Almost half of the new cruise ships worldwide in 2012 (six out of 13) were river craft, and although the total number of 2013 cruise ship launches fell to 11, more than half of them are river cruise ships. To be sure, one large ocean-going vessel, such as the Celebrity Breeze, has more capacity than all the new river boats, but the river cruise phenomenon is obviously gaining in the outside lane.
“River cruising is hot for several reasons,” says Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel. “There’s a diversity of vessels and of destinations: France, Holland, Germany, Eastern Europe, Zambia, and Southeast Asia. The ships are smaller than traditional cruise ships, so you feel connected when you’re on a river cruise, a part of where you are. Also, many boomers, and not just boomers, want to experience a vacation that’s less rushed.”
We met up with Wilson in August at the christening sail of the AmaPrima, for which she served as godmother. Family-owned parent company AmaWaterways now has 10 ships—with more to come in 2014—offering 25 itineraries throughout Europe as well as in Southeast Asia and Africa. The line’s itineraries include both general-interest cruises and, increasingly, special-interest sailings.
“We offer special theme cruises that celebrate wine, Jewish Heritage, Europe’s Christmas Markets and New Year’s,” says Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive v.p. “We were the first river cruise line to host wine cruises, and we can accommodate any group and any interest, as we do with special charters that focus on jazz, chocolate…even knitting!”
The AmaPrima and her sister ship, the AmaCerto, each have 79 staterooms and three suites, yet they are the same length (443 ft.) as other river craft that offer about 100 cabins. How did that happen?
For starters, their staterooms are large, occupying 170 to 235 sq. ft., and the suites are 350 sq. ft. Most of their staterooms have twin balconies, an AmaWaterways innovation that includes both a French balcony and a larger balcony with a table and seats. Our room also featured an exceedingly comfortable bed, superior lighting, comprehensible temperature controls, an easy chair, plenty of storage space, a large desk with a flat-screen TV/computer, and WiFi. The wall separating the marble bath from the bedroom had one of those windows that turns transparent or opaque at the flick of a switch. On a week-long Budapest-to-Vilshofen Melodies of the Danube cruise during which we were a bit cavalier about that bathroom window, I probably made a lasting impression on passengers aboard other vessels.
A second reason for the smaller number of staterooms on these sister ships is that Schreiner, an architect who personally designs new ships, sacrificed cabin space in the stern so he could put in Erlebnis Chef’s Table, a reservations-only, fine dining restaurant. Rather daring, not just because this meant giving up revenue-producing cabins for an amenity that doesn’t generate income (dinner at the restaurant is included in the rates), but because it obliged the staff to come up with an even better culinary experience than passengers would find in the main dining room. And that experience is very good indeed. After all, river vessels generally have an easier time procuring fresh food than conventional cruise ships sailing in places like the Caribbean. Moreover, cuisine has long been so important to AmaWaterways that it’s the only river cruise line in the Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international association of gastronomy.
hold the sauce
Breakfasts aboard AmaPrima, as on other river cruise ships, are buffets with enough, and maybe more than enough, variety to satisfy anyone. Early bird breakfasts are available in the lounge, too, where passengers can grab a cappuccino or a macchiato at a whiz-bang espresso machine. What struck us about the lunch buffets was the freshness and variety of the salads—the cucumbers, endives, escarole, mesclun, Romaine, red leaf, and Boston lettuces. The wait staff, like every single member of the mostly European crew, was invariably helpful and cheerful.
Dinners are sit-down affairs (open seating), as is customary, but the care taken to honor each diner’s preferences—hold the sauce; make my steak rare; give me more vegetables instead of noodles—is exceptional. The kitchen also excels at specialties of the countries through which the ship is passing, no matter that the AmaPrima’s itineraries include so many countries. And you know how Europe is: count to five, and you’ve entered another province with a different culinary tradition. Nevertheless, the Hungarian palacsinta (pancakes), Austrian Wienerschnitzel, German sausages, and other local classics were right on target. So were the local wines, some of which, like Hungary’s Nyakas Budai bottlings, you’d never get to taste in the United States.
But back to Erlebnis. The restaurant has an open kitchen and limited seating, yet the staff manages to arrange things so that every passenger gets to eat there at least once. The service epitomizes old-school European elegance, and the menu deftly balances tradition and contemporary cuisines, so (a miracle!) the pumpkin soup does not clash with the wine. One more reason why Wilson calls AmaWaterways “the most luxurious of all providers out there.”
A thunderstorm blew in one night while we were in Erlebnis. Beyond the glass wall that wraps around the stern side of the restaurant, crooked bolts of lightning turned night to day while the gods played dueling tympanis. Medieval walls and church steeples suddenly appeared as if floodlit, then vanished into blackness, then reappeared in a different position. The show was (almost) as good as our sea bass.
how to make mozart viennese
Of course, European river cruises are not about just gazing out windows any more than they’re about casinos or deck-to-deck ziplines. However, we can confirm that it is, in fact, mighty tempting to just hang out on the AmaPrima, what with that sundeck and pool, main deck outdoor lounge, and sprawling indoor lounge, replete with couches and easy chairs, crackerjack bartenders, buffets, a singer-keyboard player, sometimes local musicians, and helpful/funny presentations by cruise manager and polymath Uwe Nitschke.
AmaWaterways shore excursions, included in the rates, include options for slow, intermediate, and fast walkers; staterooms come with lightweight Quietvox receivers and headsets so passengers needn’t huddle around flag-bearing guides. What’s more, we found that every guide at every port offered intelligent, opinionated commentary about real life as well as visits to landmarks. Thus, in Budapest we learned that horsemanship is such an important part of Magyar history that it will soon become a course in the public school. Walking past a Communist-era restaurant on top of a bridge in Bratislava, our guide made sure we noticed that all the seats face away from Austria. In Vienna, our guide reminded us that Beethoven, Mozart, and other great Viennese composers were not actually Viennese, “so we have them buried here, and then we make them Viennese.”
AmaWaterways offers special interest as well as general interest guided activities, a few of which cost extra (e.g. a concert at the Hofburg), but most of which do not (a thought-provoking, even sardonic tour of Communist sites in Bratislava). This was the first river cruise line to carry bicycles and offer guided and DIY rides, too. (One day our ship raced some passengers who biked from Durnstein to Melk. A photo finish.)
big doings in 2014
Big plans are afoot—and will soon be afloat—for 2014, including the launch of two new ships in Europe, AmaReina and AmaSonata. Each of the new vessels will have yet another AmaWaterways innovation: the Mozart Cafe, a Viennese coffeehouse offering casual all-day dining. A Mozart Cafe will also be installed in AmaPrima and its sister ship, AmaCerto, and this winter, the AmaLyra, AmaDolce, AmaDante, AmaCello, AmaLegro and AmaDagio will be re-designed to include an Erlebnis Chef’s Table as well as a Mozart Cafe. New itineraries include a Chocolate Connoisseurs Cruise on the Danube (April 28) featuring fabled chocolatier Norman Love. In the fall of 2014, AmaWaterways will launch a third new ship, the AmaPura, on the Irrawady River in Myanmar (Burma). “This is our newest AmaVoyages program,” says Karst, “and we are beyond excited about it.”
Like other agents, Wilson is also excited about these developments. “Besides,” she says, “it’s pretty cool to be able to say the AmaPrima is my ship.”
tour operator intel
SITA world tours
“We have been offering tours to various destinations that included short river cruises…in China, Brazil, etc. Our clients enjoyed these immensely and wanted more options [so] we decided to expand our portfolio,” says Pete Sohi, operations manager of SITA World Tours, which is celebrating its 80th year in the business. Contrary to the stereotype of river cruise passengers as oldsters, Sohi says this kind of vacation appeals to “people ages 12 on up…who seek an educational
and cultural experience.”
Why did SITA recently decide to put so much emphasis on AmaWaterways cruises? “We wanted to partner with a company that offered the same kind of quality that SITA could stand behind. We found AmaWaterways to be that partner,” says Sohi, adding that SITA can book all of the line’s ships, whether they be in Europe, Asia, or Africa.
And why should agents focus on SITA? According to Sohi, “Our travel specialists are truly familiar with the many destinations, so our team can help agents close the sale by working with them closely to educate the client on the best seamless program at the best value.” Speaking of educating, he says, “SITA World Tours also offers unique opportunities to agents by helping them build groups and business in their local area, including groups with an agent’s church, chamber of commerce, museum, or for example, a women-only group.”
Sohi is also proud of SITA’s commissions and incentives for agents. For example, the tour operator is celebrating its 80th anniversary by providing an $80 American Express gift card to every agent for every booking, and the offer will continue through March 31, 2014. “I got a call from one of our key agents,” says Sohi. “She recently racked up three $80 American Express gift cards, and you can imagine, she was thrilled!”
By the time you read this, SITA will have launched new European land packages. “We’ll be offering join-in programs along with independent, customized tours,” says Sohi. “The future of river cruising looks promising, with more and more people adding it as part of their land package.”
(800) 421-5643; sitatours.com/AgentServices/index.php
Offering AmaWaterways cruises is not a recent phenomenon for Celtic Tours. “We added river cruising with AmaWaterways in 2011, due to interest from repeat travel agents that book our products,” says Kathleen (Callanan) Writer, senior v.p. Writer calls attention to the AmaPrima’s “multiple dining venues, heated pool with swim-up bar, WiFi, beautiful decor…and the unique twin balcony feature.”
Like SITA, Celtic Tours offers all the AmaWaterways cruises. “Popular itineraries for the AmaPrima include the Enchanting Rhine, The Romantic Danube, and Melodies of the Danube, to name a few.”
Why do agents turn to Celtic Tours? “Travel agents that book with us on a regular basis are very familiar with our staff and booking procedures, so it’s seamless for them. We pride ourselves on making it easy for the travel agent to book with us,” says Writer. “When agents call our office, they are instantly talking to real people who can direct them to the appropriate department. Our staff are well trained on all aspects of our products…so we can help agents with any questions they may have.” Inevitably, some of those questions are about commissions. “The more an agent books with us, the better commissions they will receive,” Writer explains. “Our commissions are performance based.”
(800) 833-4373; celtictours.com
uniworld boutique river cruise collection
“The river cruise sector is booming and, in fact, the capacity to Europe alone has more than doubled in the last four years,” says Guy Young, president and CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Adding that one of the major challenges that the industry has right now is delivering enough capacity to meet the surging demand for river cruising. “While the sector has grown, it’s important to remember that river cruising is currently a relatively niche business. In 2013, I estimate that the industry will carry 350,000 river cruisers from North America. We also have the age demographics working in our favor. There are 75 million baby boomers who will be entering retirement over the next 15 to 20 years. This is Uniworld’s core demographic and should present many new potential river cruises to our company and the segment overall. Demand and demographics are on our side. So as long as we can continue to build ships and the supporting infrastructure, I believe that we will see our segment grow significantly over the next 10 years.”
And although he stresses that baby boomers are the core demographics for river cruising, he goes on to say that “multigenerational travel is growing tremendously. Parents and grandparents want to expose their children or grandchildren to enriching experiences. Recognizing this trend, Uniworld has developed a limited number of family-friendly cruises. On these departures, we encourage children on board our ships. These cruises are designed with children in mind and the goal is to expose them to the wonderful cultures and experiences in Europe. On board we offer different activities for children such as a crepe-making class with our chef. There are also excursions that are designed specifically for children. This is a new and growing opportunity and one that agents should definitely tap into. The guest feedback is fantastic and the commission earnings are substantial.”
On tap for 2014 is a new ship on the Rhone to operate the line’s popular 7-night Burgundy & Provence itinerary, and the company is introducing a new itinerary in France, the 7-night Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux. Young points out that this cruise “will be particularly appealing to guests interested in winemaking (and tasting!).”
(800) 733-7820; uniworld.com
AmaWaterways: (800) 626-0126; amawaterways.com