I’d heard there was a new kind of river cruise—one that’s loaded with options for travelers who like to stay active.

I’m no extreme athlete, but I love a weekend hike or a cardio session at the gym. So I was eager to sample this new side of river cruising. Could I have it all on a river cruise—the cultural enrichment, the guided tours, the ship’s boutique-hotel comfort—and get a workout?

To find out, I hopped on the AmaSerena for a seven-day cruise on the Danube River. Part of AmaWaterways’ fleetAmaSerena set off from Budapest, Hungary, meandered through Slovakia and Austria, and said goodbye to us in Vilshofen, Germany. Each day featured one or two excursions, when we ventured onshore to explore charming villages or cosmopolitan capitals, led by expert local guides.

And yes, I discovered, I could have it all, because the cruise included plenty of fun ways to be active. Here are five things I learned during my adventure along the Danube:

You have intensity options

There were three versions of almost every excursion: regular, gentle and active. In Budapest, for instance, we chose from:

  • a city motor coach tour, which included some walking (the “regular” option)
  • a version of that tour but at a slower walking pace (the “gentle” option)
  • a four-hour city walking tour that included hiking up winding cobblestone lanes and stone staircases to Buda Castle (the “active” option)

This was my cruise’s first day, and I was nervous about whether the active option would prove too taxing (I was still on vacation, after all). But I forged ahead, and it turned out just fine. The castle stairs weren’t steep, just pleasantly challenging.

My guide was an extremely knowledgeable man in his mid-30s named Andresz. He enjoyed leading the active tours, he said, because they tend to have smaller groups. “So there is more back and forth between me and the guests, and it’s more of a conversation,” he explained.

He was right: I asked him many questions about life in Hungary. He grew grapes outside the city, so we chatted about wine and polinka, a fruit brandy and Hungarian specialty. (I confessed that I’d tried it the night before, and Andresz approved: “If you want to get to know a place, you have to do it through the stomach sometimes.”)

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I returned to the ship feeling tired but happy because of all I had seen, and thankful for fine people like Andresz. That night, I dug into dinner with an appetite I had earned.

My advice: For those who share my concern about being up to the “active” excursions, AmaSerena’s Cruise Manager, Reka, offered some good advice: “On the first day, choose the ‘regular’ excursion. That will give you a baseline,” she said. “If it’s too easy, then you can move to active; if it’s too hard, you can try the gentle.”

Cycling is sweet!

Many AmaWaterways river cruise ships carry 25 bicycles. Our itinerary made good use of them by offering several “active” cycling excursions. They included a 15-mile ride along the Danube to a 12th-century abbey; a spin in some of Vienna’s parks; and a 16-mile ride through Austria’s Wachau Valley—a UNESCO region famed for its pastoral beauty and medieval architecture.

The cycling excursions I joined provided some of my best memories of the cruise. There was a freedom and joy about pedaling with the wind in my hair (OK, over my required helmet), which I hadn’t experienced since college.

I love seeing how people live, and the cycling routes gave me a closer peek into the fabric of daily life. In the Wachau Valley, for example, the motor coach tour stayed on a main road along the Danube and had a big-picture view of the incredible scenery. But on our bikes, my group traveled a winding road up into the hills, following narrow, cobblestone streets through medieval wine-growing villages where people worked and lived—and where an old woman leaning out from her window waved as we breezed past.

On that ride, I met AAA Members Sherri and Bob Pflibsen. Afterward, we sat in a cafe munching pastries, and reflected on why we’d chosen the bike ride. “I like to get a little exercise when I travel,” Bob said, “and I think you see more in a shorter amount of time on a bike. And it gets you off the beaten path.”

Sherri piped in, “Yes, off the beaten path, but with a guide—so you don’t get lost. I loved it: the scenery and riding through the villages, seeing the shops and houses and people working in their yards, and wondering about their lives.”

“And this way,” Bob added, “we can go back to the boat and eat more.”

My advice: If you haven’t been on a bike in several years, go for a few spins around the block at home before your active river cruise. That’s a better—and safer—time to work out the kinks than when you’re on a guided bike tour with your fellow cruisers.

Slow and steady … is just fine

My favorite thing about the river cruise was the flexibility it offered. On days that I felt like taking it a bit slower, I chose the “gentle” or “regular” option. (Instead of doing the Vienna parks bike ride, for instance, I took a coach to Schonbrunn Palace and toured the royal apartments.)

The options prove helpful for couples. On days when Bob wanted to bike but Sherri wasn’t up for it, he took the “active” excursion while she chose another tour.

Even during the bike rides, I found flexibility. I never felt pressured to keep a certain pace, because there were always two guides: One in front leading the group, and a second bringing up the rear. I’m a slow cyclist, and I spent plenty of time in the rear, pedaling alongside the guide. This was a treat, because the guides are locals and quite happy to chat—so I came away with plenty of insights into their countries and daily lives.

My advice: Go at your own speed. On the Wachau Valley bike ride, the second guide assured me that it’s absolutely fine to keep a slow pace. One of the cyclists on a recent ride, she said, was 89 years old: “He took it quite slow, but at the end of the ride there was one last hill—and he was the only one who got up it.”

You can stay fit on-ship, too

To my delight, I discovered that AmaSerena had an impressive fitness center on the third floor. Spotless, it featured sleek strength-training machines, fresh lemon-infused ice water and stacks of fluffy, white towels.

On-board fitness is an area many river cruise lines are beginning to embrace. AmaWaterways recently introduced its Wellness Program on six of its European ships—including core strengthening on the sun deck.

My advice: Not all river cruise ships have a gym, and some river cruise lines are more dedicated to active wellness than others. Ask your travel advisor to point you to those that prioritize fitness, and if a gym is important to you, look at the photos before you book to make sure it meets your standards.

You can find your own active fun

You needn’t feel bound to the itinerary of the day. If there’s something active you want to do, ask your cruise director—she can most likely make it happen. “Don’t be shy,” advises Reka, who has helped guests rent kayaks in Vienna and go horseback riding in the city’s Prater park. “Don’t presume that what’s offered on the excursions is the only thing you can do.”

My advice: If you want help organizing a special activity, tell your cruise manager well in advance. A day’s notice is good; two or three days is even better.

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