River cruising is growing in popularity with a reported 10 percent rise in the UK and Ireland market in 2018 (CLIA Europe), but which is the best ship to choose for your first river cruise?
I was recently invited by AmaWaterways to try river cruising and was fortunate to experience what I came to realise was the best ship for first-time river cruisers. I approached my first river cruise from the perspective of an ocean cruiser and naturally compared each element to my previous experiences.
Ocean cruising vs River Cruising
Seasoned ocean cruisers who have already visited many of the popular cruise destinations are increasingly looking for new and exciting places to explore. It is undeniable that river cruising (as well as expedition cruising) is now being seen as a real option and the curiosity in river cruising is growing due to increased exposure online and on television. The ‘Jane McDonald Effect’ has definitely played a part in raising the profile of river cruising and in 2019, it’s anticipated that 250,000 people from the UK and Ireland will take a river cruise.
Ocean cruisers who are looking to try a river cruise for the first time may be unsure of which cruise line to try or which river itinerary to take. There may be concerns over the size of a river ship and the things to do onboard.
One of the key differences between ocean and river cruising can be summarised quite succinctly by the Chair of CLIA’s River Cruise Working Group, Stuart Perl:
“Ocean cruising takes you to the destinations, river cruising takes you through the destinations.”
River cruising offers destination immersion, the ships stay longer in ports and often enable passengers to experience a place by day and night. The main reason I cruise is to experience new places and cultures and therefore following my first river cruise experience I can see myself taking both ocean and river cruises in the future.
A river cruise generally doesn’t have any ‘sea days’ as the destinations are in fairly close proximity to one another; it may take only two or three hours to get to the next port. These ports are more likely to be destinations that are not accessible by ocean cruise and although there are technically exceptions to this rule (e.g. St Petersburg and Ho Chi Minh City) there is still plenty of travelling by land needed to reach the heart of these cities when on an ocean cruise.
River ships are smaller. There is no getting away from this fact but how the ship is designed can make an awful lot of difference, coupled with the fact that there are a lot less passengers on a river ship. Passenger capacity can range from 22 to 200 guests, which is nothing in comparison to some of the larger ocean cruise ‘mega ships’.
AmaMagna: A Game Changer
AmaWaterways introduced its new river ship, AmaMagna in 2019. “So what?” you may ask “It’s just another river ship, right?”
Quite simply, it’s not just another river ship. The AmaMagna is redefining river cruising for a whole new generation of river cruisers. This ship is offering two things that most ocean cruise-goers love: space and choice.
The ship debuted on the Danube in May 2019 and was christened by US TV presenter, Samantha Brown, but the idea for AmaMagna had ignited seven years before.
“I’ve had this unique ship on my mind for many years and am confident that now is the time to introduce my vision.”Rudi Schreiner, Co-Owner & President AmaWaterways
AmaMagna: Size Matters
AmaMagna is twice the width of a typical European river ship and at nearly 22 metres wide, it’s able to offer guests additional open deck space, more public areas and larger staterooms with walkout balconies. I must admit, space was a concern of mine before trying river cruising as I’d only ever cruised on large ocean ships. For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of space I was met with when I stepped onboard AmaMagna. Clearly, if it had been half the width, it would have felt a lot more compact.
AmaMagna is exclusively sailing on the Danube because unfortunately, the luxury of size does have its limitations. Locks on other rivers, such as the Rhine, are narrower (11 metres wide) and therefore AmaMagna is unable to access them. The locks on the Danube are designed to accommodate two ships at one time and therefore are perfectly suited to this wider river ship.
AmaMagna’s Open Deck
AmaMagna’s Sun Deck is the perfect vantage point for enjoying the scenery of the Danube. There is a large shaded seating area and two additional areas for relaxing. Clamshell-style day beds are dotted around for ultimate lounging whilst onboard.
Passengers can take advantage of the swimming pool and hot tub on the Sun Deck, complete with waiter service and a pop-up Sky Bar. The pool is a perfect way to cool off after a day exploring on land or to simply chill out whilst the scenery goes by on the journey. Cruising through the Wachau Valley is an ideal time to do this as you can still admire the views from the comfort of the swimming pool.
For those wanting to stay active on the cruise, there is a walking track, a feature that many ocean cruise ships have for healthy-conscious cruisers hoping to delete some guilty calories.
The Sun Deck is also able to house 60 bicycles quite easily without crowding the deck. This is something not found on your typical ocean cruise. The bikes can be used for group cycling tours or to borrow individually to explore a port on your own.
Another convenient feature of the Sun Deck is the pop-up elevator that enables guests with mobility restrictions access from every deck. Modern ocean cruise ships provide easy access with lifts throughout. It’s important to note that most river ships in Europe, especially the newer ships have elevators, but it is not a given.
On AmaMagna, the elevator is hidden until it’s required to reach the Sun Deck. This is particularly important as some of the bridges that the ship must pass under along the Danube are very low. To put this into perspective, I’m 4 foot 11 inches tall and was told to watch my head as we travelled under one of the bridges in Passau, Germany!
Even whilst cruising during the day, the Sun Deck on AmaMagna never felt busy. There was always plenty of seating available (unlike some ocean cruises, which suffer from chair hogging). The pool only every had a couple of people in, which prompted me to keep asking myself “Where is everyone?”
I was assured by the crew that the ship was indeed full but previous experiences of ocean cruise lido decks made me question this. The fact of the matter is that although AmaMagna is twice the width of normal river ships, there is only 20% more passengers (approximately 40 people). Throughout the cruise, I was amazed at the lack of people in any one place to the point where although there were 196 passengers onboard, it felt like there were only 50.
AmaMagna’s Public Areas
The only time during the cruise that everyone onboard was sharing the same space was for the muster drill in the ship’s Lounge.
Muster Drills on River Cruises
On a river ship, you are never very far from land and therefore the chance of your river ship getting into serious difficulty and not being able to reach the river bank is extremely low. There are no ‘lifeboats’ on a river ship. In the event of an emergency, we were instructed to make our way to the Sun Deck, where we register in groups based on our stateroom deck. From there, life jackets are handed out.
Everyone on the whole ship was able to fit into one lounge and everyone had a seat. This gives you an idea of how much space is given over to the public areas on AmaMagna. The muster drill was the only time when all of the passengers were in the same place at one time.
The Lounge has contemporary decor with a variety of seating from individual arm chairs to sweeping curved sofas.
There’s a 24-hour hot drinks station in the Lounge and a Bar that offers a large drinks menu, including cocktails. The bar staff are more than accommodating to make anything that isn’t on the menu too.
Just off the Lounge is the Lower Lounge area, which offers stylish seating and good views from the windows. We were usually the only people in this area and again, I was surprised that it wasn’t used more frequently.
The Lower Lounge is split into two sides and by contrasting colour schemes: blue and orange.
On Deck 3 there’s a Boutique Shop, which offers clothing and souvenirs in keeping with the destinations on the Danube cruise. Traditional dress can be purchased as well as Christmas decorations.
Unlike an ocean cruise, this shop is not staffed and doesn’t feature as much branded merchandise. You can pop down and browse whenever you like.
On this deck, is also a complimentary Laundry, which I was impressed to discover. All suites offer a laundry service to guests but this was a thoughtful addition for anyone who wasn’t in suite accommodation or needed to quickly iron their clothes after being in their suitcase.
Dining Choices on AmaMagna
The quality of food onboard AmaMagna is outstanding and I was not surprised to learn that AmaWaterways is the first river cruise company to be invited to join the oldest and largest food and wine society in the world – La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. This is reinforced in the Berlitz river cruise guide:
AmaWaterways spends considerably more on high-quality food ingredients and wine and on hotel crew service training than any other river cruise company.Douglas Ward, Berlitz River Cruising in Europe
Ocean cruises typically offer a buffet, main dining room and speciality dining venues. Cruisers can choose where they eat depending on their tastes and appetite. On river cruises, the size of the ships generally limits the dining to one main dining room but the size of AmaMagna awards passengers the choice of four dining venues.
It’s important to note that drinks, including beer and wine, are complimentary at all meal times with Ama Waterways. In addition to this, a Sip and Sail cocktail hour is held every night, offering complimentary pre-dinner drinks and a cocktail of the day.
Main Dining Room
AmaMagna’s Main Dining Room offers a daily menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner with no reservations required. There’s no allocated seating and therefore this offers the flexibility to dine with different people or with your cruise companion.
Breakfast and lunch offers a combination of buffet (including omelette station) and menu items. I enjoyed the variety of choice on offer, which always included a selection of specialties relating to the day’s destination such as Goulash and Sacher Torte in Austria during lunch.
The dinner menu changed daily and offers two or three options per course.
Al Fresco Restaurant
Situated at the front of the ship is the Al Fresco Restaurant, a bright and casual dining venue that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner to passengers looking for light and healthy options. This venue also does extremely good desserts.
The windows in the Al Fresco Restaurant retract for an open air feel and an outdoor seating area is accessible for true al fresco dining during breakfast and lunch. This outside area was surprisingly uninhabited in the mornings and we enjoyed a quiet coffee whilst admired the views.
This venue has to be my favourite for evening dining, serving seven-courses of fresh and flavourful food that didn’t leave me feeling too full or bloated.
The Chef’s Table is a chance to get closer to the action as each course is prepared in front of you and served to all guests at the same time. Ama Waterways offers this dining venue on some of its other ships in the fleet. The menu remains the same each night and each passenger is guaranteed the opportunity to dine here at least once during the cruise – just a reservation is required.
Adjacent to the Chef’s Table Restaurant is Jimmy’s, a restaurant named after Ama Waterways’ late co-owner, Jimmy Murphy. This restaurant serves the same menu as the Main Dining Room – with a twist. Seating is arranged around long tables and everything on the Main Dining menu is served on sharing platters. Not sure what to order? Not an issue, you can help yourself to a number of dishes during each course. It’s important to note that there is no need to be polite when sharing with fellow guests, if you’d like to order a second helping of a popular dish then the servers are more than obliging.
There’s a modern, forward-thinking approach to dining in Jimmy’s, much in keeping with the ship’s concept. It’s a nod to the rising phenomenon of social eating; the restaurant offers casual family-style dining, which encourages you to enjoy the food together.
This amount of choice on a river ship is unheard of. On AmaMagna, you have the freedom to rotate around the restaurants as you like throughout the cruise and enjoy a mix of casual and formal styles. This is a huge plus for this river ship as it provides passengers with the flexibility to try different venues at no additional cost.
Dining times on the river cruise changed on a daily basis according to the schedule, which could be found on the daily planner. This caught us out a couple of times with breakfast changing but thankfully the Al Fresco Restaurant serves breakfast an hour earlier and and hour later than the Main Dining Room and so we didn’t miss out. What was also very useful to know was that you can still order off the Main Dining Room menu in the Al Fresco Restaurant.
A note about formal nights on a river cruise:
On AmaWaterways, there are no formal nights to the same degree as ocean cruises. No suits or cocktails dresses are required as the dress code is far more relaxed. There may be one Gala Dinner night when you are invited to wear something nice that you’ve brought with you but no ties or sequins are needed. For men, trousers and a shirt is fine. For women, a nice dress or top with trousers or skirt is all you need. On the other evenings, the best advice is to dress how you would if you were going to a nice restaurant.
AmaMagna’s Spacious Staterooms
The majority of the staterooms onboard AmaMagna are between 252 to 355 square feet and have balconies that you can sit out on to enjoy the riverscape. The majority of river ships on the Danube don’t have balconies or they simply have Juilet balconies, also known as ‘false balconies’.
Ocean cruisers may be accustomed to a balcony with their staterooms and therefore this ship is an ideal choice to transition from ocean to river cruising. For those who don’t choose a balcony stateroom, the fixed window staterooms on AmaMagna are quite possibly the largest entry-level cabin on any European river ship. These fixed window staterooms are a very similar interior size to the balcony cabins and enjoy minimal noise.
Half of all accommodation on Ama Waterways’ AmaMagna are suites ranging in size from 355 to 710 square feet. The majority of these suites on AmaMagna are comparable in size to Verandah Suites on Seabourn and Silversea. These suites are situated on the two middle decks (Violin and Cello)
Technology onboard AmaMagna
AmaMagna is certainly holding its own with the ocean cruise lines in terms of technology onboard.
Ama Waterways has it’s own app, myAmaCruise, that enables you to view the daily programme for the day, excursions, and itinerary. You can connect with family and friends back home to send daily updates of where you’re cruising and upload your own photos.
Each stateroom, regardless of classification, is furnished with a Mac computer with internet access. This is very handy for browsing and can double as a second television.
A control panel on the stateroom wall can be used to adjust the temperature and lighting (it even has a romantic lighting setting – ooh la la!) but also comes with an iPad that has the same control panel pre-loaded. This means that you can adjust it from wherever you are in your stateroom. If, like us, your stateroom is located on the Violin Deck you also have the option to open or close your balcony sunshade using this control panel.
The television in your stateroom has a good selection of channels, like most ocean cruises, and a wide selection of on-demand films for no additional charge. This is perfect for chilling out in your stateroom. We decided to watch ‘The Sound of Music’ after our visit to Salzburg.
Finally, onboard WiFi is included in your cruise fare and is very fast. It’s so simple to connect your devices using your stateroom login details. During our cruise, it never dropped out and I didn’t have to think about it again once I’d completed the initial login.
Ama Waterways’ Excursions
There is an array of shore excursions available to book through AmaWaterways and unlike many ocean and river cruises, the excursions are included in the cruise fare. These can be booked online before the cruise or alternatively, with the Cruise Manager when you get onboard. The selection is good for a variety of interests and activity levels so we decided to try a number of different excursions during our cruise.
As previously mentioned, AmaMagna has bicycles that can be used for bike tours. There is a bike tour available in almost every port and they vary in difficulty and length. For those wanting to actively experience a place, this is perfect and the tours began and ended at the ship.
Walking tours are also a popular option and cater for gentle, regular and active walkers. The walking tours are led by local experts who have extensive knowledge of the area. This is where the QuietVox devices are required to hear the tour’s commentary. None of the walking groups were any larger than 15 people during our cruise and this minimised our feelings of being lost within a herd of people following a lollipop.
Coach City Tours
For city tours and destinations a little further afield, AmaWaterways offers coach tours. I’m not a big fan of being stuck on a coach for long periods of time but I was not disappointed when we opted to take the Half-Day Salzburg excursion from Linz. It was certainly worth the coach ride and it’s somewhere we plan to return to in the future.
Food and Drink Tours
During the Danube cruise on AmaMagna there is the opportunity to enjoy the flavours and specialities from the different countries on the itinerary. There is wine tasting in the Wachau Valley region as well as a trip to an apricot orchard to sample the produce. In Bratislava, there’s a walking excursion to a micro-brewery. I personally enjoyed taking these special interest tours as I always like to try local cuisine on my travels.
You are also able to explore places at your leisure on your own, for example, there are plenty of things to do in Bratislava.
One event not to be missed on the AmaMagna cruise is the exclusive Oktoberfest held in Vilshofen, Germany. A marquee is specially erected on the quayside for passengers to drink beer, eat pretzels and be entertained by Bavarian musicians. It’s the perfect way to celebrate the start or end of the cruise (the itinerary alternates so the cruise will always begin or end in Vilshofen).
Why should you choose AmaMagna for you first river cruise?
As an experienced ocean cruiser, I was unsure of what to expect on my first river cruise but AmaMagna did not disappoint with its abundance of space and choice. The ship never felt over-crowded and there was always a quiet spot to sit and relax.
“With the choice of four distinct dining venues, five bars, elegant lounges and exceptional accommodation, AmaMagna has been designed for those seeking a fresh, contemporary and dynamic take on river cruising. This beautiful ship has a direct appeal to ocean cruisers, who are accustomed to the luxury of expansive personal space and a wide variety of leisure activities during their holiday.”Kristin Karst, executive vice-president and co-founder of Ama Waterways
AmaMagna has many of the amenities found on an ocean cruise but it’s the attention to detail that makes it extra special. Many people consider river cruising to be more expensive than ocean cruising and on the face of it, it looks that way, but this is because there is so much more included in the cruise fare: drinks with meals, cocktail hour, excursions, specialty dining, WiFi and wellness classes. These things are not always included by other river cruise lines, which has made me realise that I’ve now been seriously spoiled by taking my very first river cruise with AmaWaterways.
This realisation has also made me feel very fortunate that I was given the opportunity to take my first river cruise on AmaMagna. The Danube is a popular river and throughout the week I was able to see lots of different river cruise ships and naturally I did compare. I’m not so sure that I would’ve taken to river cruising ‘like a duck to water’ (apologies, it had to be done!) if it had been on a different ship. Would I have felt hemmed in? Quite possibly and I’m not alone with these opinions.
For the 2018-2019 edition of Berlitz: River Cruising in Europe & the USA, author Douglas Ward, widely regarded as the world’s foremost independent authority on cruising and cruise ships, evaluated 320 river ships. AmaWaterways’ ships outranked the competition in total points covering the categories of hardware, accommodations, cuisine, service and miscellaneous, underscoring the company’s commitment to delivering the highest quality product and guest service to the market.
I’m a destination-focused cruiser so the Danube was an ideal itinerary for my first river cruise. I enjoyed spending longer in the ports but surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenic cruising during the day too. With an ever-changing view there was plenty of things to see including castles, little towns and locks to pass through.
My advice to any ocean cruisers, who are looking to book their first river cruise is to consider what you already like about cruising. Is it the facilities, the destinations, the food, the luxury?
Does AmaMagna tick those boxes for me? Quite simply, yes.
How to book a river cruise on AmaMagna
If you’re from the US or Canada, you can book directly with AmaWaterways.
If you are from the UK, I would highly recommend that you contact one of AmaWaterways’ trade partners, Planet Cruise, which has a specialised river cruise team who can help you.
Disclaimer: I was invited to cruise onboard AmaMagna as part of a VIP Fam Trip organised by AmaWaterways. This blog post features my own, honest opinions of the cruise and the river ship.
Is AmaMagna suitable for families? Check out this blog post from Cruisingwithkids.co.uk to find out.