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Gliding slowly through the Amsterdam-Rhine canal -- we were, of course, obeying the canal's stodgy speed limit -- passengers idled on AmaCello's sun deck, one man sketching the passing half-timber homes and church spires, others discussing the cargo ships/mobile river homes that transport raw materials down Europe's industrial superhighways. A short time later, we pulled into our first lock. The dungeon door closed behind us, and as the water level began to rise, we felt ourselves becoming ever more buoyant.

It's easy to see how people fall for the river.

Onboard there's the lift, the fire-orange abstract art piece that greets you in the lobby, the in-cabin multi-function Web/TV system, one of the best cabin shower setups on the rivers, the wireless audio systems used during guided tours, Wi-Fi in the lounges and a hydraulic bridge that can be lowered with the push of a button to squeeze under low-slung bridges. Clearly, as river cruising has gained popularity, the niche has moved beyond its more traditional roots: reading on the sun deck; long, multi-course dinners with just-met passengers; evening social nights in the lounge with the piano man playing tasteful background ditties. Of course those draws are still the crux of the experience, but AmaCello presents a hybrid -- a marriage between river cruise tradition and innovation.

If Captain Vlad is manning the wheelhouse, he'll let you in for a primer about life on the river. Or, you can follow his every move from the navigation channel on your in-cabin flat-screen monitor.

A cruise on AmaCello is nearly all-inclusive. Beyond the cruise-ship standards -- food, accommodations, entertainment -- there's wine and beer with dinner, unlimited Internet use and guided tours in each port. There are also about 20 bikes available for tooling around onshore.

AmaCello provides an excellent, comfortable way to sample the Continental interior. And, unlike on a coach tour holiday -- the closest approximation to a European river cruise -- on AmaCello, you check in once, and it's a stress-free seven days of castles and strudels, medieval market squares and World War II history.

Dress onboard is casual and practical. For dinner, it's collared shirts for men and blouses and pantsuits for women. There was also a smattering of jackets from the slightly more formal-minded. Folks do dress up a bit for the "Captain's Farewell Dinner," when you'll see dresses, jackets, suits and a bow tie or two. No shorts, swimsuits or open-toed shoes are allowed in the dining room.

Entertainment is provided nightly. The format varies and includes everything from a joke-filled PowerPoint presentation from the witty cruise director on how Gutenberg basically brought down the Holy Roman Empire and an entertaining evening port stroll (also led by the cruise director) to performances from talented regional music groups (La Strada, two violins and a guitar, was a standout) and the very well-received crew talent show. We watched room stewards and waitstaff blow off steam by way of sock puppets performing Carmen. There's also typically some sort of trivia game -- in our case, the "nasty questionnaire," a set of 20 logic questions.

The cruise director explained to us that AMA generally avoids folkloric performances, due to the potential kitsch factor. And, true to form, there was but one: a very schmaltzy Dutch dancing choir telling us that "We are farmers, and we clap hands and dance when it is time to make the harvest" then proceeding to dance and clap hands.

Depending on the cruise director, the daily briefing on upcoming ports and general commentary was certainly a form of entertainment... and our Australian director, Peter Whitehead, kept passengers laughing, even while going over the most mundane items on the administrative agenda (proper use of in-cabin remote controls, embarkation details, etc.). In the Rhine Gorge in particular, Whitehead's commentary seemed effortless, quite a contrast to the howling wind ripping through us as we cruised. After he told the obligatory tale of Lorelei, the river maiden who led many a navigator to his death -- prior to taming the river by way of canal, this was an extremely dangerous pass -- he flipped a switch, and a song version of the famous Heinrich Heine poem sprang forth from the speakers. It was a memorable afternoon of myth, bluster and epic song.

Shore excursions in each port are included in the fare and come in both walking tour and motor coach tour varieties -- or a combination of the two -- focusing on panoramic sites.

On days when the included excursion is a walking tour, such as the one offered in the half-timbered medieval town of Bernkastel, there's a gentle walking option -- best for those with mobility issues or, more euphemistically, for those who "like to take a lot of photos."

In response to constructive feedback, all passengers on walking tours now get something called a Quietvox. The guide speaks into a microphone, and the audio is beamed to the wireless Quietvox apparatus and into your earphones. The system worked quite well overall and was especially nice in crowded Trier, where we lost site of the guide yet still were able to listen to her commentary.

There's a very small room with a treadmill, bike, rowing machine and some light free weights (25-pound weights, tops). The fitness closet also contains a Pilates ball and mat. Within the room, there's also a small sauna and a shower.

Adjacent to the fitness room is a single treatment room, offering massages, haircuts, eyebrow and eyelash dying and the like.

The sun deck has a grey AstroTurf jogging/walking track. A lap equals 100 meters, so it's 16 laps to the mile. Very few passengers used the track, but with something to see in every direction, it was quite a pleasant sensation going 'round and 'round on the top deck.

AmaCello carries roughly 20 decent leisure bikes that can be taken out while in port -- or if you're so inclined, you can actually ride to the next port and meet the ship. Talk to the cruise director regarding this second option; he'll direct you to the proper folks that can help plan a route. (He won't try to convince you not to do anything.) I can't stress enough the importance of planning a route and knowing your limits. Bikes are free to use. The front desk prefers advance notice if you decide to take one out.

The cruise director told us that Danube river itineraries have a few ports where the distances are more in the neighbourhood of 20 miles -- much better suited for an intraport bike trip.

AmaCello has two lounges. The main lounge has the ship's lone bar, 24-hour coffee and pastries, plenty of chairs and couches, and floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. There's also a small dance floor. This indoor social hub can accommodate everyone onboard, and the room is used for just about everything, including port talks, evening entertainment, more causal meals, catching up on reading and peaceful nod-offs between lunch and tea.

In the cosy aft lounge, you can watch the disappearing landscape through floor-to-ceiling windows or enjoy a puzzle or game (selection: Rummikub, Yahtze, Jenga, Scrabble, Cluedo, the U.K. version of Trivial Pursuit, chess, checkers, etc.). Dry-mouthed passengers can order bar beverages over the phone. The "Easy Dining" option also takes place there.

Free Wi-Fi is available in the main and aft lounges, a great touch that's somewhat unusual for the river cruise industry.

When the weather's pleasant, the blue AstroTurf sun deck bustles with activity. The sun deck setup is very basic: plastic-frame sun beds with blue fabric slings, a small "running track" (16 laps equal a mile), a jumbo turf chess board and a collapsible wheelhouse. There are also a few canopies that can be set up to provide shade, which they weren't during our cruise. By the wheelhouse, there are a few nice wooden tables. Nearly everyone comes out to recline on a lounger, walk the track or sit at a wooden table to watch it all -- castle to church spire, cargo ship to power plant -- pass him by.

At the ship's main entrance, you'll find the reception desk, a small gift shop with maps, books, gift items and colourful enamel jewellery from Frey Wille. There's also a small library with a smattering of magazines, fiction by Stephen King and Dean Koontz and a few travel and history titles.

Editor's Note: Commentary is only piped in through public areas (a few things go right into your stateroom -- "sorry to disturb you in your cabin, folks"), so it makes sense to be out and about if you're passing through the castle-covered Rhine Gorge, where anecdotes and information are dispatched furiously.

Diners can follow the passing medieval towns and modern industry through windows on both sides of AmaCello's main restaurant, which accommodates all 148 passengers during single-seating meals. Somewhat uncommon on river ships, a number of two-tops (about 10) are available alongside tables for four, six and eight. While tables are first-come, first-served -- no reservations are allowed -- we never had trouble getting a table for two.

Editor's Note: While the rule is "no reservations," special exceptions can be made for groups, such as the large, non-English-speaking Turkish contingent onboard our sailing.

Dinner is the ship's primary social event and usually begins at 7 p.m., but times can vary a touch due to port schedules. The line's printed material asks that passengers arrive within 15 minutes of the restaurant's opening.

Meals are multi-hour affairs, featuring four courses: appetizer (three choices), soup (two), entrees (three) and dessert (three). The filet wrapped in bacon was buttery soft and was a standout. The gazpacho was tangy and refreshing. The vegetarian spring rolls and beef Carpaccio are worthy of seconds. If you like buttery soups, you'll love those served on AmaCello. No vegetable was spared from creaming -- in a week, we had cream of corn, asparagus, potato, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprout (topped with whipped cream, no less), spinach, carrot and pumpkin.

There's almost always a vegetarian option in each category -- such as an entrée of baked potatoes with vegetable stuffing or a cheese omelette for dinner or a vegetable cream soup and mixed green salads for appetizers. There were a few of what were considered "healthy" selections -- grilled and baked dishes mostly involving seafood (grilled tiger prawns one night, baked trout another).

In addition to the changing nightly choices, there's also a "standing order" menu, which features shawarma (lamb, lettuce, tzatziki and chili flakes in a pita), roast chicken, salmon, steak, French fries and Caesar salad. The chicken, salmon and shawarma are also healthy options.

There is also a cheese table, focusing mostly on soft cheeses, available throughout dinner.

If the Three Mushroom Ragout in Philo Basquet with Basil-Potato Dumplings and Shredded Parmesan fails to please the palette, you can always order another entrée, a welcomed policy borrowed from big-ship dining rooms.

In a nice touch, "free-flowing" wine (choice of a regionally selected red and white) and beer are included with dinner. On one night, our options were the River Vintage Fass Nr. 1, a red from Germany's Pfalz region, and a nice, young white wine with a dry finish from Heinrich Vollmer, one of the most well-known, traditional German wineries. If the gratis wine choices are not to your liking, you can always order from the wine list, which focuses on German, French and Italian wines. Another option: Bring your own bottle -- especially if you're cruising through the vineyard-covered Mosel valley, known for its Rieslings. There is never a corkage fee, unlike in the dining rooms on big, mainstream cruise ships.

For those seeking a more casual evening meal, there's an "Easy Dinner" option available on some nights of the cruise in the small aft lounge. (Scheduling prevents this option from being available every night.) Choices are limited, however. One night, it was turkey and mushroom in a cream sauce and deep-fried bread pieces, shaped like torpedoes. Realistically, very few passengers choose to miss the main event in the restaurant. On an up-note, those choosing the easy dinner option won't have to forgo the free drinks with dinner. There's a table with beer and wine for the taking.

Lunch is served mostly buffet-style; you order your soup and your entrée off the menu and then select the rest of your meal from a buffet of salads, fruit, honey, hot and cold appetizers, desserts and cheeses. Entrees include Malaysian noodle stir-fry with papaya, deep-fried perch with peas and carrots, and sautéed chicken in white-wine cream sauce. Soups typically include a cream of something-or-other and another option like sweet and sour or three-bean. In the buffet portion, there are salads of the garden, sausage, cucumber and coleslaw variety; cold cuts; fruit; and hot and cold appetizers like nachos, marinated mussels and toasted steak sandwiches on baguettes. There are also some special lunchtime touches. During one midday meal, a chef was doling out tasty slices of the soft parts of a roasted pig.

The standing order lunch items are hamburgers, cheeseburgers and fries. The international cheese table -- a comforting presence never absent from the restaurant -- is there for lunch, as well. Passengers are expected to arrive within 30 minutes of the restaurant's opening. Again, there are several options for vegetarians, including a quiche Lorraine one day and an Asian stir-fry with mango another.

There's a more casual buffet-lunch served in the main lounge, all the way forward. This versatile space -- with a bar, dance floor, plenty of comfortable couches and big windows on three sides -- is used for everything from the morning port talks, daytime reading and chatting to scenic cruising, afternoon tea and evening entertainment. For lunch, the lounge hosts a scaled-down version (about half) of what's on offer in the restaurant, served in the main lounge. There, you'll find a selection of salads, sandwiches (minute steak on baguettes or ham, turkey and Swiss on Texas toast), a hot entrée and soup (cream of leek, potato or broccoli), as well as cakes and pastries. So why eat there? With its panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows -- which afford far better views than those in the restaurant -- it's a great indoor spot for scenic cruising/munching.

Breakfast comes in three options. Starting at 6 a.m., early risers can get coffee and pastries in the main lounge. Late-risers can do the same from 9 to 10 a.m. (There are, in fact, always cookies, cakes and the like available in the lounge.) Sandwiched between, breakfast is served in the restaurant from 7 to 9 a.m. The European-style smorgasbord features cold cuts, cheeses, fruits (canned and fresh), a large bread and pastry table, a smoked salmon setup with obligatory accoutrements (cream cheese, capers, onions, etc.), as well as hot offerings like scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon (U.S. strip variety), hash browns, beans and fried tomatoes. There are also made-to-order selections that include omelettes, oatmeal, waffles and eggs cooked any way. The eggs Benedict with just the right touch of Tabasco was perfect energy food -- I tried it on day three and ordered it each morning thereafter.

In addition to the three squares, there's a daily soup offering at around 11 a.m., a tea with sweets and savouries at 4 p.m. and a late-night snack, which usually consists of finger sandwiches (basil, tomato and cheese on buttered bread or salmon mouse with cucumber on buttered crackers).

The culinary highlight for me was the Frühschoppen, an itinerary-specific meal served before lunch as we cruised Germany's Main River. The pre-lunch repast of beer, brats and coleslaw was the tastiest I had onboard. Naturally, all that sausage and beer ruined my appetite for lunch, which immediately followed. The cruise director explained Frühschoppen thus: There are beer fests everywhere in Germany, and although a massive amount of beer is consumed, there's inevitably a lot left over when the festivals end -- so it's a great excuse to drink beer before noon.

Coffee, tea and pastries are always available in the lounge. There's an excellent machine that'll make you a specialty coffee drink (espresso, café crème) with the push of a button.

AmaCello has 71 identical standard staterooms and four junior suites.

The 71 standard cabins are 170 square feet, a healthy size for a river boat, where cabins are typically in the 150-square-foot range. Fifty-nine of those feature French balconies, sliding-glass doors with railings that let you poke your upper half out into the open air. (If you're cruising early in the season, and there are no bugs, it's nice to leave the door open overnight.) The 13 standard cabins on the lower Piano Deck feature picture windows right at the water line, an interesting visual sensation in its own right.

All staterooms come with bathrobes, slippers, hair dryers, safes, ice buckets (no mini-fridges), desks and six bottles of water, replenished daily. Cabins have plenty of storage space, including some large under-the-bed roll-out bins, two closets (one of which is shelved, another for hanging clothes) and several small drawers.

The numerous outlets in each cabin are European two-prongers. Electricity is 220 volts onboard, so U.S. passengers will need to bring adapters. (A limited supply is available at reception.)

Cabins also feature an "infotainment" setup, each comprised of a flat-screen monitor and wired keyboard. The systems provide Internet access (unlimited, included with fare), a selection of TV channels (CNN, BBC, Animal Planet, MTV Europe, etc.), a music library, a nice selection of films, live images from a bow camera and of the captain's navigation screen (don't worry -- you can't screw anything up) and restaurant menus. The system can be a bit sensitive, especially if you're overzealous. (Just push one button, then wait, the cruise director explained.) But, overall, it worked quite well. It was a nice touch to be able to send e-mails or research onshore restaurants without worrying about racking up a huge Web bill.

AmaCello's in-cabin showers are worthy of their own paragraph. Close the glass door, and you'll notice six buttons -- push one for a waterfall, another for a rain shower. There's also a handheld shower head and little spray nozzle that comes up from below. The thermostat goes well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for turning your glass enclosed shower into a steam closet.

The ship's four junior suites are 255 square feet. They're basically 50 percent larger than the standard cabins with added space for a table and chairs. In addition to the standard inclusions enumerated above, suites have full baths with separate tubs, stocked mini-bars, daily news handouts (The "U.S. News," a compilation of the previous day's national stories) and sparkling wine delivered on arrival. All four suites have French balconies.

There are no cabins configured for passengers with disabilities.

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