On AmaWaterways AmaStella
We are a little Christmas Crazy in our house and decided to make a last-minute trip to explore Europe on an AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise along the Rhine. With Covid restrictions changing daily, we knew that we would need to be flexible and that our itinerary was subject to change without notice. There was lots of Covid related paperwork that had to be completed prior to our departure and it honestly was a little overwhelming. You really do need a travel agent to help you through the process and keep you informed of the changing rules and restrictions. We also purchased travel insurance just in case.
On Wednesday, December 1st 2021 we packed our bags and set off on our AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise adventure!
Our flights were from Detroit to Basel with a connection through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Delta/Air France/Hop! Airlines (codeshare). You know how on social media people only show you the good stuff and everything looks perfect and wonderful? The truth is our flight experience was a hot mess.
Long story short…we had an hour to make our connection in France and didn’t make it. We thought we missed our flight, but later received a notification through the Delta app that they had cancelled it. Air France, Delta’s code share partner, sent us off on a wild goose chase trying to get rebooked. We actually went through customs 4 times in 2 hours in 3 different terminals, so our passports are filled with “Welcome to France!” stamps. Air Frances “customer service” agents were just plain rude. We were finally rebooked on an 8 pm flight, but no one could tell us where our luggage was and we were now arriving in Basel after our ship was scheduled to sail. I was honestly close to tears and ready to just turn around and head back to Detroit.
We decided to pay $60 Euro per person to relax and regroup in the Air France Lounge for the 12 hour delay. I emailed email@example.com and their customer service team could not have been more helpful and reassuring. They rescheduled our arrival transfer, starting the process of tracking our luggage and advised the ship of our delayed arrival. After a few glasses of champagne and a quick nap in the quiet room, we regrouped. Our 8 pm flight was delayed until 8:45 pm and then again until 9:30 pm, but we did eventually make it to Basel.
Y’all, I can’t tell you how happy we were to see our luggage waiting for us in baggage claim and the lovely lady that greeted us outside of customs from AmaWaterways. She whisked us away in a beautiful Mercedes to our ship which had delayed sailing by over an hour to wait for us. The Captain and Cruise Manager met us at the door to welcome us onboard, gave us a personal safety briefing and we set sail within minutes of our arrival. They even had dinner waiting for us.
Delta Airlines and AmaWaterways get an A+ for customer service…Air France and the Charles de Gaulle airport get an F. This is the second time we have had a horrible experience connecting in Charles de Gaulle and I will honestly double connect elsewhere to avoid ever having to go there again. You’ve been warned!
I have since learned that in Europe if your flight is delayed by more than 4 hours or cancelled the airlines must pay you 250 Euro per person, so I will be investigating that claim. But, enough about the flight nonsense and on to the amazing adventure!
We were originally scheduled to sail on the AmaMora, but due to some technically difficulties they changed ships to the AmaStella. The layout was identical.
We reserved a French Balcony Cabin and it was perfect for this cruise because we would not be spending any time sitting outside in December. As you can see in the picture, we had a floor to ceiling sliding glass door and the “balcony” part was an extra sitting area inside of our stateroom. It was small but very functional. The only negative was that our empty luggage would not fit under the bed. The shower was a nice size, there was plenty of closet space and they had USB ports near the bed for charging our phones. The current was 220 volt, which is fine for apple Iphones, but we did need an adaptor for my curling iron. I did some research in advance and purchased a cheap dual voltage one, so I did not need a converter. Hair dryers are provided in the room and were excellent.
Food and Service
Everyone that we interacted with onboard was excellent. The ship holds 158 passengers and we had around 120 on our sailing, so the crew really gets to know everyone. We had an assigned dining table for our meals and really enjoyed getting to know our tablemates along with the family seated next to us. We all became fast friends and spent the week touring together. The waitstaff was excellent and made recommendations for dishes each meal. The food was good and featured many regional specialties. We dined at the Chef’s Table one evening which offered a set menu of multiple courses with wine pairings and was delicious. The bartenders were fun and friendly. Our cabin steward tidied up our cabin twice daily. Marcus, our Cruise Manager, gave an overview of the next day’s plans each evening during the cocktail hour which was called “sip and sail”. We could not have been more pleased with the food and service onboard AmaWaterways.
The AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise Experience – Random thoughts and observations
Direction – We sailed downstream from Basel to Amsterdam, but all of the river cruise lines offer the opposite itinerary also. I liked the way we did it because the beauty of the scenery seemed to build as we progressed through the week. It’s similar to Alaska sailings. If you sail north the beauty of Alaska builds and the wildlife increases. There was no motion while sailing, so you should not be concerned if you are prone to seasickness.
Locks – Sailing through the locks was a very interesting experience. We have pictures and video to give you an idea of what it was like and you can see that the ships are designed to just fit in the locks with inches to spare!
Mobility and Included Tours – AmaWaterways is one of the few river cruise lines that offer an elevator onboard, but you really will have a difficult time touring if you have mobility issues. The cities have cobblestone streets and lots of hills and stairs to climb. We had several guests onboard with scooters, canes and walkers and they were restricted to what they could do on the tours. All of the included tours involved walking and they did always offer a gentle paced option. AmaWaterways also offers wellness activities and tours, like hiking and bike tours plus morning exercise classes onboard.
Included – Almost everything is included in the price of your AmaWaterways River Cruise. Accommodations, all meals onboard, beer/wine/softdrinks during lunch and dinner, cocktails during the sip and sail hour each evening, several tour options to choose from in each port, and wifi (which was good when docked but intermittent when sailing). Airfare, transfers and tips are not included. Suggested tip amount for our one week cruise was 100 Euro per person for the crew and 25 Euro per person for the Cruise Manager. We also tipped our bus drivers 1 euro per person and our tour guides 2-5 euro each.
Cash/Currency – We did convert $500 USD to Euro prior to sailing because I had heard that many of the Christmas markets did not accept credit cards. This was true in the smaller towns but almost everyplace else did take charges. We used most of our Euro on small purchases and tips for guides and bus drivers. You can convert USD to Euro onboard if you run short, but the conversion rate was better for us doing it prior to the cruise. You can add your onboard gratuities and purchases to your shipboard account and settle by credit card.
Onboard Atmosphere – The ship was all decked out for the holidays inside and they included some extra holiday entertainment and activities, like Christmas tree decorating and caroling in the evenings. They did have local entertainment several evenings also. It is a quiet slow pace onboard and almost everyone is in bed asleep by 10 am, because tours start at 9 am each morning. The average age on our sailing was around 60.
AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise Itinerary
We were so excited to explore the Christmas Markets along the Rhine. Due to the rising Covid numbers worldwide, markets were being cancelled and restrictions were being updated daily and varied by country. There were some minor changes to our touring plans, but overall we felt very lucky to be able to have enjoyed such a wonderful unique experience.
AmaWaterways requires that all passengers be fully vaccinated to sail. Covid restrictions and enforcement is much stricter in Europe than it is in the U. S. Cloth masks are not accepted in public. You must wear a paper surgical or N95 or KN95 mask everywhere over your nose and mouth, indoors and outside. Police are everywhere in crowded areas enforcing that masks are being worn properly.
Switzerland and France require that you complete an online certification (including uploading a copy of your passport and covid vaccine card) confirming that you are fully vaccinated and they then provide a QR code that must be scanned to enter any indoor public building, including gift shops and restaurants.
In Germany, we had to show both our passport and vaccination card to enter any of the markets or buildings. Cologne did offer the option to provide this information once daily and get your hand stamped with G2 status, which allows access to public areas. Masks are still required indoors and outside, even if you are fully vaccinated. If you are unvaccinated you are not permitted to enter any public buildings in Switzerland, France or Germany. I can’t even imagine what would happen if the US tried to implement similar policies here in the States.
Here’s a quick overview of the places we ended up visiting during our AmaWaterways Christmas Markets Cruise:
Due to our cancelled flight, we enjoyed our 5 minutes in Basel on the way to our ship. I guess that gives us a reason to return!
Breisach, Germany/Riquewihr, France
We docked in Breisach and took a 45 minute bus tour over to the enchanting small village of Riquewihr. This was our first Christmas Market and the town was just exactly what you would expect for a beautiful 16th century charming medieval hamlet surrounded by vineyards. Our Cruise Manager said it is the actual village that they based Belle’s hometown on in Beaty and the Beast. We did a 45-minute walking tour and then had free time to explore the Christmas Markets. Our plan was to purchase a Christmas ornament and a mug of Gluhwein (mulled wine) from each market that we visited and we started our collection here. We loved every minute of our visit.
Strasbourg is an amazing city rich with history. We took a bus to the city center and then did a walking tour from there, including a visit to the famous Cathedrale de Notre Dame (Strasbourg Cathedral). The city was beautiful, and the Christmas markets were large and festive. Unfortunately, it started to rain and was very cold, so I returned to the ship early. My husband headed back out in the evening to take pictures of the market at night. We would love to return and explore Strasbourg more during the warmer summer months.
Our afternoon visit to Gengenbach, Germany was cancelled due to Covid restrictions.
We stopped at the small German town of Speyer on a Sunday morning, and unfortunately, they cancelled their Christmas markets the evening before we were due to arrive. Because it was a Sunday, everything was closed, and the townspeople were all at Church. We did a brief walking tour but did not get to see much.
Interesting to note that is this was the first stop that we made where we could walk right from the ship into town. My image of river cruising was that the little villages would be right where we docked, but the first few stops that we made required a bus transfer to the city center.
Rudesheim, Germany (Heidelberg cancelled due to Covid restrictions)
After our quick morning visit to Speyer, we sailed to Rudesheim, Germany which we really enjoyed. After dinner, we travelled by choo choo train up the hill to a local winery (Bassenheimer Hoff) for a Riesling tasting. It’s one of my favorite wines, so I was in heaven. We remained docked overnight, so the next morning we ventured out on our own to explore the shops and we enjoyed a traditional Rudesheimer coffee at a café overlooking the river.
Castles along the Rhine Afternoon Cruising with Lahneck Castle Visit
We spent a wonderful afternoon relaxing in the ships lounge sipping champagne as we sailed through the picturesque UNESCO-designated Rhine Gorge. This is what you imagine when you think about river cruising through Europe. There were beautiful vineyards and castles lining both sides of the river. Later in the afternoon, we were taken by motorcoach to tour a 13th century medieval fortress by candlelight.
We loved Cologne. We had a great docking location and could walk right into the city center. We did a walking tour around the city’s majestic cathedral and then headed to Gaffel am Don, a historic brewhouse-pub to enjoy a Kolsch beer tasting accompanied by Reibekuchen (potato pancakes with apple sauce). Afterward, we visited the inside of the Cologne Cathedral (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) and explored the wonderful Christmas Markets that surrounded the cathedral on our own. They had crafts and music and ice skating and curling and every kind of traditional German food you could imagine. We enjoyed some more Gluhwein, bought some Christmas ornaments, and found a local pub along the river where my husband was able to enjoy a Hefeweizen (his favorite beer from when he was stationed in Germany in the Army).
We spent the morning sailing into Amsterdam, which was actually not very picturesque at all. Once we arrived in Amsterdam, we took a one-hour canal cruise which was very interesting and gave us a great overview of the city. I loved seeing all of the houseboats that line the canal and we sailed passed the Anne Frank House. I imagined Amsterdam to be filled with windmills and girls with blond braids wearing wooden shoes. The reality is that Amsterdam is like New York but with canals like Venice and instead of cabs everywhere there are thousands of stoned people on bikes. Lol!
The US changed the covid testing requirements to return while we were on our cruise, so we needed to have a test done in Amsterdam within one day of our return flight. AmaWaterways gave us the contact information for a pharmacy in Amsterdam where we were able to schedule an appointment and our tour guide actually took us there to make sure we didn’t have any problems finding it. Without him we would have been lost, as it was located down a long alleyway and not well marked. If we had been on the amazing race, this would have been the leg where we were eliminated if we didn’t have his help.
We overnighted in Amsterdam, but their government instituted a 5 pm curfew due to rising covid numbers, so we did not explore the city in the evening. I would love to return and do a tour into the countryside and also visit the famous Ice Bar.
We had a 10 am nonstop flight on Delta Airlines from Amsterdam to Detroit, so we were up and on our way for an early departure from the ship. We booked our airport transfers with AmaWaterways and they provided a spotless Mercedes SUV and driver for our private transfer. An AmaWaterways hostess met us at the airport and directed us to the Delta counter to check our bags. Our return flight was on time and uneventful.
Side Note: Because we always have to have a little excitement in our lives…Tommy could not find his wallet when we were packing up to leave the ship. Since we were on a tight schedule, we had to go or risk missing our flight home. This is not the first time he has lost his wallet when travelling, so he actually has the tile tracking devise in his wallet and the app showed that it was in Paris. Once we landed back in Michigan, he checked the app again and it had updated showing that it was on the ship. I emailed the firstname.lastname@example.org email address again and they were able to locate it and they are express mailing it back to us. My guess is that it somehow wound up under the bed, because we looked everywhere else in our cabin. Ama provided truly first class service every step of the way, but I am pretty confident that we are on the “annoying high maintenance passengers that should never sail with AmaWaterways again” list. 😉
Would we river cruise again? Absolutely. I would even do this itinerary again with warmer weather so that we could enjoy the biking tours and hiking through the vineyards.
Now on to enjoying a frohe Weihnachten!