We just returned from one of the most enjoyable vacations we have ever taken. It combined an AMA Waterways Danube cruise with a pre-stay in Budapest and a post-stay in Prague (both pre-stays booked on our own). The itinerary was a little exhausting but thoroughly enchanting. More on those stays in a bit but I'll focus on the cruise portion first.
To preface the review, we consider ourselves "veteran cruisers" having taken about 15 trips (I've lost count!) with Princess, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, NCL, and Carnival. Itineraries have included both the Caribbean and Mediterranean. We had wanted to take a river cruise for a couple of years but were held back by the cost (both cruise and airfare) and the concern that river cruises were only for seniors (we're in our 50's). Once we decided to take the plunge, I began to research cruises via Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor. It became quickly apparent that river cruise reviews are few and far between. Especially for newer ships. Therefore I was determined to post this review as soon as we returned.
For those who don't want to read the entire review, I'll simply say that our experience was excellent and AMA Waterways is a first rate cruise line. We absolutely would sail with them again. And more specifically, the AMA Prima is a beautiful river ship with a crew that is second to none. From the moment we first approached the ship to the final farewells (including hugs), they worked tirelessly to provide a first-class experience for every guest.
From the outside the AMA Prima is attractive, though after seeing many cruise ships on the river, none of them will win a unique design award. The limitations imposed by low bridges and locks pretty much dictate a low, squat profile--very different from the big cruise ocean liners. AMA Prima is a little different in that the bridge (or wheelhouse) is large and modern-looking. When needed, it hydraulically lowers almost flush with the top deck. The top deck also includes a small pool--just enough for a dip to cool off on hot days. One interesting treatment was the deck floor covering. While most ships we saw had bright blue or gray indoor/outdoor carpet, the AMA Prima has a brown carpet with stripes that makes it look somewhat like teak flooring on ocean liners. The outdoor furniture was either cushioned wicker or teak deck chairs. The overall effect was contemporary and upscale.
Once inside, the ship's beauty became instantly apparent. Materials were higher end and it felt like an upscale hotel. Off of the lobby/front desk was a very large lounge with a variety of comfortable (and colorful) seating groupings, a dance floor and piano, a bar plus a breakfast/snack area and separate coffee station. In one side area they had electric fireplaces and a small library--likely a great spot on a winter's day/Christmas market cruise. On the deck below the lounge was an attractive dining room. The rest of the ship was mostly cabins and crew areas with a few exceptions. A small exercise room, beauty salon and in the very rear, a 20+ person restaurant were aft. As a point of comparison, we had the opportunity to go through one of the new Viking ships on the way to our ship. While it looked very nice and had a larger lobby, the decor seemed rather stark, modern and monotone compared to the AMA Prima.
Our cabin was in steerage (as one of our traveling companions called it). Located on the lowest deck, the cabin was very nice and had two small windows just above the waterline. While we missed having a balcony (those cabins were sold out when we booked), I have to admit that I was happy we did not spend the extra money on one. As other reviews have mentioned, often the ship is docked next to other ships making them unuseable, and the fact that you are on the go so much, I think we would have made little use of it. Plus the seating areas on the top deck are so comfortable and offer a panoramic view not available on a balcony.
The cabin layout was a little tight compared to large cruise liners but is so well designed that almost everything fit without a problem. The only complaint would be in the bathroom. Storage is very tight and an extra shelf would help to hold toiletries. Despite that, the bathroom is like the rest of the ship...well done with upscale materials. Floors and shower were marble (or a faux marble tile).The shower was fantastic. It is angled and has real sliding glass doors (no more sticking/blowing shower curtain!). It offers a choice of rainshower or handheld shower heads. Countertops in both bath and cabin vanity were stone. One very slick feature was the closet clothes rod. Instead of an overhead light, the rod has a strip of LEDs built in the rod that downlights the clothes hanging below. The same feature is used on some of the stair railings elsewhere in the ship. Another interesting (and convenient) feature was the cabin door lock. A simple touch of the key card to the handle unlocked the door. We found the beds and duvets to be very comfortable despite a few reviews that said AMA's beds were on the hard side. Room service was impeccable, with twice a day cleaning and restocking.
Meals were near gourmet (at least for us) and they tried to use local recipes/favorites for all of the dinners. Overall I felt the food was superior to normal cruise ship dining. We did eat one evening in the Erlenebis specialty restaurant. It was a fun experience and a great way to meet fellow passengers in an even more intimate setting. Service and food were great. I will say, however, that we thought the main dining room food and presentation were so nice that the specialty restaurant was really not needed. Service was very good in the main dining room at every meal. And AMA's free flowing wine and beer policy with meals is just that--free flowing. They are generous with the pours and glasses never went empty. While I am not a wine connoisseur, my wife and our friends "know their stuff" and found the quality of the wines to be very good.
What really set the ship apart, however, was the crew. They were really outstanding. Most cruise ships have staff that are pleasant and polite, but to a person the AMA Prima's crew seemed to be genuinely happy to have us aboard. I'd guess there were only about 25 or so and they were all very friendly...from the head chef (Gino Guadagni) stopping me several times to ask how the meal was and truly interested in my reply... to the captain (Josef Olaj) saying hello all the time... to the cruise director (Reka Piros) who appeared to be on call about 20 hours a day and never lost her enthusiasm and infectious attitude. A little more on Reka. Obviously the cruise director tends to be the best known of any staff on a cruise ship. On a river ship the CD is even more visible because of the small number of passengers. Reka is the consumate cruise director. A real "people person", she was constantly on the go, whether it was introducing onboard entertainment, organizing tours or flagging down busses! Every conversation with her made you feel like you were an old friend. And her skills were certainly put to the test when the lock situation happened. She was wonderful at providing updates and reassuring us that they were working to guarantee that we had a great experience no matter what happened. Reka is one in a million and certainly helped make the cruise a memorable experience!
Despite my initial concerns, the ship had a very nice mix of passengers (140+ in all)--most from the US and Canada, the rest from Australia, UK and a few from Europe/Japan. Ages ranged from about 12 (only one kid on the trip) to over 90. We had a group of about 18 guys from the US/Canada- all of whom were personable and a lot of fun- that booked through a gay travel agency.
AMA's tours were well done and most of the guides were professional, well-prepared and entertaining. Tour busses were modern and spotless. The bike rides were great... bikes carried on board were in good shape and the crew was happy to adjust seats and handlebars to accommodate the various riders. We weren't sure what the difficulty level would be and were pleased to find that the rides were at a comfortable pace and not hard for the average rider.
As for "glitches"...the only thing that happened was that for the last 3 days there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether we could reach Nuremberg on the ship. German lock keepers had gone on strike and they didn't know if they could make it through all of the locks we needed to pass. The situation changed hour by hour. As a result, we sailed faster in some spots. In the end we made it to about 45 minutes outside of Nuremberg. The ship docked at a stone/gravel yard and they provided buses to get us into the city and return for an overnight. We didn't get as much time in Nuremberg as planned due to a late bus arrival (I was disappointed). But on the good side, Reka offered to have us travel with ship extension passengers going to Prague on cruise line buses at no cost (it saved us over $500 collectively instead of traveling on the planned German Railways bus). They had an excursion planned to a spa town, Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic that we also were able to go on as we traveled to Prague.
We enjoyed all of the stops, though Budapest was probably the highlight. The city suffered much destruction in the war yet they had rebuilt it exactly as before (also in Nuremberg and Prague). Absolutely beautiful public buildings, bridges, castle, etc. A very young city....lots of 20/30 somethings. One friend went to the mineral baths (the other 3 of us chickened out) and said it was a great experience. Many of the most impressive buildings are on the riverfront and they light them at night. As we sailed away, the captain did a riverfront cruise by. It was really spectacular, the whole city by the riverfront was golden light. If you haven't been there and get the chance, go!
The rest of the places were all worth the visit. Probably the least charming was Bratislava, where you could really see the remnants of Soviet control and they are just catching up with many of the other cities. Had a great 18 mile bike ride in Austria right along the Danube, took a current-powered ferry across the river with the bikes and even stopped for a beer at a beer garden on the way. Vienna was huge and sprawling with so many beautiful buildings. Took a tour to Salzburg (inland from the river). The scenery was breathtaking. It is called the Lake district and is surrounded by mountains and lakes. People come from all over Europe to bike from town to town. We are all fans of the Sound of Music and on the trip to Salzburg stopped at the town where they filmed the wedding scene at the local church and had time in the church. In Salzburg itself we saw the gardens where they filmed several of the movie scenes in the Royal garden. Ate lunch in an old part of the cathedral. One of our friends and I took the bike ride to Valhalla. It is a place that looks like the Parthenon in Greece and is dedicated to famous Germans. It was 400 steps up the mountain to the summit (harder than the bike ride!!).
In Nuremberg we did a WW II bus tour of the Nazi Zeppelin grounds where Hitler gave many party rally speeches. There is also a colossal building near it (never finished) that was to be his party congress hall. It is the only major Nazi building still remaining. Rode by the courthouse where the Nuremberg trials were held (closed on the day we were there).
One final note, we booked our hotels in Budapest and Prague ourselves. In Budapest we chose the Continental Hotel Zara based on Trip Advisor reviews and great rates . We were not disappointed. The hotel is located in a large renovated building that had once been a mineral bath. Rooms were contemporary, clean and very pleasant. The hotel manager Zoltan Geher and I had corresponded beforehand via email and he made a point of sending us a bottle of wine in the room and coming to meet me before we left. I can highly recommend the hotel. While a little ways from the city center attractions, it is still within walking distance of the sights.
In Prague we chose the Louren Hotel based on recommendations in Rick Steves "Prague" tourbook. Again a great choice. The Louren is a small (20 room) family-owned hotel. It had a charming lobby and bar/breakfast room. Our rooms were large, nicely decorated with new bathrooms and spotless. Best of all, the staff were very welcoming and helpful. Even to the point that when we asked for a recommendation to a local bakery to buy a birthday cake, they sent a chilled bottle of sparkling wine for our friend's birthday. While the hotel is a subway ride away from the city center, the metro station is close by and easy/cheap to ride.
All in all, it was a wonderful trip and AMA provided a first-class experience. while we had initially considered Viking, I am very glad we chose AMA in the end. Our next river cruise will almost certainly be with AMA!