Experienced ship cruisers know river cruising is a very different kind of trip than sailing the seven seas, and it is one that is catching on in popularity. While ship passengers often have to buck waiting lines as they tender in from off shore anchors, only to go through lengthy port and immigration procedures and then get accosted by throngs of idle taxi drivers, river cruisers sit back and relax. The ship docks, and usually in the center of town. Passengers step off the boat and onto the dock and walk a block or two to the nearest strudel cafe or gelato bistro.
Large cruise ships cannot move through Europe’s rivers and, indeed, many are too large to even dock in the deeper seaports. The average length of a cruise ship is easily 1,000 feet on several tiers and through these lengths passengers navigate their way to various dining venues, entertainment options, pools, spas, activity decks and lounges.
Although river cruises cannot compete with the big cruise ships when it comes to onboard entertainment, or the food varieties and shopping venues they contain, the barges do hold their own in matters of convenience and intimacy of place.
For those travelers who want to see Europe slowly, dock in a town and be in the center of town minutes after they step off the boat, and for those who want their experience of Europe to be hassle free, river cruising is the way to go. Some of these cruise packages are all-inclusive – no added charges for excursions and often no added charges for onboard amenities. Cabins are spacious and upscale with high threadcount linens and dedicated butler service, and food is fresh and local. While cruise ships will carry 1,000-4,000 passengers from port to port, the average river cruise will carry only 100-200 people.
River cruises are as wide and varied as the world’s greatest rivers: the Mekong and Ganges, the River Quai, the Yangtze in China to the Amazon in Brazil. The river cruises in Europe can include traveling through the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Basel, the Loire, the Moselle, the Elbe, the Volga and the Seine. The continent was tamed along these legendary rivers and visitors can take in the time lines – from famous medieval castles and to the great battle spots of the last century’s World Wars – in the time it takes to sip a single glass of Champagne.
Europe Up Close
A recent river cruise through the wine region of Bordeaux illustrated just how easy it is to board a vessel and partake in some of the finest no-hassle dining and sipping to be had in Europe.
I was taking a seven-day cruise via Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises' luxury longship called the Forseti. Bordeaux, a compact city of some 250,00 people three hours by TGV train from Paris, is accessible through Bordeaux-Merignac Airport – a 30-minute drive from city center.
The Forseti was docked on the Garonne River on the Quai des Chartrons where much Bordeaux life and leisure takes place. It’s a stone’s throw from there to the fabulous shopping, dining and ambling to be done along Rue St. Catherine and the Cathedral St. André. In easy sight from our spot was the Pont de Pierre Bridge, built in 1819 by Napoleon (claiming 17 arches in correspondence with the number of letters in his name) and now ablaze in the twilight in a certain glory reminiscent of Paris’s Bridge of Alexander.
Due to of low water levels our ship had to spend an extra day in Bordeaux, causing no complaints from the passengers. But such occurrences and problems facing the river cruise industry are not rare.
For our trip, an extra day in Bordeaux was a silver lining– a day to see more of the city and prepare for the treats ahead. The next night we pushed onto Libourne and the monastery wine and macaron stead of Saint Emilion, and onto the UNESCO World Heritage town of Blaye and then the Médoc gateway of Pouillac. Each place proved to be a small treasure of Roman fortress ruins (and some dark Nazi occupation reminders), 16th century castles, standing emblems of the grand Belle Époche, ornate town squares where local markets continue to bring life and culture to sleepy river outposts and everywhere, just beyond the nouveau urban spread, the geometry of grape fields and the vision of stately chateaux.
We sailed, slowly, through regions of Sauternes, Cabernets and the great grapes of Margaux. We explored ruins that were once the wandering grounds for Eleanor of Aquitaine. We passed estates with names like Rothschild and Camus. We dug freely in fertile grounds for the elusive black truffle at a modest farm in Perigord – and unearthed walnut-sized nuggets sniffed and found by a dog named Farah that would fetch some portion of the $1,200 per pound these items get in U.S. markets. We ended the hunt with fresh bread smeared with truffle butter, with bowls of risotto doused with the gleaming black flakes – and then farm-churned ice cream covered with tuber brumale. We downed foie gras by the bowlful, Arachon oysters by the bucket, escargot, muscles and perfect cheeses by the plateful in a veritable orgy of tastes and textures. We made our own cognac at a 17th-century chateau – in Cognac. We shucked oysters in Arachon Bay. And all the while, we drank wine – from local Bordeaux vineyards and Grand Cru Margaux estates in endless pourings and pairings that showed no patience for the word “non!”
Rivers of Interest
This year, the North American river cruise market will reach some half a million passengers in Europe, according to another river cruise giant, Viking River Cruises. The Encino, CA-based cruise company is sending off 12 new vessels through the waterways of Europe this year on top of the record-breaking 18 vessels it launched last year, which followed 10 launched in 2013 and six in 2012.
And while it is romantic enough to be floating from Lyon to Avignon sampling French wines and imagining the light and shadows seen by Cezanne along the banks, winter can be a particularly poignant time to dock along the Main River in Germany or the Danube through Austria and drink hot mulled wines at famous Christmas markets along the way, all aglow in the snow. Themed cruises, too, such as trips focused on wine or Mozart or the food of Southern Italy, crop up continuously and offer good reasons to book with friends or family.
River cruises, like ocean cruises, can, however, be pricey. And though some are all-inclusive or semi-inclusive not all lines are alike in what they include. Some companies, such as Scenic, will include 24/7 spirits, land excursions – even gratuities (fares also include six dining venues, Wi-Fi, airport transfers), while others might charge extra for those services. Some will charge for a special Chef’s Table degustation while others will include it as a premium part of the experience. Some lines will charge for coffee and soda.
Travel agents can usually pick up the best deals in this competitive market and know the ins and outs. To find an agent, search the American Society of Travel Agents. Other information options for finding ship reviews and knowledgeable agents include Cruise Critic and Tours.com.
Experienced River Cruiser? What are some of your favorite cruises? Any tips for newbies?
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