Exploring the Danube with the AmaMagna
Story and Photos by Neil Wolkodoff
On the big Blue Danube, the longest and widest river ship to cruise the famous waterway is the AmaMagna.
Before your actual river journey, it is best to explore the embarkation and departing cities, given the distance traveled. AmaWaterways provides fully guided tour packages in conjunction with a Danube trip. My exploration inkling is exploring a city on my own as I want a chance to adjust the schedule after arrival. And individual jaunts provide that Jumanji sense of adventure. Downriver, the start or stop point is Budapest, with the upriver point either Prague or Munich.
Budapest is one of the most walkable cities in Europe, especially if you get the downtown area close to the river. Next to the park and Ferris wheel is the Kempinski Corvinus, an international hotel with Hungarian flare and appointments. A perfect hub in any travel direction.
The Kempinski is an art mecca, with over 1,500 pieces of Hungarian art throughout the property and suites. A lovely spa with expanded treatments, gym, and wet therapy center offers either a charge up or an unwind down. The Library Lounge is a wind-down mecca and small meeting space.
The best local discovery map of any hotel ever, the Kempinski makes directions for exploring easy. It’s a short walk to many of Budapest’s well-known sites and museums from the Kempinski. Fashion Street, the upscale shopping district, is literally outside the door. Other notable stops on the Buda side are St. Stephens Basilica and Heroes Square. While the famous baths sound enticing, getting there plus change and relax time means you have used almost a full day with that one stop. I found there was too much to soak in culturally to make time for a splash around.
Dining in Budapest means options beyond goulash. The ES Bisztro morning buffet highlights local sausages, cheeses, and pastries. At night, the restaurant shifts to a top-notch Hungarian steak house. Next door, the Blue Fox bar has weekend entertainment combined with some crafty creations like the Immortality cocktail. The food combines Hungarian and Spanish touches to match the wine. Everyone tries to pair food with wine, but the N28 Wine & Kitchen reverses course. Take wines from local vintners in tiny batches, and the staff will pair with the appropriate sustenance. The wines are not available outside Hungary because of the small batches but are available at N28 for purchase.
In boarding the AmaMagna, there is a sense of expanse. The ship is considerably longer than most cruise ships and over 20 percent wider. No cramped quarters or spaces here. The vessel is spacious and from the rooms to common areas. A nice cabin touch is a separate toilet area from the shower/vanity area, allowing couples simultaneous use.
Even when complete, the main dining had separated tables and booths, a sense of private room. While sailing, Al Fresco has window seating and a specialized selection from the menu for a bow view. The Chef’s Table has items prepared before the group and served to all. My favorite was Jimmy’s Wine Bar, where seats among the wine storage are among the rich interior and low lights. The nightly fare is served family-style at tables of four to six. Vegetarians get one or two options in each category, which is reasonable considering the central Kitchen prepares for four restaurants.
The wellness area features treatment/beauty rooms, an indoor training area, and an outdoor group cycling option. The top-level observation deck has ample lounging, a pool, and a hot tub. Sail aways with the city lights and scenery are made for the top tier, which even has its own bar.
There is as much as you want to absorb in the stops in four countries of Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany in just about any mode. It fits every form of exploring, from the not-so ambulatory to the energizer hiker. Options span the motor coach tour, a walking tour, city bike ride, or aggressive hike. In most stops, there are both afternoon and morning options.
Highlights that reverberate in the memory are Vienna, with its rich cultural history and multiple Mozart testaments and statues. From the city proper to the Schonbrunn Palace & Gardens, it was hard to imagine the wealth and expanse of the Hapsburgs at that time. Salzburg strikes a musical chord with knowing the real history of the Von Trapp family and the birthplace of Mozart. The Magic Flute beats Schwarzenegger’s biceps for Austrian pride based on statue count.
The Klosterhof Winery & Restaurant in Spitz is emblematic of the Austrian wine. Take a tour through the uphill vineyards, and then head down to the wine cellar for tasting, local knowledge, and of course, singing while consuming.
My favorites were the hikes, centered around castles and forts, each with its own story. The Durnstein Fortress was the big-house home to Richard the Lionheart. The Passau Castle & Fort gives an explorable history lesson in how the citadel, creed, and community melded to stand guard along the Danube.
If there is a downside to some of the excursions, it is simply that the ship can’t dock right in the middle of everything, so there are motorcoach rides to get you to some of the destinations. One quirk on almost all cruises is that everyone gets back on board simultaneously, and everyone wants to connect to post photos and videos. The communication bandwidth won’t handle media rush hour, so adjust expectations.
After the cruise conclusion in Vilshofen, a relatively short car ride places you in the Czech Republic center point, Prague. This is a magical city where a confluence of antiquity and saints live on every corner in pedestrian exploration mode.
The ideal launch point is the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, situated in the old town. A short walk from old town to lesser town means you have major attraction points within easy walking distance. The hotel is built on a historic site of the old Dominican monastery. Much of the original buildings were maintained, and hallways and rooms have an arched, inspiring presence. Even the separate, award-winning spa building connected with the heritage past for treatment rooms that are secluded-unique.
A real contrast with the turbo-pedestrian pace of the city, this re-charge oasis has 96 rooms, with 70 being totally unique. Some follow the Dominican building architecture; some are totally modern. The rooms are more like apartments, with spread-out seating/working areas combined with a larger sleeping area. The bathroom, significant for any stay option, has a massive shower, a separate tub, and amenities. The 1614 square foot Presidential Penthouse Suite is located on the fifth-floor penthouse and boasts inspiring views of the entire city. The MO provides it all, and if you don’t see it, just ring and poof, instantly there.
Spices eatery is centered around a cozy bar with various nooks, private dining, and outdoor options. Unique to most hotels, all menus can also be in-room dining. The MO head chef is free to culinary roam within their environment and sourcing. Recently the menu was given a re-fresh to have more Asian-fusion options.
Once you have had your fill of Czech beer, an alternative restaurant with a higher proof level is Whiskey Restaurant & Bar. Tucked into an intimate, downstairs area that feels like an aging room, each table is flanked by the 231 displayed whiskeys. While wine is available, whiskey is the drink of choice, which is reflected in the food selections. They all belly up to any whiskey selection from vegetarian to dry-aged ribeyes with seasoned tomatoes.
Coach and boat tours are plentiful, yet so much is packed into the winding streets and passages walking works. Two to three days would be enough time for Prague. Every twist and turn features another eatery or boutique, starting with the roads leading to the Charles Bridge. The famous Prague Castle is a robust hike that seems more like a penance pilgrimage than seeing the local sights.
The AmaMagna cruise along the Danube is a stellar travel expedition. The ship had plenty of comforts onboard, and the excursions in Budapest and Prague proved more than worthwhile, combining everything from exploration to history. I found the trip like an Oreo cookie: the sandwich ends and the filling were travel treats for different reasons.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.