Confidence is on the rise -- in Europe at least -- as dozens of river cruise ships ply the rivers and canals of Europe.
In fact, river cruises have been operating safely here since June -- and I was fortunate enough to be on one of the first, A-ROSA on the Douro.
(There has been just one COVID-19 outbreak, on a Croisi river cruise ship in Portugal at the end of its cruise, infecting two passengers and five crew members.)
However, all these lines have one thing in common -- they are all European. The huge fleets from U.S.-based cruise lines in Europe such as Viking, Uniworld and AmaWaterways are idle, except for one.
In cooperation with the German tour operator e-hoi, AmaWaterways is operating the AmaKristina along the Rhine River since mid-July, catering mainly to a German-speaking audience as well as Dutch and Belgians. (This series of AmaWaterways charters with e-hoi are shorter in duration and don't include all amenities provided during a typical, noncustomized AmaWaterways cruise.)
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I hopped onboard to get a taste of the "new normal" -- and with strict rules in place I feel safer on a river cruise ship than I do when shopping, not to mention a ride on public transportation.
River Cruising as Usual, Well Almost
It almost feels like a pre-COVID-19 river cruise, really. When embarking, the ship is no longer the only one on the river, as it was just a few weeks ago.
Sometimes there are five or six ships in town at the same time, like in beautiful Cochem on the Mosel River.
(On land it's a different story, as neither Americans nor Asians can travel to Europe. So even a popular place like the Drosselgasse in Ruedesheim is almost empty.)
But still, COVID-19 is an ever-present concern. So how much does this affect the overall experience?
At several occasions I totally forgot about the face mask requirements, figuratively speaking as well as literally, and the crew were always around to give me a prompt but friendly reminder. Crew always wear face masks, and always as mandated -- I never saw the mask of a crew member below the nose.
AmaWaterways has found a great solution for keeping appropriate distance between passengers in the lounge: seating areas are separated by non-glare plexiglass partitions that are almost invisible.
When I took my photos of the lounge, I only recognized the plexiglass after really looking for them as I knew they were there. Two sofas left and right of a table plus two armchairs allow three couples to sit at one table with sufficient distance. That also means solo travelers do not suffer from social distancing as they will probably not sit in a corner on their own.
Large plexiglass panes at the guest services desk as well as the desks of the hotel manager and cruise director allows them to take of their face masks safely while talking to guests.
Body temperature is checked every morning before breakfast, hand sanitizing is expected when entering the ship and the restaurant, face masks are required at inside public spaces, except after sitting down at the lounge or restaurant.
While COVID-19 rules are being handled strictly, the atmosphere is still very relaxed. For example, there is no explicit capacity control at the pool which is actually pretty big for a river cruise ship.
People were frequently using the pool but took care of social distancing by themselves. It's just too bad that the swim-in bar can't open due to coronavirus restrictions.
Here's What's Missing
Here's what is missing or has changed from a typical AmaWaterways cruise, which looks like a long list, but eventually, it's all not really important stuff in these time:
- Champagne reception at the beginning of the cruise;
- the Captain's dinner;
- buffet and food station in the restaurant;
- fewer choices on the menu (but not noticeably so);
- swim-up bar in the pool;
- fitness studio, hair salon and massage available by appointment;
- entertainment is limited to a pianist, who is not even allowed to sing(!); no show acts from local guest entertainers;
- bar service only at lounge tables or on the sun deck;
- no self-service at the specialty coffee station at the lounge, but you can ask crew to serve you at any time;
- specialty restaurant "Chef's Table" is being used as overflow space for the main restaurant.
And unfortunately, but understandably, there is little to no contact to the cabin attendants.
But a few pluses: Fewer passengers as the ship is operating at 64 percent capacity; and room service is now officially available for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Biking, Fitness Classes and Active Walks
In times of COVID-19 it comes in handy that AmaWaterways always has bikes on board for passengers free to use or for guided biking tours like I did in Strasbourg.
Biking offers the easiest way to maintain social distancing while exploring a new city and gives you enough range to explore more distant places like the European quarter of Strasbourg without relying on public transportation in these times. And of course, the bikes are disinfected after each use.
What I like most though is the wide range of free fitness and wellness classes offered throughout the day by the Wellness Host, from line dance to balance and stretching.
My personal favorites are the active walks as a combination of swiftly walking and sightseeing where you get a basic idea of the attractions of a city while working out. These walks usually are between six to 10 kilometers long, lasting from one to two hours.
On a normal AmaWaterways, cruise the passenger mix would be predominantly North American, with Australasians and Brits -- certainly no Germans. Of course, on this charter cruise it was almost exclusively Germans, with a handful of Dutch.
The ship was also operating at two-thirds full, so there was a lot more space per passenger than you would find on a typical river cruise.
For many passengers on this it had been their first river cruise ever: They're either ocean cruisers trying out new things, or they are totally new to cruising on their quest for alternatives to their usual vacation habits. Specifically for AmaWaterways they also come from the luxury segment as travel restrictions are preventing them from spending time at second homes or favorite resorts far away.
So it's no wonder tour operator e-hoi told me they do have a number of passengers who, after experiencing the AmaKristina, booked another cruise, or two, for this year right away.
Definitely, the pleasure of enjoying a river cruise on the Rhine River in beautiful late-summer is by far outrunning the mostly minor restrictions on board due to COVID-19.
And these cruises by AmaWaterways and e-hoi on the AmaKristina, and later in the year on the AmaStella, do have the best value-for-price I've seen in a long time.
Large standard cabins with a combination of French and real balcony and a spacious bathroom are setting new standards at least for the German river cruise market. Food is superb and service is immaculate, about on the level as you usually experience with cruise lines like Seabourn.
I never heard a single "no" or "I have to check first" from a crew member during the six-nights cruise. Like a drink that's not on the bar menu? Just ask, a friendly crew member will oblige.
"Expect very personal service coming directly from the heart, and no fake smiles," Kristin Karst, co-owner of AmaWaterways promised me before my cruise on the AmaKristina.
And that's exactly what I found, except that most of the lovely smiles I had to read from the crew member's eyes because of their face masks.
It was a truly memorable cruise -- for all the right reasons -- and I can't wait to get back onboard.