It’s no secret that I love cruising – in fact, I believe it’s a type of travel that’s ideal for baby boomers. But while I’ve taken several ocean cruises, on ships big and small, there’s one experience I’ve never tried – a European river cruise. At least, until now.
Viking Cruises, the biggest name in the river cruising business, has invited me to sail with them on the rivers of Europe next month. That’s an offer you don’t turn down, and I chose one of their most intriguing itineraries, the Cities of Light cruise.
It’s more of a cruise-trip, actually. Starting in Paris, we head overland to Luxembourg before joining my ship, the Viking Odin, for a cruise on the Moselle, Rhine and Main Rivers to Bamburg, Germany, ending up in Prague. Along the way, there are stops in scenic German towns like Bernkastel and Heidelberg, with visits to historic castles and time to sample some local food and drink.
It promises to be a great adventure. But after a few years spent seeing the world on huge ocean cruisers, the world of river cruising will be a real change. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the things that make river cruising a unique and different experience.
The cruise ships that ply the rivers of Europe bear no resemblance to the huge vessels I’ve been on, as you see by the photo at top (if you’re reading this by e-mail, click the headline to see it). They’re long and slim, and low-slung so they fit under bridges. That means they don’t have specialty restaurants, comedy clubs and rock-climbing walls. But it also means they have only 100 to 200 passengers on board instead of 2,000 — or 5,000 — so it’s a more intimate environment. There’s a lot less chance of meeting someone and never seeing them again.
More inclusive pricing
River cruising can seem expensive. But remember that some of the things you pay extra for on a regular cruise ship are included in the fare on a river cruise. The internet service is free, as are the wine, beer and soft drinks with your meals, and in every port you get a free guided tour. As well, there are no on-board casinos or other temptations to spend a lot of money. There’s still a daily gratuity, but when you add up your total costs at the end of the cruise, the difference may not be as great as it first looked.
As well, there are a lot of ships sailing the European rivers these days – Viking itself has launched another 12 ships in 2015. So the competition is lively, and that means lower fares. I’ve seen seven- and eight-day cruises advertised for about $2,000 this year — a real bargain.
When you think of it, ocean cruises can really only visit places with a sea port, or places within reach of a sea port. But many of Europe’s great cities were built on great rivers – the Rhine, the Danube, the Moselle, the Rhone, the Douro … Taking the river route lets you visit the heart of Europe (as they say in the ads) rather than its coasts, and that includes the smaller towns rather than just the major cities.
As well, travelling by river lets you get really close to the places you’re visiting. Joanna Lumley, godmother of the Odin, said: “It’s like the world is on a cloth and being dragged past you.” You dock in or near town, sometimes within walking distance of Main Street. There’s no lining up for tenders – although you may have to walk through another river ship to get to the dock.
Cabins on European river boats can be tight – you’re on a boat, remember. But they’re all outside cabins with flat-screen TVs, big windows, and in some cases balconies. You can see the world go by as you cruise along, and if you’re lucky, get a view of the city lights when you’re in port.
Cabin options are growing, as well. For example. Viking’s new generation of Longships have Explorer suites with 445 square feet of space and wraparound balconies, plus two-room Veranda suites with two balconies.
With fewer people on board and limited space, river boats tend to have one restaurant, or possibly two, and just one seating for meals. Most lines try to feature regional dishes to help you experience the area you’re visiting.
A lot of attention is paid to the food, and in some cases the chef might even lead a culinary tour of your destination. And no one is likely to stop you bringing back a bottle of the local riesling to enjoy. Outdoor dining areas are a growing trend, too, so you can have your meal with a view.
You’re cruising a river, not the ocean, so there’s little chance you’ll be rocked out of your bed by big swells on a European river cruise. If you have problems with seasickness, this kind of cruising could be for you. As well, the newer ships have more efficient engines to cut down any vibration, so you get a smooth ride.
River ships tend to do a lot of their sailing at night unless they’re in a particularly scenic area, so you may not spend that all much time watching the river slide by; this depens on the route you choose. It’s a good show when you go through locks or under a bridge, though. And when you do cruise a scenic portion of the river, like the famous Middle Rhine, it can be spectacular.
A European river cruise has many of the same basic attractions as an ocean cruise: you travel the world in a floating hotel, with a comfortable room and your own steward, and every morning you wake up with a new place to discover. And once you embark, there’s no more packing and unpacking until it’s time to go home. One note: bring some good walking shoes, because you’ll be walking through historic towns and cities every day.
The blend of comfort and culture has made river cruising a hit with baby boomers, and that’s who your fellow passengers will likely be. It’s an international crowd, but there are lots of Canadians and Americans, and the staff is likely to speak good English.
That’s the lowdown on European river cruises. There’s only a few days left till my Viking cruise begins — time to get ready.
Before and after: My first Viking river cruise is now history. To see my impressions, go here.
All photos courtesy of Viking Cruises