The Secrets of River Cruising Revealed
Having cruised extensively throughout Europe’s ocean-side ports — the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the British Isles, I believed I had a good feel for what these European Jewels had to offer the visitor and traveler alike. I felt like I had already earned a good view “from the cat bird’s seat” and that I enjoyed a tremendous perspective. I’ve even returned to favorites to spend more concentrated visits to cities like Barcelona, Rome, and Seville. Yes I thought I’d cruised enough so in say I’ve seen it all. Boy was I mistaken!
What I was missing (and didn’t realize how much) was all of the rest of Europe! That’s because cruise ships, by and large, stick to “same old routine” coastal routes, while much of Europe’s charm is a good distance afar from the logistical possibilities of a one-day stop at a port of call. Other than the time you are allotted in order to visit at a port of call which is limited to that which you can cram into the time from when the ship docks, until the time when it departs (which in most cases in about eight hours or less). How can you even begin to explore a region’s culture, its people, and everything it really has to offer? The short answer is, you can’t. Many times it takes getting into the out-of-the-way, off the beaten path, non touristy areas, and the back country to really get a feel for the people and their way of life that truly makes up a country.
That’s were River Cruising can do everything a big cruise ship does and more. Because the rivers and canals that connect some of Europe’s most fascinating cities — Vienna, Amsterdam, Budapest, Lyon to name a few – while too small for typical ocean-going cruise ships, are able to be navigated by the smaller more intimate river cruise boats. As a niche of cruising, river and canal voyages are an increasingly popular option, (and the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry) particularly for travelers who enjoy the comforts and variety of cruising, but want to see more of the heartland. River and canal cruising is not limited to Europe, either. Travelers can also sail America’s Columbia, and Tennessee rivers. Amazingly, one of the fastest growing destinations for river boats in particular, is China’s Yangtze, and Vietnam and Cambodia’s Mekong.
Wherever you go, river cruising and canal cruising share some similarities. Mealtimes are a major focal point of the day. Each cruise features a variety of ports of call. Service — waiters, cabin stewards — is on a similar level. Here are some good to know facts:
Onboard, river cruise ships — which rarely hold more than 200-plus passengers (and generally carry less) — feel, like smaller versions of cruise ships. One big difference from the Mega Cruise ships are your beer and wine selections are normally already included in the price of your cruise. How cool is that! Where they are limited is in onboard features and amenities, particularly in Europe where ships must be low-slung enough to maneuver under ancient (and low-lying) bridges. Many of these river going vessels feature moving bridge towers that have the capability of being lowered into the ship to allow for passage under these low slung obstacles they must navigate, which is a sight to behold in itself. Barges are even smaller: Expect between 6 and 50 passengers! On some cruises (this applies particularly to some operators in Europe and Asia) you can expect to sail with a very international passenger mix.
River cruising in particular is in the midst of a major expansion boom. In the past few years (and this will continue) the river cruise lines have introduced new ships, as well as seen the emergence of brand new river bound cruise lines. Avalon Waterways, owned by the folks behind the Cosmos and Globus touring operation, have launched Avalon Artistry. AMA Waterways (formerly known as Amadeus Waterways) has also burst onto the scene in a big way offering not only new service, but new vessels, and destinations as well. AMA Waterways is the collaboration of some of River Cruising’s pioneers with an enormous background of experience and dedication (from names like Viking and Brendan Worldwide Vacations) with a commitment to taking river cruising even further than ever before.
Some Similarities: For the avid cruise goers they will find some events that they have grown accustomed to. Things such as Welcome Dinners, Captain’s and Cocktail Receptions , and some Itineraries featuring embarkation points that may incorporate major cities as starting points, (generally for ease of air transportation reasons), but your actual cruise experience will focus more on smaller towns and villages. Very much a change of pace from a greatest-hits list of sprawling urban metropolises. Another huge difference between river cruising and ocean cruising: In the former, operators typically include shore excursions in the overall cruise fare (double-check though, as policies may vary). Days at sea are rare (and generally there’s not much to see anyway, except for the occasional cityscape or village-with-cathedral as river cruise ships move at a very smooth, but brisk pace). Expect to find the outdoor whirlpools, and even indoor pools and/or fitness centers are not out of the question, especially on most of the newer built or more recently re-habbed river boats. Just remember smaller vessels mean smaller offerings, but then there are way fewer numbers of passengers too.
Differences: Beyond occasional themed dinner performances, entertainment onboard may be limited to more introverted forms of entertainment, card or board game tournaments, shuffle-board, book-reading , or Guest Lectures on History, Culture, or Art. These ships carry no comedy headliners, ice shows, or casinos but instead offer localized entertainment in the form of folk dancing, afternoon and/or evening entertainment (such as musicians, and other performing arts) and is generally local talent from along the cruise route and changes much more frequently during the cruise. Another pleasant departure from the typical “big ship”cruise regimen is that the Food and Wine Selections are also featured dishes and vintages from local and regional providers. While many people are used to having to hibernate to get a rest from the hustle and bustle of their day’s events when on a traditional cruise; river cruisers are able to retire to the comfort of their staterooms and oftentimes are able to reconnect on a daily basis with the outside world by means of unlimited Internet connectivity from their own stateroom (try that one on your next mega cruise ship), or catch up on the day’s news with Abundant English Speaking Television Stations (live broadcasts not recorded and replayed 3 times during-a-cruise-rehash)and a vast array of Movie and DVD Library choices for river cruisers to be able to watch an in-room movie, kind of like a date night-in, rather than out with 400 or 500 other people. Some folks find this kind of cruising quite the romantic backdrop, and a wonderful opportunity to indulge in a “get reacquainted to each other” cruise setting.
Also these waterways are very much calmer than those on ocean-based trips (great news for those prone to seasickness). Here’s a question for you. When was the last time you observed the ship’s Captain present a rose to a guest celebrating a very special occasion or milestone? That’s just one example of the not so subtle differences of what river cruising offers over that of traditional ocean cruising.
Finally, speaking of being onboard: While these vessels, from river ships to canal barges, are comfortable to be sure, you won’t find the elaborate stateroom featured on cruising’s mega-ships. Except in the suites, and upscale stateroom accommodations. In Europe, there are no balconies (while some ships do feature French windows). Some lines have only a few cabins with televisions or Internet connections, you should know that many of the newer lines and ships are very much upgraded with such amenities. Bathrooms are small yet functional. So just as with Cruise Ships Lines, river cruising calls for an experienced, and capable agent or cruise planner with requisite knowledge to help you navigate the possibilities that are best suited to your tastes and desires.
River vs. Canal: What’s the Difference?
Both offer a more intimate cruise experience. The primary difference is, ship size. River cruise ships are the “mega ships” of this genre, but the concept of “mega” is relative. They offer more onboard features, and call at bigger towns and cities. A barge cruise, with only a handful of passengers (and a much smaller vessel) can actually penetrate canals — the most ancient of waterways in Europe, for instance, that are off-limits even to river ships. So you visit even more off-the-track villages and small towns.
Either way, expect a more laid-back experience, and a chance to get a better feel for a place. We promise — you won’t get lost in a crowd.
Trends in River Cruising
In Europe, the most established river cruising destination, the biggest trend is the continued evolution in ship design. While river cruising has been a mainstay of European waterways since the early 19th century — when KD River Cruises (now owned by Viking River) began operating day trips across major rivers — it got its biggest boast in the 1980’s. German-based ship operator Peter Deilmann saw that he could expand his cruise line by designing vessels that, despite size limitations, could compete with traditional cruise ships in terms of comfort and amenities.
These days, ship design is focusing particularly on staterooms. While balconies are pretty much out of the question for those ships plying the more narrow (in some places) European rivers (one cruise line had explored the technology that would allow for retractable verandahs, but cost was too prohibitive), French Balconies (not real balconies) are merely sliding glass doors that “open up” to get a feel for the river, and are a fashionable new touch. Newer ships are including more contemporary technology in staterooms — such as genuine real balconies, flat screen televisions, and in-room entertainment including Internet connectivity. Something not found on the Ocean going cruise ships where you pay (and dearly) to be able to stay in touch with the outside e-world during a cruise adventure.
Traditional itineraries have typically focused on major rivers like the Rhine, Danube, and Main. The Danube is a super choice for first-timers; a typical voyage would sail through countries such as Austria, Hungary and Germany. The Rhine leads to Amsterdam, Cologne and Coblenz. France is increasingly popular, and most companies offer Lyon-based trips down the Rhone and Saone rivers, with highlights including the region of Provence and wine country.
Other rivers you can cruise include the Seine, Elbe, Po, Douro, Moselle and even the Volga. Indeed, easily the hottest itinerary these days is a “Journey of the Czars” sailing between Moscow and St. Petersburg. AMA Waterways, Clipper and Viking River Cruises operate such exotic river adventures as these.
Asia has become a very hot destination, appealing to both cruise line operators and passengers. Not only is the Yangtze a most-exotic trip for even well-traveled cruisers, it also lacks limitations such as low bridges as found on Europe’s rivers. So U.S.-based operators, such as Viking River and Victoria Cruises (both of which are building and designing ever-newer ships), are throwing in a lot of traditional cruise amenities — cabins with balconies, Internet cafes and coffee bars. Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s Mekong River similarly are a real favorite.
The typical Yangtze River cruise is paired with a land-tour as well; expect to visit Beijing and Shanghai (and lots of little villages along the way). U.S.-based operators include Clipper, Viking River and Victoria Cruises. Similarly the Mekong River offerings by AMA Waterways offer 7 nights aboard some of the newest and best appointed accommodations with wonderful pre/post cruise stays in Hanoi, overnighting in Ha Long Bay (complete with a journey on a Traditional Wooden Junk). Certainly no Mekong Trek would be complete without an enjoyable journey and stay in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon).
Some of the most “hottest” in river cruise destinations are now South America and Africa. that’s Right AFRICA. Just imagine rambling down the Chobe River while you experience an upclose and personal wildlife viewing safari complete with authentic on-land local meals, customs, and cuisines, along with some of the most spectacular game and wildlife viewing available. While these sailings are a bit “pricier”, they are most definately more fulfilling destination adventures and experiences of a lifetime to be sure!
The river cruising scene in the U.S.A. and Canada chugs along. Operators such as St. Lawrence Cruise Lines tend to traditionalize both itineraries and onboard environment. Itinerary options include the St. Lawrence Seaway (which straddles the Eastern U.S. and Canada) and heartland rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. For the most part, these voyages are geared to an older, more sedentary traveler. Sadly the days of the Mississippi Queen (see full story here) and her sister paddle wheel ships are long gone. But there is still one Fuel Driven Paddle-wheeler that operates on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon by American Cruise Company. Likewise there is one Steam Driven paddle wheeler that was just recently restored to service, being the American Queen which you can read an article I wrote on this magnificiant vessel which you can view by clicking here.
Canal Cruising: What’s the Secret?
Canal cruising is basically limited to Europe. The sheer intimacy of these trips (imagine being one of 6 – 12 passengers, sailing on a boat that moves so slowly you can hop off with a bicycle in one village, have a nice lunch and a pleasant ride, and rejoin the ship a few stops down the canal) is intriguing and tantalizing, particularly for those wanting to experience off-track parts of Europe even more than river cruising. AMA Waterways ships typically have about 16 or so bicycles ready for the asking for just this purpose. Typically, companies like French Country Waterways buy old barges and then rebuild them. Inside, these hotel barges offer all the comforts of home, and then some. (Do you have a private chef? You will on a barge.)
Unlike the traditional cruise industry, most river and canal ships operate seasonally — during spring, summer and fall months with a hiatus during December, January and February. Some Asian operators will go year-round. Another fabulous exception is Christmas season in Europe, where several river cruise operators offer voyages that stop in towns and cities with Christmas markets. Latin America-based voyages are fairly limited though good for wintertime — you might also find the Amazon listed as an option.
So what part of the world would you choose to go on one of these fabulous river cruise adventures if you could? Please take a moment and tell us in the comments section below. We’d love to know!! See a comparison of River Cruising and How it Stacks up against another popular form of European Travel – The Travel Tour (click here to see the entire article).
For more information on River Cruising, and Barge Cruising available, contact Mike via email email@example.com . You can tweet (or follow) Mike at http://www.twitter.com/cruisewithmike . To “Join” our Travel Club go to http://meetup.com/Sun-Cities-Travelers-Group/ Mikes web site can be found at www.mberryhill.cruiseholidays.com . Follow Mike’s blog (or subscribe to it) at http://www.cruisewithmike.com (or merely click on the subscribe button above to have daily delivery to your email). View all of Mikes uploaded Flickr Photo Galleries at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cruisewithmike/ . Mike also edits his own twice daily e-newspaper called “The Compass Headings” you can see (or subscribe to) it free! at http://paper.li/CruisewithMike
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