If there is a single trend in the travel industry that has the power to change the face of river cruising as we know it, that trend is arguably the blurring line between river and ocean cruising.
No longer treated as completely separate entities, more river cruise lines are beginning to operate like oceangoing cruise lines. Some river cruise lines are dipping their toes in the oceans of the world, while some oceangoing cruise lines are eager to cash in on a market that only seems to be increasing in value.
In the end, the winners seem to be consumers around the world. But just how drastically will this change the way we think of the river cruise vacation?
The AmaWaterways – Disney Partership
One of the biggest changes to occur to the traditional river cruise in 2016 involves both AmaWaterways and Adventures by Disney, a dedicated tour company founded a decade ago that is jointly managed by both Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the Walt Disney Travel Company.
While this new venture may not be directly affiliated with Disney Cruise Line, it’s clear that Disney wants to try to reach out to families who might be interested in taking a river cruise. Although numerous river cruise lines, including AmaWaterways, Tauck, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection currently offer special “family-friendly” departure dates and itineraries, few lines are currently set up to cater to children on a consistent basis. Some lines actually go so far as to discourage children under a certain age from river cruising.
Beginning in Summer 2016, these joint venture sailings along the Danube depart July 7, 14, 21, 28, and August 4, 2016. Winter 2016 departure dates – designed to take advantage of winter school breaks and Europe’s magnificent Christmas Markets, will operate on December 15 and December 22, 2016.
The December 15 sailing will include a special private cocktail reception (for the adults, obviously) at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, along with a visit to Schloss Hof. The December 22 sailing features a special holiday performance by the Vienna Boys Choir in the Hofburg Palace chapel, and a special Holiday menu onboard.
All sailings will take place aboard the brand-new AmaViola, which is scheduled to make her debut in the spring of 2016. Carrying 158 guests, most staterooms will feature AmaWaterways’ unique Twin Balcony concept, which includes both full and French balconies within a single room, as well as a number of connecting staterooms.
While the Ama-Disney product will offer the same high quality standards Disney is known for, fans of the massive ships of Disney Cruise Line shouldn’t expect the same kind of onboard experience to be transferred over to these river cruise. Nor will any of Disney’s characters be present onboard; instead, Disney-trained guides known as Adventure Guides will introduce families to the wonders of Europe. Approximately half of these guides will be American, while the other half will be locals from countries in and around Europe.
AmaWaterways, meanwhile, has made special enhancements to its onboard product to better accommodate families with children. A special Kids Menu has been created that offers favorites the little ones will love, but it will also be interspersed with more “grown-up” fare. Special meals, such as vegetarian options and meals for those with allergies or dietary sensitivities, are always available on every AmaWaterways’ sailing. Onboard cuisine will emphasize local foods and ingredients.
River Cruising With Crystal
Luxury cruising and river cruising go hand in hand. Both products attract a well-travelled clientele with a bit of cash to burn, particularly those who are curious about the world and who would normally eschew overland bus tours or resorts in places like Mexico and Ibiza. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that luxury cruising pioneer Crystal Cruises plans to enter the fray.
Crystal first announced its river cruising ambitions earlier this year as part of a massive company expansion that includes a brand-new oceangoing fleet, dedicated expedition ships, and even a small fleet of Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The demand overwhelmed Crystal and shattered its modest expectations for bookings.
Although Crystal’s purpose-built river cruise ships aren’t due to hit the scene until 2017, bookings were so strong that Crystal announced the purchase of Dertour’s 1987-built MS Mozart, which was formerly operated by Peter Deilmann and TUI Cruises. At the time of her construction, she was one of the largest river vessels afloat, and is easily recognizable thanks to her unique semi-catamaran design. She is also one of the widest river cruise vessels afloat, though her increased dimensions mean she can only sail the Danube between Passau and Budapest.
Still, the purchase of the Mozart will allow Crystal to launch its river cruise product a full year ahead of schedule. She will be extensively refitted before entering service on July 16, 2016 as Crystal Mozart.
Crystal will also order four new, purpose-built luxury river cruise vessels to be constructed by the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany. These will debut in 2017.
Following her refit, Crystal Mozart will carry 160 guests in staterooms that measure 203 square feet at a minimum. Deluxe Suites will clock in at 215 square feet, while a penthouse will measure 322 square feet. The crown jewel of Crystal Mozart, however, will likely be the two massive Crystal Suites. At 860 square feet apiece, these two-bedroom suites will become the largest on the rivers of Europe, snatching the title from Viking River Cruises’ impressive Explorer Suites aboard the Viking Longships.
Crystal’s four new purpose-built river cruise vessels will debut on the rivers of Europe in June and August of 2017. Designed specifically for Crystal, they will feature suites ranging from 220 square feet to 750 square feet. All suites will feature king-sized beds, walk-in wardrobes and bathrooms with double vanities. Public rooms will also be located on a single deck rather than being split across two decks, as they are on many current river cruise ships.
Each of Crystal’s new river cruise ships will feature a Palm Court complete with a dance floor and glass-domed roof, a library, fitness center, spa, and onboard bicycles. Two vessels will carry 110 guests long the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers, while two 84-guest ships are planned for sailings along the Seine, Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France.
Viking’s Oceangoing Ambitions
While Crystal was planning to enter the river cruise arena, the world’s fastest-growing river cruise line made inroads on the ocean. Viking River Cruises rebranded as Viking Cruises this year when it launched the Viking Star – the line’s first oceangoing passenger ship.
Capable of carrying just 930 guests, Viking Star made an enormous impression on all who embarked on her maiden season. We sailed aboard her on two separate voyages this year and were amazed at how well Viking’s first-ever passenger ship turned out. We weren’t alone in having our high expectations shattered: CruiseCritic called her the “Best New Ocean Ship”, while Douglas Ward’s respected Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships awarded her the coveted five-star rating. CNN went one step further, proclaiming her the “world’s best new cruise ship.”
In typical Viking fashion, Viking’s ocean ambitions don’t end with Viking Star. Her sister, Viking Sea, will join the fleet in early 2016. Two additional sister-ships, Viking Sky and Viking Sun, will enter service in 2017. And two more as-yet-unnamed sister ships are scheduled to be completed in 2020 and 2022, respectively.
Viking’s entire goal with these new vessels is to bring river cruise-style amenities and features to ocean cruising; an arena that, with the exception of the most premium lines, is still dominated by a ’la carte charges. To that end, Viking includes beer, wine and soft drinks with all cruise fares; a selection of complimentary excursions ashore; no charges for the numerous onboard specialty restaurants; and even a massive spa complex with a hydrotherapy pool, heated thermal loungers, and Scandinavian-style saunas, all of which is free for guests to enjoy.
So far, Viking is leading the way in bringing its river cruise product to the oceans of the world. You can bet, however, that numerous river cruise lines are watching to see how Viking does – and waiting to follow in the company’s footsteps.
Testing the Waters: Pandaw and Haimark
Other companies are experimenting with small-ship coastal cruising. Southeast Asian operator Pandaw has acquired the 200-foot long Andaman Explorer for coastal voyages through Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. Sailings will begin in September 2016 after a modest refurbishment, and a larger refurbishment program will commence on the vessel in 2017.
Colorado-based Haimark, famous for its in-depth voyages through Asia and the Amazon, had also attempted to make inroads into the coastal cruising sector in North America, deploying the heavily refitted Saint Laurent on cruises along the St. Lawrence Seaway and coastal Canada & New England.
Unfortunately, Haimark’s gamble hit rough waters: The ship collided with a concrete bumper in a lock on the St. Lawrence in June, cancelling numerous cruises and resulting in extensive repairs to the ship at a Quebec shipyard.
Things got worse for Haimark when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Oct 30. In mid-December, the company met its Escrow obligations, but a dispute between the company and the Saint Laurent’s owner, Nassau-based Clipper Group, over insurance claims relating to the June accident still hangs in the balance.
Though a handful of sailings are scheduled for 2016, it isn’t clear if the Saint Laurent will return to operations.
Despite this setback, river cruising looks poised to spread its collective wings into coastal and ocean cruising in ways that, just a few years ago, could never be imagined.