For those of us who were children of the ‘60s and ‘70s, going to Europe was more of a race than a vacation. Whirlwind bus tours blasted tourists out of their hotel beds at the light of dawn and drove them from one country to another in guided chaos — mirrored in a classic film of that era, “If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.” Similarly, Arthur Frommer published his world famous guidebook series, “Europe on $5 a Day,” and Americans were off and running across the pond, catching Kodak moments in front of Buckingham Palace and feeding the pigeons at St. Mark’s Square.
But Europe for today’s sophisticated traveler is a very different place. The castles, the art, the museums, the food and wine beg to be experienced slowly and carefully. At the same time, economies and conveniences are required.
Into this space has stepped the river cruising craze. These are long, flat luxury barges that ply the great rivers of Europe, passing castles on peaks overlooking the historic waterways and stopping at cities, towns and villages that have been settled along these banks for hundreds of years.
Experienced ship cruisers know river cruising is a very different kind of trip than sailing the seven seas, and it is one that is catching on in viral popularity. While ship passengers often have to buck waiting lines as they tender in from off shore anchors, only to go through lengthy port and immigration procedures and then get accosted by throngs of idle taxi drivers, river cruisers sit back and relax. The ship docks, and usually in the center of town. Passengers step off the boat and onto the dock and walk a block or two to the nearest strudel cafe or gelato bistro.
Large ships cannot move through Europe’s rivers and, indeed, many are too large to even dock in the deeper seaports. The average length of a cruise ship is easily 1,000 feet on several tiers and through these lengths passengers navigate their way to various dining venues, entertainment options, pools, spas, activity decks and lounges.
Although river cruises cannot compete with the big cruise ships when it comes to onboard entertainment, or the food varieties and shopping venues they contain, the barges do hold their own in matters of convenience and intimacy of place.
For those travelers who want to see Europe slowly, dock in a town and be in the center of town minutes after they step off the boat, and for those who want their experience of Europe to be pain free and hassle free, river cruising is the way to go. Some of these cruise packages are all-inclusive – no added charges for excursions and often no added charges for onboard amenities. Cabins are spacious and upscale with high threadcount linens and dedicated butler service, and food is fresh and local.
While cruise ships will carry 1,000-4,000 passengers from port to port, the average river cruise will carry only 100-200 people. The difference in experiences is as immense as, perhaps the disparity between visiting New York City or golfing at a resort in Scottsdale. They are two different vacations, two different Europes. On a river cruise, however, your accommodations are just blocks from city center and your time is your own as you meander through places you could never dream of visiting via cruise ship – or on that dreaded bus tour.
While river cruising vacations are as wide and varied as the world’s great rivers: the Mekong and Ganges, the River Quai, the Yangtze in China to the Amazon in Brazil, Europe is particularly well-suited to the task. Options include the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Basel, the Loire, the Moselle, the Elbe, the Volga and the Seine. The continent was tamed along these legendary rivers and visitors can take in the time lines – from famous medieval castles and to the great battle spots of the last century’s World Wars — in the time it takes to sip a single glass of Champagne.
A recent trip through the Rhineland by this author on the Scenic Jewel took in great castles, iconic locations and sleepy villages with colorful tales to tell: museums dedicated to the variations of torture used in the 14th and 15th centuries, another dedicated to music boxes or knights of a certain order, and still other sites visited or just passed along the way that presented stories of history, deep or recent, that could make a passenger shiver to the core.
Scenic Cruises offers some ten ships and itineraries through France, Russia, Portugal and Middle Europe with cabins that have a sun-lounge – a cabin-wide, floor-to-ceiling enclosed patio solarium that opens up at the press of a button in warm weather. Passengers can sip their wine or espresso watching great estates that look like wedding cakes pass in quiet comfort, no matter what the season. Their tour of Europe happens wherever they are, whether in a city, a remote village or in their cabin. Headphones and a GPS-driven mobile guide give the background and stories of iconic scenes that move by, one after the other.
This year, the North American river cruise market will reach some half a million passengers in Europe, according to another river cruise giant, Viking River Cruises. The Encino, CA-based cruise company is sending off 12 new vessels through the waterways of Europe this year on top of the record-breaking 18 vessels it launched last year, which followed 10 launched in 2013 and six in 2012.
AmaWaterways will carry some 82,000 passengers (51,000 of them from North America) on its fleet of 17 vessels in Europe this year. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has 13 ships in Europe; for Avalon Waterways it is 15 ships sailing in Europe this year. Others to watch are Tauck, Avalon, Grand Circle and CroisiEurope, and some newcomers, such as Vantage Deluxe World Travel.
And while it is romantic enough to be floating from Lyon to Avignon sampling French wines and imagining the light and shadows seen by Cezanne along the banks, winter can be a particularly poignant time to dock along the Main River in Germany or the Danube through Austria and drink hot mulled wines at famous Christmas markets along the way, all aglow in the snow. Themed cruises, too, such as trips focused on wine or Mozart or the food of Southern Italy, crop up continuously and offer good reasons to book with friends or family.
River cruises, like ocean cruises, can, however, be pricey. And though some are all-inclusive or semi-inclusive not all lines are alike in what they do include. Some companies, such as Scenic, will include 24/7 spirits, land excursions – even gratuities (fares also include six dining venues, Wi-Fi, airport transfers), while others might charge extra for those services. Some will charge for a special Chef’s Table degustation while others will include it as a premium part of the experience. Some lines will charge for coffee and Coke.
Travel agents can usually pick up the best deals in this competitive market and know the ins and outs of these long ships that can be as varied as shoe designs when it comes to choices and fit. To find an agent, search through the specialties box at www.asta.org, the American Society of Travel Agents. Other information options for finding ship reviews and knowledgeable agents include Cruise Critic and Tours.com.