Developing world of river cruising reveals design evolution. Words & Images: David McGonigal.

In the rapidly developing world of river cruising, a new vessel is likely to reveal the next step in ship evolution. That’s certainly the case with APT’s MS Amabella, which launched in May 2010. APT has teamed with AMAWaterways to develop river cruising for the Australian market, and the success of that is measured by its ship-building program; Amabella follows last year’s Amalyra and Amadolce after Amacello and Amadante in 2008 so there’s now a fleet of a dozen vessels.

Next year, Amaverde will be launched as the sister ship to Amabella. Like all Danube/Rhine vessels, they are very long (135 metres) and thin (11.4 metres) so they can fit through the locks, which add surprising engineering sightseeing appeal when you plunge into one 25 metres deep and slowly rise back to the sun. There are several features that make these Concerto Class vessels special. One relatively unsung treat is the range of dining options: for a vessel carrying only 162 passengers, three dining choices may seem excessive but it works. An expanded galley allows the dining room to be divided in half, with the port side being Italian-themed while starboard is international. The main ingredients may be similar but the difference on the plate reveals the deft culinary skills of executive chef Robin Koch.

Meanwhile, at the stern of the ship is a dining room for 24, featuring a glassed-in kitchen. The haute cuisine set-course menu changes each week so all passengers have a chance to experience it. The meal, coupled with spectacular views from the panoramic windows, is a highlight.

It’s a challenge to describe Amabella’s most promoted feature: the innovative indoor/outdoor ‘twin balcony suites’ on two accommodation decks (the lower Piano Deck cabins have picture windows). Amabella is the first to have these clever balconies, ideal for circumventing the vagaries of European weather. Outside one half of your glass external wall is a balcony with an outdoor table setting; in the other half, the glass extends out to the railing. When it’s rainy, cold or hot, you sit in air-conditioned comfort in your own mini-conservatory enjoying unobstructed river views. The teakwood flooring enhances the balcony feeling. A glass panel and a full-length mirror cleverly combine to allow you to look upstream and downstream while lying in bed.

The attention to detail here mirrors that of the entire APT experience. Storing your bags if you arrive early on departure day? “No problem!” Printing important travel documents in a hurry? “I’ll do that straight away!” Finding more milk if the 24-hour tea and coffee station is running out? “Not a worry!” Despite our voyage being Amabella’s first from Budapest to Amsterdam – flowers and bunting from her christening decorated the bow – everything on board runs remarkably smoothly.

The stops are an intriguing mix of town and country. Amabella ties up below the castle on the scenic Buda side of Budapest. On the first few days, we visit the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, the riches of Vienna, picturesque little Dürnstein and spectacular Melk Abbey, before a choice between Passau or
Salsburg and the whole ‘Sound of Music’ experience. Medieval Regensburg begins a series of ’burgs dotted with picturesque castles. Cologne marks the approach to laid-back Amsterdam.

Throughout your cruise, you can sit in deckchairs on the sun deck or relax in the swimming pool and watch Europe float past – if you wish. The only time the sun deck is closed is for low bridges, when even the captain’s wheelhouse retracts on hydraulic rams so it’s flush with the deck.

Excursions are, almost without exception, well conducted, and the only one that costs me extra is an evening orchestral recital of Viennese favourites in the Hofburg. It’s very much a smooth set piece. Coaches await our arrival, guides are knowledgeable (and entertaining) and everything happens with relaxed precision. But if you wish to head off on your own, cruise director Kay has maps available, often with APT’s own printed notes on features of interest to help your exploration. APT was the first river operator to take a lead from barging and carry bicycles; these are free, and riding along the river to meet Amabella at the next stop is a highlight of the cruise.

While the ship does shuttle back and forth, Amsterdam to Budapest (A to B, in fact) is the most popular direction, so if you’re seeking a deal, it may be better to head the other way. However, indications are that both directions will sell out well in advance for this popular new ship.

It’s a strange feature of river cruising that you sometimes tie up alongside another vessel and must walk through it to reach the shore. For the curious, it’s a great chance to take a look at other vessels. Our view is that they seem a bit fusty and old-fashioned, so we return to ‘our’ Amabella with a strong sense of satisfaction at the choice of ships we’ve made.


Cruise Line: APT

Vessel: MS Amabella

Max passenger capacity: 162

Passenger decks: 4

Length: 135 metres

Total crew: 49

Entered service: May 2010

Facilities: 81 passenger cabins, 62 with private balconies, average cabin size 20 square metres (212 square feet), 3 restaurants, library with fireplace, gift shop, swimming pool, complimentary high-speed wireless internet, flat-screen TVs with complimentary movies and internet access, complimentary drinks with dinner, guided tours in each port, elevator, fitness area and treatment room.