I’m Sailing The St. Lawrence River. But Is It Really A River Cruise?
I had an interesting experience the other day: I was describing to a friend the journey I’m about to take next month, along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City to St. John’s, Newfoundland aboard Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavor. It’s very much an oceangoing expedition cruise (which we’ll be covering day-by-day on our sister-site, The Avid Cruiser), complete with zodiac rafts and the whole bit. But the second I mentioned the St. Lawrence River, my friend assumed I was taking a river cruise.
I replied that I wasn’t. The Ocean Endeavor is very much an oceangoing ship, a converted ex-Soviet ferry pressed into expedition cruise service. But, admittedly, that same ship would be taking me along the length of the St. Lawrence River, from Quebec City out to the Atlantic Ocean.
So is it a river cruise, or not?
The blurring line between river and ocean cruising grows with each passing day. Viking Cruises has gotten into the oceangoing cruise market with its Viking Star and Viking Sea, and of course luxury operator Crystal Cruises is going the opposite way, starting up river cruising on the waterways of Europe this summer.
Other lines, like Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope, have hybrid oceangoing and river cruise vessels that hug the coast of the Mediterranean, popping into and out of waterways that would otherwise be inaccessible in places like Croatia.
So does simply sailing on the St. Lawrence River make my cruise a river cruise? It’s a question that doesn’t really have any easy answers.
The physical dimensions of cruise ships in Europe tend to be restricted heavily by locks, bridges, and water levels. But river cruise ships in Asia can be nearly any size. In fact, riverboats sailing along China’s Yangtze more closely resemble a small oceangoing ship than a European-style river cruise ship. So size alone doesn’t dictate whether your cruise really is a river cruise or not.
Nor does the fact that your river cruise might enter (or come very close to entering) an ocean. The Columbia and Snake River itineraries that wind their way through Oregon and Washington State, for example, include a call on Astoria, Oregon. Astoria is literally located near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, separated only by the treacherous Columbia River Bar. Ships that sail on these rivers are technically oceangoing vessels – yet these voyages are most definitely river cruises.
What makes a river cruise a river cruise has more to do with the onboard product and the way the experience is structured than with the size of the ship, or the location of the river. River cruises typically offer “soft” adventure experiences: walking tours, cultural history excursions, wine tastings. Things like that. There are arranged tours in each port of call, and these voyages typically follow a set, predictable schedule.
My voyage along the St. Lawrence, despite being on a river, is very different. This is a true expedition cruising product. The itinerary, for the most part, is elastic, liable to change at any time. Excursions could consist of scenic cruising conducted onboard the ship or its zodiac rafts. The focus is more on nature and experiential adventures in largely unpopulated surroundings. Guests have to dress for all weather conditions in layers of waterproof clothing. The first four rows will get wet. That sort of thing.
It is for those reasons that I don’t consider my cruise to be a river cruise. It’s an expedition cruise that just happens to be on a major inland waterway in North America.
However, as river cruising grows in popularity, the distinctions may become harder to find. An expedition-style river cruise isn’t exactly out of the question. In fact, many would-be travellers would probably appreciate something like that.
You won’t see my coverage of my Adventure Canada expedition here on River Cruise Advisor – but, if you want to catch a glimpse of the beautiful St. Lawrence River and all its surroundings, hop on over to The Avid Cruiser beginning June 1. Who knows? Maybe the St. Lawrence will be river cruising’s next big thing – some day.
What defines river cruising for you? Let us know using the comment form below.