Dispatch From the Danube: Impressions of the New AmaCerto


AmaWaterways' AmaCerto // All photos by Susan J. Young


After five days onboard AmaWaterways’ new AmaCerto, which is sailing the Danube River, guests are singing its praises. Yes, the sights of Budapest, Vienna and Austria's Wachau Valley are impressive. But it's the ship that truly shines.

“Nine out of 10,” a couple from the Harrisburg, PA, area told me. Another guest said she loved the elegant look and lines of AmaCerto.

Other reasons cited by guests who told me they liked the new ship? Some mentioned the well-designed staterooms with "double" balconies, others liked the many voyage inclusions such as wine with dinner, shore trips and bottled water.

Nearly all guests I've asked tell me they're impressed with the service and level of crew professionalism and friendliness.

As the “fly on the wall” at times, I have not overheard any negative comments, which is frankly unusual. Often, at least one or two people on a river ship – even if the product is excellent – are often vocal about saying the cruise experience is just not right for them.  

So far, though, AmaCerto seems perfectly in tune with its guests. I’ve sailed on other products that simply weren’t in that mode when it came to service delivery and satisfying guest expectations.

Clearly, travel agents deserve credit for adeptly qualifying their customers and putting them on exactly the right product. Many of the guests say "oh my travel agent told me" thus and so, which is nice to hear. 

Also, it’s clear from my time onboard that the crew is exceptional. From my personal view, the onboard experience is better than anything else I’ve experienced in the cruise industry in a long time.

Boutique Hotel Feel

This ship exudes a boutique hotel feel. It's exceptionally classy with many of the bells and whistles of a luxury product.

AmaCerto's three passenger accommodations decks include the Violin Deck, with suites and staterooms numbered in the 300s. One deck below is the Cello Deck with its cabins numbered in the 200s. Then it's a deck below to the Piano Deck, home to cabins in the 100 numbers.

Accommodations range from 350-square-foot suites to staterooms of two types with double balconies (that concept is explained below) that range from 210 to 235 square feet.

In addition, French Balcony staterooms are 170 square feet. Staterooms on the lowest passenger deck have high fixed windows, as they're near the water line; they're 148 square feet. 

I toured all stateroom types and even the smallest are well-designed. Furniture is well positioned and the design gets the maximum use of space so the guest doesn't feel cramped.

Double Balcony Cabin #218

My cabin, #218, is on the Cello Deck. I believe it's my favorite configuration and presentation of stateroom décor on any river vessel. This is a Category BB, a French Balcony & Outside Balcony stateroom.

This 210-square-foot stateroom fits my traveling style perfectly. It has a queen bed which splits into two twins if requested. The mattress is good, while the duvet, sheets and pillows are soft and comfortable.

I asked for a sheet under the duvet as did other guests, as the duvet gets pretty hot. The stateroom steward was happy to oblige. Two small nightstands with silver lamps flank the bedding area, which has wall mounted cushioned headboards.

Spanning one wall is a spacious desk/vanity area with a large wall mirror, a desk lamp, phone, two drawers, two shelves and a small refrigerator stocked with complimentary bottles of water.

Atop the counter are two QuietVox receivers and earpieces, which the guest uses on guided tours throughout the voyage. These are extremely useful for hearing the guide’s commentary; you can stray a bit from the guide to take photos or just admire the sites and yet still hear what's being said. Two European voltage outlets are located atop the desk area. Tell clients to bring an electrical current adaptor set, and borrow a second one from a friend if they're bringing lots of electronics.

Between my laptop computer, two cameras, a Blackberry and the QuietVox sets, all of which need to be charged, I kept the outlets busy  throughout the day. 

One absolute stunning feature is a large flat-screen monitor which has both television and complimentary Internet access. You can’t upload photos or download videos, for example, to help the line limit the bandwidth drain. But the system is great for simple emails or pulling up Web pages or Facebook.  

AmaWaterways should be credited for understanding that while not everyone chooses to be connected on a cruise, in today's world many people do. The high-quality equipment and the free Wi-Fi on AmaCerto is a godsend for those of us working from the road, needing to keep in touch with friends and family at home, or just wanting to surf the Internet.

Double Balconies

The best feature of this stateroom? I absolutely adore the double balcony concept, a characteristic of staterooms on the Cello and Violin Decks. Some are bigger than others, with the big difference being some extra footage between the bed and the desk area.

Frankly, I felt my smaller of the two double balcony stateroom categories was just perfect for my use. Essentially, a small alcove adjacent to the desk area has a single chair and small table and a set of French doors, which open.

The alcove is nicely separated just a bit from the desk/bedding area by its wood-like flooring, versus the carpeting of the bedroom/desk area. So this alcove seems as though it's a private balcony, but it's nicely inside.

Clients are able to just pull the second stuffed chair from the desk area if a couple wants to sit in the alcove and have a snack or drinks. It's a bit tight but it works.

If it's really hot or cold outside, when sitting on an exterior balcony might be uncomfortable, the client can still sit here and watch the world go by. Leaving Bratislava, Slovakia, the weather turned cool, damp and drizzly, but I nestled into the stuffed chair to enjoy the river scenery. A narrow, vertical, floor-to-ceiling fixed window pane with slatted blinds separates the alcove from the second, exterior balcony. It also lets in more light.

One enters the traditional balcony from full sliding glass doors that are adjacent to the bed. Outside, guests enjoy fresh air, two chairs and a small table.

Tasteful, Welcoming Decor

Staterooms are decorated with cream, red, black, and taupe tones. The decor seems nicely integrated. I liked the geometrically patterned throw pillows, high-quality draperies and sheers, modern painting on the wall (which I can’t exactly figure out but it looks great), silver framed full-length mirror and gorgeous fresh flowers.

Walking into this room is an “aha” moment - as the guest view both the tasteful decor and the wall of glass that encompasses the two balcony areas. 

The bathroom has all white decor for the floor, walls, sink and toilet, as well as a contrasting brown sink cabinet and darker granite shelf. The latter displays HYDRO Basic bath amenities. The bathroom in #218 has no tub, but a glass shower.

One neat element, there is a glass window between the bathroom and bedroom area, and, after a day or so, I finally caught on that a switch at the entry to the stateroom turns it from see-through to reflective glass for privacy, a nice touch.

Another point I should mention is that the cooling system is exceptional. I like cold air, and this system kept up with my desires after a hot day ashore. Of course, the temperature in the stateroom can be adjusted easily for those who like a more mild room temperature. That’s totally doable, based on personal taste.

One nice perk is that the line puts six bottles of bottled water in each stateroom and replenishes them daily. That’s a value for travelers.

Guest Demographics/Psychographics

I’ve spoken to more than half of the guests onboard, many I now call by their first name. Most are well-educated, well-traveled and internationally minded folks who enjoy meeting new people.

Almost all seem to love history, culture and the European river experience. They definitely have an exploratory spirit. And many are active - taking opportunities to walk and bike, whenever possible.

This vessel has a wider age range of guests than I’ve seen on some other river vessels. Onboard are a broad range of guests in their 40s, 50s and 60s, as well as others in their 70s and 80s. A few younger clients are also onboard. People seem to appreciate each other on this ship, regardless of age.

Many guests tell me they're retired, but some are still working. Several multi-generational families with adult children are onboard. And, I've seen a number of daughters in their 50s traveling with their mothers in their 70s and 80s.

Guests on this “Melodies of the Danube” cruise on AmaCerto hail from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, among other locales.  

Most weren’t aware that this is a christening cruise, which had everyone “oohing” and “aahing” in the ship’s lounge the first night as the captain, hotel director and cruise manager explained what was to come in the voyage. Ninety percent of the guests onboard this christening cruise aren't the typical VIP crowd, but rather consumers eager for a river cruise vacation. 

Executive Perspective

That said, there are a few special guests onboard for the christening on Wednesday in Vilshofen, Germany, including Jimmy Murphy, AMA Waterways' co-owner and chairman.  

Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association, is also onboard and sailing on her first river cruise. She's the ship's godmother and will do the honors in christening it. 

Duffy told me last night that CLIA has a new task force, chaired by Charles Robertson, president and CEO, American Cruise Lines. The task force is examining ways to help promote the value and experiences that small ship products provide, as well as to educate agents and consumers about their value. 

Task force participants include those from small-ship, niche, luxury and river lines.

Rudi Schreiner, co-founder, president and CEO, AmaWaterways and Kristin Karst, the line's executive vice president and co-owner, are also onboard this week.

Shreiner says that his goal is "to provide the best possible product" for guests. It's critical, he said, because 25 years ago, consumers only learned about products via advertising, but today it's also mouth-to-mouth in terms of the information flow. Guests blog, they go on Web sites and provide opinions, and they tell their friends.

In addition to AmaCerto, Schreiner says AmaWaterways has a second ship in the same class under construction. The hull is nearly finished, he says, noting that starting in April 2013, it will sail as AmaPrima

Van Anderson, co-president, Avoya Travel / American Express, AmaWaterways' top producing agency group, told reporters and a few executives attending a cocktail reception onboard that his organization had a great year in 2011 and that river cruising was a big part of that.

All the executives spoke about the progression of the river cruise product and how dynamic the global river products have become. They're now attracting a broader age range of clients. Clients can be as relaxed or active as they want.

As an example, a large group of 20 or so from AmaCerto bicycled 30-plus kilometers from Durnstein, Austria to meet up with the vessel in Melk, Austria.

The line provided the bikes free of charge for guest use. As the vessel sailed along the Danube, at various points the bikers would stop along the riverside trail to wave at the ship. Then off they'd go once again.  

A Cut Above

From my personal perspective, AmaCerto is a cut above and illustrates the evolution of river industry vessels.

River operators, including AmaWaterways, continue to tweak the product to enhance it for guests. For example, on the new ship the alternative dining venue aft - called Erlebnis Chef's Table Restaurant - has been reconfigured.

Schreiner says that instead of two long tables that can seat 12 people at each (as on AmaVerde), the dining room now has several smaller round tables and one larger round table.

So, he says, it's now possible to use it for daytime activities, for private functions, and for incentive and group use. 

And it's a more intimate dining venue during the evening; one night I sat with a couple and from our window-side table we watched the ship traverse a Danube lock "up close" from the restaurant's aft locale, as we dined on an incredible meal prepared by the chef just steps away in a glass-enclosed kitchen.

As the waiter poured complimentary wine, the views unfolded. "This says it all," said the female guest: "This is really an impressive experience."

If your client wants an inclusive European river cruise, service that really shines, a creative menu that is cosmopolitan and not the typical fare, and a hotel operation that runs like clockwork, then AmaCerto is likely a good option to consider. 

Stay tuned to www.travelagentcentral.com for my upcoming reports over the next two weeks that explore more specifics about AmaCerto’s dining, onboard activities, shore trips and recreational facilities. And, we’ll be covering the ship's christening this week as well.