Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World, Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges, and The Indispensable Guide to Foreign Words and Phrases--by Steven B. Stern (Sponsored by Stern's Travel Guides, Ltd.)
AMAWATERWAYS AND AVALON WATERWAYS NEWEST AND MOST MODERN RIVERBOATS
Last summer,(2011) we did back to back cruises on SS Antoinette of Uniworld Boutique Riverboat Collection and on the Viking Legend of Viking River Cruises. (See Autumn issue of World of Cruising Magazine) In order to experience the entire gamut of the new and more upscale ships that the various cruise lines are racing to build, this summer (2012), we cruised back to back on Avalon Panorama and AMACERTO, the newest riverboats of these two riverboat cruise lines.
Avalon Panorama entered service in 2011, the first of what the company refers to as their “suite ships”. Sister vessels, Avalon Vista and Avalon Visionary followed in 2012 and Avalon Artistry II and Avalon Expression will come on line in 2013. AMACERTO entered service in 2012, the latest of three sister ships; AMABELLA debuted in 2010 and AMAVERDE in 2011(however the two earlier vessels had different decors and somewhat different design and layouts).
Avalon Waterways, a part of the Globus family of brands, commenced service on the waterways of Europe in 2004 with the introduction of the Avalon Artistry. 11 additional ships were added in Europe by the close of 2011, and two additional will come on line by the end of 2012, and another two in 2013.
When we arrived at the airport in Budapest, we were met by representatives of Avalon and taken in a mini-van to the ship. Soon after boarding the ship, a life boat drill was held. Ever since the Costa Concordia tragedy, cruise lines are taking this safety drill more seriously. During the drill, the cruise director announced that of the 166 passengers, over 80% of the passengers were from Australia and New Zealand, some were from England and Canada and only 28 from the U.S. We did notice that the vast majority were over 55, many in their 60s, 70 and up.
Whereas, on Avalon’s first eleven ships, staterooms measured 172 square feet and junior suites, 258 square feet, on the Panorama and her siblings that will follow, only 12 staterooms on the lower deck measure 172 square feet, 50 Panorama Suites on the top two decks were 200 square feet, and two Royal Suites 300 square feet. These suites(which should probably not be referred to as suites, but called staterooms) on the upper two decks feature wall to wall panoramic windows which open giving full access to the river and scenery. These are not verandas, nor French balconies in the true sense of the word since you could not step out onto them.
Each stateroom, includes: two twin beds that can be made up as a queen bed with Egyptian cotton linens, European duvets, but no choice of pillows; flat-screen TVs with cable, music and movie channels ( with a vast selection of movies); alarm clocks, electronic safes, direct dial telephones stocked mini-bars and complimentary bottled water; a double closet to hang clothes and one with shelves for storage, writing desks; and bathrooms with hair dryers, robes, slippers, large, glass-in showers, and l’Occitane bath amenities. We had booked Panorama Suite #325, a 200-square-foot cabin on the top deck. We had a couch, a chair and a coffee table proximate to the window; however, this was a very small sitting area and not conducive to lounging around. We were especially pleased with the complementary Wi-Fi which permitted us to access our e-mails in the comfort of our cabin. We were not pleased with the fact that the sheets and duvets were for a single bed and did not cover our double bed arrangement. It was impossible to keep them on at night and they kept slipping off. Finally we had the cabin attendant separate the beds so that the sheets could be tucked in.
Atop ship, we found a partially covered Sun Deck with comfortable deck chairs, a small putting green, a giant chess set, a walking track, the navigation bridge, a small whirlpool and an open-air bistro where grill lunches were occasionally served when conditions permitted. Immediately below the Sun Deck was the Royal Deck, the location of two Royal Suites, half of the Panorama Suites, and, at the rear of the ship, a small room for beauty and spa treatments and the Observation Lounge/library where ice cubes, cookies and complimentary teas, coffees, espresso and cappuccino were available around the clock.
Next came the Sapphire Deck with the information and tour desk in the center, the remaining Panorama Suites on one side, and the main bar and lounge on the other. The lowest passenger deck, Indigo Deck, housed the 17 standard cabins (which did not have large panorama windows) and the large, main dining room. A few steps down was a small gym with two treadmills, two exer-cycles and some weights. There was an elevator that ran between the floors. All and all, the layout was similar to the other riverboats we had sailed on in recent years. There were no self-service washers or dryers, but laundry and pressing were available at a charge.
Breakfast consisted of fruit juices, canned fruits, cereals, croissants and rolls, scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, gravlox, cold meats and cheeses, as well as, sparkling wine for Mimosas. Made-to-order egg dishes were available at a special egg/omelet station. A continental breakfast was offered in the lounge and also could be ordered through room service.
Lunch was served buffet style and included salads, soups and a variety of hot dishes that changed daily, and often included ethnic offerings indigenous to the area the ship was visiting. Delicious desserts were served daily. Waiters were available to bring beverages, and otherwise assist guests at all meals. A limited, light lunch of salad and sandwiches was also offered in the lounge for those who did not want to spend time for a sit-down meal.
Dinner was served with table service in an open seating at tables accommodating two, four, six and eight persons. Every evening there were two choices of appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert and complimentary wine, beer or soft drinks. We were not impressed with the wine that was served gratis; and the wine list did not include any French, Italian or American vintages. We asked if we could purchase wine ashore and have it served in the dining room. We were advised that there would be a nine euro corkage charge. We learned to settle for beer or diet coke.
Also on AMACERTO, wewere not enamored with the local wines; however there was no corkage charge for bringing our own wine into the dining room, and they did have a wine list with bottles of French and Italian wines for purchase.
We also noticed that for the most part, the dinner entrees did not include expensive cuts of meat, fowl or seafood ; however, the preparation and presentation were excellent; and we had the opportunity to try many local dishes that were quite nice.At the captains dinner at the end of the cruise the offerings were top notch and included all the items we would have enjoyed earlier in the week. We lucked out in having the company’s head corporate chef on our cruise who orchestrated the kitchen. He was an expert at German and Austrian fare, especially soups, sauces and desserts.
Of course, for most passengers, the daily excursions were the most important aspect of the cruise. Each evening before dinner, the cruise director would give a talk describing the following day’s itinerary and tours. Our cruise director, Andrzej was sensational. Not only was he extremely knowledgeable but he was available 24/7 to assist passengers with their needs, and to answer their questions. Actually the entire staff was most helpful.
Each day there was one excursion that was included in the cruise fare; however, the more interesting and important sight-seeing tours were at an extra charge, including: the visit to Schoenbrunn Palace, and the concert in Vienna, the all-day trip to Salzburg, the Danube Gorge/Weltenburg Abbey boat trip, the tour in Nuremburg to the Documentation Center covering the Nazi involvement in World War II, and the Red Light District tour in Amsterdam and the countryside tour in Holland. We were disappointed that many of these optional tours were not included; however, the cruise line maintains that the charges are less than on some other ships and that they would have to charge higher cruise fares in order to include them. Personally, I prefer paying a little more upfront rather than being charged as you go. Charging for excursions is pretty much the industry practice on ocean-going vessels; and charges on those ships can be quite a bit higher than those on Avalon.
On AMACERTO many of the excursions that Avalon charged extra for were included such as the side trip to Salzburg.
By in large, the tour guides were very good; and the use of the special individual radios with which we were supplied, enabled us to hear the explanations by the guide even if we strayed away from the group.
During the day there were occasional special on-board events such as a tasting of wines from the Wachau region of Austria, a tasting of Bavarian beers, an exceptional zither concert, a cookie making demonstration, and a wonderful concert by a trio with two violins and a guitar.
Each evening after dinner, a piano player entertained for listening and dancing. On many evenings, local groups and entertainers were brought aboard. In Budapest, a Hungarian band and folk dance group gave a presentation. In Bratislava, a marvelous five-piece girls’ band played and sang show tunes. In Vienna, passengers had the option of attending a concert in the city. On other evenings we were entertained by a not-so-entertaining violinist, and a horrendous Bavarian accordion player. One of the most fun events was the crew show. To its credit, Avalon provided more afternoons and evenings of entertainers than we had found on other riverboat lines. However, on our cruise the following week on Amancerto, there also was entertainment each evening.
On the first day in Budapest, there was a combination bus and walking tour around both the Buda and the Pest sides of the city with visits to Castle Hill, Matthias Church, the Royal Palace, the Citadel on Gellert Hill along with the opportunity to take photos from the awesome vista of the Danube from this area, the Parliament, St. Stephan’s Basilica, the Fishermen’s Bastion, Matthias Church and the oldest Synagogue in Europe. This proved to be a good orientation of the city.In the afternoon optional Jewish Heritage and Communist Budapest tours were offered at a charge.
The next day the Panorama reached Bratislava about . Another included, bus/walking tour at started with a ride around the city and a stop at the HvadCastle, followed bya stroll through the old town area.
The ship sailed for Vienna around , arriving the next morning. An early morning bus tour oriented us to the layout of the city and concluded with a visit to the famous St.Stephen’s Cathedral along with an opportunity for shopping on the Karntnerstrasse, the city’s main shopping street. In the afternoon there was an optional tours to SchoenbrunnPalace and in the evening an optional tour to a waltz concert and ballet performance, both tours at an additional cost.
We arrived in the charming AustrianVillage of Durnstein the following day, and stayed just long enough for a short walking tour before sailing through the WachauValley, the most picturesque stretch of the Danube. This is a wine producing area with vine-clad rolling slopes. The round towers of fortified churches and the battlement turrets of ancient castles frequently emerge as the river winds its way through Austria. By mid-afternoon we reached the village ofMelk for a short motor coach ride up to the sumptuous baroque Benedictine Abbey of Melk, perched on a rocky outcrop 200 feet high and surrounded bybeautiful gardens and forest paths, ideal for a leisurely a stroll.
The next morning, we stopped for an hour in Linz to allow passengers to disembark for three optional tours (at an additional cost): Salzburg, the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, and the Salzkammergut Lake District. All three tours returned to the ship( which was now in PassauGermany) later in the afternoon, about . (These same three tours were offered on AMACERTO gratis).
The ship made another short stop the following day to disembark passengers taking the optional boat ride to Weltenberg down the Danube Gorge, a body of water not navigable by the river boat. We then proceeded to Regensburg where walking tours were offered both in the morning and again in the afternoon for those that had spent the morning on the optional boat ride to Weltenburg.
In Nuremberg, we opted for the special tour that included a visit to the DocumentationCenter where the history of the rise and fall of the Nazi party and WW II is told in a series of short films displayed in different rooms—quite informative and inspirational.
The next three days we visited the cities of Bamberg, Wurzburg and Miltenberg with walking tours and opportunities for shopping. Bamberg and Wurzburg were both charming Bavarian cities with interesting churches, castles and fortresses, and main squares filled with department stores and great shopping.
Our tour of the baroque ResidenzPalace, in Wurzburg with its elaborate halls, staircase, salons, artand gardens was excellent. We especially enjoyed taking a power walk along the river away from the main town where there were acres and acres of parks (and even a faux beach) where residents were riding bikes, sunbathing and having a picnic.
Miltenberg is a small Franconian town surrounded by the Odenwald Forest, notable for its half-timbered houses that line its long main street with its numerous guest houses, small shops, taverns and restaurants.
One of the highlights of the cruise was a superb morning zither concert. While we listened to imaginative arrangements of classical and popular tunes by a master musician, we could stare out the panoramic windows in the lounge as the ship slowly meandered down the river passed vineyards and charming villages that sat on its slopes.
Our short visit at Rudesheim took place during the afternoon, not permitting us to sample the colorful nightlife. The excursion offered here was to Siegrfied’s MechanicalInstrumentMuseum, with its unique hands-on display of musical instruments spanning over a hundred years. Following the tour of the museum, we were treated to a local favorite, Rudesheim coffee, a concoction similar to French coffee but using Rudesheim brandy and globs of whipped cream.
The excursion the following day in Cologne was a walking tour through the town and to the famous Cologne Cathedral. Our last day of the cruise was spent in Amsterdam with a complementary canal cruise. Optional tours were offered to the red light district and a bus ride around the Dutch countryside.
We were quite impressed with the manner Avalon organized and arranged our transfer to the airport, making certain that each guest departed the ship three hours before their scheduled flight.
Overall, we were delighted with our cruise and most impressed with the excellent service and concern shown for the comfort of the passengers.
Immediately following our cruise on Avalon Panorama, we flew back to Budapest to board AMACERTO for our 7-day cruise that would terminate in Vilshoven. Since we are taking this cruise after our Panorama cruise, I will be making comparisons which I could not make in the earlier portion of this article. Comparison comments will be made in italics.
In 2002, the former owner of Viking River Cruises and the former CEO of Brendan Worldwide Vacations launched Amadeus Waterways, and later changed the name to AMAWaterways. From 2006 to 2009, the company introduced six new deluxe 148-passenger riverboats designed to traverse the various rivers and waterways of Europe. Between 2010 and 2012, three more upscale river boats joined the European fleet, along with two new boats on the MekongRiver and the waterways of Russia. APT Waterways is a partner with AMA and markets the same ships in Australia and conducts tours for Australians on these vessels.
Our ship,AMACERTO carried 162 passengers in 78 staterooms. The 16 on the bottom deck measured 160 square feet.the 61 on the top two decks had similar layouts but ranged in size from 170 to 250 square feet and included four 350-square-foot suites (obviously the most desirable).
All accommodations had twin beds convertible to queen size, a desk/dressing table, wardrobes, electronic safes, refrigerators, flat screen TVs with some cable stations, movies, and internet access, a small coffee table, a chair, and two night tables. Although the bathrooms varied somewhat in size, they were all very small but with a good-size, glass-in-shower, a single sink/vanity, a toilet, a hair dryer, a magnifying mirror; but with virtually no storage space, save a narrow counter above the sink. The four suites were larger (350 square feet), had more spacious bathrooms with double vanities and a bathtub. Terry robes and slippers were furnished, as was bottled water. The staterooms had a modern, very attractive design and decor; however the amount of storage and closet space was too limited for our taste; but that is how we feel about non-suite cabins on every riverboat.
We were in stateroom 225, a 210-square-foot, double balcony accommodation; i.e., the area near the bed had a small, outside balcony that could accommodate a table and two chairs, and the area with the desk/dressing table and closets had a river-boat-style French balcony. The balconies made the room seem brighter and airy; however, the trade-off was limited space within the room to maneuver and few drawers, other than the shelves in one of the closets, those in our night tables and a drawer inconveniently located under the bed.
The reason Avalon gave us for not having the real balconies was not wishing to make the cabins any smaller than necessary. However, it was nice having a balcony to lounge on while passing by the panorama of the river; and sitting out on the balcony in the evenings while the ship meandered down the river was a lovely experience, more interesting than sitting out on balconies on ocean-going vessels where there is little to see. Like everything in life, there are tradeoffs.
After boarding we took a stroll around the ship. The main lounge, the venue for lectures, entertainment, cocktails and socializing had a well-stocked bar with congenial seating, and, an around the clock coffee/tea/espresso/cappuccino machine. Next to the lounge, was the intimate library. At the rear of the ship, on the top passenger deck, was an alternative restaurant available to passengers once each cruise on a reservation-only basis. Next to this restaurant was the small gym with one treadmill, two exercycles and a rowing machine. (The two sister ships had a sauna, but to our disappointment it had been removed on AMACERTO in order to add a few feet to the gym). The Sun Deck a-top ship, offered both open and covered lounging areas, a walking track, and a heated pool (somewhat of a novelty for a river boat). A fleet of quality bicycles was stored here available for the passengers to use individually at the various ports and for organized biking tours.
Before dinner the first evening, the captain, hotel manager and cruise director greeted each guest personally with a glass of champagne and then each delivered a talk familiarizing the passengers with the safety factors, the program for the week and various other items needed to know about the ship. The compulsory safety drill was not held until the following day, immediately prior to our departure from Budapest.Each evening before dinner, the cruise director gave a talk covering the following day’s program, similar to the talks given on the Panorama.
Looking around at our fellow passengers, we were surprised to see a totally different demographic than we found on the Panorama. Most of the passengers were North American (whereas on the Panorama, they were Australian); and the ages of the passengers were all across the board. Many were in their 20s,30s and 40s, others in their 50sand 60s, and some in their 70s. One of the reasons there were few Australians was due to the fact that APT operates exclusively Australian tours on the AMA Waterways ships.
That evening we had our first dinner in the main open-seating restaurant. This was a multi-course meal served by Indonesian and middle European waiters dressed in tuxedos. Wine, beer and soft drinks were served gratis with dinner each evening. (On the two sister ships, the dining room is divided into two parts where one-half has an Italian menu.) Off the main dining room were two small rooms that could accommodate up to 12 guests for special occasions or who wished a more private dining experience.
Breakfast was presented buffet style with the same offerings we had on the Panorama, plus specials that could be ordered at the table; a multi-course lunch was served at the table similar to dinner, except there was also a buffet table with salads, cold meats and cheeses.
After dinner, a local Hungarian band and folk dance group, similar to the one we saw on the Panorama gave a short performance. (This one was better than the one that performed on the Panorama). Afterward, the ship’s full-time pianoplayer/ singer, Mathias, entertained the guests, as he did each evening of the cruise.
The following day we remained in Budapest until A bus/walking tour was offered to the guests covering the same areas we visited on our prior cruise. As an alternative, an excursion to a local hotel was offered to view a cooking demonstration on how to make Hungarian goulash. The weather was warm and quite nice, and we found the Sun Deck an enjoyable place to sunbathe, not unlike the lido deck on ocean-going vessels. Both lunch and dinner had Hungarian themes. Among other dishes, we were treated to goulash with spaetzels, cabbage soup, Hungarian stuffed pancakes with paprika sauce and a delicious crispy duck with red cabbage.
After dinner, Mathias, the piano entertainer, got the whole ship rocking, rolling and twisting with music from the 50s and 60s.
It was Saturday, therefore it must be Bratislava. Our visit was limited to two hours because the ship needed to reach Vienna in time for a concert in the city that many passengers had signed up for in advance. There was time for a short city tour that was offered; however we opted to take one of the ship’s bicycles for a ride along the river. The highlight of the day for me was the outstanding curries the chef prepared for lunch. Not to be unnoticed was our gourmet dinner that evening in the alternative restaurant .It is beginning to sound like all we do on this cruise is gorge ourselves.
I have to say that the quality of the meat and seafood was superior to what we had experienced on the Panorama; however dining overall was about the same. There were several evenings on both ships where there was no main course that appealed to us. Each ship offered a small steak, salmonand Caesar saladas an alternative to the evening menu; however these items were not what we would have expected. Wewere pleased that on AMACERTO it was possible to purchase some reasonable French and Italian wines,as well as being allowed to bring our own wine into the restaurant without being charged a corkage,
During the morning in Vienna, the ship offered several tours, as well as free shuttle service into the city. Having done the usual sights many times in the past, we opted for a rather unique tour, which in addition to a drive around the city included a visit to a typical Viennese coffee house on the grounds of Hofburg (Vienna’s Imperial Palace) for Sacher Torte and a visit to Schlumberger winery where Austrian sparkling wine is produced (methodchampanois).After dinner, we were transported by bus to a charming Viennese wine garden for a tasting of four local wines accompanied by a strolling “oom-pa-pa” duo.
The following morning we arrived in Durnstein. We skipped the morning tour and wine tasting, having done a similar tour on the Panorama, as well as, being somewhat satiated with wine tastings. That afternoon the ship sailed from Durnstein to Melk, the most scenic stretch of the Danube. Guests were offered the opportunity to take a 21- mile bicycle excursion between the cities as an alternative to sailing. Upon reaching Melk, there was an excursion to the Melk Abbey, the same one we took on the Panorama. Instead we chose to take a leisurely stroll through the town.
That evening the entertainment was a classical concert by a trio of two violins and a guitar very similar to the concert on the Panorama. The following evening we were entertained by two opera singers.
The complimentary excursion to Salzburg was very enjoyable. Our excellent tour guide escorted us to the lovely gardens, the opera house, the Palace and shopping area; however, we only had a few hours to absorb a city that required a few days at a minimum.
Our final day of the cruise started in Passau with a morning tour, followed by a typical Bavarian lunch aboard ship, an afternoon beer fest in Vilshoven, and wound down with the l Captain’s cocktail party and farewell dinner.
We disembarked the next morning and joined the post-cruise group on a bus ride to Prague before taking off on our own.
Having spent only seven days on AMACERTO, as compared to 14 on Panorama, we did not have as good an opportunity to socialize with guests and become as familiar with the crew. However, our purpose for the trip was to compare the ships with each other, as well as other river boats upon which we had cruised previously. In the final analysis, I could not say that one was superior to the other. Each had features that impressed, and others that didn’t. The non-suite accommodations were similar on both with limited storage, as is the situation on all river boats; however we preferred our cabin on AMACERTO because of the outdoor balcony and bedding. Service on AMACERTO was fine, the hotel manager was exceptional; however service overall on Panorama was the best we had experienced on any riverboat.Dining was similar on both ships, but not outstanding. The specialty restaurant on AMACERTO represented a nice diversion.The excursion program on AMA Waterways was a better deal, since most every tour was included. The amount of nightly entertainment on both ships was a pleasant surprise. Both were physically beautiful ships, well maintained, and more modern in décor than some of the older ships in both fleets. I guess it is a toss up. You can’t go wrong with either one.
For our cruise on Avalon Panorama the brochure price for passengers taking the “cruise only” was $364 per person per night for a cabin on the lowest deck, $450 for a Panorama Suite on the middle deck, $470 for a Panorama Suite on the top deck, and $570 for one of the two Royal Suites.For our cruise on AMACERTO, the brochure price for passengers taking the “cruise only” was $400 per person per night for a cabin on the lowest deck, $485 for a cabin with a French balcony, $545 for a double balcony cabin, and $715 for one of the suites. Port taxes were additional, and on some of the other itineraries’ on both ships, per diem faresran $100 per person less and others $100 more.