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A few years back, on a Scenic river cruise in France, I was introduced to the e-bike. It was a revelation and changed my view of river cruising for ever.

Not only did it soar along at up to 35 kilometres an hour, but it came with an GPS based audio guide that told me exactly where I was and what I was passing.

At a stroke, I was free to roam the wineries and villages without pesky tour groups and guides. It was a truly liberating experience – and just one example of why, at last, river cruising is experiencing a boom.

Australia’s branch of Cruise Lines International Association doesn’t keep figures on river cruising, but, as we reported here in our last edition, The River Cruise Review published by the UK branch reported a 21 per cent increase in the number of bookings in 2017 compared to 2016.

Some 210,400 British travellers went on a river cruise last year, the first time passenger numbers have broken 200,000.

There is really no reason, a CLIA’s Australasia MD told us, to suppose that our figures would not also be on the rise. So what’s driving it?

New ships and destinations

Well, with ten more ships on the way this year – and lines like Travelmarvel, APT and Uniworld investing heavily in new ships, vessels are becoming smarter, better equipped and able to service the new demands of today’s health-conscious, food-loving, experience seeking younger – yes, younger! – river cruiser.

New and exotic destinations like the Nile, the Mekong and the Irrawaddy are reaching amuch more intrepid band of adventurers.

Andy Harmer, director of Clia UK and Ireland, said there was “much excitement around India this year.”

And he is right.

River Cruise Passenger went to the north East of India on a lone river ship, The Mahabaahu, which sails the mighty Brahmaputra River and takes in game parks and amazing scenery. It’s an area ripe for growth, though tricky to navigate. Pandaw are expected to be cruising there shortly.

India saw a 27 per cent rise in river cruisers in 2017.

Younger cruisers

All of this means there has been a dramatic fall in the average age of river cruisers, spurred no doubt by Uniworld’s incredibly brave experiment to launch a cruise line especially for millennials.

According to cruise line owners, average ages range from the early 60s – though Avalon claims a much lower 57 or 58.

Kids on board is also a new idea. Once, the mere suggestion of tiny feet on the boards of a river ship sent shivers down the spines of staff and guests alike. Now, Disney cruises the waterways and many, like Tauck, have dedicated multi-generation journeys.

More high-octane activities

Life on board has also undergone big changes.

Gone is the piano man and single dining room, often replaced by specialty dining and fresher entertainment offerings (silent discos and late nights onshore if you are on U by Uniworld!).

Spas, fitness instructors and personal trainers have all replaced that dingy cell at the back of the ship which was once laughingly called a gym. Kayaking, shore runs and cycling also provide incentives for lycra-clad cruisers.

Cycling, river cruising

Kayaking, shore runs and cycling also provide incentives for river cruisers

CLIA puts the most popular routes like this:

  • Rhine, Moselle, Danube and Elbe up 53 per cent
  • Saone, Seine and Loire up 30%
  • Douro, Rhone, Dordogne, Garonne and Po rivers up 24%.

And it’s not just Europe.

In America, American Cruise Lines recently launched the first of its modern riverboats, the American Song, last fall. A sister ship, the American Harmony, launches this spring.

The American Queen Steamboat Company, recently acquired Victory Cruises, a Great Lakes operator, and it is building its fourth paddle wheeler.

Classes in yoga and Pilates and high-intensity workouts throughout the day.

AmaMagna, APT’s biggest ever ship on the waterways, has a watersports platform off the stern for kayaks and paddleboards.

APT's AmaMagna

APT’s AmaMagna

Viking has kayaking on the Elbe, Danube, Moselle and a tributary of the Seine in Normandy, and e-bike tours in Wachau Valley, Kinderdijk in the Netherlands and through vineyards in the Black Forest.

Cooking, painting, shop-with-the-chef food experiences, wine and beer experts, jogging tours.

Avalon Waterways is promising an adventure centre with an onboard host who will hand out maps, cycling and hiking gear.

Private tours have always been a key hallmark of river cruise lines. And now, with over tourism hitting the market hard, it is even more essential that you are assured you’ll actually be able to see the sights you came for.

Pre-opening visits to Versailles, the Louvre and other destinations are on offer.

New ship design

Boat design is also important. AmaMagna, which launches in May, will be the biggest ever – and a breakaway from the traditional one-size fits the locks straightjacket that has confined river cruiser design for years.

She’s twice the width with suites of 355 to 710 square metres.

Tauck has just finished reconfiguring half of its riverboat fleet with fewer, larger cabins, last week announced plans for its first new ship in four years and its first on Portugal’s Douro.

The Andorinha, the company said, has fewer but larger cabins than any other major line’s at 200 square feet. Most are at 225 square feet or more.

The result: More, younger passengers. More solos – especially women. And a better, more varied experience.