From cosy canal bridges in France to five-star floating hotels in China, river cruising is more popular than ever. Sue Wallace from Vacations and Travel Magazine, pulls up a deck chair and watches the countryside pass by at a very leisurely pace.
On my right, fairytale castles perch precariously atop steep hills while portside, rows of manicured vineyards and cobbled villages meander down to the river’s edge. A barge laden with fruit and vegetables and noisy chickens chugs past a metal dinghy, from which a group of elderly gentleman cast their rods into the caramel-coloured water, trying to land their dinner.
River cruising is certainly not the fastest way to see a place, but that’s the appeal for me and many others, it seems, as it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors in the cruise industry.
According to Brett Jardine, general manager of the International Cruise Council Australasia, the number of Australians cruising the world’s canals and rivers has more than doubled in the past three years. “This type of cruising offers a new way to revisit picturesque riverside cities using the medieval highways of old”, he says.
River chariots today come in endless shapes and sizes, from luxurious hotel-style ships to streamlined boats and intimate barges. And more than ever, cruise companies are enticing travellers aboard with innovative itineraries, gourmet cuisine and impressively sleek surrounds.
Jump aboard a large barge down the Rhine, Nile or Amazon and you’re likely to find it kitted out with a spa, a swimming pool, perhaps even a jogging track. Lecturers and guides are often on hand to ensure you gain the most from your river adventure.
The Danube, the longest river in the European Union and the second-longest in Europe after the Volga, is a firm favourite when it comes to river cruises. Don’t expect sparkling blue waters but do expect intriguing scenery as your boat bobs from Germany through Austria, Hungary and a handful of other Eastern Europe nations.
Next year will see a host of new boating additions to the river, including Avalon Waterway’s Avalon Panorama, due to launch in May operating the 15 day “Magnificent Europe” itinerary along the Danube and Rhine, Avalon’s most popular itinerary among Australian travellers. The all suite ship features two decks of spacious cabins with floor to ceiling windows that open to the water.
In May this year, Australian owned APT launched its seventh ship, MS Amabella, in conjunction with Amawaterways. The 41 metre long vessel features spacious suites with twin balconies, one indoor and one outdoor as well as a swimming pool, a fireside library and an intimate restaurant with seating for 24 people, fed by a private chef. Also look out for her sister ship, MS Amarverde, which will be floated next year.
New routes for APT in 2011 include the 27 and 30 day “Rivers of Emperors” journey from Paris to Istanbul, the 32 day “Tantalising Turkey” ride from Istanbul to Amsterdam and the 12 day “Enchanting Rhine” voyage from Amsterdam to Zurich, among others.
Cruise West also offers Danube excursions: its 12 day cruise aboard the MS Amadeus Diamond from Bucharest in Romania takes you through six countries before finishing in Vienna, plying a trade route used since the middle ages.
In the US, the company operates Columbia and Snake river cruises following in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark and giving you access to a dramatic landscape carved by huge floods thousands of years ago.
Other newcomers are Scenic Tours luxurious Space Ships, so named because their suites offer as much space as most hotel rooms and many come with private balconies to boot. Between European ports, guests are treated to alfresco meals on the upper deck and fine dining at the onboard Italian restaurant.
Still in Europe, Uniworld Cruises operates 10 riverboats around the continent. Gastronomes are spoiled for choice when they book the “Castles along the Rhine” trip, which features new land excursions such as wine tastings in a 14th century castle and a cooking demonstration that will have you whipping up a black forest gateau in no time. Next year will see the launch of the company’s equally opulent River Antoinette.
China’s Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, has seen cruise passenger numbers soar in recent years: in 2009, some 630,000 people explored the waterway to ogle attractions such as the Three Gorges and its controversial dam.
Australia based Helen Wong Tours operates four day downriver cruises between Chongqing and Yichang aboard luxury ships including Victoria Cruises’ Anna, Prince and Katarina, all fitted out with smart rooms and state of the art technology.
Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent also takes guests along the waterway on exclusive trips aboard the Yangzi Explorer, carrying 124 passengers in deluxe suites, each of which comes with a private balcony so you can soak up your surrounds at your leisure.
Viking River Cruises, the world’s largest river cruise company, is investing millions of dollars to expand its fleet. In 2011 it will launch two new ships: the Viking Prestige – able to hold 188 passengers and a sister ship to Viking Legend, the industry’s first eco-friendly river cruiser – and the Viking Emerald, which will make its debut on the Yangtze River and features 78 square metre Presidential Suites. There will also be two completely refurbished ships sailing next year: Viking Pakhomov in Russia and Viking Schumann on the Elbe.
Increasing demand for luxury cruises on the Mekong River in Vietnam has led a number of companies to offer a waterborne tour to Cambodia and Vietnam aboard the newly minted RV Indochina Pandaw, a replica of a luxury colonial steamer. From November 27, the new excursion will ferry 60 odd passengers from Siem Reap to Saigon in cabins fitted out in brass and teak.
Spanning some 3,700 kilometres, Russia’s Volga River is one of the greatest waterways in the world. Its majesty can be enjoyed on boats such as the 130 metre long Tikhi Don operated by Scenic Tours. Rates include shore excursions and home visits, and your itinerary can be combined with a luxury cruise around Scandinavia or the Baltic states.
From 2011, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises will also offer Volga River Holidays aboard the refurbished River Victoria, taking you from Moscow to St Petersburg, with stops at captivating port towns such as Mandrogi and Uglich. Slightly farther west, the company is enticing families aboard with new packages across two itineraries “Treasures of Prague, the Rhine and Main” and “Paris and Normandy” giving a 50 percent discount to travellers under the age of 18.
As tempting as it is to float around far-flung corners of the globe, you don’t have to leave home to enjoy a world class river ramble. Explore one of Australia’s greatest waterways, the 2,375 metre long Murray River, aboard romantic paddlewheeler PS Murray Princess. It’s not quite the Danube, but it’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
Article courtesy of Vacations and Travel Magazine.