I’ve been talking about river cruising with two innovators in the industry, Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst, co-founders of AmaWaterways. This year is the 20th anniversary of their luxury river cruise line.
(The interview has been edited and adapted.)
Lea Lane: For those who may not know, please describe some special pleasures of an AmaWaterways river cruise experience.
Kristin Karst: The luxury of space. Our ships are between 28-guests capacity on our smallest vessels in Africa to about 150 on the European rivers, to 190 on our double wide ship, the AmaMagna. It’s about the things our clients want: personal excursions, catering to interests, all our short excursions included. We operate them in very small groups; we have hiking and biking and many excursions at the same time. We surprise our guests.
Everything is included in the river cruise adventure, from six-star cuisine to finest local wines with lunches and dinner; bubbly in the morning or complimentary sip and sail hour prior to dinner. The cruise is so close to the riverbanks — seeing the castles, the vineyards, everyday a sea day (I say SEE day). Rivers physically take you through the country, while oceans take you to countries. I have to say the rivers do both, because even on a seven-night river cruise, let’s say the Rhine River, we sail from Amsterdam to Basel and cruise to four countries.
Rudi Schreiner: You actually get double the leisure time because you don’t have to check in, checkout. You arrive with your ship in town and you step off and you’re downtown. You go to bed at night and wake up the next morning in another city, and spend most of the time in town. You have a tremendous amount of leisure time on a river cruise and you see the the country from the little villages which you normally don’t see when you drive around Europe.
LL: And of course you unpack once. Now, what are the biggest differences between river cruising and ocean cruising? And how can you convince a cruise skeptic to try river cruising?
KK: Well it starts when you board the ship: check-in is maybe 30 seconds, one minute, and there are no long lines. You just embark, and our friendly crew awaits, so you become part of the family. You’re in your stateroom within a minute. And that of course is also happening when we disembark the ship.
For our shore excursions you can embark and disembark very leisurely. And you can either join our tours or go out on your own.
RS: And if you miss the ship, you take a taxi to the next. And you really do spend a lot of time in the towns. So the ship is really a means of transportation luxury, from town to town. And then you have the scenic part of the cruises, but a focus is really on the towns.
LL: Typical travelers on your river cruises?
RS: The majority I would say are well educated, upper-middle class, very much interested in culture, in touring, in cruising.
KK: We also welcome celebrations; culinary and wine is the number one, And we welcome families. Children are allowed from age four; I think it’s really good from age six. Our guests don’t compromise. Travelers really saved a lot of money in this past few years, and now want to live in style again, travel in style and make memories. Because nobody knows what’s coming tomorrow.
LL: What are some highlights of a cruise?
RS: We are cultural family cruises.We partner with Adventures by Disney. We also partner with Backroads, the bicycle operator. And pretty much all rivers in Europe are wine regions. They grow the wine right on the riverbanks.
LL: It’s so beautiful. You’re drinking the wine from grapes that may have been on those slopes a few years before.
Can you give us a few authentic rivers beyond Europe?
KK: So we also cruise the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. We have 26 ships on the Mekong, completely different culture and scenery from the rivers in Europe. And the Nile river in Egypt.
RS: One of the most unique experiences for me is when you’re on the Chobe River on the Zambezi Queen, and you go by little boat in Botswana. There are islands, and elephants swim across to them. And you see the trunks like snorkels coming up, and they ride 20 feet next to you a like a herd of elephants swimming next to you.
LL: I’ve experienced some wonderful river cruises, including in Myanmar, and Ukraine, where we went from the river to the Black Sea. I think many cruise ships travel to exotic places now.
Now, please tell us a little bit about innovations in the river cruise industry.
RS: Our European ships and pretty much also all of our other ships, Mekong and so on, have balconies. Today, the staterooms are much larger, much more generous. And food is very important. On AmaMagna we have four restaurants; in Europe we feature two restaurants.
A few years ago we introduced a fitness host on every ship. We have bicycles on all of our ships, but we also include on a weekly basis, three to four guided bicycle tours, with a guide in the back. The new ships have better engines, much more efficient. We are looking everyday into what else we can do. Today, many ships in Europe have so- called power locks that plug in to the city electric once we are stopped. Many cities already require that you have a power lock to to plug in to run generators. Very clean. And that’s becoming bigger and bigger in Europe.
LL: Very good to hear that. I know also that itineraries are getting longer on many cruise ships. You even have one that’s 47 nights embarking in 2023.
To end, what are special, personal cruise memories for you?
KK: On the Chobe river in in Africa, seeing herds of elephants at sunset coming down in a stampede to drink at the river, the babies in the middle. A spectacular moment. But the one I remember the most, and back to Africa, is the land program to Rwanda, to see the gorillas.
LL: How about you Rudi?
RS: The Moselle to me is the most beautiful cruise area in in Central Europe because it’s a meandering small river with extremely steep vineyards, very large and very green. And it’s so peaceful there with little villages. And the other, which is a bit comparable, is the Douro River in Portugal. The Douro is very narrow, fairly deep.
Sometimes you almost feel like you’re whitewater rafting, and sometimes you have the rocks right next to you: big rock formations coming up out of the water. These are two of my very special cruises in Europe.
(To hear the full cruising convo, listen to Episode 66. And please follow my award-winning travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane, on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Or on my website.)