In all the hoopla of this year’s river season – here at Cruise Critic, our team has gone from one christening ceremony to another – this week’s latest launch has the biggest potential of all. That’s because the shining new ship, the 190-passenger Emerald Sky, belongs to Emerald Waterways, the first cruise line to be created in more than five years.
Emerald Waterways, which will debut two custom-built vessels this year, is part of Australia’s venerable Scenic Tours. That company offers everything from land tours to five star-style luxury riverboat cruises. In fact, its Scenic Tours river line aims to be one of the most luxe and inclusive in the field.
In contrast, Emerald is the first cruise line afloat to raise the bar on cheap and cheerful river cruising. Typically the three-star lines that target price-conscious cruisers use older ships with few amenities and ever fewer balconies. But Emerald is entering the category with state-of-the-art ships that include boutique-style designs, young-at-heart innovations like a swimming pool that’s transformed into a cinema at night, and cabins with upmarket touches, like balconies that transform into conservatories with a touch of the button.
And all at a price point that’s some 30–40 percent below the higher end Scenic (and other competitors).
Of course, you do get what you pay for. One of the reasons Emerald Waterways (which will go by Evergreen Waterways in its native Australia market) offers lower fares is because there are fewer included amenities. While a standard tour is offered in every port, in-depth or unusual outings levy a fee. Coffee, tea and water, as well as wine and beer with dinner are included; all other drinks, from martinis to draft beer to soda, will require you to sign a chit. Movies accessed through in-cabin televisions, are 15 euro apiece.
Having said that, this is a line worth considering by travelers who’d prefer a more a’la carte approach, and want to decide what extras they’re willing to buy.
Two days before its Amsterdam launch, Cruise Critic received a sneak peak at Emerald Sky. Here are our hits – there were certainly plenty of those – and misses.
Ambience. We loved the light and airy ambience of Emerald Sky; think IKEA crossed with a design hotel. The ship has clean lines, with décor that is comfortable and cozy, yet unfussy.
Cabins. While typically compact and a similar size to those on other river lines, cabins come in a handful of configurations. The cheapest, as with all river lines, are on the lowest deck with windows placed high up on the wall. But there are also roomier and brighter options, with plenty of balconies spread over two decks. Storage is excellent (with lots of drawer space), beds are firm and comfortable, the television system is state of the art, with British channels and a handful of American ones, such as CNN. And we’ve mentioned the balconies; in Panorama “suites” (this is just one room), the floor-to-ceiling window drops down halfway in nice weather. In Grand Balcony Suites, the next category up, you have a dedicated verandah that can be closed off for just a bit more space. The Owner’s Suite features two-room suites with sit-out balconies.
Pool! Those of us who like to spend time hanging out on the ship will appreciate this gorgeous, blue mosaic tile pool. It’s located off the aft, with a retractable roof, and it’s big enough to actually swim in. There’s a lovely bar tucked in the corner.
While our brief visit didn’t include an evening at the cinema, the space transforms at night, when a floor covers the swimming pool and comfy deck chairs are moved in. Movies, which company executives estimate will play only on some nights during a cruise, will range from destination-centric fare (“The Sound of Music” near Salzburg, for example) to recent hits.
Bathrooms. Standard balcony cabins are in the 180 ft. range – pretty common, size-wise, with other river newbuilds. In our Panorama Suite cabin, though, the bathroom, while efficiently designed, featured a tiny, tiny sink with no room for anything (there is ample storage behind mirrored walls). I have to admit: On a nippy Amsterdam morning, I missed the heated floors that some river lines are offering.
Itineraries. With only two ships in the fleet – Emerald Star joins the cruise line in June – the new cruise line only offers Rhine-Main-Danube itineraries. On the other hand, these are perfect first-time routes for new-to-river-virgins.
Make sure to check out our coverage of Emerald Sky’s christening (with Twiggy as godmother adding some star power) and behind the scenes looks at creating an all-new river cruise line.