River cruises have rapidly grown in popularity over the past few years. For people who are avid cruisers it’s a way to see different cities they can’t visit via a traditional ocean cruise. However, the intimate and interactive nature of river cruising is now appealing to travelers who have never set foot on a cruise ship before. The reason for that is the ease with which a river cruise gets travelers into the heart of a country and the high level of education and interaction that occurs once in a river port-of-call.
Why a River Cruise Might Be for You
River cruises are small ships – they have to be in order to fit down the narrow canals of Europe’s waterways – and most ships carry less than 200 guests. Though this means fewer activities onboard than the Vegas-style entertainment of large ocean cruise ships, you probably won’t even miss it since you’ll be spending so much time in port.
Due to their smaller size, river cruise ships can easily dock in cities such as Paris, France; Prague, Czech Republic; and Vienna, Austria – and smaller, lesser known towns like Miltenberg, Germany; Kostolac, Serbia; and Avignon, France. You’ll be able to get off the ship quickly and be right in town, unlike at ocean ports where you typically have to take additional transportation to get into the city you’re visiting.
Spending Time in River Cruise Ports
Once in port you can explore on your own or have the opportunity to tag along with some of the experts associated with the river cruise company. Spend part of the day with destination experts who will take you on a walking tour of the port and give you a history of the city. You can join the chef of the ship as he peruses the markets for ingredients to use in that night’s dinner back on board. You’ll also have time to partake in a shore excursion if you want an adventure or a different type of experience in port.
If you’re having so much fun on land you don’t want to get back on the ship, you have options. Yes, that’s correct: you don’t always have to get back on the ship when it departs. Instead, what you can do is check out one of the bicycles onboard the ship and ride along the riverside as the cruise ship sails into the next port and meet your ship there.
If exercise isn’t your cup of tea, you can relax on the ship…with a cup of tea. Or visit the lounge or outdoor bar on the cruise ship and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer (complimentary on some river cruise ships) as the scenery passes you by. Unlike on ocean cruises where land is spotted far off in the distance between ports, when you’re sailing down one of Europe‘s rivers the scenery is close and little villages and farmland are often only a few meters away from your balcony or vantage point onboard the ship.
The Food Onboard
Large cruise ships are known for their array and opulence of cuisine, and a river cruise ship lives up to foodie expectations. Since the chef often goes out into each port to handpick ingredients for that night’s dinner, the meal is fresh and inventive. Five-course meals are a common occurrence in the main dining room of river cruise ships, often reflecting the region through which you’re sailing. Each cruise ship typically has a second dining room (and sometimes a third) where you can get some variety.
One example of this is AmaWaterways’ Erlebnis Chef’s Table Restaurant, which offers a chef-designed tasting menu that guests can watch being prepared in an exclusive 24-person dining room. Viking River Cruises keeps culture always present with the food onboard their ships by offering ‘Taste of…’ events, which introduces passengers to the food and drink of the local region. You’ll get the opportunity to taste different types of food, chat with the ship’s chefs and meet other people on board. The ships of most river cruise lines also offer food on their sun deck, ideal for a leisurely lunch while you’re sailing through the countryside of Europe.
Evenings Onboard the Ship
If you’re not spending the evening in port somewhere, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy some time on board. A river cruise ship may not be large enough to offer a multitude of different entertainment options, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still entertain. The intimate nature of river cruising means it’s easy to meet other people on your ship. Enjoy an onboard show by local musicians, play a board game with other guests in the lounge or enjoy a cocktail over great conversation with new friends.
If you’re seeking some alone time you can retire to your stateroom, most of which are very luxurious on river cruise ships. Avalon Waterways has premium bedding from their own, exclusive Comfort Collection BedsSM while Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection adds a special charm to their signature staterooms by having different colors and fabrics in each room to offer a truly boutique hotel-like feel. Many staterooms on river cruise ships also have great views of the land framing the river, ranging from panoramic windows to French balconies to your own private verandah.
The Rivers of Europe – Where You Can Visit
Douro River: The Douro River stretches through Spain and Portugal and its surrounding Douro River Valley is such a remarkable place with its mix of vineyards and villages sprinkled about the banks of the river that it has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sailing through the Douro River Valley gives travelers a look beyond Lisbon (the departure port for the majority of Douro River cruises) into some of Portugal’s less-traveled towns, such as Barca D’Alva and Régua. You’ll also have a chance to sample Port wine and see part of western Spain. AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection all offer itineraries to this destination.
Rhine River: If you love castles and mountains, the Rhine may be the European river for you. Winding through the Swiss Alps and old world villages, river cruises along the Rhine often stop in historic cities such as Munich, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, and romantic villages, such as the wine-making town of Rüdesheim, Germany. To see these cities and towns, check out Avalon Waterway’s Highlights of Germany from Munich to Basel itinerary.
Danube River: Central and Eastern Europe come alive for cruisers who choose to sail along this famous waterway. The Danube River travels from Germany to the Black Sea, passing through 10 countries in the process and gives you a chance to see popular cities such as Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; and Bratislava, Slovakia. Shorter river cruises offer just a couple countries along the Danube while longer cruises – such as the 23-day and eight-country European Sojourn itinerary from Viking River Cruises – sail along much more of the Danube.
Po River: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection made many river cruise travelers happy when they introduced an Italian itinerary this year, courtesy of the Po River. Flowing out of Venice, a river cruise along the Po River will give you the chance to explore the countryside of northeast Italy with stops in popular Italian cities such as Bologna and Verona, plus an excursion to Rome on some itineraries.
Rhône River: See both country farmland and tall mountains during a river cruise along the Rhône River. Before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, the Rhône River makes its way through Switzerland’s Alps and the vineyards and flower farms of southern France. Most itineraries along this river focus on the French portion of the Rhône, such as the Burgundy and Provence itinerary from Avalon Waterways which travels from Paris to Côte d’Azur.
Additional Itineraries: There are many smaller rivers that river cruise line itineraries sometimes visit, either separately or as part of a cruise that includes the above rivers. Some of these are the Moselle River, the Seine River and the Main River. Also, since many of the rivers of Europe flow through European wine valleys, many river cruise companies offer wine-oriented cruises. AmaWaterways has a whole category of cruises devoted to wine as part of their “In Celebration of Wine” theme cruises, such as a Provence and Spain itinerary that highlights the legendary wine regions of the Rhône River.
Thing to Consider When Taking a River Cruise
Unlike a land trip on your own, you’re still on a schedule. You may have alternatives to meeting the ship in another port via the aforementioned bikes, but the cruise ship will still be staying on a schedule that you need to adhere to. For families, you’ll need to come prepared with activities to entertain kids while on the ship since, unlike family-friendly ocean cruises, there isn’t an onboard kids club or shows and pools to entertain children.
Ultimately, a river cruise is for people who want to spend a lot of their time on the land or near land, seeing the scenery and exploring the port towns and cities of Europe in a way that is easy, luxurious, and intimate without having to haul suitcases or worry about transportation in between destinations.
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- Gina Douglas