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Cruising my way to the Christmas Markets!

Let’s start with a quick story: It was September 2016. I had just created Happy Hour Travel and was in the “training training training” mode with suppliers. Among them, AmaWaterways, a company that offers River Cruises in different parts of the world. Some of their itineraries are for the Christmas Markets in Europe (along the Rhine and the Danube river)... and I told myself "one day I will do this!".

Fast forward to September 2021. We were just getting out of some really messy years with a lot of travel cancellations (Covid!). I was at a travel agent conference and watched another presentation from AmaWaterways. By then, I had booked some clients with them and they all had a great time. The Christmas Markets itineraries came up again and as soon as the presentation ended, I made the decision to not only book my trip but to make it a girls' group trip! One that we could get together, drink good wine, talk, laugh and forget all about all the gazillion responsibilities we have and the multiple plates we balance.

I sold out the cabins I had reserved in just a few weeks!

Fast forward again, now into December 2022. Our ladies' group could not believe the date had finally arrived. So much anticipation, so much excitement. We were finally traveling to Amsterdam to board our ship and you are about to learn all about our experience!

AmaPrima: from Amsterdam to Basel

This is a 7-night journey filled with stops in beautiful towns. The itinerary started in Amsterdam so we arrived a day before for two reasons: one, I always advise getting to the board city at least a day before to avoid issues with flight delays, and two, to spend more time at this really cool city.

We had an awesome city tour with a private guide, visited the Van Gogh museum, explore the streets and canals, and the next day we boarded the AmaPrima ship. I actually had an emotional moment right before I entered it. It was a LOT of work to put this group together and we were finally there. Plus, of course, I was starting to fulfill the dream of river cruising during the Christmas Markets season.

The AmaPrima ship

The ship had beautiful Christmas decorations all over it. The lounge had multiple Christmas Trees, ornaments, and lights… each one of the cabin doors had its own decorated garland.

The ship is very nice, in excellent shape, well decorated, with comfortable couches, and beautiful decor.

The reception is right in the middle of the ship. Right behind it, there is also a small library area and a cute shop (prices were better than outside shops which was surprising). Then there is the lounge with a bar in the center, and lots of seating areas around it… all with gorgeous views of the river.

There is an elevator, connecting all 3 levels. On level 1 they have a restaurant and some cabins. On level 2, there are more cabins and another lounge at the back of the ship. And on level 3 there are more cabins, the chef’s table restaurant (you get to eat there once during your journey. It’s included and it was impeccable), the gym (very small but it works for basic exercise), and the massage room.

On the deck, there were plenty of seating areas and a heated pool. It was way too cold for us to enjoy it but I could definitely see how wonderful it would be to spend some time there if the temperature was a bit better.

The AmaPrima cabins

They have quite a few types to choose from:

AA: French balcony, plus a regular balcony, plus seating area. It’s the largest cabin and it’s on the top level.

BA: similar to AA but a bit smaller. There are also a French balcony and a regular balcony, plus the seating area. Level 3.

BB: Like the BA, but on Level 2.

C: French Balcony cabin, with a very small seating area right next to the bed. It’s small but comfortable.

D: these are the “interior cabins” but with two small windows (they don’t open though). It’s the smallest one (also the cheapest) and it’s on Level 1.

Beds in all cabins can be put together for a Queen bed, or separated for two twins.

Bathrooms are small (it’s a ship cabin, after all) but with enough space to shower.

I enjoyed everything but I did send AmaWaterways two suggestions about the cabins: I was not a big fan of the linen quality (towels weren’t very plushy and the bed comforters were relatively small). So definitely room for improvement there.

And the storage area in the cabin is not great but not bad. There is a good size wardrobe and some storage under the beds. But it was lacking an outlet next to the bed. I don’t sleep with my phone next to me, but my friend does and was missing that.

The AmaPrima restaurant, foods, and drinks

Dinner is at 7pm. No rotation is necessary as everyone fits in the restaurant and you can come a little later if you want.

Food most of the days were solid good. Some of them were just ok. Some of them were amazing, especially considering cooking a 5-course menu every day in a small ship’s kitchen.

Lunches and dinners are a multi-course affair and you get to pick whatever you want on the daily menu. As many or as few as you would like.

Wine and beer are included with the meals. I thought the wine was excellent!!! But then again, I’m not very knowledgeable nor picky with wine but I really enjoyed them and got the name of some new brands to buy at home.

** Fun fact **: the menu changes depending on the country you are in. So when we were in Germany, we had German food and German wines. In France, French food and French wines. I loved that! And there are also a couple of options on the menu that are more generic and available every night.

Every evening, one hour before dinner, we had a cocktail hour with a specialty drink being served (also included) and you can of course order whatever you want, at any time, at the bar and have that charged to your room.

There is a specialty coffee machine where guests can serve themselves at any time, also included.

The AmaPrima service

If you have traveled on any ship before in your life, you know how HARD the crew works. And they are, most often, away from their families for long periods of time (for example, the bartender is from Indonesia, was sailing since March, and would only get to go home in January for a couple of months before another sailing season starts). So these people are mostly alone, in a small cabin, working working working… with that in mind, I’m always weary about reviewing service because I think it’s practically impossible to keep the service flawless, especially under these specific conditions.

With that being said, I think the service was excellent. We did have some slow service during dinner a couple of nights (but then again, we were sailing, we weren’t late for anything). We did have one or two crew members looking a bit stressed out at times. But the vast majority of the time they were all smiling and ready to help. Most even remembered our preferences early on and I had one server who always joked about serving me white wine when he already knew I always asked for red. As the days went by, the environment was becoming more and more familiar.

The cleaning crew was on top of things! Our cabins were cleaned and organized throughout 3x a day, as were other areas of the ship.

The cruise manager, Henrique (or Henry) seemed to be everywhere at all times, making sure things were running smoothly, keeping everyone informed, making presentations, arranging the tours and transfers, and God knows what else because being in the industry, I know a lot of things happen on the “backstage” that guests don’t even know about (which of course states for a job well done).

We had a Disco party planned for one of the nights, but unfortunately, the musician wasn’t feeling well so instead the group manager organized a game night in Family Feud style. I want to make a formal statement that our girls' group did NOT know it was a PG-13 game so we may or may not have answered a few questions in a more adult fashion which cost us the championship (oh no, we were not competitive at all) but it was a lot more fun haha. We did get a bottle of champagne as a consolation prize which I think it was more to recognize our creativity?!?

The AmaPrima tours

We have tours included at each stop and we had a couple of options to choose from. I love that AmaWaterways has active options (hiking and biking), regular tours, and also gentle tours (for people who have mobility difficulty or just want to take it slow).

We got to see not only some pretty cool places but also learn about history. I love city tours because I really enjoy learning what the places mean, what happened there, and so on.

The guides were great, and tours were very well planned as they all allowed plenty of free time to explore on our own. We each have our own devices to hear the guides clearly without having to stand right next to them, which was pretty cool.

The AmaPrima entertainment

Ok, If I had to point out one thing that I would improve is the entertainment. Unfortunately, a few staff members were sick during our sailing and some of the things they had planned ended up not happening. We would spend the whole day out visiting the towns, have dinner, but after that wasn’t anything going on really. I’m sure it worked great for some of the travelers as they head to the cabin to rest but being a person that wants to make the most out of everything, I felt like they could have had some fun things happening. Some guests would just go to the lounge and hand in there for a while (as we did, and because we were on a larger group it was always fun to just stay around having a conversation) but maybe a movie night, a casino night, something night would have been fun. I sent these suggestions to AmaWaterways as well :)

The special touches

I also loved the special touches that happened throughout our sailing. I won’t say anything specific to not ruin any future surprises but let’s just say we were pampered and loved it!!

The guests

Because I did a lot of training on AmaWaterways I already knew about the guest profile and it was exactly what I expected: a very laid-back crowd, everyone was clearly there to enjoy themselves and the places we were visiting. Pretty much everyone was very friendly. Captain’s night (which is usually something to dress up for) was very informal too which I think the vast majority of us appreciated it.

There was a big range in ages but as is usual with river cruises, the majority was 55+. We didn’t have any families with children in our sailing but I know that during the summer and winter breaks, AmaWaterways have families with children and teens on board. They definitely attract a younger crowd than some other river cruise companies.

The Christmas Markets on the Rhine!

Oh, where to begin? They are as magical as they seem to be, and it was interesting to see so many different ones: from large and crowded to small and quiet, and in between. I personally loved them all.

Pretty much what you see in one Christmas Market is what you see in the next one but there are different local vendors and artists so the products being sold can change.

Definitely drink the Gluhwein (mulled wine, which is a delicious hot wine with spices) served in a special mug. When you buy it, you pay for the wine and the mug. If you don’t want to take the mug home you can return it and get your money back. But who in their right mind would not stock up on cute mugs from European Christmas Markets in old and charming towns that remind you of the wonderful trip you did? Exactly. Just make sure you plan for some space in your luggage, haha.

I tried every traditional food: the fried potato pancakes with apple sauce, the warm roasted nuts, the chocolate this and chocolate that, the drinks, the cookies, you name it. Some were better, and some were ok, but because this is very personal, I will just say: try them all and make your own conclusions :-)

In the end, we got a shuttle to Zurich and spent one day there, exploring yet another (and dare I say, one of the best) Christmas Market, eating a good fondue, and exploring the Lindt museum/factory.

Our trip was incredible and so much fun! I will never ever forget this experience.

These were my favorite parts (I know, there are a lot of them!!):

  • To travel with my clients, who became friends. It was so so special to have that close connection.

  • To bring my mom and to give her an opportunity to experience this type of travel.

  • To share a room with my best friend and talk about things we rarely have time for, and to just walk the whole day checking everything out and saying “how cute is that” every 5 seconds.

  • To visit large towns like Amsterdam, Cologne, and Zurich.

  • To visit small towns/villages that date from 1200 and see some of the original houses!

  • To sit on the ship lounge, with tea in hand, and spend a good time enjoying the view and all the wonderful places we were sailing by. And asking myself… Am I really here?

  • To meet other people on the ship and get to talk to them about various subjects at different times. People fascinate me.

  • I missed my boys (husband and sons) so much and it was so weird to do a trip like this without them. But for the first time in more than 16 years (since I became a mom), I got to be ME for a few days. Not wife, not mom, just me. And it felt good. It also felt scary, and interesting… but it mostly felt good. I didn’t even know where that person was anymore. Powerful, I know!

I keep saying this over and again: travel changes us.

It makes us grow beyond what we learn and experience. It makes us connect with the world, with each other, and with ourselves. And this is just priceless.

And if you get to do that on an awesome ship, with an incredible itinerary, with a company that clearly cares about their guests' experience, it’s golden.

Here is my shout-out to AmaWaterways: thank you for all of it.

I hope every person gets to experience it at least once in their lifetime. I know I’m already starting to plan my next one :)

If you want to experience river cruising, contact me here and I will match you with a great itinerary and give you all the tips! Request a quote here.


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