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Friday File: AmaDara, A River Intro

While we’re far from experts on river cruising, our trip on AmaWaterways’ new ship (the AmaDara) quickly brought the similarities with — and differences from — ocean cruise ships into focus. Because everything is much smaller, even though river cruises are less modest in price they are more modest in the size of, well, everything — except service, of course, because the crew-to-passenger ratio is so much better. When you spend a week on a river ship, chances are if you don’t know everybody you will at least have a nodding recognition. From our week in Southeast Asia, today’s pictures will give you an idea of what it’s like on board…

AmaDara is one of the bigger (higher) ships on rivers and it comfortably carries 164 passengers.


Five entertainers who entertain only when the ship is in a port, in an all-purpose room on the ship.

The Pool

That is THE pool…the only one, so clearly river cruisers don’t expect to get bronzed by the pool.


Yes, there is a gym and what you see of it here is pretty much what you get — yet it’s rarely busy.


While ocean ships devote rooms for Wi-Fi, the AmaDara’s Internet connections come from here.


Every ship has one lifesaver, at least, and fortunately for all it’s almost always just a decoration.


Our stateroom…a little larger and more plush than a comparable category on the ocean.


This comparative photo shows you what a suite — of which there are few — looks like.


Some things don’t change when you’re on any kind of cruise ship: room stewards’ creativity.

In the news…

• P&O's Pacific Eden to be christened, sail maiden voyage, this weekend
• Vancouver, Boston latest ports to report banner years with crusing

Today at portsandbows.com: Australia — very much a cruising hotspot

Celebrity Millennium
8 nights
May 12, 2016
Vancouver, Inside Passage, Ketchikan, Sitka, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skagway, Hubbard Glacier, Anchorage
Inside: $619
Cost per day: $77

First River Cruise: Mekong Riches

Our first river cruise — on AmaWaterways’ luxurious new AmaDara — is history. So it’s the first chance for us to compare it to what we’ve always known: ocean cruises.

This is not an all-inclusive comparison, as our “inaugural” was in a remote, somewhat virgin part of the river cruise world, Cambodia and Vietnam. There’s only a handful of AmaDarapassenger ships cruising the Mekong River. In Europe, the river cruise mecca, you might see that many in half an hour.

Given that caveat, here are some observations for anybody thinking about cruising the Mekong…

* It’s the best way to see this part of the world if you’ve never been there, and we hadn’t. Faced with such a different culture, customs in a Communist country and languages unlike anything resembling English, it’s comforting to retreat to the comfort of the AmaDara until you get your feet wet.

* Choose the time of year carefully. Right now is still monsoon season, which can mean heavy rainfall for at least part of every day. High season starts in November, for six months.

* Seeing the Mekong Delta is an eye-opener as to how dependent both countries are on the river. It is a working river in every sense of the word, the lifeblood for millions of people.

• There are fewer selections of shore excursions — usually no more than a choice of two — and in this area rarely do you walk off the ship and into an excursion. Bus and boat rides can take minutes to an hour or more to reach the destination on land, just like they do from ocean ships.

• The guides are wonderful and the shore excursions interesting, to say the least. Because river cruising is more expensive, shore excursions are usually included and onMekongthis cruise delivered a wide-ranging sample of the people, the lives they live and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

* A river ship like this is both comforting and confining. Everything is close and, with fixed meals and one main restaurant and maximum 124 passengers, a family feeling develops. Anonymity, for those who like it, is out of the question.

* Service is better than on the ocean ships. For example, the cruise director knew everybody by name — EVERYBODY — by the second day and he was always there to respond to the smallest of queries.

* Food reflects the local cuisines (pho soup in the morning), but there’s always comfort food on the menu for the less adventuresome. In that sense, it’s like ocean ships but the food quality is kicked up a notch or three.

* While you can’t walk anywhere, you have to be able to walk. There’s no elevator on the ship, no wheelchair accessibility to the ship and while shore excursions aren’t demanding, they almost all require lengthy walks in humid conditions.

* Getting on and off the ship is so much simpler. You pick up your boarding pass and return it when you get back.

* While it’s sold as a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the rides at both ends can be lengthy…and we really did have to wait for a chicken to cross the road.

* On river ships the rooms are bigger, more comfortable and close to everything — obviously.

* The landscape is so different, a refreshing change from watching the waves go by, and there are photo ops left and right, every day, all day.

As a first river cruise, “Riches of the Mekong” is going to be a tough act for us to follow.

In the news…

• Fur Carnival ships sailing to Bermuda from April through November next year
• Today first chance for booking immersive cruises on Crystal Esprit from 2016 to 2018

Today at portsandbows.com: Regent Seven Seas’ sweet suites

Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
7 nights
October 19, 2015
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Motril, Gibraltar, Cartagena, Rome
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85

About The Laying Of A New Cruise Ship's Keel…

Having never seen the laying of a keel on a cruise ship, we were intrigued by the opportunity to watch the procedure online. It was courtesy of Viking, the river cruise line that's soon to be an ocean cruise line, once its Viking Star is in the water next year.

If you're interested, click here: vikingcruises.com.

It only takes two minutes but be forewarned: about 25 seconds of it is devoted to the "breath-taking moment" — the laying of the keel. The rest is information and Star-keel layingface time for Viking owner Torstein Hagen, whose vision it was to add a 928-passenger ship to the worldwide fleet.

The Viking Star will be an evolution of sorts. Billed as "the ship our river passengers inspired us to build" it hopes to fill one of the remaining niche markets that still exists on the ocean.

And by the way, the Star is sold out for 2015.

Holland America Statendam
7 nights
September 21, 2014
Vancouver (return): Juneau, Skagway, Tracy Arm, Ketchikan
Inside: $529
Cost per day: $75

The Booming 'Other' Kind of Cruising

Our first experience of "river cruising" consists of a week on the Midi Canal in the south of France on a 27-foot "ship" with a crew of two, neither of whom knew much about how to steer a vessel in the water, never mind negotiate the 64 locks that lay ahead of us. Oh yes, and the person tying our little ship to the bollards in each of the 64 locks didn't know how to swim.

Experts, we are not. Credible commentators, we are not. We are, however, intrigued by what's happening on the rivers of Europe…and Asia…and North America…and South America.

River ships are being built with amazing regularity. The industry leader, Viking, put 10 new ships in the water this year and will add 12 next year. That will bring the size of the fleet, according to the Viking website that lists them all but the class of 2014, to 68 ships.

Our esteemed colleague Phil Reimer of Ports and Bows has filled screensful of space enlightening the cruise world about the man behind Viking, Torstein Hagen. He is, if nothing else, a fascinating and wealthy Norwegian with a physics degree from his homeland, an MBA from Harvard and an ambition that taunts (or should) the cruise industry at large. Other than being the 69-year-old founder (also CEO, Chairman, President and chief cook and bottle washer) of Viking, not a lot is known about him…even Wikipedia is only able to come up with two paragraphs, one of them to simply identify him as "a Norwegian citizen."

Last week, not content to blow the river cruise industry out of the water with his expansion, Mr. Hagen dipped into the "other guy's" pond and unveiled plans for an ocean ship. The Viking Star will be relatively small by ocean standards (about 1,000 passengers) but it will mirror the marketing of his river ships.

Which is?

In a word, destinations.

Viking ships carry a couple of hundred passengers, each of whom can figure on paying $200 and $300 per night for a week of seeing the sights of (plug in the continent) from the rivers that at one time were the principal form of transportation. The emphasis is on spending time in what ocean cruisers call ports, sometimes for a day or two, as opposed to six or eight hours. There are no casinos, no plethora of fancy restaurants, no explosion of entertainment.

"I like to say ocean cruising is a drinking man's cruise," Hagen has often said. "River cruising is a thinking man's cruise."

It sounds like the accommodation is classy, the shore excursions are eclectic and the cuisine is elegant.

Hmm, just like on our 27-footer on the Midi Canal.

Norwegian Jade
7 nights
August 3, 2013
Venice (return): Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos, Olympia
Inside: $849
Cost per day: $121


Legendary Queen of the Mississippi


For those of us who didn't grow up on the banks of the Mississippi, our introduction to its boats was Davy Crockett. You remember Davy…and the keelboat races with Mike Fink, and the river pirates, and all the other comic book stories that turned into books and movies and a merchandise business that surpassed 42 billion.

The sometimes fictitious accounts of this legendary American folk hero were an introduction to what is arguably the nation's greatest river, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, fast forward.

On Saturday, another legend arrived on the Mississippi, in the form of a riverboat unlike anything Davy and Mike could have imagined. If the Queen of the Mississippi isn't a legend, she will become one, as the vessel that changed river boating as we know it. She is a 21st-century paddlewheeler with all the modern amenities, taking her passengers back 75 to 100 years, a time warp in luxury.

On one hand, the Queen of the Mississippi passengers currently on the inaugural, 8-day return trip from New Orleans are on a ship that looks, from the outside, that it might have been in Mississippi waters a century ago. On the inside, the flagship of the American Cruise Lines fleet has "hotel-room" staterooms — 300 square feet or more, private balconies with sliding doors, full bathrooms just like the hotels have, and the opportunity to dine in private whenever they want.

On one hand, on-board educational events and themed entertainment will take them back to the way it was, and seeing historical plantations and mansions and landmarks. On the other hand, they can step off the boat and see Baton Rouge, New Orleans and cities of the south the way they are today.

The first paddlewheeler built for the mighty river in two decades, Queen of the Mississippi takes its people on a trip that's a merging of centuries on the Mississippi, the way it was and the way it is. Davy and Mike and their men would be proud…although they might have trouble getting their heads around WiFi.

Carnival Fascination
5 nights
November 5, 2012
Jacksonville (return): Half Moon Cay, Nassau
Inside: $269
Cost per day: $53 $53

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