Traveling Europe by small ship along rivers, canals, fjords, and other waterways

Ever dreamt of sailing the Neva to visit the czars' summer palace?Or cruising the Rhine, stopping for tastings at vineyards all along the way?Somewhere between traveling by land and by sea lies a blissful medium. It's now possible to sail Europe's waterways on everything from a six-person luxury barge to a 370-passenger floating hotel. A single boat can be chartered by different companies at different times: the tours vary in their itineraries and focus. If you don't want to go ashore at dinnertime, there are plenty of barges with a staff that will prepare your meals on board. If you'd rather cruise during the day and sleep on terra firma at night, some trips are arranged so you can do just that. Whatever your interest or schedule, there's a boat that can accommodate you in style.

Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308 or 630/954-2944. Known for its land and rail expeditions, A&K is just as comfortable on water, with 24 luxury barges and river cruisers sailing between April and November this year. The four-year-old, 90-passenger River Cloud has special music itineraries on the Danube; a seven-night trip might take in an evening at the Vienna State Opera House, an organ concert at Passau, and a day at the Mozart Festival. Smaller in scale, the 32-passenger Vincent van Gogh plies the waterways of Holland and Belgium on a six-night voyage. Travelers explore Purmerend, Gouda, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Ghent, and Bruges. Danube itinerary: From $4,575 per person. Holland and Belgium itinerary: From $1,670 per person; departures every Sunday through November 27.

Classical Cruises 800/252-7745 or 212/794-3200. Archaeologists, historians, and scholars lead the shore excursions on Classical's educational cruises. From June through August, Classical's Halcyon will transport 48 passengers down the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, beginning in Venice; the 11-day Croatian cruise takes passengers to the 600-year-old Cathedral of St. Mary on the island of Rab and the beautiful Baroque Kazaliste Theater in Hvar. If you've always wanted to follow in Odysseus's footsteps, book Classical's 14-day expedition from Istanbul to Athens aboard the 84-passenger Clelia II; just watch out for the sirens. Dalmatia itinerary: From $4,995 per person. Istanbul-Athens itinerary: From $7,695 per person; departures June 13 and September 27.

Continental Waterways 800/275-9794 (Barge Brokers) or 33-3/80-53-15-45. This company, known in France as Continentale de Croisières, has a staff-to-guest ratio of one to three; the largest of its 10 hotel barges holds only 50 passengers. The 24-passenger Mirabelle, launched last month, is cruising the Canal du Centre through southern Burgundy and the eastern Loire, stopping for wine tastings, bike rides, and Roman ruins along the way. The Libellule cruises from Paris through the Champagne region; guests tour the monastery where the legendary monk Dom Pérignon invented the méthode champenoise for fermentation of sparkling wines. Southern Burgundy itinerary: From $1,490 per person for seven days; weekly departures. Champagne itinerary: From $1,490 per person for seven days; weekly departures.

Étoile de Champagne 800/280-1492 or 617/426-1777, ext. 175. Dating to 1932, the Étoile has wonderful details: wood paneling, brass fittings, vintage Dutch light fixtures. On board, the mood is relaxed and the focus is on the good life. Traveling from Paris on the river Marne, the Étoile heads for Épernay on a seven-day Champagne and Brie cruise, mooring for cheese sampling in Coulommiers, vineyard tours, visits to World War I battlefields, and a private tasting in the cellars of Moët & Chandon. Other bon vivant itineraries are available for Holland, France, and Germany. Champagne itinerary: From $3,795 per person; departures May-September.

EuroCruises 800/688-3876 or 212/691-2099. One of the more unusual cruise destinations is the White Sea, a Russian territory long forbidden to passenger vessels that opened to cruises last year. You can sail there aboard EuroCruises' 370-passenger Finnish ship Kristina Regina, which has a sauna and sundeck. The next expedition departs on June 29 from Kirkenes, Norway, sailing by mountains and fjords to the northernmost point in Europe, across the Arctic Circle, and on to the White Sea, in a region that's virtually uninhabited. From $2,898 per person.

European Waterways 800/217-4447 or 212/688-9489. Celebrating its 25th year, European Waterways' luxury hotel barges-- some even have Jacuzzis and a workout room-- cruise through France, Holland, Ireland, and England. Groups can charter an entire barge for a week. The 12-passenger Shannon Princess makes six-night excursions along the Shannon, one of Ireland's most beautiful rivers, from Athlone to Killaloe. Optional golf visits include the courses at Lahinch and Glasson, and the Galway Bay links, which has tees on the edge of the cliffs. From $2,700 per person, including golf.

French Country Waterways 800/222-1236 or 781/934-2454. The emphasis at this five-barge company is on fine dining ashore. Clients traveling the canals of the upper Loire Valley on the 12-passenger Nenuphar, for example, are offered not only a wonderful introduction to the region's châteaux and cathedrals but also the succulent braised veal at L'Auberge des Templiers, a Michelin two-starred restaurant in Les Bezards. Couples celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary qualify for a 25 percent discount on selected itineraries in July and August. From $2,895 per person for seven days; all barges travel April-October.

Frontiers 800/245-1950 or 724/935-1577. With more than a dozen barges available to charter, Frontiers can arrange itineraries for groups of 4 to 12 people in France and Holland. Fully staffed sister ships -- the six-passenger Alouette and eight-passenger Hirondelle -- travel France's Burgundy region from Chagny to Châteauneuf. The 12-passenger luxury river cruiser Napoleon, with exercise equipment, whirlpool tub, and VCR's, traverses Provence on the Rhône River. Burgundy Itinerary: From $3,950 per person. Provence itinerary: From $4,150 per person.

Intrav 800/456-8100 or 314/727-0500. The Journey of the Czars cruise is a great way to explore Russia's landscape; Intrav's 218-passenger Kirov cruises the Volga, Svir, and Neva rivers, docking for three nights each in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There's Russian-language instruction on board, as well as lessons on 18th-century architecture conducted on Lake Onega, followed by a tour of Peter the Great's Petrodvorets Grand Palace, then dinner at a nearby dacha. Intrav also has trips on the Danube, Main, Moselle, Neckar, and Saar rivers. Russia itinerary: From $3,290 for 14 days, including airfare; departures May 16-September 1.

IST Cultural Tours 800/833-2111 or 212/563-1202. IST's Beyond Cruising educational itineraries for 1999 are not typical barge trips. The 149-passenger Cezanne II will travel the just-reopened Aurelius Waterway from Rome to Avignon, focusing on the turbulent history of the papacy in medieval and Renaissance times. During a three-night stay in Rome, passengers go on walking tours led by local scholars; then they board the Cezanne II and cruise through Tuscany and into Provence to tour the magnificent 14th-century Palace of the Popes. IST also has scheduled 1999 departures for France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Greece, Holland, and Belgium. Aurelius Waterway itinerary: From $3,650 per person, including airfare; departures every Tuesday through November.

Lindblad Special Expeditions 800/397-3348 or 212/765-7740. The eight-day Impressions of a Scandinavian Summer excursion is the perfect cruise for landlubbers. Guests cruise Stockholm's archipelago and Lake Mälaren by day, accompanied by a guide and a naturalist aboard the 49-passenger Swedish Islander. Accommodations are on land, including two nights at the oldest inn in Sweden, the elegant-yet-simple Gripsholms Värdshus & Hotel in Mariefred, which dates to 1609. Passengers visit lighthouses, stop for barbecues, and regenerate with saunas and dips in the Baltic. Lindblad also offers trips to the Mediterranean, Iceland, and the Arctic Circle this season. Scandinavia itinerary: From $2,990 per person; special family departures July 13 and August 24; other departures June 13, June 25, July 7, and August 18.

Maupintour 800/243-6244 or 785/331-1000. This company pegs its theme cruises to fit almost any group's interest. The November Wine Connoisseur Cruise on the Saint Louis is timely for the Nouveau Beaujolais release. A crew of four leads a six-person group through France's central Burgundy region from Fleurey-sur-Ouche to Pont-Royal. For Anglophiles, there's the six-night British history tour of Cambridgeshire aboard a Barkis & Peggotty hotel barge. Traveling the river Ouse from Brampton to the seaside artists' colony of St. Ives, guests can visit the Elizabethan manor Burghley House; Oliver Cromwell's birthplace and the museum dedicated to his infamous career, in Huntington; and Cambridge University's imposing halls. France itinerary: From $28,900 for six guests; departures as arranged. Britain itinerary: From $1,650 per person; weekly departures through October 10.

Odysseys Unlimited 888/370-6765 or 781/370-3600. For 10 years, Odysseys has organized art tours for the likes of the Smithsonian and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The company now specializes in affordable guided cultural tours, with no more than 24 guests on a trip. Its 15-day Norwegian Splendor itinerary begins in Helsinki, hits water in Kirkenes aboard a Bergen Line hurtigruten (coastal vessel), and sails 1,250 miles along Norway's fjord-filled coast, crossing the Arctic Circle en route to Bergen. The trip ends in Oslo after a magnificent train ride. Odysseys also sails Portugal's Douro River; the 14-day trip begins in the coastal city of Porto aboard the newly renovated 78-passenger Douro Princess and travels through the country's wine region. Norway itinerary: From $2,995 per person, including airfare; departures May 8, July 13, August 4, September 19, and October 5. Portugal itinerary: From $2,895 per person, including airfare; departures September 19 and October 24.

Peter Deilmann Cruises 800/348-8287 or 703/549-1741. Larger than the usual river-going boats, Deilmann's six cruisers carry from 58 to 207 passengers along the Danube, Elbe, Main, Moselle, Rhône, and Saône rivers. The trips are perfect for those who enjoy big-ship cruising -- nightly entertainment, dancing, spa facilities, breakfast buffets -- yet want to explore smaller inland waterways. The largest vessel, the Mozart, has three Danube itineraries scheduled through September 29: a 14-day MunichPrague trip, a 12-day Alpine Highlights trip from Salzburg to Passau, and a 17-day trip from Hamburg to Passau. In June and July, Deilmann also offers Eastern European trips to the Black Sea, via the Danube through Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Alpine itinerary: From $2,655 per person.

Swan Hellenic Cruises 877/219-4239 or 44-171/800-2200. This London-based company offers an Iberian Gardens itinerary aboard the 300-passenger Minerva. It begins with a visit to the Greek and Roman ruins near Palamós, Spain, followed by tours of architecture and gardens in Barcelona, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Tangier, Casablanca, Lisbon, and Vigo. Final stop: England's white cliffs of Dover by way of St.-Malo and Mont-St.-Michel. Swan Hellenic's 90-passenger Rembrandt van Rijn will cruise Central Europe this summer, and the Sergey Yesenin travels Russia's Volga and Neva rivers. Iberia itinerary: From $4,560 per person; departures in July.

Tauck Tours 800/468-2825 or 203/226-6911. If you've always wanted to sail the Med in your own private yacht, Tauck's 13-day Treasures Series cruise aboard the 60-passenger Le Ponant is for you. After four days on land exploring Provence and Monte Carlo, guests board the ship at Nice and embark on an eight-day sail around Corsica, the Pontine Islands, and Sicily, finally docking in Malta. From $4,975 per person; weekly departures through October 7.

Uniworld 800/653-4362 or 818/382-7820. Since 1976, Uniworld has been cruising the rivers of Russia and Eastern Europe, with 39 vessels sailing this year. Travelers who revel in the comforts of large liners are happy on these ships -- the pace is much faster than on a small-barge trip. On August 11 the company will have five vessels positioned in Europe to take in the best view in the world: the final total solar eclipse of the second millennium. Those who don't want to miss it can choose to be aboard the Swiss Pearl in Melk, Austria, on its grand tour of Holland and Central Europe, from Amsterdam to Budapest. Amsterdam-Budapest itinerary: From $3,948 for 16 days, including airfare.

Prices do not include airfare unless otherwise indicated.
River Cruise bargains
Premier Selections (800/234-4000) offers a 26 percent discount on weeklong luxury barge cruises along the Canal du Centre in France in October and early November. That brings the starting price down to $1,490 per person, double.
Crown Blue Line (800/355-9394) has savings of up to 20 percent on self-skippered cabin cruisers for Europe's rivers and inland waterways. Weekly rentals start at $1,050 in the Netherlands; $1,130 in Ireland; $1,320 in France; and $1,395 in Germany. Larger vessels (sleeping up to 12) are also available.
-- Jim Glab