The success of European river cruises depends not on how many passengers embark but how often they disembark. Rob Ingram assesses the view on and offboard the new MS AmaReina.
It's all happening at the little town of Vilshofen on the southern fringe of the Bavarian Forest. On the quay beside the Danube, men who use embroidered braces to keep up their shorts and wear shaving brushes in their hatbands are slapping their shoes and shorts - and occasionally other people's. Beers are being poured by men in long white socks with buckles on their shoes and a brass band is playing exactly the same tune made by a steam locomotive and a factory whistle. Roasted pork knuckles, sauerkraut and dumplings are involved in a chilling disappearing act. And overlaid on the madness of it all is the serene presence of Princess Heide von Hohenzollern.
It's the christening party for MS AmaReina, promoted by its builder and owner as the most luxurious river cruise ship on Europe's waterways. It's at the cutting edge of river-vessel design, with a central glass elevator, heated pool with swim-up bar and a dining room in the ship's stern. Dutch shipyard Vahali says the design and layout of the "concerto class" riverboat will provide a template for boats on order.
The cruise is a chance to review the evolution of the river cruise experience itself. The popularity of river cruising in Europe is phenomenal; about 500,000 passengers a year float along its waterways. In the 13th century, 50,000 Mongol warriors stormed through Europe, changing its shape forever. What might the river ships do?
Less than 10 years ago, Geoff McGeary, owner of the Australian tour company APT, and two partners founded the river-cruise operator AmaWaterways.
At the time, European river cruising was aimed largely at the American retirement market and focused on budget travellers. APT introduced European river cruising to Australia and New Zealand, and marketed the experience to more affluent passengers. By 2016, it will have 30 luxury ships cruising the rivers of Europe, Russia, Asia, China, India, Africa and the US.
Conspicuously at the luxury end of the market, AmaReina evokes the era of classic ocean-going yachts with private sitting areas, a library, wine room and elegant Art Deco fittings. At 135 metres, it's longer than a football field and its generous size means more space and comfort for its 164 (maximum) guests.
It cost McGeary's triumvirate $37 million and, as he proudly surveys it, he manages to inject a degree of conviction into the old line, "It's not about the boat, it's about the experience."
AmaReina's success will depend not on how many passengers embark, but how often they disembark. APT has built its reputation on visiting great destinations and giving guests "freedom of choice" in sightseeing options and "signature experiences".
Princess Heide is not just a face in the crowd. Owner of a 14th-century castle and a member of one of Germany's most famous families, she's at Vilshofen to give AmaReina a royal christening and, in a rather bizarre tradition, to become the ship's godmother. This is a case of one good turn deserving another. Princess Heide is granting APT guests exclusive "signature experience" access to her home, Burg Namedy castle in Andernach, one of the most picturesque locations on the Rhine. In return for her generosity, the German princess becomes the ship's godmother.
On the short christening cruise between Vienna and Vilshofen, guests delay dinner one evening to accept an invitation from Prince Constantin of Liechtenstein to pop down to the Liechtenstein City Palace in Vienna for a musical soirée. The prince has assembled the Vienna Imperial Orchestra and the Mozart Boys Choir to provide a little Mozart and Strauss to help the cocktails go down - definitely a signature experience.
At Passau, a city of 50,000 inhabitants and 52 churches at the confluence of the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz rivers, APT guests take a side trip to Salzburg and board a train. Not just any train, though, but the luxe Majestic Imperator - a faithful replica of the imperial train built for Emperor Franz Josef I in 1891. This is elegance on a grand scale - its rolling-stock salons include a piano bar, ballroom and fine-dining car, the glamour of a lavish imperial past filtered only slightly by the cargo pants and backpacks of our party.
Back on board AmaReina, guests settle into staterooms in 10 categories, ranging from 15 to 22 square metres. There are also four 28-square-metre premium suites featuring both French and full step-out balconies and marble bathrooms with a shower, full-size tub and twin vanities.
All staterooms have air-conditioning, fine bedding, a sitting area with river views, bathrooms with showers and European products, a flat-screen television with local and satellite channels, free shipwide WiFi, in-room internet and access to a movie and music library.
The public areas of the ship include a main lounge with a bar, piano and dance floor, an observation lounge, library, 24/7 tea and coffee station, a circular glass elevator creating an atrium effect in the centre of the ship, beauty and spa services, a fitness room and heated pool. Bicycles are available for solo exploration, guided bike tours and to grant independence to young, active adventurers, although it is expected the majority of passengers will be mature.
One of AmaReina's distinguishing features is its plethora of dining options. The Verde fine-dining restaurant serves regional and seasonal dishes from produce sourced along the river. Bella Cucina has Italian-inspired fare, and the River Bistro serves light meals. The Erlebnis Chef's Table restaurant tucked into the tail of the ship is an intimate venue with an open kitchen allowing just 28 diners to watch the dégustation menu being prepared. The Wine Room is another small venue perfect for special occasions and there's alfresco dining on the Sun Deck at lunchtime.
With 10 per cent global annual growth for five years running, the popularity of river cruising is outstripping that of ocean cruising. Bookings from Australia are growing at about 15 per cent a year, and APT chief executive Chris Hall claims his company will achieve 30 per cent growth in river cruising last year and this year. Many travellers remain keen on ocean cruising, in which the ship is the destination, but an increasing number are attracted to the guided excursions and easy access to riverbank diversions of river cruises.
Is there a downside to this astonishing growth? There's plenty of room on board but is there any space left on the rivers?
Most of AmaReina's staterooms have floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies for viewing Europe's scenic wonders. One night we're moored on the Danube under the fairytale silhouette of Vienna. It's dreams of scenes such as this that have fuelled the boom in river cruising - to such an extent that the proliferation of vessels means they often have to moor three abreast.
When I draw my curtains next morning, all I see is the slab side of another boat an arm's length away. But, at the end of the week, had it spoilt the experience? Not a bit.