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Champagne flutes layered with white and milk chocolate mousse towered above decadent ganache cakes, chocolate-covered strawberries and shell-shaped truffles. Along the buffet case, there were more cocoa bean incarnations than could ever be eaten in a single sitting, punctuated with a spread of fresh fruit and a fountain generously spouting — you guessed it — chocolate.
The Choco-holic’s Buffet is one of several festive dining experiences onboard AmaWaterways’ newest ship, the 156-passenger AmaLea. From a Bavarian-themed lunch — complete with weisswurst (sausage), beer and traditional costumes — to The Chef’s Table specialty restaurant and its wine-paired tasting menu, AmaLea provided guests with ample options, along with a few fun surprises along the way. One sunny day, for example, the sundeck was the place to be, and it’s entirely possible that a spontaneous ice-cream party or barbecue lunch might await guests al fresco. During the Sip & Sail happy hour in the lounge, as a pianist set the mood, servers plied guests with complimentary cocktails — which, for many, was an unexpected but welcome perk.
“For us at AmaWaterways, it’s very important that we cater to our guests’ interests,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. “Therefore, we offer a lot of options, not just in dining, but also with our daily included tours.”
During AmaLea’s christening cruise on the Danube River, we had our share of stellar excursions from which to choose. In 2006, AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to introduce its own fleet of bicycles. Fast-forward to 2018, and daily bike tours to landmarks — such as Austria’s Klosterneuburg Monastery, or through the city of Bratislava, Slovakia — are extremely popular among guests and often fully booked. Active guests on my sailing could also choose to stretch their legs on guided hikes to Castle Hill in Budapest, Hungary; Austria’s Durnstein fortress; or Castle Hill in Passau, Germany. Additionally, walking tours were available in each city, and those with disabilities or those who simply wanted to relax could opt to see destination highlights from an air-conditioned bus.
Even if just one or two guests book an excursion, AmaWaterways will never cancel a tour, according to Karst. AmaLea’s godmother, Filomena Andre — vice president for travel products and services for Auto Club — was also sailing the seven-night Melodies of the Danube cruise, which culminated in a spectacular Bavarian christening ceremony and fireworks show in Vilshofen, Germany.
“One of the reasons I am most proud to be the vessel’s godmother is the fact that AmaWaterways is the most supportive of the trade,” Andre said. “They truly appreciate and believe in the trade, and we have grown our business significantly as a result of working together.”
Andre says the design of AmaLea is in tune with her personality and preferences, citing its subtle pastel tones and comfortably appointed public spaces. Furthermore, the art throughout the ship pays tribute to the region, with nods to Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, while the luscious oval shape of the main lounge and Chef’s Table recalls the curves of a flowing river.
My favorite place onboard was the sundeck, which is complete with a heated pool and swim-up bar, a walking track and comfy couches that are perfect for lazing on in the afternoon. Other notable ship features include a small but adequate gym and two Wine Bar spaces in the main dining room ideal for groups and private parties (or for spicing things up by dining at a shared table with new friends).
AmaLea also features connecting and triple-occupancy cabins that are a good match for groups and families. Most staterooms offer the line’s signature twin balconies, and all come equipped with an iMac for browsing the web, listening to music or watching movies and live television. A wall-mounted iPad controls the room’s temperature and lighting with precision and ease. In a dark wood cabinet, guests will find a glass vase meant to hold a single red rose that the captain gives a member from each stateroom upon arrival. It’s the simple, thoughtful and unexpected touches that make sailing onboard AmaLea a delight for individual guests — and a win for the travel agent who booked them.
Karst considers travel advisors the lines “sales force,” as 98 percent of AmaWaterways’ bookings come through its travel agent partners.
“It’s a trust relationship, and we make sure we always bring back happy guests,” she said. “And, obviously, we love to welcome travel agents onboard so that they can personally experience AmaLea. Travel advisors are our bread and butter. We could not exist without them.”