AmaWaterways AmaLea: Our Impressions

I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect going in to this cruise. It’s nothing like a mass-market experience, and frankly a part of me had bought in to the perception that river cruises were more the older crowd, that things would be slower, and that we might even be a little bored. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, we had so much going on with excursions that I completely lost track of days pretty early on. I have no hesitation in saying this was one of the best cruises I’ve ever been on.

Before I go any further I should take a step back and add a little disclaimer here: I recognize that being a chartered sailing, things were sightly different from what we’d encounter on a normal one. That said, the excursions were the same, most of the crew are the same ones working on the ship with the guests that got on after us, so while some things are different, much of what we saw out of AmaWaterways is I would expect to encounter on a regular sailing.

Starting with the ship itself, it’s gorgeous inside and out. Three decks of cabins, with ours being a category AA located on Deck 3. The room was comfortable, is one of the few triples onboard, and had a pretty nice bathroom for a ship. We also had a normal balcony and a French balcony, but due to the amount of stuff we had in the room because there were three of us, we never really used the French balcony, that area became a holding area for some of Bayley’s stuff and a few of the larger trinkets we bought. Here you can take a 360 degree look around the room when not in triple configuration, as well as a look at the bathroom.

If you’d like to see what it looks like when is configured for the 3rd passenger, head on over here and move around the image.

Outside of the cabins, the ship also has the following areas available, as shown in the deck plan:

  • Deck 4 – Sun Deck: heated pool, lounge chairs, large chess board, bridge, forward sun deck, walking/running track
  • Deck 3 – Violin Deck: Chef’s Table (aft), Cruise & Hotel Manager desks (mid), guest services & gift shop (mid), main lounge & bar (forward), terrace & observation lounge (fwd)
  • Deck 2 – Cello Deck: main restaurant (forward)
  • Deck 1 – Piano Deck: massage/hair salon and fitness room (mid-ish)

Unlike the large ships, you can see everything this has to offer within 10 minutes of boarding, so after a quick walk to get the lay of the land, you can go hang out in the lounge and have a drink if your room isn’t ready. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in myself for not getting enough video for a walk through, so I’ll send you over to another channel to check out the ship. This video (not shot during our sailing) is narrated by Kristin Karst, co-founder of AmaWaterways, who sailed with us all week, which was a very nice touch. She’s very friendly, down to earth, and was always willing to sit and talk!

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, our itinerary. We were sailing Ama’s Melodies of the Danube journey, with a slight change halfway through. Instead of docking in Weissenkirchen on the 19th, we docked in Dürnstein, and while on our excursions, the ship headed to Ybbs, where we were bussed to later in the day to meet up with it. Once we were all back on, the ship then headed to Grein for an evening at Castle Greinburg, complete with an introduction from the owner himself, Prince Hubertus, The Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha!

In addition to those changes, the morning we were docking in Linz we also made an early stop at a shipyard to tour AmaWaterways newest ship, the AmaMagna. No pictures from that however, you’ll just have to take my word that she’s beautiful. We’d sail that ship in a heartbeat, and I honestly hope we do in the near future! Huge thank you to AmaWaterways for setting that up and allowing us to see her before she’s finished, and a special thank you to our captain for being our tour guide!

That same night in Linz, we were also been set up with dinner aboard one of Crystal Cruises ships to get a feel for the Crystal experience. We were split between two of their ships, the Mahler and Ravel, with us eating on the Ravel. I’ll do a piece on that one later, but suffice it to say that they were excellent hosts, and had some really good food and drink ready for us!

Back to the ship, we never did really use the sun deck, other than when we sailed past the Iron Curtain, when Martina gave us a history of this border location as we passed. I meant to hop in the pool one day, as the water was heated, but time just wasn’t on my side with all of our activities!

We also never used the gym or spa, but spent plenty of time in the main lounge enjoying a drink and meeting new people, having fun at a party, or even attending one of our conference sessions with the suppliers who attended.

The AmaLea is a beautiful ship, nothing like what we’re used to on the contemporary cruise lines, and I’m very glad we had the chance to finally experience something like this!

Next up on page 2, the food and service!

Our European Adventure Begins!

As we soar high over the Atlantic towards Munich aboard a half-empty Lufthansa A330, I figured I’d get a little writing in as we begin our latest adventure! I can’t sleep, either, so I might as well do something productive, right?

This time around we’re headed to Europe to take a bit of a stroll down the Danube river aboard the Ama Waterways AmaLea. Sounds amazing, right? Well, it’s not all fun and games :), we’re actually part of a conference with others from our agent network, as this is a chartered sailing for a handful of us to network with river cruise execs and learn a little more about this niche from those who know it best. Now that’s not to say we won’t be having any fun, we certainly will, they’re giving us plenty of free time to enjoy the views along the way and we’re free to do whatever we want at all of the stops as we sail from Budapest to Vilshoven! To make this trip even better, we also scheduled a little pre and post time in other parts of Europe. Our full itinerary, for those interested:

We’re pretty excited, we’ve never been to any of these cities, so follow along and see how things unfold! Who knows, maybe something we post will inspire the adventurer in you! Follow hashtag #WanderlistEuroTrip on Instagram and Twitter to keep up with all the action!

Seven Savory Eateries on Norwegian Bliss

With the biggest eating holiday of the year upon us, today seemed like a good day to write-up our dining experience on the Norwegian Bliss! Before we get there, however, I’ll point out that I’m only covering the specialty restaurants we chose to eat at, not any of the free options. We did eat at The Local, Taste, Savor and even the Manhattan Room one night, which were fine, but the specialties are what really stand out with the Norwegian Freestyle experience.

The topic of specialty restaurants sometimes sparks some lively discussion regarding the perception of nickel-and-diming by the various lines, and I have no illusion that some will be turned off by me only covering those here. As ships have gotten bigger, the number of specialty restaurants on board has grown too, giving the lines additional revenue opportunities. In the past we rarely ate at specialty restaurants, save for the occasional steakhouse on a special occasion, but those were few and far between. That all changed on our Norwegian Escape sailing three years ago when we decided to give some of the restaurants on that ship a shot, and we were not disappointed! With another sailing on Norwegian, purchasing a dining package was a no brainer for us. If you’re looking for ideas of places to try on the Bliss, read on!

Q Texas Smokehouse

This is one of the three places we chose to use our dining package on, and frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect since the reviews all seem rather mixed. After we were seated, the waitress came by and explained how things worked with the dining package, and I have to say, I was unprepared for what this would mean to my stomach. Before we get in to this, take a look at the menu located here. You get as many appetizers as you want, an entrée with as many sides as you want, along with a dessert. If you looked at the menu, keep in mind that you can get the Pitmaster Platter as your entree too!

As shown in the pics below, I started with the Deviled Eggs and Loaded Chips. For my entrée, the Beef and Pork Sausage Platter with corn on the cob and mac & cheese as my sides. Everything was delicious, especially the deviled eggs and sausage. By this point we were both stuffed, but knowing we still had a dessert menu to look at, we soldiered on. The decision really wasn’t that hard. Jen went with the Mason Jar Bread Pudding, and I chose the Bread Pudding w/Whiskey Sauce. Yowza they were good. This proved to be an excellent start to our dining experience on the Bliss!

Le Bistro

Night two brought us to the one place I was a bit apprehensive about, Le Bistro. I say that because I don’t really get too adventurous with food. I know what I like and I tend to stick to it, and knowing this was a French venue had me concerned that I’d have a hard time finding something I liked. Boy was I wrong!

We used the dining package for this one as well, and as before, the waitress said that we could choose more than one appetizer if we wanted to (menu for reference). I chose to only have one due to my aforementioned pickiness when it comes to eating. Frankly, I didn’t see anything in the list I really wanted, but chose to try the Gratiné A L’oignon (Onion Soup), and I was glad I did. I’m not a big soup fan and I don’t like onions, which should have been the death knoll of this choice, but it was outstanding! Following my delicious soup, it was entrée time! This was a bit easier, as I’m all about some filet mignon, so I went with the Filet de boeuf grillé. Again, excellent! Easily the best filet I’ve had on any ship we’ve sailed, and it was cooked to a perfect medium rare as ordered. Once we finished the entrées, it was time to choose our dessert. Jen chose the Chocolate Fondue for Two, and I went with the Profiteroles. Both were excellent, but I learned I need more profiteroles in my life. Those things were soooo good.

This restaurant is situated in a quiet nook on deck 16, and isn’t really a place you wear shorts and t-shirts to. If you’re looking for a nice quiet, romantic meal aboard the Bliss, this is where you want to go! I should also mention that the service in Le Bistro was some of the best we’ve experienced at any restaurant, land or sea. This is near the top of my all-time favorite shipboard eateries!

Teppanyaki

Night 3 brought us to one of the venues we’d been looking forward to since we booked this cruise, Teppanyaki, which was also the last restaurant on our dining package. As mentioned in the Escape post, this was one of the best Japanese steakhouses we’ve ever eaten at, so we were hoping the Bliss version of it would live up to that. Spoiler alert: It did! That garlic fried rice is some of the best out there, and once again, my filet mignon was cooked perfectly. As the chef doles out certain items like rice, he cooks extra in case anyone wants seconds. Jen and I took him up on that for rice, and somehow I got a lot of extra filet. A couple of minutes after serving me my helping of steak, he sent another round my way. What you see in the picture below is only the first helping. I had almost double that shortly after the picture was taken!

Excellent food, excellent service, and a great show from the chef left us happy with our choice once again. Teppanyaki is definitely a favorite of ours and one I highly recommend trying if you sail a Norwegian ship that has it!

Cagney’s Steakhouse

On the 4th night of our sailing, we were invited to Cagney’s as part of an industry-related meeting, so we were on someone else’s tab for this one :). We’d eaten here on the Escape and enjoyed it, but hadn’t planned to eat here until we got the invite. This is an easy one for me to find food I like, as I’m very much a meat and potatoes kinda guy.

Starting off, I went with the Pork Belly appetizer and Iceberg Wedge salad (menu for reference). Both were tasty, but those pork belly squares are a home run! For my appetizer, surprise, another filet! While it was cooked medium rare as ordered and tasty, the filets at Le Bistro and Teppanyaki were definitely better. This just seemed a little dry to me, so it was nice to have the chimichurry sauce to go with it.

The desserts here were pretty good, with my chocolate cake being really, really rich. One of the other people at our table got the warm brownie dessert, and I think we all wished we’d have gotten it after sampling it, super tasty!

Food Republic

After we sailed on the Escape, this was just below Teppanyaki as one of my all-time favorite restaurants on a ship, so I was very much looking forward to eating here on the Bliss. This one’s not part of the dining packages, it’s an a-la-cart fusion restaurant that combines various cooking styles and culinary traditions set in a venue that offers plentiful sea views. On the Escape, I really enjoyed the Wagyu bone-in rib-eye, and I was a little disappointed when I saw that wasn’t on the menu anymore, but my disappointment subsided as we started ordering. Here’s where I remind you that it’s a-la-cart, and the bill can add up pretty quickly as you start ordering things for yourself and things to share. I should also link to menus for this place (these are not my menu shots, sy the way): Handhelds/Sharables, Rice/Noodles/Grill, Drinks/Desserts. We did order more than we really needed, but it was really tasty and I’m pretty sure we finished everything. From the Korean Fried Chicken to the Peruvian Beef Skewers, Chicken Teriaki, Kimchi Fried Rice, ending with the Baklava, everything was delicious. To me, this is a must-visit on Norwegian ships that have it!

Los Lobos

We’d originally intended on using one of our three dining credits here, but got a last-minute industry invite, so this ended up being another one we didn’t have to pay for. Huge thank you to our hostess for the invite, we had a great time here!

Los Lobos sits at the back of the ship next to Cagney’s, and is considered upscale Mexican. Jen’s a taco lover, and I’m always up for a good burrito, and Los Lobos didn’t disappoint. I started things with one of their signature drinks, the Luna Margarita, which was excellent! The Burrito Rojo (which I ordered with ground beef) was quite delicious as well, as was the queso we had to dip our chips in to start things off. Unfortunately, all I have pictures of here are the margarita and burrito, as we were focused on the food and discussions around the table, and I forgot to snap the room or appetizers. Oh well, next time! Here’s the menu for reference too. If you’re in the mood for Mexican food, give Los Lobos a try!

Margaritaville

The final stop on our specialty dining tour was at Margaritaville. When we sailed the Escape in 2015, there was no additional charge for this venue, but that led to huge waits for seating, as mentioned in my past post. Shortly after that sailing, they instituted a small charge (compared to the cost of the other specialties) to eat here, $14.95/pp + 20% gratuity. We never noticed a wait or full seating here, so I’m not sure if the charge has taken things too far in the opposite direction, but we decided to eat here for lunch the day we were in Ensenada.

I tend to stick with the staples when we eat at Margaritaville, and this visit was no different, a Cheeseburger in Paradise followed by that signature Key Lime Pie for dessert (menu for reference). I also went with a watermelon margarita to drink, and while it was good, seemed a bit small for the price. I’ll also mention that this was the only venue we had service issues in. There were very few patrons in there while we ate, but our server still seemed overwhelmed, and things like refills proved fairly elusive. At one point we had to track down another server to get additional drinks, and later our bill. Questionable service aside, the food itself lived up to the Margaritaville name. I could really go for another slice of that key lime pie right about now!

That brings us to the end of our Norwegian Bliss specialty restaurant tour. With all of the paid restaurants we visited, we only ended up in the MDR one night, and while it was fine, I’d have been happy to visit any of the above venues again instead. Whatever your opinion of the specialty dining craze, I recommend giving any of these a try if you’re sailing a Norwegian ship that has them!

Credit to EatSleepCruise and CruiseCritic for the menu pictures I’ve been linking to.

 

 

Seven Days of Bliss

One week ago yesterday we returned from a seven day sailing aboard Norwegian’s newest ship, the Bliss. This sailing was the National Conference for our organization, and like last year’s voyage on the Harmony of the Seas, I don’t feel like we can accurately review everything about the ship since we were in sessions during the day and cocktail parties at night, as those kept us from experiencing some of the normal things you get to on a regular non-work sailing, but I certainly want to recount the things we did experience.

Before we get there, let’s talk about the itinerary. We were originally set to visit Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas, but mother nature had other ideas. Hours in to our sailing, while we were attending our first cocktail party on the evening we departed, the captain came over the PA to let everyone know that the storms closing in on our target area meant a complete change of schedule. To avoid the area and keep the ship and passengers safe, our stops were now San Francisco, San Diego, and Ensenada. Here’s my post of the itinerary change, along with a shot from NOAA of what the storms looked like at the time:

This is the first time we’ve experienced an itinerary change first-hand, so as agents it was good to see for ourselves how things played out. I completely empathize with those who were upset that the warm beach vacation they expected was gone, and that we were headed for a first stop where the high would be in the 60s, I really do, but I thank Norwegian for keeping us safe. The storm was not of their making obviously, and with limited options for ports, they gave us the best choices available. I know there are still people who are upset over this, mad at the line, etc, but personally I’m satisfied with the way they handled it. I understand if people are upset that there was no indication before boarding that Norwegian was even considering a change, but frankly, they had little time to evaluate the situation. Willa formed early on the morning of our departure, so direction, timing and future strength were pretty uncertain, and Vicente hadn’t formed much earlier (the day before) and was a lot further south. Most of us would have been on our way or at the port by the time either of these really became a threat to our itinerary, so an early warning to passengers when it was pretty uncertain whether either would impact us would have been an impossible call, and one I don’t envy them having to make. In my eyes, Norwegian did the right thing, and while they weren’t the stops anyone anticipated, they still gave us ports to go off and have fun in without the threat of sailing into heavy storms. I’m not here making excuses for Norwegian, I’m stating fact. They made the call, and we as passengers could either be upset and let it negatively impact our week, or we could accept it and choose to have fun. We chose the latter. Jen and I actually got a good laugh out of the change, as we’d been in San Francisco on vacation the month before, and had spent the 3 days leading up to the cruise in San Diego visiting our daughter, and would spend the 3 days after the cruise back there doing the same.

The itinerary change aside, we still had work to do. Our headquarters team did an amazing job getting everything rescheduled so that most (if not all) of our sessions were still held, in some cases at different times or on different days. I’m sure none of that is of interest to those reading this, so I’ll get moving on an actual review of the Bliss.

First up, the ship! The design is similar to the Escape (which we sailed 3 years ago), and as such, is just as beautiful. Even though it’s part of the same Breakaway-Plus class Escape is, the Bliss fixed a number of the things I took issue with on the Escape, as listed in that older post. Examples:

  • Movement of the ship was so much better. Maybe something was wrong with the stabilizers when we sailed Escape, but as mentioned in that review, movement/rocking in even calm seas was noticeable. In less than perfect seas, it was negatively impacting me, and I never get seasick. I was really happy to see the Bliss had no more movement than any other large ship we’ve been on.
  • I never felt like there was a lack of bar staff, as most of the time I was able to walk up and get a mudslide whenever I wanted without much of a wait, if any.
  • Margaritaville never had the waits we saw on the Escape when I walked by, or the day we ate there. Granted, when we were on the Escape it was free, which changed shortly after that sailing. I’ll talk more about the charge and experience in my restaurant post coming up after this one.
  • I was probably a little harsh on the main theater last time, but on the Bliss, I really had no issues with it. Good sight lines all around, and while the cup holders are still small (and I assume still don’t fit the soda cups), they fit everything else we threw at it; bar glasses, plastic bar cups, etc.
  • Outside space, especially around the main pool, is more plentiful. Here are comparison of shots I took of the main pool area on the Escape and Bliss to illustrate what I mean (Escape on the left):

My number one complaint from last time, the smell of smoke in the atrium due to the casino allowing smoking in an open area, has mostly been addressed, too, and I couldn’t be happier to see it. Did I still smell smoke? Yes, but only on the floor the casino was on, and nowhere near as bad as on the Escape. How has Norwegian accomplished this? By putting smoking gamblers in a box, literally. As mentioned on Norwegian’s blog, those who wish to smoke while gambling must do so in a separate room, complete with more than 100 machines and 6 table games. Some of that smell has made it out, but it’s far better and much more contained than it was on the Escape. Kudos, Norwegian!

Let’s move on to our cabin. Much like last time, we went with a standard balcony cabin, this time on deck 11 (11732, specifically). It was a pretty standard room with plenty of space to move around, and ample storage. Honestly, neither of us have anything negative to say about our cabin. Take a 360 degree look around both the room and balcony:


Now before we get to the fun stuff, like go-karts and water slides, let’s talk about the staff. I’m sure they were told that there were going to be a thousand travel agents, along with executives from NCL and other lines onboard, but even so, they were awesome all week. Again, we didn’t get to interact with them as much as we would normally, but when we did, we always got smiles, a “how’s your day”, and all out good attitudes from them. I walked around one my own a bit without anything identifying that I was part of the group, and there was no change in attitude. Additional little things, like the always-happy attitude on the guys at the buffet doors ensuring people were sanitizing (the “washy washy” guys) and the girls walking around Taste and Savor at breakfast handing out additional little treats while brightening your day with a song were awesome touches. If you were on the ship and don’t know what I’m referring to, you missed out! Fortunately, some friends of ours managed to get it on video!

Really, the only crew issue I encoutered was at Margaritaville, but we’ll talk about that in my upcoming food post.

Next up on page 2, the good stuff; go-karts, waterslides, and shows!

Vilamendhoo Resort – Activities!

Closing out our Vilamendhoo series (that I’m way behind on), I wanted to cover the activities available for guests! As I mentioned in my initial resort post, excursions were a big draw for us, specifically the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. While Vilamendhoo offers up a quiet island to relax on, they also offer a multitude of things to do, should you decide that you want to get out and have some fun!

First up, let’s talk about the scuba diving available at the resort. Whether you’re a seasoned diver or beginner, they have plenty of choices, including a 3 days series of dives meant to get you PADI certified. Jen and I have been diving before, but it was a long time ago, and neither of us are certified, and Bayley had never been. Before sinking a bunch of money into an excursion, we wanted to see if it was something she’d like, and fortunately Vilamedhoo’s dive center, run by Euro Divers, offers up a free beginner class. You sign up at the dive center at least a day in advance, and on the day of your lesson, the instructor takes the group out to the lagoon where you take turns trying out the gear in the shallow water. Each person in our group got around 15 minutes with the tank on, while the instructor assisted. We all enjoyed the time in the water, and also discovered that it was something Bayley liked. We’d planned on signing up for one of the non-certified dives to get a closer look at the house reef, but weren’t able to make the timing work when looking at the rest of the activities we’d scheduled. Next time!

Next up, watersports! Next to the Sunset Bar, they have a little shack on the beach where you can check out equipment to kayak and windsurf, among others. The all-inclusive package we had included a free windsurfing lesson that the girls were excited about, but the day they went to do it, the wind kicked up after the beach portion of the lesson, and the guy at the shack wouldn’t let them go out on the water. We did check out kayaks on our last full day there, and while the trip under the dock and around the back side of the island was fine, the current on the front side was really strong, making it a tough trip back to the point of return. Whatever you do, just keep an eye out for snorkelers, you don’t want to run any of them over accidentally!

Moving on, we happened to be there over World Environment Day, during which Vilamendhoo hosts a few activities guests can take part in. We signed up for two of them, the first being a back house tour. It’s pretty much what it sounds like, one of the staff members took a group of guests on a behind the scenes tour, showing us how power is generated for the island, how water is desalinated and cleaned, and how recycling happens. All very informative!

The second event we signed up for was reef cleaning. We headed out with a couple of their excursion guides and our snorkeling gear and swam around the house reef in small groups looking for any trash that had made its way into the water. Another group was in full dive gear going out along the outer edge of the reef in deeper spots we couldn’t get. I think we spent about an hour swimming the front side of the island collecting trash. As you can see from the bags, we cleaned a bunch of stuff out of the reef!

 

Next up on page 2, snorkeling the house reef and searching for whale sharks!