On Site: Sailing on AmaWaterways' New AmaMagna

Sailing the Danube River on AmaWaterways' new, 196-passenger AmaMagna during the week of July 21 -- two weeks after the official christening hoopla -- Travel Agent mixed and mingled with many “regular” (non-trade, non-media, non-line) guests.

These couples, solo travelers and family groups with children hailed from California, Nebraska, Florida and the District of Columbia, along with other states and several Canadian provinces. Others traveled to AmaMagna from Italy, France, Colombia and beyond. AmaMagna has all English-speaking staff onboard, so North American cruisers feel comfortable at all times. 

By way of full disclosure, yes, there were three media onboard, at least one travel advisor and one AmaWaterways executive (Janet Bava, chief marketing officer, traveling on a personal vacation with family).

But most guests were simply on vacation, so we could easily see the flow, pace and "typical" approach of the AmaWaterways experience.

Here is intel gleaned for agents as we sailed on a week-long "Melodies of the Danube" cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to Vilshofen, Germany.

Point 1: Wide & Spacious

The AmaMagna is 72 feet wide, nearly twice the width of most typical European river vessels. By comparison, AmaWaterways’ AmaSerena is 38 feet wide and other river lines' vessels are approximately the same, varying by just a few feet.  

The only similarly wide Danube river cruise vessel is Crystal River Cruise’s Crystal Mozart at 75 feet across the beam, but it’s leaving Crystal’s fleet in a few months for a new Asia project for Genting Hong Kong. At that point, AmaMagna will be the only river cruise ship of this width on the Danube.

AmaMagna reflects the creative vision of Rudi Schreiner, AmaWaterways' co-owner and president, who told us previously that he wanted for many years to create this kind of innovative vessel for sailing the Danube; Schreiner was born in Vienna.

Also deeply involved was Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president, whose design touches deliver a rich palette of textures, colors and decor for the onboard style and furniture. The ship has clean lines, yet a warmth about it.

It's a pampering product, akin to what people experience on other AmaWaterways European vessels, but a “stretched” version of that with a more open feel.

That's most noticeable in the spacious Lounge, sporting a massive oval dance floor between two seating areas, plus a bar and space for entertainers and a piano in between. At one point, 25 or so guests were up dancing on the the dance floor, and yet the space didn't seem crowded. 

On either side of that lounge, a few steps lead down to the Lounge's lower level, which has books, a game room and a relaxation area with an electric fireplace. 

The ship's larger profile also allows for side-by-side alternative dining venues on the first deck, plus a larger than normal (for a river cruise vessel) Zen Wellness Studio aft, and many spacious suites.

We did feel the wider width and tremendous space created a bit less intimate feel onboard -- at least initially after boarding. That said, after a day or so, I felt both crew (about 70 of them) and guests were "getting into the experience," getting to know each other and recognizing familiar faces. And then the onboard experience "shined."  

Point 2: Double the Width, Not Twice the Guests

Despite its wider beam, AmaMagna only carries 196 guests. That’s about 20 percent more guests than vessels from AmaWaterways and other lines that are approximately half the width.

For example, Viking's Longships on the Danube carry 190 guests but are half the width. Spacewise, that's a plus for AmaMagna's guests. With a maximum of only six more people, guests have twice the space.

Point 3: More Top Suites for Luxury Guests 

One top point for travel agents to know is that AmaMagna isn’t just larger but that it has more, identical top suites. Candie Steinman, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Fort Myers, FL, who was sailing with her sister-in-law Belkys Colter on our cruise, explains that this is helpful for agents who may have small groups of luxury couples or family members traveling together.

Not only is there one 710-square-foot Owner’s Suite, #305, but also there are also six, 474-square-foot Grand Suites (#306 to #311).

That number of high-end suites can help equalize the experience for luxury travelers, so couples don't feel they're "settling" with a smaller accommodation while their friends get a nicer, more spacious suite.

Overall, though, more than half of the 98 staterooms onboard are designated as suites, with the smallest of those at 355 square feet; those include 46 SA and SB categories, and there are eight pairs of connecting suites.  

Point 4: Gleanings from Our #308 Grand Suite Experience

Travel Agent stayed for the week-long cruise in #308, a spacious Grand Suite; the photo above by AmaWaterways shows the general configuration.

Particularly notable is the width of the balcony, extending across a wide stretch of glass. Guests seated inside on the suite’s stylish, upholstered settee (nicely facing that glass) can admire the riverside scenes and village life.

Outside on the balcony, there is one small round cocktail table, a large cushioned chair and a daybed-like cushioned lounger where one could put one's feet up. It's a bit tight with the large furniture, but a good spot for reading, enjoying the scenic beauty, having a drink with friends al fresco or watching the land action when in port.

Inside, this suite has several features we loved. One is a full wall of closet and storage space, located in a corridor behind the bedroom wall. Guests enter and exit this closet corridor on either side of the suite.

Guests will discover multiple closet doors -- including three that opened to space for hanging clothes (two doors opened to one continuous double-width closet, another to a narrower hanging space). Cotton bathrobes are provided for guest use. 

In addition, we loved the large bin spaces (shown in the photo at right and above), great for storing shoes, clothes and personal stuff. Guests will also find a yoga mat, hair dryer and slippers inside the storage closets.

In addition, one door opens to a stocked mini-fridge and personal safe. Let’s just say this robust storage space should even satisfy those bringing the kitchen sink with them, so to speak. Fashionistas should love it. 

The suite’s sleeping area consisted of a king bed (or two twins) with two night-stands on either side; we would have liked those tables to be a tad higher, though, as we found them a bit difficult to reach while in bed. 

The king bed has bold color accents and pure white linens including a lovely comforter. That said, personally, I get hot with duvets so I always ask the cabin steward on any ship to add a sheet under the duvet, which my steward Arif did cheerfully and promptly.

I slept well on this bedding, nestled into the high thread-count linens with multiple pillows. Two additional blankets are located inside one of the closets.  

One "wow" bedroom element was the low-level elongated divider (setting the bed apart from the living area) at the foot of the bed. Using a remote control, guests push a button and the humongous TV rises from within that divider. 

Let’s just say that if you’re a movie fan, it's pure heaven. Watching a movie from bed on this size screen is like having your own private theater. On-demand entertainment included movies, TV series, music and other features. 

When that screen is lowered into the cabinet, guests sitting in bed face the water with outside views. 

Forward of the bed and closer to the balcony is the living area with the settee and small table, along with a writing desk and a small connected cabinet with a drawer and several storage areas. A coffee machine is on top.

A large flatscreen monitor/TV, computer keyboard and mouse occupy the desk surface. The upholstered desk chair can be turned or moved so that we could use it as part of the living room and to enjoy the outside views.

The entertainment system here can be loaded on that second TV screen for movie viewing in the living area. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the cruise; we found the Wi-Fi excellent.   

Important distinction? These Grand Suites are among those with some special services, which the line tells me are designed to "surprise and delight" rather than to be viewed as formal butler service.

Thus, it's good for agents to explain that to guests before boarding. It's a policy that dovetails with upscale AmaWaterways' more casual product feel.

That said, the crew members handling my suite seemed eager to please, often asking, "Is there anything I can do for you?" I did enjoy room service for breakfast, which was delivered promptly after I ordered it. The server also volunteered to bring lunch as well, a nice touch. 

We also received a bottle of chianti upon arrival and a fresh fruit bowl that was changed throughout the cruise. Here is a photo below of that and the small settee that faces the floor-to-ceiling glass. 

One positive response to a special request? I asked the front desk whether a small table could be brought to my suite so I could sit on the settee, work on my personal laptop and look directly out to the view, not simply work at the desk facing the side wall. 

Within 10 minutes, the housekeeping supervisor knocked, asked me a few questions about what I needed (table size and so on), and off she went. Presto, I soon had a small table with a white tablecloth. It was perfect. 

Another feature I liked in my Grand Suite is the wall-mounted technology panel to adjust climate control and lighting; it was located adjacent to the bathroom in the entry area.

At first, I was a bit intimidated, but after a few days, I loved it. Controls are simply "touched" to make the room warmer or cooler or to turn lights on and off.

The bathroom in the Grand Suite offers double sinks, separate compartments with frosted glass doors for the toilet and the rainforest shower, which also sports a regular adjustable showerhead with a removable hand wand. Water pressure was very good.

In addition, the bathroom has a lovely, large soaking tub and individual bath amenities (refilled on a daily basis if need be).

Point 5 - Greater Diversity in Dining

More space (per the ship’s wider beam) means much more dining diversity than on a typical European river cruise. Schreiner also puts much emphasis on culinary excellence and is a member (as is the line) of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international association of gastronomy.

One evening on each sailing, the line has a special Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner celebrated in the Main Restaurant. That venue and Chef's Table are found on all AmaWaterways' European vessels. 

Accommodating up to 140 guests, the Main Restaurant on the Cello Deck (Deck 2) has comfortable booth seating and tables along the windows. Most serve four, six or eight guests, but there were a few two-tops. That said, people tended to spread out on this ship, so on many occasions we observed a couple seated together (and alone) at a larger booth.

Service in the Main Restaurant was prompt, friendly and professional, and there were no lines that we could observe. 

Breakfast and lunch have buffet-style selections, as well as a station for carving, pasta creation and so on. Guests can also order some items off a menu. Staff pour complimentary wines, beers and sodas.

One plus is the Bavarian Lunch with all kinds of local specialties, including bratwurst. Dinner is full table service. One vegetarian dinner entrée we liked was the pumpkin-filled pasta. 

Located on the Piano Deck (Deck 1), the Chef’s Table fielded an appealing gourmet tasting menu experience, paired with fine wines (both Austrian and Californian).

Junior Sous Chef "Nico" (shown in the photo at right and above) chatted with guests and prepped dishes prior to delivery to the tables. 

The Chef's Table culinary lineup began with a small chef’s welcome dish consisting of heirloom tomato carpaccio and eggplant caviar, followed by a lemon pepper salmon with turnip-cucumber tartare, vegetable vinaigrette and chick pea mousseline.

I loved the homemade soups on this ship, including the Chef’s Table's tasty carrot-ginger soup with tabbouleh-crème fraiche and cumin ciabiatta.

That was followed by a skin-grilled pike perch with citrus sauce, a celery mash and beluga lentil-ragout.

A vineyard peach sorbet cleansed our palette, before we enjoyed Nebraska beef with green pea valoute, wild broccoli and beet root. (See photo below.) Dessert was heavenly too – a rum raisin crumble atop an apple tartelette with vanilla ice cream.

So what's new dining-wise on this ship? There are several new dining venues:

Al Fresco, a lovely forward enclosed venue seating 24 guests at tables of four, has good river views, plenty of natural light flowing through a forward wall of glass, and a robust menu of options throughout the day.

Jet lagged, we loved the late riser's breakfast here that is served until 10:30 a.m., with both buffet items like scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, fresh fruit, vegetables/salad items, as well as all kinds of freshly baked pastries and breads. A coffee machine serves up regular coffee, cappuccino and lattes.

Al Fresco also serves, depending on time of day, snacks, a light lunch, late afternoon sandwiches and cakes, a light Mediterranean menu for nightly dining (the same menu is offered nightly during the cruise), and late night snacks. It’s also the place for complimentary coffee, tea, cappuccino and so on via a snazzy, easy-to-use machine.

By far, the most popular spot on the ship for dinner was Jimmy’s Wine Bar & Restaurant, which has tables with bench seating and family-style dining.

This eatery is so-named to honor travel industry legend, the late Jimmy Murphy, one of AmaWaterways' co-founders. Family photos grace one wall, a pleasant touch that made people feel at home.

Murphy's son, industry veteran Gary Murphy, is also an AmaWaterways co-owner and senior vice president of sales. 

Jimmy's attracted both adults and families with children during our cruise. Many guests, including one woman sailing with two kids, said they liked this family-style eatery the best of any onboard.

Guests need to make dinner reservations for Al Fresco, the Chef’s Table and Jimmy’s Wine Bar.

Point 5: The Top Deck Has A "Real" Pool

We’ve been on other river ships with pools, but most tend to be fairly small, even if they do exist.

AmaMagna’s top deck has a fairly large heated pool that is more akin to what one might find on a small ocean ship. It offers a separate whirlpool at one end and a full-service bar at the other, staffed at appropriate times.

The top deck also has plenty of loungers, shade coverings, tables and chairs, a massive chess board with big pieces, plus a jogging/walking track and a large, covered space for the bicycles transported onboard for guest use.

Among the many top-deck activities orchestrated by Tiago, our cruise's wellness/fitness expert, were a “Morning Stretch with Tiago,” “Circuit Training with Tiago,” “Digestive Walk with Tiago” as well as line dancing and yoga.  

Point 6: More Fitness & Spa Options

Most river ships do not have a full-service spa with multiple treatment rooms and the space afforded by an oceangoing ship. Yet, AmaMagna’s Zen Wellness Studio offers much that may appeal to ocean cruisers familiar with facilities on larger ships.

For example, the wellness studio has exercise machines both inside and outside on an aft-facing terrace. Inside there is a mat area, weights, a Pilates ball and other fitness equipment. 

In an adjacent space is a nifty new feature, a pet project of Karst. It's the aft-facing Wellness Bar, offering refreshing juices and the "detox water of the day." One day we visited that was Gemstone Water with quartz and amethyst minerals. Guests also have small seating areas of tables and bistro chairs both inside and outside on the aft terrace.  

AmaMagna also has two massage treatment rooms and a beauty salon room. I made an appointment for a wash, haircut and blow-dry and couldn't wait to show off my new "do" to fellow guests at dinner.

The hair stylist doubled as a massage therapist and noted that on other AmaWaterways ships there is one person to do it all, but AmaMagna has two massage therapists; she did hair and the other spa person did manicures.  

Point 7 - "Good to Know" Facts

Elevators? This ship has one that reaches the main guest areas -- the Violin Deck, Cello Deck and Piano Deck. A pop-up lift is also available for Sun Deck access.

For all guests heading to the ship's outside public decks from public interior spaces or corridors, it's important to take along a key card. Guests need to swipe it to get back inside. That's a good security feature for all onboard. 

While AmaWaterways serves fine European and Californian wines at lunch and dinner, it's not a line with a full open bar 24/7. But it is the next best thing, as the line also has a well-received, complimentary "Sip & Sail" cocktail hour most evenings in the Lounge. 

While the ship has an aft marina and carries a Sundowner boat for shore excursions in select ports, we were told by AmaWaterways that the boat's use is dependent on river conditions. Water currents and docking placements change and are not always favorable for opening the marina. As a result, this experience isn't always offered.

The captain did take the Sundowner out and test it a few times this season, but the line is still evaluating when, where and how to offer it to guests. AmaWaterways is also looking at an alternative system of lowering and retrieving the Sundowner from the water, as that currently takes quite a bit of time. 

Energy-wise, AmaMagna has a low draft with quieter, more fuel efficient engines. 

For clients who'd like to do laundry, there is a nice, self-serve laundry onboard. Agents can see a photo of the machines in the slide show above. 

This ship also has enhanced entertainment offerings including an onboard cinema and large boutique. One fun thing? The boutique sold traditional Austrian attire -- perfect for those desiring to get into the spirit of the Danube sailing.

Point 8 - An Opportunity for Ocean Cruisers?

AmaMagna is wider, more spacious and more suite-laden than the line’s other ships, not to mention most others in the river cruise industry. So the obvious question is: “Will this new ship attract more ocean cruisers to try a river cruise experience?”

Certainly, many travel agents and industry experts think so. We, too, believe it could help broaden the market, create "buzz" for Danube cruising and draw cruisers from ocean products eager to sail on a European river experience.

But, as with any travel product, a professional travel advisor is a key asset in helping match the customer with the right product. Ocean or river, the importance of that process remains. Customers must be "qualified" for the experience, based on their travel style and personality.

On this cruise we met many travelers who absolutely loved AmaMagna, and one solo traveler who simply didn't. In chatting with him briefly, my assessment was that he was on the wrong product for his travel style and personality.

Bottom line? Just as with ocean cruising, river cruising isn't one size fits all. Again, the agent is critical in suggesting the right brand for each client.

We personally liked this ship a lot. Those seeking a casual onboard aura with great service and excellent cuisine and destination touring will likely love this product.

Coming Next Week

Stay tuned for next week's full-bodied Part 2 of this report. We'll look at the shore product and destination experiences that AmaWaterways' new AmaMagna offers -- both for active guests and those seeking more gentle options.

We'll explore a lovely day trip to the Austrian Lake Country, as well as a walking tour in downtown Vienna, and look at hiking, biking, climbing and wellness/fitness options.

And we'll take you inside an exclusive shoreside Bavarian event for the line's guests at Vilshofen, Germany. 

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