My husband and I are drawn to places with a connection to water in an effort to relax, whether the lapping against the San Francisco waterfront, or the blue depths of Lake Tahoe, or sailing on the white-capped waters of San Francisco Bay or along the Cape Cod shore. Many times we are drawn to experiences where we can be on the water when we travel.
This year we chose a river cruise to explore the history of the towns and Grand Imperial cities along one of central Europe’s greatest rivers. We joined a Jewels of Europe itinerary with Scenic Cruises on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers from Amsterdam to Vienna and Budapest. We spent eight days cruising from Amsterdam to Nuremburg.
Seeing Europe from a riverboat is an intimate way to navigate the historic Old World waterways. We were close to the water, so close in fact, that quacking ducks awoke us one day and chirping birds and chiming church bells another. This kind of trip is not about rushing or moving fast. Often we cruised at a walkers pace and spent languid afternoons in lounge chairs on the top deck or on our private balcony.
Unlike most vacations, the scenery came to us; stunning vistas of lush vineyards, hilltop castles, and riverside communities punctuated with church steeples, red poppies in green meadows, families picnicking and bikers pedaling along the shore. Watching Europe float by was a relaxing way to while away a few hours with our elbows resting on the railing of your balcony cabin.
River cruises are one of the hottest trends in travel, especially on European waterways. Eleven new ships were launched in Europe in 2014 and twelve more are scheduled for christening next year. What explains the rising popularity of Europe river cruises?
Cruises are easy travel experiences.
We visited many places, in numerous countries in a relatively short time. And we only unpacked once in our large stateroom in the floating hotel. We didn’t have to rent a car, read road maps, find gas stations, or figure out the hours of a museum or restaurants. Rarely do we relax on a vacation to Europe because we’re planning the next day’s activities, meals and entertainment. You know about those kind of cultural vacations: you see a lot, but return home in need of a rest.
If you’ve taken a cruise, you may have experienced “sticker shock” at the end of the journey when you had a whopping bill of alcohol, shore excursions and extras. While most river cruises include all the meals and in many cases shore excursions, Scenic Cruises, an Australian-based, five-star cruise line, goes a step further with a fully-inclusive policy that includes all on-board alcoholic beverages, not just wine and beer with meals. They serve 14 complimentary premium wines, top-notch spirits ( Remy Martin VSOP Cognac after dinner anyone?) , have an open bar service in the lounge and a stocked mini-bar. Add to that the cruise line’s no-tipping policy, free WiFi throughout the ship and through an Apple Mac Minicomputer linked to the HD flat screen TV in your suite, all meals at 6 dining venues, 24-hour room service, a personal butler service in all cabin grades, all excursions, fluffy robes, transfers …you name it. We had a pleasant farewell to the ship when we checked out because the bill was under $20. Gary had several shirts dry cleaned, which is not included, although the policy allows for two “free pressings” per day (forget ironing on your vacation).
River-cruising, it turns out, is nothing like big-ocean cruising.
We didn’t spend our vacation with 2,000 fellow passengers, waiting in line to go ashore or queuing at the buffet table. River ships accommodate as many as 308 passengers, often with fewer than 200. We cruised with 165 courteous, fun-loving and well-traveled passengers from Australia, Canada, England and a few Americans.
A sophisticated adult experience
River cruise companies target the age 55-plus demographic, though on our cruise there were numerous multi-generational families, but not with young kids. Dinners are a fine-dining, two-hour-plus affair and suites are not designed for more than two occupants. We enjoyed nightly dancing, lectures, wine-tastings, beer-tastings, exquisite food, fresh veggies, salads, local cheeses and a “tiramisu” cooking class offered by the chef. I doubt most kids would enjoy that.
No sea sickness
One of the best parts of river cruising is that it’s very safe and no one gets seasick. In fact, we were never more than about 100 yards away from the shore. Frank, the Cruise Director, said in his welcoming remarks that if the ship started to sink, move to the top deck, order a drink, and don’t worry because the river is so shallow you probably won’t even get your feet wet.
Relaxing and intimate
Seeing Europe from a riverboat is a relaxing and intimate way to navigate the historic Old World waterways. It is not about rushing or moving fast. Often we cruised at a walkers pace and spent languid afternoons in the lounge chairs on the top deck –or on our private terrace — watching the fairytale-like scenery glide by.
We weren’t disappointed as we glided the mighty Rhine River as it funneled into a narrow, winding valley punctuated with perilously steep vineyards and tiny villages. With a toast of champagne we cruised by the famous Lorelie Rock and beneath 40 castles perched high above the river.
Breakfast in bed or on the balcony
Mornings we awoke to the music of chirping birds and church bells ringing. On sunny morning our personal butler delivered eggs Benedict and mimosas to our stateroom, so we could stay in our soft robes, and dine in privacy on our spacious sun deck. The balconies were an extension of the room and are approximately 36 square feet, furnished with two chairs, a table and an electric sliding-glass window. What’s nice about the windows is that with a push of a button, you can have fresh air or keep out cold, heat, or rain or bugs.
Join the group or explore independently.
Some days we left the group behind and pedaled off on one of the ship’s electronic bikes. Two pedal rotations and the motor kicked in, making it easy to climb hills, speed along the riverbanks, or search for the perfect cafe or restaurant serving local wine and beer. It was a good excuse to linger for a while. The handheld GPS system gave us directions and acted as a self-guided tour device.