Although they have been in the marketplace for many years, river cruises (mainly in Europe) have exploded in popularity in the last few years.
So what is a “river cruise” and why have they become so much in demand? First, a river cruise reaches inland destinations, not possible for ocean ships. This means that you very often “dock” in the heart of town and can walk directly into the center of each day’s destination. It also means that you have continuous scenerywhen you are cruising, often some of the highlights of the itinerary, such as castles along the Rhine! You are also guaranteed a view from every accommodation as all staterooms are oceanview (or maybe we should say ‘riverview’), there are no interior cabins. Lastly, and perhaps the most notable point, the pricing is virtually all-inclusive: shore excursions and wine with lunch & dinner are included!
Needless to say, after having taking numerous ‘deep water’ cruises over the past 25 years, I was quite excited to embark on my first river cruise. Our itinerary was “Tulip Time” through Holland and Belgium with an April 5 departure date on Avalon Waterways. Upon boarding, you immediately notice the difference in size of the river vessel vs. a cruise ship, but this is not a bad thing. There is an upscale, warm feel to this more intimate means of cruising. Then when you enter your cabin, you’ll actually feel right at home if you are remembering your past traditional cruises as the cabin is very much like that of a cruise ship (around 172 sq ft). Many of the river cruises offer what is called the “french balcony” which simply means you have floor-to-ceiling windows, one of which slides open so you can lean out. You see all river cruise ships are approximately the same size as it is determined by the size of the locks on the rivers where they cruise. So there are definite size restrictions which carry over to the size of the cabins onboard. (some lines are now building new ships with true ‘step out’ balcony cabins by changing the cabin configuration AND reducing the number of cabins onboard).
After a quick tour of the ship (it doesn’t take too long), we unpacked and prepared for dinner. Here, again, you’ll notice some differences. Many of the passengers opt for a pre-dinner drink in the lounge (ours was on the forward of the ship) and then proceed into dinner at the same time, which was 7pm. The dining room accommodates everyone at a single dining time and it is ‘open sitting’, no table assignments. Because of large windows on either side, everyone in the dining room can enjoy a view as the ship is just not that wide! The menu is very much like that of a large ship and offers a few less choices, but the quality is a pleasant surprise. I guess when you cook for 160 passengers you can take a bit more time than when you prepare for 2,600 (who knew?!). An obvious difference in the dining room staff is with the maitre d’. The standard cruise ship dining room maitre d’ is somewhat of a prima donna who stands at his podium in a very intimidating fashion (until it’s the end of the cruise where he’s all smiles as he circulates the dining room as to remind you of his expected gratuitity). Well not so on our river cruise…. the maitre d’ on this cruise; he was all over the dining room like a mother hen. He refilled water & wine glasses, he was always visible, and obviously took great pride in running an efficient and pleasant dining room.
The ports on our cruise were all ‘inland’, of course, and therefore new to anyone who’s only cruised on deep water cruises before. It was wonderful to dock right in the heart of an area and perhaps start a walking tour right from the gangway, or venture out on your own after your tour had completed earlier in the day. As previously mentioned, shore excursions are included, so participation is just about 100% amongst the passengers. The exception is the rare case where there is an ‘optional’ tour at an additional charge during a free afternoon. There were two such tours offered on our itinerary and we decided to take both (charges were very moderate at about $49 per person). To go into detail about the ports & tours will require a separate blog entry, but each and every day brought about a delightful opportunity to explore places of which were all new to us! Even disembarking the ship can be unique in that many times different lines have to dock side-by-side so that you have to walk through the lobby, or sometimes up and over the top deck of the ship ‘next door’; very interesting (an not for those who are mobility impaired).
In summary, river cruises are fantastic! Europe offers many itineraries and other locations include Russia, China, Egypt, and even Viet Nam. Because they are small and in high demand you need to book early (as in the year before in some cases). Popular choices are Avalon Waterways, AMA Waterways, Viking River Cruises, and others. Contact Cruise Escapes for details and rates for YOUR river cruise!
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