AmaWaterways has carved a niche for itself as offering advanced design with a more active shore experience. AmaSonata, which launched in 2014, continues that philosophy. A key distinguishing feature is that most of its 82 cabins have two balconies, consisting of a French balcony (a sliding door that lets in light and air, but lacks an exterior platform); and an adjoining outside balcony that seats two. Even the non-balcony cabins are efficiently designed, attractive and relatively roomy. Public areas -- namely the dining room and the main lounge -- are light and airy and large enough that they never seem overly crowded. The vibe is relaxed. Onboard announcements are kept to a minimum, and they aren't broadcast into the cabins.
With the exception of several optional tours, shore excursions are included in the cruise price. So are the use of bicycles, wine at lunch and dinner, and Wi-Fi. And in an effort to appeal to more active cruisers, the line offers some strenuous options, like hiking and cycling excursions, in addition to the usual city walking tours. It also divides many of its outings into three levels of physical exertion, so you can join a group that suits your pace. In 2015, AmaWaterways partnered with the active travel company Backroads to offer supported biking and hiking tours on select cruises; these cruises are a real workout and definitely appeal to a younger demographic than you typically see in river cruising.
The food is excellent. AmaWaterways takes pride in its membership in the world's oldest international gastronomic society, Confrerie de la Chaine de Rotisseurs, and its commitment to fine dining shows. There's an emphasis on regional dishes, such as Vienna-style schnitzel in Austria and Hungarian goulash in Budapest.
Dining room and cabin service was friendly, efficient and generally spot-on. Our jolly waiter remembered our preferences and worked with the kitchen staff to accommodate the vegan at our table. When we told our cabin steward she needn't bother with the nightly turndown service -- but we'd appreciate the pillow chocolates -- she delivered a cupful the next morning.
The biggest wrinkle on our cruise came with the line's ID system. AmaWaterways issues picture IDs to guests, and requests they scan them when entering and exiting the vessel. It's common practice on oceangoing ships, where everyone must funnel through a controlled queue. But on AmaSonata, the system is basically voluntary. (You go to the desk, hand the ID over or scan it yourself, then exit on your own.) Consequently, it's not a failsafe way to determine whether everyone's aboard when the ship sails.
So imagine our surprise when, after dinner ashore in lovely Bratislava, Slovakia, we arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled 9 p.m. departure to see the gangplank lifted and two crew members preparing to cast off. Yes, we'd neglected to log out. But why were they leaving early? We hopped on board with an assist from the crew. Crisis averted, if not really understood.