ONBOARD THE AMAKRISTINA — When I sat down to interview AmaWaterways co-owner Kristin Karst during the christening cruise for her namesake river vessel AmaKristina, she turned the tables on me
As a subscriber to Travel Weekly, Karst said, she reads my luxury eletter regularly, looking for new ideas and trends, and she and husband Rudi Schreiner are on a constant quest to adapt and update their ships and excursions for the ever-evolving luxury market.
So, she asked, are they getting it right?
Absolutely, I said, in all sincerity.
Last week's christening for the AmaKristina, as it sailed the Rhine from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, was my first river cruise and my third cruise of any kind, including a two-week sail through the Greek Islands on the luxurious Crystal Symphony.
So my bar was high, and I had no idea what to expect, knowing only that brochures for river cruises starting arriving at my house almost simultaneously with the AARP mailings that mark 50th birthdays. Nonetheless, the river cruise industry is trying hard to shake its image as a floating hotel for old people.
Cabins on the ship have comfortable beds and fine linens. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
From a luxury perspective, the AmaKristina certainly hit all the marks for me. The cabins, despite the size limitations of any river vessel, have all the amenities of most of the finest hotels I have stayed in: incredibly comfortable beds, fine linens and towels; desks with televisions that double as a computer with a constant internet connection and accompanying keyboard and mouse; plenty of plugs and USB ports; plus indoor and outdoor seating areas on the company's signature twin balconies.
The decor, Schreiner said, is purposely modeled more after a modern luxury hotel than other ships. There's no gaudy gold chandeliers on this vessel.
While the overall floor plan is almost identical to the other ships AmaWaterways has launched in recent years, the AmaKristina's distinguishing characteristic is its interior design, featuring bright pops of orange-red and turquoise and its seemingly mismatched but tasteful, colorful patterns scattered throughout the rooms and public areas.
The cuisine easily meets the latest in luxury standards, with gourmet offerings and wines that highlight the ship's locale.
Most important, however, is the impeccable and very personal service, which I consider to be the defining factor of any luxury experience. My cabin was just three down from the common area that houses one of several self-service cappuccino machines. I would go there each morning to grab two cups to get me through my morning email. Not once did I make it back to my cabin without a staff member — housekeeping or the hotel manager — dropping whatever they were doing to offer help.
My biggest hesitation to cruising has always been the guided excursions. While many travelers enjoy the educational opportunities and ease of exploring, I prefer to wander cities on my own and simply people-watch. On this trip, my favorite part was checking out one the ship's numerous bikes and cruising Strasbourg, France, unattended with several of my fellow travelers.
Festivities in Lahnstein, Germany, before the AmaKristina’s christening. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
AmaWaterways was the first to make bikes a standard amenity. Schreiner and Karst said they are constantly looking for ways to accommodate families and younger and more active travelers, not only with bikes and guided hiking and biking excursions but also through more seven-day rather than 14-day cruises and partnerships with wine clubs, Adventures by Disney and adventure biking company Backroads.
The staff is also flexible about accommodating guests looking for something more personal than the standard group excursions. On our cruise, a small group wanted to bike at the Mannheim, Germany, stop, so the staff quickly rounded up a guide and put together a 20-mile ride to Schwetzingen Palace, which required tricky navigation through a maze of busy streets and bike trails that would have been nearly impossible for us to try on our own.
These efforts to bring in new demographics appear to be working. Over the last 10 years the average age of passengers has dropped by about 10 years, Schreiner said.
He attributed much of that to return business from younger travelers who have discovered river cruising through the partnerships. My trip was sponsored by the cruise line itself, but as one of the more active (slightly younger) travelers they are trying to target, I can say with all certainty that I will be back.