On AmaCerto, one not such a lonely number

By Donna Tunney
AmaWaterways AmaCertoIt's about a 10-minute walk along the waterfront behind Amsterdam's Central Station to a small harbor where the river cruise ships dock.

As I made my way toward AmaWaterways' AmaCerto, where I was to spend the next seven days cruising the rivers and canals of the Netherlands and Belgium, I trailed behind more than a dozen other passengers, each with rolling suitcases and bundled up with scarves and hats against the unseasonably low temperatures and howling winds of late March.

As far as I could tell, that's where the similarities between us ended, since these other passengers were walking in twos, and I was a solo traveler.

They chatted to each other and pointed at various sites along the way with the unmistakable enthusiasm of those about to embark on a long-planned vacation adventure.

I began to wonder, as I'm sure all solo cruisers must: What's it going to be like on this style of ship -- small, intimate and booked mostly by older couples? Who would I sit with at dinner? Will I stand out like a sore thumb while everyone else is happily creating shared memories?

These worries were suddenly and unceremoniously wiped from my mind by a head-to-toe drenching.

An enormous dredge, digging what will become a tunnel under the Ij (pronounced eye) River, had slammed into the water, splashing a big wave over the walkway.

I was in its way. Now, along with fighting the cold and the wind, I was soaked. The worst part was that, as a solo traveler, there was no one with whom to share my exasperation, no one to vent to.

I arrived at the AmaCerto, looking as though I'd just washed up on the riverbank after tumbling out of a water taxi. My solo adventure had started with a bang, or rather, a wet whoosh, but it was to be the last time I'd have no one to share an experience with on this trip.

AmaCerto loungeIt turned out that 13 people were booked as singles on the AmaCerto. Not all of this baker's dozen were traveling alone; most were part of a family or family-and-friends group who wanted the privacy of their own cabins. All told, there were three other cruisers who, like me, knew no one else onboard.

AmaCerto cruise director Maddy Caldaruse announced at the end of the first night's welcome reception that anyone cruising alone was invited to stay behind for a few minutes and meet their fellow solo travelers.

Two of us did so, and that's when I met Maria, a pharmacist from Australia. We became fast friends, and we soon connected with Una, who hailed from Philadelphia and was also traveling alone.

On Day Two of our cruise, we three met up with three other ladies: two sisters and their friend. The sisters were sharing a cabin while their friend had booked her own. We became a gang of six, sharing a table in the dining room, strolling together on excursions and chatting like old pals. It was not what I had expected on this sailing, which operated roundtrip from Amsterdam and visited destinations such as Volendam and Arnhem, in the Netherlands, and Antwerp and Ghent, in Belgium.

The demographics of our cruise was also a surprise to Caldaruse.

In an interview about midway through our sailing, she said that the number of passengers booked as singles was unusually high. Typically, she said, there are less than a handful on any AmaCerto cruise, whether part of a group or going solo. About 80% of the ship's single travelers are women, she added.

"Some are widows, others leave their husbands at home because the men don't want to travel," she said. "It isn't unusual for solo guests to feel uncomfortable the first few days onboard until they get to know people."

Our cruise demographic was notable in other ways, too. Of the 152 passengers onboard (the ship carries up to 164), she said there were 16 children.

AmaCerto Amsterdam"I've seen whole seasons where we might have only one child or two children come aboard," said Caldaruse, who has worked for AmaWaterways for several years.

As a solo traveler, I found some advantages in being alone when I wanted to be and socializing when the spirit moved me. My solo traveler friends had similar notions; they'd go off by themselves for a few hours in the afternoon, then turn up at cocktail hour or at dinner.

Maria, the Australian, said she travels abroad every year when she takes a monthlong vacation.

"I have no problem traveling alone, and I've been doing this for years," said the Brisbane native. "I plan ahead, decide where I want to go, and I go."

Maria had started her trip this year with several days in New York. She then flew to Amsterdam to board AmaCerto. After the cruise she was headed to London for five days, then to Singapore and finally, back to Brisbane.

There also happened to be four travel agents on my cruise, all of whom I came to know during our weeklong itinerary. They agreed that trying to sell cruises or land vacations to solo travelers is a tough pitch, mainly due to single supplement policies. (Read related story, "Traveling solo" for more information on what some tour operators and cruise lines are doing for solo travelers.) 

A few upscale and luxury cruise lines, including AmaWaterways and Crystal Cruises, and some tour operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent, frequently offer reduced or waived single supplements on certain departures. These are the exception rather than the rule.

I liked the cozy, slow-paced atmosphere on the AmaCerto and, based on past experiences aboard large ships, it seemed to me far easier to connect with people and to find companionship on this smaller vessel.

On the second day of my AmaCerto cruise I walked into the dining room and past a table where a California couple already was seated. I had met them briefly the day before.

One of them called out: "Where are you sitting?" And the other chimed in: "Why not join us for dinner?"

I thanked them and said I was expected at another table. It was just one example of friendship extended to me and to the other solo cruisers throughout our weeklong sailing.

As for the fourth solo traveler on our ship, I never did meet her. My Australian friend confided that she had approached the mystery cruiser and invited her to join us for drinks or a meal.

"She's from New York City, and she sounds just like Woody Allen," Marie told me. "I think she wants to be alone."

Too bad, I thought. She'd have loved my dredge story.
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