ONBOARD THE AMALOTUS -- As we boarded the new 124-passenger AmaLotus, there seemed to be a subtle, "fingers crossed everything goes well" feeling in the air among the Ama executives, including the company's three co-founders onboard, Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Jimmy Murphy.
This is Asia, after all, an entirely different market than Europe, where Ama has the majority of its other ships and investments. And even though Ama has some experience in this market -- the AmaLotus is Ama Waterways' second Mekong River investment after La Marguerite, which launched in 2009 -- there is definitely more anticipation and anxiety with a new ship launch in Southeast Asia than with a launch in Europe.
After being transported on motorboats to the AmaLotus, dramatically docked in the middle of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, I and the other passengers on the ship's second inaugural cruise from Siem Reap to Saigon were invited for a welcome reception in the Saigon Lounge. Both the hotel manager's and cruise director's welcome speeches were executed with a hint of apology amid their overall themes of excitement and enthusiasm. The ship is newly built, they reminded everyone, and as is common with newbuilds, there are tweaks and glitches that may still need sorting out.
The cruise director reminded us that while we might be accustomed to the upscale amenities of Western cruise ships and hotels, this is what he jokingly called "the Asian five-star experience."
Yes, this is Asia, where maybe everything doesn't run as smoothly as in North America or Europe. The little glitches we were warned about included things like having to wait a few moments for the warm water in the cabins to kick in, and air-conditioning units that weren't pumping the coolest of air in some staterooms. But perhaps because of the overly apologetic welcome, the result was a very pleasant surprise.
Any minor tweaks and adjustments being made here to bridge our five-star expectations with the "Asian five-star experience" were more than made up for in service and experience, amenities that transcend any star rating.
And for all the humble apologies, the AmaLotus is an extremely well-executed, upscale river vessel with numerous successful attributes, including large, luxurious cabins with charming Southeast Asian-inspired decor; a welcoming pool and sundeck; flavorful cuisine with Vietnamese and Cambodian influences and dishes; free-flowing local wine, beer and spirits all day; and complete spa and salon facilities. These largely outweigh any negatives (the ship's strong vibrations while sailing, for instance, a problem that is purportedly going to be addressed).
The ship features two 624-square-foot suites, 10 junior suites at 290 square feet each and standard staterooms at 226 square feet each, with balconies on 90% of the cabins. In addition to the restaurant, lounge and sky deck, there is a fitness room, spa and salon and gift shop on board.
The AmaLotus sails Ama's Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong itinerary, which includes two nights in Hanoi followed by an overnight aboard a junk in Ha Long Bay. A flight transfers guests to Siem Reap for a two-night stay there with included tours of the Angkor Wat temple complex. From Siem Reap, guests embark on their seven-night Mekong River cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam. Calls include Phnom Penh, Kampong Chhnang, Oudong, Tan Chau, Sa Dec, Xeo Quyt and Cai Be, and the itinerary ends with an overnight in Saigon.