From Active Excursions to Lavish Amenities, the Changing World of River Cruising
Two decades ago, the river cruise landscape looked very different from today. Few of the lines we enjoy sailing aboard in 2017 even existed back then. Those that did offered small staterooms, traditional design, and ho-hum food. River cruises were geared primarily to retirees; people with the disposable income and time needed to sail the rivers of Europe.
Over the next decade, that began to change. New river cruise lines sprang up seemingly overnight. Ships became more modern; staterooms became larger. River cruise lines began attracting new passengers. Some of these came from the world of ocean cruising, while others were castaways fed up with tiring land-based journeys by motorcoach.
For comparison, the last decade has been akin to the early 1970’s for the ocean cruise industry: a period of unprecedented expansion, growth and maturity. Things really kicked off when Viking River Cruises began advertising heavily on television and in-print starting with the 2012 launch of the trendsetting Viking Longships.
River cruising went from being obscure to being at the forefront of public consciousness, seemingly overnight.
Armed with time and experience, plus legions of travellers wanting to experience river cruising for themselves, the river cruise industry has begun a new period of change. And it’s change for the better.
At no other point in time has river cruising offered more substance, amenities, diverse itineraries, culinary excellence, ships, or destinations, than right now. River cruising went from being something that primarily took place on the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers into a style of travel that has spread around the world, from the Amazon to the Volga.
With every emerging new trend or added amenity, both cruisers and the industry alike benefit.
All-Inclusive River Cruises
We’ve seen a major push toward an all-inclusive product model from a number of lines over the past few years, including the newly-launched Crystal River Cruises, Australia-based Scenic, American touring company Tauck, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, which has been around since 1976.
With these companies, nearly everything onboard is rolled into the price of the cruise, just as it would be if you were to take a luxury, all-inclusive ocean cruise. Because of their higher price points, cruises on ships belonging to these companies also able to offer larger, more lavish staterooms than on most other river cruise vessels operating in Europe, along with enhanced features and amenities. Scenic, for example, offers butler service while Crystal has constructed some of the most lavish suites on the waterways of Europe.
Other all-inclusive advantages are less noticeable, but no less appreciated. Tauck, for instance, heavily renovated some of its older river cruise ships this year, reducing their passenger count to just 98 guests per vessel and building in larger suites in place of more standard staterooms. In an age where the travel industry is all about trying to cram more people into a single space, Tauck’s ‘less-is-more’ mantra results in greater comfort for its guests.
Active Adventures On The Rivers
One of the biggest trends in river cruising right now has been the addition of more active, immersive excursions. River cruise lines like AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, CroisiEurope and others, are including bicycling excursions, soft adventure hikes, and visits to off-the-beaten-path locales.
In addition, many river cruise ships will allow you to take a spin on a bicycle free of charge. Some ships have a small collection of onboard bicycles that guests can use while docked in port for self-guided exploration. Independent touring and newer excursion offerings are key in retaining past guests, particularly on the most popular sailings on the Rhine and Danube rivers. Some river cruise companies have partnered with major adventure brands (AmaWaterways and Backroads, Scenic and Trek) to offer dedicated adventure tours.
Click here to read Ralph Grizzle’s cycling cruise report aboard AmaWaterways
These new, immersive shore excursion offerings also include more in-depth cultural diversions, like Home Hosted Visits that allow guests to engage with local families; tours and tastings in local, family-run vineyards and breweries; and educational classes that can teach guests painting in Amsterdam, or the art of making cognac in France.
River Cruises For The Younger Set
Debuting next year is U by Uniworld, the first river cruise line aimed exclusively at guests between the ages of 21 and 45. An offshoot of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, U by Uniworld will feature two dedicated ships known as The A and The B. They will carry 120 guests apiece and will feature itineraries and features designed to appeal to younger, more active travelers – along with a price point to match.
Historically, river cruising has targeted an older demographic – Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises septuagenarian chairman, half-jokes that he does his market research every morning when he looks in the mirror to shave. His assessment isn’t far off: because of the time and expense involved, river cruises have historically been out of reach for travelers in their thirties and forties.
U by Uniworld hopes to change that, and all signs point to the venture succeeding. The line has designed onboard activities specifically for this demographic, including mixology classes, yoga, and Chef’s Table classes that revolve around creating regional specialties for each region that U by Uniworld sails in. Overnight stays in select ports will allow for better nightlife exploration, and word is the ships will boast an in-house DJ for those who wish to stay onboard.
In addition, a full program of active land options – including hiking, cycling and even kayaking excursions – will be available for guests to enjoy. Some of this will come at an additional cost (the best way to keep prices low is to adopt an a’ la carte pricing model), but Uniworld hopes that U by Uniworld will become a viable vacation alternative for a demographic that has, up to this point, been wholly underserved by the river cruise industry.
AmaWaterways has partnered with Adventures by Disney to roll out a series of family-friendly river cruises through Europe that began earlier this year and will continue in the summer and fall of 2018. Both Uniworld and Tauck also have numerous family-friendly river cruise sailings offered during the summer months, when kids are historically off school; and during December, in the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s. Both lines have also designed their programs onboard and ashore to cater specifically to families, but without diluting the onboard experience for adults.
With larger ships come larger staterooms, and AmaWaterways is seizing on that fact for its upcoming AmaMagna. Launching in 2019, the extra-wide ship will feature 98 staterooms, the vast majority of which will be over 27 square metres (300 square feet). Crystal’s extra-wide Crystal Mozart also upped the game on the accommodations front, where staterooms start at a generous 20 square metres (219 square feet).
At the top of the pack aboard Crystal Mozart, the two-bedroom Crystal Suite offers up an amazing 82 square metres (883 square feet) of living space, and includes a separate living area with faux fireplace, two connecting bedrooms, a walk-in closet, and a double-vanity bathroom. In a world where space is always at a premium, such amenities were formerly unheard of.
The Two Bedroom Crystal Suites on the new Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler are some of the largest suites on the rivers of Europe. On each ship, a living room features its own Panoramic Balcony-Window along with an ambient LED fireplace topped with a flat-panel television and dining space for four, along with a custom sofa and arm chairs. These rooms feature a separate entry vestibule and a guest powder room, both of which are rarities in the river cruise world.
Also new on Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire, both operating in France, are two 47-square-meter (510-square-foot) Royal Owner’s Suites.
Enhanced Dining On River Cruises
In its infancy, dining aboard river cruise ships could best be described as, “uncomplicated.” It’s not a negative, but more of a quantifier: Menus were simple, and foods tended to revolve around a few staple items.
On today’s river cruises, you’ll find elaborate menus in the main dining room that are designed to cater to a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements. More focus is being placed on finding a balance between authentic, locally-inspired cuisines and at-home favorites. Many river cruise lines have also placed great emphasis on having healthy dining choices as part of their daily menus, and all do an excellent job of catering to allergies and special dietary requirements.
In addition, most river cruise ships afloat offer some sort of alternate dining alternative. On some ships, like those operated by Avalon Waterways, parts of the lounge transform into an evening small-bite tasting venue extravaganza, while others like AmaWaterways and Tauck have repurposed aft-facing lounges and have transformed them into alternative dining venues featuring separate menus, with nice views and a more intimate atmosphere.
Lavish New Amenities
Indoor pools. Pop-up bars. Salt rooms. Dedicated cinemas. All of these can now be found on some of your favorite river cruise ships. It’s just one more example of how river cruise lines are trying to one-up each other when it comes to lavish new amenities and onboard features.
Scenic was the first line to debut its therapeutic Salt Room concept on the rivers of Europe, much in the same way that Crystal, Uniworld and Emerald Waterways have popularized the notion of onboard swimming pools. Aboard Emerald Waterways, this space cleverly doubles as a cinema by night, thanks to a telescoping pool floor that rises to completely cover the surface of the pool, bringing it flush with the rest of the deck.
River cruising is changing now more than ever. If you’ve sailed in the past few years, chances are you’ll notice some new features the next time you sail the rivers of Europe, and beyond. For consumers, that’s always a great thing.