The extensive beverage menu on A-ROSA Stella featured something I had not expected: prices.
The costs for drinks on the river cruiser were reasonable, to be sure. A cappuccino was listed at €2.70; €8.90 for a glass of Pommery Brut Royal. The problem was I had thought A-ROSA Stella was an all-inclusive product, as we have often reported on River Cruise Advisor.
Only a few minutes before browsing the beverage menu, we had stepped aboard the attractive 174-passenger vessel, docked on the Rhône river in Lyon, France. For the next seven days, we would explore the cities and towns along the Rhône and Saône rivers, all from the comfort of A-ROSA Stella.
Among our initial reactions after boarding, however, was one of surprise. Had there been a misunderstanding? Did we need to now budget for wine, coffee, bottled water, shore excursions, gratuities and more?
In fact, the answer would turn out to be one of relief. We were indeed on an all-inclusive river cruise.
What gives? So that you will fully understand the answer to that question, I first need to tell you the story of A-ROSA and how a mature river cruise company attempting something totally new.
A-ROSA Comes To America
Headquartered in Rostock, Germany (and with offices in Chur, Switzerland), A-ROSA has been around for more than a dozen years. Catering largely to German-speaking Europeans, A-ROSA operates 10 contemporary vessels (plus, a new vessel coming next year), distinguished by large roses painted on the hulls and interiors, on A-ROSA Stella, featuring bright red stateroom doors, golden carpets and curtains as well as patterned, partial canopies over the beds. The interior vibe is somewhat like that of a W Hotel, bright and hip, appealing perhaps more to a younger crowd than an older one.
Despite its beautiful and expansive fleet, the company has remained unknown to North Americans — until this year, when A-ROSA began working with California-based David Morris International (DMI).
A-ROSA could not have chosen a better partner to represent its product in North America. DMI President David Morris has held sales and management roles at Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises and Silversea Cruises. He founded DMI to help international cruise companies sell their products in the North American marketplace.
For A-ROSA, Morris and his team identified a neglected segment of the river cruise market. With many river cruise companies focusing on the baby-boomers, who range in age from about 50 years old to 70 years old, DMI positioned A-ROSA for younger travelers, beginning at around 40 years old, who would appreciate cruising European rivers on contemporary vessels offering all-inclusive sailings.
With A-ROSA’s market position identified, the next task was to layer it on the company’s existing product and eventually fill a portion of its fleet with North American travelers.
That Explains The Bar Menu
The layering of the new product on A-ROSA’s existing product explains the beverage menu. Rather than making an abrupt shift to fill its ships only with North Americans, DMI and A-ROSA decided to phase in North Americans on three of its 10 vessels: A-ROSA Aqua on the Rhine, A-ROSA Silva on the Danube for Christmas Markets cruises, and A-ROSA Stella in France. Next year the company launches a new-build for the North American market, A-ROSA Flora, which will be a sister to A-ROSA Silva.
For the remainder of this year and possibly well into next year, each of the three North American-designated ships will feature a mix of German-speaking passengers who are not on all-inclusive cruises and English-speaking passengers who are on all-inclusive cruisers. Hence, the beverage menu. Europeans will pay for their drinks, North Americans will not.
We quickly learned that we could safely ignore the prices on the beverage menu — except for premium beverages marked with an asterisk. Premium spirits and wines come at a cost for all passengers on A-ROSA’s vessels.
All-Inclusive, Do I Have To Drink Cheap Wine?
I spoke with a Canadian couple who chose A-ROSA Stella because of the itinerary and reviews indicating that the cuisine would satisfy their discriminating palates. One concern remained, however: the quality of the complimentary wines. If the wines were free, the Toronto couple reasoned, would they be any good?
Thus far, the Canadians say that they have been pleased with the quality and selection. In fact, wine is a vital part of the A-ROSA Stella experience. Mario Braun heads up A-ROSA’s beverage operations. He’s normally based in Chur, Switzerland, but was on our voyage observing operations and lending a hand when needed.
He told us that A-ROSA is serving French wines certified as AOC (basically the French government’s blessing), and typically only wines from the region, such as a 2011 Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay that was poured for dinner after our day in Mâcon on Sunday.
Arguably, the inclusion of beverages creates a more lively social dynamic than on vessels where alcohol is not included. A case in point: Our lounge was bustling Wednesday night, while next to us, A-ROSA Luna’s lounge was dark and empty at midnight. Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises experienced similar changes in the social atmospheres on their vessels when they decided to go all-inclusive.
Bicycles On Board
Like the beverage policy, bike rentals cost Europeans €12 per day, €7 for a half day — while North Americans pay nothing for using the bicycles.
Using the free bikes, Tuesday morning, as we did on Saturday following embarkation, we explored Lyon by bike. The bicycles are among the best I’ve ever ridden on a river cruiser, which makes the pedaling all that more pleasurable. Helmets and water are provided, as are durable locks.
With such functional bicycles at our disposal, we have ridden everyday during our voyage so far and plan to do so for the remainder of our time on A-ROSA Stella. Bike tours, which are included at no extra charge, have been running at full capacity on our voyage, and if there is one shortcoming with A-ROSA Stella’s bicycling program, it is that there are too few bikes. My advice: Book your bicycling excursions in advance and sign up for as many as possible if you enjoy cycling the beautiful French countryside.
Monday’s organized (and free) bicycle excursion in Chalon Sur Saone went out full. About a dozen of us pedaled for more than 20 miles through the French countryside. The day before, we joined a bike tour that took us 20 miles through rolling hills and vineyards that produced such wines as Macon Villages and Pouilly Fuissé.
Those who are not able to bike, walk. We are an active bunch. Guests appear to range from the early 40s and up, with an average age of around 50 to 55. The large gym/spa (measuring nearly 1,500 square feet, the largest of any river cruiser that we know of), the lounge/bar, the swimming pool and the bicycles — all are in frequent use.
The lounge and the pool deck, with its large swimming pool, are social hubs during the evenings as we cruise along the Rhône and Saône rivers.
Think Oceania, Not Silversea
A-ROSA Stella has all the trappings of a luxury cruise — no charges for drinks, included gratuities, shore excursions and more — so comparisons to Silversea, Seabourn and the like are to be expected. Many of our traveling companions this week, in fact, are experienced luxury cruisers, and like us, they are tempted to draw comparisons to the service standards on the small luxury ships.
A-ROSA, however, doesn’t aspire to match the experiences of Silversea and Seabourn. Rather than comparing A-ROSA Stella to those luxury ocean lines, a better comparison might be Oceania Cruises or Azamara Club Cruises — or even the forthcoming Viking Ocean Cruises.
It is difficult at this point to garner the opinions of the experienced cruisers on our voyage. I’ll check with them at the end of the cruise on Friday. The uninitiated, however, seem pleased with A-ROSA Stella. Among the attributes that appeal most to them: a youngish clientele, the active lifestyle on board, the cuisine and the all-inclusive nature of the product.
While I can’t speak for the other two ships being marketed to North Americans, I can say that A-ROSA Stella is ironing out some of the wrinkles as it develops its all-inclusive product. I look at A-ROSA Stella as a start-up, being developed from scratch, with staff unaccustomed to an all-inclusive product and American clientele.
Some staff members struggle with American dialects, but they are trying hard. The young Germans, as well as other nationalities such as Hungarians who work on board, enjoy learning, or perfecting, their English. Still, there are times when the different languages clash.
Some of the service elements also are being refined. I enjoyed the food, but at times, dining room service could be slow. The bartenders could not be friendlier, and they’re working harder than ever on a cruise where beverages are free. I’m confident A-ROSA will adapt to the consumption habits of all-inclusive cruising and to the demands and predilections of American guests.
There are around 100 North Americans on board A-ROSA Stella and the rest primarily German. Tuesday night during a memorable karaoke evening in the lounge, we all mingled.
I’m reserving my opinion about A-ROSA Stella until we disembark on Saturday. I want to reflect on my own experiences and to hear what others have to say as we approach the end of the cruise. A lot of you have questions, I know: I’ve received your emails. So look for more coverage this week as we continue our cruise along the Rhône and Saône rivers.