On a mother-daughter getaway, Katie Hammel discovers how wine and river cruising create the ideal setting for a meaningful European vacation.
When I travel, I rarely subscribe to the old adage that the journey is as important as the destination. But as I relaxed on the top deck of AmaSerena with my mother, both of us wrapped in blankets in a brisk November breeze, my perspective began to change. We sipped Alsatian pinot noir as our ship slowly glided past a dozen castles — some beautifully preserved and others with crumbling walls and towers — perched like fairytale fortresses atop green hills on either side of the sparkling Rhine. By the time the crew brought out steaming mugs of Rüdesheimer coffee, a local specialty spiked with brandy and topped with a cloud of whipped cream, I was convinced. Aboard an elegant river cruise vessel, the voyage is an essential and enticing part of the European experience.
This was a meaningful trip as it marked my mother’s first visit to Europe. AmaWaterways’ Rhine river cruise highlighted regions of France and Germany, two countries she was eager to explore. The fact that it was a wine-themed voyage elevated the experience even more. We share a love of fine wine, and the lure of tastings and expert pairings — both on board and in port — would ensure a relaxing and stress-free voyage.
As I quickly discovered, our inclusive cruise was carefree from every perspective. Everyone we met seemed like an adventurous traveler at heart and, with only 164 passengers on board, it was easy to find like-minded friends. We quickly formed a crew and every day we selected from two or three complimentary shore excursions: we explored the sprawling hilltop ruins of an 11th-century castle set high over Heidelberg and marveled at the Gothic façade of the Cologne Cathedral and its 500-foot-tall spires. We discovered the charms of silky Alsatian wines in Riquewihr and crisp, dry riesling in the Rhine village of Rüdesheim. At every stop, there was a guided tour balanced with free time, which provided a great compromise for us: the tours gave Mom time to get comfortable in a foreign destination, and I enjoyed the freedom to explore. In Strasbourg, we joined a group to visit the city’s famous cathedral and learned how the intricate stained-glass windows were preserved during World War II.
Afterward, we wandered among the canals and half-timbered houses of the Petite France neighborhood, stopping for a traditional Alsatian meal of tarte flambée. Though many guests zipped off on complimentary bicycles, we explored each new shore on foot, grateful for the chance to walk off our decadent meals. AmaWaterways is a member of the exclusive, invitation-only La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs culinary society and it was apparent in every meal. Mornings in the Main Restaurant featured eggs Benedict and made-to-order omelets while dinners were multi-course affairs starring decadent dishes like foie gras and rack of lamb. Equally delicious lighter fare was available in the lounge and, on one memorable evening, we indulged in the Chef’s Table restaurant — a complimentary experience available each night to an intimate group in which we watched the chefs work their culinary magic. With the staff’s impeccable attention to detail, wine flowed so freely that our glasses were never empty, or even half full. In between meals and excursions, life on board was about simple pleasures. Some days we observed from the top deck as the ship navigated a series of locks or watched the drifting scenery through panoramic windows in the Main Lounge. Others were spent immersing ourselves in wine education of zinfandels from around the world or tastings from St. Francis Winery, whose winemaker was a special guest on board. After dinner, we often joined our newfound friends in the piano bar lounge, including the night Mom led the crowd dancing to ’50s rock tunes. Our stateroom was always a welcoming sanctuary as we watched movies and surfed the web on our Apple TV, and sipped coffee as new shores came into view from our twin balconies.
In one week, my mother and I visited four countries, traversing some of the most beautiful stretches of the Rhine. It was the ideal mother-daughter trip and a perfect way to introduce her to the allure of leisurely European travel. She’s already planning her next wine cruise and I’m hoping she’ll let me tag along.
Katie Hammel is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared on BBC Travel and in Condé Nast Traveler and the San Francisco Chronicle.