Gems of Southeast Europe cruise day 2: A family success story, turning one river boat into twenty one

Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst, AMAWaterways co-owners
Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst, AMAWaterways co-owners

ABOARD THE AMASONATA – Dining at the Chef’s Table on this elegant AMAWaterways riverboat is a special treat.

Dining at the Chef’s Table with the husband and wife who launched the first AMAWaterways ship fifteen years ago — and now own a multimillion-dollar company with 21 of these luxury riverboats — is an extra special treat.

Not to mention that Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst are delightful dinner companions.

Where there was only one riverboat at the start in 2002, there are now more than twice the number of these giant vessels, each longer than a football field.

The appetizers at the Chef's Table on AMASonata
The appetizers at the Chef’s Table on AMASonata

Schreiner, a native Austrian who now lives with his wife/co-owner in Los Angeles, was present at the creation of the riverboat-cruise concept back in 1992 when he was in the travel industry. He and Karst, who was born in Germany, started AMAWaterways with one boat.  Today, AMAWaterways is the upscale, high end of the riverboat cruise industry.

This week the Schreiners will christen the latest entry to their fleet, the AMAKristina, fresh off the assembly line of the Vahali shipyard in Serbia. The new kid on the block, fitted with all the latest bells and whistles, is a whopping 443 feet long — and considerably more plush –than the first boat they commissioned 15 years ago.

“Kristin and I began by leasing a ship from Viking in 1998,” Schreiner noted. “Eventually we broke the connection with Viking and started AMAWaterways in 2002.” The rest, as they say, is history.

“You just have to believe in what you’re doing,“ Kristin added. “From then on, growing the company is simple.”

The couple is cruising with us this week, partly for the christening and partly because that’s what they do: cruise rivers all over the world. Karst can’t count the number she’s been on in total – “too many!” she exclaims.

Riverboat cruises have the reputation of being sedentary travel.  Karst, whose title is executive vice-president of the company, found the perfect solution. She came up with the idea of having bicycles on board riverboats for those passengers who want to remain active as they float down the river.

An ancient doorway with wine symbols at the Borok family winery in Villany, Hungary
An ancient doorway with wine symbols at the Borok family winery in Villany, Hungary

Now AMA maintains a fleet of bikes on their ships, an idea that most other river cruise lines have borrowed.

This morning we decided to forego the scheduled excursion into the town of Pecs for a blissful bike ride on a quiet path along the Danube. We hopped on the new six-speed bikes and enjoyed the scenery first-hand.  (The cruise line is also adding more hiking options to their list of excursions, offering a choice of easy-to-difficult hikes.)

Our morning bike ride allowed time for an afternoon visit to the pretty little town of Villany, known for the last 300 years for producing noteworthy Hungarian wines. In this southern part of Hungary, the Mediterranean climate makes for excellent conditions to grow the grapes for fiery reds, sweet chardonnays and fruited, gentle rosés.  We tasted six wines at the Borok family vineyard, where the 30,000 bottles it produces per year get finished off right in Hungary before they can be imported.  Some of us were quick to buy a few bottles at the source before they disappeared.

About that Chef’s Table . . . All passengers can have dinner there at least once during an AMAWaterways cruise with no cover charge.  We dined on parsnip cream soup, pear sherbet with champagne, grilled pike perch with spinach-nettle and crayfish, Japanese glazed short ribs with cauliflower mash, brulée cheesecake – and an assortment of vintage Hungarian wines.  Chef Ketut Jata, who hails from Indonesia, is the master of the kitchen and pared the wines with each course.

Speaking of fine wines, six years ago AMA started offering wine cruises.  Now there are 45 of them. Also offered (believe it or not) are art cruises, during which passengers are given daily painting lessons. These have grown from one last year to five this year.

Each of these little houses is a wine cellar at the Borok family winery in Hungary
Each of these little houses is a wine cellar at the Borok family winery in Hungary

At dinner, we asked Karst where the name AMAWaterways came from.

“We wanted to call our company ‘Amadeus’, “ she said, “but we discovered there was another company that already uses that name, so we called it AMA after the Latin word ‘amora,’ for love.”

When we leave Hungary tonight we’ll be traveling to countries that once were under the Iron Curtain. Because of this, we experience what cruise manager Madalina (Maddy) Caldaruse calls a “Face Check” whenever we pass across a border, (as we did after dinner tonight into Croatia).  We have to present our passports  –along with our faces — to the local police, who come on board to check us out and stamp our documents.  It only takes a few seconds, and some of the passengers went through the process wearing their pajamas. We will all be having more “face checks” tomorrow when we pass into Serbia, and more in the next few days when we float into Bulgaria and, finally, Romania.

Tonight, we passed our face checks with flying colors.

Make that floating colors.

Photos by Timothy Leland


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