Dinner was just wrapping up when several waiters emerged from the kitchen, one behind the other. Two carried birthday cakes lit with sparkling candles as they hurried toward two guests in the packed dining room onboard the 152-passenger AmaKristina.
The American version of the Happy Birthday song naturally followed. Its chorus was led by the waiters who no doubt have sung this same tune in the same way for scores of other guests on previous river cruises with AmaWaterways.
But before the waiters, many of whom hailed from Eastern Europe, could finish the final note of the song, the guests in the dining room—all of whom were Black travelers—broke out into Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song, a 1980s classic, revered and sung without fail in many African American communities, often during birthday celebrations.
It was the first night of AmaWaterways’ inaugural sailing of the Soulful Epicurean Experience, an 11-day river cruise itinerary designed to explore Black history and culture in southern France along the Rhône River and in Paris during a three-night extension.
Whether it was the gospel-like energy electrifying the room or the puzzled looks of amusement twisting smiles out of the waiters’ faces, everyone had suddenly come to a collective realization: This was going to be a different kind of river cruise and it was going to be fun.
The lack of Black travelers on river cruises
River cruising has traditionally catered to, and been marketed toward, white travelers. The travel style has been priced and promoted as a more luxurious experience than ocean cruising. And Black travel advisors say that historically ocean cruising has done a better job of attracting a more diverse passenger base, including Black travelers, largely because the marketing materials for ocean cruising are more inclusive.
“One of my frustrations whenever I look for Black travelers in travel marketing materials is that there’s never an international background; they never look like they’re in a destination,” said Jackie Williams, owner of NuVibe Travel Experiences and one of the travel advisors who was instrumental in helping to create the Soulful itinerary. Williams was onboard the AmaKristina for the inaugural sailing.
In 2021, Williams and about 10 other Black travel advisors met with AmaWaterways executives to discuss the fact that they wanted to introduce their higher-income ocean cruise clients to river cruising. But they didn’t have brochures that reflected what the experience would be like for Black travelers.
The advisors posed tough questions that AmaWaterways, and frankly, the river cruise industry as a whole, needed to answer about the lack of representation of Black travelers in its marketing portfolio, and who exactly river cruising is supposed to be for if the industry hopes to capture the dollars of a more diverse, affluent audience actively seeking luxury travel experiences beyond ocean cruising.
Those conversations led to AmaWaterways organizing photo shoots with Williams and her advisor colleagues, along with their friends and families, and incorporating them into its travel brochures. They also led to the creation of the Soulful Epicurean Experience sailings.
Standing in that dining room, singing along to Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” and knowing the backstory of how the Soulful Epicurean Experience came to be, made that first night onboard the AmaKristina that much sweeter, that much more victorious—not just because I knew that this was the first Black heritage river cruise experience in the industry but also because I knew it wasn’t going to be the last.
We belong here, I remember thinking to myself. We belong everywhere.
AmaWaterways’ inaugural Soulful Epicurean Experience river cruise
In many ways the Soulful Epicurean Experience itinerary operated just like any other AmaWaterways river cruise itinerary in Europe. The sailing followed the line’s traditional Colors of Provence itinerary, a seven-night journey on France’s Rhône River between Lyon and Arles.
All of the Soulful Experience itineraries, which will also operate in Egypt and Portugal in 2024, include pre- or post-cruise extensions for a more immersive Black history experience on land. Ours included three extra nights in Paris after the cruise, where we would explore the legacy and the impact that figures like novelist Alexander Dumas and American entertainer Josephine Baker have had on French society and culture.
Most European river cruise itineraries center around wine and culinary experiences, tours of cobblestone towns by bus and on foot, live nightly entertainment of some sort, and a variety of onboard programming, from demonstrations to guest lectures and fitness classes, that are all meant to complement the relaxing sailing experience.
Those elements were also present on this trip, except the itinerary was punctuated with experiences that highlighted the Black history and culture present in Provence and Paris.
An afternoon of winetasting in Beaujolais followed a morning visit to a contemporary art gallery dedicated to exhibiting African artists. An onboard guest lecture about France’s relationship with its own Black and African communities was preceded by a scenic drive through Provence’s countryside. A lively jazz concert on the ship that turned into a full-blown dance party capped off an all-day Black history tour in Marseille.
Jazzmine Douse, director of national accounts at AmaWaterways, said she worked closely with Williams and the other Black travel advisors to design a thought-provoking, culturally rich itinerary that centered around the Black experience, while also delivering the kind of luxury and relaxing river cruise experience that AmaWaterways is known for.
“We always had to go back to what the theme of the cruise was,” said Douse. “It’s a celebration of the African and Black diaspora through food, wine, and music, particularly jazz. So within our Colors of Provence itinerary, we had to identify which tours we could replace and where we could add in additional experiences.”
Activities and excursions
In Vienne, France, for instance, home to the annual festival Jazz à Vienne, the original itinerary called for a morning walking tour of Roman ruins. Instead, we watched a local jazz trio at winery and event space Le Caveau du Château, followed by a winetasting. And later that afternoon back onboard the ship, Jean-Paul Boutellie, the founder of Jazz à Vienne, gave a talk about the history of the festival and how his passion for jazz and supporting artists led to the creation of the event.
In Avignon, in lieu of an afternoon bike tour, we visited Fondation Blachère, France’s first contemporary art foundation dedicated to the exhibition and promotion of contemporary African art. The multicultural hub was tucked into the middle of a small French village, Bonnieux, where most of the visitors were locals and mostly white. They appeared engrossed in the existential African artworks, and I thought of the conversations they might be having, the worlds they were peering into through these artworks, and the changes they may have been going through the longer they stood in front of each piece, trying to understand a life, an experience, different from their own.
Our time in Lyon was our most dynamic, and probably my favorite stop on the trip. We spent two nights in France’s gastronomic capital and its third largest city. On our first full day, we took a 30-minute ride outside the city to Tata Sénégalais de Chasselay, a cemetery and World War II memorial for the nearly 200 Senegalese servicemen who were massacred by German forces in 1940 in the open field surrounding the memorial site. Our guide was passionate about the backstory regarding how France and French veterans made the effort to recover the soldiers’ bodies and build a memorial that was a symbol and testament to their Senegalese heritage and culture.
After our visit to Tata Sénégalais de Chasselay, we made our way to Beaujolais to unwind with a culinary afternoon tasting various wines and cheeses from the region at Domand de Fond-Vieille and eventually headed back to the ship.
Free time to explore
There were plenty of moments for free time throughout our itinerary, even with all of the excursions and onboard activities on our agenda. And many of the guests took advantage of that free time.
Some took morning walks with friends from their groups that led to afternoon lunches in Arles or Avignon. Others still had energy in the evening for a night on the town in Lyon. I tore myself away from the program lineup at times to explore the cities we were passing through, including in Avignon, where I befriended a couple of bartenders, and in Lyon, where I managed to recruit a partner-in-crime for what felt like an endless, magical night in the city.
Who it’s for
Ultimately, the Soulful Experience river cruise itineraries are not exclusively for Black travelers—these itineraries are for everyone. They simply put a focus on Black and African cultures, providing a vibrant lens through which to view the history and heritage of the destinations passengers are sailing through.
The next two departures of the Colors of Provence Soulful Experience, which is what the itineraries are named in 2024, will take place on June 13 and June 17, 2024, with fares starting at $4,999 per person.
There will also be the first departure in Egypt, the Secrets of Egypt & the Nile Soulful Experience, on May 17, 2024, with fares starting at $5,299 per person.
And the newest itinerary in Portugal, the Enticing Douro Soulful Experience, will depart on November 13, 2024, with fares starting at $3,799 per person.