The vacation started off in the worst possible fashion with all our luggage being mislaid en route to Europe. Equipped with only a small carry-on bag we duly arrived at the Westcord City Centre Hotel, sans our suitcases, for a three night pre cruise stay in Amsterdam.
Although our room was very small, the Westcord was reasonably priced and proved to be an ideal base for exploring the sights and delights of beautiful Amsterdam. Centrally situated, the hotel was within (active) walking distance of most of the main museums and art galleries, the downtown shopping area, Chinatown, the floating market and, of course, the ill-famed red light district. On our first day in a new city we usually opt for a hop on/hop off service to help us quickly orient ourselves to the new, strange environment. However, on this occasion we decided to explore Amsterdam on foot and are glad we did as it gave us the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the city and gave us a completely different perspective of the major sights from that of a canal cruise that we were to enjoy a few days later.
Although our hotel was located some four or five blocks from the seamier side of town we nevertheless enjoyed the unexpected attraction of a few very attractive ladies of the night plying their wares from their rooms directly opposite our hotel window!! We were somewhat amused to witness how many middle aged men seemed to get lost in the street below, seemingly bewildered as they wandered up and down the street as if they did not know where they were!!
We cannot commend the front office staff of the hotel enough for their commitment to customer service. They went out of their way to help us locate our missing luggage which happily arrived a mere day before we were to embark on our cruise.
Our stay in Amsterdam was enjoyable. We think three days is quite sufficient to explore the major attractions. We had time to enjoy two of the many museums and art galleries, the Van Gogh museum and duly queued to visit the poignant Anne Frank House – both very impressive as was the floating flower market, while the mandatory stroll through the seamier side of the city was interesting to say the least although it was clearly noticeable that the business climate for the world’s oldest profession must have been pretty tight considering the number of prime trading windows up for rent!
This was our second river cruise, both of which have been with AmaWaterways. Our first, some four years ago on the AmaCerto cruising the Danube from Budapest through to Vishofen with an add-on to Prague, was immensely enjoyable but we must confess that we were a bit disappointed with this cruise probably mainly because some of our perhaps overly optimistic expectations of the cruise were not always met. Apart from the one morning cruising the Rhine Valley that gave us many splendid views of the numerous impressive castles situated high on the banks of the river (made even more captivating by the misty, rainy conditions we sailed though), the Rhine is not the most picturesque of rivers with much of the countryside being pretty bland and repetitive. Also, coming from a temperate southern hemisphere climate, we had been hoping for snow in some of the towns we visited, even having the somewhat extravagant dream of experiencing a White Christmas for the first time. Sadly, temperatures did not drop sufficiently to entice the snow to fall and, we guess, this just added to our feelings that the cruise was perhaps, just that little bit less than what we had been expecting or hoping for.
Nevertheless, our overall impressions of the cruise were positive. The better half has always wanted to experience the Christmas markets in Europe so the Rhine Christmas markets cruise gave us the opportunity of being able to tick another item off our ever extending bucket list and we again were reminded of the immense privilege we had of being able to experience the magical Christmas season in the ambience and luxury of the beautiful AmaPrima.
Some random comments and observations about the cruise are detailed below.
The ship: AmaPrima was in pristine condition and it was hard to credit the ship has already been sailing virtually nonstop for over four years. It was also tastefully decorated for the festive season festooned with lovely Christmassy decorations throughout the ship.
Stateroom: We had been upgraded to a category B stateroom that offers both a standard French as well as an open balcony. The latter was seldom utilised because of the seasonally cold weather but the extra space offered by the higher graded stateroom was a boon indeed.
Itinerary: We had chosen this particular cruise because it offered us the opportunity to experience the delightful Christmas markets that are unique to Europe. Even though our cruise was late in the season, we were fortunate that the markets were still open in all the quaint towns and villages visited during the cruise. Each market was distinctive and magical, especially after dusk when the true atmosphere of Christmas could be experienced with all the colourful lights and decorations on display. We were not disappointed. The markets in Cologne, Rudesheim and Strasbourg were particularly captivating.
Tours and excursions: An included tour, usually a guided walking tour was offered in each place visited on the itinerary. Some were interesting, tour guides were invariably knowledgeable and competent, but we felt many of the towns could be better explored on one’s own. Indeed, many fellow passengers typically opted out of the guided tours and did their own thing. We enjoyed wandering through each of the places on the itinerary, getting lost on occasion and just soaking up the atmosphere of Olde Europe. The optional bus trip to the beautiful town of Heidelberg was perhaps the highlight although the general beauty and ambience of majestic Strasbourg was a close second.
Cuisine: Good to excellent fare with the occasional memorable meal. The beef Wellington served on the last evening was equal to the best we have had anywhere and the tasting menu in the speciality Chef’s Table restaurant was also exceptional. We were nonetheless a little disappointed that the menus did not feature more, if any, local specialities – unlike our previous Danube cruise where traditional local cuisine was invariably included on the menu. A senior executive of AmaWaterways was on the cruise, probably doing a quality control audit of some sort, and in discussion with him and his delightful wife, he intimated that as the Ama’s customer base was primarily from the USA, menus generally had to be structured to cater for relatively bland American tastes. He indicated it was difficult therefore to find the right balance between more adventurous traditional local cuisine and the fare the primary customer base was used to and wanted. A pity because this minimises the “European” experience quite considerably.
We were also a little surprised that nothing more was made of the dinner on Christmas Eve which coincided with the Captain’s farewell dinner. No special Christmas menu, no Christmas crackes, no special decorations – nothing, it just felt like a normal night on the cruise.
Entertainment: Probably the most disappointing aspect of the cruise experience. Quite frankly the entertainment offering was poor by any standard. On our previous Danube cruise we had local singers, dancing groups and musicians entertaining guests almost every night either on board or through included local excursions, such as visits to a local wine bar and beer hall with oom pah band!
Not so on this cruise where apart from an excellent (if misplaced) musical trio (pianist, cellist and violinist) and a pretty mediocre, ageing rock performer, the only other entertainment offered was a liar’s quiz and some enthusiastic carol singing from members of the crew. Nothing memorable. Some music with a more Christmassy theme would have been welcome.
Officers and Crew: From the genial, highly visible Captain, through the Hotel Director, to the barmen, waiters and cabin attendants, the crew generally impressed as being happy, close knit, competent and well trained. The Cruise Director Martina was exceptional in every way always being prepared to go the extra mile and attend to the miscellaneous needs and requests of passengers, without complaint despite her already onerous workload, and always with a bright, infectious smile.
Fellow passengers: The usual suspects, mainly North American with a generous smattering of Australasians and a few Brits. As usual, we were the only South African on board! We nevertheless met some really nice people including a couple from Florida and what proved to be out regular dinner companions, a professional couple from Tennessee and a couple of Aussies who were relocating to Europe on business. Exceptionally nice, interesting people with whom we had many a lively dinner conversation on a variety of topics!
We had opted for the post cruise add-on of two nights each in Lucerne and Zurich. After disembarking in Basel on Boxing Day, we spent a wasted morning ambling around the deserted town until the tour bus took us to Lucerne arriving in this most delightfully situated city in mid afternoon. Our hotel was the truly five star Schweizerhof situated in the most majestic setting overlooking Lake Lucerne with good views of the distant Alps. The tour package included a guided walking tour through the town – very interesting and for the rest of our short stay we toured the town and its surrounds on our own. There was an optional (expensive) excursion up Mount Pilatus but we had been on a similar excursion on a previous visit to Lucerne and, as there was no snow on the mountain, we decided to save our money.
After a short uneventful cruise across Lake Lucerne, we then departed by bus on a very scenic route along the banks of the lake en route to Zurich. As Zurich is situated in a relatively flat part of Switzerland, the scenery progressively got more and more mundane and we were pleased to reach our hotel in this very busy city in late afternoon.
The following morning we had an included part bus, part walking tour of the inner city. A few landmarks to see but, frankly nothing noteworthy – just another big city experience! In the afternoon we opted to join an optional tour that took us through some picturesque villages that featured many impressive wooden homes to the Rhine waterfalls and included a boat ride right up to the falls which, although incredibly small at only 30 metres high, are nonetheless quite beautiful.
The following day we took the train from the central station which was only a block away from our hotel to Zurich airport. Only a ten minute comfortable train ride for about 13 Euros compared to a taxi, that could take up to fifty minutes to an hour depending on traffic, for at least 50 Euros excluding tip.
Then it was a short flight to Frankfurt for our return flight that evening to South Africa.
In the highly competitive river cruising market where AmaWaterways has been consistently rated as one of the best river cruise lines in the industry, we couldn’t help but feel that Ama was resting a wee bit on it’s laurels. It is appreciated that there is only so much one can do to differentiate a specialised product such as river cruising, especially where one is attempting to compete in the luxury cruising segment where many competitors are already offering a more fully inclusive experience.
For instance, offering unlimited beverages during meal times is all very well, but there is something off-putting having to fork out cash for a pre-dinner glass of wine when it will be provided free some few minutes later! Such “nickel and diming” in a segment where some significant rivals in the industry provide free alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages at all times needs to be questioned if Ama wants to remain relevant as a luxury cruise line of choice.
Of course, this is all a matter of market positioning and it may well be that the AmaWaterways top team have decided to pitch their product at a more mass market river cruising public. However, if it strategically wants to continue to appeal to the more discerning, (and demanding), upper end of the market, it is felt the company will need to up its game to remain truly competitive.
Despite these, in the greater scheme of things, minor reservations about some degree of complacency perhaps creeping in about the AmaWaterways brand, we still had a great and relaxing voyage on board the beautiful AmaPrima. We met some wonderful people, enjoyed the ambience and up market facilities on the vessel and, of course, were quite captivated by all the magical Christmas markets we had the opportunity to see – the primary reason we took this particular tour anyway.
And we still remain acutely conscious of just how enormously privileged we are that we have the necessary (albeit rapidly depleting ) funds and especially our health and mobility, to be able to continue to enjoy another aspect of our glorious planet in such comfort and relative luxury.
Spacious stateroom with plenty of wardrobe and storage space. Nice size bathroom. Outside balcony seldom used because of the cold weather but this facility would be a real boon in sunnier months.