By David McGonigal
The idea of taking a cruise without worrying about getting seasick has a lot of appeal, but that’s only one reason why river cruising is booming. There’s also the joy of travelling from city to city without changing rooms, of the never-ending scenery running past your window or balcony, of being part of life on the river. As river cruising has boomed there’s been rapid proliferation in cruise vessels. But while ocean-going ships are becoming bigger and bigger, the constraints of rivers and bridges restrict the size of river vessels. Since every company faces the same restrictions, the difference between one company and another may be less pronounced than at sea.
One benefit is that there are no inside cabins so everyone has a view but a disadvantage is that the wider the outside balcony the narrower the cabin. This has necessitated considerable ingenuity in design to make the most of the space available. Some companies have gone for larger rooms and fewer guests, others have created distinct personalities for each vessel and others offer features and facilities beyond your bedroom. That’s not to say that river vessels offer small cabins or suites: it’s a very competitive market and, on average, the typical river cabin may be the same size – or larger – than a ship’s cabin. However, it’s impossible to match an expansive suite on the most luxurious seagoing vessel – Regent Seven Seas Explorer’s Regent Suite is 413 square metres – on board a river vessel that has to squeeze into a lock.
Then there’s height. River vessels must fit under bridges – some of which may have been built centuries ago – so there’s more creativity required to ensure the furniture and canopies on the top deck can fold flat to make the most of every centimetre. Europe is perfectly suited to river cruising – many cities began as river ports – and is definitely the area with the greatest concentration of river-cruise vessels. But there are river cruises on five other continents from South America’s upper Amazon, North America’s Mississippi and Columbia rivers, the Nile, Chobe and Zambezi in Africa, Australia’s Murray and several rivers across Asia.
In the Berlitz ‘River Cruising in Europe’ guide, all of the Top 10 vessels of the 310 ranked represented APT or its partner AmaWaterways. The company’s vessels have always been clever in design and its Concerto class features suites that consist of a French balcony and a separate outside balcony. APT operates vessels in the European fleet and also operates river cruises in the USA, Africa, South America and across Asia.
Food is a high priority and APT has recreated its Chef’s Table Restaurant as a true tasting-menu experience. The company has also partnered with action travel company Backroads to offer hiking and cycling excursions.
In its panoramic suites, Avalon has turned the beds to face the window – a glass wall that opens to a French balcony – so you really do feel as if you’re floating on the river. In 2017 Avalon Fresh was introduced with an emphasis on local ingredients from small producers.
Avalon offers cruises across Asia and on the Amazon, and a range of themed cruises in Europe. The Avalon Luminary runs a nine-day Active Discovery voyage on the upper Danube that includes cycling, guided hikes, canoeing and more.
Crystal Cruises has also moved into river cruising. The Crystal Mozart is a completely refurbished vessel that now carries 52 fewer passengers than in its previous iteration. Recently, four more vessels have been added on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers. All carry just 106 passengers so there’s space for walk-in wardrobes and river-view beds.
In one of the onboard restaurants there will be a dedicated space for daily cooking classes and, as well as hiking and biking, Crystal offers more adventurous activities like sightseeing via helicopter.
Scenic’s river cruise ships operate across Asia and in Europe as far as Russia. Two of its vessels based in France have been redesigned to better satisfy cruisers’ luxury needs. The number of cabins on both the Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire has been reduced to create two large Royal Owner’s Suites, a vitality pool and an expanded wellness centre. There are up to six dining options from casual to formal degustation.
Both vessels provide onboard cooking classes in a dedicated space featuring cooking stations and a cheese and wine cellar. While the redesigns are starting in France, the development may extend throughout the fleet.
From just four European river vessels in 2014, Tauck now has nine. They operate on the Rhine, Rhone, Seine and Danube. The MS Joy offers a range of suites including some loft cabins that extend over two decks. Tauck prides itself on offering special cultural experiences and that’s true for its cruises, too, from a private tour of the Baroque libraries of Prague to an imperial evening in Vienna. As well as some themed cruises, Tauck offers a range of family cruises perfect for multi-generational holidays.
In the Uniworld fleet, there are 21 vessels and they operate in Europe and Asia. The company has teamed up with Butterfield & Robinson to offer some great outdoor excursions from biking along the Danube to kayaking in France. Uniworld doesn’t have standardised décor for its vessels, viewing them rather as floating boutique hotels.
Viking reassessed the way it used space when it created its Viking Longships in 2012; vessels that, as the name suggests, utilise Scandinavian décor. More public space was found by removing the under-utilised gym and massage room. Now 46 of the 65 vessels in the fleet are Longships. Viking operates throughout Europe and Asia. Each voyage offers an in-depth cultural enrichment program to bring the destination to life through music, history, art and food. It has expanded its food and wine program with Taste Of events that extend from food-based excursions to cooking classes and on-board demonstrations.
There are some river cruise companies that operate solely in Asia and these are worth seeking out. This is particularly true for the increasingly crowded Irrawaddy and other rivers of Myanmar.
Pandaw is a partial recreation of what was once the largest shipping line in the world, the Irrawaddy Steamship Company (ISC). ISC vessels were scuttled to stop them being used by Japanese troops during World War II. One – The Pandaw – survived and was the model for the new fleet. The quest for authenticity ensures these vessels don’t have every modern amenity but the level of service is first class. The fleet has now diversified to other rivers across Asia.
The Strand is a legendary and recently renovated colonial hotel of Yangon, Myanmar. The hotel has now expanded into river cruising with a vessel of the same name that offers a similar level of luxury on the Irrawaddy. The Strand joins Belmond Road to Mandalay, the long-running luxurious sister vessel to the world’s most exotic rail journeys, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Sanctuary Retreats operates the only all-balcony vessel on the Irrawaddy: the Sanctuary Ananda.