Tuesday, 14 March 2017

River Cruising with AmaWaterways: Melodies of the Danube on AmaStella


That old maritime curiosity of sailors not knowing how to swim, was apparently also true for those plying the Danube. With currents so strong that teams of horses had to be deployed to haul boats for miles upstream, and natural barriers like rocks jutting out from the riverbed, navigating Europe's second longest (but most storied) river was once such a dangerous task that captains preferred crew who'd fight to keep a boat afloat than those who were able to paddle to safety at the first sign of trouble. Thankfully, the Danube of today is vastly different to the river of old, and the vessels plying it are likewise changed as well. We got to experience it firsthand on our journey from Budapest to Vilshofen on AmaWaterway's AmaStella. 

The AmaStella only just made its debut earlier in 2016. Featuring the latest advancements in river cruise design, the sailing is extremely smooth, even for people like BB and me who are tragically prone to motion sickness. Case in point: We didn't notice that we'd begun our first inter-city leg until Budapest had slipped out of view over the course of our lunch onboard, replaced first by smaller towns, then long stretches of riverbanks and trees. By the end of our trip, we'd come to think of the AmaStella not quite as a boat, but as five-star boutique hotel that so happened to float. 

M booked our Melodies of The Danube River journey with AmaWaterways through Prime Travel's cruise division, after doing a great deal of online research. Beyond the timing being just right to gel with our Northern Lights expedition, plus an itinerary that featured all the cities and towns she wanted to revisit or discover, AmaWaterways also happens to be one of the top ranking European cruise liners. Since they were established in 2002 they've scooped up travel industry awards from Berlitz to Travel + Leisure as well as heaps of glowing reviews - all of which, we're happy to report, are very well-deserved indeed. M now counts our trip on AmaStella as one of her best ever holiday decisions, and I'm inclined to agree. 

Everything was taken care of throughout our voyage down the Danube, making for a wonderfully stress-free experience. This began with a seamless private coach transfer from Budapest's Ferenc Liszt International Airport to the ship, where everything was ready, waiting, and fully decked out in tinsel, overseen by our hotel manager Attila and his team. We were thoroughly pampered over the course of our cruise in numerous small and pleasant ways, with soft scarves and roses for all the ladies on the first evening, chocolates on our pillow at turn-down, as well as small Christmas presents left outside our door. The only major decisions that lay ahead of us for the next 7 nights were which excursions we wanted to join, what we'd like to have at meals, and whether to say yes to another glass of wine at dinner. 

Ours was the last cruise of the season, but the AmaStella still feels sparkly and brand new. On the whole, the ship's interior is tasteful and elegant, but splashes of bold accents in the art and stateroom furnishings add a charmingly retro touch. Every space is maximized to good effect. With a wardrobe roomy enough for us both to fully unpack and stow away our suitcases, BB and I were able to move with ease around our room. The most pleasant surprise was the bathroom, which had cleverly designed shelving to hold my various lotions and potions, a shower big enough to stretch in, and fantastic water pressure. 

You'll be surprised at how much there is to do on trips like this. As best we could, we took part in the on-board activities. From decorating Christmas trees and hunting for the Christmas pickle, to ooh-ing and aah-ing at appropriate points during the strudel making demonstration, we dutifully showed up and found our days very full indeed. I wish I could say we explored every inch of the ship and tasted all it had to offer, but we left some stones unturned. The massage parlour we missed only because everyone else had booked it solid within the first two days, but the gym, the running track, and the pool we deliberately gave a wide berth - there's no shame in fattening up over Christmas. There was also little need for us to head to the sun deck with everyone else when we sailed during the day: In stateroom #315 we had our own balcony, where I would sit under a pile of blankets and watch the world go by, armed with fortifying cups of tea or hot mulled wine from the lounge. 

Like all the journeys designed by AmaWaterways, this cruise down the Danube allowed us the opportunity to be immersed in the cultures and histories of the people and places we visited along the river. Whether we were taking part in a 15 mile bike ride or a wine tasting tour, all of the local guides impressed us with their insider knowledge, and some were particularly talented story tellers too. If you're the sort of person who balks at anything remotely "touristy", you may think that some of the activities aren't quite for you. But be open-minded - how different is dancing along to the merry tunes of Schrammelmusik at a Viennese heurige (wine tavern) to taking in the art at the butter yellow Melk Abbey? Culture can be dynamic, social, and performative. You just need to look at it in context for the experience to feel enriching. And like the case of Salzburg and The Sound of Music, it's fascinating to see a whole new culture form out of projection and expectation. 

There are so many different highlights and things to see along the Danube, so if you're having problems deciding which tours you'd enjoy more, just go with your gut - all of them are well-organised and very compelling. We were exposed to major landmarks and off-the-beaten-track gems alike: opulent baroque architecture, crumbling ruins, magnificent cityscapes, and the natural beauty of the Danube's shoreline. All of the main excursions leaving the boat each day have options for the more energetic, as well as those who'd like to move at a gentler pace. It's perfect when you're travelling with family - everyone gets to pick what suits them the most, and you meet up again over meals with new adventures to share. 

On a river cruise, which works on a far more intimate scale than ocean-faring ships, strangers become familiar faces very quickly. It's hard to stay annoyed at the children who race across the running track as you're having a post-lunch snooze when they're also the ones winsomely telling you to go "try this bakery, we think you'll love the pastries there!" while you're on the same tour. And after an evening trading terrible jokes over glasses of wine, people who'd gotten polite nods the day before can suddenly become your new best friends - for the duration of the cruise at least. Most of the travellers were Americans with roots in the region, coming back for a glimpse of their heritage, and a smattering of Asian families like ours wanting to see Europe in comfort and style.  

The beds on the AmaStella are too cozy, and emerging from my nest of duvets each morning was a trial and a half. Of course, while there are tours set aside for late risers, I was invariably drawn to the ones that demanded an earlier start. Each morning, the dulcet tones of our Cruise Manager Frederico would filter in over the ship's speakers, detailing the departure times for the various shore excursions and wishing us a good day ahead. This announcement, usually 15 to 20 minutes prior to the designated tour departure time, was always my cue to roll out of bed, have a hot shower, snatch up my headset, dash to the dining room to grab breakfast and down a glass of sparkling wine, then pick up my excursion ticket and scamper off to the waiting tour coaches. By the third day, I had streamlined my process so efficiently that I found myself the first person up the bus. I took this as my cue to stay for an extra glass of bubbly the next morning, which made for a rather unforgettable hike up the Dürnstein castle ruins.

Our holiday packet contained detailed itineraries of each shore excursion, but the AmaWaterways team still managed to spring delightful little surprises on us along the way. On Christmas day in Vienna, they thoughtfully arranged for all of us to receive a voucher for a drink and a souvenir mug, which we were able to redeem at any of the beverage stands at the main Christmas market. We loaded up on piping hot glühwein, sweet, spicy, and perfect for keeping off the damp chill. 

AmaWaterways organizes a number of Limited Edition Tours at certain ports of call, to better allow you to explore the hidden gems of that location. Unlike the rest of the tours which are booked on the boat itself, these tours can be booked pre-departure on their website, and are available on a first-come-first-served basis. The four of us learned more about the city on our three-hour Hidden Vienna walking tour than we ever had on any of our previous visits, while M had a taste of the fruits produced in the Wachau Valley on her Apricots & Sweets tour. 

Each guest has a Personal Audio Device to use for the duration of the cruise, a marvellous little piece of equipment that's reset with each new tour you go on, and allows you to hear your guide's commentary even from afar. That way, we could still indulge in our curiosity and peer around interesting looking corners, without missing out on whatever bits of trivia or folklore the guides had to share. 

There were also a number of specially curated experiences that made the trip even more special. Lively local musicians played in the restaurant and lounge on some evenings, the first time I'd ever been serenaded over grilled sausages and strudel. We downed liquid warmth in the form of heavily floral schnapps on the top deck while admiring the lights of Buda and Pest on a private illumination cruise, something I won't be forgetting in a hurry. And even though we missed the main event, we got to indulge in our very own mini-Oktoberfest in Vilshofen, where the newly-crowned Beer Queen led us in an evening of drinking and dancing. Taken all together, it was a perfect taster of the diversity among the different countries along the Danube. 

There was fast and free Wi-Fi on board if we wanted to connect to the wider world, but also a snail mail service for those of us who wanted something a little more personal. Apart from being all smiles each day and ensuring everyone made it on and off the boat in one piece, Andrea and Alexandra down at reception also helped BB and I send out a series of postcards to our friends completely gratis

The AmaWaterways group has a reputation for providing a better standard of food and wine than your usual river cruise, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves at every meal, which was whipped up by Chef Thorge and his kitchen crew. Ever so often, we'd try the signature dishes of whichever region we were passing through, but world food also made an appearance as well. The day pho came on the menu, even M had two whole bowls. There was also the chance for everyone to dine at the Chef's Table on at least one night of the journey, which featured a different degustation menu each time.

There isn't fixed seating in the dining room, allowing for a touch of fluidity and the opportunity to sit with new people each meal, but we're creatures of habit, and whenever possible, we'd sit in a corner we came to see as ours, where the wonderful Mihai and Silvijo would take care of us. 

It's the service that makes all the difference, and everyone we met was so very kind. You wouldn't have guessed that it was the very last cruise of the season before they all went home - everyone was at the top of their game, making sure us guests had the very best holiday experience. Even Captain Wijnand welcomed everyone who went to visit the bridge, patiently answering any questions we had.  

We've been thoroughly converted to river cruising thanks to AmaWaterways, and beyond exploring other legs of the Danube, we're now looking to sail perhaps down the Mekong, or doing a wine cruise through France one autumn. Ah! So many different possibilities, so many places to go. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Visiting the Sámi Village of Rávttas


One of the biggest selling points of our stay at Björkliden Fjällby was its unmatched view of the Lapporten, a U-shaped valley in the stretch of mountains overlooking Abisko. We were told that according to old Sámi folklore, this natural spectacle was considered the gateway to Swedish Lapland, where the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia have lived for millennia out amidst the ice and snow. On our last full day north of the Arctic Circle, we travelled over an hour on a Visit Abisko bus to get a taste of Sámi culture, on a journey that took us far past the Lapponian Gate. 

Day trips to the sameby of Rávttas is a typical part of the itinerary for visitors to Abisko, providing a fleeting glimpse at the traditional lifestyle of the Sámi. Historical records of these people date back centuries, with Tacitus in Rome writing about them hunting through the forests and mountains in 98 A.D. Reindeer husbandry came in later centuries, but soon became a cherished resource intertwined with their lives and culture.  

In a land of polar night and the midnight sun, seasons are affixed to the rhythms and movement of the herd - a year-long business of calving, marking, grazing and corralling. Today, all the reindeer in Sweden are owned by the Sámi. Inherited from generation to generation, the reindeer form part of their birthright. There's no such thing as a wild reindeer, as all of them are from one herd or another. At this point it must be noted that asking a Sámi how many reindeer they own is as crass as asking a rancher how many acres and cows they have, so don't do it. 

A sameby is often referred to as a Sámi village, but clear all mental images you may have of quaint log cabins perched on snowy knolls - it's more an administrative union than anything else. Like people everywhere across the world, the Sámi are thoroughly modern. Of the approximately 20000 Sámi who live in Sweden, less than 10% are actively involved in reindeer herding, even if they own some livestock. Many are also keen to stress that as much as they are Sámi, they're also very much Swedes. 

There's a delicate balancing act between the need to preserve and share Sámi culture, while also acknowledging that this isn't necessarily how most Sámi live anymore, explained our host. Even the everyday reality of herding reindeer is more than a little different to how it was done in the past. Dressed in a traditional kolt, he told us stories of reindeer herding in the 21st century, which involve lots more ATVs than you probably imagined. 

So if you're looking to see something exotic and utterly unchanged, this isn't for you. What you can expect though, is a learning experience about the naturally evolving traditions and culture that the Sámi remain proud of. And of course, you'll learn more about reindeer than you knew before. 

Visiting Rávttas isn't complete without getting up close with some reindeer, and that's exactly what we did. The first reindeer we encountered had massive horns, from which strips of fur hung off, the underneath looking surprisingly red and raw. Reindeer are the only species of deer where both the males and females grow and shed antlers each year - when these grow in, they're rubbery masses of blood and marrow covered in fur, which is then rubbed off against trees or bushes once the antlers harden. 

Male reindeer typically lose their antlers after the mating season is done in early winter, while the females keep theirs till spring. If you've ever visited the LA Zoo during Christmastime, you'll notice that all their Santa-ready reindeer are female, which means one thing: Robert L. May hadn't the first clue about reindeer biology. The only way Rudolph wasn't female, according to our host, was if he was a castrated male. Most male reindeer herded by Sámi are castrated young, which reduces aggression and tension among the herd and make them easier to manage. 

Each of the reindeer has its own distinct personality, and we were able to see it most clearly not while we were feeding them nutrient-rich moss, but during the reindeer sled ride. It was a simple set-up: One person to a sled, pulled by a single reindeer. The somewhat grumpy one I harnessed turned out to be the Ferrari of reindeers, careening down the snowy path with reckless abandon. All the children were enthralled, and immediately demanded that one. Those who ended up with a gentler ride had to contend with  reindeer that stopped in the middle of the ride to have a curious nibble through a patch of snow, slowed down to have a breather, or in one memorable incident, refused to move completely and had a bit of a poo. 

Sledding aside, we were also taught the art of lassoing reindeer, which doesn't involve splashy overhead rope spins, but a simple toss and pull. We practiced on a stationary set of antlers, which for some of us (I.E. Me), was difficult enough. The true test came when you had to try and catch the antlers when someone was running around with them. This, I did not dare attempt, though other people in the group tried, and were quite successful. 

We enjoyed lunch in a lávvu, where our meal of smoked reindeer meat was cooked in butter over a roaring wood fire. Wrapped in warm Sámi gahkku (The Lebanese family on the tour marvelled at how similar it was to pita bread), the reindeer was remarkably tender, and utterly delicious. A treatise on the benefits of reindeer meat soon followed, highlighting its virtues of being both low in fat yet high in omega 3 and 6 essential oils, as well as rich in minerals and vitamins like B12. There's also a particular trait of reindeer meat that's absolutely apt for the Lapland climate: it's apparently the only meat that can be frozen and defrosted up to seven times without any significant worsening of texture. Washed down with cool, tart lingonberry juice, we polished it all off in no time. 

When the meal was through, we settled in by the fire to listen to more stories, the smell of smoke sinking into our hair and our clothes, the only other thing we'd take back with us to Abisko.