Life on the low seas.
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A boat on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal, viewed through greenery on the riverbank
Amsterdam is the perfect jumping-off point for a European tour.
| Credit: Miquel Gonzalez

Standing on my private balcony as the AmaSiena navigated the mist-cloaked Rhine River, I had a postcard view of the pastoral German countryside. Terraces of dew-drenched greenery rose to meet a stone-gray sky. Punctuating this tableau was a procession of castles, the sort of soaring medieval fortresses I'd previously only seen on jigsaw-puzzle boxes. One, crowned with a series of ink-black towers, looked straight out of a fairy tale. This was like no other cruise I'd ever been on — and I've been on my fair share, 30 at last count, almost all of them in the Caribbean.

The sights I'm accustomed to — stands of leaning coconut palms on ivory scallops of sand; glassy expanses of turquoise water stretching as far as the eye can see — were nowhere to be found. Instead, on my trip through the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland last summer aboard the newly launched ship, we sailed past mountains blanketed in dense deciduous forests and towns filled with gabled cottages. In Cologne, Germany, we docked less than five minutes from the city center and its 700-year-old Gothic cathedral. In Amsterdam, all that stood between me and a paper cone of thick-cut fries topped with mayonnaise was a 10-minute stroll across canal bridges dressed with fresh flowers.

Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt square, with people dining at outdoor cafe tables
Amsterdam's Nieuwmarkt square.
| Credit: Miquel Gonzalez

But the ease of cultural immersion isn't the only perk, as I discovered. A typical river cruise carries fewer than 200 passengers, a scale that, in the pandemic era, feels much more comfortable than a 3,000-person mega-ship. The AmaSiena, which is the newest vessel in the fleet of AmaWaterways, has 78 cabins that accommodate a maximum of 156 passengers, all of whom must be vaccinated. Beyond the lack of crowds, the size offers another advantage: passengers can get from their staterooms to the pier in two minutes, without the usual odyssey of packed elevators and "which deck are we on?" confusion that's common on large oceangoing ships. And since the vessel is so compact — AmaSiena has just four decks, two restaurants, a lounge, a fitness room, a small swimming pool, and a salon — I found it easy to get my bearings.

The AmaSiena river cruise ship in Lahnstein, Germany.
The AmaSiena in Lahnstein, Germany.
| Credit: Miquel Gonzalez

It's true that river ships operated by AmaWaterways, along with other brands that cater to U.S. travelers, such as TauckUniworld Boutique River Cruises, and Viking, lack some of the luxuries found on some polished oceangoing vessels, such as unlimited caviar or butler service. What they do deliver is highly professional hospitality and surroundings on par with what you'd find at European hotels. AmaSiena's cabins are light-filled and spacious, with balconies and colorful contemporary décor. On my trip, both restaurants sourced ingredients from the towns we visited, and meals were beautifully presented alongside house wines or beer. (The smaller of the two restaurants, Chef's Table, won me over with a lemongrass soup served with oyster mushrooms, vegetable dumplings, and pumpkin relish.) The free Wi-Fi was strong no matter where I was on board, and opportunities to splurge were few, outside of the spa. The only extras beyond the fare, really, were tips for tour guides.

A stateroom on the Amasiena river cruise ship, showing large windows, and red sofa and chairs
A stateroom on the ship.
| Credit: Miquel Gonzalez

But the biggest surprise for me, as a first-timer, was just how much there was to do on land. Because river ships cover shorter distances, there are no "sea days," and the AmaSiena arrived in a new port each morning. "For us, every day is a 'see day,'" joked Kristin Karst, executive vice president of AmaWaterways, when I met her aboard. The fact that there's so much to do is helping draw more visitors to Europe's rivers, she said. "We've seen a significant number of new bookings for 2022 from traditional ocean cruisers seeking smaller ships with more personalized experiences," Karst noted. As I discovered while marveling at those castles, sometimes you don't even have to step ashore to find them.