The Most Exciting New Trends in Cruising

By MICHAEL GEBICKI

A decade ago, I cruised from Iceland to the fiords of Greenland and then to Norway on a Russian ice ship. The adventure factor was five-star, but cabins were basic and the first course at dinner was borscht. Today, you can do the same cruise on a super-luxury liner with suites, an array of fine-dining restaurants and a signature spa. How times have changed.

Authenticity, cultural immersion, bespoke tours and fine regional food and wine experiences – the very things travellers are looking for in a land-based luxury holiday – are now delivered in extraordinary style on a cruise. And, according to leading Australian luxury cruising experts, trends are emerging.

 

The new (and younger) cruise passenger

“Our passengers are not only getting younger, they’re much more active,” says Lisa Pile, Vice President Sales of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. “We’re not quite seeing millennials yet, but the demographics are definitely changing. I’ve seen this on our Alaska cruise personally.

I went down for an early morning spin class and the gym was packed, I couldn’t believe it. Super fit people, it’s just fantastic.”

“Many more people in the 45-plus age group are considering luxury cruising,” says Diane Patrick, a leading Sydney-based cruise specialist for Wiltrans International, representing Paul Gauguin Cruises, which sails in Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific. “That puts Paul Gauguin in the spotlight because we can offer luxury yacht cruising in some of the most wonderful parts of the South Pacific, all within very easy reach for Australian cruisers. They can fit an exceptional seven-night luxury cruise into an eight-night trip out of Australia.”

Millennials are even getting on board river cruising. “Uniworld has launched a new adults-only river cruise experience in 2018,” says Fiona Dalton, Managing Director of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection in Australia. “U by Uniworld is aimed directly at a younger generation, with its very own sleek black ships and using the ships in a very different way – part waterfront hotel, part taxi, part nightclub, part yoga studio, part café. We’ve had fantastic feedback following our launch in April.”

 

Extraordinary ships or extraordinary destinations?

“Both,” says Jane Moggridge, General Manager Marketing and Communications of Viking River Cruises. “Many luxury cruisers have travelled extensively and they’re seeking new and immersive cultural experiences. Places that retain cultural integrity and offer an incredible experience untainted by crowds. We’ve seen some lines building bigger and more over-the-top ships, but at Viking we think travel should be about exploration, cultural immersion and personal enrichment. That’s why our ships feature open and airy, serene and unpretentious design, have guest lecturers, a Viking Resident Historian and, on Viking Orion, a Resident Astronomer.”

Other cruise experts agree. “People are looking for something different in the ships they are travelling on, for destinations that are being done differently and there’s a big appetite for completely new destinations,” says Mandy Dwyer, Communications Manager of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours. “Next year Scenic will be visiting northern Russia, the Norwegian fjords, the White Sea, and do a complete lap of Iceland. But cruisers are also looking at the quality of the ship, the amenities and dining options – those are also major factors.”

Vintage wine and food experiences

In 2018, luxury cruising is all about immersion in both the ship and the destinations it’s sailing to, especially when it comes to quality food and wine. Locally sourced produce, regional menus that reflect the ship’s itinerary, wines from the country, and interaction with the on-board chefs are all in high demand.

“There’s a desire for even more regionally paired food and wine experiences that bring our guests even closer to the destinations they’re sailing in,” says Uniworld’s Dalton. “For example, our ship in Paris boasts a fabulous restaurant, a French bistro and a Parisian supper club, while the SS Beatrice, our newest ship on the Eastern Danube, has a number of new dining venues all reflecting a very Austrian and Hungarian style of dining.”

“It’s all about variety at every mealtime,” says Viking’s Moggridge.

“One of our most popular dining experiences is The Kitchen Table where the ship’s executive chef takes guests on an interactive culinary adventure. They’ll handpick ingredients from local markets and help prepare regional dishes before dining with the ship’s culinary director. These excursions are incredibly popular and the dinners often go late into the night.”

Market tours with the chef are also popular. “We offer the Scenic Culinaire on some of our French itineraries,” says Dwyer. “Guests visit the local market with the chef, help select the produce and back at the ship they’ll reproduce some of the local dishes. That’s always booked out.”

 

A voyage to health and wellness

In a world of personal trainers, gym memberships and paleo diets, cruise ships are going head-to-head with luxury spa resorts in the wellness stakes.

“Uniworld’s Wellness on the Water program was ground-breaking when it began five years ago and it has been evolving ever since,” according to Dalton. “Every cruise has its own wellness coach and the wellness experience includes morning yoga, TRX or tai chi on the ship extending to our ‘Let’s Go’ ground program.”

Regent Seven Seas is also focused on health and wellness. “Our wonderful spas and wellness centres on are run by world-renowned Canyon Ranch Spa,” says Pile. “They also have a spa menu on board with programs for people who are watching their weight or want to work on specific aspects of their health.”

Aboard some vessels the on-board spas reflect the origins of the cruise line. “The Scandinavian-style spa on board our Viking Ocean Cruise ships is inspired by the Nordic approach to holistic wellbeing,” says Moggridge. “Quality time in a sauna followed by a cold dip in an icy lake is the embodiment of Scandinavia and this tradition is emulated in Viking’s Nordic Bathing Ritual, a traditional hot sauna followed by a cold bucket shower, a cold plunge pool or a visit to Viking’s exclusive Snow Grotto.”

“All of Scenic Space Ships have wellness centres,” according to Dwyer. “Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond feature a vitality pool and a Salt Therapy Lounge and our clients can spend as much time as they like there.”

“People are looking for a more immersive onshore experience, not just seeing the sights…In Naples, some want to see Pompeii, others might want to see Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, and others might want to do a wine-tasting or visit markets and do a cooking class. They want to feel like a local, not an onlooker.” –  Lisa Pile, Vice President of Sales, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Luxury is a shore thing

“People are looking for a more immersive onshore experience, not just seeing the sights, and that’s exactly what Regent Seven Seas offers,” according to Pile. “In Naples, some want to see Pompeii, others might want to see Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, and others might want to do a wine-tasting or visit markets and do a cooking class. They want to feel like a local, not an onlooker.”

Says Moggridge: “Guests want more intimate and meaningful onshore experiences, including private access to privileged experiences. Our Viking Culture Curriculum offers unique experiences, like visiting the home of a local family to break bread and share homemade vodka over a traditional meal, to exploring sealed vaults at the Hermitage.”

And according to Dalton: “Guests want to understand more, and that comes from personal engagement. Usually it’s about understanding local life, significant historical events that have led to today’s world, or exclusive experiences that are only possible with Uniworld, such as early opening visits accompanied by a curator to the world’s great art galleries and museums in Europe.”

 

Sustainability is the word

In a world where coral reefs, fish stocks, ice caps and shorelines are under threat from climate change, eco-conscious travellers are looking for evidence that their chosen cruise line is operating with the same awareness and integrity.

“Paul Gauguin has a Stewards of Nature program for children and families,” says Wiltrans’ Patrick. “It operates in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and it’s all about educating guests about coral reef and Pacific islands ecology with naturalist-led island and beach excursions. We’re operating in remote and often pristine places and we take great care to leave as small a footprint as possible.”

At Viking, the relatively young fleet was built with sustainability in mind, explains Moggridge. “Viking’s ocean ships were designed from the start with the environment in mind, feature energy-efficient hybrid engines, streamlined hulls and bows for maximum fuel efficiency, on board solar panels, and equipment that minimises exhaust pollution,” she says.

At Uniworld guests are given metal refillable water cannisters, which saves over 500,000 plastic water bottles per year, according to Dalton. “Our parent company, The Travel Corporation, has announced its commitment to phase out single use plastics in all our operations by 2020, and we in Uniworld are already taking steps to do as much as we can by removing plastic straws and many other single-use plastics,” she adds.

Scenic is also implementing policies to reduce single-use plastic as part of a broader program. “We’re putting funds into local communities to develop clean water initiatives,” says Dwyer. “Cruise operators can set an example for good environmental practice particularly where they visit remote communities, as Scenic does on some of its Asian itineraries.”

 

The Details

Regent Seven Seas Cruises, rssc.com

Paul Gauguin Cruises, pgcruises.com

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, uniworld.com

Viking River Cruises, vikingrivercruises.com.au

Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, scenic.com.au

Seven of the Best Luxury River Cruises

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.

APT

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.
aptouring.com.au

 

Avalon Waterways

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.
avalonwaterways.com.au

 

Crystal Cruises

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

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.
scenic.com.au

 

Tauck

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.

tauck.com.au

 

Uniworld

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.
uniworld.com

 

Viking

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.

vikingrivercruises.com.au

Asian Offerings

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.

Dancing The Danube Waltz

By Sally Macmillan

It’s hard to believe you’re in the centre of a European city when you wake to the sound of horses trotting down the street. But this is Vienna, and horse-drawn carriages are as much a feature of this graceful city as its opulent palaces, monument-lined Ringstrasse and historic coffee houses.

We’re here to join the Scenic Jasper, on a voyage along the Danube from Vienna to Linz, Durnstein, Bratislava and Budapest, which will include a private concert in the Liechtenstein Garden Palace.

Before we join the ship, we view a training session of white Lipizzaner stallions at the 18th-century Spanish Riding School to view a training session of the white Lippizaner stallions. Six immaculately dressed riders put the horses through their paces in the arena accompanied by classic Viennese music and a fascinating commentary.

It’s just one awe-inspiring experience on a cruise packed with cultural highlights. Author and comedian Kathy Lette is the ship’s godmother and she declares “Not only is river cruising the best way to see Europe – no sat-nav malfunctions, no orbital ring roads, no traffic jams or cancelled trains – but this sleek cruise ship is so luxurious it should be renamed HMS Hedonism.”

The queen-size bed in my spacious balcony suite is so comfortable I sleep through breakfast at our first port of call. Not to worry as butler Natalia arrives bearing tea and pastries within minutes of my panicked call. Every stateroom on the ship has a butler, 24-hour room service, a minibar restocked daily and other luxury touches such as L’Occitane bathroom products and plush bathrobes.

Breakfast is required to fuel the (optional) 34km cycle from Durnstein to Melk, our next stop along the Danube. The ship’s electrically-assisted bikes are a joy – you can breeze up any incline while taking in the glorious surroundings.

The following day, we moor at Linz for a half-day trip to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace and the setting for many scenes of the movie The Sound of Music. The exquisite city is also home to the grand Hotel Sacher where the original Sacher-Torte was first produced in 1832 and is still served today in the hushed environs of the formal café, and where Julie Andrews stayed during the filming.

We have a full day and night in Budapest, but even a week wouldn’t do justice to this extraordinarily beautiful city. From the moment I see the sun rising behind the Hungarian Parliament buildings across the Danube, I am hooked.

Back in Vienna, we have a choice of guided tours to Schönbrunn Palace, the magnificent former summer residence of the Habsburgs; or Bratislava, the capital of neighbouring Slovakia. A small group of us take the train to Bratislava to spend more time exploring the city. That’s another attraction of river cruising – you can enjoy as many of the included excursions as you like while enjoying your ship as a superbly appointed hotel that travels with you.

Bratislava is an intriguing mix with its medieval Old Town, crumbling mansions, graffiti-daubed Soviet-era buildings and traffic-jammed roads. Lunch at the Flag Ship restaurant is hearty Slovakian fare – garlic soup, potato pancakes and a gnocchi-type dish made with sheep’s cheese. It goes down nicely with locally brewed beer.

We have a full day and night in Budapest, but even a week wouldn’t do justice to this extraordinarily beautiful city. From the moment I see the sun rising behind the Hungarian Parliament buildings across the Danube, I am hooked. Like Prague, Krakow and Lubliana, among others, Budapest has become a hub for students, backpackers, intellectuals, artists and international partygoers. Our tour of Buda (the western, hilly bank of the river) and Pest (the flatter, city-centric side) takes us to landmark sites including Heroes’ Square, Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill, plus the WAMP contemporary design market.

Thermal baths have been part of Hungarian life since Roman times. The Szechenyi Spa Baths complex in the centre of the city has 15 indoor baths and three outdoor pools. Even though it is a chilly spring morning, all the facilities are well-patronised, mostly by locals. Massages and medicinal mud baths are also available if you book in advance.

A night out in the romkocsma or “ruin pubs” in the old Jewish quarter is a fitting finale to our cruise. These arty bars started popping up in old factory and tenement buildings a few years ago and are furnished with the “found art” materials. Some host informal art exhibitions, experimental films and creative workshops. However, the ruin pub we discover is hosted by a seriously grumpy barman.