Category Archives: Ships and Riverboats

AmaCello on the Rhone

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AmaCello

Above is a picture of AmaWaterways AmaCello riverboat which holds 142 passengers in 71 cabins and has a staff of 45. We sailed south from Lyon to Arles on France’s Rhone River (and briefly on the Saone) last week – early May 2017. We had a wonderful time on the ship and visiting South-Central France. Lyon is considered the capitol of French culinary tradition and all along the Rhone are Roman ruins showing the ancient history of the area. Wine, wonderful scenery, technology and culture made this a great choice of rivers. Last fall, Donna and I took our only other river cruise on the Rhine with Uniworld, so I will compare our AmaWaterways experience with that.

The AmaCello Experience

AmaWaterways is less inclusive than Uniworld (gratuities are not included and only wine and beer at lunch and dinner are included), but less crowded than the starting level lines like Viking. Where Viking’s longships hold 190 passengers in a riverboat that is only a little longer. As with other river lines, AmaWaterways includes daily shore excursion when docked, beer and wine with lunch and dinner, entertainment and all meals. The AmaCello is one of the lines older ships, but is still only 9 years old. It looks very fresh and has a comfortable design and good flow.

My only complaint is the dining room which has the main food station in the center of the room which create traffic bottlenecks during the buffet breakfast and especially lunch when most everyone eats simultaneously.

The cabin was small as expected, but the desk was deep enough to hold a computer which was an improvement over Uniworld. And the entertainment system was good with several news channels (essential in the Trump era), lots of good movies and other options. The bathroom was not nearly as roomy as Uniworld and the shower was narrow and challenging. There was very little space to put your toiletries. The bed was very comfortable and the safe and closet provided enough space for us, but might have been challenging for those who like to bring an extensive wardrobe. There were insufficient plugs for a multi-device family. A USB plug or two would have been a space saving solution.

Cuisine

The food was truly excellent. It’s hard to compare with Uniworld, but I would say the quality was about the same, but there was a bit less variety. Special diets were accommodated. Like most riverboats, room service was not offered, but there were food items available before breakfast, mid-afternoon and late night in the lounge.

Each dinner there were a nice choice of always available courses including steak, salads and desserts. Each night offered 3 entree selections including a vegetarian choice, multiple soups, appetizers and desserts. I ate a lot of seafood which was very fresh. The beef was a favorite with several friends. Servings were moderate size which reduced the temptation to over-indulge. You can always order two entrees.

Breakfast always included a special such as Eggs Benedict, but you could still order these on other days. Lots of fruit, cereals and excellent breads were offered. Coffee was available in the lounge 24 hours a day including decaf, espresso and cappuccino. Most agreed the machine made excellent coffee.

Lunch included made to order items and a buffet. A lunch highlight were the homemade ice creams and toppings with the head waiter providing entertainment as he served them.

The culinary high point was the Captain’s Table Dinner, which offered a sampling menu. The elegant Captain’s Table dining room held 24 though most nights it was not full. The list of items was extensive and adventurous. For me the highlights were the Japanese inspired Graved Salmon with Seaweed and Caviar, the Porcini Soup, the Truffle Mousseline (mashed potatoes), the Beef Burgundy and Salty Caramel and Hazelnut Cake.

Service and Staff

The key to good service is a desire to please. And the staff on the AmaCello certainly had that attitude. When the Maitre d’ realized that our friend liked the Blue Cheese they were serving, he made sure that there was some on our table at lunch and dinner every day!

But there is more to good service than that. And in several areas the AmaCello staff needed a bit of training. With a small staff and a tight schedule, there were times when we were rushed. This happened both in the dining room and in our cabin. The first night we had just been seated when the waiter made it clear that we needed to decide what we wanted to order right away. And he waited until everyone told him what they wanted…soup to nuts. Our cabin attendant did an excellent job, but every morning asked if it was time to clean the room while Donna was still getting ready. When I said no, her face told me what she felt. These issues would be easy to correct with a little training.

The ship leaders – the captain, the cruise director and the hotel manager – were fun and positive without fail. Sebastian, our cruise director, was always smiling and a continuous presence who made everyone feel comfortable. He set a high standard. The Hotel Director was always ready to help. The Captain got us there safely, but also joined the party in the evening.

Suggested gratuities were $15 per guest for the staff and $3 per person for the cruise director which seemed reasonable considering the continuous pampering we received.

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When not dancing our Captain made sure we made it safely through the Locks

Entertainment

This is an area where AmaWaterways exceeded Uniworld. On four nights we had guest entertainers and they were excellent. There were two violinists and a guitar playing pop and classical pieces. We had a comic pianist who played a wide variety of international hits including lots of dance music. And my favorite were two guitarists and flamenco dancer who played and sang energetic Spanish and gypsy music.

A special part of the entertainment was the captain, hotel manager and waiters joining the dance floor in the evenings. Sebastian admitted that our cruise was special because the guests were a party group. Normally you do not expect much of the entertainment on a river cruise, so this was a great surprise.

Shore Excursions

Sebastian did an excellent job making everything run like clockwork as far as the land tours. AmaWaterways did not have their own buses on the Rhone, but that did not affect the quality or service on the tours. All our guides did an excellent job, had clear English and made sure things ran smoothly.

The choice of tours was limited as with any small ship, but the itineraries were well planned. In places where there was only one option, we were given the choice of slow walkers, normal and active tours. And I was able to do two very nice bike tours which were fairly easy going. I will go into greater detail when I write about the different ports.

Conclusions

We loved the AmaWaterways cruise. The ship was lovely and the staff worked very hard to make sure we had a relaxing and fun time. The fact that the drinks in the lounge were not included did not seem to bother anyone since the drink prices were reasonable. It was an excellent value – less inclusive than Uniworld, but also less expensive.

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Seven Seas Explore: Most Luxurious

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What does it take to be the Most Luxurious Cruise Ship Ever Built (TMLCSEB)? That was the goal Regent Seven Seas announced for their newest ship, the Seven Seas Explorer. Statistically it gives passengers more space than any other full-size luxury ship from major line. As far as staff to guest ratio, Seabourn’s Odyssey class has a slight edge. But the proof is in the cruising and I had the opportunity to sail for two nights to see if the Explorer is truly TMLCSEB.

First Impressions

Boarding the ship in Miami we entered on Deck 5 which features the grand staircase, atrium and huge crystal chandelier. The glass, wood and cream walls are set off by indirect lighting and ornate metallic elevator enclosures. Having just sailed on one of Uniworld’s ornate riverboats, the subtlety of the design was refreshing. Chrome, bronze, dark wood and indirect lighting were themes repeated throughout the ship – even in the suites. In the Compass Rose a blue crystal ceiling light was the visual centerpiece. The furniture was early 20th century modern, but comfortable. The only wrong note was the atrium with rectangular windows and sculpted walls giving the impression of horizontal stripes. It was just a little too subtle for my taste.

My Stateroom and others

I was assigned a Concierge Veranda Suite on Deck 7. With 332 square feet of interior space and a large veranda it is the largest non-Penthouse cabins I had ever seen. The veranda featured two chairs, a chaise lounge and a nice size table – definitely a comfortable place for a room service breakfast. The bathroom included a rain shower, plus a bath / shower combination and twin vanities. The closet was massive and actually larger than the ones in the Penthouse. The room featured an Illy single cup coffee maker that had personality issues. The huge TV offered several news channels and a wide range of movies and archived TV shows – including many travel and culinary programs. If you seek current sports programming – that might be an issue. The TV faced the sofa but swung on a hinge so it could face the bed as well. Champagne and fresh fruit greeted me. There were beer and sodas in the fridge and guests can request their choice of premium beverages to be available in the room. The desk was a bit narrow for a full size laptop, but the USB connections at the bed made charging my devices easy. The bed was extremely comfortable as you would expect.

The Concierge category pricing includes a pre-cruise luxury hotel night and other added amenities. The F1 and F2 categories are the same size but don’t include the concierge extras. The G category are slightly smaller and the H category are the smallest suites. The Penthouses offer two separate rooms and a considerably larger veranda.

The other larger suites have many stunning features, but I will only mention one. The Regent Suite, at nearly 4000 total square feet, is so popular that Regent has plans to raise their price next year. It features two bedrooms, two and a half baths and a private spa with it’s own Sauna and Steam Rooms. And some rather bizarre lamps and sculptures.

Cuisine

It is rather difficult to get a full sense of the cuisine offered on a 2-night cruise. I think they should have given us a week, don’t you? Here is what my colleagues and I thought. The options were amazing. In the Compass Rose, the menu featured more options than any other ship menu I’ve ever seen. One side of the menu was available every night and featured a wide selection of meats and seafood which could be cooked a variety of ways, plus soups, appetizers and sides. The other side featured that night’s special options. Seafood and Pasta items were favored by my friends and judging from empty plates all but one item were highly rated. I had the Peking Duck which was delectable. The other night we ate in Chartreuse, the French restaurant. We had deconstructed soups which were good, but a bit salty. My entree was lobster and scallops with a mild sauce and fava beans – very nice. I had an excellent Caesar salad and a foie gras appetizer with apricots.

At Breakfast, my Eggs Benedict was as good as I’ve ever had – fresh with yolks still runny. The buffet offered a huge variety considering the small number of guests on the ship. Lunch when we boarded offered the buffet, plus some grill items which could be ordered to be delivered fresh to the table.

On the second day the ship offered a seafood buffet that reminded me of some very expensive hotel brunches I’ve had.It feature sushi, marinated fishes to be fresh grilled and chilled shellfish including whole split lobsters, Alaskan King Crab, shrimp and oysters on the half shell. Amazing!

Entertainment

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The theater was beautiful and spacious. The production show was called My Revolution and it was the best big production I’ve ever seen on a small ship, featuring a dozen singers and dancers performing songs from the British invasion. All performances were solid, but a couple of the singers really blew the roof off. The second night featured an excellent comic. I highly recommend sitting on the lower level. Because the stage is so wide, views from the upper level can be limited.

Shore Excursions

I stayed on the ship the one day we had in Nassau, but my friends all participated in the Swim with the Dolphins and had a wonderful time. You probably know that Regent Seven Seas offers free shore excursions with their cruises. While some premium excursions include a surcharge, the vast majority are free and those with the surcharge are discounted. The all-inclusive concept creates a quandary for any hospitality organization. Where do you draw the line when top-quality competes directly with fiscal discipline? This is, in my experience, the one area where Regent Seven Seas occasionally fails to reach their goal to be the most luxurious of the luxury lines.

Service

The service was always friendly and never overbearing, which can sometimes happen on luxury cruises. I was a bit surprised at the inexperience of some of the staff who seemed to still be learning the ropes. Since the Explorer was launched in July, many in the original group were probably recently replaced. I don’t see this as a long term issue, especially given the very positive attitudes of the entire staff.

I was not surprised when I went to the front desk to ask for a computer mouse (I’d left mine at home) and one was delivered to my suite within 30 minutes. That is the kind of service you can expect on Regent Seven Seas.

Conclusions

The designers and decorators have arguable accomplished their goal of creating TMLCSEB. If luxury is visual appeal, I think the Explorer is the most beautiful cruise ship I’ve ever seen. If luxury is comfort, then we were nested in pillows all night and day. If luxury is being catered to, I was always able to get what I wanted. If luxury is not waiting in line, then I was never delayed.

And how much does all this luxury cost? Regent frequently has the highest price among the luxury lines, but when you consider what you would pay for all the extras that are included in their price, it is often the best value in the luxury market. Air is included – starting in 2017 business class for international cruises. Shore Excursions are included – that would cost you $100 or more per day for each guest. And unlimited internet comes with your price.

Nothing is perfect, but the Seven Seas Explorer seems to be as good as luxury cruising gets. And the Seven Seas Explorer is TMLCSEB.

 

Uniworld: Rhine River Cruise

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antoinetteDonna and I have sailed on many ocean-going vessels, but we had never done a river cruise before. So we were excited to have a Rhine river cruise planned for this Fall. What did we think? We loved it. It really suited our lifestyle and interests. River cruising avoids our least favorite things about larger ships (waiting in line and crowds) as well as those activities we don’t care much about (casinos, large production shows). Instead you get a more intimate and relaxing experience focused on personal service and local culture.

We sailed on Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette, one of their newest riverboats. The latest generation of European riverboats are mostly the same size – 443 long because of the locks on the major rivers. While Viking’s longships hold 190 guests with 50 crew members, Uniworld’s newest ships (the S.S. class) hold 154 passengers with 57 staff. In terms of space per guest and staff to guest ratio, that makes a big difference. Uniworld also has a more inclusive program with gratuities and a wider range of drinks included in the fare. At the end of the cruise we paid for one thing: our optional tour of the Black Forest.

The Riverboat

From the outside, the SS Antoinette looks pretty much the same as all the other riverboats. The only difference I noticed was the top deck which features a pop up restaurant (L’Orangerie) and bar (Leopard Lounge), rather than just umbrellas and canopies. In the pictures below L’Orangerie is collapsed on the left and expanded on the right.

Once you are inside you discover the over the top luxury and design for which Uniworld is famous. Honestly it is not my taste, but it is certainly very comfortable and has many conveniences. Our cabin was near the central lobby, which meant we had only a few steps to coffee in the morning, to meals and to the ramp. Of course, no one was very far from anything. The cabins, pool, leopard lounge and spa were in the rear and the other public areas – front desk main lounge and dining room and L’Orangerie were forward.

Our Cabin

Uniworld has opted for a variation on the French Balcony. While most other lines have railings and sliding glass doors in their mid-priced cabins, Uniworld offers a window that opens from the top so that the full width of the room becomes your balcony with a glass rail. This window is push button and very cool! There is a large closet and plenty of drawer space. The TV had several news channels and a nice selection of movies. The king size bed was very comfy. The bathroom had lots of storage space, a makeup mirror and a selection of top shelf soaps and lotions. However, the desk space wasn’t large enough for a laptop which they should remedy when they do their next renovations.

The Staff

The Captain was from Netherlands, the Hotel Manager from Spain, the Cruise Director from Canada while most of the rest of the staff were from Eastern Europe particularly Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. They were universally accommodating and friendly. Those I remember particularly were Kremena our favorite waitress, Peter the masseur and bike tour leader and Iliya one of the butlers who served us dinner in L’Orangerie. Our cabin attendant, Carla, had the quality of always being there when we needed something. Each of these individuals were devoted and passionate about their work and made us feel at home.

Entertainment and Activities

Several nights local performers were brought on board. From opera singers to comic musicians these short performances were excellent. My least favorite performer was the keyboardist and singer who was on staff. He was talented, but I would have preferred a pianist rather than the synthesizer and drum machine accompaniment he used.

In our stateroom were two small receivers we used when touring that had stereo headphone jacks so you could use your personal headset or the one provided. Each day we were automatically signed up for the main tour, but we could select an free alternate tour or sometimes two alternates. The alternate tours usually involved more difficult walking. And in most places there was an upgraded tour to a more distant location for which there was a reasonable fee ($69 to $119 per person). The upgraded tours on the Rhine cruise went to Heidelberg, Marksburg Castle and the Black Forest. (For details about these and other tours see my other blog posts.) Our local guides were universally excellent – mature and patient. As always some of those on the tour did not follow the schedule, but the guides handled this professionally.

There were two Uniworld buses (with drivers) that paralleled our route along the Rhine. In some locations other buses were used, but having a staff bus driver made the local tours more timely and reliable.

Dining

Every meal was excellent. Breakfast featured ready made omelets and other egg dishes along with bacon and local sausages, excellent ship made breads, fresh fruits, yoghurts and cheese. Lunch was like dinner only buffet style with a carving station and with an emphasis on local specialties and cheese. Dinner was sit down with four or five excellent courses. There were lots of options and everything was perfectly prepared and presented. I would have preferred that the featured main course be less focused on beef. However, there were always lots of options. And there was cheese. Our chef, Bratislav did an amazing job. (Sorry we didn’t take food pictures!)antoinette-dining

Other Passengers

Donna and I are in our sixties (I know, it’s hard to believe) and the average passenger on our cruise may have been a little younger. The youngest and most popular guests on the ship were a honeymoon couple from Winnipeg. There were several other travel agents we met and everyone agreed that Uniworld had done a phenomenal job. Nearly all the guests were from the US and Canada with a few from the UK. There was one couple from Brazil.

For those guest with difficulty walking, the ship was not a problem. There was an elevator and the decks had no inclines or stairs. To reach the top deck there was a chair lift.

Though alcohol was served generously, the crowd was fun but relatively quiet. I suspect I missed the wild times in the Leopard Lounge! Oh, well…next time.

I highly recommend a fall cruise in the Rhine region. While it was mostly cloudy the fall leaves were at their peak which made our pictures and memories that much more vivid. And Donna and I will be taking another river cruise very soon!