rarely had anyone in it, and if anyone was in it, there were only 2 or 3.  They were disappointed that even though the pool was 6 feet deep, they could not jump in.  They did love the slide.
  • Hot tubs were fine – kids thought they were too hot.   🙂
  • Food – you read a lot of mixed reviews about the food on this ship and Norwegian in general.  We would classify it as “fine.”  The poolside bbqs by far had the best on-ship food all week.  I think partially b/c they were cooking it fresh right in front of you.  We primarily ate in the buffet with maybe 6 meals in the dining rooms.  We ate there more for the peace and quiet, as the food was not too different from the buffet.  I would say a true “foodie” would probably think poorly of the food, but the average person/family would think it was okay.  The kids thought the fries were the best fries they had ever eaten (so they ate them all the time) and they also had delicious bread.  The fresh fruit was plentiful and ripe.  The crepes were delicious, but overall, the desserts just fair.  We ate twice at a place that was open all the time with more bar-like food, and this was pretty good.  The Chocolate Buffet – They had a ton of beautiful sculptures and displays.  A couple of things that tasted good, but nothing that I thought was outstanding.  Truthfully, I just find the people outrageous at this buffet!  (Brett was so disgusted by how “piggy” people were, he only tried one thing…)  Royal Caribbean did this much better as I recall.
  • Entertainment – great acts (Second City, a juggler, a comedian – all were kid appropriate or had kid-appropriate shows)
  • Kids Club – Dillon (10) – LOVED this – the staff members were terrific.  He tried to squeeze in a visit every day.  This was a life saver on days we were at sea all day and it was chilly or rainy out.
  • Other Activities – Brett was disappointed that a lot of the scheduled activities on the sports courts, ping pong tables, and golf area ended up getting cancelled b/c of weather or low turn-out.  One activity he was about 2 minutes late for had already started and they would not let him join in.  Also – he is an exercise fanatic, and it was very disappointing he could not visit the fitness center even if he was with Mark or I.  He did run on the deck/track almost every day.  (He needed to burn some energy!)
  • Rock Climbing Wall – the kids finally got to do this our last full day.  It was closed for most of our trip b/c of weather.  They were disappointed to not have done it earlier in the trip.
  • Glacier Bay – We LOVED this day – and primarily enjoyed it from our balcony.  We had hot chocolate delivered (it was gross… lol) and liked that we could turn on our TV to hear the Park Ranger narration.
  • Weather – not that you control this – but we did have great weather.  Days in port were 70 or higher.  Brett actually did not have enough shorts and t-shirts.
  • On-Board Spending – Mark and I are not big drinkers – I think we each had 6 beers the whole week and I had 2 or 3 mixed drinks – so I imagine our final bill was less than many.  We did go to Bingo a few times, and Deal or No Deal once.  We bowled and the kids did a few arcade games.  Mark and I did the soda deal – which for us is a steal.  So, our final bill was under $500 (we pre-paid our service charges, so this does not include those).  We were happily surprised with this – b/c we really did not go in trying to curtail our spending.
  • Kids did have ship envy when we were docked with one of the Princess ships and one of the Holland America ships.  🙂  But I think it is natural to see things you wished you had.
  • Embarkation and Disembarkation – VERY easy and quick.  Probably 20-25 minutes from arrival at the dock to walking on the boat.  No wait at disembarkation – we chose to walk off with our bags at 7:30 am to avoid the rush.

Ann – you provided excellent guidance for us.  We were hesitant to try Norwegian again b/c of our prior experience and just overall reviews are so mixed.  While we know it was not a top of the line ship or cruise line – it definitely met our needs.  I appreciated that you really had us think about what was important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say.  Also – when I asked about excursions – you guided us well in terms of the amount of activity and who else may select to go on certain activities.  THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family!  It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Thanks again,

~ Clare

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)