Sunday, December 25, 2011

AmaDolce ~ December 2011

AMA Waterways
AmaDolce ~ Christmas Time Cruise ~ 12/12-12/19/2011
Nurnberg to Budapest

Embarkation:  We flew directly to Nurnberg for the cruise-only portion of the trip while most of the other 85 guests participated in the two day pre-cruise tour in Prague.  Our flight arrived at 10:30am and we were met by our transportation provider booked independently.  The trip was less than 30 minutes to the dock, but the dock is in a hidden area, so we were glad we booked with a company who services the river cruise lines and knew the area – even though we probably paid too much for this service versus a taxi.

We arrived at the ship shortly after 11:00am and were greeted by one of the sailors who came out to take our bags from the van.  At reception, we were greeted warmly and told that our rooms weren’t quite ready, but we could have a light lunch with finger sandwiches and hot soup in the lounge – along with ice tea, water, coffee and tea available for self-service. 

After a short while, we were told that our rooms were ready and our luggage was already there waiting for us.  It was a very easy and pleasant experience.

Ship:  While the AmaDolce holds 148 guests we only had about 85 people on this sailing.  The ship is laid out very conveniently with the lounge on the same deck as the lobby and the dining room one deck down.  Cabins on Deck 2 are a convenient ½ deck away from either!  Deck 3 cabins have direct access to the aft lounge where several functions were held for the onboard groups.  The ship was decorated tastefully in reds and oranges with dark woods throughout.  In the spirit of the season, they had a large Christmas tree with garland and other décor festooning the ship.  It was very nice!  The small gift shop spilled out into the lobby, sometimes making it seem a little like a flea market, but they have very little space to work with.

Chairs and loveseats in the lounge were comfortable, but sometimes the use of lots of chairs caused visibility issues.  There were many chairs facing away from where the speaker or entertainment would be.  Only for one night did they actually rearrange the furniture to be more “theater-style” for the entertainment.  The dining room layout consisted mostly of tables for four or two.  Only a few tables held six guests and possibly only two could accommodate eight guests.  There were a couple of sections with an oval six-top that created major pinch points making it very difficult for the servers to get by.   

The Sun Deck was closed for the first couple of days due to low bridges, but when they opened it the chairs were plentiful and the small hot tub looked inviting.  The cold, rainy weather was a big deterrent to hanging out on the Sun Deck, but we bundled up, got our umbrellas (provided for us in our cabins!) and went up to brave the weather while cruising the Danube bend and the Wachau Valley.   This is why you river cruise – to experience these beautiful sites up close and personal!

Cabin:  At first glance, the 170 square foot cabin appeared smaller than those on our previous river cruises, but we realized that it was just the particular layout and the use of different flooring and two plush chairs by the French balcony.  The overall space was the same, but worked out a little differently.  The bathrooms are adequate with good storage but very little counter space.  The towels were plush and LONG.  The amenities of lotion, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel were adequate, but not fantastic, and were replenished as needed throughout the week.

The highlight of the cabin has got to be the shower with strong water pressure from your choice of a large overhead showerhead or a handheld unit, and an additional “middle” height shower head that feels really nice on your back after a long day of excursions.  Hot water was very hot and plentiful.  The shower stall itself was a little awkward, but we could live with that.  Beds had firm mattresses on pedestal frames with high quality cotton sheets/cases and a nice cozy duvet.  Extra blankets were available for the chilly nights when we opened the balcony door. 

Desk/counter space is almost non-existent.  We moved things around to make the one accessible plug available for charging the electronics.  A nice feature is the complimentary included internet that can be used from your cabin’s TV complete with keyboard and mouse (or free Wi-Fi shipwide if you brought your own laptop/tablet/smartphone).  The closet and cabinets with shelves offered plenty of storage.  There were four small drawers at the desk that held very little, but came in handy.  The surprise was a large rolling storage bin that was UNDER one of the beds.  You could easily roll it out for access.  One thing we found odd was that the closet doors were a white wood when all the other wood was this beautiful rich dark brown.  In our opinion, the cabin would feel warmer with wooden doors, but I’m sure AMA did studies on why the doors need to be white.

The French balcony is really the way to go on river cruises.  We enjoy being on Deck 2 versus Deck 3 as we like to be right there with the water so close by, watching the ducks or swans as we sail down the rivers.  Even with the cold weather we opened our door regularly to experience the sites, take pictures and just enjoy the river flowing by.

Dining:  The breakfast buffet had lots of fresh fruit choices, muesli, cereals, yogurt, and fresh meats and cheeses.  Hot dishes included scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and one item that changed daily such as sautéed mushrooms or French toast.  Made to order eggs and omelets were available and a huge selection of freshly baked breads and pastries were displayed beautifully (and tasted delicious).  Make your own Mimosas were available with complimentary sparkling wine.  Lunch is usually served buffet style with a nice selection for the salad bar and a couple of hot entrees to select from.  Cut to order meat (beef, turkey, pork) was also available.  However, on the third day of our cruise it was reported that a few guests had become ill, so as a precaution we went to table/waiter service for lunch every day.  This was a very nice treat and the crew of the AmaDolce handled the change very well.  We were given menus to select from including appetizers, salads and entrees for lunch – very similar to dinner. 

The dining room is set up for open seating, but we found most people gravitated to the same place/section each night.  This was a bit different from our previous river cruises where people sought out new tablemates to eat with at every meal.  It could be due to the fact that there were two large groups of about 30 people each, so they tended to stick together.  We found a waiter, Peter from Bulgaria, who we clicked with from the start.  We tried to sit in his section most meals; he was efficient and friendly and genuinely a nice guy. 

Dinner meal selections were good with a meat, fish and vegetarian choice available every night.  We had our choice of appetizers and salads and desserts with every meal.  A couple of meals had a set pre-appetizer, but overall it was up to us to make our selections.  There was an always available section including a steak, salmon and chicken entrée just in case one of the featured items did not appeal to us.   Presentations and food quality were above average to excellent in most cases.  Some of the fish dishes didn’t impress, but the meats were always delicious!  We appreciated that they
featured “local” regional dishes on the menu as well.  Frequently, after the main course was served, the waiters would bring out additional vegetables and serve them to you if you’d like.

To complete your dinner experience AMA serves free-flowing complimentary regional wines with a different red and white available each night.  Our wine server Nadia was sure to keep our glassed filled at all times.   The red wines won out this week, but all of them were very nice wines.

Entertainment/Onboard Activities:  AMA offered a few lectures/informational sessions on the region including one about how the European Union came about.  In addition, they brought on some regional entertainment including La Strada (chamber music), Hungarian Folklore performers, and singer Valerie May who performs her act in many different languages.  What makes this so unique over ocean cruising is that the entertainment is literally right there with you, not up on stage and you’re in the balcony squinting to see what’s going on.  Everything is so personal – they are there just for you!

Excursions:  All ports offered an excursion of some kind.  Many were walking tours with local guides, some combined bus tours with walking tours – all included a visit to a Christmas market.  AMA offered only three optional tours:  an all day tour to Salzburg (from Passau, rejoining the ship in Linz), a Strauss and Mozart concert in Vienna, and a visit to Schonbrunn palace (which didn’t have enough interest, so had to be cancelled).  The walking tours are led by local guides, who were very good and some were excellent.  Upon returning from each excursion you were greeted at the ship with warm towels and hot drinks.

AMA includes audio systems where you get your personal earpiece for the week and the tour guides broadcast through their microphone.  Most river cruise companies are doing this now, but it’s worth a mention.  It is very nice to not have to stand in a small cluster to hear the stories and history of the buildings and the area.  You can actually stop to take a picture or look in a window or watch the people around you, without having to worry about losing the group. 

One impressive note on tours:  According to Elke, our Cruise Manager, this was only the second cruise where they included an extension on the walking tour in Regensburg to the Thorn und Taxis Palace for the wonderful Christmas market there (our personal favorite!).   Elke stood at the gates and paid in cash the admission fee of those who made the extra walk with the guides.  The return walk to the ship was about 30 minutes; based on the previous week’s feedback Elke got permission to pay for taxi cabs back to the ship for those that needed it.  It was a rainy day, and many took her up on that offer.   We enjoyed the walk back as the rain let up right when we were leaving the market.  This says a lot about how AMA responds to guest comments.  Kudos, to Team AMA!

Service:  Overall exceptional service!  From Tonya and Angela at the front desk who knew our cabin numbers and who we were traveling with from day one to the bar team of Victor, Daniel and Nadia to the sailors who help with luggage and tie up the boat when docking.  They seemed to be a very happy and cohesive team.  Our cruise manager Elke was out of this world.  Her passion and commitment to everyone’s happiness was ever-present.  Her workload was added to with the on-board adjustments due to a few guests’ illnesses.  Elke was personally going into town, filling prescriptions and bringing doctors on board in the ports, all while dealing with a 30-person Japanese group who needed everything translated including the newly adapted lunch menus.  She worked tirelessly on making this cruise perfect for all. 

Itinerary:  Christmas Markets – Nurnberg to Budapest.  Ports included Regensberg where we visited the Thorn and Taxis Palace Romantic Christmas Market, Passau, Melk to visit the Abbey, Linz to pick up the passengers who elected to the take the all-day excursion to Salzburg, Vienna (where we attended a Mozart/Strauss concert in a palace!), and ending in Budapest including a nighttime illuminations cruise past all the amazing buildings lit up at night while listening to the Blue Danube over the speakers and enjoying a complimentary shot of Peach schnapps.  The markets are all beautiful, but at night they become spectacular.  Gluhwein (hot mulled wine) is plentiful and tasty, gingerbread, sausages and other delights tease you at every stand.  It’s hard not to be in the Christmas spirit when you visit these magical places.  One of our highlights, and a main reason we like river cruising, is when we sailed from Passau to Linz along the Wachau Valley past the charming towns like Durnstein (which is visited on many Danube itineraries). 

Summary:  This was our 3rd river cruise and our 45th cruise overall but our 1st cruise on AMA.  AMA offers an exceptional product that our clients will be extremely satisfied with.  We found many of our fellow guests to be first time river cruisers and only three people had been on an AMA cruise previously (besides the group leader and staff with one of the groups).   The Christmas Time Market cruise is a good choice to get people interested in river cruising, and they will want to go back and see these cities in the summer when it’s warm!   We have our 4th river cruise booked for April 2012 – Paris to Normandy Beaches on Avalon Creativity.  Want to join us??

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