10 River Cruises to Remember
A mirage vibrates on the sandy horizon. The scent of African roses perfumes the air. Water buffalo grunt and graze on the grassy banks of the Nile as ancient Pyramids cast their shadows. These may be the scene-setting details of a typical afternoon aboard Cleopatra's royal barge, but they’re not so different from Nile river cruises today.
Wherever you travel—Egypt, Europe, China, the U.S.—cruising on rivers and canals may well be one of the last leisurely modes of transportation. Beyond the inviting languid afternoons that pass by at 5 mph, this millennia-old form of cruising guarantees a taste of the local culture, and an up-close view of gorgeous meandering landscapes studded with vineyards, castles, and scenic villages. For these reasons and more, river cruising is rising in popularity, with Europe bookings alone quadrupling since 1998.
Fall happens to be a particularly good time of year to hit the rivers. In France, Germany, and California’s Napa Valley, grape harvests are in full swing; in some places, like France’s Champagne region, you will witness armies of workers with shears picking fruit from carefully cultivated rows of vines. October, and late September, too, is the season for Germany's biggest party, Munich’s Oktoberfest, where breweries set up massive tents and ply millions of revelers with their hoppy products. (Danube cruises often depart from Passau, less than two hours from Munich.) On fall cruises here in the United States, the spectacular colors of the turning leaves provide a natural show. And in the popular cruising areas of Russia, China, and Egypt, autumn brings weather that's neither too hot nor too cold—an ideal time to travel.
River ships and barges are akin to floating hotels; they take you on the calm, inland waterways and lead you to places inaccessible by car, train, or traditional ocean cruise. And as with ocean cruising, a river cruise is an easy travel experience—your accommodations, meals, and in many cases shore excursions are all planned for you. You visit several places but have to unpack only once.
On the rivers, speedy travel is never the goal—these are the original “slow boats.” In France, for instance, the tiny barges of French Country Waterways move so slowly through the many locks of the historic canals that you can borrow a bike and cycle ahead. If you want time on your own to explore, many itineraries allow for that too. In Germany, Peter Deilmann sailings on the Danube include overnight dockings, so it’s possible to disembark and enjoy the local cuisine, like rich chocolate Sachertorte, where it was invented (at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna).
River ships accommodate as many as 308 passengers but often fewer than 200. Barges carry as few as four passengers, as is the case on the ultra-luxurious Alouette, operated by Afloat in France, where niceties include the finest linens and antiques, not to mention Premier Cru.
Cuisine is hearty and in many cases gourmet, with top-level wine and food particularly emphasized on barges (an excellent choice for foodies). The private chefs onboard the small barges of French Country Waterways, for instance, have French culinary training and are expert at whipping up quail with foie gras, wine-steamed mussels, and other rich dishes. (Warning to those with high cholesterol: bring your pills!)
Casual ambience is the norm, though river cruises are hardly roughing it. Cabins may be on the small side or more spacious—for instance, on the Danube, Peter Deilmann operates the Mozart, whose comfortable cabins are more than 200 square feet. Many ships also have the option of deluxe cabins or suites with balconies. Expect a small number of public rooms—a dining room, a lounge, maybe a separate bar—but plenty of deck space for viewing the sights, and sometimes a small splash pool and gym.
Most river cruise passengers are age 50 and up. Those wanting to travel with a younger set or kids may consider charting an entire barge, as offered by companies including Afloat in France, French Country Waterways, and Abercrombie & Kent.
In the end, river cruising is about gentle, easy exploration—as with Victoria Cruises in China, where decked-out boats thread the Yangtze River locks adjacent to the amazing Three Gorges Dam. Or with Cruise West in the Pacific Northwest, where the fall foliage is soon to be ablaze along the route of Lewis & Clark on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which wend their way by quaint waterside towns, snow-capped mountains, stunning waterfalls, and tall granite cliffs.
On a river cruise you will inevitably gain an appreciation of the area you are visiting, and of the history of riverboat travel. Even if you didn't know that that history might also include water buffalo
Afloat in France
What to Expect: These five barges are operated by Orient-Express, so it’s no surprise that the accommodations and accoutrements are ultra-luxurious, complete with luxury linens and plush furnishings. Carrying four to 12 passengers, they slowly cruise the historic canals of France. A private, well-trained chef is onboard each sailing, along with a very accommodating crew that makes sure you are never without a drink in hand. Excellent regional wines accompany meals. Three of the barges are reserved for full charters, so bring your friends and family.
Insider Tip: Ask for a printout to take home of the wines, cheeses, and recipes you’ve enjoyed on your cruise.
Deal: The historic six-passenger Fleur de Lys has many old-world details, including a grand piano in its salon. Charter her for $42,900 and spend six nights on the classic Burgundy wine route. For individual travelers, six-day cruises on the eight-passenger Hirondelle in Burgundy are priced from $4,620 for travel through October 2008.
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises
What to Expect: American adult travel specialist Grand Circle owns more than a dozen comfortable 50- to 216-passenger river ships that ply the waterways of Europe and Egypt, where you see the glorious temples of the pharaohs and float past scenes that look straight out of the Bible. It also charters small (24 passengers or less), historic barges for the canals of France.
Insider Tip: Don’t miss the organized encounters with locals; you may go to someone’s house for tea or a cooking class, or visit a charity Grand Circle is supporting (donations accepted but not required).
Deal: Cruise through ancient Egypt aboard the 138-passenger River Anuket, combining seven nights on the ship with six hotel nights in Cairo. Priced from $2,195 for travel now through December 2008, airfare from U.S. included.
Peter Deilmann Cruises
What to Expect: With more than a quarter century of experience, this German firm specializes in the main rivers of Europe, including the mighty Rhine and Danube. Eight deluxe river ships carry 79 to 200 passengers on itineraries that range mostly from seven to 14 days. The cruises are popular with Europeans as well as Americans. Some of the ships offer suites and cabins with French balconies, and the MV Mozart has bragging rights for its full-size indoor pool and solarium.
Insider Tip: If you have a special interest, Deilmann offers a variety of theme cruises throughout the season, including music, golf, equestrian, gardening, wine, and wellness.
Deal: A weeklong, round-trip cruise from Passau on the 200-passenger Mozart, making stops in Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava and several pretty little villages in Austria and Hungary, is priced from $1,535 for travel from now through November 2008.
French Country Waterways
Where: France (Alsace-Lorraine, Burgundy, Champagne regions).
What to Expect: The leisurely experience of barge cruising in France is the focus of this Massachusetts-based company. French Country Waterways operates five 8- to 18-passenger barges; all are individually decorated, the floating French equivalent of nice New England B&B’s-comfortable and relaxed. All of the barges are 128 feet, but while accommodations are all-suite on the smaller barges, the 18-passenger Esprit has standard cabins only. You watch the passing scenery—forests, châteaux, rolling hillsides—and enjoy as much French wine and cheese, and meals prepared by a French-trained chef, as is humanly possible. Work off calories by biking alongside the barge as it slowly moves through a series of locks.
Insider Tip: Don’t skip breakfast. A member of the crew hits a local bakery each morning for true French croissants.
Deal: The 12-passenger Adrienne takes you through the Champagne region, with its rich cultural and historical heritage and, well, lots of champagne. The cruise even includes a tasting at Moët & Chandon. The six-day trip is priced from $5,395 for travel through October 2008.
What to Expect: Previously operating as Amadeus Waterways, this firm recently introduced four sleek, new, Dutch-built ships. (Four additional vessels are debuting in 2009 and 2010.) The new ships carry 148 passengers each and have such niceties as cabins with French balconies, plush bedding, flat-screen TV’s, and Infotainment systems with keyboards and free Internet access; there’s complimentary Wi-Fi in the ships’ public areas, too, which include multiple lounges, fitness centers, and whirlpools. The firm also operates three additional 124- to 160-passenger vessels.
Insider Tip: The small lounge in the back of the ship tends to get little traffic, making it an excellent spot to sit with your laptop for a private Skype conversation or to check your e-mail.
Deal: The two-week cruise Magnificent Europe on the Amalegro, Amadante, or Amacello travels through the heart of Europe from Amsterdam to Budapest. Visit Cologne and Vienna, cruise past the castles of the Rhine Valley, and experience the engineering wonders of the 106-mile Main-Danube channel. Priced from $3,299 for travel through late-November 2008.
Viking River Cruises
What to Expect: This European-owned firm is the big river player as owner/operator of nearly two dozen river ships and with a 180-year heritage of river cruising. The hotel-like, 150- to 300-passenger ships are done up in modern Scandinavian décor (think lots of blond wood and clean lines), and are overseen by a Swiss management team.
Insider Tip: Grab a spot on the sundeck on the day you traverse the Volga-Baltic Waterway and watch the ship as it is miraculously raised and lowered by water levels through a series of seven locks.
What to Expect: Cruise West is known for its casual, nature-focused, small-ship cruises in Alaska, but as the company has expanded to nine ships it has also expanded its itineraries to rivers. Onboard the 78- to 138-passenger ships the experience is friendly and educational. Exploration Leaders, well versed in the locales, offer lectures and lead tours; there’s contact with local experts too—visits to vintners and local farmers in Washington and Napa, for instance. Food is fresh and home-style, and cabins are comfortable, if snug. Service shines.
Insider Tip: To enhance the educational aspect, Cruise West provides pre-cruise suggested reading lists, expertly compiled and well worth a gander.
Deal: The seven-night Taste of the Pacific Northwest from Portland, Oregon, on the 84-passenger Spirit of Discovery, explores the Columbia and Snake rivers with a focus on food and wine. Priced from $3,149 for travel through October 2008.
What to Expect: California-based Uniworld owns 10 ships and charters others, offering no fewer than 35 itineraries on 12 rivers in Europe, Russia, China, and Egypt. New owners have upgraded the fleet. The vessels carry 82 to 220 passengers. All cabins offer views, and all of the company-owned ships have flat-screen TV’s with CNN. A signature of the line is its excellent food, which is purchased by its chefs in local markets every day to ensure freshness.
Insider Tip: A popular new offering is its alfresco dining on the sundeck, but make reservations early in the day because space is limited.
Deal: The seven-night cruise on the Douro Queen in Spain and Portugal explores the unspoiled Douro River Valley—including Port country—and is combined with a two-night hotel stay in Lisbon. Priced from $2,099 for travel through October 2008.
What to Expect: Victoria Cruises serves up five-star cruising on the Yangtze with American-managed ships featuring river-view cabins with TV’s showing HBO and CNN. The seven vessels carry 130 to 308 passengers, and the newest ships are the biggest and most luxurious; the 308-passenger Victoria Anna has more suites (20) than other ships in the Yangtze. Victoria’s eighth ship, the Victoria Jenna, is scheduled to be launched in April 2009 and will be larger still, with 40 suites, carrying a total of 378 passengers. You are treated shipboard to lavish Chinese dinner buffets and entertainment including a fashion show of elaborate costumes dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Activities include lectures on Chinese history and culture, calligraphy lessons, and Chinese language classes. It’s comfortable cultural emersion.
Insider Tip: Get up early for the morning tai chi lessons. The ancient practice is an excellent way to start your day and get your blood flowing.
Deal: The seven-night Explorer itinerary on the Victoria Anna from Chongqing to Yichang includes a visit to the Three Gorges Dam, but if you do the full circuit you’ll visit different locales in each direction, including the narrow Daning River Small Gorges and New Zigui, where families impacted by the rising waters of the Yangtze (due to the dam project) were relocated. Priced from $1,600 for travel now through November 2008.
Abercrombie & Kent
What to Expect: This top-rated tour operator offers cruises on a variety of ships and barges, all delivering an intimate, luxurious river or canal experience. The vessels include the 88-passenger River Cloud II, a five-star floating hotel on the Danube; and the eight-passenger Magna Carta, an all-suite barge on the River Thames.
Insider Tip: Theme cruises include golfing in Scotland.
Deal: The six-night River Thames itinerary on the eight-passenger Magna Carta gives you a unique look at British history as you traverse the famous waterway and visit places like Hampton Court Palace, built by Cardinal Wolsey in the early 16th century, and Windsor Castle—where the barge moors on a private island with a unique view of the royal family’s magnificent residence. Fall prices from $2,450. NOTE: Magna Carta is offering a $750 per person discount for all new bookings (September 7–December 14, 2008 departures).