Explore European rivers in a new level of luxury, head somewhere new or take the kids – it’s up to you, writes Lucy Jones.
How suite it is
River ships, particularly in Europe, have been fairly standardised. The locks and bridges restrict the size of the vessels and most lines use the same cabin configuration and fit-out. However, over the last year, ultra-luxe ocean cruise line Crystal Cruises created a wake on the waterways with a quartet of purpose-built ships joining the refitted Crystal Mozart. The upside is the vessels carrying fewer passengers than similar vessels in all-suite accommodation, butler service for every suite and guests being free to dine wherever and whenever they choose. It certainly raised the bar for European river cruising and guests reap the rewards.
With the European waterways well-stocked with vessels and new launches on Asia’s bigger rivers every month, river cruise lines have new destinations firmly in their sights. The US is emerging as one of the most promising and to-date-unsung river-cruise hot spots. The luxurious French America Line is a relative newcomer, sailing the 150-passenger Louisiane along the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Further ahead, Viking River Cruises, a major player in European cruising, is launching a ship in the US later this year and plans to have at least three vessels based there by 2020. India is also emerging as Asia’s new darling, with Uniworld, TravelMarvel, Pandaw and the Assam Bengal Navigation Company sailing on the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.
Mind the age gap
The age bracket of river cruisers tends to skew higher than their ocean-going counterparts, but this is gradually shifting. What’s behind the trend? A raft of more adventurous new destinations, shorter cruise itineraries and more active, compelling excursions. River ships are now more likely to have, say, bicycles on board for shore tours, as opposed to the standard car/coach option. As US agent Ruth Turpin, of Cruises Etc, notes: “Today’s river cruising isn’t your mother’s old ‘sit around in a rocking chair’ kind of cruise.”
Catering for the clan
Families with young children have traditionally afforded river cruising a wide berth – there are no waterslides or kids’ clubs to entertain them, dining options have been limited and more formal, and same-age playmates were at a premium. That’s all changed for the better over the last 12 months. Many lines, including AmaWaterways (in partnership with Disney), Uniworld, Pandaw and Tauck, offer dedicated family departures designed specifically to appeal to multi-generational travellers. Ships feature larger or interconnecting cabins for family groups and itineraries have been adapted to include more kid-friendly destinations and activities to boot.
If you’re still seeking a more intimate experience than river cruising, perhaps barges are for you. Barge cruising is the fastest growing sector of river cruising, and particularly popular in France, although traditionally it’s been seen as on the daggy side. Belmond added two luxurious barges as part of its Afloat In France fleet, Pivoine (meaning peony) and Lilas (lilac). They accommodate eight passengers in four suites and, best of all, the open deck evokes a floating garden with its pool and lush greenery. Both sail through the Alsace and Champagne regions on enchanting six-night cruises.