The latest stage in AmaWaterways‘ ambitious growth plan – since its founding in 2002, it has introduced 15 ships! – feels more like a boutique hotel than a riverboat. Christened last week in Vilshofen, Germany, AmaPrima felt intimate and cozy, with a crew that offered sublime service (it’s been in service since April). The 164-passenger ship features cabins with sit-out balconies, gorgeously designed public spaces such as a well-designed sundeck, and terrific food (with complimentary wine at lunch and dinner). Other features included a splash pool, fitness facility, alternative restaurant, massage therapist and beauty salon, and a wide range of shore excursions in ports of call (on this trip, Bratislava, Vienna, Durnstein, Melk, Link and Passau).
In this “hits and misses” post about our Danube cruise, I’ll be honest: There frankly are far more hits than misses. Perhaps the biggest disappointment from our cruise is the fact that it ended. And that’s the hallmark of a great trip.
Cabins. Many riverboats offer cabins with modified “French” balconies (so named because they allow for floor-to-ceiling windows that open but you can’t step out) and a few others offer real verandahs you can sit on, but AmaPrima goes further. Spacious, 210 – 250-square ft. A and B categories offer a living area with French balcony and, off the bedroom, a two-seater verandah. Roughly half of all cabins onboard (and on AmaCerto, AmaVerde & AmaBella, too) have the dual scenario.
Other highlights of all cabins include a mini-bar stocked with complimentary bottled water, generous closet space (and under the bed storage), and marble shower-only bathrooms. One tip: Cabins on deck 2 are more centrally located while those on deck 3 may have slightly better views in port when the ship butts up against other vessels or docks.
The Itinerary. One of the downsides of river cruises for fans of the “sea day” on ocean voyages is that they can be a bit too jam-packed with activity. This itinerary, however, offered just the right amount of down-time. There were several half-days on the river (bliss) in between heavy-duty sightseeing in Budapest, Vienna and Linz (jumping off spot for all-day tours of Czech Republic’s Cresky Krumlov and Austria’s Salzburg). These were mixed with smaller cities and villages, like Austria’s Durnstein and Melk, and Germany’s Passau. And evening entertainment was fairly minimal (aside from a couple of special native-to-the-port performances) which offered a welcome chance to chill-out (or stretch out the evening with a good food and copious pours of delicious local wines at dinner).
Dining. AmaWaterways is the only major river cruise line to be part of the Chaine Des Rotisseurs, a culinary society, so we expected the food to be better than average, and indeed, it was superb. Breakfast – a combination buffet service with station for freshly prepared omelettes and specials like Eggs Benedict and cinnamon pancakes –was substantial. Lunch, with free-flowing wine, beer and sodas, included menu options along with a cold buffet.
Dinner was all off the menu, with choices of a pair of starters, salads and soup, entrees and desserts, and of course plenty of wine! Special needs, from vegetarian to low-salt, were pleasantly accommodated (though it helps to give Ama advance notice). Other dining options: Erlebnis is a Chef Table style eatery with an almost-open kitchen that allows you to watch the chefs work, is a once-a-cruise gourmet experience.
Staying Fit. Despite being plied with terrific, mostly European continental-style cuisine three-plus meals a day, few want to put on too much weight. That’s where Ama’s emphasis on fitness and recreation is really welcomed. The ship’s gym (one of the prettiest I’ve seen, with flowers and other soft touches), features Kinesis, stationery bikes (with state-of-the-art Internet connectivity and television channels), and a treadmill.
There’s also a massage therapist onboard (and the 60 euro for 60 minute fee for the treatment makes it one of the best values in any spa afloat).
Bikes! The Danube River’s mostly flat surrounds, along with beautifully paved tow paths that run alongside, make it a great place for cycling. All of Ama’s ships have bikes; on AmaPrima there were 25 or so, with three gears, helmets and locks. We loved the series of guided bike outings – in Durnstein, Linz and Passau, they offered a new twist on the tired concept of a city tour. On one adventure, the ship’s cruise director and about 15 hardy passengers rode 20 miles between ship stops at Durnstein and Melk, in 100 degree weather. You can also use the cycles for your own ramblings.
AMA president Rudi Schreiner told Cruise Critic the bikes are so popular that he’s thinking about expanding to 50 per ship(and maybe even adding a few of the electric variety).
The Sundeck. If we were giving an award today on the best sundeck on a riverboat, AmaPrima would get my vote! It’s one of the rare vessels to have a splash pool with – get this – a swim-up bar (there’s a draught tap on top at the bar). In high summer with temps hovering at 100 degrees most of the week, this was a beautiful spot for cooling off, sipping a cold brew, and chatting with other passengers. The glass walls fold down when the ship goes under low bridges.
Other facets of the sundeck that we loved included a massive, square-shaped seating areas with deep wicker-like cushioned couches, plenty of room for dining (with the occasional special event held up top), chaise lounges in the shade, and even a glassed partioned smoking area.
Casual Noshing. The ship’s casual fare wasn’t as tempting as its restaurant spreads. Those who wanted a quick meal at breakfast and lunch could head for the lounge for pastries and breads during the former, and a hot buffet item, soup, and pallid sandwiches during the latter. Plus: The lounge is set up with tables at cocktail rather than dining height. In between meals, the offerings were very skimpy (if you miss lunch, you get…cookies).
AmaWaterways’ Schreiner told us that next year he’ll incorporate a “bistro” concept for off-hours, a welcome change. There’s no official “room service” either. One plus: The staff was really caring if you missed a mealtime (we watched as a late-arriving couple pleaded with the bar manager for snacks late one night; she went to the kitchen and brought them a full meal).
In-cabin Entertainment. This isn’t a particularly monumental quibble, but the ship’s much-lauded Infotainment system struck me as a bit on the weak side. Yes, you could access the Internet via a keyboard (though it seems like most of the passengers I met had their own iPads and such for staying in touch). There were a handful of news channels but the entertainment aspect was paltry. Under movies, you got a slew of episodes of “Downton Abbey” – it would have been more entertaining to have film options that pertained to our itinerary. One plus: After a slow start in Budapest, the free wireless Internet was superb. Another change in store for AmaWaterways next year, we’re told: It will introduce Apple TVs as entertainment systems.
Onboard Enrichment. If you wanted to learn more about the ports you’re visiting on this Danube River cruise, it won’t happen onboard the ship, where there’s very little programming — such as lectures or food demonstrations — beyond a handful of folk-style performances. As well, the library, which is rather small, doesn’t stock a great collection of guides or other informational tomes.
Where you will pick up excellent insights is on tour; Ama’s shore excursions, most of which are included in cruise fares, stray beyond the usual staple of guided city tours. Particularly intriguing: a culinary tour of Vienna, a communist era look at Bratislava, and a trip to Austria’s lake district.