Apparently, some of you thought we left you hanging in last week’s blog. You remember, the one about Five Reasons To Book A Cruise This Year, which concluded with River Cruising, and how many new ships were on offer in 2019.
Apparently, some quick-witted readers felt it wasn’t enough, that it was a mere appetizer on the subject of riverine travel, an opening gambit if you like.
Well, we have to own up. It wasn’t intended to be anything more than Point Five in our Reasons To Be Cruiseful; the full-stop on our latest treatise on why you should book sooner rather than later.
But we fully take your argument on board. We know there is a LOT more that can be said on the subject, especially when it comes to all those good reasons to enjoy the different pace and vibe of sailing along the Rhine or Rhône, the Douro or Danube.
If you are an ocean-going devotee, you may look down your nose at those dinky little boats that seem to just crawl along, looking like overgrown barges with little flair or colour. If that is your view, boy are you out of date! So, with no further ado, let us introduce you to the full glories of river-cruising – and why they make such a good complementary choice alongside their big brethren.
Reason #1: It’s Not Your Daddy’s Cruise
Go back just 20 years and river-cruising was genuinely distinctly dated. The general ethos was still stuck in the 1980s, if not the 60s, and there had been no real technical progression since it had become “a thing” in the 1950s behind the rebirth of Germany’s KD Line and then the establishment of CroisiEurope in France in 1976.
River-boats were primarily functional, little more than floating platforms upon which to enjoy the (slowly) passing scenery and then tie up in the heart of a pretty town for a few hours of self-guided wandering. Cabins were occasionally mistaken for cupboards and entertainment often consisted of a local musician who happened to be passing the dock at the right time. Sophisticated it was not.
At the same time, the whole languid pace and lack of ostentation appealed primarily to an older audience, one that was usually in bed by 9 pm and which had no demand for ‘fripperies’ like spas, fitness centres or swimming pools.
Now, thanks to the huge investment of companies like Viking, Avalon, Uniworld and AmaWaterways, as well as stalwarts CroisiEurope, things are dramatically different. The whole industry has been challenged by the massive growth of Viking, which began with four elderly Russian vessels in 1997 and now has more than 60, most of them just a few years old.
Today’s river-cruise vessels are sleek, contemporary and feature-packed. Cabins can have balconies, as well as more space than a houseful of cupboards. There are alternative dining options and activity programmes. And the age range is no longer 80 and up, but 60 and lower, with some lines actively appealing to families for the first time.
Reason #2: Value For Money
Try putting together the average Rhine or Danube river-cruise with comparable hotel accommodation and luxury coach or car hire and you will quickly be into double – if not more –the cost of a voyage with Viking and company. Europe is an expensive place in which to stay and dine for more than a night or two, hence travelling by river brings you the best of the scenery but at a much-reduced cost compared to the DIY route. And there is plenty of time to enjoy the views on the way – no zipping past at 90mph on the autobahn!
Reason #3: Excursions Included
Most river-cruise lines now include at least one excursion a day, and this makes for a genuinely inclusive experience as the majority of guests will be inclined to try it out. This in turn helps to ensure some good conversation at the end of the day, as well as an extra chance to get to know your fellow passengers. Unless you are really familiar with cities like Cologne, Budapest, Vienna, Nuremberg, Bratislava, Belgrade, Koblenz and Passau, you will need to do at least a basic tour to get a good understanding of them, and the cruise lines usually employ excellent guides to make sure the destinations really come alive for their guests.
Reason #4: Destination Immersion
It’s obviously a wonderful part of any sea-going cruise that arriving in a new port each day is essential to the experience, and that is accentuated on a river voyage. Nearly every dock or harbour is right in the heart of the city or town you’re visiting, which means you have max value for your time ashore. Just walk along the gangway and start your sight-seeing. This ensures a more immersive experience than many big-ship cruises, which now tend to be away from the parts of the destination you most want to see or, worse still, require a time-consuming tender to get ashore. On river-cruising, there is an intimate, visceral connection – especially in places like Budapest, Vienna and Cologne – that makes you feel part of the destination straight away.
Reason #5: Convivial Cruising
While it’s true river-boats have improved in leaps and bounds in the current era, they’re still not the largest vessels you will ever sail on, especially if you’re used to the sea-going variety. And, to us, that’s A Good Thing. When there aren’t half a dozen different activities at once, multiple dining venues, and lots of open deck space to spread people out, it makes for a far more convivial atmosphere. Generally speaking, river cruisers are an open-minded, amiable bunch who enjoy the camaraderie of the cruise as much as the destinations. You tend to bump into the same people at least once a day, and mealtimes are more of a communal affair than at sea. And we all need good drinking buddies at the end of the day, right?!
Reason #6: The Luxury Gap
As a final word on behalf of European river-cruising, we have to highlight the growth in the luxury end of the market. Just as big-ship cruising has carefully honed its deluxe appeal, so the likes of Scenic Cruises, AmaWaterways, Tauck and, more recently, Crystal Cruises, have broadened the allure along the Rhine and Danube. Gourmet dining, exclusive shore experiences, white-glove service and more expansive, luxurious staterooms have all become part and parcel of sailing with these companies, setting them apart from the mainstream as those of Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and Crystal have done in ocean-going terms. Indeed, Crystal’s advent on the rivers of Europe in July 2016 brought some of the most stylish vessels we have yet seen, as their Rhine-class ships raised the bar to new heights of ultra-luxe quality, with butler service, sumptuous public rooms, Michelin-inspired open-seat dining and extra attention to detail throughout. Now, there’s simply no reason not to take a river cruise. So, what’s keeping you…?
Are you interested in a river cruise this year? What – or where – will you be looking at? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.