Gliding slowly through the Amsterdam-Rhine canal -- we were, of course, obeying the canal's stodgy speed limit -- passengers idled on AmaCello's sun deck, one man sketching the passing half-timber homes and church spires, others discussing the cargo ships/mobile river homes that transport raw materials down Europe's industrial superhighways. A short time later, we pulled into our first lock. The dungeon door closed behind us, and as the water level began to rise, we felt ourselves becoming ever more buoyant.
It's easy to see how people fall for the river.
AmaCello, which debuted in spring 2008, is one of river cruising's most modern vessels, on par with the newest offerings from competitors like Tauck and Uniworld. There's the elevator, the fire-orange abstract art piece that greets you in the lobby, the in-cabin multi-function Web/TV system, one of the best cabin shower setups on the rivers (more on that below), the wireless audio systems used during guided tours, Wi-Fi in the lounges and a hydraulic bridge that can be lowered with the push of a button to squeeze under low-slung bridges. Clearly, as river cruising has gained popularity, the niche has moved beyond its more traditional roots: reading on the sun deck; long, multi-course dinners with just-met passengers; evening social nights in the lounge with the piano man playing tasteful background ditties. Of course those draws are still the crux of the experience, but AmaCello presents a hybrid -- a marriage between river cruise tradition and innovation.
If Captain Vlad is manning the wheelhouse, he'll let you in for a primer about life on the river. Or, you can follow his every move from the navigation channel on your in-cabin flat-screen monitor.
A cruise on AmaCello is nearly all-inclusive. Beyond the cruise-ship standards -- food, accommodations, entertainment -- there's wine and beer with dinner, unlimited Internet use and guided tours in each port. There are also about 20 bikes available for tooling around onshore if you begin to wince at the thought of another two-hour panoramic city tour. (The free excursions are mostly of that variety.)
But, while the inclusions were certainly appreciated and the scenery serene -- the Rhine Gorge is Brothers Grim source material, castles and ruins literally blanketing the landscape -- there were a few quirks that detracted from the harmony. We were left slightly crimson after the bar manager rudely dismissed our polite claim that our wine was well past its prime. (Was that a piece of cork?) "It's just very heavy and very dry," he said, irritated. And, though the food was ambitious -- a mishmash of colors and ingredients intended to approximate fine dining rather than serving as the real thing -- the indulgent buttery soups and rich, salty entrees had us craving lighter options. The problem is, on a ship of this size, there are no other options onboard.
Despite our gripes, it's clear that AmaCello provides an excellent, comfortable way to sample the Continental interior. And, unlike on a coach tour vacation -- the closest approximation to a European river cruise -- on AmaCello, you check in once, and it's a stress-free seven days of castles and strudels, medieval market squares and World War II history.
AmaCello has two lounges. The main lounge has the ship's lone bar, 24-hour coffee and pastries, plenty of chairs and couches, and floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. There's also a small dance floor. This indoor social hub can accommodate everyone onboard, and the room is used for just about everything, including port talks, evening entertainment, more causal meals, catching up on reading and peaceful nod-offs between lunch and tea.
In the cozy aft lounge, you can watch the disappearing landscape through floor-to-ceiling windows or enjoy a puzzle or game (selection: Rummikub, Yahtze, Jenga, Scrabble, Cluedo [the U.K. game from which the U.S.' Clue was derived], the U.K. version of Trivial Pursuit, chess, checkers, etc.). Dry-mouthed passengers can order bar beverages over the phone. The "Easy Dining" option also takes place there.
Free Wi-Fi is available in the main and aft lounges, a great touch that's somewhat unusual for the river cruise industry.
When the weather's pleasant, the blue AstroTurf sun deck bustles with activity. The sun deck setup is very basic: plastic-frame sun beds with blue fabric slings, a small "running track" (16 laps equal a mile), a jumbo turf chess board and a collapsible wheelhouse. There are also a few canopies that can be set up to provide shade, which they weren't during our cruise. By the wheelhouse, there are a few nice wooden tables. Nearly everyone comes out to recline on a lounger, walk the track or sit at a wooden table to watch it all -- castle to church spire, cargo ship to power plant -- pass him by.
At the ship's main entrance, you'll find the reception desk, a small gift shop with maps, books, gift items and colorful enamel jewelry from Frey Wille. There's also a small library with a smattering of magazines, fiction by Stephen King and Dean Koontz and a few travel and history titles.
Editor's Note: Commentary is only piped in through public areas (a few things go right into your stateroom -- "sorry to disturb you in your cabin, folks"), so it makes sense to be out and about if you're passing through the castle-covered Rhine Gorge, where anecdotes and information are dispatched furiously.
AmaCello has 71 identical standard staterooms and four junior suites.
The 71 standard cabins are 170 square feet, a healthy size for a river boat, where cabins are typically in the 150-square-foot range. Fifty-nine of those feature French balconies, sliding-glass doors with railings that let you poke your upper half out into the open air. (If you're cruising early in the season, and there are no bugs, it's nice to leave the door open overnight.) The 13 standard cabins on the lower Piano Deck feature picture windows right at the water line, an interesting visual sensation in its own right.
All staterooms come with bathrobes, slippers, hair dryers, safes, ice buckets (no mini-fridges), desks and six bottles of water, replenished daily. Cabins have plenty of storage space, including some large under-the-bed roll-out bins, two closets (one of which is shelved, another for hanging clothes) and several small drawers.
The numerous outlets in each cabin are European two-prongers. Electricity is 220 volts onboard, so U.S. passengers will need to bring adapters. (A limited supply is available at reception.)
Cabins also feature an "infotainment" setup, each comprised of a flat-screen monitor and wired keyboard. The systems provide Internet access (unlimited, included with fare), a selection of TV channels (CNN, BBC, Animal Planet, MTV Europe, etc.), a music library, a nice selection of films (2 euro apiece), live images from a bow camera and of the captain's navigation screen (don't worry -- you can't screw anything up) and restaurant menus. The system can be a bit sensitive, especially if you're overzealous. (Just push one button, then wait, the cruise director explained.) But, overall, it worked quite well. It was a nice touch to be able to send e-mails or research onshore restaurants without worrying about racking up a huge Web bill.
AmaCello's in-cabin showers are worthy of their own paragraph. Close the glass door, and you'll notice six buttons -- push one for a waterfall, another for a rain shower. There's also a handheld shower head and little spray nozzle that comes up from below. The thermostat goes well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for turning your glass enclosed shower into a steam closet.
The ship's four junior suites are 255 square feet. They're basically 50 percent larger than the standard cabins with added space for a table and chairs. In addition to the standard inclusions enumerated above, suites have full baths with separate tubs, stocked mini-bars, daily news handouts (The "U.S. News," a compilation of the previous day's national stories) and sparkling wine delivered on arrival. All four suites have French balconies.
There are no cabins configured for passengers with disabilities, though AmaCello's sister ship Amadante does have one (room 302, to be exact).
One final note: Soundproofing is a bit of an issue, and we were woken up on several mornings by maids piling soiled glassware and chatting in Romanian. And, yes, the same level of sound leaves your cabin.
Entertainment is provided nightly. The format varies and includes everything from a joke-filled PowerPoint presentation from the witty cruise director on how Gutenberg basically brought down the Holy Roman Empire and an entertaining evening port stroll (also led by the cruise director) to performances from talented regional music groups (La Strada, two violins and a guitar, was a standout) and the very well-received crew talent show. We watched room stewards and waitstaff blow off steam by way of sock puppets performing Carmen. There's also typically some sort of trivia game -- in our case, the "nasty questionnaire," a set of 20 logic questions.
The cruise director explained to us that AMA generally avoids folkloric performances, due to the potential kitsch factor. And, true to form, there was but one: a very schmaltzy Dutch dancing choir telling us that "We are farmers, and we clap hands and dance when it is time to make the harvest" then proceeding to dance and clap hands.
Depending on the cruise director, the daily briefing on upcoming ports and general commentary was certainly a form of entertainment ... and our Australian director, Peter Whitehead, kept passengers laughing, even while going over the most mundane items on the administrative agenda (proper use of in-cabin remote controls, embarkation details, etc.). In the Rhine Gorge in particular, Whitehead's commentary seemed effortless, quite a contrast to the howling wind ripping through us as we cruised. After he told the obligatory tale of Lorelei, the river maiden who led many a navigator to his death -- prior to taming the river by way of canal, this was an extremely dangerous pass -- he flipped a switch, and a song version of the famous Heinrich Heine poem sprang forth from the speakers. It was a memorable afternoon of myth, bluster and epic song.
Shore excursions in each port are included in the fare and come in both walking tour and motor coach tour varieties -- or a combination of the two -- focusing on panoramic sites. Frankly, as is the case across the world, the quality of the tour is almost entirely dependent on the guide. In Frankfurt, a city better suited to the panoramic coach tour, our guide proved narcolepsy was contagious by efficiently providing the name, architect and date of construction as we drove by building after building after building. In Cochem and Koblenz (Koblenz tour led by our cruise director), the walking tours were excellent, with guides providing anecdotes and odd factoids to paint a more nuanced picture.
On days when the included excursion is a walking tour, such as the one offered in the half-timbered medieval town of Bernkastel, there's a gentle walking option -- best for those with mobility issues or, more euphemistically, for those who "like to take a lot of photos."
There are no additional tours offered through the ship.
In response to constructive feedback, all passengers on walking tours now get something called a Quietvox. The guide speaks into a microphone, and the audio is beamed via witchery to the wireless Quietvox apparatus and into your earphones. The system worked quite well overall and was especially nice in crowded Trier, where we lost site of the guide yet still were able to listen to her commentary.
Contrary to the common big-ship auto-gratuity protocol ("$10 per person, per day will be added to your onboard bill..."), tips on AmaWaterways are merely suggested -- 12 euro per person, per day, for the crew and 3 euro per person, per day, for the cruise director. Gratuities can be paid by credit card or in cash envelopes.
|Fitness and Recreation|
There's a very small room with a treadmill, bike, rowing machine and some light free weights (25-pound weights, tops). The fitness closet also contains a somewhat impractical Pilates ball and mat. (There's just not really much room for that, unless you were to pile the machines into a corner.) Within the room, there's also a small sauna and a shower.
Adjacent to the fitness room is a single treatment room, offering massages, haircuts, eyebrow and eyelash dying and the like. A sixty-minute massage will cost you 60 euro; a 30-minute back and shoulders rub is 30 euro. Ladies' haircuts are 25 euro; it's 22 euro for the gentlemen to get a wash, cut and blowdry.
The sun deck has a gray AstroTurf jogging/walking track. A lap equals 100 meters, so it's 16 laps to the mile. Very few passengers used the track, but with something to see in every direction, it was quite a pleasant sensation going 'round and 'round on the top deck.
AmaCello carries roughly 20 decent leisure bikes that can be taken out while in port -- or if you're so inclined, you can actually ride to the next port and meet the ship. Talk to the cruise director regarding this second option; he'll direct you to the proper folks that can help plan a route. (He won't try to convince you not to do anything.) I can't stress enough the importance of planning a route and knowing your limits. Bikes are free to use. The front desk prefers advance notice if you decide to take one out.
On our cruise, we decided (stupidly) to bike from Dusseldorf and meet the ship in Cologne, some 50 miles downriver, where our ship would reposition later in the day. Along the way, we'd cross the river by car ferry, stop in the medieval town of Zon Staat for lunch and a look at the castle and windmill, then fly down the river and through towns on Germany's renowned bike paths. (Bikers are given great respect in Germany, with huge paths and lanes set aside just for riders.) Sounded like an adventure, yes? Assuming no "detours," the "biking" distance was some 70 kilometers or about 43.5 miles. While the distance caused a momentary pause, I figured we had almost eight hours from the time the ship left Dusseldorf at 11 a.m. -- it was scheduled to depart Cologne at roughly 7 p.m. We reached the boat with about 45 minutes to spare, after having ridden for almost seven hours. For our foolish act, we became minor celebrities onboard.
The cruise director told us that Danube river itineraries have a few ports where the distances are more in the neighborhood of 20 miles -- much better suited for an intraport bike trip.
AmaWaterways' passengers tend to be 55 or older, experienced, well-educated travelers who've sailed on both big-ship lines like Celebrity or Holland America and smaller-ship luxury lines like Windstar and Seabourn. The largest contingent comes from North America, but other English-speaking countries like England and Australia were well-represented. Quite a few have cruised the big ships and are looking for a change.
Dress onboard is casual and practical. For dinner, it's collared shirts for men and blouses and pantsuits for women. There was also a smattering of jackets from the slightly more formal-minded. Folks do dress up a bit for the "Captain's Farewell Dinner," when you'll see dresses, jackets, suits and a bow tie or two. No shorts, swimsuits or open-toed shoes are allowed in the dining room.
AmaCello is not a family ship, and there are no children's facilities. That said, families do tend to cruise during the holiday season when the ship is decked out in the festive livery of the season (lights, Christmas decor, tree with ornaments and the like).
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|