Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Breathe in, breathe out, stretch your arms, take a sip.
It’s my first time doing yoga on a ship and my posture is improving at the same rate as my buzz.
“Champagne yoga,” a sparkling twist on exercise offered by river cruise line AmaWaterways, improves core strength as much as it helps prepare passengers for Happy Hour.
The activity has all the breathing and stretches one might expect from traditional yoga. Except it involves holding a glass of bubbly (or any beverage) as an added balancing measure.
Here’s the fun part: whenever a motion is complete, participants are invited to take a sip from their glass.
No champagne, no gain.
At least that’s what I thought while taking direction from our onboard wellness coach, Jooau, as he led a mimosa-spiked class on the sun-drenched top deck of the AmaStella, a luxurious 78-stateroom river ship, while docked in Kinderdijk, a Dutch village located roughly 100 km from Amsterdam by car.
A small group of us were getting physical – make that fizzical – as we readied our bodies for an active day on land, where AmaWaterways organizes expert-led tours, for all abilities, of the villages, towns and cities it sails into.
Our cruise from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3, 2022, explored the “Best of Holland and Belgium,” a new itinerary (inspired by Ama’s spring “Tulip Time” sailing) that glides through a vast network of rivers and canals, from Amsterdam to Amsterdam, in the summer and autumn months.
READ MORE: PAX unpacks the best of Holland & Belgium with agents & AmaWaterways
We were also in the best of company. The cruise, operating at less than half capacity (just 71 passengers out of the total 156 allowed) was booked exclusively for U.S. and Canada-based travel professionals.
Among us were 50 Canadians, representing companies such as Trevello (formally TPI), Cruise CEO, Nexion, CAA and Expedia.
Some travel advisors were river cruising for the very first time.
But for all on board, it was an opportunity to experience the “Ama difference” so they could better sell the brand to their clients.
“How do you sell a feeling? You have to come on board and experience it,” host Sandra Gardiner, director of national accounts in Canada for AmaWaterways, told PAX, which covered the cruise exclusively. “You can’t put the feeling you get when you come on board in a brochure.”
Ottawa-based travel advisor Kim Paquette, a.k.a “The Travel Queen,” had two good reasons for joining the cruise, which sailed through more than 20 locks and channels, stopping in Dutch and Belgian villages, towns and cities.
One, in her hometown, there’s local interest in the Netherlands. Her community is inhabited by many Dutch farmers – children who have inherited land from their parents who immigrated to Canada after the war.
And two, AmaWaterways is the only river brand she sells.
“I know they’ll stand behind me and my clients,” Paquette told PAX. “When the water is high or low, my clients will be happy.”
“It’s also important we do cruises ourselves. It adds a lot of creditability.”
Travel advisor Marilyn Long of CAA Atlantic in Charlottetown, P.E.I, is also a fan of the brand.
“Ama is my go-to,” Long told PAX. “The meals are exceptional. You never feel like you’ve ever eaten too much. There’s lots of variety.”
“Ama” means love
AmaWaterways offers a high-end experience that one might find at a luxury boutique hotel. Except this hotel floats.
The company’s 26 small-sized ships are packed with refined details, from spacious staterooms (many of which have both French and outside balconies), locally-sourced food and wine (which changes daily), and personalized service.
The friendly onboard staff and crew will likely learn your name and remember things, like where you left your sweater in the lounge the night before.
And the attentiveness! One guest on board shared a joke, saying, “I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and when I returned, my bed was made.”
Our vibrant ship, the AmaStella, which debuted in 2016, had green apple and fuchsia-toned interiors – designs handpicked by company co-founder Kristin Karst.
The influence of Karst and partner Rudi Schreiner, also a co-founder, dubbed the “Godfather of River Cruising” for his early roles in shaping Uniworld and Viking, and for having a hand in starting Avalon, is found shipwide.
Schreiner, an architect by trade, designed Ama’s ships to withstand low water levels – an issue that can sometimes disrupt river cruises in Europe, resulting in passengers being bused from port to port.
“We have the shallowest drafts,” Gardiner noted. “In low-water situations – as low as 10 inches – we’re the last ones affected. Not a lot of water is needed to put our ships through.”
AmaStella’s staterooms, which have marble bathrooms, range from 155-235 sq. ft. to larger suites at 350 sq. ft. (suite categories come with perks, too, like complimentary laundry).
And there’s a host of other onboard amenities, like a heated top-deck pool, two restaurants (one main, one Chef’s Table venue), a fitness studio and a hair salon.
The vibe is upscale but not uptight.
Passengers – well-travelled types of various ages – naturally gravitate towards each other, swapping stories over cocktails, which are served in the ship’s lounge each night before supper at a “Sip & Sail” happy hour.
The lounge is also where live entertainment unfolds on select nights, showcasing local talent.
But what stands out the most on board is this warm feeling of belonging to a family.
“Ama” means love in Latin, which sums up the bond that quickly blooms between crew, staff and passengers.
When the ship captain comes down to the lounge to bust a move with guests, you know you’re involved in something special.
“It’s a James Bond job”
Our daily leader was a kind-hearted (and incredibly fashionable) cruise manager named Rachel – a “big sister,” smiling with love and light, who created a colourfully positive energy on board with daily humour and sibling-like rivalries with other staff while maintaining the highest level of care, organization and professionalism.
Rachel led the morning, afternoon and evening announcements, making sure we all knew where to be and when.
“The cruise manager tries to bring everyone together, from the guests to the crew. It’s all about creating moments and memories,” said Rachel, now in her tenth year with the company. “It’s a James Bond job – you never know what’s going to happen.”
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, like when there’s a traffic jam of ships trying to get through a lock and a departure time is delayed, which can impact excursions.
This happened on our cruise, and Rachel, alongside the hotel manager, crew and captain, quickly and calmly ensured that passengers were kept in the loop on backup plans, such as docking in alternative locations.
In the end, (and likely thanks to the team’s efforts), our itinerary wasn’t altered all that much.
“Together, we are stronger. We always look for good solutions,” Captain Rolf Kikkert, who has steered ships for 40 years, told PAX. “We do it every day with love.”
Transparency can go a long way on a river ship – especially when staff and crew are being open, authentic and honest when unexpected situations arise.
What Hotel Manager Attila appreciates most about AmaWaterways, where’s he’s worked since 2005, is that the company promotes a culture where personalities are allowed to shine.
“You can be yourself and still deliver a great product and experience,” he said.
Sit, walk or cycle?
The most stressful part about an AmaWaterways cruise is deciding which excursions to sign up for.
Ama offers access to some of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
Each day spent in a port offers multiple (included) excursions, from walking tours led by local guides to transfers into nearby cities to guided bike rides.
Our multi-river cruise through the two provinces of North and South Holland, and Belgium, unlocked a world of discovery (which was shared by everyone on the cruise, regardless of which excursion they chose).
Our starting point in Amsterdam gave guests a chance to tour the city's famous canals, or explore Floriade, a horticultural expo that’s held once every ten years, or see Kasteel de Haar, the largest castle in the Netherlands.
While docked in the Dutch village of Veere, guests could transfer to nearby sites like the Floodwater Museum, which chronicles a major flood that took place in the Netherlands in 1953.
Some simply strolled around Veere, a storybook-like municipality with adorable shops and eateries.
Others bused (or cycled) to Middelburg to see it’s towering Gothic-style town hall and sip wine at a local restaurant.
When we sailed into Belgium, the full-day tour of Bruges, a dreamy city located in the northwest, emerged as a crowd pleaser.
The cobblestoned UNESCO-protected medieval town is full of canals, chocolate shops and stepped gable brick buildings that resemble colourful gingerbread houses.
And 34 meters below street level, there’s a story: Bruges is home to the world’s first beer pipeline.
It was installed by Halve Maan (Half Moon Brewery) to transport beer from its brewery in the suburbs three-kilometres away.
(We tasted the beer, by the way. And it’s PAX approved).
When we arrived in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and home to the administrative centre of the European Union, it was toss-up between a local walk or the historic Battle of the Bulge tour.
Most ventured into the city to enjoy a cone of thick-cut Flemish fries with a glob of mayo on the side while taking in Brussels’ opulent Grand Palace and city square.
By afternoon, almost everyone had slipped into hair nets at the Belgian Chocolate Makers, where we learned about the art of chocolate making. We got to make our own decorative bars!
In the port city of Antwerp, it was all about the Belgian waffles dusted in powder sugar – the “Flavours of Belgium” tour was full of mouth-watering enjoyment. A “Beer Tasting Tour” was also offered. Others chose to see Antwerp’s Renaissance architecture by bicycle.
“It doesn’t matter if your clients can jog, walk, roll or if they’re in a wheelchair, they’re accommodated easily,” as travel advisor Patricia Miner of Cruise CEO, pointed out. “Everyone can enjoy this.”
Our final day of exploring, before returning to Amsterdam, was in the Netherlands, in Dordrecht, known for its canals and picturesque warehouses.
This is near the major port city of Rotterdam, famous for its cube houses and maritime history, and the borough of Delfshaven. We toured both.
But the highlight, hands down, was cycling through Kinderdijk, an iconic Netherlands landscape of rural farmland, swans and UNESCO-recognized windmills.
These towering bladed structures, some of which date back to the 1600s, are used for pumping rainwater out of fields.
Kinderdijk doesn’t necessarily rely on windmills today – advanced technology now competes the same process.
But the windmills must turn in order to maintain their heritage status.
They actually double as residences (yes, you can live inside a windmill), and as per UNESCO rules, it’s up to inhabitants to ensure their windmill achieves a certain quota of spins.
Our guide said the demand to become a “windmiller” is so high, there’s a 50-year waiting list (low monthly rent is one incentive to move in), and windmills can be passed down to family members.
One family has been operating a Kinderdijk windmill for 11 generations!
Reflecting on the week, Caroline Hay, national director of sales at Trevello and president of Cruise CEO, couldn’t believe how jam-packed and active the trip was.
“There’s this mindset that river cruising is for seniors only,” Hay said. “But this is also a young person’s adventure. You can make it as active as you want.”
One thing’s for sure: when the adventure is over, and everybody goes home, you’ll marvel on the experience and say to yourself: I can’t believe we did all that.
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