Start summer with river cruising

Written by Rosie Holliday on May 3, 2012

Article written by Rosie Holliday, published in the Vail Daily on April 28, 2012.

The travel flavor of the day, or should I say year, seems to be river cruising. There are a record number of boats plying the waters, and this year may be the summer of European river boating.

If you have never been a big cruise ship fan, river cruising with smaller ships and ports is a great introduction to the cruising world. Rivers and canals connect some of Europe’s most fascinating cities, and while too small for the big ships, they are perfect for the flotilla of specially designed river ships and cruise barges.

The experience is more laid back than oceangoing voyages and the itineraries are port intensive, so you get a much better feel for the destination, since you are staying in one region, rather than touring an entire sea or coastline. River cruise ships rarely hold more than 200 passengers, and barges are even smaller, with four to 22 passengers.

On a lot of cruises, particularly in Europe and China, you will find a much bigger mix of international travelers, which makes it more interesting, at least to me. Itineraries may incorporate major cities as cornerstones, but the main focus is on smaller towns and villages and full days on the river are actually rare.

In Europe, traditional itineraries have focused on major rivers such as the Rhine, Danube and Main. The Danube is a great choice for first timers, and a typical voyage would sail through Austria, Hungary and Germany. The Rhine leads to Amsterdam, Cologne and Koblenz. In France, most companies offer Lyon-based trips down the Rhone and Saone rivers, with highlights that include the region of Provence (and who doesn’t love Provence!) and the wine country.

You may wonder how river and canal cruises differ. It may seem self evident, but while river ships, cruise rivers and barges cruise man-made canals, just 34-40 feet wide, the primary difference is, of course, size. A barge cruise, since it’s much smaller, can penetrate the ancient canal waterways of Europe that are off limits to river ships. Canal cruising is limited to Europe while river cruising is worldwide.

On a barge, you can visit even more off-the-beaten-track villages, popular places being Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. Think about being one of six to 12 passengers, sailing on a boat that moves so slowly you can hop off with a bicycle in one village, have a nice lunch, explore a bit, then have a pleasant ride back to rejoin the ship a few stops down the canal. Typically, companies buy old barges and rebuild them. All the comforts of home are offered and then some. French Country Waterways feature fabulous four-course candlelit dinners with the finest local ingredients and wonderful French wines.

Themed cruises are very popular and can range from Jewish heritage tours with AmaWaterways to arts and antiques, tennis, golf and family specific cruises with European Waterways. The aforementioned AmaWaterways also has customized eight “In Celebration of Wine” themed cruises to showcase the acclaimed wine regions along the Rhone, Danube and Rhine rivers. It’s great fun to gather a group of wine-buff friends and do this.

The eight-passenger Magna Carter sails antique cruises in England between Hampton Court and Henly on Thames with an open bar, extraordinary cuisine and wines, bikes and a spa pool included. Guests visit dealers, merchants and galleries. You can charter these barges to have an exclusive experience with friends or family members. Tennis buffs can also cruise in England and play at riverside clubs, including the Royal Berkshire and the Windsor Lawn Tennis Club.

Avalon has a particularly broad range of themed cruises, from wine to art and impressionist cruises in Northern France to jazz, classical music and eight-day Paris to Normandy’s landing beaches.

River and canal cruising is not limited to Europe, however. You can do it much closer to home along the Columbia, Mississippi and Hudson rivers, as well as some others. And one of the fastest-growing destinations for river boats is Asia, in particular China’s Yangtze and Vietnam and Cambodia’s Mekong. The Nile in Egypt and the Amazon in South America also offer a more exotic destination experience.

Rosie Holliday is an ex-pat Aussie and longtime long travel agent who owns Holliday Adventures, an affiliate of Andavo Travel-A Virtuoso member agency. While she can and does book the world, her specialties are Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Europe. You can reach her at 970-748-9818, rosie@hollidayadventures.com or www.hollidayadventures.com.