This year might be the best yet for a river cruise in Europe, with new ships and itineraries offering a fabulous variety of holidays afloat, reports Brian Johnston.
Care to meander through the vineyard-clad hills of Portugal, float by the fabulous dreaming spires of Venice or adventure along the Volga past onion-dome churches and Russian forests? You’re in luck, because there has never been more choice on the rivers of Europe, with a flotilla of ships offering an ever-increasing number and variety of itineraries to take you exploring.
Cruise companies also continue to improve their product. Among recent trends has been a waiving of the single supplement for solo travellers and a move to more inclusive fares, with wifi, airport transfers and drinks included. Shore excursions have become more flexible, often with alternative, active or special-interest choices that might range in France from kayaking near Avignon to truffle hunting in Bordeaux, or an exclusive visit to a castle in Germany.
Special-interest groups are also being catered for, and there are now river cruises themed around royalty, wine and beer, cuisine, the tulip season, Christmas markets, golf, wellness, music, art and even the Jewish history of central Europe.
In good company
The chief players for passengers from the Australian market are APT, Avalon Waterways, Scenic, Tauck River Cruising, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises.
You don’t have to limit your choices to the well-known brands, however. CroisiEurope is the continent’s biggest river cruise company, and small players, such as A-Rosa River Cruises and Lueftner Cruises, have started to eye up Australian customers.
APT’s budget arm Travelmarvel has extended its river itineraries to nine in 2016, including a new ‘Battlefields and European Gems’ cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest that adds on a visit to World War II memorials in northern France. Evergreen Tours (Scenic’s budget alternative) has an expanded list of 20 cruise tours, including a new route in Russia and a new 17-day ‘Best of Switzerland & Rhine River’ trip, which incorporates a cruise between Amsterdam and Basel and a tour of the Swiss Alps.
In July 2016, Crystal River Cruises also launched Crystal Mozart on the Danube River. Four more ships, all named after composers, will follow in 2017 on the Rhine and Seine, and in the Bordeaux region. The company promises an all-suite, butler-service luxury experience similar to that on Crystal Cruises’ ocean vessels.
APT is sailing into Bordeaux for the first time with five itineraries aboard the AmaDolce through this historic French vineyard region. The company has also launched wine-themed cruises across Europe, with visits to cellar doors and wine-matching meals, and onboard Australian wine specialists will provide their expertise. Meanwhile, a new APT ‘Charms of Southern France’ cruise, between Paris and Monte Carlo, takes in the best of the Rho?ne and Saone rivers, and some ‘Magnificent Europe’ sailings will bring musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on board for performances.
Meanwhile, Scenic is making its first appearance on Portugal’s Douro River, with the new Scenic Azure sailing 11-day return cruises from Porto through a region famous for port wine, Baroque villages and spectacular vineyard terraces. It also has a new ‘Iconic Danube’ cruise between Budapest and Passau in Germany, which takes in the upper Danube at its most beautiful on the lazy loop through Austria.
Uniworld is unusual in offering Italian cruises on the Venice Lagoon and Po River, and Avalon has added two cruises in Belgium. Viking has produced two new cruises on Europe’s most popular river: ‘Legends of the Rhine’ from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, focusing on World War II history, and ‘Rhine Rhapsody’, which starts overland in Paris and finishes in Basel in Switzerland.
The past few years have seen dozens of ships launched in Europe. There aren’t as many this year, but the numbers are still impressive. Viking is launching six more of its Longships, and Avalon unveils Avalon Passion (which will concentrate on the lower Danube through Eastern Europe) and Avalon Imagery II on the Rhine. The core Rhine–Danube route is benefitting from new Scenic ships Scenic Azure and Scenic Amber and new APT ships AmaStella and AmaViola.
AmaViola stands out for both interconnecting and three- or four-berth cabins on river ships. Tauck’s Joy and Savor, also new this year, have triple and quad cabins as well. It’s a sign that river cruises are finally acknowledging the family market; a trend that is bound to keep growing.
This year, Tauck has three multi-generational itineraries, such as a ‘Bon Voyage’ cruise in France, while Uniworld has nine family-friendly cruises, including ‘Castles Along the Rhine’ and ‘Classic Christmas Markets’.
Have you ever been on a European river cruise? Did you enjoy it?
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