I will start with a few snippets from the March 2010 AMA press release:
"March 25, AMAWATERWAYS TO INTRODUCE MS AMAKATARINA IN RUSSIA
The completely renovated ship will be the largest and most luxurious vessel sailing the Volga-Baltic Waterways.
The 212-passenger ship boasts 24,025 square feet of space dedicated to 106 cabins. Seventy-six of those cabins feature balconies. Passengers can choose from an impressive 10 cabin categories spanning four decks to meet their personal needs. Four different suite categories offer incredibly spacious accommodations ranging in size from 280 square feet to a luxurious 432 square feet...
"From the time that we first launched our Russian Waterways program, it has proven to be one of our most popular and successful itineraries. Now, we are taking Russian Waterways to the next level of luxury and comfort with the AMAKATARINA. We are overseeing every detail of the ship's renovation. This will allow us to make sure the vessel is perfectly tailored to the high standards that AMAWATERWAYS passengers expect," said Rudi Schreiner, president of AMAWATERWAYS."
Now we will talk about reality. This was our first river cruise and we were not encouraged by the reviews coming out of the earlier sailings. We lowered our expectations as suggested and tried to roll with the punches.
We traveled two days early to Moscow and toured on our own to see some of the sights not covered on the AMA itinerary. We arrived at the boat around 4 PM and embarkation was easy, our cabins were ready and our luggage was delivered right away.
Unfortunately, or maybe wisely, AMA published no photos of the ship or even design drawings until after the inaugural sailing so we were only going on their descriptions when we booked. This was a mistake. The cabins range from 110 sq. ft. to 432 sq. ft., the majority being 238 sq. ft. or less. Only the 15 "suites" are 270 sq. ft. and up as opposed to AMA's press release claims of 280 sq. ft. and up. We booked early so we could get one of the larger cabins, a Marinsky "suite", at 320 sq. ft.
Accommodations could best be compared to those at a Motel 6. While our cabin was spacious the extra space was not utilized any differently than the narrower deluxe or superior cabins, it just had several extra ft. between the bed and the desk. One would expect booking a "suite" priced 63% higher than the standard cabin rate that you would have a nicer bathroom, extra storage and at least one comfortable chair. Not true.
The bathrooms are tiny, consisting of a sink with no counter space, a medicine cabinet that opens the wrong way into the bathroom (taking up almost the entire space) and a small shower with a 1" step down into the shower with its plastic curtain, hence their description in their promotional material of having a "separate" shower. The hot and cold water taps are reversed and the handles turn the wrong way. The towels are pretty thin. They do not change them at night, just in the morning and the prevailing humidity and small bathroom space pretty much guarantee that they won't dry by evening. The hair dryer is one of those institutional ones attached with a hose, and not even in the bathroom, but mounted on the wall next to the bed.
There is a desk on one wall and they could easily have added a desk drawer and a line of drawers underneath. There is only one outlet in the entire room. The only storage in the room consists of a wardrobe with hanging space and shelves, but no drawers. We found that all of our stuff fit in the wardrobe, but would recommend bringing additional hangers and putting your socks, underwear, etc. in packing cubes to store on the shelves. Our "sitting area" consisted of two desk chairs and a small table positioned blocking the balcony door. The bed was OK - we like firm mattresses - but there is only one pillow so it is difficult to read in bed.
If AMA oversaw "every detail of the renovation" then the person in charge of making sure it was "tailored to the high standards that AMAWATERWAYS passengers expect" certainly missed the mark.
Our first clue about what was to come food-wise came at the welcome snack that was laid out in the Symphony bar area. There was a platter of open face "sandwiches" with a piece of spam or cheese slowly drying out on a slice of white bread; no condiments. There were soggy animal crackers and some stale cookies, tea and coffee. We had a peek at the first night's dinner menu consisting of chicken broth or zucchini cream soup, chicken breast with lemon sauce or Russian baked vegetables in a pot, Russian ice cream with cherry sauce. Not exactly a gala "welcome aboard" dinner!
In general throughout the cruise the food was overcooked and not very good, but edible. I uniformly ordered the vegetarian entry and cannot personally recommend ordering meat, chicken, fish etc. There were a few logistical problems, such as dinners for half the table arriving 20 minutes apart, but they only happened a couple of times. With each sailing I think the wait staff is improving with experience. The same wine is poured every night - a Russian Chardonnay that tasted more like Sauvignon Blanc and a Russian Merlot. The main dining room is very crowded and a problem in the morning at the breakfast buffet as people try to squeeze through tight spaces with their food. Every morning you could sign up to eat dinner in the smaller Symphony restaurant. Same menu, same food, just a smaller less crowded dining room.
The young restaurant staff worked very hard and we thought that they were a bright spot, as were the young college students who accompany the tours, hand out headsets, make sure all are accounted for, etc. The onboard lecturer was interesting, had a great sense of humor and gave a good overview of Russian history along with life in current times. Housekeeping was so-so. Several nights we did not get our turn down with the daily two bottles of water and friends had to actually tip someone to take away the birthday cake that had been left sitting in their room for days. The reception staff was not very organized or knowledgeable. They often gave out inaccurate or contradicting information, or were unable to answer basic questions. Internet was iffy - off and on, mainly off. In addition, before the cruise some basic questions posed to AMA's home office resulted in inaccurate information. I was not left with an impression of a well-managed, professional tour company.
On a positive note, the tours and guides everywhere were uniformly very good to excellent. The only thing I would have skipped was the shopping stop at Arabat St. in Moscow. We learned a tremendous amount about Russia. Moscow and St Petersburg are must-see cities and seeing smaller towns along the Volga was interesting as well. We did not have Marina as our cruise director, but a young man and woman, who tried hard but they weren't seasoned in their jobs - quite a few communication and other issues arose, but nothing major or a big deal for us personally. Schedules were changed several times. Overall I observed a lack of customer service orientation and proactive thinking from many of the staff that may be a cultural thing along with a training issue.
Most people we talked with were not terribly happy and felt their expectations were not met. Given AMA's hype of a new luxury experience in Russia I doubt they will find many repeat clients from among those on our trip.