River cruising is nothing new; several lines have existed since the 1990’s. But it has taken two decades of slow but steady innovation to bring the industry to where it is today: arguably the fastest growing sector of the travel industry since the advent of jet travel in the 1960’s.
Drawn by its convenience and nearly all-inclusive nature, river cruising attracts guests that would have, in the past, taken traditional land tours by coach. It also attracts seasoned deep-ocean cruisers looking for a way to explore inland areas of Europe and beyond, but who don’t want to give up that “unpack once, travel a lot” advantage that comes with cruising.
For the first-time river cruiser, though, the sheer number of itineraries, lines and ships can be daunting. A closer inspection however, shows you really can’t go wrong when it comes to cruising the waterways of Europe.
A foodie’s dream-come-true, river cruises through France can run from the beaches of Normandy to the chic French Riviera and back again. Naturally, Paris is prominent on many itineraries, but the real gems here are towns like Giverny, where Claude Monet created some of his most famous works of art.
Although food and wine play a prominent role in these itineraries, it is the staggering array of history that draws most people to France. Numerous river cruises visit Rouen, notable for its connection to Joan of Arc; and many voyages sailing the south of France call on historic Avignon and Arles, with its renowned Roman amphitheater.
Uniworld also has a few tricks up their sleeve: rather than deploying their upcoming S.S. Catherine on the Danube, they’re sending her to France to sail along the Rhone and Saone Rivers. The long-awaited successor to the S.S. Antoinette, the striking S.S. Catherine will feature two entire decks of what the line calls “Open Air Balconies”, making her one of the most feature-laden vessels to sail the region. The line is also refurbishing the popular River Royale and moving her to a new itinerary – that of the Bordeaux region. And Uniworld is becoming all-inclusive in 2014.
Holland & Belgium
The typical cruise season in Holland and Belgium is relatively short, stretching just a few months during the springtime. But that is when these two destinations are at their most beautiful with the region’s magnificent tulips in bloom.
These voyages don’t cover great distances, but they visit some of the most picturesque locations in these countries, starting with the forward-thinking city of Amsterdam.
Along the way, you can visit the Netherland’s historic windmills, sample the fine cheeses, or even set out for a countryside cycle. In Belgium, prepare to be awed by the magnificent architecture of Antwerp and Ghent and some cruises even offer an excursion to nearby Brussels.
Rhine, Moselle, Main, Danube
Arguably the largest river cruising region in Europe, the itineraries along the Rhine, Moselle, Main and Danube rivers are some of the most diverse. Sailings here can stretch from Amsterdam all the way to the Black Sea on a single voyage.
Some of Europe’s most culturally and historically-important cities can be visited, including the lovingly-rebuilt Bavarian city of Nuremberg; vibrant Vienna; and the stunning Hungarian capital of Budapest, with its ten bridges spanning the Danube, all of which were destroyed during World War II.
These rivers are also the launching grounds for the latest-and-greatest river cruise ships afloat, with the newest vessels entering service here on a seemingly non-stop basis.
In 2014, Viking River Cruises will take delivery of another crop of 14 new Viking Longships, bringing the total count launched since 2011 to 30. It’s not without cause; these are some of the sleekest, most in-demand vessels afloat on Europe’s waterways, thanks to their innovative design and comfortably-appointed staterooms.
Other river cruise lines are turning up the heat on Viking. AmaWaterways will take delivery of two brand-new sisters to the highly-popular AmaCerto when the 164-guest AmaReina and AmaSonata launch in the spring. Also headed to the Danube in 2014 are Tauck’s new ms Inspire and ms Savor, which are substantially larger than the line’s previous river cruise ships, yet carry just 12 additional guests.
Avalon Waterways will debut three ships in 2014 along the Rhine, Main and Danube: Avalon Illumination, Avalon Impression, and the smaller Avalon Poetry II for those who like their river cruises more intimately-sized.
Other lines are also quickly rising to prominence on these rivers, including A-ROSA, which just began marketing select ships and itineraries to North American river cruisers in 2013. Their itinerary lineup for 2014 is even more comprehensive, and the line is winning over guests with unusual features like spacious swimming pools, spas and all-inclusive pricing.
Italy and the Po.
Uniworld is placing their sights squarely on another part of Europe: Italy’s Po River, which has long been tricky to navigate due to fluctuating water levels. But the line has created two distinct itineraries here, from the accessible eight-day Venice and the Po River to the comprehensive 13-day Splendors of Italy itinerary that begins in Venice and ends with an overland journey to Rome.
Portugal & the Douro
More and more travelers are lured here by the stunning beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Douro River Valley.
In 2013 alone, both Uniworld and AmaWaterways took delivery of two brand-new vessels, each christened by a movie star (Andie MacDowell and Sharon Stone, respectively). Viking River Cruises is also getting into the action with the Viking Douro. In 2014, the line will bring Longship-style cruising to Portugal with the launch of the 106-guest Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil.
The Douro River Valley has been the epicentre of port wine production for hundreds of years, and voyages here sail from the historic city of Porto, Portugal along the winding Douro, with its impossibly steep vineyards and ancient ports of call. Most itineraries even include an overland journey to the Spanish city of Salamanca, noted for its well-preserved medieval architecture.
Other growing trends aren’t based on destination, but on Theme. Theme river cruises are so hot, AmaWaterways has nearly doubled their In Celebration of Wine sailings for the 2014 season, featuring itineraries that celebrate the appreciation of the grape. This compliments other theme cruises that range from Jewish History to Knitting in scope.
In recognition of 2014 as the Centenary of World War I – a tragic event that shaped Europe and claimed more than nine million lives – Avalon is devoting three separate sailings to “The Great War”, from a short eight-day voyage that departs roundtrip Paris to a spectacular 16-day sailing from Paris to France’s Côte d'Azur.
One of the most popular theme cruises, though, celebrates the whimsical Christmas Markets that pop up all over Europe each year from late November through December. It’s the Holiday Season as you’ve never seen it before.
River cruising is more popular now than at any other time in history. And many ships are now sailing in Russia and on the rivers of Asia including the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy and the mighty Mekong. And once discovered, you may not want to go anywhere but the rivers of the world.
Written by Aaron Saunders
First published in World Traveler 2014 Issue