By David G. Molyneaux, editor, TheTravelMavens.com
Twenty years after my last European riverboat ride – on the Elbe of eastern Germany – I was back on the Continent this spring to take a look at a whole new class of impressive river vessels.
Memories of my previous voyage included relaxation, exciting destinations, heavy and starchy food, and accommodations similar to an older motel floating gently through the countryside.
Europe’s river destinations haven’t changed much, but the boats have. Dining is much finer, and healthier. Cabins are significantly more modern.
River cruising is a growing vacation choice
From Europe to Southeast Asia, river cruising is on the upswing, and is reported to be the fastest growing choice for a travel vacation. In Europe, while deep water cruise lines still are struggling to fill their cabins for this summer, business is booming for the fleets of boats that ply the Continent’s popular rivers – primarily the Rhine, the Danube, and Russia’s Volga.
Largest of the European companies is Viking River Cruises, with a passenger list that is 85 percent North Americans. Viking is so busy that it is introducing six 190-passenger boats this year, raising the company fleet to 28. Next year, six more will pop out of a shipbuilding company in Rostock, Germany. And the year after, 2014, there will be six more if Viking picks up its construction option. There’s reason to believe that Viking will do so, because by mid-March of this year, 88 percent of the cabins on the six new Viking boats already were booked for 2012 season, which typically runs from April 1 into December. (This is not a bad time for travelers to be thinking about a river cruise for 2013, and discounts are available.)
Of course, riverboat operators are working with much smaller numbers than the deep water cruise lines. Six new boats for Viking means fewer than 1,200 additional passengers a week, which is less than half of the vacationers on just one of the many large cruise ships in Europe.
Consider this: Unlike their deep water counterparts, riverboat owners can’t build gigantic new craft to handle the increasing number of travelers and their luxury demands. In the old world of Europe’s shallow rivers and canals, low bridges, and locks of immovable cement walls, new boats may not be longer, wider, higher or deeper than the existing ones.
That explains the typical blessing for new river boats: “May you always have a hand’s width of water under your keel.” Deep water vessels want a lot more water than that.
Designing riverboats becomes a jigsaw puzzle, enlarging dining rooms and increasing cabin comforts, adding outside balconies, while cutting either the number of cabins or reducing some of the function areas such as swimming pools (there are none on Viking boats), workout rooms or libraries.
All of the major riverboat operators – including Avalon, Uniworld, Tauck, Grand Circle, and AMAWaterways – have their own designs and features, including some high-tech toys. But you won’t find casinos, theaters, or play rooms for children.
This year, AmaWaterways has a new 164-passenger vessel, AmaCerto, which has a pool with swim-up bar. Most cabins have a combination of French balcony and small outside balcony for standing. Avalon Waterways is debuting three new boats, two in Europe, the 166-passenger Avalon Vista and the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary, with whirlpool and fitness center. A third boat will cruise the Mekong River between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, starting in September. Uniworld also is expanding in Asia with the new 60-passenger River Saigon.
Viking’s new vessels
All based in Europe, they are all named for Viking gods, goddesses and heroes. These longboats were introduced in Amsterdam in March 2012. They have an innovative modern design that is airy and functional, with a large indoor/outdoor café at the bow (built-in heaters for spring and fall), heated bathroom floors in the cabins and sophisticated big screen TVs.
Into the same basic shell as the previous class of Viking vessels, architects managed to build 95 cabins, of which 39 have private outdoor balconies – large enough for two sitting chairs – and nine suites, real suites with two separate rooms. Designers accomplished this by offsetting center hallways and turning some of the cabins sideways. Most outside cabins without sitting balconies have a French balcony (a big picture window that opens). Suites have both, with a sitting balcony off the living room and a French balcony in the bedroom.
These new riverboats, like the old ones, are designed for eating, sleeping, sitting, and getting to know your fellow travelers at shared tables in the dining room and lounge, and on group shore excursions, which are included in the price of the cruise.
Don’t expect spa treatments – the Viking concierge will make an appointment for you on land – a workout gym or much in the manner of entertainment, other than educational lectures about the ports and countryside.
River cruising does tend to draw curious, educated travelers who are interested primarily in the destination ports and spend their cruising time reading and relaxing. One travel agent executive at the ceremony told me that North Americans often enjoy river cruising in Europe best when they travel in a small group of friends, perhaps three or four couples who can socialize during the down time on the river, at cocktail hours and during meals.
Cruising down a river was summed up by Joanna Lumley, an actress known for her television role as Patsy Stone on Britain’s “Absolutely Fabulous.” Lumley, godmother of the new Viking Odin, said the experience was “like the world was on a cloth being dragged past you by captains sent from paradise.”
INFORMATION FOR BOOKING
The cost of river cruising is substantially higher than deep water cruising, running from about $300 to about $700 a day per person for two people on a one-week trip, though substantial discounts may be available for early bookers. Keep in mind that shore excursions usually are included in the price, and some boats include wine and beer at meals. For comparisons, consult a travel agent who is familiar with river cruising.
Top river companies: AmaWaterways (amawaterways.com), Avalon Waterways (avalonwaterways.com), Viking River Cruises (vikingrivercruises.com), Uniworld (uniworld.com), Grand Circle Travel (gct.com), Tauck (tauck.com).