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The rivers run deep

Published: 01/10/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » October 2015 » Lifestyle » Home » Features »

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Gotta week? Have I got a river for you! Yes, you – who runs from meeting to meeting and city to city.  You – who considers dinner at 8 to be an early night. And you – as you wake up at the early edge of dawn each day whether you have to or not. 

Rivers are their own masters and when you are on a river cruise, you go where the river flows. Speed slows, time goes, and history blows by like a whisper from an old friend. The phone is off, the show is on and you have nothing more to do than take it all in.

The world’s appetite for river cruising is rising rapidly: passenger loads along the great rivers of the world jumped 25 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to data from the Cruise Lines Industry Association. 

And there is good reason for that. Unlike ocean cruising, river cruising is an easy hop-on-hop-off affair – a floating boutique hotel that docks each day in the center of a new city or along the banks of an extremely scenic and historic spot. For passengers, it’s like hubbing in a well-located luxury residence where you can have all the freedoms of urban wanderings and all the ease of VIP touring. You don’t have to make choices. You can have it all. 

While river cruising vacations are as wide and varied as the world’s great rivers: the Mekong and Ganges, the River Quai, the Yangtze in China to the Amazon in Brazil, Europe is particularly well suited to the task. Options include the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Basel, the Loire, the Moselle, the Elbe, the Volga, the Garonne and the Seine. 

The continent was tamed along these legendary waterways and visitors can take in the time lines – from famous medieval castles and to the great battle spots of the last century’s world wars – in the time it takes to sip a single glass of Champagne.

Water Under the Bridge 

A recent river cruise through the wine region of Bordeaux illustrated just how easy it is to board a vessel and partake in some of the finest no-hassle dining and sipping to be had in all Europe. 

I was taking a seven-day cruise via Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises and its 190-passenger luxury longship called the Forseti.  Bordeaux, a compact city of some 250,000 people just three hours by TGV train from Paris, is easily accessed through Bordeaux-Merignac Airport – a mere 30 minute’s drive from city center. 

The Forseti was docked on the Garonne River on the Quai des Chartrons where much Bordeaux life and leisure takes place. It’s a stone’s throw from there to the fabulous shopping, dining and ambling to be done along Rue St. Catherine and the Cathedral St. André. In easy sight from our spot was the Pont de Pierre Bridge, built in 1819 by Napoleon (claiming 17 arches in correspondence with the number of letters in his name) and now ablaze in the twilight in a certain glory reminiscent of Paris’ Bridge of Alexander. 

Because of low water levels our ship had to spend an extra day in Bordeaux, causing no complaints from the passengers. But such occurrences and problems facing the river cruise industry are not rare. Due to low water levels on some of Europe’s iconic rivers like the Danube and Elbe, a number of cruise lines have had to alter and even cancel their river cruises in the recent summer weeks.

Viking canceled two Elbe River, Prague to Berlin cruises this summer, and has altered the itineraries on a number of others. Uniworld and Avalon Waterways, too, have not been spared of these critical decisions. Climate change is a fact of life for river cruise companies and the plagues of nature may increase the prevalence of both droughts and flooding along these currents in years to come.

For our trip, an added day in Bordeaux was the perfect problem – a day to catch up to our new environs, see the city and prepare for the treats ahead. The next night we pushed on to Libourne and the monastery wine and macaron stead of Saint Emilion; from there it was the UNESCO World Heritage town of Blaye and then the Médoc gateway of Pouillac. 

Each place proved to be a small treasure of Roman fortress ruins (and some dark Nazi occupation reminders), 16th century castles, standing emblems of the grand Belle Époche, ornate town squares where local markets continue to bring life and culture to sleepy river outposts.  And everywhere, just beyond the nouveau urban spread, the geometry of grape fields and the vision of stately chateaux. 

We sailed slowly, through regions of Sauternes, Cabernets and the great grapes of Margaux. We explored ruins that were once the wandering grounds for Eleanor of Aquitaine. We passed estates with names like Rothschild and Camus. At a modest farm in Perigord, we dug freely in fertile grounds for the elusive black truffle.  Here with the help of a truffle-sniffing dog named Farah, we unearthed walnut-sized nuggets that would fetch some portion of the $1200 per pound these items get in US markets. 

We ended the hunt with fresh bread smeared with truffle butter, with bowls of risotto doused with the gleaming black flakes – and then farm-churned ice cream covered with tuber brumale. We downed foie gras by the bowlful, Arachon oysters by the bucket, escargot, mussels and perfect cheeses by the plateful in a veritable orgy of textures and tastes. 

We made our own cognac at a 17th-century chateau – in Cognac. We shucked oysters in Arachon Bay. We joined our French ship chef in creating foie gras brulées and home made macarons. 

And all the while, we drank wine – from local Bordeaux vineyards to Grand Cru Margaux estates in endless pourings and pairings that showed no patience for the word “non!”

Go with the Flow 

This year, the North American river cruise market will reach some half million passengers in Europe. Viking is sending off 12 new vessels through the waterways of Europe this year on top of the record-breaking 18 vessels it launched last year, which followed 10 launched in 2013 and six in 2012. 

Ama Waterways will carry some 82,000 passengers (51,000 of them from North America) on its fleet of 17 vessels in Europe this year. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has 13 ships in Europe; for Avalon Waterways it is 15 ships sailing in Europe this year. Other cruise lines to watch are Tauck, Avalon, Grand Circle and CroisiEurope, and some newcomers, such as renowned Vantage Deluxe World Travel.

Then, there are the ocean cruise companies edging into the river cruising market. Crystal Cruises, long at the top of the luxury pyramid in ocean-going ventures, is about to launch Crystal River Cruises with a collection of all-suite ‘River Yacht Class’ vessels to deploy in Europe starting March 2017. 

Scenic Cruises just launched the 169-passenger Scenic Jasper for sailings between Amsterdam and Budapest. The all-inclusive river cruise company offers a variety of dining options and tour options on its many itineraries throughout Europe that are part and parcel of the one price paid, including gratuities as well. The tony river cruise experience also includes a chef’s table six-course, wine-paired degustation in the mix.

“You have seen a lot of news about new ships being launched and lots of talk about how there are too many ships. There is enough demand for this and you are also seeing a general progression from ocean cruising to river cruising as guests accustomed to luxury cruising find you can also have that experience on a river,” says Anna Wolfsteiner, senior vice president for international sales and distribution at Scenic Cruises in Europe.

“There is a belief out there that river cruising is really for older cruisers. But that is fading away with the new product available. In the last five years alone river cruising developed more than it has in the past 30 years because you have the ships designed for multiple dining experiences, the new GPS touring capabilities and the ability to bring motorized bicycles along on these itineraries. Everything you add creates a different look and feel. So you are not stuck with an old fashioned product or and old-fashioned experience.”

And while it is romantic enough to be floating from Lyon to Avignon sampling French wines and imagining the light and shadows seen by Cezanne along the banks, winter can be a particularly poignant time to dock along the Main River in Germany or the Danube through Austria and drink hot mulled wines at famous Christmas markets along the way, all aglow in the snow. 

Themed cruises, too, such as trips focused on wine or Mozart or the food of Southern Italy, crop up continuously and offer good reasons to book with friends or family. 

Current Affairs

River cruises, like their ocean-going counterparts, can be pricey, however. And though some are all-inclusive or semi-inclusive, not all lines are alike in what they do include. Some companies, such as Scenic, will include 24/7 spirits, land excursions – even gratuities (fares also include six dining venues, WiFi, airport transfers), while others might charge extra for those services. Some will charge for a special Chef’s Table degustation while others will include it as a premium part of the experience. Some lines will charge for coffee and Coke. 

At Viking, wine is served with lunch and dinner but for those who like their cocktails at 4:00 p.m., a separate libation package can be purchased. Complimentary coffee, tea and mineral water are available at all hours on a Viking cruise (as are incredible white chocolate chip cookies). City tours come with the tariff; however, specialized tour experiences do not and range from $70 to $180 per person including great guides – usually American expats well-studied in the histories of their adopted homes. 

Most of the longboats used for these rivers offer small cabins of 250 square feet (grand suites run around 500 square feet). Rooms with balconies are given a sliding glass window or, as is the case with Scenic, a special glassed-in solarium that can be opened to the wind or remain a sunny, but enclosed, addition to the room. The top deck brings great vistas, often a running or walking course, maybe a puny putting green or even a small pool (as promoted on the Scenic Jasper). The tier is open for dining, lounging and smoking as well. The interiors of these ships and their cabin spaces are generally non-smoking.

A second tier offers cabin corridors, a small library (and sometimes free computers and WiFi), and a cocktail-entertainment announcement lounge with a forward al fresco dining deck where passengers can swap stories about their onshore forays.

A lower tier has a room corridor leading to the lobby and then the grand dining hall beyond. 

Welcomed cabin amenities highlighted on the recent Viking cruise included Aveda bath products, twice daily towel changes and cabin service, sparkling wine, daily treats from the kitchen, a room-based climate control panel and heated bathroom floors. A television brought streams from the BBC plus a reasonable selection of name films. Forget Netflix, however. WiFi, though complimentary, is weak at all hours. 

Most river cruise companies run last minute specials. Ama Waterways, for instance, is dropping stateroom rates on wine tours in November on several routes in Europe. Avalon Waterways, a Globus company, is running deals slashing up to $3000 per couple off “soon-sailing” itineraries. 

For business travelers who may need to be able to take advantage of locations with quick-hitting vacation decisions, taking a river cruise through Europe may be the quickest way of getting on that slow boat back to self and mindful rejuvenation – and rediscovering the joy of travel.  

Lark Gould

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