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Dispatch From the Danube: Onboard AmaWaterways' New AmaCertoMay 20, 2012 By: Susan Young
“Christine Duffy is a prestigious godmother and we are thrilled to have our AmaCerto under her guidance,” said AmaWaterways President and Co-Owner Rudi Schreiner. “The AmaCerto was designed with the passenger in mind. AmaCerto is the most innovative ship available and we enjoyed celebrating its christening with the Vilshofen locals.”
The ceremony began with the “Triumphal March from Aida” while “stelzengehers” (stilt walkers) performed for the crowd. Remarks from Vilshofen Mayor Georg Krenn kicked off the ceremony, followed by speeches from Schreiner, AmaWaterways Co-Owner Kristin Karst and Duffy.
Duffy, acting as the ship’s godmother, christened the new ship by breaking a bottle of champagne against the hull as the crowd released balloons into the sky to the music of a traditional 10-gun salute.
The ceremony also featured a special blessing of the ship and convocation by Rev. and Mrs. Mark Kirchmeyer; a performance by the children’s dance group Trachtenverein D’Wolfachtaler; renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Hallelujah” by soprano Heidlinde Schmid and a signing of Vilshofen’s traditional “Golden Book.”
|AmaCerto has a top-deck swimming pool. // All photos by Susan J. Young|
Later, we sailed on a week-long “Melodies of the Danube” cruise onboard the new ship. It's easy to see just how well the product straddles the territory between upper premium and luxury.
Simply put, this isn't your grandfather's river cruise product.
For clients who want a boutique hotel experience afloat with pampering amenities, many cruise-fare inclusions and professional, friendly service, the 164-passenger AmaCerto delivers an appealing product.
Van Anderson, co-president, Avoya Travel/American Express, AmaWaterways' top producing agency group, spoke to me the last evening onboard. He talked about how dramatically the river industry’s product has evolved and how it now incorporates touches of luxury.
What does AmaCerto mean for agents in helping entice more guests onto European rivers? “They’ve raised the bar,” in Anderson's opinion.
I would agree, and from my perspective, here are my personal five favorite spots and experiences onboard AmaCerto.
|Biking appeals to a more active demographic.|
Swimming, Working Out, Biking
Over the years, only a few river vessels have fielded a top-deck swimming pool. AmaCerto is one.
Guests may relax and soak up some rays on a lounge chair on the Sun Deck. Then, when they want to cool off, they can head for the ship's heated swimming pool.
Boasting a sleek, appealing shape, the pool also has an innovation for the river industry - a swim-up bar.
The pool was frequented by many guests early in our cruise when the weather cooperated. While we didn't see drinks being served at the bar at the specific times when we strolled by, guests reported to us later that they did have that swim-up bar experience.
After a leisurely afternoon at the pool, clients may choose to work out. Fortunately, this river vessel has a state-of-the-art fitness center.
Increasingly, river cruisers aren’t just staid mature travelers – they’re active adults of all ages who like to walk, work out and, in the case of AmaCerto's guests, go bicycling.
Two biking tours were offered during our cruise; the first from Durnstein to Melk in Austria had more than 20 takers. The second was so popular, at least seven people were put on the wait list, and I heard two more ask about the bike tour later.
River cruisers of all ages are simply more active than their counterparts in the past. Many of the active bikers were retirees.
|The library features a cozy "fireplace."|
Cozy Spots for Coffee and Relaxation
One of my favorite hot spots was AmaCerto's self-service coffee bar area just steps from the purser’s office and ship’s boutique.
A large automatic machine dispensed coffee, cappuccino, lattes and espresso. Tea was also available, with a large selection of tea bags.
Once guests retrieved their hot drink, they nestled into the coffee bar's small, yet comfortable seating area - three small round tables with plush chairs. The area is adjacent to large windows, perfect for viewing the happenings on land or the river while enjoying a cup of java.
I watched as guests sipped on their drink, read the morning news (printed in various languages each morning by the line) and chatted with friends about the day to come. If the seats were filled, guests simply walked a few steps and sat in the large main lounge.
On the opposite side of the ship on the same deck is a small library with glass walls on two sides. It has myriad books, games, magazines and two fireplaces (no, not with real flames, but pseudo ones that were soothing).
For clients who want a quiet spot to relax, want to browse for a good book, and want to find a game to play with friends in the lounge, this is the spot.
|Rear windows offer stunning views.|
Interior Alternative Dining
With river vessels adding everything from fitness centers to al fresco dining venues, from pools to spa treatments, why not alternative dining?
AmaCerto has a lovely, 28-seat alternative dining venue named Erlebnis. Unlike some alternative venues on other ships that are outside, though, this is a lovely, aft interior restaurant.
Erlebnis, which none of the guests could seem to pronounce, essentially translates to "a cognitive experience” in German. Definitely, your clients will experience a delight for their senses in this intimate restaurant.
First, on the "sight" side, the restaurant is comprised of a half circle of windows ringed by small round tables with a larger round table in the restaurant’s core dining area.
Sheer curtains cover the semi-circular, glass area. But the crew pull them aside as dinner gets under way. The views are fantastic.
I dined twice at Erlebnis. On the first night, the ship was transiting a lock, with diners able to sip on a drink and watch the lock gates closing, water flowing, the ship rising in the lock and the sailaway out of the lock.
During my second dinner, a gorgeous double rainbow appeared over the Danube River.
Clients also have an interesting interior view. They may peer into the restaurant's glass kitchen, where the executive chef is preparing their dinner.
Reservations are needed for this dining venue. At check-in on embarkation day, guests are given a card explaining how to make a reservation. Crew members also repeat the information to each guest verbally.
Advise clients to book the first day onboard if they really want to dine on a specific evening. If you wait until the next day or so, you can always talk to the maître d’ at breakfast. I did and was booked a slot a few days later.
The goal with the reservations process is to avoid lines and give all guests a chance to dine at Erlebnis at least once.
Availability depends on how popular the restaurant is, though, so advise clients that it's best to book immediately upon arrival to be assured an Erlebnis reservation.
What's the experience all about? While the meals in the main restaurant were quite good, choices boutiful, and service a cut above, it's nice to try a smaller, intimate venue on one night of the cruise.
On my last night onboard, we were warmly welcomed with a schnapps-type drink that was popular in the Danube region in which the river boat was sailing.
Our first course was a tasty tempura and teriyaki amuse-bouche. A salmon tartare followed, and then it was time for oxtail soup.
To refresh our palates, we were served a refreshing cleanser of passion fruit sorbet, wild rosella and champagne.
Guests have a choice of two entrees. On my last night aboard, I chose the sea bass and Atlantic scallop, seasoned with a Cajun crawfish beurre blanc.
Two people who dined at Erlebnis earlier in the week told me they had selected the USDA Prime sirloin steak; these well-traveled folks stressed it was the best steak they’d ever had.
Wines are poured generously during dinner. Expect regional specialties and global favorites. On our Danube cruise, one evening’s meal included a German Riesling, a Wachau Valley (Austria) rose, and a California dry red wine.
When the dessert trio came, it was a cornucopia of sweet delights. My favorite was the small chocolate tart, but, of course, the Irish coffee mousee and strawberry cream cup also disappeared very quickly.
Erlebnis was an exceedingly pleasing experience, one that clients will likely come home raving about.
Best of all, the experience is complimentary, another example of the inclusive perks one receives with a voyage on AmaCerto.
Main Lounge – Hub of Activity
If guests aren't sure what to do next, they will likely gravitate to the comfortable Main Lounge & Bar, the activity heartbeat of AmaCerto.
Entertainment might include light piano music, a troupe of folkloric dancers, an evening concert or an expert lecturer.
Port talks also are conducted here by the cruise manager; guests may also listen to that commentary on Channel 1 of their stateroom television system.
Drinks are served in the lounge throughout the day and evening, cookies and iced tea are available all day, and mid-day the lounge hosts a light lunch.
The lighter option was a hit with many guests who felt they were eating their way through Europe by going to the main restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On one day, I enjoyed a light lunch of pasta with pesto, finger sandwiches and Hungarian goulash.
Special events, such as a Bavarian experience with pretzels, beer, sausages and other German treats, are also conducted in the lounge.
During that event, the bartenders and waiters were very good sports wearing folkloric-style hats and still serving drinks with a smile. They interacted well with guests.
My point? I never encountered any "so-so," nonchalant or negative crew members on this cruise. I don't think "no" was in their vocabulary. This crew was a five-star team.
During a 1960s party, the crew handed out wildly colorful drinks and the lounge was outfitted with a few vestiges of the era including hula hoops.
Guests doubled over with laughter at watching adults try to do what's so easy for kids.
This lounge has optimum seating configurations. Guests may relax in individual chairs and small seating areas that accommodate singles, couples or small groups of friends.
Long couches and larger expanses of seating that form a rectangle are perfect, yet still intimate, for bigger groups.
|Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic|
Smooth Times Ashore
With a well-coordinated, well-planned shore operation, AmaWaterways takes any stress out of the land-side experience. It was, frankly, a very relaxing experience.
Clients need not worry about jockeying for position on motorcoaches or getting in line a half hour early to be sure to get a good space.
And the line also takes any groans away when it comes to shore-side expenditures. The line offers complimentary shore excursions – mostly walking tours – in cities throughout the itinerary. They’re included in the cruise fare.
In some cases, guests are even offered two complimentary tour choices at a destination. For example, in Bratislava, Slovakia,
AmaWaterways operated a normal walking tour or guests could choose a separate themed tour of former sites from the Communist-era.
Most of the free tours are 90 minutes to two hours in length, but it can vary.
In Linz, the line offered a city walking tour early early in the morning. Then, to everyone's delight, it gave guests a choice of three complimentary seven-hour tours to more far-flung destinations, all departing at 11:30 a.m.
I chose the trip to the Czech Republic’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Cesky Krumlov, while others picked a day trip to Salzburg, Austria or an excursion to Gmuden and the Alpine Lakes.
The Cesky Krumlov trip involved a 90-minute motorcoach ride each way, a walking tour of the major sites, and then two hours of free time in the city. It was a stunning Medieval, fairytale-like city.
Yes, the line does charge for a few optional tours, such as a theater evening in Vienna. But for your clients who hate paying for shore trips, you can tell them that AmaCerto has good complimentary tours at most ports.
I didn’t spend a cent on shore trips and the destination side of any cruise is always critically important to me.
The line offers different levels of difficulty for its walking tours – "active" for those who like a fast pace, "regular" for most guests who are reasonably fit, and "gentle," which still involves walking but provides a bit more time to do so.
Also, in several cities and destinations, such as Durnstein, Austria, the line accommodated "gentle" walkers with such transport as a small motorized train for part of the tour; then guests disembarked the train to walk through the historic town.
At Melk in Austria, motorcoaches take guests to the city's famous hill-top abbey but after getting off the coach, guests must negotiate more than 60 steps up to the site.
So, for the "gentle" crowd, the line also arranged for a small step-on coach to transport those people much closer to the site entrance with no steps involved.
That said, clients should make the cruise manager aware of any mobility issues on embarkation day, so a seat is reserved on these trains or coaches, as spaces on coaches or trains can be limited at times.
Agents know that historic European cities can be a challenge. Sidewalks can be uneven. Cobblestones are common. Wheelchair ramps and handicapped accessible facilities may be non-existent.
And motorcoaches are often not permitted or able to be accommodated size-wise into many historic city centers. So definitely talk with the line about touring options and policies for the specific itinerary if a mobility-challenged client wants to travel on a specific river itinerary.
For those able to tour, AmaWaterways has created a color coded pass system, which easily controls the flow and boarding process for guests.
Once the guest selects a tour and its level (active, regular or gentle), the purser’s desk dispenses color-coded cards on the morning of the tour.
Guests are alerted to the availability about one hour prior to the tour with an announcement in public areas over the ship's PA system.
Clients then pick up their cards, such as a green tour card for a regular tour, or a pink tour card for a gentle tour.
Then 15 minutes before the tours depart, the buses begin boarding. There is no racing as I’ve observed on some other ocean and even on a few river lines.
AmaWaterways assures that everyone will get a seat based on their color card, and I was impressed with the smooth, easy experience of it all – at every port along the way. Coaches were not filled to the brim on most tours.
Based on guest feedback, the ship's cruise manager, Debbie, was also a big part of the success of the entire shore-side experience.
|Vienna walking tour|
The number one take-away from my week-long voyage on AmaCerto is how much the river cruise product has “stepped up” from what was offered a few years ago.
Swimming pools, alternative restaurants, coffee bars and spa treatments are among the perks now offered and expected by clients on the industry’s newest river boats. One only wonders what the lines will dream up next?
More than 300,000 people worldwide sailed on river vessels last year, according to CLIA. River cruising is the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry.
AmaCerto clearly attracts a bit more vibrant, active complement of guests - regardless of age - than I've observed on river ships in the past.
If that's a barometer, the industry appears to be tapping into a new, broader base of clients, that could send those numbers soaring even further in the coming years.