Drawn to the Danube

Never let it be said that river cruising is all Bellini cocktails and banana beds, writes Sue Bennett.

Here I am, schlepping up a steep and winding gravel path to castle ruins high above the mediaeval hamlet of Durnstein. My 20-minute mountain-goat workout is worth every step.

From the top and beneath a hazy, light-blue sky, the mighty Danube River cuts a swath as it winds through flat green pasture on the left bank and steep hillsides to the right.

Among almost-vertical pockets of dirt dotting the landscape, I spy small vineyards. This is Austria's Wachau region, famed for its beauty and splendid rieslings.

While Sue, a Queenslander, and I walk in the footsteps of Richard the Lionheart, the English monarch who was held prisoner in Durnstein's Kuenringer Castle in 1192-93, some of our cruising companions are exploring the tiny, walled, cobblestone town below and sampling the region's wines and marillenschnaps, or apricot brandy.

APT's newly christened AmaReina - or Queen - is not long out of the dockyard, its 164 passengers destined to glide through five countries in a most luxurious way on a 15-day Magnificent Europe cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest. These two activities - wine tasting or walking - are good examples of how this river cruise works. A fair bit of sailing is done at night, leaving the day free to explore on land.

There are guided walking tours, coach trips to nearby cities, museums or places of interest, such as a crystal factory. Or you can strike out alone. The words "famed for its shoe shops" were enough to set me on a mission in Regensburg, Bavaria.

I bought five pairs, for half the equivalent price in Australia. Other passengers went to Nuremberg that day, exploring that city's role at the time of the Third Reich.

My day wasn't all heel heights and shades of leather; the home town of retired Pope Benedict is one of Germany's best-preserved mediaeval towns, its oldest stone bridge and a splendid sausage kitchen dating to 1135.

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On a warm Saturday afternoon, Regensburg locals sit at communal tables in front of this old, low kitchen, enjoying snags and sauerkraut, sweet mustard and pitchers of beer.

Back on board the AmaReina, I stow the shopping and sit on my balcony to watch the world go by.

Mighty and fast-flowing it might be, but the Danube barely raises a ripple, not enough to chink the ice in a Gin Fizz, a house cocktail on a ship where most drinks are included in the price.

From the ship's wide top deck, we watch a fairytale world of onion-domed churches, candy-coloured houses and hilltop castles pass by - all from the luxury of a sun lounge.

As it sails along the great arcs of the Danube, larch, pine and birch forests give way to meadows the colour of granny smith apples. Gravity-defying vines cling to hillsides, and neat-as-a-pin hamlets, with their immaculately stacked wood piles, remind the warm-weather traveller of winter.

As we approach Melk, there is a cry of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi", as passengers raise their glasses to a bevvy of cyclists on shore. These passengers opted to pedal the 34 kilometres from Durnstein to Melk. The rest of us are lazing by the hourglass-shaped pool with swim-up bar or at the AmaReina's sun deck, where it is cocktails and ice-cream with sprinkles, choc drops and fresh berries all round.

As the sun begins to set, passengers drift downstairs to their cabins, housed on three decks, and built in four configurations - from the 32.5-square-metre owner's suites to 15.8-square-metre panoramic balcony rooms. The ship's mid-range P and T-class suites are 19.5 square metres and 21.8 square metres respectively, each with a two-seat outdoor balcony and floor-to-ceiling opening windows.

My accommodation is a P+ category suite on the Cello deck. I would not say I am fussy about hotel rooms, but I know what I like, and the suite has almost every element. It is spacious, with excellent lighting, a shower with an adjustable head and an overhead soaker, hanging space in spades, great-quality bed linen, a full-length mirror and a large Apple Mac screen that delivers TV, movies, music and internet.

After a day in Salzburg, I listen to The Sound of Music while dressing for dinner.

Quite a lot of the time on this journey, I sit on the balcony, just a couple of metres above water level, and enjoy the sound of silence. There is barely a swish as the AmaReina glides along, sometimes close to shore and at other times far from land.

Children play at the river's edge, swans plunge into the water in search of dinner, and bells peal from immaculate pencil-shaped church towers.

River cruising is a big trend in global tourism. It began to take off about 10 years ago, and APT, a privately owned Australian company, has a portfolio of 30 ships in service from Scotland to South America, Russia to Myanmar. AmaReina, in its luxury Concerto class, is the latest.

The writer travelled courtesy of APT.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Munich via Singapore, with connections to Amsterdam and Budapest. See singaporeair.com.

CRUISING THERE

AmaReina has a range of dining options, butler service and pool with swim-up bar. APT's most popular cruise is the 15-day Magnificent Europe all-inclusive cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, priced from $7795 a person, twin share for 2015 departures. Free return flights with Singapore Airlines are available for bookings made with APT by October 31, 2014. Three signature experiences are offered on the AmaReina's Magnificent Europe cruise - a concert in Vienna's Liechtenstein City Palace, a visit to a private castle, and a trip to Salzburg aboard a beautifully restored train.

MORE INFORMATION

aptouring.com.au.

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